Bebe Buell - Normal Girl ?
Interview by: Chris Rockson
Contributing writer: DJ Ola
Bebe Buell is an amazing lady. Muse, model, mother and rock n roll performer all fall into her prestigious list of achievements.
At 8 years old Bebe fell in love with a photograph of Oscar Wilde, she thought he was supremely rebellious looking and fabulous. It was a taste of things to come. As a teenager, she moved to New York and became a model. Sheíd turn up to a conservative work environment in platforms and glitter and became known as the rock n roll model. Shortly thereafter, she was introduced to the scene at Maxís Kansas City by then boyfriend Todd Rundgren.
As she described it: ďI was just a young girl who came to New York and fell into my niche. I found my home as soon as I landed there.Ē
What a home indeed. Maxís was notorious and the people that hung out in the infamous backroom were as celebrated as the place itself. Frequent visitors included Andy Warhol and his entourage, Patti Smith, Mick Jagger, Alice Cooper, David and Angie Bowie. That era was a pivotal moment in Bebeís life; a playground filled with the most subversive rock stars, poets, painters, photographers, drag queens, pimps and movie stars.
Bebe became the 70ís It girl. Her inner sanctum of friends were the cream of rock royalty. She was photographed by the best magazines, went on tour with Aerosmith and saw New York and London in some of their most exciting musical climates. Later, she became a mother, successfully raising her talented actress daughter Liv Tyler.
Despite all the acclaim she received as a model and partner to many a famous rock musician, Bebe's main ambition in life was always to be a rock singer. She fulfilled that ambition in 1981 with her first band the B sides. She took time out in the 90ís for family commitments and returned to music in 1998.
I caught up with her whilst she was taking a break during the recording of her forthcoming album in New York City
SC: Well, many thanks for taking time out from the studio to do the interview with SoundCheck Magazine Bebe; I promise not to keep you too long.
BB: Oh thatís ok, Iím just recording some Ďscratchí vocals for the basic tracks right now, so if they need me, theyíll come and find me.
SC: How is the record coming along?
BB: Itís going really well. I started getting the idea for the record about two years ago. I recently relocated back to New York from Maine. I was writing quite a lot and we had a lot of stuff going on around us at the time with my husbandís parentís both passing awayÖso we decided to put some of the songs down as recordings. Iím hoping to have this completed soon for a 2009 release.
SC: How does it differ from the music you have done in the past, I read to expect some surprises?
BB: Itís really autobiographical and itís very introspective. My lyrics in the past tended to be real rock n roll, kick ass and fun. I definitely come from a pretty in your face, school of entertainment. I donít do lightweight shows, I like noisy rock n roll. Iím still hoping that the new lyrics are going to have a huge sonic boom but Iím trying some new things. This album is very atmospheric, Iím exploring mood, texture and emotion. Itís a great record for dancing, having sex or even having a dinner party to. I donít want to call it my grown up record but I guess I should.
SC: I do love your cover of 'Baby Baby' by the Vibrators. Itís one for the girls.
BB: Thank you! Yes, thatís like THE Ďperfectí rock n roll song. Iíd played it live for years and just really wanted to record it, and everyone was constantly saying ĎBebe, you need to record that songí! So we did! I heard that Knox actually likes my version of it too, which is great!
SC: You were also going to record a Johnny Thunders song?
BB: Yes, IĎve been doing Untouchable for years. Johnny Thunders used to do it all the time too. Itís a song Johnny wrote for The Heartbreakers. I first embraced the song in my old band the 'B-sides'. One time, Johnny Thunders was in the audience and he started crying, it might have been the drugs too! We had known each other for years, suddenly he tried to pick me up for the first time after this gig while also weeping and it was hilarious!
SC: You're in the studio right now. Who is recording the new stuff with you?
BB: Yeah, I'm recording most of the basic tracks up at Bobbie Rae's studio. Iím just recording with two people at the moment Ė my husband Jim, who is playing all the guitars and bass, keyboards and most of the melodic instruments. Heís one of those multi-faceted genius boys, and Bobbie Rae, who plays with Jim in his band Twin Engines, heís doing the drums and percussion. Bobbie plays keyboards too. Bobbie and Jim are a great production team - very visionary.
SC: Are there any plans for touring the album once itís released?
BB: Thatís exactly what I intend on doing. As soon as the record is finished, I will do a complete world tour with major cities in the USA, UK, Spain, France etc and there will be my first gigs ever in Japan and Australia! I am going to go full hog with this record, Iím not going to rest, and itís going to be quite full on.
SC: Will you be releasing the album as a download too?
BB: Yeah, of course it will be available as download. Youíll also be able to get it from places like Amazon and the others. It really depends upon the distributor. Each one has their own Ďvisioní for how best to get your stuff out there, and I guess there really is a big place in the Ďdownloadí world for my stuff. One thing I do know is that the record will be distributed very well!
SC: When you were a kid, who were your
favourite groups and what was the
first record you ever bought?
BB: I had lots of 45's as a kid; everything from Roy Orbison to Little Eva,
Chubby Checkerís The Twist, Dusty Springfield, and The Animals. I adored
the British Invasion and all things English including the fashion. My first LP was "Meet The Beatles". Then I became obsessed with The Rolling Stones and The Kinks.
SC: Are there any musical groups or
individuals who have specifically left an influence on your musical
BB: Iggy Pop, The Flaming Groovies, The Stones of course, some stuff from the
MC5ís and early Alice Cooper.
SC: Looking back at your involvement with the scene at Maxís Kansas City during the early 70ís, it must have been an amazing time?
