Looking for a great book to read this fall? AARP picks 12 notable nonfiction releases.
by Charlie Clark, AARP The Magazine, February 22, 2010
"I'm with the band."
That's the classic, and often overblown, claim of groupies—those mythic sisters who linger outside the dressing rooms of rock luminaries, hoping for a one-night stand. Well, Chris O'Dell really was with the band—some epic bands, in fact—but she was on the payroll, not the bedroll.
O'Dell glided into the inner sanctums of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—a boomer fantasy that she capably retells in this chatty pop memoir. We watch in wonder as O'Dell's outlook evolves from typical teen awe ("Was this really happening?" she marvels on her first close encounter with Lennon and McCartney) to jaded alienation ("I had no power. I was a lady-in-waiting, an employee who was being paid to live someone else's life and not my own.").
O'Dell's rock dream began in February 1968 in Los Angeles, where the Oklahoma-bred 20-year-old typist had been dragged by her star-struck boyfriend to meet Beatles publicist Derek Taylor. She charmed the Brit and eventually became his driver. That led to a paid position in London at the Apple Corps Ltd. record label, the Beatles' experiment in creative capitalism, where O'Dell was quickly made to feel that she belonged—so long as she worked busily and avoided making "other girls jealous."
Soon O'Dell is listening to an unknown artist named James Taylor trying out a new song—something about Carolina—in the bathroom of her apartment. She books studio sessions for Apple artists Billy Preston, Mary Hopkin, and Badfinger. She scores a rare invite to visit the Abbey Road studios while the Beatles are recording there, and winds up singing in the chorus on "Hey Jude." The experiences make the author feel as if "the fairy dust of fame had settled all around me."
And here lies the magical mystery of Chris O'Dell: how did an unremarkable American girl forge instant friendships and snag coveted jobs with the psychedelic British jet set? Was she stunningly beautiful? Terminally hip? Sexually complaisant?
No doubt O'Dell was a looker—Lennon called her attractive, and David Bowie made a pass at her. But she recounts her conquests with restraint: Ringo Starr, Dylan, the playwright Sam Shepard (until Joni Mitchell stole him away), session drummer Jim Gordon (later jailed for murdering his mother), and Mick Jagger (because "if there had been a job description for being employed by the Stones back then, I'm pretty sure it would have included a proviso that went something like this: Sleep with Mick whenever he asks").
If many of O'Dell's carnal romps were mere boredom-lifters, others contained genuine emotion. Her romance with Leon Russell—whose "Pisces Apple Lady" was written for O'Dell—blossomed because "his music was like an aphrodisiac, drawing me in, pulling me toward him, bringing to the surface my own buried yearnings."
But O'Dell was less a sex toy and more a professional friend to the stars—and their wives. Consider a typical spring day on the town in 1970 with Pattie Boyd (who would trade first husband George Harrison for Eric Clapton): from George’s country estate, Friar Park, they took off in Boyd’s cherry-red Mercedes for London, where they “shopped on Bond Street, stopped by Apple to see [Beatles PR man] Peter Brown, had a massage at a fashionable spa right off Berkeley Square, and met actor John Hurt for dinner at a French restaurant."
O'Dell played a role in music history—she typed up the lyrics for Harrison's "All Things Must Pass," for example, and the Stones' "Exile on Main Street." But she also endured aimless hours lolling about Friar Park, which "was too big to be homey and at times felt more like a mausoleum than a place where people actually lived." And unwittingly, she became "the other woman" in a shifting triangle involving Ringo, George, and Ringo's wife, Maureen.
Aggravating the tedium of this lifestyle was its toxicity. O'Dell details her daily cocaine habit and recalls giving hash to Joe Cocker, transporting drugs for Keith Richards, and seeing her late-life marriage to a British aristocrat shattered by their shared addiction.
O'Dell's opus delivers some genuine scoops. She was at home with George Harrison on the April day in 1970 when he learned from London newspapers—along with the rest of the world—that his band was breaking up. She recalls a 1974 get-together at New York's Plaza Hotel where John and George reminisced about watching Beatlemaniacs storm that very establishment a decade earlier. We even get her take on Bob Dylan's mother, Beatrice "Beatty" Zimmerman, whom O'Dell met during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975. Unlike her disaffected son, O'Dell reports, Mrs. Zimmerman was "joyful… warm and affectionate… social and uninhibited."
Punctuating O'Dell's highs are some inevitable lows. In her later career as a tour manager, for example, she functioned as "everything from babysitter to mother, secretary, therapist, problem solver, travel agent, maid, and alarm clock." Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were prima donnas about their hotel accommodations, she reveals, and behaved as if they were "above the law." As for the Stones, O'Dell concluded that they were simply "a little too raw, too raunchy." As evidence, she cites the time they filmed an orgy aboard their private plane and afterward sent one of the compliant young women home, dazed and ashamed. And she deplores the male rock-star proclivity to make many women "just another nodding appendage."
The book's title comes from the song George Harrison wrote after Chris stood him up one night in Los Angeles. Released in 1973 as the B-side of Harrison's hit single "Give Me Love," the "Miss O'Dell" cut has since been largely forgotten. Chris O'Dell's fresh confessions should give it a new spin.
Charlie Clark, a Washington writer, says he would have accepted a job with the band.
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