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Bebe Buell: Life Among the Stars

Bebe Buell, Tod Rundgren, and Liv Tyler.

All her life, Bebe Buell has been in love with rock ‘n’ roll. It’s what fuelled her during her early days, and led her to achieve a startling and meteoric rise to prominence in that debauched world.

Truthfully, what fame she acquired is largely through her associations with the legends of the genre, but without that genuine passion for the music, it’s debatable whether she would have come anywhere near the notoriety and ubiquity she eventually attained.

Who Is Bebe Buell?

Bebe Buell was born Beverle Lorence Buell on July 14th, 1953, daughter of Dorothea (Brown) Johnson (founder of the Protocol School of Washington) and U.S. Navy Officer and WWII veteran, Harold Lloyd Buell. She was fascinated by music and celebrity life from a young age and from the moment she saw The Beatles make their legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, her fate was sealed.

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At the age of 18, she swiftly relocated to New York City to pursue a career as a fashion model. But she always had an eye on the music industry. It was the modeling that made her recognizable, and which drew her to the attention of the various rock stars and music executives she would eventually be associated with.

Her modeling career hit the ground running as she was managed by the modelling industry legend Eileen Ford, working at the Ford Modelling Agency. She made her first major magazine appearance in no less a venue than Playboy Magazine. She was the Playmate of the Month for November 1974.

Though she has shunned the term, it’s easy to characterize Bebe as the archetypal groupie. Because as she herself has admitted, the modeling was what led the rock stars to take an interest in her. And she soon acquired quite a roster of celebrity lovers.

Todd Rundgren

These included Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Jimmy Page. But she is best known for the lengthy affair she had with Todd Rundgren. Bebe Buell and Todd first encountered one another in 1974, and the attraction between them was immediate. Bebe was plugging away at her modeling career, but when she met Todd he represented everything she adored about rock and roll music.

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Bearing that in mind, the 1970s were a very different time, a less modest time, and monogamy was not such an essential characteristic for a good relationship. Both Bebe and Todd had plenty of other lovers during this period. Indeed, the notches on Bebe’s bedpost consisted of some of the biggest stars of the century.

Mick Jagger serenaded her once from the sidewalk. She was very close both to him and to David Bowie and is central to some of the rumors of an affair between the two men. She has however dispelled such rumors as mere showbiz gossip.

But all the same, Bebe Buell was very much at ground zero of the rock revolution. Other famous names she has been linked with romantically include Jimmy Page, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Rod Stewart, and Elvis Costello.

Some of Bebe Buell’s stories are so outrageous that it is hard to know where the truth ends and the legend begins. For instance, a popular anecdote has Buell in bed trying to get some sleep while Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart all vie for her attentions.

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In spite of this, she has never subscribed to the term “groupie,” instead preferring “band-aide.” She likes to emphasize her muse-like status for these musicians, and the creative influence she has had over the years.

Around this time, she began to write her own songs too. She has spoken of her friendship with Patti Smith, and how the pair used to share poetry and lyrics with one another. But it’s safe to say that the most creatively fruitful relationship she had was with Todd. It was through him that she met Rick Derringer, who would eventually become Bebe’s producer.

What made Todd Rundgren such a vital performer was his versatility, and this extended to other areas of the music industry too. From his early days as a founding member of The Nazz, he has always pushed musical boundaries. His biggest hits include “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me,” mainstays of rock radio even today.

But he has also established himself as a big-name producer for other artists, including Grand Funk Railroad, New York Dolls, as well as working on one of the biggest selling albums of all time, Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell.

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So it’s perhaps unsurprising that a band like Aerosmith would consider using him for their next album. This was the mid-seventies, and they had achieved early success with their records Aerosmith and Get Your Wings and were looking to capitalize on their image as a blues-rock successor to the Rolling Stones.

Steven Tyler

The image Bebe Buell paints of her first encounter with Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler is almost like something out of a movie. An outdoor concert ruined by a rainstorm, and Steven bounding towards her like some chivalrous hero, to lift her out of the mud. It’s a nice image, romantic, but like so many stories from those wild rock ‘n’ roll days, larger than life and a little hard to credit.

Todd was on the road a lot during those days, leaving Bebe alone in their New York City apartment. Steven was big on the New York scene at that time and paid frequent visits to Bebe.

One notable incident occurred when she was called out to his hotel to rescue him from a particularly raucous party, he had taken such a potent cocktail of drugs that he could not walk and needed somebody to come to pick him up, literally. Bebe did the honors and escorted the inebriated rock star to safety using a fireman’s lift.

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It was the summer of 1976 when Steven Tyler and Bebe Buell ran away together to Europe. That was just a fling stemming from the pure animal attraction the two shared for one another and was never intended to be a long term thing. But as it happened, that summer would leave the two of them with something that bound them together forever.

Sure enough, Bebe became pregnant. Though the biological father was Steven Tyler, she made a pact with Todd Rundgren that whatever happened, he would be the child’s real father. They decided not to let the truth of the baby’s paternity impact on their family unit.

The grim truth of the matter was that Steven Tyler was so out of it on drugs throughout this period- indeed, for much of the decade- that there was no way he could function as the father to a young child.

Liv Rundgren Tyler

Liv Rundgren was born in July of 1977. Bebe and Todd did their best to raise her as a cohesive family. But the determination to keep the fact that Steven Tyler was her father a secret from Liv proved futile. For starters, she bore a striking physical resemblance to Steven, even from a very young age.

