Bebe Buell, a charismatic pop culture presence for five decades, represents different things to different people. For some, she’s the glamorous model who burst onto the pages of magazines while still a teenager. For others, she’s the Playboy Playmate who posed as a centerfold in a still popular 1974 pictorial. And for many others, she is recognized as a friend, lover, confidante and muse to a Who’s Who of musical royalty that includes Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, former partners Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren, and most famously, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, with whom she had a daughter, actress Liv Tyler.
The role that she has played the most however, is that of Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer. She is up to that task again with Baring It All: Greetings From Nashbury Park, a vibrant rock record that finds herpoised yet invigorated, and armed with her trademark voice and most deeply personal lyrics to date.}
She’ll perform songs from the album, and other material, at the Asbury Hotel, April 27. For information, visit theasburyhotel.com.
In this conversation, Buell discusses the album, her song for our times, some helpful advice she received from Mick Jagger, the unique challenges of raising a beautiful and talented daughter, and what her relationship with Steven Tyler is like today.
Q: It’s not good form to open an interview with a declaration, however … you’ve had quite the life.
A: [laughs] My biography is certainly robust, isn’t it?. Looking at it on paper could give someone with attention deficit disorder a heart attack.
Q: Despite the multiple directions your life has taken, Google simply lists you as “American Singer.” Is that the way you prefer to be identified?
A: It’s the only way to identify me. I suppose you could call me a “Jill of All Trades,” but the one thing that has really been my soul and my core, is my singing. Even when I went to Catholic boarding school I was the token contralto alto in the choir. It was very interesting for people to hear an 11-year-old girl who had my voice! [laughs] It’s taken years for “singer” to be the first thing said about me.
Q: Baring It All: Greetings From Nashbury Park is powered by very personal songs and you’re in great voice while singing them, but the record has some punch as well. I’d imagine you give Jim (Wallerstein, Buell’s producer, guitarist and husband of 16 years) some credit there.
A: I told Jim, “Honey, are you ready for how much work is going to be thrown at you when people hear the production on this record?” The record sounds like when Rick Rubin produced The Cult’s Electric album. It has that vibe. He just knows how to make each instrument tell their own story. I love that. He’s special.
Q: If a producer is also tackling lead guitar duties, he might be tempted to push his guitar to the front of the mix. If he is sleeping with the lead singer, he might feel obligated to turn her vocals up a bit. Jim was doing both.
A: [laughs] He is definitely not the type to hog any part of an album for himself. He’s just not cut from that cloth, although he’s definitely in my corner. We’ve been together for 18 years, and there’s no one who knows me better, and no one who wants more to see me represented for who I really am.
Q: In regard to the album title, I know that you live in Nashville, but what is your connection to Asbury Park?
A: The first time I ever went to Asbury was in either ’73 or ’74, when Todd (Rundgren, Buell’s boyfriend for most the ’70s) had a show at Convention Hall. It was great because you were right on the ocean and there was an amusement park there and it was only a short drive to get there from the city. Even when Asbury was at its lowest and there was a lot of crime and poverty, I still loved being there and swimming in that ocean. My ideal life would be to have my place here in Nashville, and a little situation up there in Asbury Park, where I spend all my time being around the music and staring out at the ocean. That’s what I’m working towards.
Q: What stands out about your lyrics on this album also stands out about you, which is that no matter what hat you wear – interview subject, author, songwriter – you’re incapable of being ambiguous. No matter how hard or soft the sentiment, you’re direct.
A: I want to give a lot of credit to our co-writer on this record, Jon Tiven, for teaching me to reach down deep inside myself and not be afraid to say things bluntly. He had a way of really pulling the truth out of me. I enjoy being a lyricist, but I sometimes have trouble saying what I want to say the way I’d like to say it. Sometimes you just want to say “I love you,” but you have to dance on 20 different techniques before you can get to it. Unfortunately, the cathartic aspect of this record took so much out of us that it put a stress on our relationship. I’ve known Jon since we were teenagers. I think if we had just stuck to writing songs together our friendship would not have suffered. But when you dig as deep into someone’s soul as we dug into mine for this record, it’s definitely going to affect the relationship between you and the person who helped you do it. I’m hoping that we’ll kiss and make up when he hears this record.
