Frank Zappa: the clean-living hellraiser
- 28 September 2011
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Frank Zappa's image may have suggested he was one of the wild men of rock but a new memoir by his assistant Pauline Butcher paints quite a different picture of the American musician, who died in 1993.
When in 1967 Pauline Butcher met Frank Zappa in London she didn't even know who he was. But she spent much of the next five years working for him in California and got to observe the rock-star lifestyle at first hand.
In the summer of 1967 Butcher was living with her family in the London suburbs and working in a secretarial agency in town.
The year may trigger images of swinging, psychedelic London but Butcher says life in her early 20s was nothing like that.
"I wasn't a 1960s Dolly Bird at all. I lived in Twickenham with my parents and my sisters - and our parents were very strict. I knew people in swinging London but I was on the fringes of it. The 60s didn't really hit the suburbs until the 70s: people were still very prim."
Part of Butcher's job was to go to the big hotels where, long before email, businessmen would need to have their letters and contracts typed up.
"About 6pm there was a call saying a Mr Zappa at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington wanted secretarial help. Generally it turned out to be a sugar merchant or something similar so I went over expecting a dull time."
Zappa's name meant nothing to Butcher; he'd only had one album released in the UK and was just becoming known outside America. He was in London for a concert at the Albert Hall.
"When he opened the door I thought I'd gone to the wrong room: there was this young man with a beard which made him look like Charles I."
But entering that room would change her life completely. The job was to sit and listen to his new album Absolutely Free and type out the lyrics.
"There were songs on it like Call Any Vegetable and Duke of Prunes. When I couldn't understand the lyrics I made them up. When he read the transcript through he chuckled and said: 'Oh wow you should be writing your own stuff.'"
'Load of freaks'
The brief encounter was enough to make Butcher contemplate a more exciting world beyond typing and Twickenham. Two weeks later she went to the Albert Hall concert and managed to meet Zappa afterwards. She made a bold decision: to fly to New York and contact him again there.
There was never a romance but she admits she had hopes at first. "I was bored with my life - I was looking for something else. I was fascinated by him.
"But when I got there I found he'd meantime got married so I had to readjust my ideas. But then he offered me a job working for him in Hollywood - which in a way was better."
Soon she found herself on the other side of America in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. She was living with and working as an assistant to Zappa and his new wife Gail.
"Frank and his wife and their little baby Moon Unit lived in this house called the Log Cabin. It was well-known in Hollywood. Every day we were visited by rock stars of the time: Joni Mitchell, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane. Eric Clapton was always at the house.
"There were also a whole load of freaks: people who lived wild lives and saw Frank as a sort of Messiah because of the way he lived."
But by and large her new memoir of the Zappa years will disappoint anyone who thinks it must have been non-stop hedonism and exotic substances. She says Zappa's true character was not as outsiders expected.
"Frank Zappa was so serious about his work: it was his whole life. He did nothing but get up in the morning, compose all day at the piano and then go to bed. Between times he was chain-smoking and drinking endless cups of coffee. The melee went on around him but he ignored it.
"I was as odd to the freaks as they all seemed to me. I was this straight English girl and when I wrote letters home to say that Frank Zappa didn't take drugs - because my parents were very concerned - nobody believed it because of the way he looked. But he was the most conventional, conservative man."
Over time Butcher's job changed: she found herself looking after the girl-band the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), who at one point toured with Zappa's band the Mothers Of Invention.
"They were big favourites with some male visitors. I remember walking into the kitchen and two of the GTOs were in a drunken food fight with Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck. Frank just walked through with his nose in the air and I was very annoyed - though Rod and Jeff were very charming when they hadn't been drinking."
In 1972 Butcher came back to England with health problems. While recuperating she thought hard about what she wanted from life and decided the Laurel Canyon years were over. She went to Cambridge University, married and had a son and became a teacher.
But she and Zappa stayed in touch. She last saw him during the final tour before his death from cancer at the age of only 52.
Looking back, does it puzzle her that for so long he employed a young Englishwoman who must in many ways have seemed an odd presence in his world? "I never asked him why personally. But his manager, Herb Cohen, told me Frank didn't want a groupie - someone who was into all the rock stars. And I never was.
"We had a certain rapport I think. But strangely most people who knew Frank felt they were particularly important in his life - he had that effect on people."
Vincent Dowd was talking to Pauline Butcher for Witness on BBC World Service Radio. Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa is out now on Plexus Books priced £14.99.