Bebe Buell, companion and muse of a host of rock icons, supermodel, mother of an actress/ model, centerfold, accomplished high school hoopster, and rock star herself, is talking about a significant moment in her life she has just experienced. She is driving with her husband, Jim Wallerstein, from her native Tidewater area of Virginia to her New York home. “I just saw my father for the first time in 33 years,” she says via cell phone. “It was just wonderful to see him, to go back to Virginia Beach for a couple of days to revisit my childhood. It was six days of family reminiscence, and it was just delightful.”
A short, sweet anecdote, but telling. Buell, now a matronly but still fetching 57, has had a rich, exciting, eventful, controversial life. But now in a new, lower-key time in her life, Buell concentrates on performing. She will be appearing with her band on Friday, August 13, at the Record Collector in Bordentown. Her new record, “Sugar,” is available in vinyl — pink vinyl — as well as in CD and downloadable on MP3. “It’s very important to be able to make my music available on vinyl,” says Buell.
Buell has had an impact on rock music, and the world, that has surprised maybe even her. A fresh-faced blonde who first went to New York from her Virginia hometown in the early 1970s, Buell secured a contract with the Eileen Ford Agency in the city and became one of the first well-known celebrity supermodels. Her status as a model, her statuesque appearance, and her affinity for the celebrity lifestyle gave her access to many of the top rockers of the day, and she befriended them, loved them, and inspired them. She has had relationships with, among others, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, Todd Rundgren, Elvis Costello, and Steven Tyler, the latter the father of her daughter, Liv Tyler, the actress and model.
Her book, “Rebel Heart, An American Rock ‘N’ Roll Journey,” published in 2001, gives a blow-by-blow account of her life in the fast lane of rock-and-roll celebrity excess from the perspective of an insider. When the book came out, Buell was both celebrated and panned as one of three prominent exponents of “groupie lit,” along with Patti D’Arbanville and Pamela Des Barres.
But Buell has a special place in the annals of the music, chiefly because she has been witness to some of the most compelling events and personalities of the rock era. “Some people have called me the ‘Forrest Gump’ of rock and roll, because I have been able to do a lot of things that a lot of people could only dream of,” Buell says. “I have been very fortunate in my life that my dreams have all sort of come true.”
Beverle Lorence Buell was born on July 14, 1953, Bastille Day, in Portsmouth, Virginia. Her father was a military man, who later became a psychologist and professor at the University of Florida and who was out of her life after her mother divorced him and remarried. Buell’s stepfather, Lester Johnson, was also a military man, an officer, whose jobs took him to different cities, principally during the Vietnam War.
“I was educated in Catholic schools, had a parochial education,” she says. “Pretty much a happy, middle-class upbringing.”
The 5-foot-10 Buell was a basketball star at Villa Maria Academy in Lynchburg, but it was music that really wowed her. She enjoyed singing in choirs and playing piano as a youth.
Buell has always had a husky alto/contralto voice, and she says it could have been because of a botched tonsillectomy when she was five years old. “At one point I was the only alto in the (children’s) choir.”
During the 1960s, it was the British Invasion of pop stars that got Buell interested in music in more than a casual way. “Seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and the Rolling Stones really sealed my fate, sort of made me know that I was a rock and roll chick,” she says.
Buell’s mom, Dorothea, a tall, beautiful blonde model herself, who saw potential in her teen, sent a series of photos to Eileen Ford Agency. “I don’t know if anyone expected much to happen, but after just three days, (Ford) summoned me. I went to New York to follow my dreams and my heart, and things have been that way ever since for me,” says Buell.
So, in 1972, at the age of 19, Buell moved to New York. At first, she lived with Ford herself, but that lasted barely a week. She, along with models Lauren Hutton, Veronica Hamel, and others, were among the top models in New York at the time. She also became part of the New York celebrity crowd, meeting artists such as Andy Warhol, politicians, actors, financiers, and other luminaries.
Two years later, after a female photographer friend shot some nude photos of her, Hugh Hefner tagged her to be Miss November, 1974, in Playboy magazine. The appearance made Buell a bit of money and gave her international notoriety, though not without a catch. “It kind of threw a bit of a monkey wrench into my modeling career, but only in this country,” she says. “In Europe, nobody cared that I had posed nude. It was a different culture, different consciousness. People were, and are, much freer (there), especially in the fashion industry. But in America, back then, fashion models didn’t pose nude. It was considered something of a taboo. Now, of course, it is much more accepted.”
However, being Miss November also gave her much more cachet in the rock world. She began dating stars such as Jimmy Page and Todd Rundgren, whom she had a long-term relationship with even when she met Steven. In fact, says Buell, she had told both her daughter and Rundgren that Rundgren was Liv’s father because Steven Tyler had been too drugged out to be a responsible parent.
Buell’s 2001 memoir starts out with a zinger of an anecdote. She and her best friend were walking on a boardwalk in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1968 when a tall, flamboyantly dressed black man pulled up in a sumptuous, late-model Cadillac. He let the electric windows down and asked the two girls if they wanted to come see a concert that night. Although Buell’s friend seemed excited, Buell was scared, and quickly pulled her friend away.
Her friend was angry. It was Jimi Hendrix.
That’s the kind of life Buell had in the world of rock and roll in the 1970s and ’80s. Still, Buell says that her book (written with Victor Bockris) and the stories she tells don’t really represent her perfectly — the Charles Barkley Syndrome? — and that she is planning on working on another book soon.
In the early 1980s, Buell began singing herself. Ric Ocasek, leader of the Cars, produced her first record, the EP “Covers Girl,” with the Cars backing her.
Six albums later, Buell is touring in promotion of “Sugar.”
“About two years ago I was at an auction for Beatles memorabilia, and I ran into an old friend, Steve Lee, now the vice president at Sirius Satellite Radio,” she says. “I was trying to pitch him on a great idea for a radio show I wanted to do, but he said, ‘Ya know, Bebe, you should be back in the studio making a record.’ So I went home and told Jim that we needed to get in the studio and get working. I had been so frustrated — for years I have been walking around with all of these tunes inside of me.”
The songs on the album are often autobiographical, or at least drawn from experiences in Buell’s life. “It’s like giving birth,” she says. “When you’re a songwriter, you get all (twisted) up if you can’t get your songs out.”
With collaborations from drummer Bobbie Rae and guitarist Jimmy Walls, most of the lyrics were written by Buell. “I wrote ‘Gray Girl’ about a dog that passed away, and ‘Black Angel’ was written about a dear friend of mine, Joey Ramone, who passed away,” she says. “There is a lot of passion on the record; there was a lot of stuff that I wanted to get off my chest. So there are lot of things that needed to be said. I look at ‘Sugar’ as a synopsis of my life.”
Now, having been married to fellow rocker Wallerstein (Das Damen, Vacationland) for the past eight years and having raised daughter Liv to adulthood, Buell is enjoying middle aged rockerdom and a quieter, more stable lifestyle. “Now that (Liv) is fine, grown and into her career, I can do all the things that I have wanted to do in my life,” says Buell. “When you know you’ve done a good job, it’s easy for you to enjoy your own success.
“My life has been so rich in the last 10 years,” she continues. “I’ve had so many life lessons and experiences (since then). I met my husband and have had a very stable relationship for the past 10 years. It’s lovely to work with someone, to have a partnership with someone. Fidelity, monogamy, all the things you want. I love having stability in my life and a stable, solid relationship. I’m able to focus on one thing now — my music.”
Bebe Buell, the Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Friday, August 13, 7:30 p.m. Also appearing, Frankenstein 3000. $15. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.