All I Ever Wanted
(University of Texas Press, 2020)
The Go-Go’s existed roughly from 1981–1985 and though there have been reunion shows and tours, the importance of their early records has never been eclipsed. They were, as long-time bassist Kathy Valentine states in her memoir, the first all-woman band many of us saw on MTV or on stage. The Go-Go’s were too pop for my teenage self: growing up with pictures of the Runaways and Iggy Pop hidden in my journal and posters of Led Zeppelin and Queen on my walls, a bunch of semi-punky girls from California didn’t hold much appeal. In 1981, I moved to the East Coast and met other people who listened to punk rock, to bands like CRASS, The Damned, and PiL. DJing a late-night radio show, I got lots of requests for the Go-Go’s and I liked a couple of their songs, but really, they got on my nerves. I didn’t then know anything about the band’s history or their place in the Los Angeles punk scene. LA punk to me was the Vandals, X, or the Germs. But the band had much deeper roots than the music press of the day granted them. Instead of the cute “America’s sweethearts” often depicted, the Go-Go’s were a hard-partying, loud-mouthed, rock n’roll band; maybe the sound wasn’t the punk rock I preferred, maybe they looked “too California” for me, but their attitude and musicianship, as Valentine writes it, helped make them one of the most successful all-woman rock bands of all time.
Whenever I read a celebrity memoir, I ask myself, “Why does this story matter? What can readers learn from this?” There has to be more to a celebrity memoir than just tales of sex, drugs, name dropping, fame, and survival. What Valentine provides is not only a thorough accounting of her harrowing childhood, her hard-fought rise to stardom, subsequent collapse and redemption; she provides a window into an important part of rock history. The 1980s were a watermark for change in music: 1981 witnessed not only the release of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” video (the first time many of us saw a woman being “tough” on camera) but also the release of the Go-Go’s wildly successful first album. Punk was supposedly “dead” and yet had influenced the sound of countless bands; women were appearing on stage playing guitars in larger numbers than ever before, and the Go-Go’s were right there in the center.
While Valentine’s matter-of-fact prose can be somewhat one-note at times and there are some sweeping clichés and lame similes (“There are an awful lot of pit stops on the road to nowhere” and “Each fearful thought fell like fruit from the branches of my failures”), overall this memoir is an accessibly written and compelling story of a young girl from Texas who loves the guitar and wants, more than anything, to be in a band and play music. Like so many other musicians, Valentine positions her band as family and essential to her own well-being. A drinker and drug abuser from an early age, Valentine details her hard partying from junior high through the Go-Go’s wild tours of the 1980s. There are crushes, loves, physical and emotional abuse, and the brutal realities of being a working musician with no time off to rest or recover from whatever happens (having to open a sold-out show the day after having an abortion is just one example). While Valentine admits that these are her memories and others may remember things differently, in the afterword she references relying on journal entries, personal essays, band itineraries, and years of “leather-bound Filofax calendars” to write the memoir. This isn’t some quickly published celebrity tell-all but both a good read and an important resource for anyone interested in rock history (there’s even an index).
It’s not hyperbole to state that the Go-Go’s were one of the most successful all-female rock bands of all time. The importance of their success to thousands of young women (whether musicians or otherwise) cannot be underestimated. Without the Go-Go’s initial success, the Bangles would never have been given a chance (nor would the Pandoras, the Muffs, etc.) and many of us would not have grown up seeing women performing on stage as something other than a sexy singer. Valentine carefully describes the incremental rise of the band and the factors that led to the band’s initial breakup in 1985: a combination of mis-management, poor decisions, and bad timing. When lead singer Belinda Carlisle launches her highly successful solo career, Valentine is left scrambling to find a way to keep playing music. She tries various producers and combinations of musicians (including a brief stint playing with friend Kelly Johnson from Girlschool) but nothing really clicks. And all the while, her substance abuse continues. It’s a common enough story—talented musician parties too much, band breaks up, reckoning comes. For Valentine, the reckoning took a few years, but she survived and even thrived; ultimately making the decision to get sober with the help of long-time friend Carlene Carter. Predictably, the last part of the memoir details Valentine’s struggles to achieve sobriety—although, like most projects she sets her mind to, she appears to swing into AA with complete dedication, even making the hard decision to break up with long suffering boyfriend Clem Burke (ex-Blondie).
Valentine hung out with a circle of celebrities: she writes about touring with David Bowie and the Police, partying with and then mourning the death of friend John Belushi; there are asides with Rob Lowe, Bob Dylan (who commiserates about the Bangles’ success), and Keith Richards (who asks her to will a guitar to him). After a brutal home invasion she holes up at the Sunset Marquis with Charlie Sexton and long-time friend Carlene Carter (June Carter and Johnny Cash pick up the tab). But this memoir isn’t about name dropping, it’s about music and how, at her core, Valentine lives to play. The memoir ends with a Go-Go’s reunion and Valentine reflecting on sober living, playing music, and the importance of learning to love oneself. As she says towards the end of the book, “Being real was the toughest, most rock’n’roll thing I had ever done.” This memoir is both a gripping and entertaining read and an important addition to the history of American music.