Model and singer Bebe Buell fell into Stiv’s arms in the wake of her romances with Todd Rundgren, Rod Stewart and Elvis Costello. And they remained best friends to the end of his life. Bebe shares some happy and surprising moments with the man she calls “one of the most exciting front men in pop culture history…one of the best and absolutely one of the most enigmatic.”
By Bebe Buell
All photos by Marcia Resnick
Months before I met Stiv Bators, I saw him… from afar. It was one of those NYC nights filled with coincidence and prophecy. It was also one of those nights of myth and legend.
In the Fall of 1976, one year before The Dead Boys’ first album Young, Loud & Snotty dropped in October of 1977, I was in Europe with Steven Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith. Entering 1977 was a very emotional time for me in that I had also just come back to my boyfriend, the musician Todd Rundgren, after weeks with Steven and discovering I was pregnant in Germany.
After returning to America, I realized that as much as I loved Steven Tyler, I could not keep up with him or his lifestyle. Torn between two lovers, riddled in confusion, dripping in heartbreak and break-up sadness, I was holed up in the Horatio Street townhouse I had shared with Todd for years, very unsure of what to do next.
One night when Todd was on the road, and I was alone, I took a few of my friends for dinner at Phoebe’s, a restaurant on the Lower East Side. While we were there someone mentioned that The Dead Boys were playing down the street at CBGB. At this point I had not really hung out at CBGB very much and the scene there was exploding. I knew the owner, Hilly Kristal, and a lot of the people who played there, such as Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie, Patti Smith, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, etc. While the musical miracle that was being born at CB’s was forming, I was modeling in London, so I missed most of it. Still, my spirit was very much in sync with the music. I was lucky to have seen many of the bands that broke out of the UK on my many journeys to England. The bands that would have never come to be had it not been for the scene brewing on the Bowery.
Being pregnant but not overtly so, I agreed to walk down to the infamous gathering ground to see this band everyone was talking about. I didn’t make it far into the club as the cigarette smoke was making me sick, but I did get far enough inside to see this figure onstage in a T-shirt that had some kind of a bird wingspan on it. For some strange reason the shirt reminded me of the Aerosmith logo. Don’t ask me why.
Then suddenly I noticed that a woman’s head was pressed up against the singer’s lower regions and people were screaming and laughing— one of the waitresses, Maureen, was giving Stiv a blow job onstage!
Yes, the first time I laid my eyes on Bators in person, he was part of one of the many stunts that would come to define his legacy. I did get a good look at him and the band sounded dangerous and great! I immediately felt a connection to Stiv but didn’t stick around to see how things ended or if the oral act was successful. For some weird reason what was happening didn’t hinder the actual “connection.”
I remember telling my girlfriend Liz Derringer all about it and how fascinating this Stiv character was. I thought he was really good-looking, too, and of course Liz thought I was nuts! “You’ve dated some of the greatest rock stars on earth and you think this guy who looks like a rat is sexy?” Well, yes. I did.
I went on to have my daughter, Liv Tyler, on July 1, 1977, right in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record. Stiv would cross my mind from time to time— it was one of those things that never left me; I was living my life yet my mind would wander.
When Young, Loud & Snotty came out the Fall of 1977, I bought it immediately and it quickly became one of my favorite albums. But my life would take some enormous shifts before my path would cross Stiv’s again. At least I had the music and the music was right up my alley! And I thought it was very cool and innovative for them to use a woman, Genya Ravan, as their producer—— that made me like ’em even more!
Because of my circumstances, I’m not sure if I was making the best decisions. I was only 23— going on 24— and a single mother, but I wanted love so badly. I had had a highly publicized romance with my friend Rod Stewart that ended in disaster (because by that time I think I was too punk rock for him, hahahaha!). There’s truth in that jest!
Then in L.A., in the summer of 1978, I entered into a relationship with the musician Elvis Costello that would lead me to London where I lived until January 1979. That too ended in heartbreak and insanity. I look back on it all now and I realize I was just a kid going through huge things and I didn’t have the tools to deal with it all.
Here I was 25 years old, single and the mother of a beautiful two-year-old. I was living between NYC and Portland, Maine, where my family lived. I wanted to be closer to them so I could give Liv stability and consistency when I was off modeling or playing shows with my band. I had a cute cottage on their property and Liv and I loved it there.
