In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Mercy Fontenot was anything but a shrinking violet. In her alter ego as “Miss Mercy” — sporting distinctive raccoon eye makeup and dressed in layers of flowing gypsy clothes of lace, leopard prints, and feathers (usually purchased at local thrift shops) — she was a flamboyant rock and roll scenester. And she seemed to be everywhere.
There she was at Ground Zero of the Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district before later decamping to Los Angeles. She hung out at parties, backstage, and in the studio with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. She was at the infamous Altamont concert, even after doing a tarot card reading for the Stones that seemed to predict death and disaster—which she kept to herself.
She popped out of a cake at a party for Alice Cooper while loaded on PCP. And most famously, she was part of the G.T.O.’s — or “Girls Together Outrageously.” The all-girl “groupie” group (and more on that term later) put together by Frank Zappa who challenged them to try their untrained hand (and voices) at music. They put out one album that was, let's say...interesting. And later highly sought-out by collectors.
Miss Mercy’s wild ride and life in and out of rock and roll is told in the new autobiography Permanent Damage: Memoirs of an Outrageous Girl (208 pp., $27, Rare Bird Books). It was written by Miss Mercy with music journalist and SiriusXM Volume West host Lyndsey Parker.
“I’m so close to it and having worked on it for so long and knowing Mercy so well, it takes another person to go ‘Oh, yeah, this story is completely bonkers’ to make me realize that!” Parker says from Los Angeles.
The pair first met at one of Pamela Des Barres famous house parties at her “fabulous hippie pad in L.A.” Des Barres is probably the world’s best known groupie with her 1987 memoir I’m With the Band and related projects. Des Barres was also Miss Mercy’s G.T.O.’s bandmate/friend and later, a much-needed benefactor when things weren’t going so well in her life.
At that party in 2013/14, Miss Mercy had recognized Parker from some of the latter’s local TV appearances, and a fast friendship was born. “Pamela’s parties always have a very colorful cast of characters. And one of the most fascinating in five different layers of leopard-print outfits and all of her black eyeliner was Miss Mercy,” Parker offers. “She yelled at me from across the room and said ‘Hey! I’ve seen you on TV! I like you!’”
They became Facebook friends and Mercy was always reposting Parker’s articles and talking on the phone or hanging out (Parker says they would often be mistaken for mother and daughter when out in public). Miss Mercy would regale the younger woman with one crazy story after another about her earlier life. Stories that all of her friends told her should be in a book. Finally, during a dinner at a Mexican restaurant with “a couple of margaritas in her,” Parker boldly rose to tell the assembled that she would write the book.
The next morning, Mercy called and asked when they would be starting. And more than 60 hours of taped interviews began in earnest in early 2017.
The stories came fast and furious, as Mercy recounts her encounters with acts like those mentioned above along with Gene Simmons of KISS, Arthur Lee of Love, Shuggie Otis, Jobriath, Ike Tuner, Gram Parsons, and Janis Joplin. Then there’s the book’s Marquee Batshit Crazy Story: Chuck Berry.
Before a concert - and after he and Miss Mercy had sex (of which she’s pretty sure - though she was high at the time), Berry gave her a bucket and asked her to, uh, defecate in it while he watched. She acquiesced, and handed him the bucket back. Then when it was time to go onstage, she carried his guitar case for him, also at his request.
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up. After Miss Mercy saw his picture and blatantly pursued him, she ends up on a basement weight room with him, Lou Ferrigno, and another bodybuilder. But when the future Conan gets aggressive sexually, she freaks out and begs off. Oddly, she assumed that all bodybuilders were gay.
In the book, Miss Mercy admits that drugs have made some of the memories fuzzy, but Parker says she never saw herself in any sense as a victim or taken advantage of. She just wanted to be part of the action, even when the action got freaky.
“I thought ‘You’ve done so much risky and stupid shit!’ The book has a lot of sadness, but she wanted it to be fun. She thought her life was fun and didn’t look back on it feeling sorry for herself,” Parker says. “She made a lot of bad and foolish decisions that didn’t go well for her, but there were also things from her childhood she couldn’t help. The last thing she would want is for someone to close the book and go ‘Oh, poor Mercy.’”
In pre-rock days, Miss Mercy’s life was often unhinged with her family, and there were some assaults and abuse. So reinventing herself with a new outrageous “character” was a form of escape.
