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Episode 17. Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll

Back in 1982 I was at the bar in the Marquee club in London when I was introduced by a mutual friend to a singer named Michael Des Barres. Michael had formed Silverhead back in 1972 and had also sung with ex-Yes organist, Tony Kaye’s new band Detective but was now singing with a band called Chequered Past which featured ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones on guitar. I was a fan of both Silverhead and Yes and had recently worked with Steve Jones in his previous band The Professionals so we had a lot to talk about; Michael had also acted in a couple of TV shows I really loved so I was more of an enthusiastic fan than a professional music guy. Michael was a real gentleman and talked to me for a good half an hour and towards the end of the conversation, introduced his wife who had wandered over for the last few minutes of our chat. Her name was Pamela and I recognized her instantly because she was the most famous groupie in the world, Pamela Ann Miller.

Pamela had the normal upbringing of any American girl. Born in California in 1948, she loved Elvis and the Beatles as all teenage girls did but a High School friend introduced her to his cousin which is the point where her life turned. That High School friend – Victor Hayden – was the cousin of Don Van Vliet who would later become better known as Captain Beefheart. Pamela agreed to become the president of the local Beefheart fan club and through that she met Frank Zappa. Zappa put together a girl group called The GTO’s with Pamela and his babysitter amongst others and although they had a good stage show which involved dancing and theatrics, they couldn’t sing very well and their one-and-only album – produced by Zappa with help from Lowell George and Russ Titelman - quickly hit the bargain bins. Of the seven members of the GTO’s, only Pamela made a name for herself in the music business but it wasn’t through playing music.

Now I have to put things in context for you. You have to realise that back then in the late 60’s and early 70’s, there were no threats of AIDS and sex was not considered amongst the people in the music business to be anything other than a way to have fun with someone for a few hours. Both men and women in the business considered sex to be an alternative to going to the cinema, having dinner in a nice restaurant or going to a bar for a few drinks. It wasn’t a commitment or a way of saying how much you loved someone: it was just a pleasure between two friends albeit a musician and a fan. It didn’t stop at the music business either; movie stars, TV Celebrities, lawyers, bankers, politicians, doctors and nurses all felt the same. Pamela became quite a celebrity in her day amongst the rock elite but when I met her she was a very loving mother who later, rather ironically (but very amicably), divorced Michael in 1991 because he slept with other women. To date she has written three memoirs of her life as a groupie, she is an ordained minister, a Yoga devotee and has survived breast cancer. If you’ve seen the movie Almost Famous, one of the inspirations for the part of Penny Lane played by Kate Hudson is Pamela. Back at the Marquee bar in 1982 after the introduction, I didn’t quite know what to say but she took the lead in the conversation and after a while discovered she had had a lot of fun, made a successful life for herself and had no regrets.

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Pamela’s first memoir published in 1987.

At 15:54 on July 23, 2011, two ambulances arrived at 30 Camden Square, London NW1. The paramedics had been called to attend a twenty-seven-year-old woman but were unable to save her and pronounced she had been deceased for some time before they arrived. Empty bottles of vodka were found by her body; the news broke quickly that Amy Winehouse was dead; the inquest released on 26 October 2011 into Amy’s death reached a verdict of misadventure. It explained that her blood alcohol content was 416 mg per deciliter at the time of her death and to put that in perspective, it is the equivalent of drinking about six bottles of wine. Put simply, Amy drank herself to death. She wasn’t the first singer to die from drink and I will guarantee you she won’t be the last, Rock and Roll is littered with such tragedies and one of them was a man I admired very much.