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As Bebe Buell tells it, the truth came out when Liv attended an Aerosmith concert and saw her birth father in the flesh for the first time. She simply knew without being told that she was looking at her real father and was indeed Liv Tyler.

Bebe did all she could to keep Liv from drifting into the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle which she had engaged in during her younger days. But you might say the girl had it in her DNA.

By this time, Bebe had established her own career as a musician, beginning with her debut album Covers Girl in 1981 which was produced by Rick Derringer and Ric Ocasek of The Cars. Indeed, The Cars served as her backing band on two tracks. How many “groupies” can boast that?

Check out this great clip from the archives of Bebe Buell talking about the album Covers Girl on the Joe Franklin Show in 1981

Bebe has credited Keith Richards with giving her the impetus and encouragement to strike out on her own. As “Bebe Buell and the B-Sides” she opened for Alice Cooper in the early ’80s. What’s more, her reputation led to Duran Duran’s John Taylor forming a supergroup around her, called The Power Station. But before that band went anywhere, she was replaced by Robert Palmer. An interesting shift in personnel.

She formed a band of her own in 1985, called The Gargoyles. They achieved some mid-level success on the touring circuit, as well as releasing a few moderately successful singles. It might be easy to dismiss The Gargoyles as a mere novelty act based on the notoriety of their frontwoman, but the truth is that they were a damn good straight-up rock ‘n’ roll band.

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As a performer, Bebe had the charisma of a punk rock Stevie Nicks, and the musicians were very tight. If you watch the video for their song “Love Reaction” you’ll get an idea of their power and cohesion as a musical entity.

The songwriting nous is there, but also the out and out hard rock and roll energy. It might be likened to the Stooges meets Fleetwood Mac. With Bebe’s appearance and tambourine-jangling dance moves calling to mind the serene soft rock star vibes of Stevie Nicks, but the raw-throated roar calling to mind Iggy Pop at the height of his powers.

Their sound and attitude caught the attention of none other than Joey Ramone, and he had them open for the Ramones in the late ’80s. She credits Joey Ramone with taking her under his wing, which prompted her to move back to New York, leaving behind the quiet life she had forged for herself in Maine.

In fact, the Gargoyles were on the verge of something very big in 1991 when a six-figure record deal came their way. But Bebe Buell found herself with a very difficult choice to make. If she were to take the offer, she would be on the road for three years minimum, touring the world and recording in a non-stop cycle. But she had a daughter to think about.

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It was around this time that Liv became aware that Steven Tyler was her father, and the impact it had on her was massive. Major label stardom was to elude the band when Liv’s biological parentage became widely publicized. Bebe opted to put her daughter’s welfare above her own career. She gave up the band and took a six-year hiatus from the music business in the 1990s.

When Liv Rundgren Tyler decided to turn her hand to acting, Bebe did her level best to ensure there was no risk of her daughter being exploited by the cut-throat industry. So she took on the role of manager and publicist for her.

Bebe’s guiding influence proved to be just what Liv needed, and her movie career took off. She has gone on to make a name for herself as an A-list actress in such movies as Armageddon, The Incredible Hulk and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. She also enjoys a close relationship with her adopted father, Todd Rundgren.

Bebe’s career as a manager may have been short-lived, but it was pretty successful. As well as launching her daughter’s career into the stratosphere, she at one point co-managed none other than Debbie Harry of Blondie fame. But the lure of performing proved too strong.

Bebe Buell & Playboy

Bebe Buell’s involvement with Playboy and Hugh Hefner is infamous.

It started out as a series of ‘arty photos’ (… nude photos) over wine with friend and photographer Lynn Goldsmith.

Goldsmith asked Bebe if she could send the nude photos to magazines to which Bebe replied, ‘only Playboy’.

This began her involvement with Hefner which has spawned a number of other stories as Bebe Buell went on the become Playboy’s Playmate of The Year for 1974, with her centerfold photographed by Richard Fegley.

In her own words, she states – “[I wanted] to be a professional singer [which was why] I came to New York—yes, I was a pretty young girl, so I fell into the modeling thing, and [then] I did Playboy, so then the rock stars came a-hunting, as I like to say.”

Bebe Buell Today

Beverle Lorence “Bebe” Buell continues to write and perform music to this day. She has brought out a number of albums including Hard Love which recaptures some of the energy and spirit of her creative heyday. Songs like “Mother of Rock & Roll” and “Devil You Know” are full of that same rawness, but they have a sense of wisdom and catharsis which her previous work lacked.

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Her most recent release is Baring It All: Greetings From Nashbury Park, a 12-track work produced by her husband, former Das Damen guitarist Jim Wallerstein.

She is philosophical about the nature of her fame and concedes that it would have been impossible had she not been in the right place at the right time. Her iconic status was cemented by the inspiration she provided to writer-director Cameron Crowe. He would eventually use her as the basis for the character of Penny Lane in his Oscar-winning film Almost Famous.

Bebe herself has praised the movie for its accurate depiction of the rock lifestyle. She herself has written a number of memoirs and kiss and tell autobiographies (including Rebel Heart: An American Rock ‘n’ Roll Journey, which was a New York Times bestseller), and continues to make a decent living from revisiting stories from her glory days and from the nostalgia of a wild life well-lived.

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