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Pauline Butcher

Interview: Pauline Butcher – Frank Zappa’s Secretary Comes Clean

Over the years I’ve read countless ‘rock music bibles'; books that purport to be the be-all and end-all of rock journals. Those that fail are ultimately the sum total of one thing: boring.

Say what you will about Pauline Butcher’s own handiwork, ‘Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa;’ it’s never boring. More than that, it documents a time in rock history  when criticism of the countries role in domestic and international policy (Vietnam and the anti-war movement, women’s liberation, political assassinations) directly contributed to the path on which musicians found themselves.. (OR directly influenced songwriting styles and lyrics purporting to change the status quo).  This was especially noticeable in regards to albums which were released at the time and the tours that followed.. A market developed in which counter-cultural acts like the MC5, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, and of course, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were able to flourish.

Zappa and The Mothers of Invention cut a wide swath through all that was false about music at the time. They also developed a cult audience around the world that was slavishly devoted to the band and to Mr. Zappa, the principal composer.

Pauline Butcher worked as a secretary for Mr. Zappa during several key years; from the dissolution of the original band to the beginning of his seminal solo period. During that time, she made it a point to correspond with her family in England almost religiously, and those letters eventually became the source material for one of the best rock books–let alone Zappa books–on the market today. When you read it, you can’t help but feel like a fly on the wall.  At the same time, it never feels trashy or exploitative, which is rare in the genre. Pauline was kind enough to talk with Haps about this amazing and unique time in her life.

Much of your book is based on letters you wrote to your family in England, but how much embellishing was necessary to complete it?

I used the events in the letters, but of course I did embellish them, for example, when I describe Frank crossing his legs or stretching for an ashtray, both mannerisms that he conducted regularly, but which I chose to use in different scenes. Occasionally, not often, I used bits of dialogue from an interview because it was difficult to capture his turn of phrase, but we did discuss each one of the topics of conversation that I relate.

In a past interview you claimed to have had something of an attraction to Cal Schenkel, Zappa’s resident artistic genius (cover artist for many Zappa/The Mothers LPs). What can you tell us about him?

There is a whole chapter on Calvin in the book, but he appears fleetingly throughout. He was someone I found very attractive, but so did every other female at the Log Cabin. He was very quiet and rarely spoke. You could spend hours in his company and not speak at all. Much like Frank, one hundred percent of his life was spent working. He rarely socialized. He was very disorganized and often complained that Frank was lucky to have Gail to support him emotionally and physically. For a short time, while he was working on the album cover for Three Dog Night (It Ain’t Easy/Naturally), I took on that supportive role for Calvin, but it lasted only for a few months in 1970. I always admired Calvin’s work but he is less successful than he might have been because he lacked Frank’s business acumen, ability to promote his work, and to follow through swiftly. I think he does better now with the help of the internet. Calvin and I are still friends.

I was surprised to see such unspoken respect in action. Mick Jagger, for example, asked Frank if young people should rise up in revolution, he got the very short reply, ‘No’. Frank did not believe, as I’m sure everyone knows, in street-style revolutions but supported the ballot-box.

As Frank’s secretary at the time, you may have been involved with the co-ordination of gigs, and the Mothers toured more often than most bands—do you have any memories of legendary promoter Bill Graham?

Herb Cohen was Frank Zappa’s manager from 1966 until well after I left in 1972. Herb therefore was responsible for coordination of all the gigs and tours. I had no input into that at all. I went to San Francisco when the Mothers played there and Bill Graham must have been present, but I don’t remember meeting him, nor do I make any mention of him in my diary. I was a young girl with no concept that I would ever be writing any of this stuff forty years later.

I became a fan of Frank’s interviews rather than his music, which developed much later on in life—what album would you recommend that the neutral music fan start with?

