For a bright and shining moment, the Laurel Canyon ‘log cabin,’ once belonging to Tom Mix, was home to Zappa, his family, his band and staff, and a crossroads to a musical who’s who. An assistant to Zappa tells all…
In 1968, Frank Zappa was enjoying the early fruits of fame. His band’s album, Freak Out!, released in 1966, had sold well, and Absolutely Free, The Mothers of Invention’s second, established the band as the new innovative voice of American rock. He had recently returned from his first sell-out tour of Europe and in May, 1968, after 18 months in New York, he returned to California.
Together with his wife, Gail, and their daughter, Moon Unit, and eight others, they moved into the log cabin on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Hollywood.
Pauline Butcher, a straight English girl, was one of those residents, invited by Frank Zappa to help him write a commissioned book on the politics of young people in America.
This is a short description of her time living and working in his house in Hollywood.
Although the log cabin is often referred to as the ‘Zappa pad,’ we lived there for only four months. Previously, it had been owned by silent cowboy movie star Tom Mix who, it is said, buried his horse in the grounds.
By the time we moved in, what had once been a beautiful mansion – a mural in soft pinks and blues with cupids and trumpeters adorned the dining room ceiling – it had decayed into a wreck.
But Frank was unfazed. He paid $700 a month rent and planned to bring the house back to its former glory. “We will build a studio in the basement,” he said.
When I arrived on May 5, 1968, Frank was busy composing melodies for his solo album, Hot Rats. He was also setting up, with his manager Herb Cohen, two record companies, Bizarre and Straight. Frank and Herb were 50/50 partners and Neil Reshen, who had raised thousands of dollars from MGM for this venture, creamed 5% off the top.
It is this business side of Frank Zappa that is often overlooked. He was a brilliant promoter. Who else would advertise in comic books? Who else would dress like a woman for Melody Maker magazine during his first European tour?
Typically Frank would get up between 2 and 4 each afternoon, check the mail and dictate any necessary replies. Then at 6 p.m., the Mothers of Invention would arrive and rehearse in the basement until 10 p.m. After everyone left, he would take his flask of coffee and his packet of Winston cigarettes to the corner of the huge living room, about 60 feet long and 30 feet wide, and settle by his piano and desk. There he would compose all night until he would fall into bed about 5 or 6 a.m. He went out of the house only for business meetings or to the recording studio. He rarely ate out or went to the clubs, theatre or the cinema. He was a workaholic.
When he composed, he wrote directly on to gigantic music sheets or he turned to the baby-grand piano and, with stick fingers, he would pick out the melody on the keys, occasionally adding in a chord. Then, because he couldn’t play to any standard, he would call in Ian Underwood, a classical pianist, to play the new composition. You would see Frank’s face in reverie as he turned the pages and heard his music resonate through the room for the first time.
I would sometimes sit on the two steps outside my door (which was off the living room) and listen while Frank composed. He knew I was there but I was far enough away not to intrude and sometimes I’d be moved to tears to hear the beautiful melodies he created. But then, disappointingly, as he did when he recorded his composition for Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, “Would You like a Snack,” he added snorts and grunts and other weird noises in the studio so the prettiest tunes got turned into something else.
The Mothers of Invention at that time were Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, Don Preston, Jim Sherwood (Motorhead) Bunk Gardner, Ian Underwood, Art Tripp, Ray Collins, and Frank.
Though they gave a brilliant performance at the Shrine Auditorium two weeks after our arrival, Frank was not satisfied. Most of the band could not read music and Frank complained to me, “Do you realise I have to teach each one of them ten bars at a time, then the next ten? I can’t do it anymore. I have to find different musicians.” The problem was solved a few weeks later when Ian Underwood agreed to run rehearsals. This left Frank free to compose. He would then join the band after they had learned the new composition.
Meanwhile, Gail Zappa, Frank’s wife, ran the house in a slip-shod way. To my dismay, there were no meal times because there were eleven of us living there – Ian Underwood and Motorhead crashed in sleeping bags in the basement, as did Dick Barber, Gail’s helper; Christine, Moon’s nanny had her own room as did Pamela Zarubica, Calvin Schenkel and his friend; and I also had a vandalised room off the living room which I refurbished. As a result, people just helped themselves to whatever was in the fridge.
