Although she barely rates a mention in most Frank Zappa bios, Pauline Butcher was Zappa’s secretary during a crucial era of his early career. Butcher was a model and a stenographer in London, when a chance meeting with Zappa in 1967 led to a job offer in America, helping him to prepare a book he’d been contracted to write. Not only was she his employee, she was also a resident of the infamous “Log Cabin” in Laurel Canyon where the Zappa family and several people in their entourage lived.
Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa is, beyond a doubt, the single most revealing book ever written about the private life of one of the giants of 20th century music and the “inner circle” who surrounded him. If you are a Zappa fan—I’ve noticed that quite a lot of DM readers are (I, myself, am typing this sitting below a diptych painting of the original Mothers of Invention wearing dresses that hangs above my desk)—then you will want to run, not walk to grab a copy of this book. I drank it down like a cold beer on a hot day. Freak Out! is a well-observed and well-written memoir that never forgets who the reader is there for. First-time author Butcher has a novelist’s eye for detail, seems to be blessed with an elephant’s memory and had the extreme good fortune that her mother kept all of her letters from 40 years ago so that she could draw from them.
It’s a great read. Zappa fans will love this book.
I posed a few questions for Pauline Butcher over email.
How would you describe your role in the life of Frank Zappa?
My role in the life of Frank Zappa was restricted to a five-year period, 1967 to 1972. During that time I was originally employed to help Frank write a political book for Stein & Day who’d given him carte-blanche to write whatever he wished. In the event, the book was never written partly because Frank developed other interests in setting up his own record companies, Bizarre and Straight, but also because he had a sneaking suspicion the FBI or CIA would use its contents against him.
As a result, I was left with secretarial work, running the fan club United Mutations, road-managing the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously) an all-girl singing group which one might say was the predecessor to the Spice Girls, and helping to set up the record companies. I also think Frank used me, in the beginning, as a sort of therapist, unburdening his worries about the Mothers of Invention. I think he felt I was someone he could trust.
What was the impetus to write this book? Why now and not, say, twenty years ago?
If only I had written the book 20 years ago! Book sales would be greater not only because Frank had just died and more people knew who he was, but also because the book market was healthier then.
So why now? I had always wanted to be a journalist/writer, but after I returned to England from America and went to Cambridge University, I met my husband and our son was born. I spent the next 18 years devoted to looking after him as well as teaching A-level psychology. But when our son went to university and I had given up teaching, I no longer had any excuses. I began writing radio plays for Radio 4, had them rejected, wrote again, got encouragement, wrote again until a producer told me, ‘the only way you’ll break through is if you write something that no one else can write,’ and I thought the only story that no one else could write is my experience living and working with Frank Zappa.
It began as a five-part radio serial for Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 but half-way through the first draft, I was told Germaine Greer had been commissioned to do a documentary programme on Zappa and the BBC wouldn’t consider two in one year. I was so angry I wrote off to every publisher and twelve wrote back asking for chapters. Of course, I hadn’t written anything but I knew I had a marketable product. It took nine months to type up the letters I’d written home which my mother kept in a shoe box for forty years, two years to write the book, another year almost to find a publisher, and one year to get it published. Hey, ho, ten years after my son went to university, my book, Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa was born.
Gail Zappa is known for being a fierce protector of her late husband’s legacy. This book is certainly the most intimate book written about Frank Zappa to date, and it’s very revealing about their marriage. I didn’t feel that she was portrayed unfairly or unsympathetically at all, but I’m wondering how Gail has reacted to your book? I would imagine that you might have been a little apprehensive about her opinion.
I’m wondering how Gail has reacted to my book. I have no idea. Many people have asked me this question, but no one it seems has asked any of the Family Trust members directly.
I was hoping that Moon might read it as she has written her own thinly disguised portrait of her parents in America The Beautiful which I think is brilliant, but neither she nor any of her siblings have spoken publicly about it. I visited Gail in Hollywood in 2007. She gave me her e-mail address and I wrote to her but she didn’t reply. Therefore, I have not written to her about the book. I hoped Dweezil, Ahmet, Moon or Diva would be interested in reading it to find out about their parents’ early married life. I personally would love to read a fly-on-the-wall portrait of my own parents when they were first married, painful though some of it might be.
Are you back in touch with any of the Mothers or GTOs on Facebook?
Four of the GTOs, Lucy, Cinderella, Christine and Sandra have died. I contacted the three remaining girls, Sparkie, Mercy and Pamela. I sent copies of my book to each of them and have had a favourable but short comment on Facebook from Sparkie, none from Mercy, and Pamela wrote on FB, ‘lurved your book darlink.’
I am in constant contact with Art Tripp who in turn has been in touch with Roy Estrada. I was in contact with Jimmy Carl Black before he died because he was writing his own book; I have spoken to Bunk Gardner who told me he was sued by Gail twice for wanting to play Frank’s music, and to never write to her again after he wrote condolences following Frank’s death. I am also in touch with Ray Collins whose song I have used on the soundtrack of my video which is posted on You Tube and FB. I failed to trace Motorhead before he died, nor have I had communication with Don Preston. Ian Underwood wrote a brief message on FB that he was pleased to hear from me but made no further reply. I failed to find Ruth Underwood until just recently and have not as yet contacted her.