A Punk Rock Valentine
The legendary Go-Go’s bassist lays it all on the line in her stirring memoir
Growing up in a broken home. A mother who dated drug dealers. A regular smoker and drinker by seventh grade. An illegal abortion at age 12. A brief stint in the band that would go on to become Girlschool. A rape.
It’s already a life that’s packed full of incident and heady drama. And that’s well before the Go-Go’s even enter the story on page 103.
Kathy Valentine’s All I Ever Wanted is everything a rock ‘n’ roll memoir should be. From the first page of the Go-Go’s bassist’s book, you feel like you’re sitting down with a good friend, one who can regale you with an endless number of stories, has a wry sense of humor, delights in her successes, but doesn’t shy away from admitting her mistakes. It’s a highly engaging book, one that delves deeply into the pleasures of working toward a dream — and the perils that can happen when those dreams finally come true.
Valentine dates her musical awakening to age nine. While visiting relatives in Lubbock, Texas, an older cousin played Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” and she became transfixed. Music became her lodestar, helping her navigate a turbulent adolescence. By junior high, “I could smoke like a pro but drank like an amateur,” she writes, but such bravado got her into trouble as well. Sexual double standards led to vicious rumors circulating about Valentine — and her mother — that made her develop a “tough shell” and fueled the desire to get out of Texas for good.
And it was her mother’s “drug-dealing, heroin-addicted, prison-escapee, biker boyfriend” who helped set her on the path, letting her play his electric guitar one day. As she played an E chord that rang out “raw and dirty and loud,” she knew she’d found her purpose: “It was the most empowering thing I had done in my entire life.”
Five years later, she was in Los Angeles with her band the Textones; by the end of 1980, she was tapped to join the Go-Go’s. There’s a real joie de vivre that comes into the story at this point, as the band starts on their ascent to fame. Valentine makes you envious that you weren’t part of this all-for-one, one-for-all girl gang, especially when they descend on New York City to make their first record, “checking into the adventure of a lifetime and bonding like superglue from the get-go.” They dropped Sno-Ball cupcakes from their hotel balcony to startle unwary pedestrians, befriended the owner of an Indian restaurant who served up ecstasy (the drug) on the side, swooned over Dirk Bogarde movies at one of the Big Apple’s many art-house cinemas. Oh, and found the time to make a classic debut album as well (“Not a clinker in the batch,” Valentine rightly notes of Beauty and the Beat). It was a time of “carefree and unfettered joy” for the band, the calm before the eventual storm. And you feel like you’re experiencing that unfettered joy right along with them.
Yet this is a cautionary story as well. Each element of the holy triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll is present and accounted for in this tale. But every memorable moment (headlining at Madison Square Garden) is matched by a depressing low (having a bad acid trip at the band’s very first in-store appearance). Sometimes the antics are funny, as when Valentine describes how John Belushi distracted the clerk at a 7-11 so she could shoplift beer for the two of them. But elsewhere she recounts a night of debauchery that involved the humiliation of a passed out crew member, an incident she recalls with great shame, writing that the memory of it still makes her cry.
That’s what gives this book its emotional heft. Valentine details what great fun it is to be in a hit rock band, but she also takes a hard look at the unexpected complexities that arise as well, such as the thorny issue of songwriting credits and publishing royalties. Substance abuse also had a far more punishing effect on the band than anyone realized at the time, and was something that continued to wreak havoc in Valentine’s life well after the band’s first split.
The Go-Go’s also had a unique situation of their own to deal with: being an all-female band. Interestingly, Valentine found male musicians the most supportive; it was the music industry, particularly the media, whom she found the most anxious to “wrap us up in a lady-box.” Diminutive descriptions like “bouncy,” and “perky” grated, as did being dubbed “America’s pop sweethearts” which, Valentine felt, shoved the Go-Go’s into “tlhe most benign of all lady-boxes.” What should have been a career high point — being on the cover of Rolling Stone — was ruined, first by being pressured to pose in their underwear, then by the magazine slapping on a smarmy headline: “Go-Go’s Put Out.” “We had been good girls and done as we were told — and ended up hating how they represented us,” Valentine writes.
Happily, the band, and Valentine, prevailed. The one-time “pop sweethearts” are now acknowledged as the gender busting pioneers that they were (and they’re still the only all-female band to have had a No. 1 album in the US charts). Valentine became clean-and-sober, and survived more than one Go-Go’s break up and reformation. The book concludes with the first reforming in 1990; the last page reads “Not the End,” a hint of more to come. If so, she’ll no doubt find an audience waiting to read it. In the book’s epilogue, Valentine writes that she’s come to a place where “I became very sure, comfortable, and happy with the knowledge that I’m a really good musician, songwriter, and yes, even singer.”
And now she can add “author” to that list as well.
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One thought on “A Punk Rock Valentine”
Wonderful review. And OMG, I am LOVING this book. Just so direct and unadorned. This story does a better job than I can of explaining its excellence, so I’ll just add the observation that readers should consider getting this on audiobook, for two reasons. 1) The songs that separate many of the chapters are really good — totally catchy and lyrically linked to the chapters they border. 2) Valentine is a terrific narrator.