When NYC singer-model Bebe Buell moved south to Nashville five years ago, she brought a blast of rock & roll swagger to the still mainly country-music capital – as well as some of the best rock tales ever told, all of them witnessed firsthand by a woman who calls herself a “female Forrest Gump with a high IQ.” But while Buell may be best known for her modeling days, including a 1974 Playboy spread, and the long-haired guys she’s loved – she gave birth to daughter Liv Tyler with Steven Tyler in 1977 while also involved with Todd Rundgren – she’s had her own share of rock successes. With the new album Baring It All: Greetings From Nashbury Park, out now, Buell returns to her musical ambitions.
But the 12-track album, produced by her husband, former Das Damen guitarist Jim Wallerstein, is far from a sashay through old glories. Rather, it’s an invigorating record, mixing the icy New York cool Buell learned from hanging out at Max’s Kansas City (the defiant “Cross My Legs”) with the Nashville geniality she picked up in Tennessee (“Hello Music City”). Lead track “By a Woman” finds Buell praising powerful ladies, with verve that belies her 64 years.
“Ageism is one of my crusades,” says Buell, picking at a salad at her favorite Nashville coffee shop. “I don’t think people should have an age. It’s not really important. What’s important is where you go and how you go.”
We talked to Buell, who will bring her live show to New York’s Joe’s Pub on April 29th, about writing her new album, playing Monopoly with Hugh Hefner and the time she carried Steven Tyler home.
You developed a love for rock & roll well before you became a model. Do you remember when that began?
As early as five I’d stick my leg out in a rock stance for family pictures. I was obsessed with Mick Jagger. I’d stand in front of the mirror and copy him, and I’d put a sock down my pants so I had a nice bulge. I didn’t know what that was. I just thought it was part of the uniform.
Eventually, you ended up dating Mick.
Yeah. My first four dates were with Todd Rundgren, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Mick.
Your relationship with Todd was legendary. How did you meet?
I met this guy on the modeling circuit, who was gay and not interested in any of the models. He’d take us out dancing in New York and one night he was taking me to see Man of La Mancha, and said, “I have to stop by my friend’s house and drop off some tapes.” And it was Todd Rundgren. I said, “Who’s that?” He happened to have an issue of Rolling Stone in the car and they had just done a story on Todd. I looked at him and said, “Wow, he’s fantastic.” So we pulled up to 13th Street between Second and Third, and in those days, that neighborhood was dangerous. The scene in Taxi Driver where Jodie Foster is leaning up against the door? That’s right there. You had to throw a penny at Todd’s window because he didn’t have a doorbell and he lived on the second floor. He came down and Todd and I made eye contact and there was an immediate connection that you can’t deny. I was 18 and he was 23. I very quickly became rock royalty: There was Mick and Bianca, Angie and David, Bebe and Todd. We were one of the trinity.
How did you start writing songs?
I wrote poems a lot and instantly became friends with Patti Smith, who had dated Todd. She and I hit it off like a house on fire. We’d show each other our poems. She wasn’t a singer yet, but I’d go over to her loft on 23rd Street and she had this big mirror and together we’d put on Raw Power and pretend to be rock stars. She was super smart. She took one hit of pot and what would come out of her mouth was like heaven drenched in chocolate. The chick was brilliant. She was my first strong female influence.
You praise all the strong women in your life in the song “By a Woman.”
I wrote that four years ago. I’ve been battling labels and name-calling and shaming for a long time. When you’re a successful model and then you do Playboy, and then turn around and say you’re more of a singer than a model, people roll their eyes.
How did you end up in Playboy?
That was another accident. The brilliant photographer Lynn Goldsmith was over at our townhouse one day and we were having some wine together and she said, “Let’s take some arty pictures.” Meaning, let’s take some nudes. And we did. She asked if she could show them to magazines and I said, “Only Playboy.” They wanted to meet me. So that’s how I got to Chicago and stayed at the original Playboy mansion and played Monopoly with Hugh Hefner. I made a bet with him that I had to keep secret my whole life.
What was it?
Now that he’s passed away I can tell it. He bet me I could not beat him at Monopoly. Playmates got $5,000 then and I said, “If I beat you, I have to be the first Playmate that you pay $10,000.” He said, “It’s a deal, but if you win, I have to pay you that money privately or else the other Playmates will expect it too.” I had to sign an NDA. He stayed up all night because he was drinking Pepsi and smoking a pipe. It was a fluke that I won. I think he got tired. He gave me the money in cash. I remember flying home with it.
Do you remember the first time you met Steven Tyler?
Todd and I were flown up to Boston when Aerosmith were considering Todd as producer. It was around ’74 and they flew us to this outdoor show. It was pouring down rain and mud everywhere and I was dressed in a long white dress and espadrilles and didn’t want to step over the mud. Todd was going, “Bebe, stop it.” Steven could see what was going on and he comes leaping over, throws his coat over the puddle and picks me up and carries me across. I thought it was hilarious, and very gallant. Like a knight in shining leopard.
Another time he was in New York for some basketball game and I was at my friend Liz Derringer’s apartment. She was married to Rick Derringer and I used to sleep there when Todd was on the road. At 3 o’clock in the morning, Steven calls and says, “Bebe, come get me. I’m at the Pierre hotel and I can’t walk. And I’m the only white person in the room.” I said, “You can handle that.” He said, “No, you don’t understand, they can do a lot more drugs than I can.” So I went up there, knocked on the door and it was a room full of seven-foot-tall men. Steven really could not walk and I had just taken this fireman training class, because Todd was worried if we ever had a fire how I would get out of our townhouse. I threw Steven over my shoulder and took him to Liz’s and we threw him in the bathtub. Finally, he woke up and Liz said go sleep in our room. I always joke that I think my daughter was conceived in Liz and Rick’s bed.
You, Todd and Steven decided to not tell Liv who her real father was until she turned 18, but she figured it out early. You address that in the song “Can You Forgive?”
I’m not secretive about that song being for Todd Rundgren. We made a pact that he would be Liv’s father and if it ever became an issue, we’d tell her at 18. But fate had something else up its sleeve and she had a hunch as early as nine years old, but it wasn’t until August 1988 when she turned 11 that she put it together and confronted me. It’s not like I could lie to her.
You perform frequently in Nashville, and show off some awfully rock star moves with your mic stand.
It’s in my DNA. When I was a kid I was teaching the other kids how to dance the “Dirty Dog.” I figured they must call it the “Dirty Dog” cause a dog humps, so I mixed a little dog with Jagger. When I got home, one of the neighbors knocked on my mom’s door: “Your daughter is teaching my child how to dance vulgarly!” At least I didn’t send ’em home with a sock down their pants.