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The Go-Go’s Ain’t Gone

Allison Adato last wrote for the magazine about R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and his foray into feature film production. She wishes she had been born a Go-Go

Monday, 7:15 p.m.

It’s raining in New York. Kathy Valentine is contemplating a suntan from a bottle and Belinda Carlisle is naked, save for a lace thong under an NYPD-issued blue-plastic rain poncho. Days before their concert tour is to begin in Detroit, the Go-Go’s have agreed to play a handful of songs on an outdoor stage in Times Square as part of the city’s Fleet Week festivities. From their dressing room, they peek at the crowd, mainly uniformed sailors on shore leave getting drenched. Lead singer Carlisle, who ditched her planned ensemble because of the downpour, calls for their tour manager, Paul Spriggs. Though he has lived much of the last two decades in buses with such bands as Run-DMC and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Spriggs has never toured with five women in their 40s. He seems newly on alert, trying to anticipate their demands.

“Paul, I need a stapler,” says Carlisle, smiling sweetly. In minutes, he produces one. She fastens the sides of the poncho and slides into black heels. While they admire her daring, Carlisle’s bandmates declare the poncho unflatteringly long. Valentine comes to the rescue with nail scissors. Voila! “Fashion regression,” says Carlisle, 42, referring to the garbage bags she sported onstage at L.A. punk clubs more than 20 years ago.

In the earliest days of the Go-Go’s, the band’s five members, each barely beyond her teens, believed two things: First, that they would never break up. Second, that they couldn’t imagine doing this job past age 39. But after just five years, before ever running up against the paradox inherent in those beliefs, the band imploded. “It never occurred to me that it would end,” says Valentine, the bassist, now 41. “I was devastated. I floundered. It took me years to find my own musical identity.”

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To the public, the Go-Go’s were a clique of spirited, guitar-wielding California girls who had more in common musically with the Beach Boys and Shangri-Las than with the synth-pop acts that dominated ‘80s New Wave. Moreover, they were forever linked to one another as pop pioneers: Not only were they the first all-female band with an album to hit Billboard’s No. 1 spot, but they were the first to crack even the top 100. For Angeleno girls of a certain age, the Go-Go’s were a point of civic pride: They proved you could grow up right here and become a rock star. Carlisle’s voice, with its crisp, West Valley enunciation and range that rarely dipped below that of a school-choir alto, only encouraged these fantasies. Since the band dissolved, each member has enjoyed playing either solo or starting lesser-known bands. But none has achieved the commercial success they had together and, it seems, took for granted. “My biggest regret in life,” says guitarist Jane Wiedlin, 41, with a hint of bitterness in her Judy Holliday voice, “is how little I enjoyed the Go-Go’s experience.”

The experience was marred by the collision of five strong, if not fully mature, personalities. There remains the specter of what might have been. What if they hadn’t allowed egos and money to come between them? What if they had spent more time in the studio and less time partying? Today, 15 years after their split, the bandmates are writing new material and spending their summer on tour. But, save for some highly esoteric in-jokes, the Go-Go’s have left their old baggage behind. This time drugs, booze and on-the-road dalliances have been replaced by acupuncture, Pilates and calls home to the kids. (Two are married and moms.) “If you’re not going to spend money on drugs,” says Wiedlin, “you might as well spend it on a massage.” On a ticket with another ‘80s favorite, the B-52’s, they are selling out mid-size venues and proving that there is still a market for the Go-Go’s--at least as an evening of nostalgia.

The challenge will be getting their core fans--those who were teenagers in the ‘80s--to view them as a viable band this decade. “In high school, you wanted to be them: be with your best friends, share clothes, travel all over the world,” says music-industry executive Michelle Hinz, who was 14 in 1981 when the Go-Go’s’ first album, “Beauty and the Beat,” came out. “I think people still have positive feelings about the Go-Go’s because they were never a guilty pleasure,” she says. (Being a devout fan of, say, Wham! in your 30s might be harder to own up to.) Still, fond memories will only take a comeback act so far, she says. “You gotta have a hit. It’s harsh that way. You can put on the best show, be the coolest people, but it’s not a hit if the music isn’t there.”

