Bebe Buell, Rock ’n’ Roll Muse, Sings Her Own Song
Bebe Buell was back in town.
On a recent evening, about 75 people gathered at the National Arts Club, a private club in a landmark building on East 20th Street in Manhattan, to see her read from her new memoir, “Rebel Soul: Musings, Music, & Magic,” and sing some of her songs.
The neighborhood was familiar to Ms. Buell. Soon after she arrived in New York from Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1972, she became a regular at Max’s Kansas City, the famed night spot just a few blocks away. At the time she was an 18-year-old model signed to the Eileen Ford Agency who lived at the St. Mary’s Residence on the Upper East Side. The place had a curfew enforced by nuns, but one night Ms. Buell slipped out and made her way to Max’s, where she would end up partying with Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Johansen and Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls.
She went from It Girl of Manhattan to Miss November in Playboy magazine. She had relationships with Todd Rundgren, Elvis Costello, Steven Tyler, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart in the years when they did some of their best work, but she writes in her book that she was more than a muse and was unfairly labeled a groupie by the press.
The people who went to see her at the National Arts Club seemed to feel the same way. One of them, Dick Wingate, a former music executive, said that, back in 1980, he had tried to get his colleagues at Epic Records to release Ms. Buell’s four-song EP, “Covers Girl,” but ran into resistance. “I really think she was a trailblazer in many ways,” Mr. Wingate said. “She just said, ‘I’m going to do what I’m going to do and I don’t care what people think,’ and it wasn’t easy at that point in time.”
These days, Ms. Buell, 69, lives near Nashville with her husband, James Wallerstein (stage name: Jimmy Walls), 56, a soft-spoken guitarist and director of concierge services at a luxury residential building. The couple said they had made the long drive to Manhattan in a rented S.U.V. with their two dogs, Chicken Burger, 15, and Lola, 11, in the back seat. Late Wednesday afternoon, in the high-ceiling suite where they were staying on the seventh floor of the National Arts Club, Ms. Buell was getting ready for the party.
At 6 p.m. the early arrivals trickled into the brightly lit East Gallery on the ground floor. David Croland, a photographer and fashion illustrator, said he had met Ms. Buell in 1972, when he was hired to body-paint her for a Ziegfeld Follies-inspired benefit. “She was never a groupie,” he said. “She had her own groupies. She would just appear and people would line up.”
He saw someone across the room: “Danny! Danny!” It was Danny Fields, a pivotal rock music figure who had managed or worked closely with Jim Morrison, the Stooges, the Velvet Underground and the Ramones. “She was a champion of discovering and allying herself with beautiful and talented and wonderful people,” Mr. Fields said of Ms. Buell. “She was smart, sexy and beautiful, with elegant taste. I never wondered why everyone was in love with her.”
The guest of honor stepped into the room dressed in black: a Calvin Klein jacket, fringed opera gloves that she had made herself, and a vintage Norma Kamali skirt.
“I’m nervous,” Ms. Buell said.
She planted herself at Mr. Wingate's side. Long after the fact, she still appreciated his efforts on behalf of “Covers Girl,” which came out in 1981 on Rhino Records, then an independent label known for novelty releases.
“When everybody in the business was wondering if that rock-star girlfriend, that Playboy girl, can be a rock person, or whatever, Dick Wingate had vision,” Ms. Buell said. “He was smart.”
“Oh, Bebe,” he said, “you’re so sweet to say that.”
“How am I going to make you proud tonight?” she said. “I’ve worked hard for this moment. I know that we can’t do records together anymore.”
“You know, you’re a real inspiration to a lot of people.”
“Don’t make me cry before I go on,” she said.
The guests took their seats as Ms. Buell climbed onto a small stage.
“I feel like I’m getting married here,” she said. “I’ve already cried twice. So I probably look like a wreck.”
Someone in the crowd said, “Noooo!”
“I’ve always been a ‘rebel, rebel,’ right?” Ms. Buell said, alluding to the David Bowie song. “My face is a mess.”
She was joined onstage by a longtime friend, the publicist Liz Derringer, the ex-wife of the rock guitarist Rick Derringer. Decades ago she introduced Ms. Buell to a high school friend, Mr. Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith, who became the father of Ms. Buell’s daughter, the actress Liv Tyler.
Ms. Derringer led Ms. Buell through some highlights of “Rebel Soul,” which covers her nights with various rockers as it charts her progress toward finding her own voice. The book also goes into what Ms. Buell describes as her “many experiences with extraterrestrial entities.” For the National Arts Club crowd, she mixed in claims of her U.F.O. encounters with stories about Mr. Rundgren and other exes.
“I’ve been painted as this wild filly that was running around with the rock stars,” Ms. Buell said. “People don’t realize that wasn’t the reality of what was going on. I was a young girl that would talk her head off. I wanted Todd to be a boyfriend that didn’t go out with other women but that was impossible in those times.”
“We were so young,” Ms. Derringer said, “and it was the early ’70s.”
“I was 18, he was 23, and we were all gorgeous,” Ms. Buell said. “The hormones were raging. There was so much beauty in New York. When Johnny Thunders walked across the room when he was 19, it caused you to take a breath. The Italian stallion, just something about him. And he had on pink satin pants and my girlfriend’s boots!”
“I also had a lot of platonic relationships,” she continued. “Friendships with Bowie and others that were deep.”
Ms. Buell read a chapter on her friendship with Prince, whom she said she had met backstage in the mid-70s when Mr. Rundgren’s band Utopia was playing in Minneapolis. Prince was shy, not yet famous, and he told Ms. Buell that she would one day see his name in lights. Before they parted, according to her book, he whispered that he thought the pictures of her in Playboy were very pretty.
Ms. Buell teared up as she finished the chapter: “I still cry about him and Bowie,” she said.
Mr. Wallerstein, carrying a Gibson acoustic guitar, stepped close to her, as did another guitarist, Gyasi Heus, who, with his flowing locks and red pants, looked as if he would have been at home in the Max’s Kansas City of yore. They played as Ms. Buell sang songs she had written with her husband and others in Nashville — “By a Woman,” “Cross My Legs” and “Can You Forgive,” among others.
Toward the end of her set, she turned to her accompanists, saying, “All right, guys, I’m doing this a cappella.” After asking them not to leave the stage, she told the crowd: “I just think they should stay there, because they look so gorgeous. Gorgeous rock boys. There’s nothing like gorgeous rock boys!”
The final song was “Superstar,” a 1971 hit for the Carpenters about a lonesome groupie pining away for a rock star. Ms. Buell encouraged everyone to join her for the chorus:
Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby
You said you’d be coming back this way again, baby
Baby, baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, I love you, I really do.
Beverly Keel, a friend of Ms. Buell’s who is a dean at Middle Tennessee State University, said: “To me, her whole life has been defined by her relationships with other people. She’s Liv’s mom, Todd Rundgren’s girlfriend, Steven Tyler, mother of his child. And now she’s finally being recognized for who she’s been all along.”
After signing copies of her book, Ms. Buell seemed ready to call it a night. “I’m done,” she said. “I got a 15-year-old dog upstairs. I’ve got to check on Chicken Burger and I’ve got to change clothes.”
The entertainment journalist Roger Friedman, a longtime champion of Ms. Buell, had a suggestion: “You know what you need? You need an electric violin.”
“Yeah, I could get that,” she said.
“You need an electric violin,” he repeated. “That would be perfect.”
“Well, you can’t overuse those suckers,” Ms. Buell said. “You only bring them in when you need to cry.”