Bebe Buell has led – and continues to lead – one heck of a life. She was a model, posed for Playboy Magazine, dated several rock stars, including Todd Rundgren, and her daughter is the actress Liv Tyler, whose father is Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler.
But way more than any of this, Buell is a rock-n-roller, and music is what her life centers on. Buell released her debut four-song EP, “Covers Girl,” back in 1981. It was produced by Ric Ocasek and Rick Derringer, and it includes Iggy Pop’s “Funtime.” Her vocals are raw, gutsy and out for blood. She’s not dainty or restrained when she sings. She goes for it full on. And she’ll be doing just that on Saturday night with a birthday show at Portland House of Music. Buell’s birthday was actually on the July 14, when she turned 64, but the celebrating continues in Portland, a city she called home for a number of years in the ’80s.
Buell was born in Virginia and her first step into the spotlight came by way of modeling, which got started when her mother – current Portland resident – Dorothea Johnson sent her high school yearbook photo to Eileen Ford of the legendary Ford Models agency in New York City back in 1972. “She responded, and the next thing I knew we were on an airplane, and I was in New York City,” Buell said in a phone interview from her Nashville home. New York City is where Buell stayed until 1980, and it’s where she realized that, despite a successful stint as a fashion model, what she was meant to do was be a musician. “That’s just what I am. I’ve been that since I was a kid.”
Rewind to 1979. That’s when Ocasek, of The Cars, approached Buell and encouraged her to make a record. “My closest friends knew that I was a singer, had heard my singing at private events or at home and had read my lyrics, and they encouraged me to just get with it,” she said. “Covers Girl” was the end result.
In 1980, Buell and her then-3-year-old daughter, Liv, moved to Portland. Buell said she chose Portland because a cousin, Annie Noyes, married a man from here when Buell was 11 years old, and she’s been going to Portland since that time and felt a connection to and affinity for the city. She also thought it would be a better place to raise her daughter. “I wanted Liv to have some kind of semblance of normalcy,” she said. “I wanted her to feel the grass under her toes.”
Their first apartment was on Park Street and then on High Street. All told, they spent nine years in the city, and Buell started the band The B-Sides in 1980, then The Gargoyles in 1985, both while living here.
“I did my very first show at the Downtown Lounge in Portland, Maine, on Halloween in 1980,” she said. This Downtown Lounge was on Preble Street, not the one currently on Congress Street. Buell also played many shows at The Tree Cafe (then on Danforth street), and the original Geno’s on Brown Street.
Being part of the local scene at that time was of huge importance. “Portland, Maine, in the ’80s had one of the best music scenes in the country. If there had been the correct tools to bottle and market it, Portland could have been Seattle, it absolutely could have. The music that was coming out of there at that time frame, ’80 to ’88, was unbelievable. There were so many good bands.” Buell cited The Brood, Zero Mentality and The Moguls as three examples.
By 1989, Buell said, record label interest in the band was solid, and she and Liv moved back to Manhattan. “It was a very exciting time. I was playing big rooms and building an enormous fan base with The Gargoyles,” she said. “I was thrown on big stages right out of the gate and I just took to it like a duck takes to water, it’s meant to be my vocation. ”
Buell said she’s earned every fan she has and is appreciative of the ones who have been with her since the beginning. She also says her road has been different. “I didn’t take the normal routes that girls with my history or my story took. I didn’t wait around for a man to save me or rescue me or support me, and I got to work. It really wasn’t easy in that era for women. We got labeled right out of the gate, and I had been so many things at that point. I had been a top fashion model, I had posed for Playboy, I had dated rock stars. So it was not easy to be able to label me. It was difficult and people gave me a lot of (expletive) and I really had to work hard,” she said.
Buell is still working hard, and we can expect a new album from her, as she’s planning to head back into the studio this fall. The band she’ll be bringing with her includes her husband, guitarist/bassist Jimmy Walls, and drummer Mindy Wright. She’s calling the show “Baring it All” and describes it as an emotional release. “It’s heavy, but it’s also fun and people walk away very fulfilled and very happy. It’s an accumulation of this life I’ve led, and it’s finally come together.”
Listen to “Cosmic Kiss”
Buell said they’ll hit the stage at 9 p.m., and the show moves fast. “You’re gonna hear a ton of new songs you’ve never heard, and you’re also gonna hear something from The Gargoyles. I’ve got a few surprises up my sleeve and have tailored the show for my Portland audience.”
The last time Buell played the city was in 2010, so she’s hoping for a good turnout for her return. “I hope the room is full and magical. I don’t even know if anybody remembers me, but let’s hope they do,” she said. Buell also hopes to not be playing for a room full of wallflowers. “If everybody doesn’t get right up there and participate, I’ll get up in their grill until they do,” Buell said. “It’s an emotional connection with my audience, and as I’ve gotten older and have been doing this for so long, my comfort zone and that magic that enters your body and your psyche when you hit the stage, it’s in its A game.” Buell also said she’s the happiest she’s ever been. “I’ve reached that place in my life where I feel grateful and content, but I’ve still got a whole lot more to do,” she said. “People keep asking me, what’s your greatest accomplishment? Besides Liv, I can’t think of anything because I still have yet to do it. There’s still so much to do.”
Buell said her friend Debbie Harry (of Blondie fame) is a source of inspiration. “I look at Debbie, she’s 72, and she’s still rocking harder than anybody I know, and I figure I’ve got eight more years before I’m even that age so I’ve got lots of time to do the most important thing or whatever it is that people want to know.”
If the new track “Secret Sister” is any indication, Buell does indeed still know how to rock, and this show will likely be one part homecoming, one part party and most of all, one heck of a rock show.
8 p.m. Saturday. Portland House of Music, 25 Temple St., Portland, $15 in advance and $20 day of show for standing room, $20 in advance and $25 day of show for seated, $30 in advance and $35 day of show for pre-show meet-and-greet (includes seated ticket), 21-plus. portlandhouseofmusic.com
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