The Go-Go’s Kathy Valentine Opens Up in New Memoir, 'All I Ever Wanted'
By Ronnie Wisdom
After making music for 45 years, Kathy Valentine is keeping the beat in a completely different way. As one-fifth of The Go-Go’s, she helped create some of their most memorable songs, including Vacation (which she co-wrote), We Got the Beat, Our Lips Our Sealed, and Head Over Heels.
In 1982, their debut, Beauty and the Beat topped the American album charts for six weeks. Valentine’s giddy ride with the band ended in May of 1985 with their abrupt breakup. Undaunted, Valentine soldiered on, making albums with The Delphines and The BlueBonnets as well as appearing on multiple reunion gigs with her old band. In 2005, she recorded her first solo album, Light Years.
Today, Valentine is still making music on her own terms while also working as a writer, producer, mentor and public speaker. Her new memoir, All I Ever Wanted, spans the years 1970-1990 and navigates some pretty tough terrain, including her turbulent adolescence in Austin, Texas (which involved pregnancy, rebellion and addiction) before arriving at her tenure as the bassist for The Go-Go’s, the first, and only, all-female band that both wrote their own songs and played their own instruments.
Valentine spoke with KDHX DJ Rob Levy of Juxtaposition (Wednesdays, 7-9 PM), ahead of her virtual author event at Left Bank Books on Monday, April 27 at 7PM. Valentine discussed her new book, "All I Ever Wanted, the legacy of The Go-Go’s," and how writing and performing music helped her overcome adversity.
Rob Levy: How did “All I Ever Wanted” come about?
Kathy Valentine: I wanted to write a book. I had been thinking about doing so for a while because I have always been interested in writing. Having taken creative writing classes and written short stories and essays, I felt that I could do it. Plus, I had read a lot of other rock memoirs and thought I had a really good story to tell. I was really lucky because not every writer gets offered a book deal from the University of Texas Press. Once I had that, I thought it would be crazy to not write a book, especially if you have the opportunity, the time and the promise of guaranteed publication.
What made you decide to put everything out there?
The book is a memoir, a slice of life, not an autobiography. There’s a lot more I could write about and, in fact, I might write a sequel eventually. For this book it was really important to show the meaning and the depth and how profound what I achieved was and how devastated I was to lose it all and how I had to come to a place where came to terms with all of the things that I was. There is a lot of stuff that happened to me before I joined The Go-Go’s, the difficulties of my adolescence and growing up pretty much on my own with a mom that pretty much allowed anything. A lot of crazy, bad things happened because 13-year-olds are not very good at taking care of themselves when left to their own devices. I thought this context was so important for people to understand the pain and abandonment and betrayal that I felt. Rock and roll saved me. It gave me a dream, it gave me a direction, it gave me something to do with my life. I wanted readers to know where I came from and how far behind I wanted to leave all of that.
Speaking to that, there are some very important themes in the book, like redemption, forgiveness, salvation and pain. Was there a specific message you wanted to give readers?
I really wanted to show how that felt on the page. I did not to say, ‘well this happened and then happened.’ I really wanted people to understand what it felt like to be me and see how, as an adult now, I could reflect and have insight on that part of my life. That is the beauty of writing a memoir, you get to write from another vantage point. It was so important to me that the reader was there with me and understood what was happening to me. That was my main goal. I think the themes you mentioned, resilience, survival, forgiveness and learning to be vulnerable, you move on from that by being open to the pain and not pushing down or being in denial. The real redemption comes from embracing it and facing it. I think that is a strong message that anyone can relate to. You don’t need to be a Go-Go’s fan to get something out of my book.
What do your family, friends and former bandmates think of the book?
I was very conscious of not wanting to be hurtful, and I didn’t tell anyone else’s story other than mine. The person I was most concerned about was my mom. As a parent she really dropped the ball in a lot of ways, and I spoke to her about everything before I wrote anything, and she gave me her blessing. It was far more important to her that I write my story. That earned my respect and helped me open up my heart to her in a way that had not previously been so open because she was doing the best that she could. She also supported me when I told her I wanted to be a musician. In a weird way, with my mom, everything was okay.
I always felt loved. My mom did the best that she could, and I did not want her to be the villain of the story.
The book goes into great detail about your relationship with your mom. How did she shape who you are today?
Writing the book, I saw that when I was young what I perceived as fearlessness and independence by my mom was really her being reckless and irresponsible. That is what it was. But I think what it was that really shaped me was that I had to take care of myself. That is my earliest sense of being. It was my job to take care of me. That defined me in my life and guided how I did everything. Whether it was being successful, being a failure or everything in between. I came out of my relationship with her as a really strong person.
Four decades later, are you surprised at how popular The Go-Go’s are?
I am not. What I am most proud of with this band is that that all of their success and longevity is based on one thing and that is good songs. We had a tour booked for this summer and it was sold out. We have been playing together and touring on and off for four decades and when we go play a concert it is not what you see at some concerts. It is not a big production with gymnastics, fireworks, choreography and dancers. It is five women up there on a very basic stage with a bunch of amplifiers and drums playing some really great songs. I think that is what makes me the proudest. That is what made us have hits, that is what made us be the first female band to have a number one record. It was always based on the songs. I am really proud of that.
Why do you think The Go-Go’s remain the only all-female band that wrote and performed their own music to have a number one album?
