‘ROCK WIVES’: HAPPY ENDINGS AMID THE DIRT
“The hard lives and good times of the wives, girlfriends and groupies of rock and roll .”
That cover blurb makes Victoria Balfour’s “Rock Wives” sound like a pretty trashy book--and there is plenty of dirt inside.
Keith Richards’ longtime companion Anita Pallenberg tells us that Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones guitarist who was found dead in a swimming pool in 1969, was a “terrible person . . . a tortured personality.”
Patricia Kennealy reveals that she and Jim Morrison were wed, sort of, in a witch ceremony in 1970, but that he turned “really cold” when Kennealy became pregnant--maybe, she speculates, because he had “20 paternity suits pending against him.”
Jo Howard, wife of Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood, discloses that Mick Jagger and Richards used to flirt with her as part of what she eventually realized were “tests” to see if she was faithful to Wood.
Vera Ramone, wife of bassist Dee Dee Ramone, admits that her husband has been going to a drug treatment center since 1981 and takes the train from their home in Queens to Manhattan every day to see a psychiatrist.
Myra Lewis, the teen-age bride of Jerry Lee Lewis, informs us that her hell-raising ex-husband looked at her as such a symbol of Southern womanhood that he didn’t even allow anyone to say “damn” around her. “If you came to our house with a drink, you sat out in your car and finished it and then came into the house,” she is quoted. “I never set foot in a liquor store until I was 26.”
If this all sounds pretty strange, it’s the picture of life around rock stars that you get from much of “Rock Wives” (Beech Tree Books: $12.95).
Explained Balfour in an interview: “Everyone seems to think of the rock life as so glamorous. But the more I saw of that world, the more I began to see the wives as victims.”
Balfour, 31, is a New York writer who has worked as a researcher for the New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone. She had been intrigued by the women around rock stars ever since her “Beatlemaniac” days as a child. As she got older, however, she started seeing the darker side of what once seemed like a Cinderella existence.
Her curiosity was heightened in 1979 by a widely published photo of Anita Pallenberg, who had been involved for years with Brian Jones and, especially, Keith Richards. The photo--taken as Pallenberg left a courtroom after a hearing involving a shooting at Richards’ Upstate New York residence--was, in Balfour’s words, “shocking.”
In the book’s introduction, she explains, “Where only a few years before, Anita had been lithe and beautiful, now, only in her early 30s, she looked like a frumpy, vastly overweight woman in her late 40s. . . . It seemed to me that life with a rock star could really take its toll on a woman.”
Balfour began work on “Rock Wives” early in 1984, drafting a list of 72 women who have lived or still live with rock stars. She ended up speaking to about two dozen of them, though only 18 of the interviews were used in the book. (Actually, only 17 women are featured in the book. To see what it’s like to be the male companion of a rock star, Balfour interviewed David Wolff, manager of singer Cyndi Lauper.)
The biggest disappointment for Balfour was that none of the Beatles wives or girlfriends agreed to talk. Her biggest coup: Susan Rotolo, who was Bob Dylan’s girlfriend during the early ‘60s, when he went from from a folk-scene hopeful in Greenwich Village to a cultural hero.
Rotolo, who was pictured with Dylan on the cover of his “Freewheelin’ ” album in 1963, has eluded the many Dylan biographers over the years, though her sister, Carla, spoke to Anthony Scaduto for his celebrated 1971 book on Dylan.
Balfour said she was having dinner with friends who are such Dylan fanatics they even have a tape of one of his phone conversations. When she mentioned the book project, they told her that Susan’s sister was in the phone directory. Following up on the long shot, Balfour stated her case so impressively that Carla gave her Susan’s unlisted number.
“Susan was very sweet, and the one (of all the women interviewed) that I have kept in closest touch with,” Balfour said. “She’s very shy, but she apparently felt it was time to talk about (the relationship with Dylan) now because it is history. It happened 20 years ago and she has some perspective on it.”
Rotolo, a book illustrator who is married to someone outside the music business, speaks affectionately about her early days with Dylan, describing a “clowniness, a funniness about him. He used to clown around on stage tuning his guitar. He didn’t cut the strings, so he’d say, ‘This guitar needs a haircut.’ . . . He had an impish kind of personality, like Harpo Marx.”
She contrasts this early, carefree manner with a gradual absorption with career.
“There was a period when I was part of his possessions . . .,” she is quoted as saying.
“He was tied up with his own development, and it was just his world that became concentrated in just music. The assumption is that a female doesn’t really do anything, and he didn’t enjoy the idea of me being separate from him.”
But, she added: “It’s funny. . . . Dylan did say to me once, ‘Never let anybody take your space.’ Which I always thought was the most profound thing he ever gave me. . . . Because in spite of what I appear to be, then or now, every woman has a tendency to be sucked in by the life of the man she is with, and in spite of everything that was going on, I believe he was aware of that. With that statement I felt he was acknowledging the conflict I was in; he saw the vulnerability and my strength.”