I am not the best person to answer this question. Rather than start with an album, I would suggest they pick and choose select tracks from iTunes. ‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’ and ‘Peaches en Regalia‘ for instrumentals; ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,’ ‘Bobby Brown Goes Down‘ and ‘Jazz Discharge Party Hats’ for sheer outrage; ‘Hungry Freaks Daddy’ and ‘Joe’s Garage’ for satire; ‘Cosmik Debris’ and ‘Uncle Remus’ for political statements; ‘The Grand Wazoo’ and ‘Blessed Relief’ for jazz-style compositions.

What would you say was the main impetus behind your traveling to California to work for Frank, and what did your parents think about it at the time?

I’d say there were two reasons: first, the chance to work in Hollywood, and secondly to work on a political book—but any book would have sufficed. I held secret ambitions to be a writer and I believed that working with someone else on a book would give me insights into how to do it.

On Frank’s side, I can only conjecture. He must have found me attractive, straight but feisty, and not a groupie (I knew very little about rock’n’roll). I think I made an impact during our first meeting when I challenged the morality of lyrics for ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.’ I must have made a favorable impression because when I contacted him in New York four months later, he remembered me and invited me to his apartment to meet him again with his new wife, Gail. It was during our conversations there that the idea of my working for him in California evolved. It was as much a surprise to Frank, I think, as to me.

My mother was stoical about my stay in the US. She had raised eleven children and most had flown the nest. I was very prim with my family and they trusted me to continue in that vein. My father, though, was very sad to see a fourth daughter settle in America along with three others, married and with children. He missed us more than my mother did, I think.

As the person who had to deal with the fan mail, could you tell us a little about what kind of letters/packages you would receive?

This is the hardest question to answer as I don’t remember specifics and there is nothing in my diary entries and letters. I think compared with the sorts of things sent to him later which would have been more outrageous, in 1967 and 1968, boys sent him drawings or collages, and sometimes the paper on which the letter was written would be cut into unusual shapes. The more outrageous they were, the more Frank enjoyed them and I would hear him laughing out loud in appreciation, though I have to confess he did not see them all and I don’t recall after 45 years what in particular the enclosures were. Many of those Frank did see from fans he contacted and I have had communications from several people who say they had phone calls or letters from him. Others have sent me photocopies of my hand-writing on the United Mutations form.

A number of huge rock stars of the day would frequent the Laurel Canyon house, including Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, Roger McGuinn.  Of all of them, whose behavior would you say surprised/impressed you the most?

Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart surprised me most with their food-fight in the Log Cabin kitchen one night when Frank, Gail and I were out. We came back into the middle of it. Frank and Gail walked straight through without comment and I was left to tell them off and demand they clean it up.

Mick Jagger surprised me because he showed a greater knowledge of European history and politics than Frank, although I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by that.

David Gilmour surprised me by being more refined than most of the raucous English rock’n’roll artists.

Captain Beefheart surprised me with his gobbledygook talk which I never understood and which he would switch in and out of while talking normally, partly to amuse and baffle me, I think. At that time, he and Frank were on friendly terms and they would occasionally sit around until dawn listening to blues records.

A must-see video, as long as you can tune out Yoko Ono’s awful cat screeching…

Frank’s hatred of the hippie culture was legendary, yet he operated the Tom Mix cabin almost like a commune.  Would you say that was intentional, or was it simply beyond his control at that point?

Commune is the perfect word. In May 1968, Frank moved in with Gail and Moon. Apart from me, he also invited Pamela Zarubica (Suzie Creamcheese), Christine Frka (Moon’s nanny), Calvin Schenkel (Frank’s album-cover artist), and Dick Barber (helper and guardian) – eight in all. All of us in one way or another were working for Frank and he must have chosen the house in order to accommodate us. Then, Ian Underwood and Motorhead Sherwood crashed in sleeping bags on the floor in the basement, and then Sherry, Gail’s sister arrived for a while. Calvin also had a friend from Philadelphia staying in the tree house (above the kitchen) as well as a string of girlfriends. Most of the time, twelve of us lived there, and often their friends would arrive. That was without the GTOs, Christine’s friends who parked themselves in our house and practiced their dancing. On one day, I counted over thirty people had wandered in and out. Fortunately for me, I’d grown up in a house where eleven children were born so the number of people at the Log Cabin did not faze me. However, the lifestyle and back-biting that went on certainly did.

