Kathy Valentine Interview: "The Go-Go's Were Very Dysfunctional and Very Toxic"
Image attributed to Kathy Valentine
Musician and songwriter Kathy Valentine made music history as a member of the Go-Go’s, the first multi-platinum-selling all-female band to play instruments themselves, write their own songs and have a number one album. Their debut, Beauty and the Beat, spent six weeks at the top of the Billboard 200 and featured the hit songs “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed.”
For Valentine, the band’s success was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but it’s only part of her story. In her newly released memoir, All I Ever Wanted, she traces the path that took her from her childhood in Texas – where she all but raised herself – to the height of rock ‘n roll stardom, devastation after the collapse of the band that had come to define her and the quest to regain her sense of self after its end. Valentine also speaks candidly about the lasting effects of parental betrayal, abortion, rape, her struggles with drugs and alcohol and the music that saved her every step of the way.
"I’m from Texas. We don’t bullshit around. If you’re going to write a memoir, you’re going to do it truthfully, and you’re going to do it warts and all."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Kathy, how are you coping these days with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Kathy Valentine: Well, just hanging in there and trying to take each day at a time. It’s such a big unknown, and obviously, nobody can sustain what they’re doing and how they’re dealing with it. Any way you’re reacting is not sustainable. So it’s hard to know where things are going. We’re all kind of forced to take it a day at a time.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have businesses and restaurants reopened in Austin?
Kathy Valentine: Most of the places I go to, you still have to order online and pick up curbside. I have seen a couple of places where people seem to be sitting at tables but not very many. I think there’s some outdoor stuff a little out of control on the weekends, but that’s nothing I was doing before. I don’t know. It’s just hard to know what’s going to happen.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Go-Go’s reunion tour was re-scheduled for next year?
Kathy Valentine: Yeah. I understand why people say reunion tour, but from my perspective, we’ve been touring pretty nonstop since 1995, and it seems like every time we go play, they call it the reunion tour. But I guess the perception is that we are not a working band. They did do a “farewell to touring” tour without me in 2016. So yeah, this tour was going to be in tandem with the release of our documentary, so that was the real impetus behind it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You say that you were driven to write a memoir. What did you want to accomplish by writing the book?
Kathy Valentine: There are two elements. One is I really wanted to start exploring a career as a writer, and I felt like a memoir was a perfect entryway to that because for one thing, it’s the book that only I can write. I’m not competing with somebody else that can write my story better (laughs). That was my main thing. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to document the history of the Go-Go’s.”
I wanted to tell my story, and I thought it was a valid story because it really illustrated the rare story of a woman making it in the music business coming from a time when there were very few role models. Also it was a story of resiliency and overcoming a lot of obstacles and facing demons and inner demons and stuff, which is a pretty universal tale that doesn’t get old.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Suzi Quatro was the first female bass player to become a major rock star, and her idol was Elvis Presley. What did you think of her the first time you saw her perform on stage?
Kathy Valentine: I had never seen a woman being a rock star before. I had only seen women either being lead singers or folksingers sitting at a piano. They weren’t musicians playing rock and roll even though that was my favorite music. All my favorite bands were everyone from ZZ Top to the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to the Beatles. They were all men. So it didn’t ever occur to me that I could do the same as Eric Clapton or anybody else until I saw Suzi Quatro. Then it was like, “Oh, I don’t have to be a folksinger. I can be in a band like Keith Richards.”
Suzi was the one who showed me that because I had never seen that. I’d never seen a woman rocking out on the guitar. Now since that time, because we have the internet and people are able to communicate, connect and share, there were women in the 40s and 50s tearing it up on guitar and stuff. But I didn’t know that. Not in 1973. I didn’t even know about Fanny, and they had a hit song in the 70s. I had never heard of them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You were a guitar player, then switched to bass.
Kathy Valentine: I only picked up bass to be in the Go-Go’s. I was a guitar player, and I learned bass in four days to take a temporary substitute gig. But I had not seen a woman playing an electric guitar, electric bass or any instrument in a rock band before Suzi Quatro no matter what the instrument.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You write about the freedom your mom gave you, so did that contribute to an early addiction of alcohol and drugs?
Kathy Valentine: I think I was desperate to belong, and we didn’t fit in. When I was growing up in elementary school, my mom was putting herself through school, and we lived close to the UT campus. None of her friends had kids. There were no other kids around. I was just on my own, and we moved a lot. Every year, I went to a different school. But when the shit hit the fan was when she decided she wanted to provide a more conventional circumstance for me where I could walk to school and stay in the same house and not be moving every year and going to a different school. That just happened to fall right at the age of 11, 12 years old. And we didn’t fit in.
