Rock and Roll Book Club: Kathy Valentine's 'All I Ever Wanted' tells the Go-Go's story

Kathy Valentine's 'All I Ever Wanted.'
Kathy Valentine's 'All I Ever Wanted: A Rock 'n' Roll Memoir.' (University of Texas Press)

It's hard to know what iconic anecdote from Kathy Valentine's "rock 'n' roll memoir" All I Ever Wanted (buy now) to start with, but how about this one?

It's the sundown years of the '80s, and the Go-Go's are over. Kathy Valentine, recruited to the group as bassist and songwriter, is hanging out in L.A. with Bob Dylan. Like you do. "It must be kind of hard for you," says Dylan, "losing your band and then seeing that other band be so successful now, the Bangles."

Yeah, kind of hard. "Our success enabled them to get a major Columbia Records deal," Valentine remembers about the Bangles. "They had corporate budgets and Prince on their side." The author doesn't waste time on sour grapes, though...after all, there were artists who paved the way for the Go-Go's success too.

There was Suzi Quatro, who helped inspire Valentine to get serious about music when the teenager saw her on TV in England in the '70s. There were the Runaways, who blew Valentine away when they came to Austin, Texas, where she grew up. "Lita Ford shredded on lead guitar," Valentine writes. "I had never seen a woman play lead so proficiently. Drummer Sandy West meant business — powerful, charismatic, and way beyond capable. Jackie Fox solidly held her own on bass. I related to Joan Jett most, the one I would want in my band."

Then, of course, there were the earlier influences. In another priceless story, Valentine is comforted by June Carter Cash when Rob Lowe skips out for some private time with Go-Go's singer Belinda Carlisle. "Being comforted by June Carter Cash was worth getting dumped," concludes Valentine.

The only child of a British mother and an American Air Force servicemen who met in London, Valentine spent most of her childhood in Austin being raised by her single mother after the short-lived marriage met its end. "She was a babe," writes Valentine about her mother, who was only 21 years her senior. If the second half of All I Ever Wanted reads like a rock biopic, the first half reads like a quirky TV series — a '70s Texas rock version of Gilmore Girls. At one point, mother and daughter are double-dating drug dealers: the 15-year-old Kathy paired up with a 38-year-old and her 36-year-old mother dating a 24-year-old.

After a series of musical awakenings that climaxed with one of her mom's beaus introducing Kathy to the electric guitar, Valentine burst onto an Austin music scene that included the likes of Doug Sahm and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Her decision to move to Los Angeles came in the form of a blurted declaration to Joan Jett when Valentine and her then-bandmate scored an invite to hang out at a hotel with the Runaways.

Valentine was convinced she could make it in music — and she could make it playing with women. Her attitude is epitomized by her band the Violators' reaction to an invitation to open for the Sex Pistols in San Antonio: the slot was theirs, as long as Valentine's female bandmate agreed to have sex with the promoter. They blew him off and "bought tickets like everybody else."

That episode was also consistent with Valentine's experiences in music as a male-dominated world. Game respects game, and real musicians treated the Go-Go's like peers. (She particularly praises tourmates the Police, who personally brought the Go-Go's celebratory bubbly when Beauty and the Beat passed Ghost in the Machine on the Billboard 200.) The band's worst treatment came from everyone around the musicians: record executives, tour managers, photographers.

Valentine's invitation to join the Go-Go's came when the rising quintet needed a stand-in bassist for a sold-out run of shows at the Whisky a Go-Go to ring in the new year of 1981. Valentine, who'd been gigging around the L.A. scene as a guitarist, learned bass and the entire Go-Go's oeuvre over a couple of days, and as she describes it, it was immediately clear that her chops and songwriting prowess could only help the band that had plenty of other strengths — including Carlisle's charisma and the songwriting gifts of Charlotte Caffey.

While Caffey was the band's principal songwriter, Valentine wrote or co-wrote tracks including "Can't Stop the World," "Head Over Heels," and "Vacation," the title track to the band's sophomore LP. The latter song was one Valentine wrote for her previous group (the Textones, natch), then boosted with a Caffey collaboration on the chorus and a new opening line by rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin.

After the band's debut Beauty and the Beat blew up and giant checks started to arrive, the disparate sizes of those checks based on who handled the songwriting made clear that there would be troubled waters ahead. Now, Valentine muses that bands like U2 might owe some of their longevity to the fact that they split all income equally.

Before the usual suspects tore the Go-Go's apart in 1985 — drug abuse, egos, money and the lack thereof — the band had a remarkable run that earned a distinction they still hold to his day. Beauty and the Beat, according to Valentine, remains the only U.S. number one album to be entirely written and performed by an all-female band.

It's a remarkable story, and Valentine's sharp wit makes All I Ever Wanted a welcome page-turner. She's articulate about everything from the vicissitudes of friendship to the experience of being on quaaludes. ("They gave me no manic energy or buzz; I just sloshed around like a raw egg in a bowl.") She finds humor in moments like her dad proudly telling her that he keeps her Go-Go's record next to his Merle Haggard LP. "High praise," she writes, "even if it was an alphabetical placement."

The story (which ends around 1990, with Valentine noting that the succeeding decades deserve their own book) also has its harrowing moments. She describes being forced into sex by men when she was young, two abortions (including one painful experience the day before the Go-Go's made their Madison Square Garden debut), and being held captive for hours in her own home by an intruder — along with her friend Carlene Carter and Carter's then-boyfriend Charlie Sexton.

Throughout, Valentine's strong voice carries an unforgettable story. When you finish All I Ever Wanted, you'll be even more impressed with the author and her badass bandmates. She writes, for example, about the Go-Go's arriving in Australia on tour.

The press was waiting for us on the runway when we landed in Australia. To our horror, the next edition of a tabloid pictured us on the front page, two photos side by side. One was a nice band publicity shot with the caption "This is how the Go-Go's publicity machine would have you think they look." Next to it was a shot from the runway arrival, with us looking raggedly jet-lagged, un-made up, and quite dressed down. "This is how they really look!" was printed under that photo. I wondered if Duran Duran got the same treatment.

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April 29: Sing Backwards and Weep: A Memoir by Mark Lanegan (buy now)

May 6: Resistance: A Songwriter's Story by Tori Amos (buy now)

May 13: Signed, Sealed, and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder by Mark Ribowsky (buy now)

May 20: Freddie Mercury: An Illustrated Life by Alfonso Casas (buy now)

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