If you watch the video of Frank performing with John Lennon you can see he is completely unfazed by having a Beatle on his stage.  He conducts the band with flourishes, his arms waving everywhere, in order to take attention away from Lennon.

When Frank, Gail and Moon moved to their next and final house on Woodrow Wilson Drive, Frank made a concerted effort to cut down on the number of people living there, but still Pamela Zarubica, Janet (Moon’s nanny) and Kansas (the bodyguard and helper) were invited. However, it didn’t take long for the place to overflow again. This time, Frank’s brother Carl moved in, as did Gail’s twin brothers, Midget and Squidget, and Aynsley Dunbar (drummer) lived there for nine months while looking for somewhere of his own to live. So once again, the elegant house became a commune. All the time, however, away from the melee, Frank buried himself in the basement, which sometimes seemed like a tomb.

Frank was responsible for giving Alice Cooper his start in the business.  What do you remember most about him?

I remember very little about Alice Cooper save for the fact that he came to the house with Christine Frka. They were both very thin with frizzed out hair a mile wide, and when they woke me one morning at 7 A.M. holding hands and asked me to go and wake Frank up, I thought they looked like those stick people in comic books. I imagine Alice would have been nervous but Christine would have reassured him. Frank could be formidable in the way he stayed silent while he looked at you with a direct stare. When he spoke, it was so quiet, so inoffensive—in contrast with the way he looked, which could be unsettling.

I’m pretty sure I’m on safe ground when I say, if it hadn’t been for Christine, for whom Frank had a great deal of admiration, Alice Cooper would not have got the audition at the house that day or any day. No one else auditioned at the Log Cabin. Frank was very unenthusiastic about Alice’s band when they played for him in the car port where they’d set up their equipment. I think he gave them a chance because of his fondness for Christine. They were overjoyed of course and afterwards flung their equipment into the back of the van as if they were toys.

Your book has received uniformly positive reviews, and a lot of the praise is directed at the even-handedness of the narrative.  How have the Zappa netizens (and indeed the Zappa family) been treating you since its release?

People on Facebook have been very supportive and encouraging on my page (Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa). Gail Zappa has said publicly that she will not read my book. If it is true that she is writing her own memoir, then I think she will be forced to read mine, because nowhere else will she find the Log Cabin years documented in so much detail. When we met in 2006, she did not remember, for example, that she had bought a kitten for Moon while we lived at the Log Cabin. But it’s there, in my diary, a day-to-day record which Gail could use if she chose to get in touch.

I would like to think that Moon has read my book. I think her own disguised memoir (America the Beautiful) is brilliant and I wish I could emulate her free voice – no doubt the result of her free upbringing which she bemoans frequently in the press. Similarly, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva have not, to my knowledge, read my book or, at any rate, have not communicated with me.

I did, however, get a two-word ‘thank you’ from Diva when I sent her the URL of my interview with Frank in which he talks about Diva and her extra-sensory powers.

Females in rock and roll have never been treated particularly well by the very stars they idolize.  The late 60’s were the height of both the free love and the second wave of the Women’s Liberation movements. Were you conflicted in that sense, having lived through all of it?

People have written to me not believing that the Log Cabin was not a den of iniquity and believed people must have been sleeping with each other everywhere. In fact, apart from Calvin’s girlfriends in the tree house, and one night when I discovered Motorhead with Cinderella of the GTOs under the covers in the living room and walked briskly past, I saw no free love going on at all during the four months we lived there.

My experience of the world in 1968 to 1971 was limited to a bubble in which Frank Zappa and his entourage lived. I found it as difficult to get out as others found it to get in. Therefore I did not become aware of Women’s Liberation until 1970 when I began to gradually ease myself from the Zappa bubble. I found the Women’s Liberation slogan, ‘Love me Less, Respect me More’ a revelation. Ever since I’d met him, Frank had been going on about the banality of romantic love, and this slogan seemed to authenticate his beliefs; I thought he would agree with them but I was starkly wrong. I have a chapter in the book which attempts to re-live our debate about Women’s Liberation. It was feminism that encouraged me, against Frank’s wishes, to seek a university education.

