The Last Act: Model and Singer Bebe Buell On Closing Down Hiro Ballroom
Hiro Ballroom will close its doors after Saturday evening’s bash, and with it goes yet another venue where rock, as we know it, could strut its stuff. The clubs, for the most part, feature hip hop, electronic, and house because those formats are featured by the bottle-buying public. Rockers drink bottles of beer, not bottles of Goose. Rock will be relegated to the cracks where it does better anyway. The closing of Hiro will not dampen the talented forces of rock and roll, but may force them into the creative cauldrons of Brooklyn. Marky Ramone’s band Blitzkrieg is headlining the perfectly imperfect venue The Bellhouse this Sunday, and so it will be. Rock won’t retreat or hide under a rock; it will simply wiggle to where it is wanted. It will survive where NY’s culture thrives …off the L train or the J or the F or someplace just a hop, skip, and a jump away via a Northside Car. The last hurrah of Hiro will be headlined by rock icon Bebe Buell. Known more for who she has famously slept with, sire Bebe offers rock purity from rock royalty as the Hiro doors ache to be shuttered. To get you to a place of understanding Bebe is Liv Tyler’s mom and has been linked over the decades with stars like Steven Tyler, Todd Rundgren, and Stiv Bators. Bebe is too often the subject of gossip because of her association with so many boldfaced names, but she is very much her own person and has her own talent. I once told her that she wasn’t cool because the rock stars dated her…they were seen as much cooler because she dated them. She liked me for that. She’s a busy Bebe but we squeezed in time between rehearsals to chat at the BlackBook office.
We are here because it is a sad day in the rock and roll world; Saturday is the last night of the Hiro Ballroom, which is one of the venues where cool bands have been playing for the last number of years. It’s going to be changed. The last act, the last night, is this coming Saturday and Bebe Buell is performing. Tell me about the band and tell me about what it means to you to close down the Hiro Ballroom.
Well, when I put my last album out before "Hard Love," which was "Sugar," it was Hiro Ballroom who gave me a platform to get back on stage again. I hadn’t been on stage in a while and so they are like family to me. It is one of my favorite rooms. I’ve done three sold-out shows there, and this one that I’m doing Saturday will be the last one. And there were quite a few bands in the city that wanted to close it down and I just stayed out of the entire thing, but they asked me if I wanted to do it. So I was really—a great honor.
So who is in the band?
Well I have Pete Marshall and he played with Iggy Pop and Glenn Danzig. He played with Iggy for years. He started as my bass player and now he is my second guitar player. I have Jimmy Walls, who was in D Generation for their last tour. He is the other guitar player. On bass I have Keith Roth. I had Enzo Penizzotto for my album; he played with Joan Jett for eight years and came back to me. I just lost him because he got the Memphis tour, you know that Broadway musical Memphis? He just got the whole touring thing. He is going to be going on the road with that so now I’ve got Keith Roth in my band, which is a real plus. He is also a radio guy. He does the Electric Ballroom and he also does Sirius. And I have Louisa Bradshaw on backing vocals; I have Sarah Tomek, a young girl from Asbury Park, on drums. And then I have on keyboards, my baby, I love him. He’s the baby of the bunch. Well he and Sarah are both the babies—Zac Lasher—and I found him
from a jam band, believe it or not, called U-Melt. I really saw his talent and I knew I had to get him in my band for obvious reasons. Juilliard protégé; he’s a genius.
How long have you been playing rock and roll?
That’s funny! What a question. My first band I started in 1980 and I made my first record in 1979/1980 with Ric Ocasek from The Cars. The Cars played on my first album “Cover Girl” on Rhino. And Rick Derringer, remember Rick Derringer? Yeah, he produced a couple of tracks. It was actually an EP.
At one point I was gonna say you are a rock and roll coochie-coo. You’ve got rock roots.
I do. I have absolute rock roots. I actually came to New York City because my mother sent my high school graduation picture to Eileen Ford, and the next thing you know I was on an airplane. And I would have gotten to New York any way I could. So if I was going to get here through modeling, I was going to get here through modeling. But as soon as I got here, I got into lots of trouble. I wouldn’t really call it trouble.
Well some of that trouble is what made you famous!
I discovered Max’s Kansas City. I started a very long-term relationship with Todd Rundgren. We weren’t married so we lived a very crazy Bob-and-Ted-and-Carol-and- Alice lifestyle, which I wouldn’t recommend for anybody because it is emotionally draining. It took me about six years to actually get a band together and really get down to business.
The other day you told me something that was very funny. You said that most people think that Steven Tyler gave birth to Liv – that Liv actually came out of his penis.
Which is funny because for a lot of my career, you know, people have always called me the girlfriend of, the mother of, etc. And it has just become, almost, a giggle at this point. I don’t get upset about it; I don’t take it personally. I find it very one-dimensional. First of all, it takes two people to date. It takes two people to make a child. And the way the media works in our country, the person who has the bigger name is the one that gets the credit for everything, including giving birth. In Europe, it’s a whole different story. I love America; I live here. But I have always gotten more respect in the UK and foreign countries.
