Mother of Liv Tyler and former lover of Steven Tyler, Todd Rundgren and Elvis Costello, Bebe Buell celebrates her 67th birthday on July 14. Read her interview with Victor Bockris from the May, 2002 issue of High Times.
High Times: I want to start by asking about the periods the book Rebel Heart covers, specifically New York and London in the ’70s and ’80s. The press is describing the scenes you inhabited as a “vanished world.” What’s your reaction is to that?
Bebe Buell: I think it’s a vanished world in the sense that there was a spontaneity and innocence in people’s behavior then, and people weren’t quite as educated about the effects of anything yet. Nobody really knew for sure if drugs were bad or good, or if rock ’n’ roll really was going to keep you young forever, or if we really did have to plan for our futures. It was a really, really different time. Now people are much more business-oriented, much more geared to having their futures plotted out.
Do you think we’re living in a dull culture by comparison?
No. I think we’re living in an overstimulated culture. There’s so much media blitz, we’ve turned into a tabloid society. We need our fix, we need to hear what’s going on with everybody all the time. It’s a very excessive time. People have so much to digest, they’re so filled with stimulation, that nothing is special anymore. Everything’s much more packaged, homogenized and predictable. I don’t see so much of that element of surprise anymore, of something coming along that really kicks you in the face.
When you think back to those years, what was your attitude toward women’s liberation?
Well, I don’t think that I completely understood why people painted men and women differently anyway, considering that we were living in a time when everybody was fucking everybody. It was nuts. I was always pissed off with radical feminists who hated men. I never dove into the women’s movement. I just decided I was going to do what I wanted and act like I wanted, and not worry about it. Now women look upon having their own jobs and corporations, being free spirits, as a form of feminism. But feminism took on an entirely different feel then, because women were pissed and really wanted things to change.
At the same time as women’s liberation, the gay liberation movement was happening. Why did you form a closer bond with gay men than with radical women?
I just always felt my gay friends understood what made me tick. I never had to explain myself, I felt an empathy. Whereas I was always afraid of those radical-feminist women who looked like they wanted to kill you! They immediately would just hate you if you weren’t like them.
How are people reacting to the book [Rebel Heart]?
People either love or hate the book, and there’s no in-between. Some people are offended by my self-possessed narcissism. They think I come off as very conceited. Then I get this other thing where people think I’m delightfully and rightfully self-possessed, that the voice in the book sounds confident and strong. You can be confident and self-possessed, and have an ego the size of Asia like me, but you can still be frightened, have insecurities and not be sure about yourself.
One of the things about my story people are missing is I was a little girl who could never please her father. As I became an adult I always picked men who I could never completely please or keep. I was trying to repeat the pattern of having this glamorous military father who was never home. I gave and gave, and sometimes was unceremoniously discarded, without any resemblance of a relationship. One of the strongest messages in the book is the pain. Yeah, there was a lot of fun and rock ’n’ roll, but this is also a tragic woman’s story.
What did you learn from writing it?
I learned, “Fuck ’em.” This is my life, it happened to me and I can say whatever the fuck I want! And if they don’t like it, they can write their own goddamn book.
When you put together your current band, did you feel you knew what you were doing more than in the past?
At first I got back on stage with the Squeezebox band [at Don Hill’s in lower Manhattan] so I had a ready-made band, but then that changed as the members fluxed into people I really wanted to play with. There’s something to be said for chemistry, letting things unfold organically, but I definitely knew what I was looking for.
Where do you think your band is heading?
Well, I don’t play on the live stage anymore for any kind of commercial results. I do it because I absolutely love it and it would kill me not to do it. If somebody thinks it’s good or it’s marketable or it’s exciting, that’s fine, and if they don’t, I don’t care. I do it because I want to. Eagle Vision is putting out my anthology record and they’re doing a DVD documentary on me.
You hate being called a “groupie.” Why is that?
I get so indignant about being called a groupie because it doesn’t mean the same thing anymore. In the ’60s, when the whole thing originated, I was still a young girl going to school, so I wasn’t part of that movement, and by the time I came to New York in 1972, I was never called a groupie. The term was used on me later, ironically after I became a rock star’s girlfriend, when I was Todd Rundgren’s girlfriend, and when people saw me on the arm of various rock luminaries. When people called me a groupie in those days I would say, “I am not a groupie!’’
