‘She had no fear mechanism’: the incredible, outrageous life of Miss Mercy

For many people, the notion of the groupie brings to mind something generic: a woman known solely for her relationship to her rock star of choice. But the most celebrated of the original groupies – the women who first inspired the term in the 1960s – had attitudes and styles that made them unique creatures, earning them an elevated place in the cutting-edge culture of the day.

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The most distinct of these women comprised a rock band of their own, the GTOs (or Girls Together Outrageously) who in 1969 recorded for Frank Zappa’s label, Bizarre. “They were genuine individuals,” said Lyndsey Parker, whose new book, Permanent Damage: Memoirs of an Outrageous Girl, captures the memories of the GTOs’ most flagrantly individual member, Miss Mercy. “If you look at pictures of the women from back then, they were attractive but they were also freaks,” Parker said. “They didn’t look or dress like anybody else and they didn’t look or dress like each other. Rock stars were interested in them because they were real.”

A key part of that reality was captured by another GTO, Pamela Des Barres, in her classic 1987 memoir, I’m With the Band: Memoirs of A Groupie. But in Permanent Damage, Miss Mercy tells a very different story – a far wilder and more perilous one. Sadly, that story ended last July when Mercy Fontenot died of liver cancer at 71. Before her death, however, she fully approved the publication of a book that unflinchingly chronicles her many drug addictions, her two ruinous marriages – one to the psychedelic soul star Shuggie Otis – the suicides of her parents, her fractious relationship with her son, her years of homelessness, as well as at least four instances of rape. At one point, Parker reports, her own mother told her: “You might as well kill yourself.”

The most jarring part? The book reads like a romp, aided by Mercy’s keen sense of the absurd and flair for black humor. “She actually thought her life was kinda fun,” said Parker. “She didn’t think, ‘Oh look at this sad, horrible person’. And she would never want anyone to feel sorry for her. To Mercy, it was all an adventure – even when she was homeless.”

Parker allows that Mercy’s “sarcastic sense of humor and harsh tone was a defense mechanism. She compartmentalized a lot of things and tried to minimize them,” she said. “Part of that was because she hated the idea of playing the victim. But she also needed to do it because she went through so much heavy shit in her life.”

It began early. At nine, Mercy had her first brush with death when a riptide nearly drowned her while she was swimming in the ocean. “After that, she felt invincible,” Parker said. “She tested that many times.”

Her parents provided ideal role models for a reckless life. Her father was a gambling addict and womanizer who suffered from delusions of grandeur; her mother, who had depression, was addicted to diet pills, which contained speed. Believing her daughter to be chubby, she fed the same type of pills to Mercy. At 15, she was living on the streets of San Francisco, right on time for the Summer of Love. Her intense attraction to, and appreciation of, music, along with her single-mindedness, allowed her to befriend or bed many a musician in that historic scene. Still, the book makes clear that sex was never Mercy’s prime motivator. “She wasn’t even that into having sex with those guys,” Parker said. “She just wanted to be in their orbit.”

Her sense of humor became a point of attraction for the men, since she wasn’t a conventional beauty. Her extreme approach to style also helped her stand out. Inspired by the silent film actor Theda Bara, she blackened her eyes with heavy makeup and wore densely layered clothes to create her own take on the hippie gypsy look. Mercy’s distinctive aesthetic, and assertive character, helped her get on to the cover of Rolling Stone twice, first in a story about the Haight-Ashbury “Gathering of the Tribes” Be-In of 1967, then in a famous piece about the groupie scene with pictures shot by Baron Wolman. “If the term ‘influencer’ existed then, she would have been one,” Parker said.

“The women in that scene were courtesans in the classic Colette sense,” said Richard Goldstein, who wrote one of the first serious rock columns in the 1960s. “They were women of high status in the rock community and among fans. They were legendary.”

The attitudes women such as Mercy and Pamela displayed put them at the forefront of the sexual revolution, while their sense of style proved enduringly influential. In 2018, the fashion designer Alexa Chung devised The Muse line in honor of their look and character. “Mercy loved the fact that we were getting attention later in life,” said Pamela Des Barres. “We were so imitated.”

Mercy’s antenna for music’s constant shifts led her to migrate from the Haight down to LA by the late 60s, where she quickly ensconced herself in the Laurel Canyon scene. There, she met Zappa who thought her perfect for the girl group he was forming. “Frank said we needed a bizarre element,” Des Barres said, with a laugh. “When Mercy walked in, he said: ‘There’s your new GTO.’ At first, I didn’t think I could deal with her. She had taken hundreds and hundreds of acid trips, and at that point I had barely smoked pot! But we wound up becoming incredibly close.”

Zappa exploited that closeness by giving the group a provocative name that suggested they were lesbians. “Mercy loved to play that up,” Parker said. “And while she did have many crushes on women, most of them she didn’t act upon.”

She also had a tendency to fruitlessly seek gay men as lovers. In terms of gender, Mercy considered herself non-binary 40 years before that became a common description. She also had a deep affinity for Black culture, championing its under-recognized stars and claiming in her memoir to bed artists from Al Green to Chuck Berry to Taj Mahal.

The one album the GTOs recorded, titled Permanent Damage, was shambolic in many ways, but, due to Zappa’s blessing, it boasted musicians as formidable as Jeff Beck, Lowell George and, on one track, Rod Stewart singing with an off-key Mercy. “Though the group was put together by Zappa, they were pretty much left to their own devices,” Parker said. “No one told them how to act or what to wear. Obviously, no one else could have created Mercy’s look. As for the music, Frank just told them ‘come back with two songs each.’ Some of them weren’t even songs. They were just the girls talking. Mercy’s were actual songs, if weird-ass ones. You can argue the merits of how listenable it was but it’s definitely an artifact of its time.”

Unfortunately, Mercy’s prodigious drug use so angered the famously sober Zappa he pulled the plug on the group in less than a year. In one harrowing instance, she scored heroin from the dealer who, the next day, gave Janis Joplin what turned out to be her fatal dose. Her marriages proved equally alarming. Parker said she got Otis to marry her by essentially “wearing him down”. Throughout their marriage, he was seeing another woman who, he made clear, he far preferred. Mercy’s second husband humiliated her every chance he got.

While her marriage to Otis produced a child, he was raised mainly by his grandparents, which made him feel abandoned. Interviewing Mercy for the book, Parker said she had enormous trouble getting her to admit the pain she probably felt at being rejected by her son. In a similar way, Mercy downplayed the psychological effect of her multiple rapes. “She would say, ‘Yeah, some women get raped and they never recover. But I just brush myself off and go dancing afterwards,’” Parker said. “She took great pride in being tough. But I don’t believe that it didn’t affect her.”

Mercy’s iron-hard shell caused the author to worry that readers might find her unrelatable or unlikable. But after she died, Parker found a diary Mercy had kept that revealed a hidden vulnerability. “She wrote about the pain of neglecting her kid,” the author said. “She would never say that to my face, but there it was.”

In her later years, she became sober and even helped Des Barres care for her elderly mother in her final months. At the same time, she highly valued the wildest parts of her life. “Unlike most people, she had no fear mechanism,” Parker said. “If that often got her into dangerous situations, it also got into a lot of fun situations other people might have missed. I think Mercy would love it if, after people read the book, they said, ‘Wow, that chick was a freak!’ To her, that would be the ultimate compliment.”

  • Permanent Damage: Memoirs of an Outrageous Girl is out on 9 June