Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon
By Pamela Des Barres
St. Martin's Press
320 pages, $24.95
Pamela Des Barres, aka Miss Pamela, the semifamous rock groupie of yore, has managed to come out with a third book. Impressive — I figured she'd said all she had to in her first, I'm With the Band, where she did a pretty bang-up job of getting in the pants of the California hippie-rock maelstrom, and letting us see how those cute, cute, cute guys like Jim Morrison, Jimmy Page, and Burrito Brother Chris Hillman acted when the stage lights were off. I still recall her account of a young and handsome Waylon Jennings, slamming a fist full of amphetamines, then slamming it to her, in a scary session where he nearly cracked the headboard, with her head. Yikes, as Miss Pamela might say. But gentle reader, don't worry. Pamela Des Barres is anything but retributive. Boys will be boys, after all. Artists are misunderstood. Being famous takes its toll on the sensitive. Rock stars need comfort, kindness, a port in the storm … ad pukeum.
In her latest, Rock Bottom, she continues her tradition of being rock 'n' roll's lamest apologist, though she's blown her wad thoroughly, and seems to have little understanding of popular music that has occurred since 1975. Nevertheless, a reader might be tempted to pick up this book because of the subtitle, expecting a tell-all of forbidden and hidden rock facts, a music industry parallel to Kenneth Anger's untouchable Hollywood Babylon. Let me dissuade you from this erroneous chain of thought. The title refers more to Miss Pamela than to her subject matter, and, in all judiciousness, this book should be retitled Rock's Bottom.
Twenty-two chapters, each named for a darkly dead rock star, from Eddie Cochran to Jim Morrison to Sid Vicious to Kurt Cobain. Not just the '60s, mind you, for all of rock's history is now Miss Pamela's palette, and Pamela's palette is, not surprisingly, reminiscent of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately for her (and us), she was a participant in only a tiny, but tremendously overwritten, part of rock history and seems incapable of writing about anything else that has happened either before or after. Of course, this sums up the elan of boomers in general. But unlike most boomers, Des Barres seems, at times, nearly incapable of writing at all.
“Music kept Janis [Joplin] on the planet for twenty-seven years. She was a doomed diva chock-full of soul.” Ouch. That's deader than Janis. Or try this on: “Tragically ahead of his time, and locked in a bitter, bloody battle between his shattered soul and his overpowering sexuality, Marvin Gaye ….” Hmm. You know what they say about those soul singers' “sexualities.” Oh — you prefer non sequiturs to rock cliches? “At barely twenty-seven, Jim [Morrison] told Michael McClure that he felt forty-seven. In a note to Creem's Dave Marsh, Jim closed with 'I am not mad. I am interested in freedom. Good luck, Jim Morrison.' ” Point being?
Really bad writing notwithstanding, there's also a veritable busted sewer main of inanities to be reckoned with: “As he looked at his exquisite hands on the piano keys, Gram [Parsons] said [to Miss Pamela herself], 'Sometimes I wonder where these hands came from. I keep expecting to see stitches around my wrists.' ” Deep. And don't bogart that joint. “Since Kurt [Cobain] and his dad fought about his lack of interest in sports, he must have blamed himself for the split and the family upheaval that followed.” Wow — an insight good enough for talk radio.
This tattle-tell-all's ultimate failing is that it contains no new gossip, nothing that hasn't been written about, much better, in a million other places. She cites articles and bios in a chummy way that makes rock writers seem her peers (she even has her own photographer), then paraphrases them like an eighth-grader with a new set of Britannicas. Rock Bottom reads like 22 book reports on dead rock stars (except Jan Berry, who's brain-damaged, and Rick James, who's very much alive, now that he's out of prison), with the occasional intrusion of Miss Pamela, placing herself at the historic conjunction of myth-making and rebellion. “Upon noticing that Mick Jagger was taking an interest in me, from the stage Gram [Parsons] said, 'Watch out for Miss Pamela, she's a beauty but she's tenderhearted.' He knew my weepy heart well.” Weepy? That describes my oh-so-exasperated heart.
But Miss Pamela's present-day function, like that of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is all about societal canonization of a long-haired patriarchy, and has little to do with revolution or art or rebellion — terms she bats around much in the same way Axl Rose bats his women. Hence the predictable chapter choices. (Joplin was the only rock chick chapter, and her lesbianism, like Freddie Mercury's gayness, is treated as aberrant-exotique, darkly Babylonian.) Miss Pamela was once the comfort girl for all those lonely rock gods, and now she sees herself — even if no one else does — as Rock's Grande Dame. She was there, the ultimate fan at the foot of the stage, catfighting for Mick's, Brian's, Jim's, Jimmy's, and Jimi's archetypal Bulge — and now she's supposedly earned some wisdom. Only she hasn't. When she talks of Kurt Cobain, she can only contextualize him with the deaths of the Holy Boomer Trinity: Jimi, Janis, and Jim. She lines up with her “good friend” Courtney Love — the rock widow, not the rock star — and grieves. Where's your fucking anger, Miss Pamela? After Sid gets out of jail for stabbing Nancy, then shoots too much smack and dies, she writes, “Nobody really knows if Sid OD'd on purpose, but I'm sure his Nancy was waiting for him.” To kick his skinny punk ass, one hopes. And behold Des Barres' attempts to pardon the excesses of G.G. Allin, who may have raped girls but had a strict religious father; or Rick James, into whose lap she leaps during a prison interview, after he promises her he's finally stopped doing crack — yes, the very same Rick James who did five years for hogtying a fan and repeatedly burning her pussy with a red-hot knife. Forgive and forget. Boys will be boys. And Miss Pamela, if she can just gather the words together, will be there to help our rock stars bear their sainthood.