What was the key difference between you and the groupies?
I never slept with a road crew in my life to get near any band. I was watching a program on VH1 the other night called “The Secret World of Groupies.” For anybody who cannot understand why I don’t want to be called a groupie all they have to do is watch that show. Now it’s porn stars. They have these mother-and-daughter acts! That is very unsettling to me. It tarnishes the word. The word groupie used to be a great thing. I don’t think it is anymore.
What advice would you give to a girl today who was interested in getting involved with rock groups from the point of view of being a muse figure?
That’s another word that gets misused. You can’t decide to be a muse. Being a muse figure is something that happens inside a relationship. People who criticize me say, “Who does she think she is, calling herself a fucking muse!” They think that I’m being narcissistic, but I didn’t come up with that term. It’s something Elvis Costello called me. I researched the word after being called that by people. I just think it’s inevitable if you’re with somebody artistic, you’re going to be part of their art.
What do you say to a girl who tells you, “Bebe, I admire you so much, I want to do just what you did?”
I would say, “Run for the hills!” Because being just like me came with a lot of pain, a lot of ridicule and a lot of misunderstanding.
What do you think makes for a good long-term relationship between a man and a woman?
It’s all about fate and chemistry. All relationships have the potential to go the same way—down. Very few relationships survive. What you have to listen to are the fears, especially if you’re married to somebody in this business and they’re always not home, always touring. My rule is never spend more than two weeks apart from your loved one, never let more than a few weeks go by. Keep making appearances on the road. Never let your man be out there too long without paying a visit. Because boys will be boys. They’ve got penises.
If I was from Mars and I said, what’s happening in rock ’n’ roll right now, what would you turn me on to?
I would take you right to Marilyn Manson and Eminem, because they’re the ones who are pushing people’s buttons, really pissing people off, and making them stop and think. I’ve always liked artists who make parents mad. The best quote that I read recently was, “You know you’re in America when the best golfer is black and the best rapper is white.” Then I would take them to hear a great U2 concert, because there you have a band that’s always good. In the ’80s they were great, and now they’re great. I would take them to all three of those dimensions of the musical spectrum.
What is the greatest creative moment you can remember you’ve had high on pot?
I’ve written some amazing, incredible love letters on pot. Elvis Costello probably has some of the best love letters ever written, unless he’s destroyed them all. I’ve also done a lot of personal poetic writing in my diaries.
Was hanging out in the upper echelons of the rock and Hollywood worlds smoking pot a distinctly better situation?
I have friends who do nothing but that, and that’s the way I prefer it. I don’t like hanging around with the crowd that does coke. That gets to be an ugly crowd where people have erratic kinds of personalities. I much prefer the ritual of red wine, a gorgeous dinner and a big fattie afterwards.
Do you recall an experience with pot that stands out as being particularly pleasant or interesting?
The very first time I ever got high I was 15. I was sitting in a boy’s van in Virginia Beach. He had four speakers in the van, two up front and two in the back. It sounded amazing. We smoked a little bit and he turned on his radio, and I just remember the sounds spinning around my head in a circle, just hearing it all a whole different way, every little nuance and every little syllable, and just loving the way the music sounded. That’s when I learned that pot enhances the musical experience.
My favorite time I ever got high was with John Lennon. Mick Jagger took me over to his apartment after dinner on my 21st birthday. There’s a long story about it in the book. It was just wonderful. We were having a conversation about UFOs, then John asked me who I was. It was the first time I had ever smoked a joint with somebody who asked me that question. It was just so incredible to actually feel the effects of marijuana as an enhancer of intellect and a quest for knowledge, to smoke a joint and have your brain open up. Pot enhances that kind of communication between people. That’s why the government doesn’t want people to smoke it, because they’re afraid we’re going to figure everything out.
Who are your heroes?