BB: In those days, all walks of art travelled together. It wasnít a music scene as such; it was a smorgasbord of art really. You had the musicianís of course, but you also had artists, painters, poets, sculptors mixing together. I donít remember even thinking that these people were famous, it wasnít like that, we were all just there, right in the middle of something that we knew was a very special time and place. You didnít look at someone and go ĎOh look whoís over thereÖí the degree of Ďfameí didnít really matter. There wasnít a VIP room or anything like that; the backroom at Maxís was the room. Either you got in or you didnít.
SC: Amongst many others, you met Salvador Dali in New York, what happened?
When I met Salvador Dali, I felt more like he met me, because I used to go to the news stand at St. Regis Hotel and he came up to me. He said, ĎDo you want to have tea?í I had heard about his little tea parties they were legendary. Itís fascinating, he would get together Truman Capote, Amanda Lear, somebody different like Sylvia Miles or just his pick of who had their finger on the pulse of fashion or art. Iím actually working on a song, which is a reflection of that time. So far, itís my favourite track. In fact, there are quite a lot of things that Iím exploring, stuff that people have asked about in the past; things that were either left out of my book or edited out. Itís very exciting! I always tease people when they ask Ďwhy was this or that not featured in the book?í Iím saying Ďwell, whatever didnít make it into the book, will make it onto the record!í
SC: You dated Stiv Bators?
Stiv was a wonderful boyfriend, my favourite. I knew Stiv before the drugs. He did some crazy stuff in the Dead Boys, he had his nutty persona. But when I started dating Stiv in 1979, he was still pretty untouched by the poisons. He was a Midwestern boy with those values deep down. Stiv was my favourite house guest, meticulously tidy. He was good with my Liv and he managed to charm my very conservative family. He just had a way.
SC: You seemed to have had this ability to be accepted as Ďone of the boysí, in what can be a chauvinistic world of rock royalty?
BB: I wasnít afraid to discuss interesting topics. A lot of these guys are very talented men, interested in metaphysics, interested in why we are here. Itís not all about sex. Itís escapism for people to think that itís all Ďsex, drugs and rock n rollí. Thatís a huge part of it, but there is another dimension and either you have the brain to go there or you donít. I had this quest for knowledge. I think being with guys like Todd (Rundgren), opened me up to all of that.
SC: I read somewhere one of your heroes was Ann Boleyn?
BB: I think every girl was fascinated with Ann Boleyn, there is a certain infamy about her affect on the king and where it led her.
SC: Would you agree that Ann Boleynís life is like a rock n roll story set in a Renaissance time period? Her experience reflects what could have happened to a woman involved with a man in a successful rock group for example?
BB: Yes. Ann wasnít afraid to show physical affection to people she cared about and that killed her in the end. I think itís very symbolic of a double standard; women have had to fight a little harder to be understood. I used to get in trouble with my boyfriends all the time for having male friends, men that I had no interest in sexually. It was the same back then, but they sliced your head off. Any women who think it hasnít gotten better though should go back six hundred years and see if they still feel the same way.
SC: Did you find it a challenge to make the transition from being a muse to a musician?
BB: I wasnít lucky like Marianne
Faithfull, Debbie Harry or Annie Lennox; I didnít get into music
through the men I was with. I was so well known as a 'Wild Child/ IT
girl'. If before all that, I could have been known as a singer
first... It just didnít happen that way for me. I donít have any
regrets. Iím perfectly happy right now with the fact that I can make
another record, tour and play for people. I donít need to have
'Madonna-like' fame to feel artistically happy. I wouldnít want that
kind of pressure. Cult standing has its own edge and badge
SC: Is there anybody that you would rate as a musician in the current scene?
BB: Iím madly in love with The Kings Of Leon, The Killers, The Subways, The Kills, Marilyn Manson and Jack White. I think he is old school rock n roll, brilliantly talented and he looks great, not afraid to wear a tight pair of trousers!
SC: You are involved in several
charities, what are some of your favourite causes and why are you so
passionate about them?
BB: I love animals and they deserve to be treated with respect. It breaks my heart to see them being tested on. Iím not so opposed to eating animals if itís done in a Buddhist way, like thanking the animal and killing it in a humane way. Itís more about taking responsibility and understanding just what is behind that piece of meat on your plate. I also feel a great deal of compassion for women with breast cancer and people that are in need. I don't want to get preachy but I try to live by the creed "Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You".
SC: What do you like doing in your leisure time?
BB: Writing lyrics all the time! I'm getting song ideas in the strangest places these days. I still go out to events that interest me like art exhibitions, films, plays, charity functions and rock shows. I think seeing live music is important for the soul and for inspiration.
SC: How did you find going back to the world of modelling, again at a late age?
BB: I was surprised that they asked for me. Personally, I was very flattered to be photographed by legendary fashion icon, Francesco Scavullo, again at age 53. He passed away three months later, so Iím grateful that I did that sitting. I take it as a blessing. I hope other women my age can see there are no age barriers. At this point, more than sexism, we have to fight ageism.
SC: Of all the interesting people that youíve met over the years, is there anyone that you would say influenced you the most and why?
BB: I donít have anyone, except maybe my Mother or my Daughter, as I donít allow people to influence me in that way. I try to learn from people rather than be influenced. Everyone has an important spot in my heart and life, no matter how large or small their role was.
SC: Bebe, Iíd like to say a big thank you for talking for to me for SoundCheck Magazine and I look forward to the release of your new album and seeing you on the UK part of your tour.
BB: It's a pleasure talking with you guys!
© 2008 SoundCheck Magazine
Images: Bob Gruen, Kitty Kowalski