Remarkably, considering the time that has passed, the Go-Go’s are still one of the few all-female bands out there. Alternative favorite Luscious Jackson broke up recently; the punk-pop group Sleater-Kinney has yet to crack the mainstream. “It’s great that we’re still unique,” says Wiedlin. “But it’s not a great comment on society.” Of course, there are other female rock stars (Courtney Love, Shirley Manson and Gwen Stefani), and many of them front bands. But the dearth of all-girl bands is easy to overlook in an age of the Lilith Fair, when female singers are backed by male musicians, and the pre-fab Spice Girls serve up “Girl Power.” As the Go-Go’s step back into the niche they vacated, guitarist Charlotte Caffey, 43, assesses their situation this way: “It’s like, ‘Guys, if we don’t figure it out this time, we’re idiots.’ ”

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MONDAY, 7:23 P.M.

Standing in the stage wings, Miss America, 25-year-old Heather French, is singing along to “We Got the Beat.” At her side, the young man whose job is to tote around Miss America’s tiara in a wooden box is bobbing his head. As cameras project the crowd onto the Times Square Jumbotron, it becomes evident that nearly everyone--including all those servicemen who were toddlers when the band broke up--knows the words to “Vacation” and “Our Lips are Sealed.” The Go-Go’s may not have a huge catalog, but it does include some hook-filled classics. In the dressing room after the show, Valentine watches the Navy men through the window. “We should have played another song. Those guys are serving the country--we need to entertain them.” “So go invite two up to your room,” suggests drummer Gina Schock, 42.

Before Valentine can respond, a representative from their management company comes in. “Do you want to do ABC-TV?” “We want to do whatever will help our career,” says Valentine.

What might have helped their career 15 years ago was intensive group therapy. Having forged a fast alliance during the late 1970s L.A. punk scene, it was as if each of the Go-Go’s, in a fit of youthful exuberance, had entered into a marriage to four other people picked up in a bar. When fame and its attendant ills pummeled them, that untested relationship cracked under the stress of egos that demanded equal time on albums and in the press, varying degrees of drug and alcohol addiction, and fights over the disparity in earnings because Caffey and Wiedlin (the primary composers) were receiving lucrative songwriting royalties.

“We may have broken up at the height of our fame, but it was not,” Schock says pointedly, “the height of our success.” While they could take satisfaction in their popularity, they were less proud of how they comported themselves privately. “It’s like the first time you fall in love; your eyes are just glazed over, you’re just so swept up by the whole thing,” says Schock. “The second or third time around, if you’re lucky enough for that to happen, you should have your [act] together, know what’s important and what makes you happy.”

In fact, there were second and third chances. Though effectively divorced in 1985, the band reunited twice--in 1990 and 1995--at the urging of their former record label to tour in support of albums recycling their hits: “Go-Go’s Greatest” and “Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s.” “The first time,” says Valentine, “it felt good to be friends again.” The second reunion, for which they grudgingly put on smiles and seemed little more than a five-headed oldies jukebox, was miserable. (Caffey, then pregnant, didn’t attend; guitarist Vicki Peterson, late of the Bangles, replaced her.) After that, remembers Valentine, “I said I would never do it again.”

When the tour ended, so did any forced familiarity. Caffey spoke to Wiedlin, but not to Valentine or Schock, who didn’t learn about the birth of Caffey’s daughter until later. Valentine sometimes heard from Schock, but never from Wiedlin. Carlisle kept in casual contact with everyone, but lived halfway around the world in Provence, France, with her husband and son.

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The band has e-mail to thank for its current state of togetherness. About 18 months ago, when a director approached Caffey and Wiedlin about turning the Go-Go’s story into a feature film, they sent news of the offer to the others via e-mail. The dialogue that ensued raised the question of yet another reunion. Could they bear to do it again? Soon accusations and apologies zoomed across town and across the ocean. The nonconfrontational medium allowed them to express things they never had said face-to-face. (Schock, who did not own a computer, was included by phone.) Each one easily recalled incidents or offhanded remarks, nearly two decades old, that still stung. In turn, each apologized for bad behavior.

The result is that the Go-Go’s are by contract a band again. Immediately, they agreed on one thing: “We can’t keep playing these songs over and over,” moans Schock. So they have committed to record a new album for release next year. The contentious issue of songwriting royalties was settled with the help of lawyers. Now they all share writing credit. One of their first new compositions, “Apology,” can be read as a characteristically Go-Go’s boyfriend tune or as a musical telling of how they repaired relationships within the band.

TUESDAY, 3:54 A.M.

Jane Wiedlin can’t sleep. She, too, can’t quite believe that she’s doing this again, and has worked herself into a fit of anxiety over the tour schedule, which includes several nights on which the band plays a show, gets on the bus and arrives in the next city early the following morning. What if she can’t do it anymore? What if this was just a bad idea?

TUESDAY, 12:30 P.M.

