Kathy Valentine on Success, Her Difficult Adolescence in Raw New Memoir 'All I Ever Wanted'
Performing on Saturday Night Live can be one of the most definitive moments of a band’s career. The Go-Go’s knew that. Their first appearance on the show in 1981 went well, but it shouldn’t have. Kathy Valentine details the moment — and the band’s struggles — in sharply prescient detail:
“The day dragged on and the drinking continued. When it seemed the drinking might be getting too much, presto, cocaine suddenly became available…Careless and confident, stir-crazy from being in the dressing room, high and drunk, we finally heard the stage call come…I was bombed and minutes away from performing in front of the biggest audience of my life.”
All I Ever Wanted, a shockingly candid, at times difficult to read, book is full of incredible stories and anecdotes like that. The book goes into her history-making success with The Go-Go’s, hanging out with John Belushi, opening for the Rolling Stones and more. What distinguishes the book though from other rocker memoirs is her turbulent adolescence and her candor about it, from having an abortion as a teenager to being raped at 14.
As tough as it can be at times, it is ultimately a story of triumph as Valentine explained when she spoke with SPIN. She’s sober, has a 15-year-old daughter, Audrey, who she dedicates the book to (along with her mother) and is on good terms with her Go-Go’s bandmates.
It is a story Valentine is excited to share but wishes it could be done on a larger scale. This is where the pandemic comes in. Though she’s been talking to a lot of people (including this wide-ranging interview with Marc Maron), she can’t do in-stores for obvious reasons.
However, she is doing the best she can. “I’m trying to salvage everything and figure out stuff to do when we can do small gatherings or whatever,” she says.
For now, that means relying on others to spread the word about All I Ever Wanted. And as she tells SPIN here, it is a remarkable story.
SPIN: Were there things you remembered in the writing of the book that surprised you or that you were surprised by the impact they had?
Kathy Valentine: It really happened a lot and definitely with some of the childhood stuff. Not that I talk about my childhood so much, but the difficult adolescence. Like being unparented, being pretty wild and finding my own way, trying to take care of myself and doing a pretty crummy job of it, like any 13-year-old would do. On the other hand, it also gave me a way to see a picture — like I’ve had a lot of resentment towards my mom — especially after I became a mom. And it kind of opened my heart to her in a way because it made me see not only the failings, but where I was supported and loved. Even though I wasn’t guided and parented there are still pillars of parenting that are really important. And feeling loved is one of them. And feeling supported.
Writing this book, it was more important to my mom that I write my story than she look like a good mom. She didn’t want me to whitewash or leave anything out. She said, “This is your story.” And I respected that and I respected that she supported me wanting to be a musician. And when things went pretty crummy in the public school system she found that commune where I thrived for the first time and learned guitar. And there were other things, like the passage of time is so much different when you really look at the past and do research. And things I thought were eight months or a year were two or three months. I was amazed at how long it took for The Go-Go’s first single [“Our Lips Are Sealed”] to get into the Top 30. As I put everything together I was like, “My God, it took us 90 shows and six months of touring and visiting radio stations and doing press and meeting label reps and glad-handing and ass-kissing and all of it to get that freaking single on the airwaves.” And I didn’t realize that, how long and hard we worked for one single. So yeah there was deep stuff that affected me and remembering the joy of making the first album. That came back full force.
It’s also hard to appreciate everything in the midst of it happening and in your 20s, for example, you don’t know this won’t be the norm. So did it make you go back and look at things differently like opening for The Stones in Rockford, Illinois?
I was fairly acutely aware that I was living my dream. One thing I can say is I didn’t take it for granted. It was like each thing that happened if that had been the culmination I would have been like, “Cool, I got to play in a cool band, we got a record deal, we got to make a record in New York City.” So each thing I was really hyperaware. But there were things I had forgotten. Like I write about my dad coming to see us in Oklahoma. It really stood out to me but I hadn’t thought about it until I was writing the book. He said he was proud of me and the kicker was he said, “I’ve got your record right next to my Merle Haggard records.” And I cried that night. I got on the bunk after opening for The Pretenders and having this exchange with my dad I just grieved. It really stood out to me as I was reflecting back because I was so cut off from my feelings. I had really buried them and pushed them down and numbed myself a lot. So I was surprised I could be in touch.
You write at the conclusion, “Not the end.” Years ago I interviewed Iggy Pop and Ron and Scott Asheton when they released The Weirdness, the first Stooges record in 29 years, and Iggy said all the acrimony and anger fades away over time and you remember what you built. Was that the case for you?