There was very low tolerance for anybody that wasn’t a standard issue Station Wagon in the driveway, mom’s at home baking cookies, dad’s going to work kind of thing. We weren’t like that at all. My mom was a counterculture bohemian from an academic world also trying to change the world in her own way. We didn’t fit in. So it was painful for me. Not only was my dad not in my life, but there was no peer group because I wasn’t accepted. So the peer group I found were the partiers, the people that smoked pot and started drinking. They didn’t seem to care that we weren’t standard issue. In fact, that meant another house that we could skip school at because my mom worked all the time.
So in that regard, I think it was more about wanting to fit in and being very sad and confused and lost. I don’t think parenting reins people in, if a kid chooses to go that path. You can have the strictest parents in the world, and that’s how they’re going to feel good about themselves. I don’t know if the non-parenting contributed, but I think it was mainly wanting to fit in, wanting to belong and having a lot of pain that seemed to get numbed as soon as I found drinking.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I think that personal liberation, rebellion against authority and a skepticism toward government were also themes in the 70s that could’ve effected how young people felt they needed to “fit in.”
Kathy Valentine: Yeah. I think that’s something that younger people don’t really realize. My adolescence was wild, decadent and irresponsible, but it was a very different time, and parents weren’t helicopter parents at all. We were all on our bikes. We were out from sunup to sundown, and they didn’t know where we were. I don’t think young people understand that or understand that the 70s came right out of the free love, peace and love, flower child era of the 60s, but it didn’t have so much of the peace and love. It was just the drugs and the sex. But there were other things which were a bit more edgy like the Vietnam War. It was a very different combination of things that what people are used to.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You had an abortion at the young age 12. Was that difficult to write about?
Kathy Valentine: It was verydifficult to write about because it’s such a divisive hot button topic, and people have really gotten very vocal and aggressively anti-abortion. So I was reticent to write about it, but I thought it was important to show that the circumstances and story was important to show why women should be able to determine for themselves how their lives were going to unfold. I certainly don’t feel like a 12-year-old should have to make that determination that she’s going to do that. So it was an important story to tell.
It was something I’ve always remembered very distinctly, and I just felt it was important to tell. It was hard though. I wasn’t excited about the idea of my daughter reading about it. But I do believe when you are writing a memoir, you have to be all in. I’m from Texas. We don’t bullshit around. If you’re going to write a memoir, you’re going to do it truthfully, and you’re going to do it warts and all. I just felt like there was no glossing over this.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were there stories about your parents or the other band members that you decided not to include in the book?
Kathy Valentine: I was very honest about my mom and dad. My mom had a hard time with it, you know. My dad passed away, so he never read it. But I think he would’ve been horrified to see how much it hurt me to have him not in my life. I think he would’ve been horrified. But I didn’t want to demonize or make a villain out of anybody. I was my own worst enemy. There are things I left out because they didn’t tell the story. There’s a phrase people say, “You’re either going to put blood on the page or you’re just going to do a complete sugar-coated whitewash thing.” I knew which book I was going to do. There was going to be blood on the page because that’s how I was going to get readers to connect with me.
Nobody’s going to care about the bass player’s story, you know. I’m not the star of the band. The only way I was going to get readers to care about my book is if they understood on a human level this journey, and they related to it. So I knew I had to do that. At the same time, you’re not going to be a gaping, open wound. There was no reason to tell every bad thing that happened or every bad thing I did because it’s just basically a story and a journey. What I leave in and what I choose to take out is what gives me my voice as an artist, and I’m used to that as a musician. What note do I play? What note to I leave out? What lyric do I leave in? It’s all a matter of judgment and artistic crafting. It’s the same as a painter. How many brushstrokes am I going to do here? That’s what makes you the artist you are.
I took that knowledge and that experience as a musician and a songwriter and applied it to writing. What am I leaving in? What am I taking out? I didn’t leave anything out because I was afraid. I think that’s pretty obvious. But I also didn’t want to tell other people’s stories. I’m not going to tell everything that happened to every person in the band. That’s for them to write or not write.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you find it challenging to attempt to draw the readers in to actually feel the emotions you experienced that first time on stage with the Go-Go’s?
Kathy Valentine: That was one of my challenges as a writer. I wanted to make sure people could read on the page exactly what it felt like. That was my biggest success as a writer. I felt very strongly that I was really able to make my reader almost feel like they were right there alongside me. I actually put it in the prologue so people would know what they were in for, that they would know how it felt, whether it was on stage with the Go-Go’s or whether it was feeling lost or confused or being held up in my house in that home invasion robbery or feeling unloved.
I just wanted to make sure that the feelings of it got on the page because I know everybody has experienced the same feelings. Everybody has worked hard for something and experienced the exhilaration and joy of that achievement or the devastation of loss or the pride in a good job or the pride that gets in the way of a good job. We’ve all, as humans, experienced those same feelings. So I think that people who read the book will know exactly what it felt like.
