Penny Lane was a single performed by The Beatles and written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon. It was released in 1967 as a single, together with Strawberry Fields Forever, and was later included on the Magical Mystery Tour album.

The song belongs to The Beatles later period, when their output was more varied and more experimental, and where almost every song was in a different genre, or was hard to classify. Despite this period having much difficult music, "Penny Lane" is a melodic song with a verse chorus verse format, and with nostalgic subject matter. The song is about "Penny Lane", an idyllic suburban street with charming, middle class residents. When I first started listening to The Beatles as a thirteen year old, the song gave me instant nostalgia: quite an accomplishment, considering that as a thirteen year old, I didn't have much material to be nostalgic about, and Liverpool in the 1950s was certainly not a part of it.

Listening to the song twenty years later, I realize another layer of meaning to the song. Like many Beatles songs, it is a work of parody: its musical style and its nostalgic look at suburban life are meant to be ironic. And yet, the song is also sung with real emotion, meant to convey a real fondness for a "simpler time". The song thus manages to be ironic and sincere at the same time, which is part of the ineffable genius of The Beatles.


In addition to the famous song, this is also the name taken by the young groupie, aka band aide, played by Kate Hudson in the recent movie Almost Famous. I wondered, as I allowed (against my better judgement) my daughter to watch that movie yesterday, how many Penny Lanes in real life wound up jetting off to Morocco, with perfect hair and that unfiltered smile, after their stint as plaster casters?

I saw this whole movie happen in real life, and I can tell you that it is sanitized beyond belief. Not that I didn't enjoy either the movie or the real life, but I enjoyed the movie as Hollywood escapism with just a hint of a reality I used to know: Not as a representation of that reality. Lester Bangs was cool, but he wasn't that damn cool. Rolling Stone was crucial to the era, but it was being run neither that stupidly nor that efficiently. Most importantly, the groupies and the bands didn't wind up all shiny happy people at the end.

Did it all seem glamorous to you as you watched it? Even the drug overdoses somehow lead to a higher reality. No one dies. I can tell you for a fact, people died. Instead of following the Stillwater group, he should have had his little reporter follow a group called the Allman Joys.

Like Stillwater, they had a hot guitar player who was so far ahead of the rest of the group musically that it was like an inside joke. However, unlike Stillwater's lead guitarist who jumps from the roof and just gets . . . wet, the guitarist in the Joys could do something like, (I don't know), get addicted to heroin and cocaine and kill himself by slamming his motorcycle into a truck.

The Penny Lane character in Almost Famous is reputedly based on Pamela Des Barres, author of "I'm With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie", "Take Another Little Piece of My Heart: A Groupie Grows Up", and "Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon".

The evidence? Cameron Crowe went on tour with Led Zeppelin, and Miss Pamela had an affair with Jimmy Page. He took her on tour with him and later dumped her for a 14 year old, Lori Maddox. The quote from the end of the movie about "new girls" eating all the steak could be a reference to the dislike shared by L.A. groupies (see? she's from California, just like in the movie) of Des Barres' generation for the younger (man-stealing) crop, evidenced by Des Barres' description of Sable Starr in "I'm With the Band". Crowe made Kate Hudson read Des Barres' book to prepare for the role.

And there's this photo: http://www.groupiecentral.com/gwlpameladb.html .. Enough said?

Then again, who's to say? Penny Lane may have been based on Des Barres because she's become somewhat the definition of a groupie, if anyone is. The real Pennie Lane (Crowe supposedly knew one) or the character he's actually trying to portray, coincidence and conspiracy theory aside, may have been some no-name teenage swooner who only Crowe will ever remember.

This stuff is fascinating. I should become a gossip columnist.



update: according to the venerable Ms. icicle, the real Penny Lane gave interviews to a few magazines, and lives in Portland. So the above is merely coincidence.

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