Kathy Valentine’s hair-raising memoir ‘All I Ever Wanted’ recounts the Go-Go’s wild ride
Before musician Kathy Valentine had the opportunity to sniff lines of cocaine in backstage dressing rooms with her bandmates in the Go-Go’s, she’d already experienced the so-called rock ’n’ roll lifestyle as a teen doing the same things in less glitzy Texas apartments.
Raised in a single-parent household in Austin and London by a mother who treated Valentine as a drug buddy as much as a daughter, Valentine, now 61, recalls the ride up and down the charts in “All I Ever Wanted,” her louche memoir on life before, during and shortly after the Go-Go’s ascended to become the darlings of the MTV generation.
Best known for hits including “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “We Got the Beat” and “Vacation,” the Go-Go’s (bassist Valentine, vocalist Belinda Carlisle, drummer Gina Schock and guitarists Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin) rose from their roots as a seminal first-generation Los Angeles punk band to become double-platinum phenoms who inspired generations of young women to shoot for rock ’n’ roll glory. “Beauty and the Beat,” the group’s multiplatinum 1981 debut, remains the only album by an all-female rock band to hit No. 1 on the U.S. album charts.
The publication of “All I Ever Wanted” was to be the first in a series of Go-Go’s-related endeavors slated for 2020. The band had scheduled a reunion tour, pre-coronavirus, to begin in June. A well-received documentary on the quintet is set to air on Showtime after it earned kudos at Sundance, though a premiere date hasn’t yet been announced.
From Valentine’s perspective, the Go-Go’s earned every ounce of that attention as part of a small flock of what she calls “rare birds” who soared through rock and pop despite oft-lecherous and dismissive music industry vultures looking for prey.
“It’s a story that hasn’t been told enough, the one about a young girl who decides she wants to be in a rock ’n’ roll band and then does just that,” writes Valentine. “There aren’t many of us, and there are even fewer who stick with it their whole lives.”
During a recent FaceTime conversation from her home in Austin, Valentine said that for teenage girls growing up in the early 1970s, to envision a career in rock was a ridiculous notion, as her disapproving, absent father made clear at nearly every opportunity but her thrill-seeking, oft-absent mom accepted.
“Even though I was playing the guitar, it never occurred to me to plug it into an amp and be in a band,” Valentine says.
Throughout the memoir, Valentine recounts in vivid detail the gloriously debauched path of the Go-Go’s through early rock success. As record sales pile up, she shoplifts six-packs during all-night Sunset Boulevard benders with her soon-to-be-dead friend John Belushi, pals around with Brat Pack heartthrob Rob Lowe, goes on overnight LSD trips at the most inopportune of moments and outpaces Rod Stewart during coke binges. She falls in love with Blondie drummer Clem Burke, who tries to rein in Valentine’s drug use.
It was important to ensure “that people who read my book knew what it felt like to have been a musician for several years, then to get onstage with the Go-Go’s for the first time and realize that the part that’s been missing,” Valentine says. “I’d never had sold out shows, night after night of fans. It was exhilarating.”
Describing one such backstage victory while on tour with the Police, Valentine says she wanted to get readers into the room “to know what it felt like when Sting, the singer of the biggest band in the world, comes in with Champagne and says, ‘Your record has passed us!’”
Valentine also doesn’t hide her failings. She recounts one borderline criminal evening with other members of the Go-Go’s involving a vibrator and a passed-out roadie. The incident was videotaped, and after a porn distributor got a copy of it the tape went viral in pre-internet tape-trading circles. The whole thing, Valentine writes, still leaves her “sobbing in humiliation” and “humbled by the knowledge that moral bankruptcy existed within me that night. ... Some actions are unforgivable, and the repercussions are infinite.”
In contrast with groupie-collecting dudes like Stewart, Jimmy Page and David Bowie, the consequences of the rock life are not created equal for female musicians: Valentine learned she was pregnant while on the road during the band’s breakout tour. She stole away to get an abortion, and immediately returned to the grind.
Valentine held her first electric guitar when her British-born mom’s then-boyfriend moved in with them. After she watched a leather-clad Suzi Quatro perform on the BBC show “Top of the Pops,” the Texas teen’s world was upended.
“When I picked up a guitar, I thought I was the only one in the world,” she said, and after seeing all-female rock band the Runaways soon thereafter, Valentine understood: “Oh, of course, there are girls my age out in the world that also have this idea.”
When Valentine returned to Austin, she and singer Carla Olson formed one of the city’s first punk bands. Called the Textones, they relocated to Los Angeles in 1978, and issued two singles featuring Valentine.
The Go-Go’s hired Valentine as a replacement bassist after the band had already made a name for itself in the L.A. underground. Within a few months of her joining, the band had signed a record contract with I.R.S. Records owner Miles Copeland at a tiki bar-restaurant on Pico called Kelbo’s. The label had made its name through releases by the Buzzcocks, Oingo Boingo and the Police (which featured Copeland’s brother Stewart on drums).
Recorded in New York, “Beauty and the Beat” was banged out during the daylight hours, driven in part by the excitement of knowing that nights on the town awaited them. “We were hungover and distracted, impatient and cheeky, in love and in lust, indulgent and hungry, anticipating only what might happen later in the night,” Valentine writes. That energy, she adds, “seeped into our record, stored to tape, adhering to oxide as readily as analog signals.”
Valentine, who led the writing of “Vacation,” the title track of the band’s second album (and lyrical source of the memoir’s title), captures both the carefree bliss of being young, beautiful, rich and talented, and the darkness that such freedom can breed.
Sober for 31 years, Valentine says that exploring those moments all these years later, when she herself now has a teenage daughter, illuminated the ways in which each Go-Go’s bandmate was struggling and self-involved.
When drummer Gina Schock got sick during a tour, for example, rather than stay by her bedside, the band drove away on the tour bus for the next gig.
“Belinda’s estranged father showed up to a show — and she hadn’t seen him in years,” Valentine says. “That must have been really heavy, and we were just carrying on.”
The Go-Go’s disbanded for the first time in May 1985. “Everything I had worked for was gone in an instant: four years and three albums worth of songwriting and playing together,” Valentine writes.
Valentine concludes “All I Ever Wanted” five years, and a few failed bands, later in 1990, a decision that she made for narrative reasons. “It felt like a natural story arc, and I didn’t want to write an autobiography,” she says. She adds that she has long considered the memoir to be a springboard into more narrative writing, both fiction and nonfiction, and hopes one of her next projects will be about legendary women musicians who haven’t been given their historic ovations.
“My first idea for a book was going to be called ‘Rare Birds,’ telling stories of women musicians that I don’t feel have been told enough,” she says. “I borrowed the phrase from my own idea.”
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