Bebe Buell. To those of you who know who she is, the name conjures up several images. Highly successful model. The girlfriend and wife of rock stars. For those of you who were only reading the articles, you wouldn’t have noticed that she was Playboy’s November, 1974, Playmate. Best selling author. She’s also the mother of world-renown actress, Liv Tyler.
Bebe is also a very successful recording artist and, while she has promised Boomerocity a follow-up interview to discuss her life and views on things of interest to Baby Boomers, it is about her latest project, “Sugar”, that we recently chatted about by phone.
Bebe is a very warm and engaging person to talk to. You instantly get the feeling that you’re sitting across the table from her, enjoying a great cup of coffee along with the intriguing conversation. I’m not a master linguist but, if I were to play one on TV, I would say that you could easily pick up her Northeastern accent layered on the foundation of her Portsmouth, Virginia, roots.
I first asked Ms. Buell why it took so darn long for her to come out with “Sugar” since her last album, 2000’s four song disc, “Free To Rock”.
“Well, you know, life is just something that happens while you’re busy making other plans. The last record I made was 10 years ago and I wrote my autobiography with Victor Bockris and then 9/11 happened. And it sort of changed the face of everything, even artistically.
“For those of us who lived in NY, it was horrifying. So, I returned to Portland, Maine, bought a house up there and thought that’s what I really wanted. But it just started to dawn on me that I was miserable when I wasn’t creating music because, what people don’t seem to realize is that I’ve been making music and fronting bands and involved in this (rock) world for much longer than anything else that some people like to remember me for.
“Playboy takes very little time of your life and it’s really only one appearance. Once it’s done, it’s done. My modeling career only lasted a few years and I think that these are natural progressions when you’re a young girl and you’re in NYC - to try a few different things but I think that I was very committed to get into a band and starting to write songs.
“So, at the age of 26, that was what I finally did. So, I guess you could say that was a late start to some people. I’m not sure. But it’s just who I am, basically. I’ve been doing this a long time. Thirty years. More. More, when you think about all the touring I’ve done in both of my bands, the “B-Sides” and “The Gargoyles”. I wanted to also make autobiographical record. I wanted to make a personal record. I wanted to make a record about people I loved and things that have happened that maybe the right explanations weren’t ever out there. It’s a very personal record. I don’t know if you noticed.
Not one to ask prying questions, I couldn’t resist the urge to ask Bebe if there was going to be anyone out there who would be worried about what she’s saying in “Sugar”.
“I hope not. It’s a loving record. ‘Black Angel’ was written about my friend, Joey Ramone. And, in the first song, ‘When We Were Godhead’, I’m sort of am touting all the people that had an impact on my life from that time, like Cameron Crowe, Rodney Bingenheimer, the whole LA scene. You know, going out there from NY. It was the Continental Hyatt House. That was a celebration of 1973. And ‘Grey Girl’ was about my beloved Chihuahua.
When she mentioned “When We Were Godhead”, I interjected that I honestly thought I was going to hear David Bowie slide in on harmony because the song is very Bowie-esque.
“That’s an enormous compliment and I appreciate that. I was thrilled because two days ago, somebody handed the record to Cameron Crowe for me. I’m dying for him to hear that song. I mean, his spirit is such a big part of it!” Laughing, she adds, “I wish it had been around when he was looking for songs for ‘Almost Famous’ sound track. Let’s hope that people do appreciate the cinematic aspect of the record. It’s VERY cinematic. I wanted to make something very deep and thoughtful. And I wanted people really to sink their teeth in to it.
“I remember when I use to buy albums. I loved albums. People have forgotten about ALBUMS. Everything is about singles now. Even I put out a single. You gotta play the game a little. But there’s this thing about journeys and voyages that you take when you listen to a real album - where you want to listen to the whole record from the first song to the last. That’s what we tried to do with this record. That’s what my producers and I really took into account, was that we wanted it to have a cinematic voyage feeling.
I was curious if there is any indication as to what her fan base is responding to from the album, to which she observes, “Yeah, the two songs that people are really responding to are ‘Sugar’ and ‘Untouchable’. Not to mention many other ones. I mean, some are really loving the second track, ‘Love Is’. The last track, ‘Fall and Rise’ – it’s very, very interesting. I swear, it’s very inspiring to me because I took big risks, a big chance in doing this. I thought, ‘Okay, maybe nobody will notice this.” I didn’t do it for any other reason but to just do it – for myself and for the people I work with. We all want to do this. And to be getting this kind of response, I’m telling you! I didn’t expect it!”
Still talking about “Untouchable”, I state, “Well, it obviously has a very personal message to it. I don’t know who it’s about but I thought the hooks on it were great.”
“Well, it’s not just about one person. You know, there’s a lot of stuff on there. You know, there’s songs directed at several people and at nothing. Some of it is just feelings.
I comment on the butt-kicking sound of ‘Fall and Rise’ and that it must sound great in concert.