Q: I just praised you for being unambiguous, so please don’t let me down. “Frenemy Mine” off of your new album is about …?
A: I can’t tell you who it is specifically about, because it’s actually about more than one person. I’ve had so many frenemies in my life that to narrow it down to one would be impossible. But don’t we all have a friend or friends like that? I think it has universal appeal.
Q: “Can You Forgive?” is certainly not universal, since it mentions your daughter by her first name. Who is that song about?
A: I’m very open in saying that one is about Todd. If you listen to the very end of the song, it goes, “C’mon, Todd.” That’s for him. I hope that this song will bring some healing.
Q: And finally how about “By a Woman”? I’m sure you don’t want to label it a feminist song, but it couldn’t be more timely.
A: I want it to be labeled anything that makes anyone comfortable. What’s interesting about that is that I wrote it four years ago, and have been playing it live. It’s a fan favorite, and I’ve even sung it onstage with Crystal Gayle. When we went to record this album, I told Jim that we really have to focus on “By a Woman” and do the best job we can.
The times are right. It has such a universal message right now. Who could have planned this? I never knew the #metoo movement was ever going to happen. I’m a fighter, so I’m not just fighting sexism, I’m fighting ageism too. I’m against all the ism’s, and that’s what this song is about.
Q: Your daughter paid you a wonderful compliment on this matter, when she said that she didn’t have any casting couch stories or bad experiences along those lines because you did such a great job of protecting her, “like a lioness protecting her cub.”
A: You betcha. My daughter’s beauty erupted when she was 14, and the whole thing happened so quickly. I knew that if she was handed over to agents or managers, she would be taken advantage of. I can’t tell you how many slasher films and semi-nude, icky films they tried to throw at my child. I just said, “No, I want her to work with the greatest directors, and I want to look at only the best scripts.” I was never a “Momanger” like Kris Jenner, but I have a great head for business as long as it’s being used for other people, and not myself. [laughs] I observed so much over the years by hanging around show business royalty. I saw great managers do their thing, from Peter Grant (legendary Led Zeppelin manager) to Sharon Osbourne. So people didn’t mess with Liv. By the time I got back onstage again after seven years of managing her, I was exhausted. It wasn’t a job I chose, but I did it to protect my daughter.
Q: It’s reflexive and probably wise to question whether a famous person is genuine or not, but I have to say that from this distance, your daughter appears to be a genuinely kind and down-to-earth person.
A: Oh, she is. She’s just a great girl. Liv has a lot of class and a lot of integrity and those are things you just can’t go out and purchase.
Q: Ever since you returned to the stage, its seems that your long list of musical friends won’t let you stay off of it. Most recently The Smithereens called on you to honor departed singer and friend Pat DiNizio, and The Dandy Warhols had you guest with them at a gig in New York City.
A: While I was going through my craziness with Elvis Costello, Pat heard the rest of an album I recorded and said he had the perfect song to represent my situation with Elvis, “Top of the Pops.” I went back and listened to it closely and just doubled over laughing because I knew exactly what he meant. “You left in a hurry with a girl from a band?” [laughs] A couple of years before that, Elvis ran off with the bass player in The Pogues. The lyrics were all sort of abstractly pointing towards my situation. [laughs] I took Pat’s advice and recorded it, and when the guys heard it they told me they liked my version better than their own. I’ve had a deep bond with those guys ever since. And when they called upon me to come to the Count Basie Theatre (in Red Bank) to honor him (at a tribute concert in January), I would have moved Heaven and Earth to be there. There wouldn’t have been anything that would have kept me away.
