Kathy Valentine: The Go-Go’s founding member and bassist opens up about revealing rock ‘n roll memoir

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Kathy ValentineKathy Valentine is a rock pioneer and visionary. The avant-garde musician is a founding member and bassist of The Go-Go’s, as well as being one of the few young women of the 1970s who decided to pursue a career in music – and her latest biography is a testament to that challenge.

She sat down with 529 to talk about her 45-year music career, The Go-Go’s and her new biography All I Ever Wanted.

With your biography, you could have covered 45 years of music business history. That’s a lot to cover.
Yeah, it’s only a 20 year span that I really concentrated on. It covers the ‘70s and the ‘80s. It seemed like a very natural and good story arc. I read a lot, I’ve taken creative writing classes. I was well aware of the classic structures of storytelling. And I thought like my book really followed that with that particular arc. And a memoir is often a slice of life rather than the full life. Mary Carr has written three or four memoirs about her life and other memoirs. That just take over sections that tell a story within the big overarching story.

So I feel like I could write another one. That was my intention when I got this and I wasn’t going to tell it all. It doesn’t cover 45 years really. It covers the ‘70s and ‘80s from the time I’m 12, 11 years old, lost, confused, not a good path, messed up and how music saves me and gives me a dream I pursue and achieve that I end up losing and have to find myself. So it covers my career, getting started, learning an instrument, joining the Go-Go’s and then having to find myself after.

Kathy Valentine memoirIn some ways, along with being your story, I think this book is a real testament to the women who play the music, not just the ones who sing it but the ones who play it.
I wanted to tell that story exactly. Because I do feel like it’s important for women in music to make their stories visible and put them out there. I think that there are a lot of women who have done music in the past few stories, we don’t know. And we can seek out now because we have YouTube and the internet. But in the ‘70s, when I first started playing, I thought I was the only 15 year old girl in the world that had ever wanted to play an electric guitar and be in a band.

If it wasn’t for Suzi Quatro, I wouldn’t even thought of doing that. So that visibility was so important to me. And other stories of women like Fannie and the bands in the ‘60s. I mean, if you just go on YouTube, now you can look up female bands from the ‘60s and there’s just so many of them.

And I just wonder how many other young girls in the ‘70s might’ve started bands if they’ve known those stories and known the names system. It’s almost like you didn’t know someone unless they were a big top selling, well-known act, which is fine understandable. But at the same time, I don’t think somebody has to be a big multi-platinum app to inspire someone else.

The Go-Go’s are kind of in that same position where they’re inspiring a different generation of people to be girls and women to play instruments and write their own songs and do it all.
Yeah. I think we did. I think a lot of the bands that came in our wake or females that were saying I mean, I’ve directly heard from Tanya Donelly from Throwing Muses and Belly and Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill and Louise and Nina from Brooke assault.

A lot of those bands in the ‘90s featured women. So prominently that Kevin County Deal, Courtney love said the Go-Go’s were a big influence and inspiration. And not only girls, but I’ve heard this from guys too. And this is actually a real direct line even from some of the punk power hits of Blink-182, Good Charlotte, Green Bay. To trace back to the Go-Go’s having songs with a kind of a punky pop sound to it. So I think our contribution is already being recognized.

In the book you talk about trying so hard to get somebody to actually sign the band. Most people don’t realize how hard it is, but you point out just how hard it was for an all female band at the time. Tell me about that journey.
Yes. We were rejected by every major label and they didn’t say we’re not going to sign them because they don’t have good songs. They didn’t say we’re not going to sign the Go-Go’s because people don’t seem to like them. Quite the opposite, we had great songs and people were lining up to see if Go-Go’s in the clubs of Los Angeles.

But they have one reason to reject our band. And that was they said, “There’s never been a successful all female band. We don’t want to put our time and effort and money behind an all female band, because it’s never been successful before.”

So contrary to making us just pass them and go away, we went with a smaller label with Miles Copeland who did see the potential.

And it was a really exciting and wonderful thing not only for our band, but for that small label taking a chance with our success. We also kind of paved the way for a small indie label to have hits. And our success I.R.S went on to sign, Fine Young Cannibals and R.E.M. Just because there hasn’t been one before doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It was satisfying that we had evolved.

You guys accomplished so much, there were tons of hits, lots of record sales, but the entire time you kept having to fight that male sexist industry.
We weren’t assaulted, people weren’t saying, “Hey, sleep with me and you can move up into the success rail more.” It wasn’t that kind of sexism.

Starting with having an unwillingness to give us a chance, we also met a lot of sexism. I don’t know what else it could have been from radio programmers who didn’t add our record, even though we were selling records. And we were touring and getting lots of press, the radio programmers just wouldn’t add us.

