What’s the story with Bebe Buell? Are Elvis Costello’s late-70s albums really about her?
These days, many people just know Bebe Buell as the mother of Liv Tyler, but in the ’70s, she was a model and Playboy centerfold who had romantic liaisons with just about every major figure in rock, including Steven Tyler, Todd Rundgren, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, and Rod Stewart. “At the time, relations between models and rock stars were rare,” she mused. “Apres moi, le deluge.” Buell was close enough to the Rolling Stones to report in her deliciously trashy autobiography Rebel Heart that Keith Richards was the best-endowed member of the group and that Jagger objected to her liaison with Steven Tyler, telling her, “Why do you want the fake Mick when you’ve got the real one?”
Buell certainly had an intense affair with Costello; as she described it, it lasted from 1978 to 1979, then again from 1982 to 1985, and ended when she aborted their child. She said he was the love of her life, and saw their relationship as being a pervasive inspiration for Costello’s work, down to the title of Blood and Chocolate (from her habit of demanding a candy bar whenever she got her period). Buell summarized: “It’s scary what Elvis does. He writes these lyrics because he knows I will see them, but he also knows that if I try to express this to people, they will think I am nuts. He wants people to think I’m crazy; it delights him. But deep down he knows the truth.”
Costello, for his part, addressed Buell, although not by name, on the liner notes to a reissue of Armed Forces: “She turned up with eight pieces of luggage like a mail-order bride and moved in. I was too stupid and vain to resist. She’d later claim to have inspired most of the songs on this record–all of which were already written when we met. This was also said about the previous release–a chronological impossibility–and many of my other compositions to this day. It is a tragic delusion about which I wish I could say: ‘I shall not dignify that with a response’ but ‘dignity’ doesn’t come into this story.”
Buell called me up to object that she’d never claimed to be the inspiration for the songs on Armed Forces—which appears to be true. Although she’s written about Costello using her life for inspiration in that period, and on the Get Happy! and Blood and Chocolate albums in particular, she seemed perfectly sane about where her influence upon him began and ended. Buell dismissed Costello’s liner notes as more psychological gamesmanship. (And Costello’s carefully crafted comment was not actually a denial of her influence on his life and music, although it certainly was intended to give that impression.) For all that, Buell has seemed overeager to find any trace of her influence, to validate herself as muse rather than groupie. Take, for example, her contention about “Little Red Corvette”: she believed that Prince wrote it about her, despite never having met her, and that he is actually singing “Bebe you’re much too fast.”
(Excerpted from the 2006 book Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?: Music’s Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed, published by Three Rivers Press, written by Gavin Edwards.)