Well I said to you that, you know, some people think they are cool because you dated all these rock stars. And I said maybe they were cool because they dated Bebe Buell.
I don’t look at it either way. I think people date who they date. You meet somebody…it’s chemistry! I can honestly say that I have never dated somebody as a social or a political move. I have always followed my heart and have only dated people that I loved and that I really had feelings for. I’ve turned down some pretty big dates, trust me. Warren Beatty! When I met Shirley MacLaine – a lot of people don’t realize they are brother and sister – I went to one of her spiritual things; you know, she talks a lot about metaphysics and past lifetimes and things. She used to do these wonder seminars. And I met her afterward and I looked at her and I said, “You know you and I have something in common." And she looked at me and said, “What’s that?” I said, “Both of us have never slept with Warren Beatty!”
Well, there is a funny story with that. Shirley was on the Johnny Carson Show and Johnny asked her, “ As you are Warren’s sister, you are aware he is famous for sleeping with all these starlets. Is his reputation warranted?” And she said, “Well Johnny, I think that Warren has slept with every starlet in Hollywood except me, and I’m not so sure about that."
Oh, that is hilarious. She’s funny and, of course, she has never slept with him. I have to say: Warren has very good taste. I met a couple of his girlfriends and now his wife, and he never went there. He never went with any riff-raff. He is not a bottom feeder.
I met you at a Stiv Bators show, a The Dead Boys show, at my father’s place in Long Island a long time ago. I was sitting with a beautiful girl and you were actually sitting at the same table as us and we didn’t watch the show. We were just watching you. You were the most amazing person we had ever seen and you were very, very sweet. I have always told everybody that you were the sweetest person to us. You made us feel like we were friends of yours.
Well I think it is important to make people feel comfortable and at ease when you are sort of the hostess at an event.
You told me then and you told again recently, that the thing about Stiv… he was this firecracker, an incredible performer, but also – as well as being incredibly talented – he was very intelligent.
Very smart. What people don’t realize is that he was just a small-town boy from Ohio. He was just a kid that went to see Iggy Pop. He handed him a jar of peanut butter and the rest is history. You know, but in some ways, he was even a more agile performer than Iggy Pop. Some of the things Stiv could do, I don’t think Iggy could do. Stiv could wrap himself up like a pretzel; he could hang himself. He could do all kinds of things. More like Alice Cooper.
But Stiv was probably one of the sweetest, nicest boyfriends I ever had. We drifted apart. Stiv and I were like—my visual—we were sort of like a rock and roll, punk rock Sonny and Cher. I was a good three heads taller than him. He was extremely funny and when we were together we sort of had a banter like Sunny and Cher did. We would just tease each other and we had this crazy banter. In the end, we ended up becoming really good friends. Our romance peetered out and our friendship expounded, if that makes any sense.
We used to have a house up in Maine and he would come and stay with me there. He would play on the monkey bars with the kids. The kids loved him. He was a pretzel; he could do any death-defying feat there is. All the kids loved to play with him because he could contort and do all these things to make them laugh, like push his thumbs back and all that kind of stuff. He was great with kids and he was great with animals. I mean, there are just sides to people that people don’t know about. They think its just like a girl goes “Ooh! I want that one!” and then they go and have sex in a dressing room. That’s just not real life. I have never had sex in a dressing room. I’ve never picked up one boyfriend I have ever had backstage.
You’ve dated very famous people. How did these people meet you? What kind of occasions?
It’s New York City! Models and rock stars have been pollinating for how long? This is nothing new. Rock stars who were making an iota of success – the first thing they want to do is upgrade the girls they date. That’s the first thing they want to do, and they want a model. Now it’s that they want a Playboy centerfold, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit girl. It is something they seek out.
So you prefer the word “model." Some people used to call you a groupie and I think that is a terrible name. I don’t think you were a groupie. Some people say you were one of the most famous groupies of all time.
No, I don’t think I was. I don’t think so. I think that title goes to that girl Pamela Des Barres. Pamela Miller, or whatever.
So you were not a groupie at all but you dated rock stars.
I think that’s the part about lazy journalism. The first thing they think of is “Oh! She is dating a rock star. She must be a groupie. Oh my goodness!”
Who else did you date besides rock stars?
The way you say all that! You act like I…
I just want the readers to know!
I can count my lovers on two hands. Can you?
Oh, absolutely not.
Ok. See! So, I always want to say to everybody else, “Tell me about all the people that you have dated. You’ve dated a lot more people than I have!”
What I’m asking you though is, in between all the rock stars, were there other people? Lawyers, doctors, etc.?
No, I never dated a lawyer. I never dated a doctor. I did date one photographer and his name was Clive Arrowsmith, which was really funny. I dated him when I was in London and he shot me for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and I did a lot of my best work, my biggest work, with him…he and David Bailey were the biggest photographers in the UK in the 1970s, in that early part of the ‘70s when I came up. Right before I started seeing Steven and before I got pregnant with Liv, I dated Clive Arrowsmith a little bit, which I think is hilarious because I went on to have a child with Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. Life is very interesting. If I had all the answers, if I could put together the puzzle for you, I would. But I can’t even explain to you—I have had this wonderful, serendipitous life. I have just had these synchronistic moments…I am like Forrest Gump. I tell everybody that. I just fall into these wonderful situations.