It was only when the sales and the exposure from MTV and TV shows started pushing the sales up that they had to add our record. But also we got pigeon-holed a lot by the press or the media that liked to categorize successful women as either you’re this kind of woman or that kind of woman. And they just made us out to be like the Girls Next Door, rather than fully dimensional character people. We weren’t the Girls Next Door, we weren’t the other stereotypes that people like to box women into. We were five different individuals that happened to be women that wrote great songs and worked really hard for everything we achieved.

The Rolling Stone cover really threw a punch at you guys and not because you were posing in your underwear, but because of the headline. I mean, I can’t imagine the frustration, being typecast in a certain way and then going through a photo shoot like that and then seeing the headline (The Go-Go’s Put Out).
Yeah, that was a shock and it was bad enough when a photographer that was iconic that we looked up to was dictating what we should wear. Normally we just wore whatever we wanted every now and then we’d go into a photo shoot and there would be a stylist and a photographer saying, “Hey, we thought you could wear this.”

And sometimes it’s just part of a job and you’re tired and we’d be like yeah whatever. Maybe it seemed fun to dress up in someone else’s clothes. But no one had ever brought packages of underclothes, and we were very against it, but you have to realize we’re a young band just breaking. And this is Rolling Stone, which is the prominent and only respected and legitimate, huge nationwide, maybe even internationally wide, wisely-read music paper and photographer.

We agreed to it, but like you say, the shock was when it said “The Go-Go’s Put Out” and we couldn’t figure out what the point of that was, it definitely felt like a put down.

It must’ve felt better for the second cover though, even though the headline is still a little off (The Go-Go’s – Women On Top).
Yeah, I think so. I wrote about this in my book and I really get the feelings across because it felt like that on the second cover. Number one, we got to be on the cover twice, which is phenomenal, but we were wearing clothes that presented us as fierce and empowered women. Again, it wasn’t just us, Rolling Stone is notorious for sexualizing women on its covers.

Out of all that imagery, and some of the things that have happened, is there one thing that stands out the most that you would love to have changed?
I think it’s a really big thing that’s unchangeable, but if I could I wish that we had the opportunity to take more time off. I wish we’d known it was okay to say, no, we’re going to take some time off for ourselves. I wish we had enjoyed the success of the first album more and not rushed into our second album. We felt very motivated.

Like we’ve got it proven again, we’ve got to show we’re not just a one album wonder and it wasn’t good guidance. I felt like we thought we were calling the shots. It was all our idea. We weren’t forced to do that, but I think we were misguided.

And the smart thing would have been to continue working on that album. It was a huge success and there was no reason to rush through it and rush into a second album. So I think that’s my biggest regret on our career.

The other things, there was no way you could change it. I wish we’d been more mature and more capable of communicating and having compassion and empathy for each other. And able to talk out our differences and disagreements better. But I don’t know if that could have been any different than we were 23, 22, 23, 24 years old. And hadn’t grown up a lot because we weren’t in a job that required much growing up. It really just required getting on stage and playing your great songs the best you could. We were able to do that. But yeah, my biggest regret is that we’ve rushed into the next album. I think we would have had a lot bigger career and more sustained and maybe had a chance to evaluate ourselves and take it all in, or maybe react a little better.

go-go'sWell, that living fast lifestyle is pretty hard on everybody, right?
Yes, the immaturity, that inability to take care of ourselves. It would have really helped us to take some time off. There’s just a lot you can always look back in hindsight and see where this went wrong and where that went wrong. But when you’re in the thick of it, it seems like you just need to keep showing up and doing it.

In the book, you mentioned that your father was against you wanting to pursue music, because it wasn’t something that women don’t do. He was obviously wrong.
Well, he didn’t raise me and he basically cut me out of his life. So for me, it just felt like more confirmation and verification that I wasn’t important to him that he didn’t know me. He didn’t understand me. And at the same time, I felt like he doesn’t get to say or decide what I do because he hasn’t been here.

He’s not offering me anything else. So looking back, I’m grateful that he wasn’t there. At the time it was painful from the time I was a little girl, I had a lot of pain and abandonment that my dad didn’t want me in his life, in the middle of writing this book we became close and I helped him through the last stages of his life. And I was the daughter that was there with him.

And we talked about that and he expressed so much regret and I was able to help him let go and say dad, if you had been there raising me, you would’ve never looked at me or supported me and it would have changed my whole life. And I’m happy that I got to be go after my dream and that my mom, as neglectful and was eloquently parenting me. She was very good at supporting me and saying, “Why not? Why shouldn’t we be able to do that?”

