For Kathy Valentine, it was a Christmas gift that not only kept on giving, but in many ways came to define her life and music.
On the festive yuletide evening of December 25, 1980. The singer/guitarist was catching a show at L.A.’s Whisky a Go Go when she ran into Charlotte Caffey, lead guitarist for the rising local all-female band the Go-Go’s, in the bathroom. Caffey explained that their bass player was ill and not able to play a strings of shows there beginning in just a few days. Could Valentine fill in?
The 20-year-old native of Austin, Texas said “Sure!”, even though she had never played the instrument. A few days of serious woodshedding later, Valentine guested with the band – and never left the lineup.
In a few short years, the Go-Go’s would find worldwide success and MTV fame with songs like “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” “Head Over Heels,” “Get Up and Go,” and “Turn to You.” Cue the rest of the story with breakups, reunions, side projects, and more breakups and reunions.
But the Go-Go’s days only make up part of the tale in Valentine’s frank and open autobiography All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir (304 pp., $26.95, University of Texas Press). There’s also the story of her very unorthodox childhood and parents, struggles with drugs, alcohol, fast living, near-death experiences, other musical and romantic endeavors, and the turning point that final led to her still solid sobriety.
Compellingly, Valentine is also releasing a 15-track companion record with all original music and each song inspired by a specific chapter. They’re more experimental, spoke-sung, and even techno than either the frenetic punk of the early Go-Go’s or their later more commercial new wave pop.
And the Go-Go’s were also the subjects of a great documentary directed by Alison Ellwood, released wide earlier last year. It’s given the band, their music, and story enough momentum to where fans hope to see their name on the ballot for this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
“I was missing creating in that realm of music when I finished writing the book. I panicked and thought ‘Why would anyone want to read this?’ So I thought ‘What could I do that a lot of other writers couldn’t?’ And that was make music,” Valentine explains from her home in Austin, which she have lived again for nearly 15 years.
“When I was done writing, I didn’t feel it was finished, even though I had gone deep. So making music and pulling out phrases and ideas from the book for the lyrics helped me process it. I thought of it like I was scoring the book.”
One of the chapters and songs is called “Just Do It.” It’s the story of when a young teenage Valentine and a girlfriend decided to hitchhike from Austin to Houston to see a show and check out the city’s nightlife. When they were denied entry to the club because of their age, they ended up meeting and partying with two male college students, ending up back at an apartment. While her friend disappeared in the bedroom with one of them, the other sexually assaulted Valentine despite her tearful protestations. Resigned and tired of fighting him off, she finally gave up and told him to “just do it.”
“It was a hard thing, and I kept it buried for a long time,” she says. “But when I wrote the music, it opened up the feelings, and I grieved and mourned what happened to me for days, just crying and crying. And I thought ‘Well, this is interesting.’”
Valentine recounts that her Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan rock moment was seeing singer/guitarist Suzi Quatro perform on English TV while visiting relatives, and it made her immediately want to play. “When I first put on a guitar, I thought I was just me and Suzi Quatro, we were the only girls playing!” she says. “And I don’t know if the Leather Tuscadero bit [Quatro’s guest character on the TV show “Happy Days”] was a good thing. I get mad when I mention her name and that’s all people know! She was a trailblazer.”
Of course, despite the music they made as a wholly self-contained unit, the Go-Go’s faced plenty of sexism and discrimination, and were dismissed and often belittled. Surprisingly, Valentine explains that it wasn’t male musicians that did this but, record executives, journalists, DJs, and even their own audiences.
In All I Ever Wanted, she says that while on a tour opening for the Police, their debut album Beauty and the Beat actually overtook the blonde male trio’s Ghost in the Machine for the top spot on the Billboard album chart. A congratulatory Sting came into their dressing room and not only happily delivered this news, but arrived clutching a bottle of champagne in each hand for the new chart queens.
Given the far greater role and visibility of women in rock today, along with more gender acceptance, does Valentine think the Go-Go’s would face a similar reaction if they debuted in 2020?
“And a lot more bands today have women in them, and there’s a lot of [festivals] with women. But I think the patriarchy is still alive and well,” she says “And if the Go-Go’s came out today, we’d still get dismissed a lot. We still do today! But now, I don’t even understand what the music business is. You could just have a YouTube channel.”
It sounds like a cliché, but to say the Go-Go’s partied as “hard as any male band” is an understatement, with Valentine and singer Belinda Carlisle (who wrote her own memoir) as the tightest partners in crime, spending days in a haze of cocaine and alcohol. Caffey had her own secret heroin habit, and guitar Jane Wiedlin and drummer Gina Schock were no angels either. After the band broke up the first time, Valentine kept the party going. Until she faced a reckoning.
“Fun was the phantom that had shaded my entire adult life. But increasingly, I would wake up in a hungover hellhole with specters of shame slinking through the fog of my brain,” she writes in the book. “An all-nighter might end up as a one-night stand once there was nothing left to say or do. I lived in a cycle, trying to find relief from myself but only intensifying and compounding the problem of being me.”
After – and in between – stints with the Go-Go’s, Valentine did more singing and returned to guitar playing, issuing the solo record Light Years in 2005. She also currently performs solo, with her group the BlueBonnets, and on-and-off with the Go-Go’s.
“The intensity of our camaraderie kept growing, a creation of its own force,” she writes of their early days together. “Just breathing the air around each other changed the band chemistry. We were like newlyweds on a honeymoon, determined to inhale life together, filled with desire and euphoria. And drugs and alcohol.”
And while members have gone in and out of the Go-Go’s lineup over the years – either by purpose or just temporarily – Valentine says the Classic Five are like the recipe for a really good cake: take out even just one ingredient, and it doesn’t taste the same.
Finally, if you stick a microphone into the face of an average Gen Xer and asked them to immediately name a Go-Go’s song, the most popular answer would arguably be “Vacation.” Written mostly by Valentine before she joined the band, with a chorus tweaked by Caffey and Wiedlin, it became one of their biggest hits and most recognizable videos.
The clips shows them “waterskiing” (with professionals in the water and the band in close-ups) while wearing sparkly crowns, pink leotards, and tutus. Valentine says the band got pretty drunk during the filming of their parts…not that some viewers needed to be told that.
But since its 1982 release, the song has taken on a life of its own, resonating with listeners in a heftier way than the frothy video might imply. After all, who doesn’t constantly think about jettisoning their daily work and personal problems to get out to reinvent themselves on a vacation?
“In my opinion, a song that has that kind of longevity wouldn’t have it if it didn’t resonate with people on some deeper level. It was genuine and from the heart and based on my real experience. And that puts an energy and a mojo on it,” she sums up. “It wasn’t taken from some sort of songwriter bank where you’re trying to come up with some sort of hook. But if you had told me when I was scribbling the lyrics that I would still be licensing that song and making money off it today, I would have definitely not believed you!”
This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com
For more on Kathy Valentine, visit KathyValentine.com