When 22-year-old Christine Frka arrived in sleepy Cohasset, Mass., in November 1972, she was a rock ‘n’ roll legend, mainly for being “Miss Christine” — a famous groupie and member of the pioneering all-girl Los Angeles rock group, the GTOs. She’d been a muse to Alice Cooper and stared through our collective souls on the cover of Frank Zappa’s 1969 “Hot Rats” album and in the gatefold of Todd Rundgren’s “Runt.” She was a wild-haired style genius with eclectic taste in musicians — Rundgren, Arthur Brown and Sparks’ Russell Mael among them, all while battling scoliosis and amphetamine addiction.
Frka came to Cohasset that autumn to visit her boyfriend, David Robinson, the drummer for the Modern Lovers, a quirky Boston band just starting to buzz. At the time, the entire group lived and rehearsed in a spacious 10-room house, but it was hardly the kind of wild scene to which Miss Christine had become accustomed. “We were straight-edge, 10 or 20 years before it started,” jokes keyboardist Jerry Harrison, a Harvard grad who later went from the Modern Lovers to the Talking Heads.
According to Robinson, Frka was sensitive to the band’s low-key vibe: “She said, ‘I know you guys are somewhat against drugs and I’m cleaned up, and I won’t bring any drugs into your house, I promise.’”
Frka arrived with a friend and chatted late into the night, mostly with Robinson. The next morning, Harrison was in the shower when bandleader Jonathan Richman stormed in, freaked out. “There’s something wrong with Christine,” he said.
“I come running out of the shower naked into the room and I saw her,” Robinson remembers.
“She was on the floor,” guitarist Ernie Brooks says. “Jerry and I get her up into a better position and we tried doing what we could, we tried to give her mouth to mouth … pushing on her chest, things that we only vaguely knew what to do. She was clearly gone.”
The cause of death was an overdose, probably a combination of pentobarbital and quaaludes. Brooks thinks he may have seen a needle in her arm. Internet bios often reference heroin.
“I have no idea if it was a cry for help or. …” More than four decades later, Brooks’ voice trails off.
FRAGMENTS AND FUZZY MEMORIES
Miss Christine Frka died before she got old. As such, nearly a half-century later, her story remains largely a mystery. She’s not around to rewrite and Photoshop her past like many in her legacy-obsessed generation, who survived wild times that now are recast as hippie nostalgia.
Her life is remembered mostly in blunt-edged fragments and fuzzy memories, beautiful photos, paragraphs in books and on the internet. What’s real and true is left to the eye of the beholder. “I don’t know what the story is,” says Pauline Butcher, the author of “Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa,” who knew Frka when she worked as Zappa’s secretary in the late ’60s. “There’s no turn. She just grew up and she took drugs and she died.”
Alice Cooper describes the world of Frka and the GTOs as “fantasyland,” a place where the conventions of reality are irrelevant. “They never talked about anything serious,” he says. “You could never really say to [Frka] — ‘So where are you really from?’ Or, ‘What do you think about this or that?’ That wasn’t part of it.” In the end, Miss Christine Frka is best remembered as a glamour goddess-icon of the Laurel Canyon music scene, a deity of decadence, promiscuity and female empowerment.
SHE WENT OUT THROUGH THE BATHROOM WINDOW
At least Frka’s life started conventionally. Born in 1949 to parents of Croatian ancestry, she grew up in San Pedro. “She took me to her childhood home to meet her mom and her little world,” recalls photographer Andee Nathanson, a one-time roommate who took her photo for what became the “Hot Rats” cover. “And she showed me her bed when she was growing up, all her little things. It was so normal, you know?”
Yet her life could never be normal. Frka was always the tallest, beyond-Twiggy skinniest and gawkiest, and frequently in pain. At 12, she was diagnosed with scoliosis — a severe curvature of the spine. For the next four years, according to biographical Facebook posts written by her half-brother, James Serici, “she was put in body casts, from the hips to the shoulder. She would wear the cast for about six months, then off for couple of months, and back on.” They never worked.
The day Christine graduated from San Pedro High School in 1967, she split for Hollywood, escaping through the bathroom window, according to Serici. “She left a note,” he posts. “She told my parents she needed to leave, and for them not to chase after her, that she would be in touch.”
She landed at the center of Freakville — at a legendary Laurel Canyon home known as the Log Cabin. Once a roadhouse owned by cowboy actor Tom Mix, it had become a communal crash pad occupied by lecherous sculptor/dance teacher Vito Paulekas, an older (and married) gentleman who had collected a following of wild-limbed dancers, most of them very young women. Frka fit right in.