Every good biography tackles the good and the bad, and that is a touchy moment. Were there moments that you thought about excluding from the book because maybe they were just too personal?
I did. I was very uncomfortable with writing about abortion because it’s such a polarizing hot button topic. And I felt like it’s personal and any woman’s personal decision. But that is the exact reason that I felt like I should write about it -because I think that the stories should be told and it should be out there so that people can understand, even if they don’t agree with something that there are reasons very personal to an individual to self determine what their life is going to be about.

I think it’s easy to jump to an opinion or a judgment when you don’t know the situation or the person or the circumstances. And more people are brave about sharing the same with any of the difficult stuff. I was worried about revealing my mom’s missteps and egregious instances of parenting that as a mom myself, I couldn’t dream of putting my own daughter through. But I would ask her, I said are you okay if I write about this?

And she would always say, “I want you to write anything that feels meaningful.” She was part of your story. And that contract really helps my leader understand why I was so single-minded living in my aim and motivation of pursuing a band. And how profoundly important making it in the van was to me and how devastating it was to lose that. Once I had found it, I don’t think without the context of how I was raised and what was both missing in my childhood shaped all my responses.

And that’s what people identify with. So I’m really glad I’ve had so many people write me and say I related so much to what you wrote about how you were raised or how your relationship with your mother or father was that I thought much more interaction and response about the aspects of the story of my joy, then I have, “Oh, I loved when you told this about the girls,” it’s like, people are interested in that. It’s always interesting to see what it’s like to be in a band. Making it and the struggles and the triumphs, but the things that people really relate to are the personal things and what those relationships are like. Because that everyone has had this feeling.

The Go-Go’s is definitely one of the big draws of why people would get the book because they recognize you from the band. But the content with the Go-Go’s is kind of almost like a foundation for something bigger, which is what makes this an a very interesting read, right?
Yeah. I felt like that was part of my life. I was really grateful that I got a book deal with University of Texas Press. Because I think a lot of other publishers wouldn’t have said, “Nobody cares about this stuff spill the dirt. Spill the dirt you’re tell all,” I think the Walden Publishers would have wanted it and the University of Texas Press thought like that. And they have so many Call Music Books. I was so excited when they approached me. I wanted my story and the Go-Go’s part of that story and a very compelling part of it. But it’s the overall thing. I think that really makes it a literary memoir rather than just a rock and roll memoir. It is a rock and roll memoir, but it’s also very much a literary coming of age story.

And I was inspired not by the book where people talk about all the famous people they’ve met. I was inspired by, more like not losing memoirs, Just Kids by Patti Smith, or Wild by Cheryl Strayed, or Educated by Tara Westover, or Liars’ by Mary Karr, these were the books that inspired me. Those literary memoirs, they’re not people that are famous. There people that just had stories that people really felt something in common with. So thank you. I’m glad that’s what came across.

Kathy ValentineI want to switch gears for a second. I wanted to ask about the musicals because I love a good musical and I hope I can see it someday. How did the musical come about and are you pleased with the end result?
It was years in the making, but apparently in the world of musicals, even the years that it wasn’t in the making, it still came about in record time, I think seven years from when we first were approached about it. We were so excited to do it. We didn’t know what the story would be, but we were very interested in what came to us, which was just using the music as a catalog for the front story that told the encompassing Shakespearean tale of love and missed identities.

And it was funny and yet light and had a great positive message that broke through a lot of barriers. And there was so much positive response to it. I wish it could have gone further on Broadway. But before the pandemic, this musical had been chosen by hundreds of high schools in their theater groups to perform and regional theater. So it was getting a whole life of its own off of Broadway, which was really exciting to see because it really is a great story. It really represented the Go-Go’s as well.

Lastly, 2020 was supposed to be a Go-Go’s tour. Will that resume when things are safe again?
Yeah. The tour that was cancelled for 2020 has been rescheduled for 2021. Now it’s anybody’s guess whether that is going to happen. I have the dates cleared out. I’m not making other plans. I think one thing that the pandemic has done is really put us all square in the moment and made us realize and appreciate what we have in the moment. It’s like game day because you really don’t know where this is going. I mean, it looks hopeful. It looks better, but who knows? So I’m hoping that we will get to do this.

If not there will be a time when we can, and will be excited to. We’re not really active as a band, but when something comes up where it is exciting like the documentary or a chance like in 2018, when we played at the Hollywood ball for four nights with the LA Philharmonic. So when something special comes along, we’ll be really happy to get together and do it. But everybody lives across the world, has families, homes, pads, other careers. It’s the times we get to work together that are special. And I do hope we get to do it this summer.

Photo: Emily Assiran Contour via Getty Images
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