Bebe Buell has lived the kind of life people make movies about. In fact, Cameron Crowe partly based the groupie Penny Lane in Almost Famous on Buell. But don’t call her a groupie. That is a tag she absolutely loathes because, despite her many careers – including model and Playboy Playmate, Bebe considers herself a musician first and foremost. While she may be better known for dating, marrying and procreating with rock stars, Buell successfully managed the career of her daughter Liv Tyler, and is a published author in her own right — her autobiography, Rebel Heart, came out 2001.
One of my still-treasured vinyl albums is Bebe’s 1981 EP, Covers Girl, which had two sides and four songs. Two cover songs were produced by Rick Derringer while the other two cover songs were produced by Ric Ocasek of The Cars. Her version of “Little Red Book” is, in my opinion, definitive. Bebe hasn’t released an album since 2000, but she is finally back with an album called Sugar, which will be released in June. She’s also putting out a version of Sugar on pink vinyl! Rock on, Bebe!
CD: What made you want to record an album at this particular time in your life?
BB: These songs had been building up inside of me and it was time to get them out. The production team, Twinomatick [Bebe’s husband, Jim Wallerstein and her drummer, Bobbie Rae], was keen on getting me in the studio. I had written a ton of lyrics that needed shaping. I had hooks and ideas but my husband, Jim, really helped me to flesh them out. It was such an enormous release finally putting the vocals on these songs once they were formed. When someone likens making an album to giving birth, there is some truth to that. But the bottom line is, this is who I am. This is my art. I’ve been making music for a long time. I’m not commercially famous but I have a kick ass cult following who have stuck with me for all my musical journeys. My audience is what keeps driving me. I adore the live stage. That’s where I’m happiest. My audience knows that, too. They can feel it oozing out of my pores.
CD: Can you talk about your husband and how he specifically contributed to Sugar?
BB: The entire album is just the 3 of us, Jim, Bobbie Rae and me, with David Minehan playing guest lead guitar on “Air Kisses For The Masses.” That’s the single I put out digitally to kind of gear people up to the upcoming full 12-song album. I wanted to test the waters a little and play the material live to see how the crowd digs it. I had played a couple of the yearly Joey Ramone Birthday Bashes, the Squeezebox reunion, and Jim saw how much I wanted to be out there playing again. We played two shows at Hiro Ballroom six months apart and sold out both shows. Some of the young girls that came were already singing the words to “Air Kisses” right along with me. I was dying to get into the studio, foaming, and Jim helped make all of that happen. He is a genius guitar player and visionary. Plus, he saw how much happier I was when I was performing and working on songs. Jim was in a very cool band called Das Damen in the ’90s. When I met him he was playing guitar with D-Generation.
CD: What was your writing process and inspiration for these songs?
BB: Lyrics just came pouring out of me. I had had a mighty turbulent decade. From around 1990-2007, things really kicked into major life lesson mode. I wasn’t at a loss for subject matter or pain. Jim has this way of knowing what I’m trying to say in a song. He pushes me to reach deeper. I have written my fair share of Iggy-like lyrics; you know the “I’m cool. I’m cooler than cool” kind of devil-may-care, R&R stance lyrics.
The songs I was feeling were not “party” songs. I allowed myself to be raw and to peel back the layers. I heard pianos and violins. Good forbid, I even heard Pro Tools in my head. I knew this wasn’t going to be one of my kick-ass straight ahead rock and roll records. It was going to be me stripped naked, still kicking ass but pausing to think about it.
CD: I hear a bit of Courtney Love meets Marianne Faithfull rasp in your vocals. Do you have a vocal muse?
BB: You are the first person to ever compare me to C-Love vocally. I was already on the road doing my thing live by 1980 while she was still in Liverpool trying to find herself. I also don’t smoke cigarettes so my voice has come from life, love, pain and road wear.
I’ve been a contra alto since I was singing in my school and church choirs. The nuns always told me I had a unique voice. The singers that really made me want to be a front person, a lead singer, were Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon from The Animals, Wanda Jackson, Iggy Pop, Nina Simone and Etta James. I was doing Wanda Jackson and Flamin’ Groovies covers in my first band, The B-Sides, back in 1980. I leaned towards the kind of voice that had more attitude than range or chops. Janis Joplin had tons of feel and so does Marianne Faithfull. My voice has changed as I’ve gotten older. When I hear myself from recordings in 1979 or 1980, I sound like a little girl alto. Now I’m a full fledged mommy alto!
It would make sense that maybe Marianne and I would have similar emotional pain. We do after all worship the same God. No, not Mick Jagger – ha! – but rock and roll. Even Marianne had a “sweet” voice when she first started at age 18. Life gives you your voice. My voice was a problem for me when I first started. The “rasp” was not considered listener friendly back in 1980. But I am a rock singer and I think that is just part of what happens when you sing rock. There are the Ann Wilson and Pat Benatar type of voices that are really strong and loud and great voices but they aren’t “rock” voices to me. They are classic, almost.