Gail cooked twice in the first two months and because I could not even cook a fried egg, I starved, living on grapefruit, ice cream and sandwiches made with sliced cheese. Occasionally, Christine made a chocolate cake and I gobbled several slices like I’d just escaped from Belsen.
Frank always ate alone seated either at his desk or in an armchair. Even at Christmastime, when they’d moved out of the log cabin, he had to be dragged away from his work to exchange presents. Once that was over and he’d collected his Christmas turkey with the trimmings from the kitchen where we queued, he took his plate down to the basement and was gone for the day.
To be honest, it was more relaxed once he’d left because it was very hard to let one’s self go when he was in the room. It was not that one could not laugh and joke in his presence – of course one could – and it was always a pleasure to make him laugh, that big hearty, out-loud laugh – but it was more that if I joked and laughed with any of the others and he was not included, you sensed his unease, his dislike of being side-lined.
When we first arrived at the log cabin, an endless stream of rock stars wandered through the unlocked doors to meet Frank, and he appeared to enjoy their short visits.
Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful came several times, once to jam with Captain Beefheart (which I missed while out on a date!) and another to chat with Frank round the kitchen table about politics. Interestingly, Mick showed more knowledge of history and politics than Frank, who covered his gaps in knowledge well with droll ripostes.
Others who strolled in unannounced included Joni Mitchell and David Crosby; Eric Clapton, who rarely spoke; Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, who was thinning on top; Peter Tork of the Monkees, taller than I expected; Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas, who almost filled the doorway; Roger Waters and David Gilmour, who nodded in appreciation when Frank played new recordings no matter how dire; and Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck, who one night demolished the kitchen with a food-fight. All were much bigger stars than Frank but still they made their homage-like visits and appeared to treat him with great reverence.
However, the novelty quickly wore off. After four days, Frank never moved from his desk and visitors were forced to let themselves out. We rarely saw them again because, except for Captain Beefheart whom Frank was at school with, Frank did not socialise with rock stars. Rather, he seemed more at home with film people which was not surprising because making films was his other great love.
One of the groups Frank recorded on Bizarre was a group of girls, the GTOs and Frank appointed me to be their road manager. This was because he’d lost interest in writing his commissioned book and he sent back his advance. The GTOs were a group of girls who were friends of Christine, Moon’s nanny. They had been dancing with Vito, a well-known freak in Laurel Canyon, and Frank thought that if they could write songs about their lives, he would take them on tour and make an album. The name they came up with was Girls Together Outrageously, GTOs. They wrote lyrics but called in help from some of the Mothers to compose melodies. Eventually, Permanent Damage, their album did get produced. Unfortunately, three of the girls were found in their hotel room in 1969 with heavy drugs and Frank, who was a staunch anti-drug fiend, canceled their contract.
Meantime, terror had entered the log cabin when Raven, a mad man, threatened Frank with a gun. Frank, courageously, persuaded him to throw the gun into our pond. This event, together with the realisation that the log cabin was not only a fire risk but beyond repair, convinced both Frank and Gail that it was time to move to a safer address.
They bought a modest house on Woodrow Wilson Drive with just three bedrooms and bathrooms, kitchen living room and dining room for $74,000, but it did have a basement running the length of the whole house. This would be Frank’s new workplace where he could be insulated from the new crowd who moved into the rooms above. He rarely lifted his head above the parapet save to slump into bed or search for food in the kitchen. In fact, so seldom was Frank seen on the first floor of the house, it was easy to believe he didn’t live there at all.
I remained working for Frank until 1971 when ill-health forced me to return to England. I intended it to be a short stay but the lure of Cambridge University won over and I never returned to America.
It had been my good fortune to meet Frank Zappa in London in 1967, and I am grateful to him for giving me that extraordinary experience in the Hollywood Hills. I have recorded it in full in my memoir, Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa by Pauline Butcher. It has been translated into Italian and Spanish and is available on Amazon.
BBC Radio 4 adapted the book into a radio play on May 6, 2014.