I wonder about that all the time. We really thought we were busting the doors down and knocking down some walls and that in our wake there would be lots of other commercially successful bands. There were a lot of more all-female indie bands that came along. I love all the riot girl music and so much of what followed us. Of course, The Bangles did great. Our success opened a door for them to get a major label deal, but yeah, that was still a long time ago and I do not know why there aren’t more. It was such a sisterhood. Every year girls go off to college and join sororities to be part of a sisterhood and have solidarity from like-minded people. That is what being in a band is like. I do see a lot of great female musicians in bands now which is great. It was not like that in the '80s.
Do you think that The Go-Go’s legacy as a chart topping all-female band is more important than their influence on the riot girl movement?
That is a really interesting question. Why should women’s experiences be limited in any form or fashion? There is the whole spectrum of men in bands that are musically across the board and they do not have to choose. I think that opening the way for bands after us was important. I am doing a book event with Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill and one of the reasons why we were going to do it was because The Go-Go’s changed her life. And I think that in turn, she has influenced people’s lives. I think it is about wherever that inspiration can be spread. I guess if I had to pick, I would take the commercial success because then you have more money and a way to live. There is always practical, taking care of business stuff you have to think of and as an artist or musician it is up and down. If you do not have the sales and the songs, then you are looking to go somewhere else.
The Go-Go’s are popular on several levels. For general audiences they are this band that wrote great pop songs and melodies, but then they also are this incredible symbol of empowerment for women. What do you think of this duality?
I really like it. Over the years I have had a lot of guys tell me that The Go-Go’s were a guilty pleasure. They didn’t want to confess to their guy friends how much they liked us. I always thought that was kind of sad. In general, I think we did have an aura of cool around us because we did write all our own songs and played our own instruments. I think the important thing is that we carried a message and our message affected people’s lives. For all of our success and for everything that has happened what remains to me as my favorite thing is meeting people whose lives have been impacted by our music. It is mind blowing. I have heard so many stories like this over the decades that have made me feel so grateful.
In the book you describe being a part of the LA punk scene in the ‘80s as well as growing up amidst the Austin scene of the ‘70s. How did this impact you?
Getting older is always a challenging thing, but you always get to look back at what you got to grow up with and everyone loves what they got to be around. I think it helps you filter the world you are going to be an adult in. Being a teenager in Austin in the 1970s had a huge effect on me. There was a wide variety of music and the lines between genres were blurred. You could be a hippie and have long hair and love country music because of Willie and Waylon and all the cosmic cowboy stuff. You could go and see a hard rock band at the start of an evening and then a blues band late at night after. Everybody was doing that. You could do whatever you wanted. When I moved to Los Angeles, it was the mirror image of that same thing, but it was all new wave and punk rock. It was very organic. When I got to LA, I was 19-years-old and there were rockabilly bands and power pop bands and artsy bands and hardcore bands. It was this fantastic scene that felt very familiar to me because of growing up in Austin. I got a great music education in both places.
How did you become friends with John Belushi?
One of the best memories of our early years was my friendship with John Belushi.
He was the very first show that I played with The Go-Go’s. He came backstage and told us how much he loved us. After we recorded Beauty and the Beat in New York we played a sold-out show at the Peppermint Lounge. He introduced us on stage. He was terrific. He was one of the most beloved figures in pop culture and his support was a big stamp of approval for us. We became friends because I grew up in Texas and I was well versed in blues and he was a massive blues fan too, so we had a common ground. I was not his best friend or a part of his inner circle, but we had some great times just hanging out that I cherish. He was one of the first people I knew that died from drugs and it was a horrible awakening and so sad to see someone who couldn’t move past the demons. It was scary.
What inspired you to record a soundtrack for All I Ever Wanted?
One cool thing about making a soundtrack for the book is that at this age I feel like I’ve made the most interesting music I have ever made. It is ironic because after writing 'All I Ever Wanted' I felt that the project didn’t feel done. For me, I have always used music and songwriting to express what is going on with me internally and happening externally. Whether it is divorce, losing someone or whatever, I deal with it by writing songs. Since I thought that my book touched on some deep and profound themes, I also wanted to touch upon them musically too. I thought of it as a soundtrack, but it really is a solo record. It holds up on its own. I like that it is all me, my ideas, my words and all of my playing. It also has all the sensibilities of sounding very fresh and modern which I like. It was an opportunity to use all of the conventions of songwriting that I love: hooky melodies, pop choruses, guitar riffs and bass grooves without the constraint of convention. A soundtrack can be more open and more interpretive, so I was capturing musically what it felt like in each chapter.
Has your success inspired you to work for changing the role of women in the music industry?
Yes, definitely. At a basic level I am a 61-year-old woman who has been in a band nonstop for 45 years. But as I got older, I began thinking that I had a platform that I was not taking advantage of. I realized that there are very few women who have succeeded to the degree that I did and that I could use that success to inspire and connect with people. I think it is important to help musicians, men and women, when I can. I have been nominated to be a Governor for the GRAMMYs recording chapter and it would be great to get on that committee because then I could be more active in Music Cares and be an advocate for songwriters and work on getting more women involved with the music business. The music business is painfully underrepresented by women and I want to change that.
With the book finished, what would you like to accomplish next?
I am excited about the next decade. I want to continue writing and speaking and finding messages that resonate with people. I want to write more stories and put them to music. I don’t know why it is not done more often. Writing the book taught me that my life experiences have some value and I can share to benefit other people. In general, I feel like I really want to get started on another book, especially now that I know how long it takes and how much work it is. As a writer, I feel like I have some momentum and I need to follow up on that.
For more information on Kathy Valentine, visit her website http://kathyvalentine.com. The soundtrack for "All I Ever Wanted" is available on Spotify. All I Ever Wanted is available now through the University of Texas Press. Signed copies of "All I Ever Wanted" are available for sale through Left Bank Books.