When I’m doing a vocal, I just zone in on the lyrics and what they bring out is the result. If my voice cracks in a certain place because I cried, we just leave it. I don’t think about any other singers when I make a record. I just focus on conveying the song in my voice. I get a few Patti Smith comparisons and that makes sense because she and I used to practice singing together in front of her mirror on 23rd St. way back in 1973, before she started singing, when she was a poet/artist. We would practice to Iggy and the MC5 using hairbrushes for microphones. Some of my best memories.
CD: Has anyone ever tried to get you to sing differently?
BB: When Atlantic offered me my first deal in 1985, before they offered me the second deal in 1990, they really tried to get me to “stop screaming.” I said, “This is how I sing. I don’t do disco!” It was always a struggle so when more women were singing rock towards the late ‘90s, not pretty but attitude-laced delivery, I was so happy. It made me feel proud too that I stood my ground and held onto my voice.
CD: How did you end up putting The Gargoyles together?
BB: After The B-Sides broke up in 1985, I decided I really wanted to form a rock band. I was living in Portland, Maine and met some very cool musicians. It really happened that fast. Living in New England, I saw a lot of Gargoyles on buildings and such. I thought it would be a great name for a band. It was The Gargoyles that got me opening for The Ramones, playing bigger, more high profile shows That’s when I really started to get solid label interest. I moved The Gargoyles from Portland to New York City in 1989 when Atlantic expressed interest in signing us. I was selling out all my live shows and our fan base was growing. We were really soaring. Then the entire situation with the baby daddies happened and I was forced to give up my band, my music. It was hard, but my daughter was my heart, my priority. I wanted to be a good mother. I knew if she suffered one bit from the actions of her parents, I would never forgive myself. I wanted her to be adjusted and happy. She has two of the coolest dads [Todd Rundgren and Steven Tyler] in the world, too!
CD: Anything you learned in particular from managing Liv that has helped you with your music career?
BB: Managing Liv was something I did out of love, not need. It was not my favorite hat I’ve worn. But I had to protect my daughter. She was not old enough to be thrown to the sharks. I gave up my career for 6 years to be a full time mother and to guide her through her high school years. In 1990-1991, I had to decide between my recording contract with Atlantic Records or being there for Liv. I chose Liv and I will never regret it.
With the paternity issue becoming so consuming, I knew if I did not give her 100% of my attention and love, an identity crisis could possibly ensue. I would have had to have been on the road a lot with the Atlantic situation. Liv did not need a mother who was never home. She needed me there. So, I became the best manager and she became an enormous success. I refuse to take credit for that. It is her talent that did it. I was just a good business woman and mother. I’m very proud of how she has turned out too. But the second she left the nest in 1996, I was back singing full time by 1997 and 1998. I met producer Don Fleming after one of my shows at Don Hill’s and he said he wanted to take me into the studio. That’s how Free To Rock was born. I put out Retrosexual in 1994 on the French label, Sky Dog. But I wasn’t able to play live as much with all the work running my management company.
CD: How are you enjoying being a grandmother? Is Liv’s son, Milo, musically-inclined?
BB: Milo is just super smart. He already has an impressive voice for a 5-year-old. Liv has always had a great voice, too. I used to say that she sang like Etta James back when she was just a little thing. She comes to as many of my shows as she can. And Milo is my soul. I can’t even put into words how it feels when I look at him. Heavenly is what comes to mind.
CD: Do you think your status as girlfriend/wife of rock stars and being a Playboy centerfold has hindered or helped you as far as being taken more seriously as a musician?
BB: I’m past caring anymore. You can’t carry that stuff around with you throughout your life. My life went the way it went for a reason. I accept that with zero regret. I finally got my record deal and my first EP, Covers Girl was on Rhino Records. I did a lot of cool stuff. If my getting flack for being a model, posing for Playboy, dating some rock stars, etc, helped to make it not such a big deal, then I’m happy. I’m happy with the shape my life has taken.
I think things will always be a little tougher for women than men with that kind of double standard thing, but I also believe that if you hang in there and do what you love and believe in, eventually you break through. I’m here to now fight ageism. You can do anything at any age if you love it and do it well. I’ve always fought sexism.
CD: Is it necessary for women to be beautiful to have career success and advantages in music?
BB Beauty comes in many flavors. I think what you need in music is a style, something special. Something that is you that belongs to you. Even if it’s not commercial, it has to feel good when you deliver it to your audience.
CD: What music is floating your boat these days?
BB: I’m loving The Dead Weather. Alison Mosshart is such a rock star. I also love Living Things, anything Jack White touches basically. I am still obsessed with old Tom Petty records, especially Damn The Torpedoes. I hear a lot of myself lately because we are rehearsing so much getting ready for all the upcoming shows.
CD: Are you planning to tour at all?
BB: I’m playing LA for the first time in over 12 years at The Roxy Theatre on June 22nd. The album is officially out on June 15th and I’ll be in LA doing all the stuff you do when you have a new record. It will be my first time playing The Roxy, too. I’ve seen some of the best shows of my life in there so this will be a treat.