Enter Stiv Bators. I was at a party for KISS in NYC and there he was—a vision in a pink- and black-striped jacket. As soon as I saw him, I wanted to meet him. I think it was the photographer Marcia Resnick who introduced us. He was with his girlfriend, Cynthia, who was in a band called The B-Girls. I don’t know what came over me but later that evening I went over to the two of them and told Cynthia I was stealing Stiv. We locked arms and off we went. Looking back on this, I’m of course very sorry for being so unkind. I really like Cynthia—I think we’ve come to closure on it as adults so that’s good. We both really loved the guy.
Gene Simmons was looking to go out and eat so he asked me if I’d like to go, too. Stiv said he would come to protect me from Gene. I laughed and the three of us grabbed a cab to David’s Pot Belly for a late night breakfast in the West Village. From that moment on, Stiv and I became very close.
Once I returned to Maine we spent hours at a time talking on the phone. Stiv helped me through the rough parts of my “situation” with the baby daddy scandal (everyone, including Todd and Steven, thought Liv was Todd’s child even though she was Steven’s).
He also made me laugh— a lot! He literally became my best friend.
Stiv was really into astrology. He was a Libra and always thought that we got along so well because my rising sign was Libra. There are other things about him that I bet will surprise people. He LOVED Southside Johnny and would listen to him when he visited me in Maine. He liked pop music— the old stuff. He adored girl groups like the Ronettes.
When I started hanging out with Stiv, the Dead Boys were coming to an end. It was really a sad time. Of course I thought it was ridiculous that he would even consider not being in the band, but he wanted to make some new music. I wonder if people felt it was my influence that caused that, though it wasn’t. This was starting before he even met me. I loved The Dead Boys— they were special. Stiv is certainly one of the most exciting front men in pop culture history. One of the best and absolutely one of the most enigmatic! He is unlike anyone else.
The Dead Boys should have stayed together after taking a break… not broken up. That’s what I thought, especially after the three nights at the Whiskey in L.A. January 1980. They were brilliant, and on one of the nights John Belushi came up and played perfect drums on “Sonic Reducer”! People were blown away! Everyone and anyone in a band in Hollywood at that time were at those shows. Stiv’s stage presence and the band’s genuineness was right up there with the best live shows I’ve ever seen. When they were clicking, they were on. The girls all called Jimmy Zero a punk rock Jimmy Page, especially when he wore his white ruffled shirt and velvet jacket!
Stiv was always coming up with these “ideas” and one of them was that we should get married on Saturday Night Live, the wedding presided over by John Belushi. He was dead serious. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get married. I was eyeball deep in love woes. Between the Todd-Rod-Elvis drama, I was starting to be viewed as a dating machine!
Stiv said, “You’d have the best married name ever- Bebe Bators!” He likened us to the punk rock Sonny & Cher. We were even voted “Couple Of The Year” in 1980 by Creem magazine, beating out all the era’s most noted couples.
Some of the best times I had with Stiv were in L.A. when he was working with Greg Shaw and BOMP Records. We stayed at The Tropicana and Sunset Suites… and I did all the driving. Stiv would only feel safe if I was behind the wheel. So Greg rented us a car. He was really good to Stiv and believed in him. We were even there for that infamous night in Hollywood when Kim Fowley brought 25 people into the studio to record a song where he wanted us all to sing “LA LA as in L-ay, L-ay” to the tune of “Louie Louie.” I know that’s floating around somewhere— it was a single, I’m told. I’ve yet to hear it.
Marcia Resnick photographed us a lot and the images she created have come to represent the times. They’re still some of my favorite pictures and I’m so glad we have them as memories. John Lennon even told me how much he liked the shots he saw in the Village Voice. Especially the one where Stiv is wrapped around me, his leg up and my hair spread across the floor. That was one of the last times I spoke to John before he was shot. I ran into him on Park Avenue coming out of his attorney’s office. We stood in the street for over twenty minutes talking about all kinds of things. God, what a blessing to have had that exchange.
