MILF of Rock ‘n’ Roll
Bebe Buell Has Something Worth Discovering
“I’m not offended,” says Bebe Buell, and that’s a relief. It isn’t often that you have to inform someone that everybody’s amazed she made one of the best albums of 2011. Hard Love is also a big triumph for the Bebe Buell Band and Buell’s husband Jimmy Walls, who’s helped his bride make an album worthy of his own days fronting ’80s psych-sludgesters Das Damen. It’s all even more of a comeback on the heels of last year’s lightweight Sugar. That collection of charming electro-pop was Buell’s first proper album, but it had her sounding like a suburban mom returning to the workplace.
The former Playboy centerfold (Miss November, ’74) is still striking at 58 years old, and she’s actually been playing live regularly since retiring from a long stint as a busy stage mother. That was back in 1997, when daughter Liv Tyler moved away from home. Buell could’ve become a Real Housewife of Anywhere after that. The lusty and lovely glam of Hard Love, however, shows why she jumped right back into playing the nightclubs of the New York tri-state area – even if the opening track of “Mother of Rock & Roll” could’ve more accurately billed her as a granny.
And yet everyone’s surprised that Hard Love is a great album. In an interesting rock ‘n’ roll twist, that’s actually because of Buell’s bad reputation. The veteran scenester is better known for being a hot girlfriend than a former top fashion model, with a list of beaus ranging from Rod Stewart to Elvis Costello. Her reputation wasn’t helped when daughter Liv had to discover her real father wasn’t Todd Rundgren but instead Steven Tyler, with whom Buell had a brief fling. So it’s understandable that Buell is okay about finally being hot gossip for making a hot album.
“I’ve worked really hard to be taken seriously,” Buell says over the phone. “I know I’m always going to have to be working hard. The funny thing is that my life is pretty much the same. I’ve always been working with brilliant musicians, and I’ve been with my beloved Jimmy for about twelve years now. If feels like I’ve finally made the record that was always in my head. I just got a five-star review from a hardcore feminist, and it ends with, ‘Bebe Buell is not a groupie.’ That’s a huge victory in my career.”
And, just like that, we’re dealing with the g-word. It doesn’t matter if a writer is looking to avoid it. Buell is pretty eager to bring up her unfair reputation as a groupie. Hard Love should be the tombstone on a buried myth, but Buell has earned the right to dispel some of the more moronic assumptions about her life.
“I’m just happy people are figuring out who I am after 35 years of my outrageous past,” she says. “Or my supposedly outrageous past, which is nothing compared to what some people are out doing today. When I came to New York in 1972, I was looking up to people like Jane Asher and Patti Boyd and Marianne Faithfull. They were women who all worked and had their own careers, and that’s what I was doing. Maybe I was naughty a few times and showed up late for a shoot because I’d been running around nightclubs, but I wasn’t out catching all kinds of crazy diseases. I mean, I’ve never even had sex backstage.”
Of course, Buell is also the victim of some old-time hipster hypocrisy. The rock press of the 1970s loved to treat women as accoutrements, and Buell provided plenty of sexy glamour with a hint of decadence. She’d even posed nude, after all.
“People were a lot more sexist back then,” Buell agrees. “A lot of them were people who should have known better. Now everybody is posing for Playboy and dating rock stars, but when I made my Playboy debut in 1974, there weren’t any fashion models doing that. I was still always working as hard as any girl. I just liked rock ‘n’ roll and hanging out in rock clubs. Why do people have to reduce everything to a sleazy encounter? I promise you that I’m not known for my sexual prowess. You’re not going to see on my headstone, ‘Bebe Buell: She Was Really Great In Bed.’ Can’t people just think I have great taste in men, or just maybe that Mick Jagger or Elvis Costello have great taste in women?”
Buell can get wound up, and she’s certainly outspoken. Just about the only secret she keeps is the undisclosed location where she’s calling from. (“I have a serious stalker.”) She’s still earned her right to rant – and she’s certainly kept from cashing in on her reputation.
