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In 1967 Pauline Butcher, then a 21-year-old secretary, was sent to a London hotel on a typing assignment. The client turned out to be avant-garde American musician Frank Zappa. Frank asked Pauline to type up the lyrics of his album, Absolutely Free – a task she found somewhat baffling.

Out of this encounter a friendship grew, and Pauline was invited to work for Frank in Los Angeles, where regular visitors to his log cabin home in Laurel Canyon included Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Captain Beefheart. It was the height of the Summer of Love, although things would rapidly change…

Pauline’s book about her experience, Freak Out! - My Life with Frank Zappa, has been adapted by Matt Broughton and will air as part of Radio 4's Afternoon Drama slot on Tuesday 6 May

What were your initial impressions of Frank Zappa?

I was working for business people mostly, although I had worked for celebrities, like Gregory Peck, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Terence Rattigan and Marcel Marceau, so I wasn’t fazed by celebrity. But when Frank opened the door with his hair down to his shoulder blades, pitch black ringlets and dressed in a pink t-shirt and orange trousers, I was somewhat taken aback and thought I’d come to the wrong room.

He had this wonderful spoken voice that was so quiet and commanding and he was just very, very nice. I’d got a lot of his lyrics wrong and had made up my own, but instead of being cross, he thought it was hilariously funny. He laughed out loud, really laughed, and debated with me for half an hour about the lyrics to one of his songs, Brown Shoes Don’t Make It, and whether they were immoral or not. I was so stunned by the fact that he was willing to listen to me, take in what I had to say and engage with it. Nobody took any notice of secretaries, you were invisible. So from that point on I was hooked. He was IT as far as I was concerned.

Young secretary Pauline Butcher attempts to transcribe Frank Zappa's baffling lyrics.

 

Why do you think you got on so well?

His manager told me that it was because I wasn’t a groupie and Pamela Zarubica (Zappa’s friend) said it was because I was more intelligent than most of the other girls around him. And I was obviously quite attractive. I mean I wasn’t beautiful or anything, or pretty, but I was very attractive and I had a certain way with me. I’m sure he initially thought I was going to spend the night with him, but I wasn’t. And I’m sure that made him take notice.

Los Angeles must have been quite a shock to the system. How did you find it?

I wanted to go to university. I told Frank that in the beginning and he pooh-poohed it, saying education is a waste of time, teach yourself and all that business. And then when I got to Los Angeles I thought - this is better than university, this is real life.

I was an observer. I was totally outside of the scene and I was a bit snotty-nosed about it all, frankly. I thought they were all like a bunch of teenagers, even though some of them were nearly 30 years old. They scorned American education and scorned the government. Nothing was any good, parents were dreadful… I just didn’t have any time for it.

But as the time went on, a year and a half later, I gradually got drawn in to it. I became very hippified.

The atmosphere in Laurel Canyon changed in 1969. Why? 

The Manson murders absolutely changed everything. It really was a very friendly place before that. There were no buses down Laurel Canyon, so to get to Hollywood you just stuck your thumb out and any car would stop and take you down. And you didn’t feel nervous. We had no locks on our doors. People wandered in and out of the log cabin and I didn’t take any notice of them because I was so besotted with Frank Zappa. Charles Manson may have come in – Frank would have been mad enough to have given him a record contract.

But as soon as the murders happened, every house became a fortress. Frank put a speakerphone outside and really fortified his place. Everybody did.

What impact did feminism have on you?

When women’s lib came out, it was absolutely stunning to me - I embraced it totally. I waded my way through Sexual Politics and thought it was fantastic. And I thought Frank would agree with me, because he was for the downtrodden and the disenfranchised and I thought he would see women in that light. And he didn’t. From that moment on I thought, “I know more about this than you do. You’re talking rubbish.” And it was the beginning of my moving away from him.

Pauline working as a secretary in London

What made you decide to write about your time with Frank?

I’ve always listened to radio plays and I wanted to write. A BBC producer said, “Write something that no-one else can write. That’s your best chance of appearing on the top of the pile.” And so I thought the only thing that no-one else could write is this story of me working for Frank Zappa.

I got the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and I wrote to every publisher that was suitable in there, about 50 or 60 letters. And about 12 of them wrote back and said “Yes, send a chapter”. So I knew I had a marketable product.

And then I sat outside in the beautiful weather in Singapore, where I was living, and just wrote for ten hours a day, practically. Did my back in, but that’s that. I really learned how to write while I was doing it.

Listen to Frank Zappa And Me from Tuesday 6 May

Download 'Freak Out - The Frank Zappa Story' - a Radio 4 on Music podcast

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  • Comment number 11. Posted by Pauline Butcher Bird

    on 11 May 2014 01:11

    Claudette (Greenreinette) how great to hear from you. I've lost your e-mail address through many moves. Do contact me on FB on paulinebutcherbird or Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa pages

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  • Comment number 10. Posted by Lawrence Jones

    on 10 May 2014 14:22

    Ooooooh the pleasure of singing (and dancing) to ‘Willie The Pimp’ on top of the Great Orme in Llandudno……and wondering how many dollops of Brylcreem Willie used each morning.

