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.