Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s Recalls Fame, Addiction & Peace In New Memoir ‘All I Ever Wanted’ (INTERVIEW)

The Go-Go’s were the soundtrack of 1981. If you were growing up then, their songs “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got The Beat” were all over the radio. You couldn’t get away from them if you tried. The girls’ fun feistiness was infectious, their style eclectic and groovy while their sound was boppy with an edge of punk. But back when they first heard the finished mix for Beauty & The Beat, the band wasn’t exactly knocked out. “The live Go-Go’s sounded raucous, full of attitude and energy, not wimpy and clean like this,” Kathy Valentine writes in her new memoir, All I Ever Wanted, which will be released on March 31st. “We put our trust in Richard [Gottehrer, the album’s producer] and then he had gone and turned us into a ‘60’s lightweight watered-down pop group!”

The girls would eventually see the genius behind the polished-up production and spend many, many months on tour singing those very songs to over-zealous crowds. Their follow-up, 1982’s Vacation, would continue in the same musical vein and go into the Top 10 of the Billboard Charts as well. But as the spotlight is bright in front, it may not always be cherries in cream and Valentine takes us on her journey through those rambunctious days of fame, hit records, disappointments, addiction and finally peace.

Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Valentine had a very, what some might consider, eyebrow-raising childhood. I’m not going to give away any spoilers because her book is such an interesting, fast-paced, can’t wait to turn the page read. She is honest about everything as she takes us through Austin, Los Angeles, London and onto the concert stage. Her desire to be in a band with all women who rock out was a dream from the beginning. She was struck by the Suzi Quatro lightning bolt and became a rock chick, playing guitar, not turning to the bass until meeting Charlotte Caffey in the restroom at the Whisky during an X concert. She went to an audition and even though this was only supposed to be a temporary gig, it stuck, thus thrusting into motion her rise and fall and rise again with the Go-Go’s.

For those who enjoy the name-dropping in a celebrity’s book, Valentine has lots. From John Belushi to Rod Stewart, Lenny Kravitz to the Rolling Stones, she shares her adventures with some of the biggest names in music and movies. For those who love a good rags-to-riches story, there’s poverty, loneliness, drugs, love, fame, heartbreak, happiness and finally contentment. And for those into music history, Valentine takes us through her songwriting and playing with the Textones, the Go-Go’s and the Delphines, how she wrote her first song, “Can’t Stop The World,” and probably her most well-known tune, “Vacation,” and how guitar has always been her first love.

Although Valentine was looking forward to her first-ever book tour, like everything else in the world, it has been put on hold until further notice. “These are difficult times and they are hitting us all really hard,” she said in a statement last week. “Having to postpone my scheduled book tour dates is heartbreaking as a first-time author, but my publisher and I believe it is the only course to take. My first concern is the health and well-being of all of you who bought tickets and books for these events.”

I spoke with Valentine just prior to this announcement about her new book and the adventures within.

While you were writing All I Ever Wanted, what were some things that actually surprised you?

I’ve been surprised how much of a therapy process it was. I mean, I’d had my share of therapy and with my sobriety I’m no stranger to self-reflection and learning and growing. But writing a book, you really kind of process in a whole different way. But I would have to say one of the biggest takeaways for me was realizing that I had spent my entire musical career kind of in a safety zone, cause being in a band, like I never really positioned myself as anything other than a background person – someone that is kind of behind the scenes, maybe very vocal in rehearsals, giving people ideas and writing songs – but never really on the front lines, you know. 

So I realized how it had felt very safe and I started realizing how this book was the opposite of that. It’s kind of thrust me into the limelight. It’s not like I’m sharing this with other people, like in the Go-Go’s or in a band where you go and you do an interview and you say something and then somebody else says something and somebody else says something. I’ve done plenty of interviews on my own, don’t get me wrong, but I think the main thing was that I just realized that it was time for me to step out. Not only out of necessity cause I’d written a book that forces me to but also out of the desire to not be so behind the scenes and hidden. That surprised me.

