You may have noticed something about this book. There are very few women mentioned.
And this is even after I have made a conscious effort to redress the balance, because I wanted to recognise the efforts of as many women in this book as possible. The problem is, though, that the LA music scene of the 60s was viciously sexist. For the most part, there was only one role for women, and that was “groupie”.
But just because women were being shut out of positions of power does not mean they were not being creative. The groupies in LA in the 60s were in many ways the prototype of today’s Tumblr fandoms; teenage girls creating a language, a culture, and a community around a shared love of music and musicians who, frankly, often didn’t deserve that love and were vastly less interesting than their fans.
Thanks to Frank Zappa, we have a record of at least part of that culture. In 1968, Zappa and Herb Cohen were starting two record labels — Bizarre, to release Zappa’s own music, and Straight, which would release work from the LA freak scene. Straight released records by, among others, Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper, and the homeless schizophrenic street singer Wild Man Fischer. And it released Permanent Damage by the GTOs.
The GTOs (initials which stood for Girls Together Outrageously, Often, Only, or anything else that started with an “o”) were a group of groupies who had come together as dancers at Ciro’s during the Byrds’ residency there, hanging out with Carl Franzoni, Vito, and the other leaders of the LA freak scene. The names they took (Miss Pamela, Miss Sandra, Miss Cinderella, Miss Christine, Miss Mercy, Miss Sparky, Miss Lucy, and Miss Johna) were given them by Tiny Tim, who referred to everyone as Miss or Mister followed by their first name.
The women (especially Mercy) wrote songs about their life and the people they knew, and sang them in unison rather than harmony. These songs were often absolutely cutting, as in their song about Rodney Bingenheimer, the famous LA scenester whose main job at the time was as Davy Jones’ stand-in (he’s now a DJ). They impersonated Bingenheimer, portraying him as an egomaniac latching on to more famous people and using their fame to get laid: “The Hollies are my best friends/And I ate lunch with Grace Slick yesterday/You can ball Ringo Starr if you ball me first”, before singing at the end “Oh, Rodney, if you introduce me to Mick Jagger/I’ll let you meet my little sister/She’s only twelve years old”. Amazingly, when this song was recorded, they got Bingenheimer to join in, playing himself.
The album Zappa produced for them, Permanent Damage, is a fascinating record of this culture. Part of it is spoken word — the women either chatting (a phone call to the Plaster Casters is particularly interesting) or reciting chants they’d written together — much is a capella unison singing, and there are some fully-produced songs, produced either by Zappa (with members of the Mothers of Invention backing), or by the Mothers’ new rhythm guitarist, Lowell George, who brought in friends such as the Jeff Beck Group (including one “Rodney Stewart” who provided backing vocals on one song), Russ Titelman and Ry Cooder. The album featured songs about characters around LA, about not liking to shower in gym class, about “soul brothers with processed points at the tips of their foreheads”, about being brought up by television, and about other concerns of women in their late teens and early twenties.
Possibly the best track on the album, and certainly the one that’s the most interesting clash of cultures, is The Captain’s Fat Theresa Shoes, a song with lyrics by the group and music by Davy Jones (who also wrote music for I’m In Love With The Ooh-Ooh Man, a song about Nick St. Nicholas of the band Steppenwolf, which also appears on the album). Over a Mothers of Invention backing, with tack piano reminiscent of a silent film soundtrack and boinging Moog noises, they sing about the shoes worn by Captain Beefheart (who was a notoriously dapper dresser) and try to persuade him to tapdance for them. After hearing “The T of his T-strap stands for Tippie-Toes/His Tippie-Toes fit him to a T/Oh C.B. do a tap dance for me/With your bigga fat Tippie-Toe Theresa Shoes” it’s impossible to think of Captain Beefheart as a genius on a different plane from us mortals — he was a bloke wearing silly shoes with stacked heels and a pointed tip.
Parts of Permanent Damage have dated badly, as one would expect from an album by girls in their late teens and early twenties talking very openly. Bits are homophobic, or borderline racist. But in a culture that was built up almost entirely around the solo, male, antisocial genius creating Great Works (and it’s notable that almost everyone I discuss in these essays is male, extremely talented, and somewhere between “a bit difficult to work with” and actually psychopathic), this is practically the only work that got created that was a celebration of the genius of a culture — a female, collective, culture. Girls together only.
The Captain’s Fat Theresa Shoes
Composer: Pamela Miller, Linda Parker, Christine Frka, Sandra Rowe, Cynthia Wells, and Davy Jones
Line-up: Miss Pamela, Miss Sandra, Miss Cinderella, Miss Christine, and Miss Mercy (vocals) Craig Doerge and Ian Underwood (keyboards), Roy Estrada (bass), Jimmy Carl Black (drums)
Original release: Permanent Damage, The GTOs, Straight STS 1059
Currently available on: Out of print