I always found Frank’s refusal to acknowledge any good in Women’s Liberation’s ideas very strange because he was the only man before or since (except my husband and son) who believed I was capable of being more than a secretary and encouraged me in my endeavors to become a writer. He encouraged Cynthia Plaster Caster to continue with her production of plaster casts of rock-stars’ penises, as he similarly encouraged the GTOs to become the first all-girl band. He told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1968 that ‘groupies are the most wonderful thing to come out of the sixties revolution’ or similar such words. So it was never clear to me why Frank, in his songs, albeit in parody but clearly with a very sour attitude, disparaged the whole women’s movement.

My explanation for this is a guess. During this period 1968 to 1971, I never saw Frank read a magazine or a book or watch television, so the information he gleaned about the women’s movement was most likely very cliché and related to hairy armpits and aggressive masculine-style women.

It seems that The Mothers of Invention/Zappa inspired a fanaticism in their/his fans the likes of which bands of much larger stature could never even dream of, to the point where they would buy anything he put out.  Is it then very surprising that Frank was considered by his peers as something of a higher power?

When you consider that some of the best-selling records of 1966 were ‘Monday, Monday’ by the Mama’s and Papa’s, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ by the Supremes, and ‘We Can Work it Out’ by the Beatles, it is not surprising at all that other rock musicians looked in awe and respect at Frank Zappa, who in that year produced Freak Out!, a revolutionary double album with songs on it like ‘Hungry Freaks, Daddy’ and ‘Who Are The Brain Police?’ And then followed it a year later with Absolutely Free and songs like ‘Call Any Vegetable’ and ‘The Duke of Prunes.. The audacity and pure originality of those two albums was breath-taking.

Still, when I got to the Log Cabin, I was surprised to see such unspoken respect in action. Mick Jagger, for example, asked Frank if young people should rise up in revolution, he got the very short reply, ‘No’. Frank did not believe, as I’m sure everyone knows, in street-style revolutions but supported the ballot-box.

Eric Clapton tip-toed around the Log Cabin like he was in a palace – albeit a broken-down palace–and Jeff Beck followed Frank’s directions in the studio like a muted lamb when making the GTOs album Permanent Damage.

I was particularly surprised how complimentary David Gilmour and Roger Waters were after Frank played them tracks by the GTOs and Wild Man Fischer from the live concert at the Whisky A Go-Go which were dire. They nodded their heads in appreciation but what were they were actually thinking? I wish someone would ask them. They probably don’t remember.

Was Frank as unflappable with the big pop stars of the day as he was with anybody else?

Absolutely, it was one of the things that surprised me when I arrived there. All these people who were much bigger stars than Frank wandered through our living space – Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead (although I never spoke to them), Crosby Stills and Nash – and Frank, in the first few days, would get up from his desk and move to his chair by the sofa and condescend to chat for a while. Later on, he didn’t bother to move from his desk and the visits came to an end.

If you watch the video of Frank performing with John Lennon you can see he is completely unfazed by having a Beatle on his stage.  He conducts the band with flourishes, his arms waving everywhere, in order to take attention away from Lennon. He was the same with every rock musician. The only group he went to see in the four months we were at the Log Cabin was John Mayall and that was because John Mayall was staying at the house for two weeks while he was on holiday and we’d spent the day at the beach together. Frank appeared much happier socializing with film people than with musicians.

When Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of The Turtles blustered in, full of self-importance – well they were one of the top-selling groups at the time – Frank easily spiked their super-star status by telling them in a quiet voice, while he settled into the corner of the sofa, that he was thinking of running for president, and – by the way–would they like to join his band? (During that get-together in June 1968 they turned him down).

How much of the reputation Frank garnered over the years as being a workaholic and control-freak is warranted?