Q: And The Dandy Warhols?
A: I sometimes think there’s something bigger than us out there that causes these unions. The Warhols played Nashville in 2016, and I just said in passing to Courtney (Taylor-Taylor), “Let’s do (The Velvet Underground’s) ‘Femme Fatale’ and drive the audience crazy”, because I just knew the crowd would dig that. He said okay, and sure enough, the place went bonkers when we played it. They loved it! So, it was a shoe-in that when we were both in NYC we would play it again.
Q: Spiritually speaking, in the rock ‘n’ roll sense of the word, if Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, and Marianne Faithfull somehow manged to create a baby together, it could very well be you.
A: You left out Iggy Pop! We could use his sperm! [laughs]
Q: Do you identify with that musical family, as much as people identify you with it?
A: Yes, I do. And those are all women who have a been a part of my life since I was a teenager. I met Patti when I was 18 years old. I’ve known Debbie since the mid-’70s. Marianne was my muse. When I was 10 or 11 years old I stood in front of the mirror and tried to cut my hair exactly like hers. Of course, I wound up chopping my bangs to pieces. [laughs] But it’s definitely a birds of a feather flock together, kindred spirits type of thing.
Q: What name or names that I failed to mention would you have included?
A: Chrissie Hynde is one of my rock chick friends. I got an email from her a month ago, and she told me to keep flying the flag. The last line of the email was, “Bebe, there are not a lot of us left. We’re the last of the real rock chicks.” And it’s true. But to me the first female rock star was Susan Cowsill (of the family musical group The Cowsills). [laughs] When she was 8 years old there was nobody that could sing better, dance better, or play percussion better than that kid. She is my lifelong friend. Paul Cowsill (Susan’s brother) was my first boyfriend. He was the first guy I ever kissed, when I was 15 years old. I still see them every time they come to Nashville. My relationships have lasted my life, and when I do well, there’s no one happier for me than those people.
Q: You mentioned earlier that it was satisfying for you to finally be recognized as a singer. There were a few reasons it’s been slow coming, however, namely that your introduction to the public was as a model and Playmate. Other women who have had those titles haven’t been able to get to the places you have, never mind stay around.
A: A lot of women saw their choices to model or do Playboy as their actual career destinies. With me, Playboy was done on a lark. It was a total lark. Lynn Goldsmith (famed photographer) had taken pictures of me fooling around the house one day where I lived with Todd. She happened to show them to the people at Playboy and they asked me to come to Chicago for a shoot and I honestly thought it was just something fun to do. I didn’t take any time to analyze or dissect it. When I finally got to the mansion and hung out with Hef and the other playmates, I knew that wasn’t my destiny and wouldn’t be my lifestyle, although I enjoyed the few seconds that I spent in that orbit.
Q: You actually turned down Playmate of the Year in 1974.
A: Hef called me up and said, ‘“Do you want to be Playmate of the Year?” I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea. I had so many other things that I wanted to do, and I was getting on a plane to England to be in Vogue at the time. I just thought Playboy would be too defining and would fence me in.
Q: It’s interesting that you felt like you might not be a perfect fit for the Playboy culture in the early ’70s, because that culture changed considerably as time went on, even further away from who you seem to be.
A: Yeah, I was a playmate before they had retouching or before girls had fake boobies, or girls got all that plastic surgery. You had to be okay naturally. If you had a significant scar, but you were beautiful otherwise, they wouldn’t even airbrush it out. I miss those days. What you saw is what you got. I thought it was hilarious that when I had my centerfold, the staples were going right through my boobs. [laughs loudly]
Q: Did you enjoy being a model?
