It's easy to write off famous groupies off as clichés. Pop culture tends to paint them as airheaded or sex-crazed with little care to capture the actual experiences of women who lived the life. Decades after the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll lifestyle that fueled the music scene of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, notable rock groupies like Chris O'Dell Pamela Des Barres are sharing the real stories of how they served as mistresses and muses to some of the most beloved bands of all time. Though they can't compete with the conquests of rock's biggest groupie, they shed new light on the entire lifestyle
The words of O'Dell and Des Barres go beyond the simple question of, "Why do groupies do what they do?" By telling these stories in their own words, they reclaim the narratives about them. Though the wildest groupie stories may have a hint of truth, first-hand accounts show how these women are more than stereotypes.
Groupies played many roles. Some were sexual partners, others tended to rock stars' health, some took care of clothes and other needs. But some were muses. Chris O'Dell was the subject of multiple songs, and the presence of other women helped stoke the creativity of some of rock 'n' roll's most famous musicians. In an interview with The Guardian, Pamela Des Barres described how she served as a muse to musicians like Keith Moon:
I was Keith’s LA girl, and there was no doubt about it. I knew that whenever he came to town, he’d call no one but me. He was such a needy soul… I was a stabilizing thing for him. When he’d wake up screaming... I could calm him. It was my duty as a muse to take care of this brilliant genius who inspired so many.
I’m still trying to set that word [groupie] straight because all it means is just a music lover who wants to be near the band. Period. That’s all it means, in whatever capacity. Sexual? Sometimes yes, but also friends, helpers, assistants, guides… we wanted to uplift and enhance these people who moved us so much. That’s all that a groupie is. They are music-loving muses.
Drugs and alcohol were inescapable in the music scene of the '70s, particularly around the Rolling Stones. Chris O'Dell's ability and willingness to take drugs impressed Keith Richards, who said she could keep up "just like a guy." Her drug use reached such a point that it became a serious problem and led to a "rock bottom" moment after touring with the Stones. As she told ABC News:
It started with the Stones tour and then it just kind of kept on going. The tour was over, but I kept on going, and I kept on going by basically trying to find the perfect high, trying to find the perfect balance. So it would be, you know, do a line of coke or a couple lines of coke, and then that would be too edgy so it would be OK have a Quaalude or a Seconal, something that kind of pulled me down or pushed me down. Then I'd get too down so I'd have to do something more and then by the evening I was using alcohol to also take the edge off.
So it was always looking for that perfect balance, but never finding it.
She said that substance abuse was so extreme and normalized that "we just thought that was getting high and people who died died because they just didn't know how to stop."
Even though some point to her as the epitome of a groupie, Chris O'Dell doesn't like to call herself one. She considered herself an integral part of the music business. In 1968, the Beatles' press agent Derek Taylor invited her to move from Los Angeles to London for a job working at the Apple headquarters. She told ABC News in 2009:
I needed to do something different, and I loved music. But it was totally by accident that I ended up working at a record company and met Derek Taylor, who was The Beatles' press agent. [He] was going back to London at Apple, and we became friends, and he said "Why don't you come over?"[...] Paul came in, and I could hear his voice through a wall, and it was like "Oh my gosh." I walked out of the door, and there were John and Yoko sitting there, and it was the most fabulous day because they went from being like these magazine photos and these people I'd seen on TV to being real live people.
She quickly moved up the ranks at Apple from cutting out newspaper clippings about the band every morning to becoming George Harrison's personal assistant. From there, she became a confidant, manager, and sometimes sexual partner to some of the biggest names in rock music. And while she might not think of herself as a groupie, that's not meant to disrespect others.
She told ABC News, "I don't want to use [groupie] in a derogatory way because I think those girls, the majority of them, were really very strong fans, which I was, but also I worked, and I worked really hard, and I became a friend."
When asked about the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, Pamela Des Barres told WWD that she thinks there is a big difference between the power imbalance in Hollywood and the atmosphere of the music scene she participated in:
You could name many, many people who you could wonder, “Wow, what did they get up to?” but you know, the girls, a whole lot of the women, most of them, who were involved in rock ’n’ roll and considered groupies, put themselves there. They wanted to be with these guys. These guys, unlike these directors or producers, even actors coming under scrutiny now, these girls wanted to, they tried to meet [the musicians], wanted to be with them, wanted to be backstage. They didn’t have to fight anyone off; it was quite the opposite! So, it’s quite different. And yes, there have been younger girls [who were groupies], a long time ago, not so much now at all, but way back when, when things like that were seen as permissible in a certain part of society. But these girls were very happy about the fun they had with these guys. It’s very memorable. It’s a very wild and extreme experience. It’s very unforgettable when you hang out with these people, especially when it’s the way I did, a very high level - on stage with the band, traveling with them, things like that.