Confessions of a groupie: Billy Idol, Van Halen, and how to grow your fan base

By Charlie Fenton

20 May 2024

It was 1981. Patti was 17 when she jumped on the bandwagon of Van Halen and worked for their merch team. “It was fucking awesome,” she recalls. She was lucky enough to meet Mr Van Halen himself. “I met Eddie twice whilst working. The first time he was so rude,” she explained. “I asked him for an autograph, he then huffed, checked his shoulders, rolled his eyes, grabbed the paper scribbled his signature and then chucked it back at me.” Patti said the second time Eddie was the “sweetest, most adorable guy” when he knocked on her door asking for the rooming list. “He gave me the sweetest smile, utterly gorgeous, a totally different human,” she said.

Credit: Patti Johnsen

Patti also met David Lee Roth, Van Halen’s lead singer. In fact, he invited her back to his room after he called her into the lift at the hotel they shared. “After a bit of flirting and a line of cocaine, he asked me, ‘Talk me through your thoughts lovely’ and I stumbled to him, ‘You’re fucking gorgeous’ being a naive 17-year-old, he replied, ‘You’re not so bad yourself honey.’” He offered her to join him in the shower, but she declined. She had one strict rule to follow… Don’t mingle with the band. “Going back to his room was the beginning of the end of my time with Van Halen,” she said. At the end of the tour, she was dropped.

The real reason Patti stepped into the lifestyle was to follow the bands she loved growing up. Her bedroom was awash with Van Halen posters. The second reason was more ominous. “I did have issues at home, a boy also had broken my heart, I guess that’s why I went.” But once in, she said: “I felt so valued in the scene by these amazing people I just couldn’t leave (…) but to be wanted by David, your self-confidence boosts, I know it sounds superficial, but it’s true.”

After leaving Van Halen, she was a groupie with rockers in smaller bands in the metal scene like Krokus and Ratt before hitting it big again touring with the likes of Mötley Crüe, Motörhead, and Bon Jovi whilst she was dating Joey Alves, lead guitarist of supporting band Y&T. This is where she came face-to-face with her holy grail. Patti explained a “holy grail” is a groupie’s “biggest rock ‘n’ roll crush”. Patti’s was Nikki Sixx, bassist of Mötley Crüe. “I was standing next to him when Y&T were playing, and I couldn’t look at him. “If I did, I would have exploded,” she said with a sigh.

Aged 21, she left the metal scene and headed for the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood and got herself a job as a waitress at the legendary club, The Rainbow Bar and Grill. The club held members from Led Zeppelin to the Sex Pistols. Patti worked there for almost a decade. She still has the entrance ticket she bought on the second day she walked through the doors when she landed the job. The Rainbow is where she met her first lover in the Hollywood scene, Taime Downe. He was working at a local retailer at the time but would become lead singer of Faster Pussycat. She met him on her first night working at the venue. Patti explained: “He was fucking gorgeous; I say he’s the male version of Marilyn Monroe.” They romanced for four months until they drifted. Yet Patti says they are still great friends. The Rainbow is also where she befriended other legends such as Lee Rocker and John Entwistle, The Who bassist. But Lemmy, bassist of Motörhead, was her greatest. “He wrote on a letter he sent me ‘you are my lion-hearted friend,’” she explained. The pair hit it off one night whilst she was working at the club and stayed great friends. “He only lived a block away from the club and was always over; we loved it,” she said. “He was just the best, so genuine and sincere.” Lemmy would even let Patti read his lyrics. After Patti left The Rainbow in 1993, they stayed in contact through letters and texts until he died in 2015. “He was the only person I allowed to call me Pat,” she giggled. “He said it without making me sound like a 60-year-old chain smoker.”

Lemmy and Patti together Credit: Patti Johnsen

READ: Grow your fanbase from a groupie POV

Her time in Los Angeles holds another memorable moment as she also met George Harrison at a local radio station. “When I caught the news, I ran down with a friend and waited in the reception for him.” Patti tells this next bit in her best scouse accent. “I asked him for an autograph, and he replied, ‘Who is it for,’ and I replied, ‘For Patti’ he said, ‘Oh for Patti is it’ whilst rolling his eyes.” For those who don’t know, Patti Boyd is also the name of George’s ex-wife.

Then came Billy Idol. She met him at The Rainbow. too “I remember the first time he called me (…) I was going crazy, five octaves too high, the weirdness, ugh.” That was after the second time she met him. When he left the club, she handed him her number on the ripped casing of a pack of matches. “I was blasting his tune Feld for Fantasy when I got home, not expecting him to call, but when he did, I jumped on it,” she explained. “I turned down the music and I said to him, ‘Sorry for the music, I’m just getting my Billy Idol fix to which he replied, ‘Really, really, would you like the real thing,’ I then shot over to his place.” Patti says he was a “real charmer” and “such a great man”. She said Billy was “one of the only men” who asked for consent before sex and Patti also has high praise for him in this department. “He probably was one of the best lovers I had (…) sex with him was fucking great,” she explained. “The track To Be A Lover, in the music video when he’s fucking the floor, that’s what he looked like having sex.”

Patti agreed in the world of music the word ‘groupie’ has succumbed to three words: Love, music, and sex… That order. “Groupies are bands guardian angels”, said Patti. “They are their therapist, their mummy, their bestie, their sister, and their lover. “The word groupie has many strings attached.” However, she says to be a groupie it “isn’t just about sex”. “It’s there, it has to be, but we are also muses, but most importantly music lovers and that’s why we’re here.”

She tells of a time when her friend Tim Stegall, a journalist, came to her defence after a woman snarled at the word. “The woman said, ‘Being a groupie is not about sex’, it’s all about the music.’ “Tim then stepped in and replied, ‘What are they going to do whilst talking music, bake brownies?’” She believes the stereotype is “stuck in a different time.” To Patti, she’s most proud of the fact that groupies have “inspired” some of people’s “favourite artists” and “favourite songs”.

Patti now lives with her husband and children in Colorado. She describes herself as trustworthy, loyal, and loving. Her stories live up to these words to the tee. “But most of all,” she says, “I will always be a proud groupie.”

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