Pauline Butcher was Zappa's secretary from 1968 to 1972. She was initially hired to transcribe the lyrics for Absolutely Free while the Mothers Of Invention were in London for their first tour of Europe. But Zappa asked her to work for him, and she moved from England to his Log Cabin in the Hollywood Hills. Her duties included running the United Mutations fan club and road-managing the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), a group Frank cobbled together and recorded.
While in Los Angeles, she had a brief affair with Cal Schenkel. She can be seen stroking her neck with a doll's foot in the Uncle Meat booklet.
In 2010, Plexus Books published her memoir, Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa. I interviewed her in 2012, and have remained in touch with her ever since.
When your book was published, you said you were hoping it would find a female audience outside of the Zappa fan base. Has that happened?
No, because it was targeting Zappa fans. The new re-structured version that I hope to come out some time in 2019 focuses more on my journey and relationship with Frank Zappa rather than, as I planned it in the original, as a view of Zappa’s women. I have down-played many of the peripheral characters and the book will therefore have a more feminine arc to the story. It also has chapter titles and a post-script stating what happened to everyone since the end of the book.
Did you get any feedback from either of the Underwoods? When I interviewed you six years ago, you were hesitant about approaching Ruth – and Ian had yet to reply to your email.
I did try to contact Ruth, but I could not trace
her. By the time Art Tripp gave me her details, the book was already out and it
was too late.
Ian Underwood turned up out of the blue last year and we had a comical three weeks trying to communicate via phone, Skype and messenger all of which failed and made it seem like an omen. In the end, about August 2017, we did communicate by phone. We did catch up and he had not read my book. I sent him a copy and he said he would contact me afterwards. He did not. Ominous.
I did contact his two daughters via Facebook because he gave me their names and they too said they would read the book, but neither came back to me (cough).
assume you had no further contact with Gail after our first interview?
No, I had no further information from Gail from any source about my book. I know she was planning to write her own memoir and I did think my book would have helped her, but it seems, like so many of her projects, not to have gotten very far.
I know that Dweezil has read my book and he posted that he liked it. And Moon, at one time, had a copy of my book by her bedside. But I’ve had no feedback from either of them, which is disappointing.
How did you feel about BBC Radio 4’s adaptation of your memoir for an Afternoon Drama in 2014?[i]
I was flattered that the BBC decided my memoir warranted a BBC adaptation. However, I was disappointed that they kept me at arm’s length. I was not allowed to communicate with Matthew Broughton, the adapter, nor did the BBC director, Kate McAll, allow me to see the script or go to the recording studio while the recording was taking place. I therefore did not know anything about the play until the afternoon it was broadcast in May 2014.
I loved the portrayal by Lucy Briggs-Owen[ii] of me. I thought she got the zaniness and humour spot on. However, I did not like their portrayal of Frank Zappa[iii] – the accent was wrong, the laugh was wrong and his ‘love’ attachment to me was false. Yes, he no doubt fancied me in extreme but he contained that sexual drive and turned it into a good working relationship and finally close fondness. This was not portrayed in the play and I listened to ‘Frank’s’ heavy breathing through open fingers and embarrassment.
Still, taking me and Frank out of the picture, I thought it made a nice BBC afternoon play, and even made it to ‘Pick of the Week’.
Yes, it was an interesting listen, but they should have recruited you as an adviser, at the very least. Never mind.
Last year, you went to Zappanale, where you reunited with Bunk Gardner and Don Preston. How did you enjoy the whole experience?
Zappanale was a wonderful experience. I have not come across a group of people more friendly and kind than those Frank Zappa fans.
Bad Doberan, an ex-East-German, villagy style town, with its own steam railway going through the middle, is the unlikeliest setting for Zappanale, but there it is. Zappa fans from as far afield as Australia, Japan and California meet and exchange stories with their European counterparts. We – my husband and I – chose to stay in Bad Doberan while others prefer tents and caravans a few miles along the railway line at the concert site.
hotel, we met Denny Walley[iv]
and Patrick O’Hearn,[v]
both laid-back and wonderful company. At the concert site, I caught up with
Bunk Gardner and Don Preston and despite it being over 40 years since we’ve
seen each other, we reminisced like it was five minutes. During our chat, Bunk
assured me that Frank’s music will endure. Sadly I did not see their set, but
over two nights, before an audience of several thousand, we saw several groups
play, some better than others, but it didn’t matter because the atmosphere is
so joyous and devoted to Frank Zappa’s music that everyone gets a rave encore.
The organisers, too, are passionate about Frank Zappa. Wolfhard Kutz, who began
Zappanale in 1990, wanders among fans and performers chatting in German.
When I gave my talks about living in Frank Zappa’s house with Gail and Moon and seven others, I had to stop after every few sentences for a translator to convert my words into German. It’s a perfect indication of the widespread appeal of FZ.
