Sable Starr was punk’s Lolita. She was barely a teenager when she began attending shows in the early 1970s, quickly making her reputation as one of the leading groupies on Sunset Boulevarde. “Every rock star who came to Los Angeles wanted to meet her,” model Bebe Buell remembers. That was rather too polite: pleasantries weren’t all that were exchanged between Starr and Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Robert Plant, Marc Bolan, David Bowie and scores of others. Iggy Pop confesses baldly in the opening line of his song Look Away: “I slept with Sable when she was 13.”
Starr’s best friend at the time was Lori Maddox, another veteran of Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, the notorious Sunset Strip club where strict ID checks at the door ensured the girls were under 18. After losing her virginity at 13 – to, legend has it, David and then-wife Angie Bowie – Maddox was a precocious 14-year-old when Jimmy Page left his LA girlfriend Pamela Des Barres, author of the classic self-proclaimed groupie memoir I’m With The Band, to be with her.
Page dated Maddox for about a year before leaving her in turn for Buell, who was at the time dating Todd Rundgren (as well as Iggy Pop). A devastated Maddox later knocked on the door to Page’s LA hotel room. Buell answered it, and although she kept the chain on, it didn’t stop an enraged Maddox from trying to drag the older woman out by her hair. Page laughed sadistically from the bedroom as his two girlfriends fought over him.
Led Zeppelin’s brutish manners were later laid bare in curdling detail by Stephen Davis, whose book Hammer Of The Gods set the bar at an all-time low for the rock-stars-behaving-badly genre. That was until the appearance of Mötley Crüe’s stupendously vulgar The Dirt which, as one critic put it, made I’m With The Band read like a nun’s diary. Each page contains an unforgettable anecdote, not one fit to be reprinted here. (Well, perhaps just the first line: “Her name was Bullwinkle. We called her that because she had a face like a moose.”)
The mystique surrounding both bands was only enhanced by the publications of these two bestsellers. In the case of Mötley Crüe especially, The Dirt has done more to rejuvenate their fortunes than any of their unremittingly awful albums ever could. Their exploits are regarded with awe more often than revulsion. When you’re a male rock star, conquests come naturally with territory, no matter how gross the underlying misogyny.
Not everyone got away with it, of course. Chuck Berry, without whom we may never have had rock & roll at all, served 18 months in prison after transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines. The reputation of another originator, Jerry Lee Lewis, never recovered after his third marriage – to his 13-year-old first cousin – was revealed. But the imprisonment of Berry and the blacklisting of Lewis happened in the early 1960s, when the surrounding opprobrium had as much to do with the moral panic attached to rock & roll itself than any concerns about paedophilia.
I’d wager that some of our heroes are watching the gruesome revelations surrounding the life of Jimmy Savile with considerable discomfort. Many of them played for him and his attendant, adoring teenage crowds on Top Of The Pops. A man knighted for his charity work and widely loved for his carefully cultivated persona as a benign English eccentric has now been revealed as one of the country’s worst sexual predators. And, like Iggy Pop, those surrounding Savile found it easiest to look away.
Savile, though, wasn’t on stage – unlike the stars he introduced to the world, many of whom were probably indulging in behaviour no less reprehensible. While it’s true that the early 1970s was a sexually freer, more liberal time, and that Pamela Des Barres was never anyone’s victim, our fascination with the bad boys of rock remains undimmed. We love them as rogues; for living the untamed life that most of us never will. We view them through Savile’s famous rose-tinted spectacles.
Sable Starr died three years ago, aged 51. She’d grown up to live the straight life, raising two children, but she remains publicly defined by her past as one of rock’s super groupies. Johnny Thunders is remembered as the legendary New York Dolls guitarist, not the jealous boyfriend who mercilessly beat her up when she was not even 16. As for Iggy Pop, he tenderly recalls that he last saw Starr “in a back street with her looks half gone / She was selling something that I was on / Look away, look away.”