I don’t know if you’re aware but I wrote a soundtrack to the book, a musical score, and it was a really wonderful experience creatively because I had no conventions, I had no one, it wasn’t like a band where someone says, “Oh I don’t like that, I don’t want to try that, that doesn’t sound like us.” It was whatever I wanted to do, I got to do; and whatever I wanted to try, I got to try. So it feels kind of exhilarating and also a little frightening to be, after all this time of just being the cool chick in the cool band, to be kind of in the front lines.

Why did you want your story out there and did you know from the beginning you wanted it to be so honest?

Well, number one, I don’t see any point in writing a memoir that’s not going to be honest. I’d read other memoirs and I just started feeling like, I’ve got a story I want to tell too. I’d always been a writer, not only of songs but poetry and short stories, so when I was approached if I wanted to do a book, I had things to give them. I had written about parts of my life. So once I had an actual opportunity to write the book, I sat down and having been an avid reader I was very conscious of what an arc is, you know, with a protagonist that goes through obstacles and comes out the other end a changed person. So when I looked at my life, I knew I wasn’t writing an autobiography, which a lot of people call this, but to me there is a very clear distinction between memoir, which is a slice of life, and autobiography, which is your life story. So I knew this was a memoir and I picked that period from 1970 to 1990 because it made sense in so many ways in terms of a story arc, two decades, going from lost to found to lost to found.

Returning to places and events that weren’t always happy moments, was that easy to go back there and write them out?

Well, I wouldn’t say it was easy but I have learned one advantage of getting older is you learn that often struggle or painful things pay off. So while I wouldn’t say it was easy, I would say it was very uplifting ultimately to process. When you’re in that situation, you’re not really thinking in terms of it being traumatic or something; it’s just what you know. It’s like looking back, and comparatively speaking, you say, oh, my childhood was very different from everyone that I know’s childhood. But I’m also very practical and on the spectrum of bad stuff, I don’t think I had it that bad. I mean, yeah, this happened and this happened but it happened and I survived and I’m a strong, resilient person and there’s a lot worse things that kids go through that I’m grateful weren’t my experience. 

But also, my mom, after she read it, she was saddened by much of it but she gave me her permission. She said, and she earned my respect immensely when she said, “It’s your story and I would never stand in the way of you writing your story.” But when she said that a lot of it made her sad and feel bad, I was able to hug her and say, “You know what, it would have been a boring book if you’d been any different.” (laughs) It’s like my daughter, she was like, “Why would anybody want to do this? Why would anybody want to write a memoir and have everybody read all this stuff about them?” And I was like, “Well, not everybody wants to and not everybody can because if things are very stable and you feel valued and nothing difficult hardship-wise happens, then you kind of have to find something else to write about.”

You seem like a very confident person but in the book you sometimes questioned your talent, saying maybe you were just in the right place at the right time. You don’t feel that way now, do you?

No, I haven’t felt that way in a long time. I was writing from the period of age eleven to age thirty. I think I describe it very well in the book, when you have a lot of success in your early twenties before you fully develop as a creative person, I think it’s natural you would question the source of that success. But I’ve had decades to show me that I am a really good musician, a really good writer, a good producer, a good singer, a good prose writer. I think I’ve written a book that I am very, very proud of that I know I could not have done a better job. So I’ve had more time realizing that stuff than I had being insecure. I’ve had more time to accept and feel very blessed and also pretty confident in my abilities and everything I try. I’m also happy to recognize when I’m not good at something (laughs). 

It’s a balancing act in life to recognize that maybe you’re not doing something that you’re that good at or having the judgement to know that if that’s the case or whether to push yourself, like, I can do this I just need to push harder. That’s a real judgement call for so many people. It’s a real gift to be able to discern when you’re just beating your head against a wall and maybe it’s not what you should be doing; or when you just need to kind of believe in yourself and not quit. That’s a hard call.