“That’s what irritates me the most nowadays,” says Buell, “when being a bad girl becomes like a job description. Like there’s a paycheck involved. I’ve turned down four reality shows because I don’t want to be associated with that. Besides, all the excitement with me was in the ‘70s and the early ‘80s. I’ve dated three men since 1985, and married two of them. I don’t want to judge anyone, but I don’t understand girls who think having sex is their entrance into the music business. It certainly wasn’t mine. The only person I ever worked with and slept with was Todd Rundgren, and that was after we broke up.”
In fact, Buell probably suffered for her socializing. She didn’t get her first album out until Rhino Records released the modest Covers Girl EP in 1981. Buell had a pretty amazing voice back then, with a womanly trill that made her a mix between Cyndi Lauper and Marianne Faithfull. (“I was the only alto in my 6th grade choir,” she notes.) The songs were mostly dismissed as a joke. That intriguing voice, however, has only gotten weirder – and a little deeper.
“That’s called getting older,” Buell laughs. “We don’t fool around with perfecting my vocals. My first time in the studio was as a little girl in my twenties, and the Cars were my backup band. Ric Ocasek just threw me in the studio with the backing tracks ready to go. I whipped out my hairbrush and sang into it while laying down the vocals. That’s still how I like to do it. Sometimes it’s the imperfections that convey the emotion. When I sing now, it reminds me of reading stories to my daughter, and using different voices for the characters. All these songs are true stories.”
Hard Love also continues Buell’s fondness for surprising cover tunes. She maintains her cool with smart takes on Gang of Four, the Vibrators and the Runaways. She also avoids desperately covering artists like Lady Gaga or the Decemberists.
“An older song is always going to mean more to me,” Buell concedes. “I’ve wanted to cover ‘I Love a Man in a Uniform’ since the very first time I heard Gang of Four do it. We shook some of the ‘80s out of that one. I was originally asked to cover ‘Heartbeat’ for a Runaways tribute album that the Main Man label put out this year. I hadn’t heard it in 30 years, but I loved how the lyrics seem reflective of my own life. Actually, I was thinking the other day that I could definitely do ‘Ready to Start’ live. It’s got great lyrics, and I’d make it sound more like Iggy Pop than Arcade Fire. I don’t hate Arcade Fire. They have a lot of songs that I like. What I don’t like is 75 people on stage and not being able to figure out who the singer is.”
Possibly the most retro thing about Hard Love is that Buell had to put out an album. There are a few dispirited rock veterans sitting on great songs that they just can’t stand to see end up as yet another download. It’s pretty defiant for a lady like Buell to insist on releasing an aluminum disc in this day and age.
“There’s nothing I can do to change where the industry is,” Buell says. “I really do feel like I’m out here on my own, but I couldn’t even get a record deal when I had my connections. Blondie can’t even get a record deal now. But since it’s become like the Wild West, at least there are a lot more people who can get some kind of a shot. Look at Ray Lamontagne coming out of the woods of Maine. There aren’t any restrictions, or a boardroom full of people deciding who gets to be heard. You can get past all the demographics now. You just have to connect to people.”
Sadly, a lot of rock fans will miss out on connecting with a live show by the Bebe Buell Band. Touring is expensive, and Buell will be remaining a New York City tourist attraction for a while. She’s certainly worth visiting. Buell puts on a show worthy of the wild young vixen who should’ve recorded Hard Love.
“Age doesn’t bother me,” Buell explains. “I know I can outlast any 26-year-old onstage. That’s the only reason I wish I was playing stadiums. I could play for a lot longer than in the clubs. It’d also be nice to shove those demographics up the industry’s ass. I’m still happy with the fan base I’ve got now. I’ve got my old fans, and the front rows of my last show were full of all these young girls in their twenties and thirties. Maybe I’ll always just be a cult figure, but I’m used to that. My daughter would call me Cult Mommy when she was 12 years old. I like being Cult Mommy.”