Buell responds by expanding on that thought: “Yeah, well, the album live is a whole different experience. Rock is loud. I have three guitar players. And they’re all brilliant. So, there’s a lot going on in a good way. It’s not tepid, light rock show. It’s not supper-club stuff, you know? When I do ‘Untouchable’, which I think is one of the more quieter songs on the album, it still kicks ***. One of the reasons why it kicks live is so many people singing along with me. I get a lot of the “sing-alongers”! I love it! I get a lot of that.”
So, folks, you heard it here first. If you plan on seeing Bebe Buell in concert, you should not expect The Captain and Tenille as the opening act.
Buell came back around to the crowd response to “Sugar” and what appears to be their favorite cut off the disc.
“Well, the one that everyone thinks should be a single is ‘Sugar’. We put out a single in May called, ‘Air Kisses for the Masses’, which is the 10th song on the record. And that was sort of to let everybody know, “Hey, here I am. I’m back. I’m making an album. What do you guys think?” I threw a party. I was like, ‘Hi, guys! I haven’t seen you in a while. I’m having a party at the Hiro Ballroom to celebrate that I’m doing music again.’”
“I just sort of thought to myself, ‘Okay, if anybody comes, I’ll keep going and this means that I’m on the right path. If it’s sparsely attended and nobody comes, I’ll just a great time and realize that I’m just doing this for myself and nobody’s ever going to hear it.’ So, it turned out to be neither of those things. It turned out to be beyond the best thing it could’ve been. I mean, seriously. Everybody and they’re grandmother that I’ve known through my whole life was there. I saw people that I haven’t seen in 30 years in that room! And then I saw . . . the young kids – the under-thirty set. It was just really pretty wonderful. Now I’m all hopped up!”
I asked Bebe the one question that most artists hate to answer when it comes to their new projects: What’s their favorite track on the album?
“I have to tell you that I’m in love with all my songs. I’m especially in love with these songs. It’s really hard for me to – I mean, I can listen to all of them. It’s interesting, when you’re so close to a song, so many times you would think you would lose that personal connection that you might have. I will still sometimes cry when I hear ‘Black Angel’ or ‘Grey Girl’. So far several who have heard the new record have commented that they actually cried when they listened to a couple of the songs. So, I thought that’s very interesting that we created something that actually tugged at somebody’s emotions. I feel very proud of that. I’m not saying that I’m proud that I can make people cry. I’m saying that I’m very happy that I’ve been able to touch somebody emotionally.
“For people that don’t know that ‘Grey Girl’ is about my dog, like, somebody asked me, ‘Is that about Nico?’ (The late German model, singer/songwriter and actress). I thought, ‘How can anybody get Nico out of this?’ My drummer was going, “You know, you shouldn’t tell anybody what that song’s about. Remember when we all found out that ‘Martha, My Dear’ was about Paul McCartney’s dog?’ I just said, ‘You know? I don’t care. I’m telling people that I wrote it about my dog.’ She was my best friend, this creature – 14 years old when she passed. God! I still miss her every single day of my life and cry over her every day. So, the fact that, when people listen to that song it makes them cry and they don’t even know the dog or me, makes me feel that that’s a song that I’m very proud of. ‘Black Angel’ makes me well up. But the one I think I like doing live, believe it or not, is ‘Love Is’. The real dramatic one.
“I guess the thing I’m finding is the kids are telling me, ‘Oh, that sounds like Portishead or like Massive Attack.’ I wasn’t even thinking about either of those people when we wrote that, which is interesting because I love both of those bands – Portishead AND Massive Attack. “
To hear Bebe describe the disc, she says that it is , “Genre-less, darling! It’s everything. It’s every musical influence me, Jim (Wallerstein, Bebe’s multi-talented musician/husband who happens to be the guitarist for the two man band, Twin Engines) and Bobbie (Rae, the drummer for “Twin Engines”) had ever had that we’ve loved, with a little bit of our own flavor; our own taste that we don’t think anybody else has ever touched on. I mean, I don’t mean to sound narcissistic but I was hoping that I have done something different. I’m hoping that I have identified myself in my own individual form, as a singer and as a writer.” With her infectious laugh, she adds, “I don’t think anyone even sounds like me, god forbid!”
Having read great reviews about Buell’s performances in the New York area, I asked if she was going to promote “Sugar” with a tour or were the Yankee’s going to hog her all to themselves.
“I’ve been playing on stage a long time. I actually get physically ill if I don’t, you know, play gigs. It’s the opposite with me. Most people get sick if they play to many gigs. I get physically ill if I don’t play. I start moping around. I get like an old angry dog.
