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3 May 2023

The death of the groupie

The original mega-fan has shaped pop culture since the 1970s – but our ideas of sex, power and fame have radically changed. Is her legacy still alive?

By Lauren O'Neill

“It started with Elvis, she said, when Elvis went ‘off to war’ and she marked the days off one-by-one for two years on a calendar hanging in her bedroom.” So begins “Pamela’s Story”, a subsection of the 1969 Rolling Stone cover feature “Groupies and Other Girls”. It’s a short section in a sprawling article of interviews with dozens of women who identified as “groupies”, as well as with musicians such as Frank Zappa, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, showing how artistic appreciation and sexual desire define music fan bases. “Later,” the passage continues, Pamela “sent Paul McCartney a poem every day for several months. She also fell in love with Chris Hillman (the Byrds), and once took him some soup.”

The Pamela in question happens to be Pamela Des Barres, one of a few rock ’n’ roll groupies who would become legendary in their own right. Now, Des Barres is something of a spokesperson for groupiedom. At the time of the Rolling Stone cover piece, though, she was 20-year-old Pamela Ann Miller. She had moved on from showing her devotion through poems and food. Soon enough, she was outside Mick Jagger’s hotel room (“He said he was in the shower,” the magazine story explains, “and she kept on banging, so he came to the door and opened it and he was nude”), before taking her place as a stalwart of LA’s Sunset Strip, romantically embroiled with musicians including Page, Keith Moon, Jim Morrison and Jagger himself.

Known for their relationships – generally sexual in nature – with touring rock stars in the Sixties and Seventies, groupies became as important in the musical lore of the era as the bands, their activities as countercultural and noteworthy. Teenager Sable Starr was known for her outlandish style (“She was so glamorous, totally one-of-a-kind, wearing scarves for shirts,” as fellow groupie Lori Mattix put it in a 2015 interview), while Des Barres was a member of the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), a rock band of groupies assembled by Zappa, who recorded their own music. A duo from Chicago (“the Plaster Casters”) were known for making casts of musicians’ penises: “It’s obviously not a normal sort of thing, but it’s fun,” Page told Rolling Stone of their exploits.

[See also: The conservatism of Nick Cave]

Most groupies were young, ardent music fans, and pioneered the relationship between fans and artists as we know it today – certainly, their dedication and ingenuity in tracking down their favourite acts can be viewed as an antecedent of the digital panopticon of contemporary “fandom”. But groupiedom as it initially existed is no more. In the half-century since Rolling Stone published “Groupies and Other Girls”, society has come a long way on a number of issues – power, desire, ego, choice, consent, alcohol and drugs, misogyny – that defined groupie culture. As a result of these advancements, then, the groupie has become a much more complicated and burdened figure than she once seemed.

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Even so, her legacy remains complex and indelible. In 2023 music fans rule social media with iron keyboards. Considering that groupie culture established what it means to be a mega-fan, the groupie herself feels worthy of reconsideration, even if the culture that surrounded her was rotten. Fandom today is taken seriously – it is an area of academic study and cultural fascination – and we owe it to the groupie, the women who birthed it, to ask who she was, what her place in music history is – and more importantly, whether she, or the popular conception of her, ever really existed in the first place.

In the cultural imagination, the groupie is 6ft tall in metallic platforms, enrobed in a suede coat with fur at the cuffs, her head haloed by a fan of wavy, gravity-defying blonde hair. Groupie fashion centred on looking as eye-catching and other-worldly as possible. The LA scenester Queenie Glam, for example, is described by Carole Pickel in a 1973 profile in the groupie magazine Star as wearing “a silver lamé hot pants suit, revealing incredible spidery long legs”. Groupies prided themselves on their gutsy attitudes; they would stop at nothing to access the musicians they wanted to meet. “If you’re the aggressive type, the flashy type, you make it,” Sable Starr told Pickel. “You just can’t stand in the crowd hoping that one of the guys in the band will notice you.”

[See also: How music helps us to feel]

In 2023 our abiding image of the groupie is largely down to her most memorable portrayal – by Kate Hudson as the “Band-Aid” Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous. Lane was informed by a few real Sunset Strip groupies of the 1970s, including Des Barres, Starr and Pennie Trumbull, but in a 2020 interview reflecting on Almost Famous’s 20-year anniversary, Des Barres took issue with the character.

In the movie, Penny Lane almost dies from a Quaalude overdose after being rejected by the lead singer of the fictional band Stillwater. Lane also renounces the term “groupie”: “We are not groupies,” she says. “We’re here because of the music. We are Band-Aids. We don’t have intercourse with these guys.” Lane functions as a mouthpiece for a modern discomfort with the Seventies concept of the groupie. In Des Barres’ view, these parts of the portrayal felt unfair. Lane “was not owning herself, not owning groupiedom and what it actually means”, she told Vulture. Of Lane’s overdose, she said: “I knew all the main groupies in the heyday of groupiedom. None of them would have done that. There was always someone else coming to town.”

