And so it goes that another magnificent pop cultural presence leaves us. Earlier this week, the woman known as Miss Mercy passed away at the age of 71, but she leaves behind a legacy of originality, freedom and maybe the most important trait of all: giving absolutely no fucks.
Born Judith Edna Peters, Mercy Fontenot’s place in rock and roll history is secured as a member of Girls Together Outrageously – more commonly known as the GTOs – one of the first all-female rock collectives, who played a vital role in diluting the dickswinging attitude of the super macho late 1960s Los Angeles guitar scene.
Part dance troupe, part experimental art project and part actual band (Alice Cooper called them a “mixed-media” collective), composer, comedian and proud disruptor of the status quo, Frank Zappa, took on the role of svengali when it came to the GTOs’ formation, encouraging them to collaborate, record and appear at his shows. But the powerful sisterhood the women in the group developed was all their own and Mercy’s ‘Shock Treatment’ – which she wrote about having a crush on Keith Richards and features Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart – is always worth a listen, not least for its innate weirdness.
Fellow GTO Pamela Des Barres, who Almost Famous’ Penny Lane is based on, colourfully recalls meeting Mercy for the first time in her 1987 book I’m With The Band. “An exotic bag girl with black racoon eye makeup that dusted down both cheeks and looked like she had twisted two hunks of coal round and round on her eyelids,” wrote Des Barres. “Her lipstick was a red seeping slash and both earlobes had been split down the middle by the weight of too many dangerous earrings dangling too far down.” The infamous 1969 ‘Groupies’ issue of Rolling Stone called her “a heavy girl, with a predilection for loose-fitting clothing made from antique (sometimes rotting) cloth, boots and black eye makeup looking as if it were applied with a canoe paddle.”
Without a doubt, Miss Mercy was a one-off. “I just kept my makeup on all the time,” she said of her dramatic look. “It was actually kohl from India. I got that from Theda Bara. I had all the gypsy clothes on. I wore five or six dresses at a time. I would put on everything I could think of because I was on speed. I just kept putting on more dresses.”
Born in the LA suburb of Burbank, Mercy was a classic teen tearway, spending a brief stint in juvenile hall, before arriving in San Francisco’s hippy ground zero of Haight Ashbury and developing her signature style. A hot gothic mess draped in Victorian rags, it was as if Mercy had predicted the impending sinister side of the summer of love. She had already fallen in and out of love with The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones after meeting him in 1965 and, bored of the San Fran scene, Mercy moved back to Los Angeles in 1968. She was immediately asked by Zappa to join the GTOs in order to bring in the “bizarre” element he thought the group lacked. “He told the other girls they weren’t far out enough,” remembered Mercy in a 2008 interview. “The other girls were straight. They were girls that dressed up and wanted to be in the in crowd, but they weren’t the real deal.”
Des Barres, a perky blonde flower child, admits to being scared of Mercy when they first met, saying: “She had already taken a thousand acid trips and her mind was on the endangered species list.” Despite her initial wariness, Pamela and Mercy became fast friends, bonding over their love of country music. Attending Los Angeles’ Palomino honky tonk to watch artists like Waylon Jennings, the pair even sang occasional backing vocals for cosmic cowboy Gram Parsons. One night out together ended up with Mercy predicting The Rolling Stones’ fortunes using a battered old set of tarot cards.
Like many bands – and people – of that era, the GTOs didn’t stick around for long. Mercy’s own interests in heroin and angel dust were contributing factors to the end of the group and she briefly moved to Memphis and ended up having a child with and marrying funk and soul star Shuggie Otis after a relationship with Al Green. Later, she would become a punkabilly hairdresser, calling herself Ravee Raveon, and in the 1980s managed breakdancers, while raising her son Lucky. “You could see her on Santa Monica Pier, her magenta hair shining in the sunlight, passing the big plastic bucket around while Turbo and Puppet gyrated for astonished onlookers,” wrote Des Barres.
Earlier this year Mercy appeared on Des Barres’ podcast Pajama Party for the second time and the best friends discuss how “madly in love” they are. As Mercy casually recounts her rock’n’roll tales, you can hear your bangles and beads jangling, forever an original.