I'm With Miss Pamela

The two-day writing workshop run by famous rock groupie and memoirist Pamela Des Barres' encourages women to mine their past for racy anecdotes while exposing their emotional vulnerabilities. The result is something like an all-girl, hotter, Burning Man.

Hazlitt regular contributor Lynn Crosbie is a Toronto writer and Ph.D, who teaches at the University of Toronto and the Ontario Gallery of Art. She...

Her Honey-Dripping Beehive, May 30

When Led Zeppelin rolled into Los Angeles in 1969, their monstrous reputation—as Dionysian rock stars and potent sexual beasts—was already cemented.

Pamela Des Barres writes about this time, in her first memoir, I’m with the Band. “The groupie section went into the highest gear imaginable; you could hear garter belts sliding up young thighs all over Hollywood.”

Almost 45 years later, and all across the humid reaches of Toronto, you can hear something similar: the palpable excitement of a different kind of groupie.

The iconic Des Barres, or Miss P., as Tiny Tim and her old boyfriend Jimmy Page named her, has arrived from New York to begin her second Toronto writing workshop—we are the eighth city to join the revolution.

Her popularity as a teacher keeps growing: the author of two memoirs and a book about epic crash and burns in music (Rock Bottom); the editor of another collection of stories about notorious courtesans (Let’s Spend the Night Together) and a rock and roll cookbook, Des Barres has serious writing credentials.

While I have been leery of ever taking a writing class, I have heard the testimony of her students, and, more critically, have admired her stylistic brilliance and narrative-control from the start. I am working on a book about a musician as well: a great writer who has enchanted all of Led Zeppelin seems too perfect to pass up.

We—a closed Facebook group called Miss. P’s Dolls—last saw her in November. I missed the workshop then, but got to know some of the girls, and to meet Pamela, at last. My first book of poetry, Miss Pamela’s Mercy, is named for and blurbed by her.

On those cold days we shopped for arcane vintage items, had the rockabilly brunch at the Dakota and watched her read at Sonic Boom to a rapt, shy crowd: I first spotted her—still one of my favorite American writers—standing coolly by the Dylan CDs, flame-haired, draped in antique jewelry and dressed in sexy-feminine fifties florals.

She read, fielded the odd repugnant question (“Did you have lots of rock star three-ways?”) and let us all in a little closer, past her deadly cool, and into her famous, radiant smile.

So here she is in spring as everything is bursting into flower. And here we are, a group of 15 not-yet-connected writers who want to learn, as one of her Austin students has testified, how to “slide a white-gloved finger across the soul of one of Miz Pamela’s writing groups and (see it) come up covered in honey.”


The Rules, May 31

We all meet at a member’s lovely house, and sprawl around the living and dining room.

We are to write, in 12-minute bursts, prose that she will assign. And we will follow these rules: No qualifying, no thinking, no erasing, and, she says, quoting Nabokov, we must “Caress the divine details.”

I have only ever taught writing. Piece of cake, I think.

Not so.

Our first assignment, about our most memorable moment in the last six months, has me drenched in flop-sweat and the wretched realization that I may have to write about the time Joanna at Rogers was quite helpful with my Internet issues.

The thing is that everyone just plunges in. As we all read our finished work, this group, which has—on the surface—so little in common, becomes the very realization of Mick Jagger’s pathetic plea at bloody Altamont, “If we are all one, we can be all one!”

My story ends, “Of fat men, of lies, and lonely love.”

The others recount triumphs in love and work; one has just gone on a date with a movie star. The one actual, former, groupie has fallen passionately in love with a man who seems more understanding and sweet than Morrie (well, he is a hot, rock star [Tuesdays with] Morrie.) Others tell sad stories and burst into tears. The atmosphere shifts. Something is happening.

Something like an all-girl Burning Man.

Pamela, dressed in jeans and a scarlet Groupie Couture top (her ravishing new clothing line), merely sits and communes with us: “There is no criticism here,” she tells me. But at the end of each story, she offers advice that is both literary and psychic: “You don’t need him anymore, and that story should be a book.”