A: I loved the art of modeling, and making beautiful pictures with brilliant photographers. It felt good to see myself in a fashion magazine, and let’s face it, it was good money. But it was Ric Ocasek from the Cars who finally said to me, sometime around 1978, “Do you know what, Bebe? If you don’t get moving on this music thing, you’re going to find yourself pigeonholed and a called a ‘model turned whatever’ for the rest of your life.” In the following year, Ric said, “We’re going in the studio.” (eventually resulting in Buell’s 1981 EP Covers Girl)
Q: True or False? Eileen Ford (of the Ford modeling agency) recruited you while you were still in high school?
A: That’s true. It was my graduation picture that got me to New York. My mother mailed it in, and within one week of her sending the picture, we were on an airplane to NYC. A few years later I was fired from Ford for doing Playboy, but I was promptly picked up by Wilhelmina (another elite agency), and Wilhelmina said to me, “They’re too uptight about nudity in America. I’m going to send you to Europe where no one cares about nudity.” As soon as I got over there, I was working with Clive Arrowsmith for Vogue. So in another bit of foreshadowing — I went from working with Clive Arrowsmith for Vogue to having a child with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. This stuff cannot possibly be a coincidence. [laughs]
Q: It appears that you and Steven get along famously now – possibly better than ever?
A: Yes, in a way you’re right, but we’ve always been very close. Steven and I are very compatible. I get along with him like a house on fire and he will forever be a great, great love in my life. I can’t dismiss that. And then you look at our child, and you can see that she’s obviously a love child. I think love children have a different aura than children who, unfortunately, are not. I just think that you can see from Liv’s light that she was conceived by love.
Q: Was there one particular reason why you and Steven couldn’t put it all together back in the day?
A: His personality and his lifestyle were just too much for me. I have a practical side that I got from my mother, I always knew when I had done too much of anything. I’m not the type of person who is going to drink someone under the table. And in the days when I used coke, I knew when to stop. I learned that from Mick Jagger. He said, “Bebe, you do a tiny bit, then you walk away.” [laughs] I was blessed not to have an addictive personality.
Q: But you seem to have the type of personality that might be able to keep up with Steven.
A: Robert, at that time, a herd of wild ponies couldn’t have kept up with him. There was a lot going on there. He’s a very complex, brilliant, and … well, there’s a lot going on. [laughs]
Q: Does someone who has lived as eventful and connected a life in rock ‘n’ roll as you have, still have any unfulfilled wishes involving musical heroes?
A: I have one dream that has not come true. I have to sing a duet with Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen. And then my life will be complete. [laughs]
Q: Does he know that?
A: No, he doesn’t have a clue. I haven’t seen him in a billion years. But some of those songs, like “Killing Moon,” “Lips Like Sugar” … Oh, God. Their entire Crocodiles album. I wore it out.
Q: I’ve enjoyed hearing your opinions on rock music over the years. How about Baring It All: Greetings From Nashbury Park? Most every artist says this about each of their new releases, but do you think this is your best album?
A: I think this is my most important album. I also think this is my most diverse album, and my most accessible. I believe a lot of people are going to hear this record and I’m finally going to reach a larger audience. But do I think it’s the best? I don’t think I’ve made my best yet. I think that’s going to come.
Q: You appear to have a lot of enthusiasm and optimism for your future. You’re younger than many of your contemporaries who you are linked with in history, but you’re not the teenage girl that landed in New York City either. Are you mindful of your age these days?
A: You realize when you get to be my age, that you don’t start thinking about, “How old am I?” That’s the furthest thing that crosses my mind. What crosses my mind is, “How much time do I have left?” I need the time because I have a lot of stuff left to do. I need to keep going.
Buell’s web site is bebebuell.org. She can be followed on Twitter (@bebebuellband), Facebook (@bebe.buell) or Instagram (@realbebebuell).
Robert Ferraro is a former producer of radio talk shows and Major League Baseball broadcasts, who interviews pop culture figures. Previously, he held over 50 menial jobs, all of which he quit when he couldn’t find anyone interesting to talk to. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/ofpersonalinterest.
This article first appeared on Ferraro’s web site, ofpersonalinterest.com.
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