Rotolo spent a year without Dylan in Italy, where she gained self-confidence. Returning to New York, she noticed lots of changes around Dylan.
“It wasn’t the old folksy crowd,” she said in the book. “He had bodyguards and managers. Just as Dylan got more and more famous, things got more and more oppressive and more and more people around him--bloodsuckers.”
For all its revelation, there’s not a sensational tone to “Rock Wives.” In fact, Balfour’s plain writing style makes everything seem understated. This lack of dramatic structure, however, is balanced by the candor of the women, most of whom have rarely been interviewed. In an amusing aside, Vera Ramone keeps her voice low during a living room interview to make sure Dee Dee doesn’t overhear her as she tells Balfour about the time Mick Jagger tried to pick her up--right in front of her husband.
Where several of the women seem well adjusted now that they have broken their rock-star ties, and others (such as Gail Zappa and Linda Meat Loaf) seem to have stable relationships with performers, an aura of sadness surrounds many of the women.
Patricia Kennealy, who was a young rock journalist when she met Jim Morrison in 1969 and is now the author of a book which she describes as a “science fiction fantasy,” stresses to Balfour that her life didn’t stop after Morrison--and there are only one or two Doors posters in her East Village apartment.
But the living room of Monika Dannemann’s house in a seaside village in England looks like a shrine to Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix photos--including one taken by Dannemann on his last day alive in 1970--are displayed prominently and there are numerous portraits of Hendrix that were painted by Dannemann, a German artist whom he met in 1969 and was living with at the time of his death. In one of the paintings, the artist has painted herself kneeling by a pool and looking at Hendrix’s reflection in the water.
And Bebe Buell, a former model and Playboy magazine playmate, certainly carries the torch for Elvis Costello. Buell, who had a daughter with Todd Rundgren near the end of their six-year relationship, reportedly lived with Costello for several months in 1979.
Balfour adds: “One has only to see Bebe’s apartment in Maine to (believe she still loves Elvis). On display are large Elvis posters, Elvis buttons, backstage passes to Elvis Costello & the Attractions concerts. . . . Standing at Bebe’s bedside table, there is a framed picture of Elvis.”
Balfour also found that Linda Lawrence, now the wife of singer Donovan Leitch, remains fascinated with Brian Jones, the Stones guitarist and father of her first child. She was 17 when the son, Julian, was born, and there was talk about marriage, but she said Jones eventually backed out, fearing it would be bad for his image to be married.
“She didn’t want to talk about Donovan or her children at all,” Balfour recalled. “It was all Brian, Brian, Brian.”
The book’s most pleasant surprise was Pallenberg, who turned out to be far from the tragic figure suggested by the courthouse photos in 1980. “Everyone thinks of her as some fat woman who has sort of vegetabled out, but she probably has more life than any of the women and she is not with a musician anymore,” Balfour said.
“She has lots of interests outside the rock world, including archeology and history. She asked me a lot of questions, too, where most of the other interviews were pretty much one-sided affairs.”
Where Linda Leitch painted a fairly pleasant picture of the early Brian Jones, Pallenberg remembered a different Jones during the final months of his life. “He was insecure as hell . . . totally paranoiac. . . . He didn’t like the fact that I was working (as an actress). So when I came home with this big fat script, he tore it in half. Jealousy. English people are odd in the head.”
In the book, she described her life with Richards, with whom she lived for more than a dozen years, as “always basically down-to-earth, keeping things very simple. All the other people can say what they want. The example I can say is my son (15-year-old Marlon, who lives with her on Long Island). He could be a snotty little kid, and he’s really down to earth. . . .
“For me, children are the best thing I ever had. Everybody was slashing me when I had Marlon, saying, ‘You must be crazy to have children. How can you have a child on the road?’ I thought it was better to be with the parents than by himself. Marlon learned to walk on stage, practically.”
Myra Lewis also represents a happy ending. Lewis, who lives with her daughter Phoebe in Atlanta and works as a real estate saleswoman, said she and her ex-husband are now good friends. But she felt she had to get away from Jerry Lee’s domination and life style to maintain her sanity.
The break came the night Jerry Lee phoned her from a tour stop, shouting obscenities and accusing her of being a whore. She reached in a drawer and pulled out a pistol and told Jerry Lee she was going to kill herself.
“There was no continuing,” she told Balfour. “There was no more tolerating it and being miserable. It was either die or leave.”
Few of the tales are as dramatic as Myra Lewis’, but there is enough of a strain running through most of the relationships to make Balfour laugh when asked if she’d want her daughter--should she ever have one--to be involved with a rock star.
“Are you kidding?” she said, repeating the question. “I’d want my daughter to stand up for her rights and that’s not something you find a lot in these relationships. Most allowed their lives to revolve totally around the husband’s.
“The women who have achieved a sense of their own identity usually had to break away to do it.”