Stiv was one of the driving forces behind me getting a band together and recording. He kept pushing me and would often make recordings of me singing in the bathroom at Marty Abrams’ apartment and various locations when the inspiration struck him. We did a duet of “Hey Paula” by Paul & Paula that’s my favorite… he’d use a cassette machine and the echo of the bathroom to make these recordings and to think they are out there somewhere makes me yearn to find them. I’d give anything to find them. I wonder if anyone still has them??
Here’s some little tidbits about Stiv that some may or may not know. He was very tidy and loved doing laundry. He had a specific way he liked to fold his T-shirts and he enjoyed the ritual. He was great with kids and loved animals. He could charm anyone from all walks of life. He proved that when I brought him home to meet my family one Easter and everyone ended up really liking him. He spent a lot of time at my cottage in Maine and I saw the side of him that was just a nice boy from Ohio. He had the bluest eyes and the biggest heart. He loved to vacuum and clean the house. He was constantly listening to music and he anticipated the release of the first Pretenders album the same way a kid would their favorite band.
When I was running with Stiv, drugs were not the focus. I know that they became a priority in his life and the times I saw him after our romance ended reflected it. I was sorry we drifted apart— he was a good boyfriend and I regret nothing about the time I spent with him. I don’t think he ever really believed I loved him. He would always say, “I think you really love Steven Tyler. Not any of these other guys. You’ll just get bored with me after a few months. You’re just acting out.”
But we stayed friends and he visited me in Maine a few times over the years. We would get together for dinner whenever we were both in NYC. He always called on holidays and birthdays— from London or Paris. He and Michael Monroe even showed up at a taping I was doing for some TV show in the mid-80s. Just to surprise me.
Stiv had a romance with an MTV VJ named Martha Quinn for a while in the 80s, too. He really liked her and wanted me to meet her to get my opinion. We all went to dinner and, yes, I liked her. I wasn’t sure what they had in common, but I was happy he seemed more grounded. That ended and then there was the London period, romantic and new musical explorations with The Lords Of The New Church, followed by the Paris times with Caroline Warren.
We even shared a bill together when we both played Joey Ramone’s The Holy Inquisition Circus Of The Perverse on January 13, 1989. Me with my band, The Gargoyles, and he and Cheetah Chrome as The Lords Of The Dead.
The day I got the phone call that Stiv had been hit by a car in Paris, I was in my new apartment on 22nd St. in NYC. Eileen Polk sobbed into my ear, “Bebe, Stiv is dead. Stiv is dead!” I’m not sure what happened next, but I remember throwing up. Eileen and I were just screaming and crying into the phone. It didn’t seem real.
In 1994, I had to go to Paris to promote my new album Retrosexual that came out on Marc Zermati’s Skydog Records. I, of course, wanted to get together with Caroline, his partner at his time of death, so we arranged to meet up at the apartment they shared. She fell into my arms and sighed. She felt so fragile and I could see that time had not healed her pain. She sat me down and said, “Stiv would want you to have these.” It was an urn of his ashes and she proceeded to scoop some out for me to take. I had never seen anyone’s ashes up close like that and I was amazed at how much bone and particles are entwined. “I want you to have half of these because Stiv really loved you, Bebe. I hope you know that.”
She carefully folded them into an envelope. We both cried. Then suddenly the lights starting flickering in the apartment. She said, “Oh, it’s just Stiv. He visits all the time.” I could see her gentle madness was in flight but at the same time, you never know. I felt some kind of energy in there. It was odd that the window faced a pub called “Diablo” and the name sat upon a huge carving of Satan. She told me the location brought her comfort.
She then offered me his glasses. Stiv wore glasses and really needed them. He switched over to a red rose lenses, which made him feel more like a rock star. She insisted I have them but I told her to keep them and give them to me at another time so she could be sure. I didn’t want her to regret parting with them. It was his favorite pair.
She told me she would call his parents and try to see if the shoebox with cassettes was with them. When I spoke to Stiv’s Mom and Dad they told me that Caroline had the tapes. So, I guess I’ll never know where they are… and it’s heartbreaking! Little did I know that the trip to Paris would be the last time I saw Caroline again. We spoke on the phone a few times but lost touch. She’s now passed, too.
I think about Stiv almost every day. In a lot of ways, he was underrated. A true showman, he was the essence of what every sublime front person personifies. He oozed it… he had it…