Caffey goes shopping at Sam Ash Music for a practice guitar amp and at Bloomingdale’s for a Wonderbra (“good onstage support”). She browses the shoe department but feels she can’t drop $200 on a pair. “In the old days I never thought about money--but then, of course, the clothes were so ugly in the ‘80s there was nothing I wanted,” she says. “Now I’d rather buy something for my daughter.” While on the road, Caffey logs onto her e-mail to download digital home movies of her 5-year-old. With two musician parents (Caffey’s husband is Redd Kross singer and guitarist Jeff McDonald), daughter Astrid is already plotting her ascent. She has made up a band, called Sno-Cone, and occasionally picks out clothes and announces, “This is what I’m going to wear when we play Japan.” The band schedules a break midway through the tour. When Caffey flies home, Astrid asks her, “Mom? Can we go up and cuddle, like in the old days?” “The old days?” laughs Caffey, a bit horrified. “It was just three weeks ago!”

WEDNESDAY, 5:24 P.M.

As the limousine pulls away from the hotel, one band member, whose identity will remain undefined, announces she has forgotten something in her room. The car stops and she runs off. The others are getting antsy as rush-hour traffic clogs the streets. Finally, the Go-Go in question returns, having sprinted conspicuously through the hotel lobby with a personal massager. The other four collapse in laughter. “That,” says one, catching her breath, “was totally worth the wait.”

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WEDNESDAY, 9:30 P.M.

MTV News reporter Kurt Loder is on their plane from New York to Detroit. He greets them: “Uh, welcome back.” Pause. “What are you doing here?”

“We’re playing,” says Valentine. “Friday. You should come.” Though Loder is the senior man at the cable channel’s news division, this is the first he has heard of a Go-Go’s summer tour. He is en route to Detroit to cover an Eminem concert. Back when the Go-Go’s sold as many records as Eminem does, the L.A. folk singer Phranc used to perform a song called “Everywhere I Go I Hear the Go-Go’s.” (". . . through the sound of dropping bombs / they’re dancing to them in Lebanon . . . .”)

To approach that popularity today will require proscribed comeback rites codified by MTV’s grown-up sister network, VH1. Recognizing this, the Go-Go’s cooperated with a “Behind the Music” documentary in what proved a genre-defining episode: Fast fame. Drugs. Drunken sex antics caught on tape (and recently available on EBay). Lawsuits. Dissolution. Sobriety. Redemption.

Caffey’s revelations were particularly affecting. Although all of the women recounted nights lost to alcohol and cocaine, the quiet, pridefully punctual guitarist admitted to a consuming heroin addiction. So carefully had she hidden her past that after watching “Behind the Music,” one of Caffey’s sisters called to say that the show must have gotten it wrong, that Caffey had had, at worst, a drinking problem. And some of the mothers at Astrid’s preschool questioned why she would discuss a problem she had put behind her long ago. “I decided to talk about it because I take my sobriety very seriously,” Caffey says. Neither she nor Valentine ever touch alcohol now, though the others drink socially. Surprisingly, she doesn’t associate life on the road with her addiction. “The year after I got sober I went on tour with Belinda,” says Caffey. “I thought I’d try it out and see what happens. And [taking drugs] didn’t appeal to me. I’d rather have a piece of chocolate cake.”

Listening to Caffey recount her story, Wiedlin is nodding. “I don’t think the worry is, ‘Are the Go-Go’s going to get me back on drugs?’ Instead it’s been, ‘Are we going to be able to get along and not lose our minds?’ ”

WEDNESDAY, 10:55 P.M.

Arriving at the hotel, each checks in under her tour pseudonym (Babe Lincoln, Iona Trailer, Sharon Needles, etc.) Then they escape to the privacy of their own rooms. Not hanging out together every minute is one of the new rules for sanity while touring. “It used to be that everybody was up everybody else’s ass,” is how Schock puts it. “Years ago, if Belinda and Kathy decided they wanted to go into Detroit for dinner and hadn’t asked me immediately, I would have felt like I was missing out on something. Now I’m happy to stay in my room and read. Back then, we were partying every night. I might have brought books with me, but I probably never read them.”

THURSDAY, 12:05 P.M.

The Go-Go’s board the bus that will be home for five weeks (the tour ended in early August) and pick bunks, as if it were the first day of camp. The beds are stacked three high, and the middle row is coveted. (The top sways; the bottom is noisy.) It is agreed they will rotate so everyone gets a chance to sleep in the middle. Schock puts James Brown on the tape deck and Carlisle settles into a seat with a book about UFO sightings.

THURSDAY, 2:40 P.M.