I appreciate you acknowledging that this is a dysfunction that is not gender-related. This is a band. So many people act like the Go-Go’s were dysfunctional and toxic because it had something to do with being female. And I always say, “Look at Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Guns ‘N’ Roses.” It’s an unnatural expectation that you’re gonna be like the Brady Bunch when you form a band. I think a lot of us that were teenagers in the ’70s and were watching bands in the ’60s got this false sense. You didn’t know The Beatles were going through so much strife and stress and whatnot. You just saw these zany guys seeming like they were having tons of fun and being ultra-cool. It really, like any situation with time, perspective changes. I’ve even said to the women in The Go-Go’s, my bandmates, if I was writing this book today, it would be different than what I wrote two years ago because I’m always changing. Our documentary premiered at Sundance and the depth of how that healed us, it was just weird to see. I’m 61 and I’m the youngest. So here we are in our 60s and yet we’re still going deeper and letting go and forgiving and healing over a decades-long relationship that has been a lot of things. It has been destructive, dysfunctional and toxic. But there’s still been this bond that doesn’t go away. It’s not because we go out and make tons of money. We don’t tour that much, we don’t come back together and do that much. But it’s a pretty amazing thing. And in January, I can’t tell you what it felt like. That screening happened and we just went down to the front for a Q&A and stood there in front of that audience and hugged. It almost makes me cry every time I think about it because it just felt good. It felt like something letting go and floating away, stuff from the past.
You laid so much bare, from the abortion to losing your virginity, that it was hard to read at times. Was it hard for you to include?
Well, a lot of it was just matter of fact for so long, like it happened and life went on. But the things that were hard to dig in were like my mom having an affair with one of my teenage friends and then having to talk to her about it at different times. When I wrote about that I wasn’t ever trying to demonize or make my mom out to be the villain. But it happened. She told me when we were on a coke rap in the ’80s and then I’m writing about it later and I’m completely sober for decades. I’ve got a daughter that age, 15, and I’m like, “What were you thinking?” So writing about that was really hard. And the other thing was when I wrote about getting raped at 14. In my mind, I had always thought of it as I had given permission and I had gotten myself in a bad situation. But it was only when I wrote it that I said, “Wait a minute, you’re 14, he’s a guy in college, you’re saying no I don’t want to.” It doesn’t matter whether I said, “Just do it,” it was rape. And that was one level. But the thing that happened next after I finished the book and started the soundtrack I wrote the song to that chapter. It’s called, “Just Do It,” and there was something about doing it musically. I wrote in the chorus,” Do it, just do it/If I can’t stop you, I can let you.” And something about that lyric and the melody opened this grieving and mourning I had never experienced, even while writing the chapter. Writing the song just gutted me and I mourned for three days. I mourned that nobody was looking out for me, that I was this 14-year-old so powerless and so overpowered and knowing that I was not gonna be able to get out of this situation and he was gonna do whatever he wanted. And just wanting a little bit of empowerment and taking it by saying, “Oh, just do it.” And it made me so sad for days.
Is there a hope in telling these stories so candidly others learn from your experiences?
I hope that the people will identify with the sobriety. A lot of people have a different idea of what constitutes being an alcoholic or an addict and when it’s a problem. So I really would like my story of getting sober to inspire people. But a lot of the stuff really holds true for people in music, talking about our mistakes and thinking we knew it all. It was weird how the Go-Go’s kind of mirrored my growing up. Nobody was saying, “No, girls, that’s stupid.” And we’re feeling all empowered like we’re calling all the shots and aren’t we cool? But really we were making some pretty dumb business moves. I would like to inspire people mainly to see how you can do some things in the past and they might not ever go away and they can bring you pain. But you can put them in a place where you can function and be loved. I’ve had great relationships and I have great relationships and friendships.
Did writing the book give you a better understanding on those individual relationships with your bandmates?
One of the things I learned more than anything about being in a band is how important it is to recognize and appreciate what every person brings to the table. People have different strengths and talents and it all makes it valuable. It’s all of value. And I’m a better person from having learned that in a band. The Go-Go’s are a unique band in that we’ve been working together for decades, on and off. But we have a very long-reaching relationship where we have not spoken sometimes for years and yet we always come back. And we come back a little stronger and a little healthier. And it’s a pretty amazing little cosmos.