When it comes to describing Bebe Buell, there’s not much standard information that can be given that hasn’t been printed before. Yes, she was a very lucky young Southern girl who was hired by the Ford Modeling Agency in New York, and yes, she was a Playboy centerfold in the 1970s, but she was also so much more. Buell may be known for dating rock idols, but she also wanted to be one in her clear way since she first showed up.
When she wasn’t busy jet-setting all over the world with one-time beaus such as Todd Rundgren, Elvis Costello, Rod Stewart or Jack Nicholson, the former school choir singer was honing her songwriting craft and putting her career as a singer and band leader together. Her very first real song success was in 1981 when she recorded a four-song EP with producers Rick Ocasek (The Cars) and Rick Derringer at the helm. The band, The Cars, served as her band on two of the tracks.
Then-boyfriend John Taylor (Duran Duran) got some friends together to back Buell in another musical effort. She also formed The Gargoyles, a band that released singles and garnered major label attention, before Buell disbanded that group to focus all her attention on daughter Liv Tyler’s blossoming career. Once Liv was up and running Buell returned to music, utilizing the services of producer Don Fleming (Sonic Youth, Hole, Teenage Fanclub, The Posies, Alice Cooper, Andrew W.K., The Dictators, Joan Jett, Nancy Sinatra, Screaming Trees, The Smithereens, Pete Yorn to name an illustrious few). While Buell has a huge New York following, mainstream success was still a tough customer to catch.
Her real comeback success came in the form of the 2011 release of Hard Love, a grungy, pop jewel produced by husband Jim Wallerstein (Das Damen) and Stephen DeAcutis. Buell’s country interest was brought out to the forefront when she recorded a 2012 Eddy Arnold tribute for Plowboy (Cheetah Chrome) Records. It was shortly after that that Bebe and Jim made a move to Nashville in late 2013 and once again she began to reinvent her style to include forays into country-tinged music. She co-wrote a song with Sally Tiven (“By a Woman”) and had performed it several times with the incomparable Crystal Gayle. To put it mildly, Buell has kept herself in front of an audience for decades and hasn’t looked back since she started. And while she loves her Nashville home and career, she also misses the home-based call of the New York stages she was raised on.
I recently had a chance to see Buell, along with husband Jim Wallerstein and drummer Mindy Wright, as she unveiled her new (and hopefully continuing) show called Baring It All. Baring It All is literally what the title says. It’s an intimate look into the life of one of New York City’s most prominent cultural figures. A look back at the people she knew, the life she continues to lead and the stories that came from the lips of icons.
When I asked Bebe about her life in music and the reason behind the set of shows in New York, she had this to say about it:
“Since moving to Nashville in early 2013 so much has happened musically. There’s been a huge growth spurt, and within the first couple of months of being here, Jim and I wrote 18 songs with Jon & Sally Tiven. It was important to me to bring this back ‘home’ after playing so many shows in Nashville in legendary rooms I only dreamed of playing. It’s been such an enlightening experience. Being in Nashville is like ‘finishing school’ for me.
“I’ve had the distinct honor of playing with so many brilliant musicians, and there’s music here 24/7… I also sing often with Thee Rock N’ Roll Residency and The Long Players. It feels like family and home. My four ‘homes’ for my musical journey have been Portland, Maine, where I formed my first two bands The B-Sides & The Gargoyles, NYC of course, Asbury Park and Nashville. I want to bring the new show to those cities first before hopefully taking it on the road in some form.
“Joe’s Pub at The Public Theatre is a place I’ve always wanted to play. What a thrill it was to spend two nights there in early April with so many people who have known me for decades and the new fans I’ve garnered over the years.
“My biggest thrill? Having Stevie and Maureen Van Zandt in the audience on opening night. My dream? To maybe turn Baring It All into a Broadway show directed by Maureen and to make my defining album produced by Stevie. Hey, they say if you project positive vibes and DREAM HARD, anything is possible. I’ve got my ‘Broken English’ in me. It’s so important to me to make my EPIC record before I make my exit to the big rock club in the sky. I’m ready!”
And ready she is. With a light and airy feel, Baring It All moves fluidly, going from one song and story to another without missing a beat. The show itself is a very intimate affair. Perched on the small and personal Joe’s Pub stage, Buell sings (her style often reminds people of her idol Marianne Faithfull), jokes, walks amongst the audience and banters with longtime fans and friends as only an experienced legend can.
Her stories of rock and roll legends and lore are some of the finest I’ve ever heard. Mixing her latest original songs with a couple of classic rock compositions, Buell and company move through a set list that describes (with much detail) her continuing career as she pulls aside the veil to let the listener in and see the real person behind the media-driven legend machine. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Bebe and Jim for several years now, and they are beautiful people with a varied history and real love for fans and friends alike. Their show is a heartwarming delivery of great music coupled with an oral history that rivals anything out there today.
Buell and The Rebel Souls (husband Jim is a guitar virtuoso and is complemented by drummer Mindy Wright) go through a 16-song set of songs that are as varied as the stories she tells along with them. Starting out with their version of “Gimme Shelter” all the way to “Secret Sister,” before closing the show with “Moonage Daydream,” Buell works for the crowd as if it were her last performance.
Highlights include “When we were Godhead” off 2010’s Sugar, 1995 single “Jacuzzi Jungle,” originally done with her band, The Gargoyles, “Black Angel,” an ode to longtime friend Joey Ramone, “By a Women,” a country-tinged ditty that sums up Buell’s take on the industry, “Devil You Know,” a song originally produced by Jim Jones, and “Secret Sister,” a song that retains so much of that punchy sass of a Pretenders-styled vamp.
As she closes the show with “Moonage Daydream,” Buell tells the audience, “David Bowie sang this mere inches from my face.” Buell goes on to discuss her significant interaction with the late, great Bowie as only she can. “Todd (Rundgren) and I went to see him and The Spiders From Mars at Radio City in February 1973, but it was actually at a different show in July 1973 when I went to the UK for my birthday that he told me he was going to sing ‘Moonage Daydream’ to me. It was at the Hammersmith Odeon, and it was a memory I’ll always treasure.”
Bebe Buell has so many memories with the most famous names in rock, and continues to create real rock and roll music in a society that leans toward unimaginative, premanufactured pop, and I for one am so glad she is still doing her own thing. Whether you like her for her past, or you love her for her present direction, Buell is a real blue rocker with a heart of gold and a head full of memories most could only hope to acquire in a lifetime.
If you’re looking for interesting stories and fascination musical composition, Baring It All is a show you must see while Buell is still performing it. Plans include performing the show in Portland, Maine, as well on July 22 at Portland House of Music. The show will feature her band The Rebel Souls, and there will be a VIP Meet and Greet from 7-8pm. Information on that show can be found over at www.portlandhouseofmusic.com. Buell told me that there might also be a Los Angeles performance shortly. In the meantime, Bebe Buell continues to write new music and perform weekly in Nashville, Tennessee, at her various residencies and regular gigs.
To find out more about this fascinating East Coast musical treasure, head over to https://www.bebebuell.org and get the details.