“We want to do an entire world tour but there’s a whole process. I’m doing something that not many people would tackle at this time of their life. Most people are going, ‘Bebe, just enjoy all the success that you’ve had in your life. Go live on the beach. Why are you working so hard?’ You know, it’s just because I want to make my own personal statement because I set goals for myself which are very unreasonable and. I guess that comes from being a competitive basketball player in high school. I don’t know what it is but I’ve always got to keep going. Plus, I get it from my mother. She calls herself a burr monkey. She’s very active and vibrant and she’s going to be 80 and she looks beautiful. People really enjoy her company – of all ages. I’ve seen from that - that music should be ageless, inspiration, and achievements should be ageless.
“People shouldn’t just stop doing what they do. And the thing that’s beautiful about this project, to me, is nobody seems to care that I’m not 18 like Britney Spears or – not that Britney’s 18 anymore - but nobody seems to care that I’m not a Jonas Brother. It’s okay.
“I’m finding that my audiences are very, very diverse. A lot of young people; a lot of my peers; a lot of Baby Boomers; a lot of kids that come with their parents because they’re curious. They want to see Liv’s mom. So, I get so many different kinds of people. I get the Mohawk next to the grandmother. I get all of these interesting audiences. My gigs have become more like events. The gigs are very colorful and very exciting.
“I have to say that the Hiro Ballroom – the show I did in June – which has really, really put fuel on this whole project – it’s the most exciting show that I’ve ever played in my life. It just goes to show you that you never know when the public is going to decide or discover that what you do is something that they like. It’s a surprise.”
It doesn’t take long to learn that, though Bebe’s background and foundation is deeply rooted in the Classic Rock genre, she is very in touch with the new music generating excitement with today’s youth.
“Yeah, I mean, I love the ‘Kings of Leon’. I like ‘Living Things’. I like a lot of new music right now. I don’t shut myself off. I’m not one of those people who sits around and goes, ‘Ah, Woodstock!’. I was too young to go to Woodstock! I just don’t believe in that. I believe you have to sort of flow with the universe. And, if things are the way they are, people are going to walk around with the faces buried in their Blackberry’s and all of that, I mean, you can rebel or you can sort of jump in there, too, and put your own spin on it, you know? I can’t even text! I swear to god! You know, my husband is the texter. I’ll say, ‘Jim! Will you text Liv and tell her this?’” She admits that, “I don’t know what it is about text messaging. I mean, the computer is stressful enough for me. Just going on there and having to check the e-mails, you know, say hello to everybody and then. My PR guy goes, ‘Bebe. You have to go on your Facebook page every day.’ And I go, ‘OKAY!’ Now he’s trying to get me to Twitter. I’m like, ‘Dude, I cannot Twitter. Please!’”
As we were deeply engaged in our phone fueled coffee klatch, we drifted into the subject of one of mutually favorite bands and their late vocalist. I’m talking about Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin. Reflecting back on “the day”, she said,“I was a HUGE fan of Big Brother. I remember thinking as a young girl that it was really stupid for Janis Joplin to get rid of her band, listening to those corporate ***holes and, you know, start playing with studio musicians. Oh well, what can I tell ya? There was a magic to the Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Janis Joplin thing. There was a real magic there.”
While still in the vein of talking about the music business, then and now, she offers this view from the vantage point of seeing the business from various vantage points over the years.
“I tell you, a lot of people complain about the state of the industry right now but I want to say one thing in its defense. At no other time in the history of the music business has an artist been able to put their records out legitimately and manage their affairs and own their songs and create their own universe than ever before. You get to really know how many fans your really have. You find out really quickly. You know, I just go and check my little MySpace page once a day, just to see what’s going on – to look on there just to see that 700 people, 800 people yesterday, several hundred people today have gone to listen to those snippets. I’m like, “god, this is exciting! If all of those people go and download it, that’s the whole point.
“People complain, ‘Oh, it’s not like it use to be in the good ol’ days.’ Well, honey, the good ol’ days haven’t been here for a long time. I remember when people didn’t even have answering machines. I remember when you walked down the street, you didn’t have an iPod. You didn’t have a cell phone. You didn’t have a Blackberry. You smelled the air and you thought and you looked up or down or whatever. You know, it’s funny, Chris Rock said, “If a UFO came over us now, no one would see it anyway!” Nobody looks up anymore!
Buell continues on, focusing on the lost art of album covers. “You could prop the cover up and stare at it. Now, things are so tiny. You prop up your little CD and you can’t really sit there and go, ‘Oh, I really love this band. I love this artist.’ Remember when you could prop up your Beatles – I don’t know. That part of it is just different.”
Ms. Buell and I closed out our chat by talking about our beloved dogs (comparing notes and mutually agreeing that they are darn-near human and part of our families) and the promise that we’ll chat again soon.
The lady has a lot to say.
All the songs on “Sugar” (with the exception of “Untouchable” by Johnny Thunder on his “So Alone” album and “Fall and Rise” (originally recorded by The Velvet Mafia on their “Cheap But Not Free” disc) were written by Bebe, her husband, Jim Wallerstein, and Bobbie Rae. You can download Bebe Buell’s “Sugar” at her website, www.bebebuell.org.