But you can take care of practical life stuff and still pursue things. I mean, my ex-husband, he’s a lawyer but he also comes home and he paints and he writes music. You don’t have to stifle your creativity just because you weren’t blessed enough to make a living at it. And it can be timing or who you know, it could be your situation, like falling into a band like the Go-Go’s. I mean, I personally think I would have succeeded anyway in some other way – I was just driven and a lot of that came from at my core when you are a little girl and you feel like you don’t matter to your dad and that you’re not really being taken care of, what forms inside you is that I don’t matter and for me that translated into a very driving ambition to kind of prove to myself that I did matter. It started in school where I just felt compelled to get A’s and impress the teachers. So what could be a negative for me became kind of a positive. Now I don’t feel that compulsion. I don’t need to prove that I matter. I know I matter. I know I matter to my daughter and to my friends and to my family and to a lot of fans that have my work or my songs resonate with them and now my book. 

How did it feel when the Go-Go’s broke up?

Oh God, I was devastated. I was beyond upset. I was lost. I was confused. I had a house that I had bought five months ago. I had two mortgages. I had never paid a bill in my life. My entire identity as a musician and everything was wrapped up in being a Go-Go. So I was devastated and I did not know what to do. I floundered. I had no idea what to do and tried and failed many times. I tried to do solo demos. I had never wanted to be a lead singer and didn’t do a good job on the demos. I tried for years and when I got sober it was because for five years I had been trying and failing to figure out what I was going to do next. I was lost.

In the Go-Go’s, when you made that first album, Beauty & The Beat, you talk about it being too polished and not what you thought the Go-Go’s were about.

We felt like the production felt very clean and sterile and we were disappointed. But over time we realized it was good that it was recorded that way because it sounds very contemporary and doesn’t sound dated. But at the time we thought it didn’t sound like the Ramones or something; it didn’t sound like how we thought we sounded. So we were disappointed. But as it continued to rise and sell a lot, we realized that everything was good.

In the Go-Go’s catalog, which song do you remember as being the hardest to get right in the studio while recording it?

I don’t remember any of them being that hard to record actually. That’s a good question but nothing stands out as being a difficult song to record. I do remember when we did “We Got The Beat,” that we weren’t locking in and we took a break and I think we got some pizza and a lot of times after taking a little break and having a good meal we’d go back in and just nail a song.

Jimmie Vaughan was an early influence on you as a musician

Yes! He made me want to be in a cool band cause they were a supercool band and I wanted to be like him. I liked his confidence, everything about how he was in a band made me want to be like that too.

And you got to meet Keith Richards

He’s very down to earth and he actually puts you to ease and he’s very easy to be around. I actually have other stories. I got to encounter him a few times after my story ended so maybe when I do another memoir I’ll talk about that (laughs).

When you first started playing guitar, what was the hardest thing to get the hang of?

Because I’m left-handed and I play the same way a right-handed person does, my right hand is not as coordinated as somebody who is right-handed is. So as a guitarist, being a lead guitarist, I might not ever have the finesse and technique that a right-handed person would have. That’s why when I play bass I use a pick because I don’t have the dexterity to fingerpick and stuff or to play with my fingers the way a lot of bass players do because I’m left-handed. The other side of that is I have a very strong and capable left hand (laughs).

Do you predominately play guitar now?

I’ve always been predominately a guitarist but I enjoyed playing bass in the Go-Go’s. Pretty much the only band I’ve ever played bass in is the Go-Go’s and it’s one of the ironies of my life as a musician that what I’ve done the longest and probably what I’m best at is what I’m not known for. I’m known for playing bass for the Go-Go’s and that’s the only band I’ve ever played bass in and I don’t know if I’d be a good bass player in other bands. But I think I’m absolutely a great bass player in the Go-Go’s.

Tell us more about the BlueBonnets

We started in Los Angeles in 1992, a couple of years after my bookends, and I just decided I wanted to start a band that started the way so many of my favorite bands started – bands like the Stones and the Yardbirds and the Faces. So many bands started just by learning the basics, the R&B and the blues and early rock & roll and then they evolved from that to their own sounds. So I started the BlueBonnets to do that, to take that path and to get better on the guitar, which had always been one of my dreams, to become a proficient lead guitar player. 