You are looking for this sort of energy that rockers give you.
I think we all look for the energy that we emanate. I have to be around the people that think like I do and that understand how I think. If I am asleep in the bed and get a song idea, I leap up out of the bed and get a pen and paper. When I lived with Elvis Costello, he did the same thing. When I lived with Todd (Rundgren), he did the same thing. I think like-minded people find each other.
What is the same about Steven, Elvis, and Todd? Where is the similarity?
Brilliant, multifaceted human beings. People don’t realize what a brilliant drummer Steven Tyler is. He started as a drummer.
When did the companion aspect end in the relationship? Hmmm, let me word this right: did you at times move off being a companion, like at a gig, and become just a fan like everyone else? Did that happen?
I think, to have that consciousness when you are in a relationship, you have to think that way. And I just never thought that way. I don’t judge people and I don’t hero- worship. People ask me frequently who my heroes are and I hate to sound like an old punk rocker, but I am. I don’t have any heroes. I have people that I admire and respect and want to learn from. I can’t say that I have any heroes, but I can say that I worship some people: Albert Einstein, Oscar Wilde. The people that I really admire, they are all dead. You know…John Lennon. They are all human, too. People that I tend to admire are not perfect. They are fallible. I think that is why we all love John Lennon so much – because he wasn’t perfect. He was a man that made many mistakes.
You actually had a conversation with him, didn’t you? Tell me about that.
Well I did. I had many really in-depth amazing conversations with him. I met John through Mick (Jagger). It was my birthday and Todd was in the studio and I was a little sad that I didn’t have my boyfriend to spend my birthday with me. But Todd was a workaholic before it was even fashionable to be a workaholic. I think he even had the first computer in the ‘70s, probably even before Bill Gates had one. But Mick felt a little bad for me and said that we should go out to dinner. We went down to the Lower East Side to this Japanese place called Me; its not there anymore. He said that he had a surprise for me. And earlier in our relationship he had asked me, “If you could meet three people, who would you want to meet?” And I said Edgar Allen Poe, Albert Einstein, Oscar Wilde, my usual, and John Lennon. And he said, “Oh, well that is the only one alive out of that whole group." And then we went on to the next subject and I guess that stuck with him.
So after we got done eating we got in a cab and I said “Where are we going?” and he said, “Oh, you’ll see in a minute!” And it was during John’s time with May Pang and we got out of the cab. We arrived at this apartment uptown and we had to walk up some stairs. We came in and knocked on the door. The door opens and we had to go up a set of stairs and at the top of the staircase, taking a Polaroid of us as we ascended the stairs, was John Lennon. And that picture, that very photo that he took of us, is in May Pang’s book, the one filled with all the Polaroids. I think I could say that may have been the first time in my life that I may have been a little star-struck.
The second time was when I met Salvador Dali at The Ritz, at the magazine store. I adored him as a child. I thought he was just fascinating. He invited me to tea when I was eighteen at The Ritz-Carlton. So I went and had tea with Dali and Amanda Lear, and some other very unusual person who I cant remember anymore. Maybe it was Varushka? And I feel that it was one of those magical moments. He (John Lennon) said he had just seen a UFO, so we spent the entire time talking about aliens because May had heard it all before. I believed him and was very fascinated so I wanted to hear everything he had to say about aliens. And then we went down to Chinatown at four in the morning and ate in one of the all-night restaurants. These were the kind of stories…these are the most sacred memories to me because it is all about cutting your teeth and learning. I was really lucky to learn so much from so many exquisite human beings.
Well, I listened to the album and I have to say there were a lot of things on there that I feel were great, I mean, really great. Tell me more.
I’m just really excited to be playing the final Hiro. I am very touched. The album is "Hard Love." I think it is my best work. I think it is the best thing I have ever done. You know, I have made a lot of records. I’m New York’s best-kept secret. I am a cult artist and I always have been. I have never been Madonna or Lady Gaga. I have always been a little under the radar, a little underground. I think that I have never always gotten my shots because people are so occupied with the glamorous boyfriends that I had and the Playboy or whatever they are distracted by. But I don’t do this because I am trying to win any brownie points. I do this because it is who I am. I am a songwriter and a singer and I have been my whole life. I was a contra-alto in the sixth grade. I was the only contra-alto of my age group in four states. I have a background in singing and when you listen to my material, you can sing this. I’m not just some kid who picked up a microphone and said, “I think I am going to sing this week!”
So Saturday night at Hiro. I will be there and I guess a lot of the people who read this are going to run out.
Oh yeah, it is going to be a good night. A lot of people love Hiro, and one thing about New York City is that when we say goodbye to something or someone, everybody comes out to pay their respects. And it is also the one-year anniversary of the departure of Don Hill, so the timing of it is kind of auspicious. It is the end of a great room and the end of one of the greatest men…we made a slideshow for him. A beautiful Don Hill slideshow.