Oscar Wilde: I love him for his wit, his logic, his philosophy and because he just really always hit it on the head. Albert Einstein: Without Albert we wouldn’t know half the stuff we know about the universe and about life. And Jimi Hendrix: He transcended color, race and creed. He played guitar like nobody else did. We have yet to see another talent like him.
What’s your favorite book?
I’ve read Communion by Whitley Strieber probably six times. In the ’80s, I called Whitley after I read Communion. I wanted to tell him about my own personal experiences with alien abduction. A friend turned me onto Joe Nyman from MUFON, the UFO network, who took me through hypnosis and regression therapy. I was experiencing and exploring my own feelings about alien abduction.
You were abducted?
My first memory as a tiny child in my crib was not of my mother or father or any childhood memory, but dancing balls of light spinning around my room, communicating an unbelievable feeling of comfort and safety. I had several other encounters of this kind.
Then, when I was five, I had an experience of “missing time.” Early one morning I followed my dog, Blackie, into the woods near my grandmother’s house, then all of a sudden my dog was gone. Under hypnosis I remembered that I was approached by three little gray creatures, three-and-a-half feet tall, with very large eyes and big heads, the usual description, and they took me aboard what seemed like a hospital, a clinical, sterile environment. They laid me down and began to examine me, but not in a painful or frightening way. They had some long instrument they wanted to put inside me. Then a big, tall one, who seemed like some benevolent, almost fatherly creature, came in, and I realized telepathically he was telling the little ones that I was too young. Later, I remember following another one of those balls of dancing light out of the woods. It was getting dark, I had been gone all day and they had a search party looking for me. People came running up.
Ever since the hypnosis I have been a firm and diehard supporter and believer in Whitley Strieber’s books—Transformation is another good one—and in Bud Hopkins’ book, Missing Time. Whitley really hit some chords. If you’re a person who has had these experiences and you read Communion, it triggers and ignites whatever lost memories you have. It’s a very, very powerful book.
Do you personally feel that we are living with aliens on the planet now?
We live in a three-dimensional world, but there are as many as 100 dimensions. If we used the whole of our brain, we might be able to go into other dimensions. We’re not a sophisticated universe, yet within ourselves there are many more sophisticated consciences out there. Some people are open to those doors and some aren’t. We have to listen. Marijuana opens those doors a little bit if it’s used properly.
Do you have a message for High Times readers?
The hemp issue has got to be fought for as much as fighting for the legalization of marijuana. Hemp is not only a useful product we can agriculturally benefit from, it would help reverse the greenhouse effect. Hemp gives out a lot of oxygen. It’s one of the most oxygen-giving plants we’ve got, so to not grow it is stupid. We need it if for no other reason than the health of the planet.
We need to decriminalize the use of drugs. There are politicians who are always going to ridicule Holland and make us think they’re not doing the right thing, but they are. Their system works. Kids tend to go for what they can’t do. It’s the rebel spirit. Do you know how many teenage pregnancies there were in the Netherlands last year? They have the lowest rate in the Western world, less than one per thousand! We have to focus on the important issues: getting Democrats back in office and legalizing hemp. And, of course, putting an end to terrorism.
To you, pot is sacred.
It is. It’s a gift. We should categorize it like we do our sweet, little domestic cats and dogs that God put on this earth to give us peace and companionship and make us open our minds and think about things. When I smoke pot I get wonderful ideas and wonderful thoughts, and it doesn’t always involve art. It includes how to solve problems. You know, like, what would be the best route? I become more compassionate and less pissed off. If I just kick back and meditate, take a hot bath, light a candle and smoke a joint, it all comes full circle. My anger is released and I can figure things out on a more compassionate level.
What’s your advice to pot-smokers?
It’s only good for you when you want to do it for the right reasons. When it starts to become a habit, then you know it’s time to take a break, and that’s where I am right now.
I hope High Times readers won’t be mad with me for that. I’m still a complete supporter of people who do smoke it and an advocate for legalization.
What has surprised you most in your life?
The cruelty that people can push on others surprises me daily, like the World Trade Center bombing or reading in the paper about these poor Catholic kids having to walk through a Protestant neighborhood [in Northern Ireland], and people killing each other over this. Sometimes I can’t get over it.