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Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon

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Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon

Current Status:
In Season
Pamela Des Barres
St. Martin's Press
Nonfiction, Biography, Music

We gave it a C

The world’s most resourceful groupie, Pamela Des Barres, is having the last laugh on many of the rock stars with whom she once consorted. She’s alive — many of them are not. And in her world, just plain living is the best revenge. But in order to finance life after sex, drugs, and rock & roll, Des Barres turned to writing books based on her career as a hanger-on (I’m With the Band and Take Another Little Piece of My Heart: A Groupie Grows Up) and now, unfortunately, seems to be taking herself seriously as a journalist.

Her third effort, Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon, is about famous rock stars who have died or come close to disaster — everyone from Sam Cooke, shot to death by a motel manager after a fight with a younger woman, to Sid Vicious, who overdosed on heroin, to Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses, who was arrested several times and accused by his ex-wife of beating her. (The suit was settled out of court.) Rock Bottom purports to ”shine a light into the dark corners of rock history” and maintains that only Des Barres, ”the one woman who knows this much about rock ‘n’ roll’s dark side,” can do it.

Well, not exactly. Just about anyone with access to a library with back issues of pop-culture magazines and quickie biographies could write Rock Bottom. Much of the book, which is divided into chapters about 25 doomed or troubled rockers, including Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Dennis Wilson, Keith Moon, and Chuck Berry, is a perfunctory clip job. Her four-page piece on Axl Rose, titled ”Welcome to the Jungle,” for instance, is attributed in part to People. The section on Janis Joplin, called ”Buried Alive in the Blues,” borrows heavily from Peggy Caserta’s Going Down With Janis (1973). The chapter on Kurt Cobain is cobbled together with the help of Vanity Fair, Billboard, and Rolling Stone. And Des Barres cites no fewer than seven magazine, book, and newspaper accounts in her section on Marvin Gaye.

To be fair, Des Barres does do some original reporting, however thin, in the book. At times it consists of her recalling a brief brush with one of her subjects. In the case of Courtney Love, she cites an early visit to Love’s house in Seattle when she was on assignment for Interview, and she later writes about seeing Love in a restaurant after her husband’s suicide and hugging her. For her chapter on convicted felon Rick James, though, Des Barres visits James in prison and relies on her own interviewing skills to paint an effective portrait of a rocker behind bars.

The James chapter shows promise, and if Des Barres continues her career as a writer she would be well advised to quit her habit of leeching off other people’s work and go it alone. By this time, even she must realize she’s no longer with the band. C