It was exhilarating. I’d done some great things in my five or six years as a musician prior to that. I write about Smokey Robinson coming in and singing with my band and opening for great bands and playing with the Ramones. I write about all that stuff before the Go-Go’s, but what I had never experienced was being in a band with four women that were likeminded and passionate and driven just like me and that had an audience of fans that loved them. I hadn’t gotten to do that. We played eight shows in a row that were sold out, and it was exhilarating. That’s what I wrote about.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When you rejoined the Go-Go’s in 2018 after suing them five years earlier, was it awkward or uncomfortable at first between you and the other members?
Kathy Valentine: Well, the book ends in 1990. I knew people would be curious about that. I intend to write another book because there was an intense and very compelling journey after 1990 and up to the present. It’s a very different story but no less compelling. Just for your readers, and to be clear, my book doesn’t talk about not being in the band at that time other than referring to it. But as a question apart from the book, writing the book and reliving the joy and wonderful times was very healing for me.
It was such a wonderful experience being in the Go-Go’s and doing what we did. Sure, there was a lot of pain and betrayal in that time as well. But it really was healing for me, and that overrode a lot of the stuff that happened. The Go-Go's were very dysfunctional and very toxic, and I became the target of that. I was not the first person to be the target of the dysfunction and toxicity of this family. It’s very much like a family. I just know that from talking to friends and families who are the same way. You really get into it, and then you let it go. But it still bubbles up. Things like that. It’s just very much like a family.
I had a lot of silver linings during that time out of the band. So when they asked me to come back, of course, there was a lot of forgiving and healing and apologizing. It was not awkward because I missed it, and I love the band. I always missed it and always loved the band. Then I enjoyed the silver linings about being out of the band. But at the same time, I missed it. So awkward? No. It was a little scary the first time we rehearsed, but there’s a strong chemistry. It’s never been the same without me, and they recognized that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What’s your songwriting process like?
Kathy Valentine: I’ve always got my antenna out for inspiration. If it’s a little melody I start singing, I’ll just record it on my phone. Maybe I’ll see a phrase or something and just jot it down. Then when I feel like being creative, I’ll sit down and just start writing. Maybe I’ll start pulling together little elements that have inspired me from day to day. I did write an entire soundtrack for the book. It was a very fun and creative process.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. Some great music. I think that “Cheerleader” may be my favorite.
Kathy Valentine: Yeah. A lot of people keep saying that’s the one they like. It’s kind of funny. That’s not the one I would’ve thought people would’ve liked, so I’m enjoying hearing that. But I did everything on the record in my home studio. I tried to incorporate everything available to me as a writer and a musician that I could do. A lot of it is very fresh and modern. I made the beats. I did all the keyboards. I did all the guitars, the bass, all the vocals. It was a blast.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you think the Go-Go’s should be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
Kathy Valentine: I do. But I think Suzi Quatro should be in there before us. There was a punk scene that inspired the other Go-Go’s. But I was 14, and I wouldn’t have moved out to LA to join the Go-Go’s and be in a band if it wasn’t for Suzi Quatro. Joan Jett would not have been Joan Jett without Suzi Quatro. The punk rock scene and Suzi Quatro singlehandedly probably created the most compelling female musicians of the last 40 years.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: A new Go-Go’s documentary is being released in August. What can we expect to see?
Kathy Valentine: It focuses a lot on the early roots of the band, which was before I was in the band. So it really talks a lot about the punk rock roots. Of course, I’m in Austin starting the first punk band, so I’m in the narrative. But it shows the Go-Go’s coming together in that punk scene, then Gina joining and me joining, then us making a record. It goes all the way up to when the band breaks up. Then it starts touching more lightly on everything after that, and it goes up to the present.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What does Audrey think of the book, and are you and your daughter close?
Kathy Valentine: We’re very, very close. She’s 17 and going to be a senior next year. I think she’s very inspired and proud of me, but she’s also very focused on what she is going to do with her life. I think it’s just wonderful that she sees her mom at 61 putting myself out there for the first time doing something brand new and getting some really good acclaim for it. For a first time author, I’m getting a lot of very positive responses. So she gets to see me doing something new and excelling in it. I think it’s kind of neat for her to see. It’s not like she’s just seeing me being a successful Go-Go. She’s seeing me do something new just like she’s going to be doing something new. So she’s very proud. But I think she’s a bit more focused on what’s in store for Audrey.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What else fills your time, Kathy?
Kathy Valentine: I’m continuing to write and play in my band, the BlueBonnets. I want to write more books and hopefully write some pieces that can be published in magazines and online. I just want to write more. I really like doing that and maybe do more soundtracks to the stuff I write. I’d like to do a collection of short stories with music to accompany them. I’m just excited. I am two classes away from having my English degree, so I need to get those done.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: As a first time author, you should be very proud. All I Ever Wanted is compelling, emotional and well-written.
Kathy Valentine: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate that. It’s a quick read. I wanted it to have a fast pace because I know people’s attention spans are shorter these days. Thank you for helping me promote it.
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