Then, a few miles on, the steam train stops at the coast and we relaxed in a pretty seaside village, eating a delicious meal overlooking the sea and admiring the many boats in the marina. We indulged a cup of coffee in the 5-star Shangri-la hotel[vi] on the way back where the G8 summit was held in 2007. Then on to Berlin and Hamburg, both cities I love, so the round trip could not have been better.
I recommend Zappanale to every Zappa fan, a journey like a rite of passage. I am proud to have joined them.
Yeah, it’s great. I first went in 2002 and have been back every year since. At my first one, I met Frank’s brother, Bob, who very sadly passed away recently. Have you read either of his books[vii] – what did you think of them?
I don’t think Zappa fans should, or do, care two
hoots about what I think of Bob Zappa’s books. People must make up their own
minds. But since I’ve been asked, I found them disappointing. Yes, there was
some indication of Frank’s volatile relationship with his father, but his
mother is hardly mentioned.
I wanted to know what it was like growing up in that house and how his parents related, what was their mother’s response to the arguments between father and son?
I also wanted to know about Frank’s first wife, Kay, but we learn nothing about her, and Bob was the only person who could tell us because Candy was too young. What was she like? What sort of person was she? How did she and Frank relate, and why did they break up? Bob did mention that Frank brought Kay to his wedding and this was after Frank was divorced from Kay so it indicates that Frank still had yearnings for her and perhaps explains Frank’s bitterness toward romantic love.
I also found Bob’s hatred toward Gail unrelenting and distressing and finally, I was disappointed that he went to Frank’s concerts and did not mention one word about the music. Rather, he was anxious to tell us that Frank reported to the audience that his brother, Bob, was among them.
I know it seems unkind to criticise when Bob has recently died so suddenly but this is my honest answer.
You told me Miss Mercy[viii] was supportive when you were writing your book. I wondered if she has sought any help from you with hers?[ix]
Mercy did not request any help from me regarding her book. If anyone could have done so, it would have been Pamela Des Barres[x] who runs classes on how to write memoirs, and they are close friends. But Mercy has someone else helping her.[xi]
I would not have been suited as I don’t know the characters in her compelling story. I wish her every success when it comes out. I understand it’s nearly complete.
it should be a fascinating read.
As well as reconstructing your book, you have now written a stage play about Frank and Gail. Tell me about that.
The play is called Honest Betrayal. It is set in London over one week while Frank is suing the Albert Hall for cancelling his concert four years earlier. It is now 1975 and Frank and Gail are staying at a plush 5-star hotel in London. He auditions a young 19-year old soprano for a part in this forthcoming film and tells Gail that he wants to take her back to LA to live with them both, so Gail has somehow to deal with this dilemma.
Also in the play is a scene from the court case, a meeting with a Catholic priest and a man with a gun. There is a lot of humour and a lot of drama but the big challenge will be to find someone to play Frank Zappa. That task is for Nadia Papa,[xii] the director, and she is presently setting up auditions. I have completed the script and passed it on to her.
Frank’s music is discussed but only a spattering is played.
The play will be performed on April 17, 18, 19, and on the 20th a matinee and evening performance at Hampton Hill Theatre, Middlesex, 12 miles outside of London. The nearest station is Fulwell.
Tickets will be £15 and I am hoping that they can be bought as soon as the system is set up. I am financing the play myself with the aim that someone from theatre-land in London will pick it up.
Break a leg – see you on opening night!
Interview conducted on 7th January 2019.
Caricature by Antero Valério.
[i] Frank Zappa And Me was broadcast on Radio 4 on May 6, 2014.
[ii] Lucy, who subsequently appeared in the UK TV Mini-Series A Very English Scandal (2018), played the young Pauline; the older Pauline was portrayed by Richenda Carey.
[iii] Played by Ronan Summers, who appears in the films Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014) and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018).
[iv] Zappa's slide guitarist from 1975 to 1980.
[v] Zappa’s bass player from 1976 to 1978.
[vi] The Grand Hotel Heiligendamm, a luxury hotel on the Mecklenburg Baltic coast in the former East Germany.
[vii] Frankie & Bobby: Growing Up Zappa (2015) and Frankie & Bobby: The Rest Of Our Story (2017).
[viii] Mercy Fontenot, a former member of band The GTOs. After the break-up of The GTOs in 1971, Fontenot married guitarist Shuggie Otis.
[ix] Miss Mercy is currently writing her memoir, Permanent Damage – the same title as The GTOs’ one and only album, produced by FZ in 1969.
[x] Former member of The GTOs and author of I'm With The Band: Confessions Of A Groupie (1987).
[xi] Lyndsey Parker, an American entertainment journalist and author of the Rhino ebook Careless Memories Of Strange Behavior: My Notorious Life As A Duran Duran Fan (2012), is co-authoring Mercy’s book.
[xii] Nadia Papachronopoulou, director, dramaturg, facilitator, teacher and producer who has worked for Tricycle Theatre, Almeida Projects, Barbican and Shakespeare School Festival. She has directed plays at the Orange Tree in Richmond.