Parker says Miss Mercy was the “most outrageous and possibly least put together.” But while her more slender, blond, and sexually omnivorous G.T.O.’s and friends were bedding rocks stars one after another (or, in the case of the Plaster Casters, making molds of rock stars’ dangling prepositions), the book makes clear that sex was never Miss Mercy’s prime motivation.
Her relationships —with both men and women — tended to be more intense and all-consuming. And sometimes didn’t involve actually having sex at all.
“Although she had affairs and one night stands with rock stars and even married one, getting into bed with them was never her main agenda. She wanted to be part of rock history or get in on the ground floor of someone’s fame and evangelize for them,” Parker says.
“Some of it was her body issues and she was a closeted bisexual whose most intense feelings were probably for women. She was in her late 20s before she had a sexual encounter that blew her socks off, but it was just one time with the guy. When I asked her why it was only once, she was like ‘I did that. I don’t need to do it again.’”
The term “groupie” of course, has a wide-spanning definition. And its role has morphed over the decades from the eras of Free Love to the Me Decade to #MeToo. A groupie could also be anyone from the local girl who will do any sort of sexual favors no matter how seemingly degrading to get to the band. Or, as Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane character in the movie Almost Famous claims—act more as muses or “band aids.”
“It is a complex term. Mercy said she felt it changed in the ‘80s when MTV and the [hair metal bands] came around,” Parker says. “I’m not trying to slut shame, but they would go through the roadies and the bus drivers to get to the musicians, as opposed to being invited to be part of the entourage, part of the party.”
And that party could be mobile as well. Nothing was going to stop Miss Mercy from having a good time or being in the action, even geography. “She was very strong minded and hard headed and spontaneous,” Parker continues. “She just took off to Memphis [on a whim] because she liked Stax soul music and ended up working for the Bar-Kays and sleeping with Al Green. Who does that?”
The book also details Miss Mercy’s rocky marriage to and divorce from musician Shuggie Otis (they have a son), her involvement working with some punk rock bands at the genre’s dawn, and her many, many episodes with drugs. Make no mistake, Miss Mercy loved her heroin, her cocaine and her meth.
But a little over two decades ago, Miss Mercy decided she had enough and quit cold turkey. She has spent that time since working for Goodwill in the acquisitions department (seemingly a perfect fit for a woman whose entire visual persona was thrift store chic).
Her co-author says that Miss Mercy was very excited for the release of Permanent Damage (also the name of that sole G.T.O.'s record) and the ensuing media attention, book signings, and interviews that would follow.
Tragically, none of that will come to pass. Miss Mercy died on July 27, 2020 at the age of 71 from cancer, having signed the book contract just nine days prior.
Parker—who gets very emotional on the phone just talking about it—says that Miss Mercy did get to approve a rough draft, around the time she got news from her doctor that gave her a window of life from four months to two years.
“It’s so bizarre to me Bob, my mind went straight to two years. She defied death so many times, I just assumed it would be the longest period possible,” Parker says quietly. “I fully expected her to be here because she was so resilient. She had cancer and told almost no one. She didn’t want people to know she was sick. And she died alone at a friend’s house. But she went out knowing the book was coming out.”
Parker said that she knew something was off in the weeks leading up to her death when she emailed a video of a warm greeting to Miss Mercy that fellow Frank Zappa protege Alice Cooper had made for her. Normally, she would gush to Parker and repost it on her Facebook page (she was a big user of Facebook).
But this time, all Parker got back was a thumbs up emoji. And Miss Mercy’s texts about finalizing the contract became more urgent, for a reason that Parker now knows: she knew she was dying. And when Parker’s phone lit up and the caller ID said “Pamela Des Barres,” her gut told he the worst had happened.
The next day, Rolling Stone ran an obituary—something Parker says Miss Mercy would have been “very excited” to know about. And her photo was even shown later on the “In Memoriam” section of the Grammy website and ceremony program. But the irony is still not lost in that a woman who unapologetically sought fame and attention will miss the biggest opportunity for it nearly in five decades.
“It’s strange that she died at 71 from natural causes when she could have very easily died at 21 from so many other things. It feels weird doing an interview without her,” Parker says, before apologizing about getting emotional again. “She should be here for this. I just really, really miss her.”
Beginning June 3, the Grammy Museum will stream a digital roundtable event discussing Permanent Damage and the life of Miss Mercy with Lyndsey Parker, Pamela Des Barres, Alice Cooper, and Arrow de Wilde with moderator Lina Lecaro. For info, visit the Grammy Museum Collection: live site.
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