“How are you still alive?”
That was the recurring question I’d incredulously blurt out during my two and a half years of conversations with the GTOs’ Miss Mercy, as I attempted to capture her death- and odds-defying story for her forthcoming autobiography.
“How are you still here?” I’d gasp, as she shared tale after jaw-dropping tale of her fearless, sometimes reckless existence. But this was just a running joke between us. Because honestly, I thought Mercy Fontenot would live forever. I thought she’d outlive Keith Richards. Even towards the very end, I still thought this true soul survivor would outlive us all.
Mercy was of course best known as the most outrageous and possibly least together member of the trailblazing, Frank Zappa-produced girl group the GTOs, or Girls Together Outrageously, alongside her best friend Pamela Des Barres, author of the celebrated groupie tell-all I’m With the Band. When Rolling Stone reported the news of Mercy’s July 27 death at age 71, her GTOs tenure pretty much comprised the entire obituary. But if there was ever a Zelig of rock ‘n’ roll, it was Mercy. When the first Acid Test went down in the Haight-Ashbury or Jimi Hendrix made history at Monterey Pop, she was there. When the Stones played Altamont, she was there — even though her tarot card reading for the band the night before had spelled disaster. When Al Green was a rising star in Memphis, or Wattstax took place at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, or punk rock was just beginning to take over Hollywood, she was there. She later explained to me that she knew how to gravitate towards music’s “energy centers.” It was one of her greatest talents. She really should have gone into A&R.
Mercy was such a character, such a one-off, such a “threat to normalcy”– as Pamela had once written — that I knew she had her own story to tell, a very different story, a story much darker than Pamela’s. When she finally agreed to work on her memoirs with me, after I’d been trying to convince her for ages, she suggested the title I’m With the Band Too, which I shut down immediately. A Threat to Normalcy almost made the cut. I knew that Mercy’s stint in the GTOs would be but one of many fascinating chapters.
It was Jan. 27, 2017, when it all began. Mercy rang me out of the blue to let me know she’d had a health scare and would soon be undergoing a serious operation. She wanted to see me, to say goodbye, just in case. She asked me to meet her at DJ Miles Tackett’s Funky Sole Night on Broadway at the Globe Theatre, where she would be serving as a dance contest judge alongside the L.A. Weekly’s own Lina Lecaro. I have two vivid memories of that evening. One was how she cantankerously complained about the contestants’ dancing skills, or lack thereof; Mercy gave absolutely zero fucks and never had a problem speaking her mind. The other memory is our ascent up to the balcony via the Globe’s faded, brocade-carpeted stairwell. Mercy was ahead of me, swathed in a ridiculously molting red feather boa, trailing loose feathers in her wake. It was almost a metaphor for the colorful chaos that ensued whenever she burst into any room. Thinking this might be the last time I’d see her, I surreptitiously scooped up a fistful of feathers and tucked them in my purse. I just wanted something to remember her by.
I still have those ruby plumes, but as it turned out, there would be many memories to come. Mercy survived her surgery, just like she’d survived everything else that’d been thrown at her– or that she threw herself into. But while my feather-gathering moment was the first and really only occasion when I had a sense of this larger-than-life lady’s mortality, it seemed to have put Mercy in a reflective mood. So a couple weeks later, she called me again, and she called my bluff: “So, are we doing this book or what?” I guess we were, then.
I soon learned that “cantankerous” was Mercy’s default — her forever mood, as the kids say. Getting her to open up and tell her stories honestly was way more challenging than I’d anticipated, especially considering how unfiltered she usually was otherwise. “You try remembering things that happened 50 years ago, when you get to be my age,” she used to bark at me when I pressed too hard. There was a guard up, a certain brittleness, which I eventually realized was the result of enduring some truly harrowing experiences that would have broken or even killed a lesser woman decades earlier. She only wept once, right in the middle of some Hollywood Blvd. fast food joint, but she quickly regained her composure, seemingly surprised by her momentary breakdown. “Why am I crying?” she asked aloud, stabbing her fries into a plate of ketchup. I knew why.
Once when I asked her what she wanted the overall vibe or message of her autobiography to be, she shrugged and answered, “I just want it to be fun.” It was my job to convince Mercy that her not-so-fun stories of abuse, addiction, recovery, and redemption were just as compelling as the wacky anecdotes about her jumping out of a cake at Alice Cooper’s record release party, thrift-shopping with Rod Stewart, or riding in a limo with Mick and Marianne. (Don’t worry, it’s all in the book.)
Mercy was tough, because she had to be, but there was a sweet spirit under that fearsomely steely exterior and the dozen rhinestone belts that seemed surgically attached to her twiggy hips and the signature Theda Bara eyeliner that Rolling Stone once described as looking like it’d been applied with a canoe paddle. That softness came out in how she treated me and her many much-adored friends, and in her tireless evangelism of the music she worshiped — from Bobby Womack, David Porter, and Gram Parsons to her most recent obsessions, Yoshiki from X Japan, Starcrawler (who put her on the cover of their “She Gets Around” single), and anything RuPaul’s Drag Race-related. Her meticulously maintained Facebook wall was a virtual shrine to her favorite people, bands, movies, and TV shows. When Mercy loved something, or someone, she loved with all the fierceness of the 14-year-old fangirl she once was. It’s like she had a crush on the world. She never lost her passion. She once theorized that she had cheated death so many times because she needed to complete her mission, which was “to share some important music history with the world.” That’s in the book too.
Towards the end of our time working together, I asked Mercy what had been her favorite era of her life. She’d partied with Parsons in Laurel Canyon and in Hawaii with Hendrix; she’d appeared on two covers of Rolling Stone; she’d watched luminaries of the R&B scene in literally her own backyard while living in her father-in-law Johnny Otis’s famous family home; she’d spent the ‘70s hanging out at the Masque and on the Soul Train set. But she simply cocked her head and said, “I guess my favorite era is… right now.” Mercy Fontenot lived every day like it was her last, until it was her last. I’m going to miss my red-feathered friend.
Permanent Damage: Memoirs of an Outrageous Girl by Mercy Fontenot with Lyndsey Parker is scheduled for release in 2021 and is available for pre-order now.