“There was an apartment above [Paulekas’] studio, and that’s where I first met Christine,” says fellow GTO and groupie legend Pamela Des Barres, author of several rock ‘n’ roll memoirs, including “I’m With the Band.” “We were crazy girls wearing outrageous clothes trying to stand out and be important and turn heads.”
Des Barres and Frka became part of Vito’s Dancers, a loosely organized troupe that gyrated on stages all over L.A. “We were invited to every shindig, every club,” Des Barres says. “We never paid to get in anywhere because we caused a ruckus everywhere we went and everyone wanted that kind of ruckus at that time.”
By early 1968, Vito’s crew had vacated the Log Cabin, replaced by Frank Zappa and his family. Frka remained in her space, which was known as the Vault. “We spent a lot of time in the Vault,” Des Barres says. “That’s where we wrote all the names of people on the walls we wanted to have sex with.”
Frka worked for Zappa and his wife, Gail, as a housekeeper and nanny to their young daughter Moon Unit. At 19, Frka was fully formed, 5-foot-8, not counting the high-heeled boots she favored. Butcher remembers their first meeting. “I had never seen anyone look quite the way she looked before,” she says. “That hair stood out easily six inches all around her head in a huge halo. And she was completely flat-chested and had a see-through blouse on. She had this little skirt on … and wore bright colored opaque tights. She had amazing design skills and talents. She was really incredible.”
And also really skinny. “Skeletal thin,” Butcher says. “She covered up her deformity very well, but she was embarrassed about it. Today we would call her anorexic.”
“She was always on speed and always cleaning the house,” Des Barres says. “Zappa didn’t know. He was anti-drug. Gail and Frank loved her and she was always very attentive with Moon and always had her on her hip when she was cleaning.”
If Frka wasn’t cleaning, she was sewing, creating far-out, brightly colored designs from vintage items that defied logic yet made perfect sense when she wore them, including bottoms that were half skirt, half pant.
Even in the bizarro world of Frank Zappa, Frka stood out. GTO Mercy Peters describes her as a Fellini version of a Mad magazine character. Des Barres thought she’d emerged straight from a Dr. Seuss book. “She was Tim Burton before Tim Burton,” Nathanson says.
Christine, accompanied by a revolving menagerie of young women of similar sensibility, including Des Barres, Miss Mercy (Judith Peters), Miss Cinderella (Cynthia Wells), Miss Sandra (Sandra Leano), Miss Lucy (Lucy Offerall) and Miss Sparky (Linda Sue Parker), often spent idle hours dancing the night away onstage with Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. By mid-1968, Zappa decided they should become a band, and the GTOs were born.
The GTOs were wild women — groupies unchained from ’50s feminine norms as they cavorted with musicians. The band’s name, it was said, was an acronym for Girls Together Outrageously.
“We loved musicians and we wanted to meet them, go out with them, be with them, whatever, in every capacity,” Des Barres says. “People said we just wanted to fuck them. That was so not it, especially Christine, although she’d go through with it to just be with them and be their girlfriend and hang out and enjoy the music. We were all music freaks.”
In fact, Frka was a self-described frigid groupie. “A lot of it had to do with her scoliosis. It was really hard for her,” Des Barres says. “She was reserved. She always talked about how much she hated sex, she said she would lay straight as a board and wait for it to get over.”
Of course, the term “groupie” has become synonymous with sex, and while the GTOs did have an impressive collection of well-heeled dalliances, they weren’t merely the old ladies of some long-haired dudes. They were strong women, stepping out from Tiger Beat-style fandom to both bed and embed themselves in the world of their obsession. Today, they’d be called influencers. “We were treated like royalty,” Peters remembers. “Everyone wanted to meet us.”
“They were culturally a very strong influence. All of them,” says longtime rock manager Shep Gordon. “They were the female Merry Pranksters, with a weirder side. It was like the Village People on acid.”
Gordon befriended the GTOs via his role as manager of the Alice Cooper Band, a group of squares from Phoenix who came to L.A. in search of fame and fortune. They were flailing when the GTOs remade them, mostly in their own image. Frka took a particular interest in the lead singer — a scrawny kid whose real name was Vince Furnier. “We met the GTOs, and they saw that there was potential in this bunch of kids from Phoenix who were already fairly theatrical,” Cooper says. “They saw that and they pushed us forward.”
“It was mainly Miss Christine,” says Des Barres. “She did his make-up, which is the most important thing” — creating a vampire-clown look for Cooper that is one of the most famous guises in rock history.
“They became a couple, an item,” Peters says. “All her outfits she made herself, on speed. She was a really big fashion influence on him.”
