Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Book Review: Permanent Damage: Memoirs of an Outrageous Girl by Mercy Fontenot with Lyndsey Parker


Mercy  Fontenat, otherwise known as Miss Mercy of the GTOS, led an iterant rock ‘n’ roll life life. A butterfly of a music fan, Mercy’s travels took her from Haight Asbury to Laurel Canyon to Stax in Memphis to the punk rock scene in Hollywood. She befriended and worked with many rock icons and had trysts with others. That’s the good news. The bad news? She got caught up with drugs at a young age. Mercy (born Judith Peters) had a dysfunctional childhood. Her Dad was a gambler with a predilection for showgirls, and her family traveled across the country. Mercy ran away from cushy San Mateo, California to SF’s Haight Ashbury as a teenager, and soon took on the moniker Mercy, after the Don Covay song.

 Although Mercy spent her whole life around the music scene, she’s primarily remembered as a member of the GTOs, an avant-garde singing and performance art troupe.

The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously) were a psychedelic combination of female Hollywood scenesters/groupies. They first got together as the Laurel Canyon Ballet Company and released one Frank Zappa produced album, Permanent Damage, in 1969. The group consisted of Miss Pamela (Pamela Des Barres)  Miss Sparky (Linda Sue Parker), Miss Lucy (Lucy McLaren), Miss Christine (Christine Frika),  Miss Sandra (Sandra Leano), Miss Cynderella (Cynthia Wells Cale-Binion) and Miss Mercy (Mercy Fontenat).  Fontenat, arguably the quirkiest member of the GTOs, passed away in July 2020 after a long illness. This leaves Pamela and Sparky as the last living members of the group.

Zappa recruited Fontenot to join the GTOs at the last minute, intrigued by her wild gypsy look. Pamela Des Barres remembers Mercy as a “threat to normalcy”. Mercy’s autobiography, Permanent Damage: Memoirs of an Outrageous Girl, was released posthumously in June 2020.  Yahoo music editor Lyndsey Parker interviewed Fontenot extensively for several years to unravel the tale of an unorthodox, colorful, (and sometimes dangerous) life.

Permanent Damage combines Mercy's overarching love of music, fashion, pop culture trends through the decades, unorthodox relationships with musicians, and sometimes unsettling side jaunts involving drugs and unsavory characters. Mercy has a sense of humor and no self-editing, which actually is good because you always knew she was telling the truth. She had no agenda.

Of the GTOs, Mercy says: “The ethos of punk was that you didn’t have to be a professional musician or be trained to play and read music…. You could do it yourself. The GTOs were like that. I guess we were punk rock in our own way.”

The GTOs played an infamous show at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium as the opening act on a bill with Frank Zappa and Alice Cooper. Their combination of comedy, theater, and singing was utterly unique and very much of its time.  Mercy remembers that she and Pamela got really stoned on pot while riding with Gram Parsons in his T-Bird before the show. Miss Christine admonished Mercy before the show, fearing the worst, but the show was a hit. Unfortunately, only a few photos of their performance exist, and there’s a short clip of the performance in Alex Winter’s Zappa documentary. 

The GTOs socialized with a lot of the movers and shakers of the music, underground and hippie movement. I never thought about it before, but could it be the “Miss” before the GTOs’ names were cadged from friend and fan Tiny Tim’s habit of addressing females with “Miss” before their first name.

Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, The Monkees’ Davy Jones and Nicky Hopkins provided musical backdrop for the GTOs album; Lowell George produced it. Rod Stewart, then a rock star-in-training, sang on Mercy’s song The Ghost Chained to the Past, Present, and Future (Shock Treatment) She also took Rod thrift store shopping and helped him develop his early look with The Faces. Decades later, when she was a homeless crack addict in Hollywood, she saw Stewart walk into the Pantages Theater before one of his concerts. She called to him, and he waved at her and moved on. Did she feel bad about it? “Shame isn’t a thing I do”, she says, “After all, I looked cute.”

Mercy doesn’t pull any punches about her fellow groupies, other scenesters, and her various sexual encounters. The ickiest moment involved Chuck Berry, a bucket, and bathroom function. Mercy said she later felt bad about it, but at least there were no pictures. Although she confessed to not liking sex that much, she had relationships with several musicians, including Arthur Lee of Love and Jobriath.  She actively pursued the funk musician Shuggie Otis and eventually married him. The couple had a son, Lucky, also a musician. 

The list of musicians in her orbit reads like a who’s who of rock –the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart, Gram Parsons, Al Green, Otis Redding, etc.

Here are just a few examples of Mercy’s rock ‘n’ roll adventures:

  • She read the Stones’ tarot cards before Altamont
  • Popped out of a cake at Alice Cooper’s birthday party at the Ambassador East while on LSD. She also helped Alice devise his initial look.
  • Dropped out of beauty school but became a hairdresser anyway, hung out with the Gears and other punk rock bands in Hollywood, went to the famous punk club the Masque
  •  A pre-fame Courtney Love meet Mercy on a Hollywood bus and gave Mercy her phone number 

Many of Mercy’s cast of rock ‘roll characters disappeared from the scene, or died from drug abuse or violence.  She kept in contact with her parents and her sister throughout the years, but her family of origin didn’t provide much comfort. Music and her friends kept her positive. Finally off drugs for good, she turned her life around. Her son Lucky and job at Goodwill Industries kept her grounded.

For all her bravado, there are a few times Mercy expresses remorse about how her drug use affected others, and about glitches in her relationships with ex-husband Shuggie Otis and their son Lucky. 

Near the end of her life, Mercy once again appeared in the public eye.  She appeared in photos for the Starcrawler song “She Gets Around”, co-starred in an internet fashion promo, and often appeared at many readings with her BFF Miss Pamela.

Fontenot's story reveals the seedy underbelly to the peace and flower power generation. There’s as much drugs and violence here as rock ‘n’ roll, much of it pretty intense. There is a dizzying array of arrests, rapes, physical and emotional abuse, bad decisions, and all the other dangers lurking to people way out on the fringes. No wonder Parker asked Fontenot several times during interviews for book, “How are you even alive?” Mercy persevered and slayed most of her demons. Despite her hardships, Mercy’s wisecracking persona and love of music remained intact. She is regarded, along with rest of the GTOs, as a rock trailblazer for her outrageousness and style. Marianne Faithful, John and Exene of X, Shirley Manson, Alice Cooper, Dave Davies and other rockers laud Mercy for her contributions to rock music culture.

Permanent Damage: Memoirs of an Outrageous Girl revisits a wild roller coaster of a life with honesty and humor. 

                                            The GTOs (From Straight to  Bizarre documentary)