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Groupies Deserve More Credit

By Lisa Levy at The Walrus

Photo by Tijs van Leur / Unsplash

I CAN’T REMEMBER life without music. When I was young, I sat in front of my parents’ stereo like it was the Wailing Wall and would reveal the meaning of life if I paid proper attention. I found truth in the trenchant observations of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark and in Cat Stevens’s (the name he went by then) meandering hippie lyrics for Tea for the Tillerman. I fanned the albums and eight-track tapes around me like a mandala, a protective moat of music. Listening was a sacred rite, a solitary ritual I performed only when my parents and sister were occupied. I had enough company coming through the speakers. I did not believe in the Holy Trinity—we were Jewish—but I believed in the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones.

I mainly played my parents’ records, which are now mine: Motown from my mother, who likes a backbeat and synchronized dance moves, and country from my father, a fan of the smooth sounds of Glen Campbell and Charley Pride. There was a healthy serving of the British Invasion, like Abbey Road with my mother’s maiden name handwritten on the front; there was Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends; there was a blues record with Irma Thomas singing “It’s Raining”; there was a beat-up copy of James Brown’s Live at the Apollo; and there was the chunky brown double album of the Carpenters’ greatest hits, a brilliant example of 1970s’ period design which perfectly matched the rainbow of browns in our living room. My parents had also shrewdly invested in the cutting-edge eight-track technology, with tapes including many 1970s’ blockbusters like Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, Billy Joel’s The Stranger, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.

I not only knew the words to the music, I knew the sounds of those albums—like the rumble when the eight-track player would suddenly go silent and change the channel right after the baseball bit in “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” adding to the frenzied exchange between the reluctant girl and the horny, insistent Meat Loaf. She begs him to say he loves her—and then it really gets going. He gets more and more worked up until he bursts: “I couldn’t take it any longer/Lord, I was crazed/And when the feeling came upon me like a tidal wave.” I can still sing both parts of this song, much to my husband’s dismay: not everyone recognizes the bombastic genius of songwriter Jim Steinman (who also wrote Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” by Céline Dion).

I incontrovertibly chose to be around music and musicians from a tender age, going to see the boys I knew play in various permutations at my local youth centre on Long Island, New York. Those nights—more like early evenings, as the place closed at 9 p.m.—were central to my indoctrination into fandom and the tortured teen existentialist questions about belonging and alienation. That seriousness and the intensity of love I had for music meant I wondered—more accurately, I worried—about my role in the ecosystem of rock. I’ve never played an instrument. I have often been asked not to sing and once had a tambourine taken away from me at karaoke. I don’t really like writing about music as it messes with the joy I get from it. I will never volunteer to carry something heavy, so roadie was out. That left one obvious role open: groupie.

I knew there was ample evidence to characterize me as such: all of my boyfriends before I reached twenty-five and a lot of my friends played in bands. The evidence against was that I was more opinionated than beautiful, more likely to slip into the role of friend who can talk about underrated 1970s’ New York City punk bands or why Sandy Denny’s voice—especially in her music with the Fairport Convention—haunts me for hours after I listen to it. Having and sharing my opinions was a role that I coveted and shirked in equal measure. It has taken me a long time to justify my fascination with groupies and to reckon with my possible inclusion in that club, to see hanging around in the proximity of musicians not as a betrayal of feminism but as a celebration of fandom.

Read the rest at The Walrus