Groupies: A Love Story
“Do you have the clap?”
This charming pickup line is slurred by English musician, Luther Grovesnor, to an overeager groupie named Lixie in the notorious 1970 documentary, Groupies.
“Yes,” she admits over the din of an East Village nightclub. “But I’ve been on penicillin for three days, so it should be cleared up by now.”
This less than reassuring reply seems to satisfy the intoxicated musician and the two of them stumble out into the night for some mindless nookie at the Chelsea Hotel.
Oh, for the days when penicillin wiped away the sickly residue of sexual misadventure!
Alas, no more – those hedonistic hours were short-lived, although they groped along for another decade or so until AIDS came along and put safe sex into our vocabulary. None of this is foreseen by the denizens of Groupies who act like giddy schoolgirls, comparing notes on the physical attributes of their quarry – size, shape and stamina. We meet the infamous Plaster Casters who made plaster castes of the manly endowments of Jimi Hendrix and other rock stars. There’s Pamela Des Barres who has since made a cottage industry of her backstage exploits with the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. Some of the girl’s pseudonyms are Patty Cakes, Goldie Glitter and Miss Harlow. A few viewers may find their girlish obsessions charming. Most, I suspect, will have a hard time distinguishing the narcissism of the pursuer from the pursued. One wonders what became of these ladies after the film. Did they go on to college, became soccer moms or meet a tragic end? Sadly, in the case of Andrea “Whips” Feldman, the answer is known. She jumped out the 14th floor window of her parent’s Fifth Avenue apartment, clutching a Bible and crucifix while her horrified boyfriend – the poet, Jim Carroll – looked helplessly on.
It is tempting to put a movie like Groupies in a time capsule of the 1960’s and mark it as “cautionary”. In fact, much of the footage feels like outtakes from an Andy Warhol movie, such as Chelsea Girls or Trash – nearly unwatchable in its layers of depravity but also perversely intriguing. And yet, the myth of the groupie persists in our own time for very different reasons.
There is a growing list of memoirs, documentaries and even a Hollywood valentine to groupies called Almost Famous by Cameron Crowe – a G-rated version of the backstage scene if there ever was one. They often appear on the syllabi of Gender Studies classes as tales of empowerment, but in truth they offer mixed-messages on the ever widening parameters of female sexuality since the 1960’s.
Part of the attraction of Groupies is how disarmingly upfront the young women are about their intentions. A rock star is targeted, seduced and then left without regret. In the short term, the women are filled with youthful pride at their conquests. In the long term, the transient nature of these encounters seems glib. Even 18th Century courtesans were offered some measure of economic reward for their devotion – jewelry in exchange for companionship or an apartment in exchange for trysts. No such fringe benefits are forthcoming for these backstage bettys. These ladies pay the rent.
The men fare no better, acting like layabouts, killing time between gigs with underage girls and a stupefying amount of drugs. Their craven attitude is as perplexing as the girls who surround them. (The singer, Terry Reid, comes off best, gently rebuffing the drunken advances of a very needy teenage boy. Alvin Lee, the guitarist, is the worst, dumping on groupies even as one lies beside him in bed.) The rock ‘n’ roll circus they all inhabit is devoid of any inherent meaning and they fill it with idle chatter and idle pursuits – like atoms bouncing off one another with no unifying nucleus to hold them.
By contrast, the songwriter, Patti Smith, won the 2010 National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids, about her devotion to the gay photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. It covers the same era and milieu as Groupies. Ms. Smith, however, has the benefit of hindsight and her narrative is subsequently more thoughtful and thorough. Being in love with a gay artist has its own inbuilt tension and Ms. Smith renders it beautifully with all the attendant heartbreak and contradictions therein. She slavishly supports her artistic lover by waiting tables – all the while scribbling poetry on the side – poetry that will eventually be set to music and transform the role of women in rock ‘n’ roll forever. Strangely, it is here that one finds a truly affecting love story – the misbegotten love of a diminutive woman for a very promiscuous gay man. Mapplethorpe’s sexual compulsions are legion, dwarfing the numbers of a comparable rock star. Yet, Ms. Smith endures his transgressions and weathers his wayward ways until – in a role reversal that mirrors A Star Is Born – her nascent career as a songwriter takes off while his career falters. She eventually leaves him to marry another man and moves away to raise a family – but her constancy never falters. She stays in touch with Mapplethorpe through letters and even manages to be at his beside when he dies of AIDS in 1989. All of this is conveyed through tender and sympathetic prose.
Ms. Smith rises like a phoenix from the inferno of the 1960’s underground while the ladies in Groupies – for all their sexual panting – fade into memory.
I recommend you read Ms. Smith’s memoir to see how she navigated the straits of the sexual revolution with her soul intact. You cannot say the same for Groupies whose inhabitants are as crude as any streetwalker in a Bertolt Brecht play. Ms. Smith, a sensitive introvert, is a far more reliable guide.
I hasten to add that it is inappropriate to equate the ladies of Groupies with prostitutes, for no money changes hands. They’re in it for the thrill – no harm, no foul. But it is equally untrue to conclude that these women exhibit the “love ‘em and leave ‘em” swagger of their male heterosexual counterparts. A Gender Studies professor might lead you to make such a moral equivalence. On the contrary, the theatrical posturing of these women and the flamboyant behavior they display is unmistakably campy.
A gay friend once told me; “When straight girls try to imitate the sex lives of their gay, male friends – the results aren’t pretty.” He wasn’t being smug when he said this. He was merely pointing to the obvious – that women are not cut out for the same level of sexual adventure as he and his gay friends. This could be misconstrued as sexist or politically incorrect. But after watching Groupies and reading Just Kids, his incisive observation taught me more about the boundaries of female sexuality than any Gender Studies professor ever could.
WARNING: The following video of Groupies contains explicit sexual language. Viewer discretion is advised.