In a men’s locker room at the small sports arena they’ve rented for rehearsal, Carlisle is calling home to France on her cell phone. She misses her son. When she finally gets through, she learns that Duke is taking a nap; she’ll have to try again later. “I could call 12 times a day, but I don’t,” she says. “It’s torturous.” At 8 years old, Duke has no aspirations of following his mom into music. Instead, she says, he takes after his grandfather, the actor James Mason. (Carlisle’s husband is Morgan Mason, a former Reagan administration aide, who now runs a cable station in Europe.) “My son has a concept [of the Go-Go’s], but he’s not interested,” says Carlisle. “Before I left he asked me why I couldn’t just do this all over the phone.”

THURSDAY, 3:50 P.M.

The ploddingly slow tech rehearsal in this empty arena in Saginaw, Mich., grinds to a standstill as Schock, behind the drum kit, takes a last drag on a cigarette. A couple of the others, some reformed smokers, bark at her to hurry up. “Are we playing or smoking?” At an earlier rehearsal they had equipment problems, causing similar tension. “We used to be such prima donnas,” says Schock. “We would have walked out.” But this time no one storms off. The sulkiness quickly passes. “I’m on constant monitor now,” admits Valentine, “checking if I snapped at anyone.”

Over the last 15 years, each woman essentially has been the boss of her own career or band. But while they enjoyed the freedom of self-determination, those leaner years gave them an appreciation for what they gave up. The other projects, says Schock, “helped us grow as musicians and writers. But ultimately, despite what you’ve learned in that time, how are you going to get it to the public unless you’re in a band that can make that happen? The Go-Go’s is the forum to get what we do out there.”

FRIDAY, 3:45 P.M.

A fan from Chicago is waiting to see his idols before they board their bus. He quit his waiter job to follow the band’s tour, beginning in Detroit. Equally flattered and appalled, they sign a stack of his pictures dating back to the early ‘80s. “I don’t even have some of these,” says Wiedlin. The fan offers her a few duplicates. Inside the bus, they pore over them, jaws dropping over ill-advised perms, pumps worn with Day-Glo sweat socks and a decade’s worth of bad belts. “We were babies!” “Look how thin I was. And I always felt fat!” “It’s all so embarrassing. I can’t look. Wait, lemme see that.”

FRIDAY, 8:17 P.M.

The sun has not quite set over the outdoor arena in suburban Detroit. Beach balls are volleyed across a crowd that is happy to welcome the Go-Go’s back; the last time they played here was 1984. Schock, who began the evening with one leg shaking from nerves, is comfortably smashing away behind the drum kit. Valentine and Caffey amuse themselves with bits of guitar stage business, as Wiedlin twirls and Carlisle improvises a dance of Emma Peel poses. If, as teenagers, they believed that doing this job would look ridiculous after a certain age, they are no longer surprised that it doesn’t.

As in New York, the audience sings with the hits. Then it’s time to debut a new song. “Pretend you like this just as much,” jokes Wiedlin. Whether these people will go out and buy the new album remains to be seen.

FRIDAY, 9:40 P.M.

At a small reception after the show, Caffey is beaming. There are aspects of the performance that could have gone more smoothly. Who cares? “The whole time I was thinking, ‘I get to do this still.’ ” Regardless of the band’s future prospects, they are ensured a place in the pop record books. More significantly, they share a place in each other’s histories. Schock, for one, can’t talk about the vine inked around her wrist without telling the story of the long-ago day when she and Wiedlin wandered into a Sunset Boulevard tattoo parlor and made some chemically clouded, yet permanent, cosmetic decisions.

In the post-Go-Go’s years, says Valentine, “I put band after band together and learned that you can have great musicians, but if you don’t have that chemistry, it doesn’t work. You put us five in a room together, and something happens. It’s never been a question of ‘Do we still have it?’ But rather, ‘Do we want it?’ ” Without irony, she echoes a sentiment from the band’s beginnings: “We might not want to be doing this in 20 years, but right now there’s no reason we can’t have a really good run.”

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Styled by Anita Morand; hair and makeup: Danielle Russell; on Jane Wiedlin: Heike Jarick sweater and Piane Gonda choker; on Kathy Valentine: Christina Perrin tank top, Xin on Melrose necklace and Slane & Slane choker; on Belinda Carlisle: Prada sweater, Vivienne Tam at Bloomingdale’s skirt, Jimmy Choo shoes, Slane & Slane ring; on Gina Schock: Christina Perrin jacket, William Reed tee and Tommy Hilfiger pants; on Charlotte Caffey: PureJoy shirt, skirt and tie.


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