The BlueBonnets kind of evolved into a 3-piece for a while with a different name, The Delphines, and I did that for many years. Then when I moved back to Texas to raise my daughter, I thought, well, the BlueBonnets is a good band to have in Texas, that’s the state flower, so I started a new version. It’s just a really great all-female rock & roll band that I really enjoy being in and playing with. We’ve made three CD’s and gotten out on the road a few times. We’ve gotten to do some fun stuff, some really good stuff, and people see the band and love it. But for most of it I’ve been a mom to a daughter so it’s always been something that had to take a backseat to being a mom.

In the book, you talk about your friend Carlene Carter. What do you love about her most?

Carlene has been a good friend for many, many years. We lost touch during her dark period because I was sober and she was very much not sober. There’s not a lot you can do for somebody when they are in the grips of addiction. But we’ve rekindled our friendship in the last several years and I think she has a way of making things fun. We were very kindred spirits in the early days and we still are in many ways. She’s someone that I feel very comfortable and drawn to and we’ve always had a lot of fun together. We laugh a lot.

I wanted to also ask you about James Honeyman-Scott from The Pretenders because the further we get in time the less he gets talked about.

Yeah, when I got serious about playing guitar in my thirties, where I decided to go back and really become the guitarist that I dreamed of, he was one of my absolute favorites. I just think his taste and style as a guitarist was pretty unparalleled. He had so much to do, and I think Chrissie Hynde acknowledges this, that he had so much to do with the sound and the impact of that first Pretenders record. And as a person, he was just delightful and gentle and kind and funny and sweet. A wonderful guy and I write in my book one of my favorite memories is how we both got to go together to see Chuck Berry. We both worshiped Chuck Berry and we were both so disappointed in how Chuck was but we both couldn’t wait to meet him. It’s just one of my favorite memories about Jimmy. I was devastated by his death. I never thought of him as somebody that was deeply into drugs or anything so it was even more shocking. He was the last person that you would think would die from drugs.

You write about the importance of literature, of reading. What were some early books that you loved?

I was an avid reader and read constantly. I was always very taken with history and classic literature. When I was young, I loved Little Women and I loved Hemingway and I loved Tom Wolfe and I loved a lot of the contemporary literature, John Fowles’ The Magus. Larry McMurtry, I just loved reading his books because they really captured something about being Texan that I identified with. So yeah, I love fiction, historical fiction and classic literature. I loved the Russian classics a lot. I could go on and on and on. I loved Thomas Mann, Somerset Maugham. Everything from the English to the French to the Russian to the American. I just love books and reading.

You are doing your first book tour. What are you expecting?

Well, the first book event is here in Austin on April 2nd. But I’m going to see because things are very up in the air because of Coronavirus and stuff so I want to make sure that the stores are comfortable. I mean, it’s not like it’s a concert, I’m not going to have, probably not even hundreds of people, so I don’t know what to expect. And I don’t know what to expect in terms of what is going on with Coronavirus as I’m sure there will be people self-isolating. 

But one of the things I really enjoyed from the people who had gotten advance copies, is hearing the different things that I wrote about that resonated with them. I’m hearing it from all different aspects, from all different things, and a lot of people have said they expected just the stuff about the Go-Go’s to be interesting but they found everything before or after just as interesting, if not more interesting. So I am really happy to hear all the different parts of the story that people are identifying with.

After all these years, who did Kathy Valentine end up being today? 

I would say that I’m, I like the phrase fully-realized. I feel like as a woman, I have gotten to experience an enormous amount of success in a field that very few get to experience. I feel like I’ve gotten to be a leader and influence people as people, which is a wonderful thing. Being a mom has been the greatest and most profound experience of my entire life. I just feel so blessed that I’ve gotten to live long enough to learn so much and to learn how to appreciate every day and every moment as a gift. There’s not a day, and many, many times within a day, that I am not extraordinarily grateful for my blessings in my life and that I am still here and that I get to do the things that I love. I think I just feel very fully-realized and very, very grateful.

 

 

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