Yes, he was a workaholic when he was at home, getting up and moving to his workspace and not moving until it was time to go to bed. Every day was the same. He never went out except for a business meeting or to do interviews. He never socialized outside his four walls. On the road with the band, it was different. He socialized with groupies – that was his entertainment. He rarely ate with the band. He socialized with them only on the bus/plane or in the waiting rooms. When he was home, he only saw them at rehearsals.

And yes, he was a control freak. I was only there four years but all the literature concurs that nothing changed in later periods. They had their pay docked if they didn’t show up and were sacked if they were found taking drugs. There was no appeal.

It could never be over-stated except for one fact: Frank encouraged everyone in his space to live up to the best of their abilities, and this applied to me, to the GTOs, to Cynthia Plaster Caster, to the Mothers of Invention and everyone else in his bands that followed. Interviews on You Tube with various musicians confirm his constantly pushing them to the limits of their talent.

In the age of music file sharing, and direct downloading—something that Frank believed would be the way of the future—to what do you attribute Gail Zappa‘s fierce protection of Frank’s legacy  (to the point of actively suing unlicensed tribute bands, some of which feature former Mothers)?  Is she doing Frank’s work, or do you think she’s taken it too far?

As I understand it, Frank did not want Gail running his business affairs after he died. He told her, ‘Sell up the business, move to Malibu and enjoy life.’ She did this but got bored, so she moved back to her house in Hollywood where she lived with Frank, bought back the catalog and has been running the show ever since.

I last saw Gail in 2006 when we had dinner in the Valley – she never goes into Hollywood apparently. She invited my husband and I to her house. Since my time, Frank had built a studio in the basement and the kitchen and living room areas were also transformed. When we left, she hugged me and gave me her e-mail address and said we must keep in touch. I wrote to her thereafter, but she never replied. She has since complained publicly that I did not have the courtesy to let her know I was writing my book, but I felt vindicated, knowing she had the chance to respond to my letter, but chose not to.

I believe she needs a top-brass business advisor. She is not a businesswoman and is in charge of a million-dollar business which could be more successful with the right guidance.

You later got to personally interview Frank several years before his passing—were you always on good terms with him throughout the years, and how did he seem to you in those last encounters?

We were always on very good terms but one encounter did not go well. I took my soon-to-be married husband to see the Mothers in New Bingley Hall in Stafford, England in February 1977. Frank was alone backstage waiting to go on. I told Frank that I had given up smoking because research proved it caused lung cancer. Frank said that’s a government conspiracy to stop you enjoying yourself. (words to that effect.)  My husband jumped in with That’s reactionary, to which Frank scowled and within moments asked us to leave so he could prepare for the performance.

When I interviewed Frank in April 1988, he was several months into his final tour. I thought he looked very drawn and despite coughing with each utterance, he chain-smoked.

It was several years since I’d seen him and was nervous about the interview. Things were made worse when I had no batteries for my Uher tape recorder and the plug on the mains cord did not fit into the socket at the hotel. We had to phone down for an extension and adapter. He was very tolerant of this mishap as he usually was, not reacting, not speaking and remaining calm. He didn’t react when Cal Schenkel confessed he’d taken no photographs during The Mothers’ performance at the Albert Hall in 1967–the whole purpose of Calvin’s journey from America–nor did he get over-excited when Jeff Simmons walked out from 200 Motels just before filming began.

At the end of the interview he said, ‘they were an unusual bunch of questions. I haven’t been asked those kinds of questions before. You make a good interviewer.’ This was typical of the encouragement that he would give to me and others to encourage us to do more, to do better, to excel.

I had no idea that in 1988 Frank was ill and he made no mention of it. I believe he was suffering from prostate problems at the time, but did not know they were serious or terminal. Six weeks later, he canceled the rest of the tour over a dispute between the band members. In previous disputes with other bands, Frank had always settled somehow. On this occasion he chose not to settle. One can but conjecture how much his failing health influenced that decision.

You can check out Pauline Butchers YouTube page with videos including personal remembrances and interviews.

For more on Frank Zappa, check out



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