Rock 'N Roll Mama

Before you judge Bebe Buell--before you dismiss her as merely the mother of Liv Tyler, or the ex-girlfriend of Steven Tyler, or the ex-girlfriend of Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren--you really should see her rock. "Come to one of my shows!" she'll tell you. "Let me beat you up! Then make up your mind." Fair enough. On a July evening Buell, 48, and her band take the stage at CBGB's in New York. Buell is playful, magnetic and clearly exhilarated at being the rock star for a change. She belts out some bright punk tunes, dances and struts like Tyler and Jagger, strokes the microphone stand suggestively and shakes her hair (among other things). Liv looks on proudly from the crowd. Later, when you ask if her daughter is ever embarrassed by the Bebe Show, Buell reflects for a moment. "I think she would prefer it if I didn't take my pants off when I performed," she says. "I don't do it all the time, but sometimes the Iggy does enter my blood and I do get outrageous onstage. Liv'll just sort of say to me after, 'Mom, you should have worn a different color underwear'."

Buell airs even more laundry in her memoir, "Rebel Heart," a funny and scandalous Alice in Wonderland story about a former Catholic-school girl who comes to New York as a teenager to model and stumbles into a strange world where everybody's snorting coke off the looking glass. "Rebel Heart," which was written with Victor Bockris, can be as rambling as an acceptance speech. Still, it's full of priceless cameos. There's the cultivated, mischievous Jagger, who coaches Buell about wine and skin-care products and teases her about Tyler ("What do you want the fake Mick for when you've got the real one?"). There's the gentlemanly Page, who opens his hotel-room door with a bow ("Come in, darling... Would you like some cocaine? Are you hungry? I've got a great idea. Why don't we give this fruit basket to the raccoon and put them both in the bathroom?"). There's the drug-addicted Tyler, whom she falls for at first sight ("He and I were the only ones wearing leopard skin that night"). There's even Jack Nicholson, who tells Buell she should forget about all those "sleazy" rock guys--and has sex with her up against a Volkswagen.

Despite the high jinks, "Rebel Heart" can be tremendously poignant. That's partly because Buell's own career as a model and would-be rock star founders, and partly because--despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary--she never stops believing that her love can change men already deeply in love with themselves. Director Cameron Crowe met Buell in 1973 when he interviewed Rundgren for Rolling Stone--and wrote "Almost Famous" with her picture taped to his wall. "I think she was 19 then, and she was, like, the queen," he told NEWSWEEK. "That was my first dose of girlfriend-as-muse--the girl who transcends 'groupie.' It was amazing just to see Todd and Bebe walking together. It was my first real blast of what romantic love looked like. When a beautiful woman actually loves you?! I'd never seen that up close before."

Over the years Buell's rebel heart inevitably took a couple of royal beatings. One of them is already something of a legend. In 1976 she and Tyler conceived Liv. She fantasized about marrying the singer, but he was too deep into drugs at the time, so Buell and Rundgren agreed to pretend that Liv was Rundgren's child and to raise her together. By the time she was 11, Liv had begun to suspect something--"Mommy, why does Steven cry every time we meet?"--and at an Aerosmith concert in Massachusetts she found herself staring at Tyler's daughter Mia, who was standing at the side of the stage. "Mia's only 18 months younger than Liv," Buell says, "so when she walked out, it was just sort of overwhelming because of the physical similarities. Steven was singing 'Dream On.' How hokey can we get, right? Liv turned and looked right at me, and she said, 'Mom, that's my father, isn't it?' Those were her exact words. I paused for a moment, and then I just went for it. I didn't want to hurt Todd, but I was thinking, The adults can suffer the consequences later."

As tangled and epic as Buell's relationships with Tyler and Rundgren were, nobody broke her heart like Elvis Costello. Buell met the singer shortly after Liv was born, while he was temporarily separated from his wife Mary. What Buell describes in "Rebel Heart" is a tempestuous, genuinely wrenching love affair that flashed off and on for years and ended about as badly as such a thing can end. In 1984 Buell got pregnant. Costello--back with Mary, whom he'd divorce a year later--told her that he didn't believe in abortion, but also that he'd have nothing whatsoever to do with the baby. Buell made a choice she says she now regrets. According to her book, the last time she spoke to Costello was in 1985, when he told her, "I have nothing to say to you, you murderer!" (Costello was on holiday at press time and couldn't be reached for comment.) The most unintentionally sad moments in "Rebel Heart" come when Buell, who has never entirely gotten over Costello, sifts through his song lyrics, looking for coded messages. "And if you look at the word Blue," she writes of the singer's album "Almost Blue," "doesn't Buell jump out at you?"

All in all, "Rebel Heart" is surprisingly light on rancor and self-pity. Buell says she didn't want to write a simpering book about a woman ravaged by love. In person, too, she's upbeat about it all. Buell is quite charming, partly because of how badly she wants to charm--how unapologetically she wants a best-selling book, a record deal, something after all these years. "It's funny," she says, "I'm 48, but I'm not--in the sense that I still feel as fresh as a 17-year-old entering into her life all over again, you know? If I can just hold up physically, if I can just keep the stamina going, if I can just Tina-Turner my way into being 60... "

A week after her show at CBGB's, Buell takes you to a fancy restaurant near her home in Portland, Maine, having called ahead to make sure there's a bottle of pink champagne chilling by the table. The restaurant's called the Back Bay Grill, and the initials "B.B." are everywhere, which tickles her immensely. At the end of the meal Buell orders a creme brulee for the two of you to share, and it arrives on a plate with the monogram written in chocolate. Buell smiles. When you raise your spoon--and warn her that you're going to have to mess up the "B.B."--she lets out a giant laugh. "Go ahead," she says. "Smash right into her. Won't be the first time."