Tourists and rock nostalgists perusing the Morrison Hotel Gallery in Soho see iconic photographs of music legends; Bebe Buell sees her youth. Near the floor is a photo of Mick Jagger, a lover. They met at an Eric Clapton show, says Buell, a model turned singer, now 58 and about to release her first big-deal album: “It was on. It was, like, instant flirting.” Never mind that Buell was then living with singer-guitarist Todd Rundgren, with whom she would continue to co-habitate as she dated Jagger, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Jimmy Page, and as she had daughter Liv Tyler, the actress, by Steven Tyler. “I think every little girl would like exclusivity, but that wasn’t how it was. If you had a jealous streak, the seventies wasn’t your era,” she says. “And I figured if he was going to date, I would date, too. I had lovely boyfriends. For your first three boyfriends to be Mick Jagger, Todd Rundgren, and David Bowie, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that.”
Next to the photo of Jagger is Patti Smith, who dated Rundgren before Buell. The two women used to put on Stooges records and sing into hairbrushes “pretending to be rock stars” back when Smith had yet to put music to her “wacky poems.” There are no photos up of Elvis Costello, whom Buell in her bestselling autobiography, Rebel Heart, declared both the love of her life and a fantastic lay; he no longer speaks to her, for various reasons. “On the record, I want to apologize to Elvis if I ever embarrassed him talking about what a good lover he was,” she says earnestly.
“My reputation is so overblown. I can count the number of men I’ve been with on two hands; it just seems like a lot because you recognize their names,” she says, wearing vintage boots embroidered with flowers, her hair still blonde, her eyes large and blue. She sits astride a gallery bench as if riding a horse. “I consider ‘groupie’ a sexist term, and I think it’s misused. I was a free agent. I was a very independent, successful girl. I made my own money, I bought my own airline tickets. When I got a paycheck, I went to Bergdorf and I bought my own clothes. There were no rock stars buying me my clothes.”
She opens a coffee-table book and points to a photograph of herself, modeling, covered in daisies and only slightly less naked than she was in her 1974 Playboy spread. “We had hair on our hoochees back then, yeah, baby!” she says about the centerfold. “It almost looks like I had a fur bikini.” But by the eighties, she’d taken a page from her drag-queen friends and started waxing. “I was ahead of the curve even with that. I’ve always been a pioneer!”
Buell’s new album, Hard Love, was co-produced by her husband, Jim Wallerstein (a.k.a. Jimmy Walls), who also plays lead guitar. It’s not her first time in the studio; she’s been trying to get her singing career going for over 30 years, with a deep, raspy voice that she put to use in high-school choir and hotel-room sing-alongs. Keith Richards encouraged her to start her own band, as did good friend Ric Ocasek, who in 1980 sent her into the studio backed by the Cars; later, Bebe Buell and the B-Sides opened for Alice Cooper. In 1984, John Taylor of Duran Duran formed the supergroup Power Station around her; eventually Robert Palmer took her place. In 1991, her next band, the harder-edged group the Gargoyles, was offered a six-figure record deal. She turned it down to stay home and raise Liv, who was starting high school, beginning a modeling career, and watching the public discover who her father was. (Buell had kept it secret from Liv throughout her childhood, until her dad was sober.) “People thought I was crazy,” she says. “But I made a choice that I needed to be a really good mom. I always look to Jackie Kennedy. She said, ‘If you mess up with your children, what’s the point?’ I’m just going to say it bluntly: I’m not Courtney Love. I want to kick people’s asses that don’t put their kids first. They suck.”
Buell’s favorite song off the new album is “Mother of Rock & Roll,” a name that plays off the perception that for so many years, she’s just been “mother of Liv, girlfriend of that,” as she puts it. “I mean, I have worn a lot of hats. But what I really am is a rock monster. I am a rock-and-roll machine, and I don’t have an expiration date. I am like one of those G.E. dishwashers with a twenty-year guarantee.”