Bebe Buell Prepares to Rule the Masses with ‘Sugar’
Blonde beauty Bebe Buell has lived the life of a muse, Playboy pinup, and mother to one of Hollywood’s most breathtaking actresses, but if there’s one thing she hasn’t conquered yet is music. Before the glitz and glamour of being one of New York City’s downtown It-girls, the statuesque model with a cherub face dreamed of becoming a singer. While she met (and dated) plenty of rock royalty, Buell was determined to make it on her own. Finally, she’s ready to give the boys a lesson or two on commanding the stage. At a recent private event in Manhattan, Buell showed a crowd of her closest friends what she’s been working on lately and rest assured, her debut is long overdue. With a dangerously talented band and new management team, this songstress is ready to zip up her “snake pants” and unleash plenty of hits. We chatted with the legendary bombshell about releasing an album, her close friendship with Joey Ramone, getting sung to by John Lennon, and how wanting to look like Mick Jagger started it all.
When did you realize that it was time for you to perform again?
It’s always been my main focus, even during grade school. At one point, I was the only alto in the seventh grade choir! I knew my destiny would be in rock ‘n’ roll. However, I was offered to be a model for Eileen Ford in New York. It was a good thing because I would have taken any opportunity to be in New York City. Then at age 18, it all started to happen. The modeling is fun when you’re a young girl. It makes all the boys go cuckoo so you’re certainly not short on suitors. However, it took about five years for me to start my first band. I got extremely distracted, like young girls can. My first band was formed in ’79 and then I began playing live in ’80. You do the math. It’s been a long ride.
And what were some of the subjects that you wanted to address for the first time in 10 years?
My daughter Liv, who I managed for around six years, left home in 1996, so I knew that I had to play again. It was starting to get to the point where I was going to lose my mind if I didn’t perform. The managerial thing was only a temporary position because I wanted to protect her. I could have continued in that line of work, but I didn’t want to. It’s not really where my heart is. I started going back to Don Hill’s and hanging out at Squeezebox. It just became inevitable. I went back to the studio and started making music again. I met Don Fleming who had produced Sonic Youth and Hole. After that, my book came out in 2001 and 9/11 happened. I moved to Maine for a couple of years because I was very afraid of breathing the toxic air and what was possibly going on environmentally. I high tailed it up there and married my beautiful husband, but of course, couldn’t bear to be away from New York for very long, so I came back in 2007. These last three years have been devoted to the Bebe Buell Band.
How do you feel about releasing Sugar after all of this time?
It’s never determined when exactly these things are going to happen in your life. I’m going to start rolling in 2011 by playing all over the world and recording another album. I always tell people don’t go after something that you don’t really want. I lived long enough to know that I will be thrilled with my music and traveling.
One of the reasons that you put your music on hold was because your daughter’s paternity situation became public. How does Liv feel about you finally returning to music?
It brings tears to her eyes! She’s very supportive and comes to the important gigs. It was wonderful to look out while I was playing The Roxy in LA and see her sitting with Billy Corgan and the old timers. I was very moved by it. She’s very happy to see me breaking some rules. It’s funny, there’s a lot of us rock chicks out there, but we’re not 12 anymore. Women like Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Tina Turner, and Marianne Faithfull have had enormous success and I sort of threw that away in 1990. I don’t really feel bad about that. I made the right decision because if you don’t do a good job with your children, it will haunt you for the rest of your life and make being a functioning individual impossible. I love my daughter and made her a priority. Liv is a marvel and when I look at her everyday I’m just so grateful.
It still must have been a difficult decision to put music on hold.
Yes, Atlantic Records gave me an enormous offer and I worked my butt off for a decade, but it also meant going on the road for three years, making albums, and leaving my daughter with nannies. I just couldn’t do it. I passed on the biggest opportunity in my life, career-wise, but I knew that there was a place for me in music, I was chained to my desk for 16 hours a day when I managed Liv’s career. It was a big job, but I think we laid down the building blocks for her.
How do you feel about your music now?
It’s interesting because people still remember me from dating Todd Rundgren, posing for Playboy, or just things that I did a thousand years ago when I had a teen at the end of my digits. I don’t look upon that as a negative thing because my favorite people to play live for are skeptics, those that don’t even know I make records. I just shred their faces off.
How is the work in Sugar different from anything you’ve done in the past as an artist?
The work in Sugar is different because it’s very autobiographical. I used to write a lot of shit-kicker songs. I love Iggy Pop and my lyrics can get very adolescent, fun-generated, and nasty rock ‘n’ roll. Sugar just took it to a new level. I had a lot of stuff to get off my chest. Also, three people created Sugar. There’s myself with lyrics and melodies, my husband and guitar player Jimmy Walls, and my drummer Bobbie Rae. Now, I’m just spending a lot of time at the gym and I might even do Jenny Craig. I’m thinking very seriously about it because it’s all about cracking down. I have to fit into my snake pants. Not that I can’t wear a pair of black jeans, but there’s that certain amount of swagger and hardcore visuality that you owe your fans. I want to kick some butt.
Which was the most difficult song to write in Sugar?
There were a couple of them. ‘Timeline’ because I’ve had a lot of turbulence in my life, but there was one particular person who was the only relationship I’ve ever regretted in my entire life. This person turned out to be a sociopath. I had to write about the lies and deceptions this individual created. It was very important for me to say ‘You used me, you used my family.’ It’s cathartic. ‘Gray Girl’ is about the closeness that I had with my dog. She passed away at 14 and I’m pretty positive that the dog I got a few months later is her reincarnation. She went through everything with me, especially during periods of being incredibly alone and feeling extremely beat up and defeated. There’s also ‘Black Angel,’ my tribute to Joey Ramone. He actually brought my band, The Gargoyles, onto the big stage to perform in front of large crowds. He was responsible for getting the record deal that I didn’t accept. Joey was never my boyfriend. We never even kissed! He was just a very dear friend, somebody that believed in me. Joey wanted New York to have a strong music scene with multiple bands getting signed. He was a great guy like that.
Is it true that John Lennon tried to sneak a kiss when you first met him?
Yes, he did try to steal a kiss, but I think he was very flirtatious and loved women. I think that for a moment he was a tiny bit overwhelmed emotionally because I believed every word he was telling me about the aliens coming, and still do. John was just relieved because he and May Pang were having some opposition from other friends when they told the story. He even called the cops. It’s not like he just looked out his window, saw something, and said, ‘Oh, I’m high.’ John was so challenged by what he saw that he reported it. The kiss was a cute moment. It wasn’t forceful and nothing huge came from it. I’ll tell you the part that was better, him singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me on acoustic guitar! It was just me, Mick Jagger, May Pang, and John. It was quite a long evening. We went to Chinatown, had dinner, and just ran around the city. What a way to turn 21, huh?
Do you have any regrets at all?
I think everyone has regrets. Isn’t it fashionable to say, ‘I have no regrets?’ I wish I had more children. But, Liv has two sisters and a brother. Other than that, I have no regrets because everything has led to where I am now. It all began when I was 10-years-old and stuffed a sock down my leotard so I could pretend to be a rock star. Isn’t it funny that I wanted to look like Mick Jagger? The little girl in me has always wanted to be who I am, a rock chick. Your dream is only a dream away.