When I first moved to London in September 1981, one of the first bands I was determined to see was The Dave Byron Band. The ex-lead singer of Uriah Heep played the Marquee regularly and for me, the classic 1970’s Heep line-up of Byron, Mick Box, Gary Thain, Ken Hensley and Lee Kerslake was the best rock band in the world but I never saw them with that line-up and so had not seen David sing live. A year or so after arriving, I went to see The David Byron Band at London’s Marquee and his voice was stunning. His operatic vocal range was more impressive live than I could have imagined. A few years later, sometime around 1984, I was once again at the Marquee when I saw David sitting at the bar on his own. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to say hello and tell him how much I admired his vocals so I wandered over and introduced myself. His head slowly turned towards me, his eyes seemed distant and then almost in slow motion, he slipped off the barstool and crashed heavily to the ground. The people around seemed to take no notice as I stood there in shock wondering what had happened. A few seconds later, two guys came over, picked him up and took him outside. The barmaid explained to me that it was a regular occurrence. David had become an alcoholic in the mid-seventies and that was the cause of him being fired from Uriah Heep; something he never fully recovered from. The two guys were close friends of David’s who had volunteered to take care of him as much as possible but even they couldn’t control his drinking so all they could do was make sure he didn’t come to any harm. One of rock’s greatest ever singers, who sold millions of albums, could still sing far better than most successful singers at that time but it seemed the music world wasn’t interested in his music which made his drinking worse. On 28 February, 1985, he was found dead at his home in Reading, England. The official statement about his cause of death was from seizures and liver disease caused by excess drinking. His passing was hardly mentioned in the music papers, a sad end to a talented singer and a very sobering memory for me.

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The Byron band circa 1984

The Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles is located at 1218 Glendon Avenue and it is here that on October 7th, 1970, a small private ceremony was held for the family of Janis Joplin who had passed away three days earlier. Janis, a talent that no one who ever saw her perform would ever forget, had led the rock and roll lifestyle to the max, loving sex and abusing drink and drugs, the latter of which took her life at the age of 27. Janis had been staying at the Landmark Hotel (now the Highland Gardens Hotel) at 7047 Franklin Ave, L.A. while recording songs for her new album at the Sunset Sound Recording Studios and life had never been better. She was successful, happy, in love and going to be wed soon to the novelist Seth Morgan. Janis was back on heroin though after a long break from it but all the signs were there that she was going to quit again. Unfortunately for her, the heroin she bought from the dealer on October 3rd was purer than usual and after a visit to the studio where she listened to a backing track of ‘Buried Alive in The Blues’, she returned to the hotel around 00:30 and prepared to shoot-up. She used a method known as ‘Skin-Popping’ which is where the drug is injected into the skin tissue and not the vein. This method, takes anywhere from 5-90 minutes to take effect whereas injecting into the vein directly is instant so she had time to do a few things before the high kicked in. She went to the lobby of the hotel, chatted with the hotel clerk, bought cigarettes and got change for a $5 note and returned to her room. Moments later, she collapsed as the heroin, being purer than usual and therefore stronger, killed her. She was found eighteen hours later, the $4.50 change from the cigarettes, still in her hand.

Everyone who has been in the music business for forty years will have known at least one musician whose life and talent have been cut short by drugs and when the news arrives, it is heart breaking. I was fortunate enough to tour with and get to know a little bit, Steve Clark of Def Leppard and he was not only a great guitarist, performer and musician (he’s one of the few Rock guitarists I knew that could actually read and write music) but also funny and interested in history, art and philosophy. I was in Australia in January 1991 when the phone rang and a mutual friend told me he had died from an overdose of alcohol and prescription drugs. It was less than a month later that I received the news that my friend Chris Schlosshardt from The Sea Hags had also died; he was just 26 years old. Sadly, they wouldn’t be the last of the people I have met on my journey to go that way.

The phrase Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll was popularized by Ian Dury’s song of the same name written in 1977 although it was first used by a British magazine called The Spectator in 1971 and of course is just a variant of a saying that goes back hundreds of years, namely, ‘Wine, Women and Song’. It’s human nature that we all like a good party and a few of us are rather partial to having one drink too many of occasion but musicians are prone to doing everything to excess so whilst having fun, look after your band mates and don’t become another statistic yourself. I don’t like writing obituaries and I’ve had to write a few before.

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Hoffmann von Fallersleben's manuscript of "Das Lied der Deutschen" from 1841 which was the original German National Anthem contains the lyrics ‘German women, German loyalty, German wine and German song!’

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