It’s Tuesday night at the darkly intimate Backstage Cafe in Beverly Hills, and promoter Punkin Pie is in a panic. What if too few musicians drop by for her all-night jam fest?
”Could you please not smoke in here?“ she snaps at a lanky blond UCLA student. The embarrassed lad walks outside to finish his fag. ”Why do I have to do this?“ asks Punkin. ”California is nonsmoking.“
Suddenly, keyboardist Herbie Hancock arrives, kissing her on the cheek before wading to the bar through the crowd of Hollywood babes. Pie is grinning ear to ear; now all she needs is a drummer. Right on cue, Keith Allison, sticks man from ‘60s pop fabs Paul Revere and the Raiders, appears with drummer Carmine Appice, late of the Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd and King Cobra bands, on his heels. ”Are you going to play tonight?“ Pie asks Appice. ”That’s what I‘m here for,“ he grins.
”He’s a legend,“ Pie says to her bevy of blond friends.
If you saw Almost Famous, the Cameron Crowe movie about his days as a teen writer for Rolling Stone, you may have wondered whatever happened to Penny Lane, the free-spirited groupie memorably portrayed by Kate Hudson, last seen in the film boarding a plane for Morocco. Well, you might think of Penny Lane as having grown up to be Punkin Pie, a groupie-turned-club-promoter who pairs rock legends with unknowns in some of the hottest club nights in L.A.
”I have created a romper room for adults,“ Pie says modestly.
Blond, brown-eyed and 44, Pie is the quintessential California sexpot, minus the boob job and blank stare. Part of her allure is how she makes celebrities feel. ”She‘s a real feeling person and is always trying to put people together,“ says Hancock. ”It’s very refreshing to be in her presence.“
”She‘s the biggest music fan in the world,“ agrees Yogi of Buckcherry, who credits Pie with launching his first band, Sound Assembly.
But Pie’s real talent is her willingness to take a chance on beginners. She‘s nibbling on a crab cake when a pretty 21-year-old British girl approaches her and asks shyly if she can sing with Appice, Hancock and his cronies. ”You sure you can sing?“ queries Pie gently. The girl nods. ”Okay,“ says Pie. The girl walks away, ecstatic. ”It’s about giving people a chance. You never know, she may be the next big thing.“
Since starting out five years ago, Punkin Irene Elizabeth Laughlin has made her dream of promoting a reality. ”I wanted a place that would have live music, whether the musicians were famous or not,“ she says. ”A place where people could walk in, pick up their guitars and play with an established band, or bring in their own band and showcase their own music.“
Pie lived in Hollywood until she was 10; her florist parents didn‘t want their daughter going to high school in Hollywood, so the family moved to Medford, Oregon, 50 miles from the California border, where she grew up playing drums, percussion and bass, and dating local musicians. By age 14, Pie was on the road with her neighbors’ band, as the designated groupie. After high school graduation, she toured with her boyfriend‘s band, Wisdom Star Family, ending up in Eugene, hanging out with Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead and Pat Benatar while Wisdom Star opened up for Robert Cray.
Looking to spread her wings, Pie made her way to Marin County in 1980. The day after she arrived, she guessed the name of Jeff Beck’s album There and Back in a radio-station contest and won tickets to his concert. At the show she was invited backstage and ended up dating Beck‘s manager, and spent the remainder of the year touring with the band. ”I would stand in the front row and give them my energy,“ says Pie about her early concert-going days. ”Every single band would focus in on me, and someone would take me backstage. I guess I was really cute at the time.“ Did she party like a true groupie? ”No. I’ve had one one-night stand with a musician in my entire life,“ she says sheepishly.
In addition to her job as a full-time groupie, Pie landed spots on music videos for Rick Springfield, Julian Lennon and Jefferson Starship. She was also Kate Capshaw‘s double in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and a stand-in for Lea Thompson in Howard the Duck.
During her time in Marin County, Pie planned to visit Jeff Beck in London, but he canceled. She decided to go anyway and stay with friends of a friend. ”I was bawling uncontrollably at the airport,“ remembers Pie. ”I was devastated. I didn’t want to go to London by myself and stay with strangers.“ But it all worked out. At the airport, she spotted director George Lucas, whom she had met briefly years earlier, waiting for the same flight. He noticed that she was in tears. ”I wrote him a note on the plane explaining to him why I was crying,“ she says. ”He was so nice. He came back from first class to see if I was okay. Everyone around me was freaking out because I was talking to him.“
While waiting for her bags in London, Lucas approached her and gave her the number of his hotel, telling her to call if she got into trouble. She rang him a few days later and left a message thanking him for his concern. He called her later that day and invited her for dinner at his hotel. ”I went up in the elevator and the door opened to his penthouse suite,“ says Pie. ”I had a seven-course dinner with George Lucas.“ And then . . . ? ”He was a perfect gentleman,“ she says coyly.
In 1988, Pie left her boyfriend and moved to L.A. ”It was so happening,“ she says. ”I was having such a ball.“ Her first job was as an A&R staffer with a British record label. When the label folded six months later, she began hostessing at Noa Noa (now Crustacean), hobnobbing with club owners and Hollywood studio execs.
She began promoting in 1995 by default while she was managing the rock club Tattoo. ”Every night of my life, people would call me up and ask who was playing, what parties were going on and could I get them in,“ she says. ”It just snowballed from there. I just needed to be in one place and people would come.“ She started out at the Gem (now the Gig), inviting Yogi and his band Sound Assembly to play. Her big break came in 1998 when she joined forces with promoter Allan Kaufman, who was responsible for bringing the China Club to various venues around L.A. Last year, it found a home at Barfly on Wednesday nights and drew in talent such as Slash‘s Snakepit, Rick James, and Bruce Willis’ band. While the event was shut down temporarily for not having a cabaretdance license, Pie and Kaufman have recently started it again.
Today, Pie promotes three nights a week. Her most recent success is the popular Thursday-night Cat Club on Sunset Boulevard, where house bandmates Gilby Clarke of Guns N‘ Roses and Slim Jim Phantom (formerly of the Stray Cats) jam with club regulars such as teen idol Leif Garrett, Michael Des Barres, Rod Stewart and Tracii Guns of L.A. Guns.
Huddled in a booth at the Cat Club, Pie is talking animatedly with her usual friends, and one noticeable addition: reclusive Guns N’ Roses front man Axl Rose. Pie dragged Rose back to the Cat Club after the two met backstage at a concert at the Universal Ampitheater. ”He was nervous to show up,“ says Pie about her old friend. ”He hasn‘t been out of his house in six years.“ Rose stuns the 100-plus partygoers by jumping onstage and singing alongside former bandmate Clarke to the Stones’ ”Dead Flowers“ and ”Wild Horses.“
”I love live music, and it‘s important for me to be able to give something back to musicians,“ says Pie. ”If I was a regular promoter, I’d be making a fortune.“
Life hasn‘t been all that rosy for Pie as a woman in the male-dominated music business, and she admits that she’s hit a few roadblocks along the way. ”Some guys think of me as a groupie, but I take everything in stride,“ she says. ”Men work from an ego standpoint. It can become hurtful sometimes.“
When not promoting, Pie spends her time away from the club scene at home in Redondo Beach in her pink pajamas. ”Redondo is my sanctuary,“ she says, then smiles. ”I even garden naked.“