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It’s an impossibly bright Saturday morning in Los Angeles, and from the outside, the little yellow house on this quiet street in the Culver City neighborhood is nothing special to look at. Tucked behind overgrown shrubs, thick trees, and a chain-link fence heavy with vines, one might not even realize the house is there at all.
Inside, however, the place is a temple — to god, to rock and roll, and to the alchemical magic that happens when these mighty forces of sound and spirit converge. Images of Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley populate almost every inch of wall space. On the couch, James Dean’s face is embroidered onto throw pillows, and everywhere, there is clothing — piles and racks of decade-spanning vintage wear collected by the proprietress and focal point of this shrine, Pamela Des Barres.
Arguably the most famous groupie of all time, Des Barres captured her escapades during the Southern California rock and roll renaissance of the ‘60s and ‘70s in her 1987 bestselling memoir I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. The book, a giddy recount of her initiation into the Sunset Strip scene and the flings with Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, and other rock gods that followed, captured the era’s heady vibe and made Des Barres an icon in her own right. An oil painting of the redheaded writer hangs on the wall above the loveseat. A fan made it for her.
Today, December 3rd, Miss Pamela — as she has long been known to friends and lovers — is hosting an indoor yard sale, with the intention to unload some of her vast clothing collection. She opens the doors of her house for sales like these a few times every year. The items — furs, fringes, boots, caftans, wedding dresses — are access points to a long-gone era of mythical musicianship and free love as the law. Buying them from Des Barres, the quintessential groupie and a member of rock history as much as any famous man she ever canoodled with at the Whiskey a Go Go, only strengthens one’s own connection to this romanticized past. For acolytes, the allure is irresistible.
“Everything I’ve worn has resonance,” says Des Barres, who today wears a brooch bearing Bob Dylan’s face and a cross with Jesus’s name from two chains hanging around her neck. “I always find exciting, thrilling things, so every piece of clothing of mine that I’m selling has a memory attached to it.”
One hardly knows where to start looking while maneuvering through the house. There are piles of books and photographs, ceramics, jewelry, shoes, and kitschy knick-knacks. After living here for 17 years, Des Barres has plans to move. Her mortgage is about to go up. Thus, she’s unloading everything that sits around collecting dust.
Des Barres pulls a calf-length black velvet dress from the rack. It’s from the ‘30s, her favorite era for clothes. This spring she will launch a line called Miss Pamela’s Closet, which will sell vintage items like the ones available here, along with re-creations of her all-time favorite attire. Des Barres picks up a copy of I’m With the Band from a stack on the coffee table and opens to a page featuring a photo of her younger self glowing in the SoCal sunshine. She is a blonde goddess, achingly beautiful in a ‘30s floral print dress so tissue thin that you can see her white panties underneath. Taken while she was nannying for the children of Frank and Gail Zappa in 1971, the image is captioned “Radiant Zappa Summer.” The replica in Des Barres’s forthcoming line will bear the same name.
“People,” Des Barres says, motioning to the photo, “still want to look like that girl right there.”
Secondhand is second nature for Des Barres, who started shopping at resale stores with her mother while growing up in the San Fernando Valley. When she came of age and trekked over the hill into Hollywood, she took this aesthetic sense with her.
“The GTOs really invented thrifting,” says Des Barres, who at 68 is still petite and still redheaded. Brought together by Frank Zappa, The GTOs were an all-female musical act (the acronym stands for Girls Together Outrageously) featuring Miss Pamela and a gaggle of friends performing deliciously absurd songs with names like "I'm in Love With the Ooo-Ooo Man." They weren’t great singers, but they looked incredible, draped in fringe and velvet they dug up at Goodwill and The Salvation Army before it became fashionable to shop this way. Here at Des Barres’s house, a CD of the group’s only album, 1969’s Permanent Damage, is displayed besides a bust of Vegas-era Elvis. A tattoo of the King, Des Barres’s first musical obsession, graces her back.
“For me, clothing and makeup and all the accouterments just reflect who you are inside,” she says, “but vintage clothing is much more unique and fashionable. It fits better. You don’t look like anyone else. It determines who you’re going to connect with.”
Des Barres calls herself a sexual pioneer and early feminist because she was doing everything – sexually, aesthetically, and artistically — that she wanted, even as she was labeled anti-feminist by the feminist movement. (Des Barres has previously claimed Gloria Steinem once snubbed her at a television show taping.) Her sixth book, Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin’ Memoir, is coming out next year. She travels the world teaching writing classes to women and gives tours of locations from I’m With the Band while at home in Los Angeles.
“I’ve figured out,” says Des Barres, holding a coffee cup printed with images of little vinyl records, “how to make a living by just being me.”
“Your clothes are beautiful!” a shopper yells from the back den. “Thank you!” Des Barres yells back. “I hope you find something! That wool lace dress would totally fit you!” It does fit. The woman buys it for $15. In the background, the television announces news of the President-elect’s newest cabinet choice. Des Barres switches it to a Christmas music station.
There are people who won’t wear vintage clothing because they fear it is infused with the energy of the previous owner. Some of us buy secondhand specifically for the spirit it carries. By coming here to dig through Miss Pamela’s stuff, we are perhaps trying to connect with the essence of a simpler past and the wild times within it. Half a century after Des Barres’s heyday, free love has been replaced with Tinder and the musicians who prowled the Strip are now denizens of classic rock radio. It’s a strange and often scary world. If putting on Des Barres’s old bell bottoms brings any sort of comfort or simply puts more swagger in one’s walk, well, that’s worth $15.
“It’s a dream era that’s never going to come again; a rock renaissance, revolution in the air,” says Des Barres. “The clothes reflect that for people, definitely.”