    Loved every minute of this! Ok, a peasant skirt girl would always make one laugh, but the girl with a column change 2639cc Austin Westminster A105 personality [1][2] was always the wise one who would become a lifelong friend. The hugging scene with Mr. Zappa towards the end was lovely – and a far more powerful radio moment than any act of sexual intercourse. Tonnes of admiration for Ms. Butcher, given all the sexual tom foolery that was going on at the time. Also increased my admiration for Mr. Zappa (RIP).

    Suzern’s (message 6) criticism of Mr. (Roman) Summers is understandable, but impersonating Mr. Zappa is difficult. My school was infested with music fans and we used to spend hours singing Mothers (doesn’t seem right to include an apostrophe) and FZ songs – start off sounding like FZ, then transform into Howlin’ wolf, then Roger Chapman (splaaaaaggggghhhhhh – impersonating Mr. Chapman here!))…..and end up transformed into Edgar Broughton (oooohhhhhhharrrrrr) or Captain Beefheart!

    Agree with all the comments regarding the disturbing appearance of ‘Raven’ – Mr Zappa’s calmness revealed loads about the true nature of his character.

    Ms. Kate McAll had clearly devoted a great deal of time and effort selecting the tracks – no major crtitcism here……all Mothers and FZ choices were spot-on. Great to hear Beggin’ [3] and Nico’s version [4] of Jackson Browne’s ‘These Days’ was the perfect ending to the play. Love that song soooo much. Did spot a part where Jefferson Airplane’s ‘My Best Friend’ [5]would have fitted in perfectly. I am, however, mindful that poor old Ms. McAll will have to deal with all the complaints to ‘Feedback’ because R4 committed the mortal sin of featuring music within a play.

    Welsh Radio 4 productions don’t often receive unqualified congratulations – but I would certainly like to offer mine to Ms.Butcher and the rest of the cast for such an enjoyable radio listen. I thought the original Ms. Butcher (I don’t mean Ms. Lucy Briggs-Owen) sounded slightly 1950’s Liverpudlian. I saw Mr. Zappa at the old Liverpool Boxing stadium – and the males danced (well idiot dancing anyway) more than the females.

    Oh, and I always suspected that Mr. Zappa might have chosen ‘This is my Lovely Day’ (from Bless the Bride) as one of his eight if he’d appeared on DID.

    References

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austin_Westminster

    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Austin_A105_Vanden-Plas_front.jpg

    [3] [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

    [4] [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

    [5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrealistic_Pillow

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by philcrapguitarist

    on 9 May 2014 19:42

    Thoroughly enjoyed the play. Zappa's music at that time was truly groundbreaking. He was a genius but he was human and therefore flawed. His attitude to (some) women being a particular flaw. In the Uncle Meat video he tries to persuade a lady to remove her clothes for a shower scene. It is embarrassing and beneath him. He also had a reputation for being cool in a crisis as the maniac with a gun incident in the play shows. Also he remained calm and collected at the 'Smoke on the Water' incident in Montreux ensuring that the audience left in a calm manner while the place burned. What a guy. We still miss him!

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by skippi

    on 9 May 2014 07:59

    I loved the play. I always wanted a job in recycling myself, and ended up doin just that at Glastonbury festival. In 1990, I sat outside having my crew lunch, listening to some bloke playing on a guitar that had been made to look like a kellogs cornflake box...I said "blimey, he's good, he should be up on the main stage", and everyone laughed at me. Someone said "yes, Jo, that's because it's Eric Clapton!"

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by Strawberrytea

    on 8 May 2014 16:15

    Loved this play - great moral tale - i think it was Frank Zappa's good fortune to meet Pauline as much as the other way around. The music throughout set the right tone for the sixties as well as inspiring me to listen to Frank Zappa again - the first time in ages and ages. A list of all the tracks would be most welcome ! The bit with Raven must have been very frightening and could all too easily have gone the other way - well acted and brilliantly adapted from the excellent book - Freak Out !
    Many thanks to all involved. The Germaine Greer profile was great too .

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by suzerne

    on 7 May 2014 11:50

    Really enjoyed this too, (apart from disappointingly un-like Zappa voice of the actor playing him.. sadly mis-cast) it brought back memories - I was at that Royal Albert Hall concert (aged 14!) It was a wild night. Brilliant to hear your story Pauline. I still listen to Zappa's music, and have a special affection for the Reuben and the Jets album. Hope to hear more from you in the future, best wishes..

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by stevo

    on 7 May 2014 11:45

    Great little play. Must get the book. Not into all of Zappa's stuff, but he was an amazing musician. Must have been fun living in the famous log cabin?

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by Greenreinette

    on 6 May 2014 21:36

    Hi Pauline, I'm so glad you made it! I remember, a long time ago, you kept saying you wanted to write about Franck Zappa. And I tell you, you are far more a genuine feminist than Germaine Greer! Love from Claudette.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Mischiefmaker

    on 6 May 2014 20:56

    We've still got all the vinyl from the 60's. The man was a genius. His orchestral stuff is amazing. It is lovely to hear about the soft human touch he had. Pauline had the dream job, shame about the feminist attitude. I wouldn't have thought it, but then again some of those lyrics....... I shall buy the book!

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Pauline Butcher Bird

    on 6 May 2014 15:02

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain

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