“You are all exquisite girls,” she says, during an emotionally charged lull, and asks us to write about losing our virginities.

Again the stories range from hilarious (one girl asked her micro-penised first, “Isn’t this supposed to hurt?”) to tragic, to powerful.

The night goes very long, and I get to ride home with the movie-star girl, who plays me her lover’s sexy voice mails.

I cannot sleep all night.


Mommie Dearest, June 1

At the signing today, she is asked normal questions.

We learn that the funniest man she was involved with was Keith Moon, who, while trying to check her into a swanky hotel, had to fake being a moneyed Count, given his shocking record of room demos—of fountains filled with detergent, causing bubble-storms down entire blocks.

Our homework is to write about our mothers. Almost everyone cries during these readings.

We then write about the first time we fell in love.

It occurs to me that after all these years, I am writing about things I have never even talked about.

But, as the girls tell me, this is a “safe space.”

We end on a riotous note when our governing sex queen, who got to third base with Jim Morrison, and farther with too many men I must not mention, asks what “motor-boarding” is.

The girls are happy to oblige with a demo: pretty soon, there are a pile of girls covered in cleavage-lipstick, and we cram ourselves onto a little couch for an ecstatic group shot.

So many girls, even while “writing sad” as Anne Sexton would say, have declared their self-worth; that, as one writes, they are “an entrée not a side dish.”

“How do you get these women to open up, to write so well?” I ask her, during the break.

She tells me that their trust of, and feelings for, her are critical.

Tonight no one sleeps.

At 4 a.m. we are still posting on the page, and sharing pictures, and making friend requests.

I have asked Pamela what she gets from this. She feels “honoured” to be among “like-minded women,” she says.

I ask the Dolls. “Fearlessness,” one, very funny and gifted woman tells me. “It is very hard to put yourself out there,” she says, “to share the most vulnerable parts of your private life and not be bound or restricted by “what others may think.”

Another says, “To me, Pamela Des Barres is so authentically inspiring. She’s a dance in the rain kind of doll who isn’t afraid to feel all of the feelings—and is brave enough to share them via her writing and her very being. And she looks amazing.”

She does. I draw a picture of her at 5 am, holding the sun.


What Has Happened, June 2

Des Barres’ I’m with the Band appeared in 1988, just as third-wave feminism was taking off.

Des Barres' sex writing, however, never quite fit in with the more graphic and politicized work that would emerge.

Because she is a romantic. And a true literary stylist (incredible memoir or not, she is a hella writer.)

And because she is more fourth-wave than third.

The fourth, or emerging, wave can be encapsulated by Hannah’s ubiquitous nudity in Girls. It is sexy and not; it, in context, relates to porny sex and painful love.

When actor Lena Dunham ran around naked last season, it was a Lady Godiva move that changed us all. The third-wave sex-writers were always so hotly, perfectly sexed-up. This new wave looks like it will involve being still more graphic while admitting the possibility of charming imperfection; even gaucheness and definitely tears.

Hearing stories, during these two days, told by beautiful girls about not-at-all-beautiful experiences is a gasp of pure oxygen: this may sound like a sucky, distaff version of “Everybody Hurts,” but we do, and live to scream about it.

I have never seen such hotstresses in one room before, but it was their humanity and man-riding sexiness that moved me—in this wave, we will surf and fall and cough up salty water, then re-mount the board.

As so many of us did feel good and normal reading Des Barres, as we do, reading her now, speaking with capital-C Confessional frankness and bravery, and hot, sticky passion, about being a strong woman, a talented woman, a brave and sensitive woman—about being any woman, in mad, sweet, dirty love.

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Hazlitt regular contributor Lynn Crosbie is a Toronto writer and Ph.D, who teaches at the University of Toronto and the Ontario Gallery of Art. She writes for a number of sources including the agency Young and Rubicam. Her latest book is Life is About Losing Everything.