Cooper remembers the relationship as more innocent. “I used to babysit Frank’s kids with her,” he says. “She liked to go to ice cream parlors on dates. We were never really boyfriend-girlfriend. We were more companions. We held hands and walked around and looked really freaky.”
Frka was also instrumental in getting Alice signed to Zappa’s Bizarre Records. “She was the one who went to Frank and got us the audition, and we thank her to this day,” Cooper says, “even though she’s not with us anymore.”
MAKING THE SCENE
When the Zappas left the Log Cabin at the end of 1968, the GTOs scattered. Frka, Peters and Miss Cinderella were dispatched to the Landmark Motor Hotel on La Brea, just north of Hollywood Boulevard. Zappa kept the girls on a $35-per-week retainer and paid their rent.
“It was party central,” Gordon says. “It was Hotel California.” Among its residents: Janis Joplin, the Chambers Brothers and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Without a house to clean and now living in close proximity to Hollywood street dealers, Frka’s drug use become significantly less discrete. “Mercy and Christine were doing speed together. They were shooting it,” Des Barres says. “I walked in on them with Sparky one time when they were doing it. I was so horrified.”
Gordon notes that drug use was just a sign of the times. “I mean, you were admired by the more drugs you could do,” he says. “It wasn’t something that was hidden and secret. It was something you were proud of.”
But Frka got sloppy, and her drug use resulted in two arrests. The first, in early 1969, came after police drove by the Landmark and observed her shooting up through her bathroom window, according to Peters.
The busts prompted Zappa to pull the plug on the GTOs soon thereafter. Yet it didn’t deter Zappa from selecting Nathanson’s photo of a ghoulish, magenta-hued Christine — all sinewy fingers, shock of hair and dagger eyes, emerging from an empty Holmby Hills pool — for the cover of his 1969 “Hot Rats” album. It may be the most enduring image of the doomed GTO. “I still look at that album cover,” Alice Cooper says. “It’s nice that she’s immortalized.”
Miss Christine’s next stop was New York, where she began living with Rundgren in 1969. Musician Marlowe West remembers visiting a refreshed, relaxed and calmly domestic Frka as they went thrifting and grocery shopping. “She showed me this belt she was making for [Rundgren] with patches. He wears that belt on the “Runt” album. They were a beautiful couple.”
Peters, however, paints a darker picture when she traveled to New York during the summer of 1970. The trip included a road trip to Woodstock, where The Band was recording their “Stage Fright” album, on which Rundgren worked as an engineer. “When I was in New York with her, I went with her to score some speed. She was with Todd Rundgren and that’s probably why they [broke] up. Seriously. Todd was very straight.”
By 1972, Frka was still in New York and was starting to realize that being Miss Christine was not an entirely feasible long-term career option. She began working in a doctor’s office and had enrolled in a nurse-training program. James Serici, on Facebook, says he heard from his sister before she left for Cohasset in November 1972. “She was upbeat and had her usual bounce,” he posted.
In hindsight, though, there were warning signs. As a nurse trainee, “she was allowed to give people injections, which was the beginning of the problem, basically,” Robinson says. “But nobody was expecting what condition she was in when she showed up in Cohasset.”
At first, Frka seemed fine there — until Robinson got a knock on his bedroom door in the wee hours on November 5. “At four o’clock in the morning she came in and woke me up,” he says, “She said, ‘Can you go to the kitchen and get me an ice cube to put on my needle mark?’ I flipped out. But she was totally alert and insisted that she was sorry. We’d talk about it in the morning and I should not worry at all about her. Not having any experience with drugs like that, I believed her.”
That was the last time Robinson saw her alive. “Typical overdose,” he says. “She just had forgot that she’d already shot something up. It was definitely just an accidental overdose.”
Doctors determined it was mixture of pentobarbital mixed with other drugs, possibly quaaludes. Despite what she’d told Robinson, she hadn’t arrived empty-handed. “We looked through her stuff to find her drugs before the police or anybody came, and she literally had a big plastic container with little compartments filled with drugs,” he says. “Lots of drugs.”
Miss Christine Frka, then, lived fast and died young, practically a cliche of the drug-addled 1960s and ’70s music business. In the pre-internet universe, Frka’s life turned to lore, her narrative now in the hands of those fuzzy memories, some more reliable than others, a mystery girl who walked elegantly through pivotal scenes of rock history, leaving slivers of herself in her wake, still glowing as the decades passed by.
“I’m so sad she missed all this,” Nathanson says. “She would have had such a good time.”
Erik Himmelsbach-Weinstein is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles.