Book Review: ‘Lips Unsealed’ by Belinda Carlisle
The rise and fall of the Go-Go’s is well known — and well televised. One month after the single “Our Lips Are Sealed” came out in 1981, MTV was launched and songs from the double-platinum “Beauty and the Beat” were soon in constant video rotation.
But if the ascent was quick, so was the downfall. In 1983 — just two albums later — guitarist Jane Wiedlin left to go solo. Lead singer Belinda Carlisle followed suit, eventually releasing pop hits like “Mad About You” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”
FOR THE RECORD:
“Lips Unsealed”: A review of Belinda Carlisle’s memoir “Lips Unsealed” in the June 3 Calendar section said that guitarist Jane Wiedlin left the Go-Go’s in 1983. She left in 1985. Also, the review may have given the impression that the Go-Go’s album “Beauty and the Beat” achieved double-platinum sales within a month of the release of the single “Our Lips Are Sealed” in 1981. It took several years to ring up those sales. —
Nearly 20 years after the band broke through, VH1’s “Behind the Music” aired the Go-Go’s drug-and-sex-filled back story, setting a standard of sorts for the parallel narrative now expected of rock stars.
Still, the details that stand out in Carlisle’s memoir “Lips Unsealed” are the ones that haven’t made it to television. Carlisle grew up in Thousand Oaks, with a stepdad who drank his paycheck and a mother on lithium. She and her many siblings ate “oatmeal and Bac-O-Bit sandwiches for dinner.”
At school, kids called her “Belimpa” and mocked her for having only one outfit. She dreamed of being Marcia Brady but obsessed over Charles Manson. This pull between light and dark continued through high school, where she was both a cheerleader and a shoplifter — not that those are necessarily opposites.
In the late 1970s, Carlisle and best friend Theresa Ryan (soon-to-be Lorna Doom) left the Conejo Valley for Hollywood and made their way into the burgeoning punk scene. They lived at the Canterbury Apartments, tripped on acid in Hollywood Forever Cemetery and hung out at the Masque.
Carlisle offers eyewitness accounts of now legendary events, such the 1979 Elks Lodge Massacre, when the Los Angeles Police Department officers in riot gear broke up a show. She and Ryan tried to stalk Freddie Mercury but instead ended up meeting two other fans who would later go by the names Darby Crash and Pat Smear. Together, they became the Germs.
Carlisle, the would-be drummer, chose Dottie Danger for her stage name because it was “cute and angry at the same time.” But she got mono before the first performance and had to back out.
Out of the scene that fostered X, the Weirdos, the Dils and other bands, the Go-Go’s emerged with their catchy hooks and candy-colored videos. Carlisle retraces the formation of the band, the drunken, messy performances and a miserable English tour opening for Madness, in which every show ended with her drenched in spit.
But the Go-Go’s came home with a single and a sold-out show at the Starwood. The divergence from their punk roots only grew with their soon-to-follow Top 40 success.
Carlisle is familiar with being considered a lightweight, a fake, a wannabe. And she’s not shy about addressing the issue before anyone else does. She describes the moment when her careening coke habit culminated in a manic fit of egg-smashing in front of her young son as “a Lifetime movie where the mother’s addiction comes to a head.”
Just how messy did things get? John Belushi harangued her about the perils of drugs and fame. Maurice Gibb pulled her aside at the Grammys and told her to wipe her nose. Rod Stewart reprimanded her for keeping him up all night.
Yet it is the terror of the cliché — in this case, dying in a hotel room — that seems to have led her to sobriety. Throughout her travails, she has been married to producer Morgan Mason; Rodney Bingenheimer introduced them in 1984. She has experienced a spiritual reawakening through Buddhism. She continues to record adult contemporary pop, most recently releasing covers of French songs.
(And, of course, the Go-Go’s have reunited over the years, although apparently no longer; next month, they’ll kick off what they’re calling Happily Ever After: The Farewell Tour.)
Carlisle was not a visionary. When fights break out over Go-Go’s songwriting royalties, she is quick to cede any claim. She wasn’t a lyricist. She was a front woman and she never argues otherwise. She seems more comfortable describing her fandom than her stardom. Seeing Steve Martin and Al Pacino in the audience when the Go-Go’s play the Greek Theatre freaks her out.
Sometime after the MTV era, Carlisle’s story takes on a déjà vu quality. Her instinct for the odd detail that only she knows — like the Bac-O-Bit sandwiches — starts to trail off. Most of what she does reveal involves recycled bits of popular culture, such as the Annie Leibovitz photo shoot the band did in their underwear for Rolling Stone.
But this may be the inevitable trade-off in the memoir of a 1980s rock star, in which the line between the author’s memory and ours is no longer clear.
Brown’s writing has appeared in the London Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review.
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