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“How are you still alive?” That was the recurring question I’d incredulously blurt out during my nearly three years of conversations with the mythical Miss Mercy, a.k.a. Mercy Fontenot, as I attempted to capture her death- and odds-defying story in her autobiography, Permanent Damage: Memoirs of an Outrageous Girl.
Mercy was 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 2020 death, her GTOs tenure pretty much comprised the entire obituary. Mercy actually suggested the title I’m With the Band Too for her own book, but I shut that down immediately, as I knew that her time in the GTOs would be but one of many fascinating chapters. In the end we settled on a title that was a nod to that group and their one album (which Mercy had named), 1969’s Permanent Damage, but also acknowledged all the trauma and chaos she’d survived.
Mercy signed our book deal only eight days before she died from cancer. The irony wasn’t lost on me that after her many harrowing near-death experiences — including the one excerpted below, when she did heroin from the same stash that killed Janis Joplin — she didn’t enter the infamous 27 Club, like Joplin and so many of her peers, and instead succumbed to natural causes at age 71. Mercy once theorized that she’d cheated death so many times because she needed to complete her mission, which was “to share some important music history with the world.” Hopefully she did just that in her memoirs. Here is just one of her book's wild stories. —Lyndsey Parker
I was with Janis Joplin’s drug dealer the night she died, though by that time I had moved down to Los Angeles. Her dealer was named Jean de Breteuil and he was in the phone book and everything. I wasn’t really that into heroin, though once in a while I’d do it because I would take anything offered to me, any drug — it didn’t matter what it was. I was living on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood, and Jean came to visit me, bringing me the same heroin he had just given Janis. You know that saying, “go placidly amid the noise and haste,” from the Max Ehrmann poem? Janis had just recited that to Jean. He said, “I wonder why she told me this.” Then he said, “I have this dope and I want to shoot you up with it, and I’m going to watch you.” He wanted to test the smack on me, basically use me as his guinea pig. Naturally, I was up for the task. But as soon as he shot me up, I knew something had gone very wrong.
I shouted, “I’m going down way too fast. I’m just going down. Help!” So Jean gave me a shot of cocaine to snap me out of it.
Neither of us knew at the time that Janis would overdose from this same batch of heroin. Jean left the smack with me, but it was so strong, I couldn’t handle it, so I gave it to my junkie pal Gram Parsons. I didn’t sell it to Gram or anything; I just didn’t want it in my possession. But then the guy with Gram OD’d, so we had to call our friend Chuck Wein to come bring that dude back to life. Later that night, Janis died around two o’clock in the morning. When I heard the news on the radio, I said, “Oh, yikes. Whoops.” It was very sad. Janis was only two blocks away from me. She actually passed away in a hotel that my band GTOs lived in before, the Landmark. But I’ll get into my GTOs, Gram, and Chuck stories later.
Jean was seriously freaked out. I know he did not mean for that to happen to Janis. I don’t know how it happened, exactly. I’ve been told that Janis had an amulet around her neck that usually stored cocaine in it in case she had too much heroin, and that one of her girlfriends had changed it to more heroin — so when Janis went to do the coke shot, she overdosed on smack instead. That’s one story. I cannot definitively say. I’ve always suspected it was a setup and Jean was caught in the middle, but I can’t confirm that either.
After Janis died, you would’ve thought I’d have some sort of holy-s*** epiphany, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I sort of thing. But it didn’t scare me in the least. Everybody could’ve dropped dead around me — and a lot of people did eventually, like Jimi and Gram — and it wouldn’t faze me. All I thought about was getting high, high, higher. When you’re addicted to drugs, that is how your brain functions, or malfunctions. Yes, I thought maybe it was a possibility I could end up like Janis, but the prospect didn’t bother me since I believed in that whole prewritten-fate thing.
Mercy Fontenot’s autobiography Permanent Damage: Memoirs of an Outrageous Girl, co-written with Yahoo Entertainment music editor Lyndsey Parker, is available June 9 via Rare Bird Books.
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