For Des Barres, then, what many get wrong about “groupiedom” is to do with agency, but it’s unclear how much control over their situations groupies really had. There were power imbalances, and often large age gaps, between band members and fans – some of whom were in their teens. The Rolling Stones even wrote a song, 1968’s “Stray Cat Blues”, about the youth of some of the groupies they met: “I can see that you’re 15 years old/But I don’t want your ID… It’s no hanging matter/It’s no capital crime,” Jagger sang, lowering the age to just 13 at some gigs, claiming that he was singing from the perspective of a fictional character.

Lori Mattix maintains that the sex she had with David Bowie while underage was consensual, though some may disagree that her consent was possible at 15. “I was an innocent girl, but the way it happened was so beautiful,” she said in 2015. “Who wouldn’t want to lose their virginity to David Bowie?” Today, society is troubled by such instances, and sees them plainly as the exploitation and abuse of young girls by older men. We can accept that this is the case but at the same time reject the widespread image of groupies as vapid, or living to please the musicians they loved, in favour of the accounts of the girls and women themselves.

Asked if she felt groupiedom was a career, the 15-year-old Starr, still in school, told Star magazine: “No, it doesn’t pay – it’s more like an ego thing. Just to be able to call up girlfriends the next day and say who I was with last night.” Would she marry a rock star? “NO!” she said. “Musicians are too involved with drugs. Too involved with other girls. It would never last.” Instead, she hoped “to be an Andy Warhol star and do bizarre movies”. Starr, then, had a number of reasons for her involvement in the groupie scene, which seemed to be more about her own dreams and her sense of self than the musicians themselves.

But this is not how we tend to conceive of groupies. Young female music fans are thought of as being motivated by sexual attraction and idol worship, rather than as exercising taste or discernment – even now, despite attempts since the 2000s to reassess the teenage girl’s cultural position. “Replace the word ‘fan-girl’ with ‘expert’ and see what happens,” the critic Jessica Hopper once tweeted.

[See also: The women classical music forgot]

The idea that young women make for shallow music fans is a hollow stereotype. But to dismiss aspects of fandom often associated with young women – emotion, physicality, sexuality – is to ignore what is special about music, for all demographics. We experience music at the intersection of thought and sensation – there is something undeniable, powerful and ineffable about the deep thud of a drum beat in your body. Its spell is never more powerful than at the live concert.

The musician Nick Cave speaks thoughtfully on the energy that manifests at gigs: he calls it simply “love”. In fact, one of the groupie’s most enduring legacies may be her embodiment of this mystical, unspeakable exchange between artist and fan. Last year, Cave told the New York Times that on stage, he is “deeply moved by the audience”, which is “extremely infectious… Everyone gets sucked in, and there’s this incoming and outpouring of love between you and the audience.”

This can, of course, spill over into explicitly sexual gestures, from campy bra-throwing to onstage kissing, which artists from Robbie Williams to Matt Healy have engaged in over the years. In late 2022 and early 2023 Healy, of the 1975, faced criticism for kissing fans at concerts (on one occasion he did, at least, check the fan’s ID). Perhaps, post #MeToo, there’s a cultural suspicion that any sexual interaction between the famous and their fans is inherently inappropriate. Such a sentiment is understandable, but can also feel puritanical and censorious when it applies to consenting adults engaging in spontaneous physical connection, born out of momentary depth of feeling.

Groupie culture might have been more ethically fraught than these examples of onstage kissing. But the groupie should be remembered and celebrated for her revolutionary qualities. Their impact on artists’ careers could be huge, as Frank Zappa told Rolling Stone in 1969: “Groupies are very influential on the record market… If you’re a hit with the groupies, you’ll sell 15,000 records in LA alone.”

Today, there is nobody more important to a musician, professionally speaking, than their fans, who keep them afloat. They organise campaigns to get their idols to higher chart positions, or camp overnight in freezing temperatures outside gig venues. Sable Starr’s tips for meeting the band published in Star in 1973 could easily come from a fan today. “If you want to be a groupie, you should hang around by their limousines, or you hang around backstage or at the hotel,” she said. “I know where their hotel room is because I’ve got connections, got big ears too!”

If the groupie was the first mega-fan, then her legacy undoubtedly remains alive. Groupies created a subculture out of simply loving music. In doing so they changed the course of rock history. They also helped to record that history. At the end of “Pamela’s Story” in the 1969 Rolling Stone article, there’s an addendum: “Pamela has kept a diary reflecting her interest in groups, and according to the Plaster Casters of Chicago, it’s beautiful,” it reads. That diary was published in 1987 as the memoir I’m With the Band. It is now considered a classic, and Des Barres thought of as one of the pre-eminent chroniclers of the rock music scene. Replace “fan-girl” with “expert”, indeed.

“I’ve been trying to redeem the word ‘groupie’ for most of my life,” Des Barres told Vulture. For all the word’s connotations, she saw it as a liberating label rather than a derogatory one. “I was a woman doing what I wanted to do,” she said. “Period.”

[See also: Catherine Lacey’s biography that isn’t]

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown