The Go-Go's had a reputation as America's wholesome sweethearts. Bassist Kathy Valentine tells a different story

By Kathy Valentine, University of Texas Press, 304 pages, $26.95

The first time the Go-Go’s broke up, in May of 1985, it was brutal and swift.

They had been pathbreakers, the first, and to this day only, all-female rock band to land a No. 1 album, which they did with their 1981 debut, Beauty and the Beat. But their last release had underperformed, and relations among the band’s members, once fiercely close, had grown distant. By the time bassist Kathy Valentine and drummer Gina Schock were summoned to a meeting at the management’s office, Valentine couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen.

At the meeting, Valentine and Schock were informed that singer Belinda Carlisle and guitarist Charlotte Caffey had decided to break up the band. They “were tossing us aside with less emotion than getting rid of old clothes,” Valentine writes in her vibrant new autobiography, All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir.

The Go-Go’s had provided Valentine with the family she’d always longed for, and the connection she craved, but it was all over in an instant. “My family was gone. In its place were strangers.”

Valentine was raised in Austin, Texas, by a single mother with indifferent parenting skills. “We were mother/daughter only in biology,” she writes. Valentine could do whatever she wanted, though she longed for structure. She had an abortion at 12, hardly ever attended school, and often got high with her mom. She was basically feral.

Valentine first picked up a guitar in high school, formed her first band soon after, and quickly rose through the ranks of the Austin club scene before moving to Los Angeles in 1978 to seek her fortune. She was 21 years old, with her career stalled out, when she ran into Caffey in the restroom of an L.A. club. Caffey offered her a temporary gig filling in for the Go-Go’s absent bassist, whom Valentine would soon replace permanently.

Within months, the band had signed a record deal; within a year, they were famous. The early days were heady. “We were like newlyweds on a honeymoon,” Valentine writes, “determined to inhale life together, filled with desire and euphoria. And drugs and alcohol.” They grew closer than siblings, bonded by circumstances no one else could understand. But on some level, they remained strangers to one another, their growing differences papered over until it was too late.

Fearless, charismatic, and capable products of the L.A. punk scene, the Go-Go’s soon began to chafe against their reputation as America’s wholesome sweethearts. “If ‘pop sweethearts’ did acid at Graceland, threw up on the floor at fancy restaurants, cheated on their boyfriends, took nasty Polaroids, made out with girls, watched fringe porn, and stayed up all night writing songs and playing guitars, well, maybe their stupid label might fit,” Valentine writes.

When sales of the group’s second and third albums failed to match the success of their first, the manic joyfulness of those early days curdled. Exhausted and overworked, with boyfriends and mortgages and drug habits, the women retreated to their separate corners. Valentine just assumed that they would figure things out. “I thought things would never end. When you go from playing clubs to headlining the Hollywood Bowl in less than sixteen months, it’s hard to imagine ever going backward.”

In the end, the usual sources of friction felled the Go-Go’s: Songwriting duties were not shared equally, which meant some members of the band were much wealthier than others; rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who would be the first to leave, wanted to sing lead sometimes; Carlisle wanted to release solo albums and not be made to feel guilty about it. The record industry machinery erected around the band was there to keep them productive, not to keep them happy, and happiness wasn’t something they knew how to find for themselves.

Drugs and alcohol were also a factor. They “were your standard, boilerplate ’80s-era party gals,” writes Valentine, in what seems like an understatement: At least three of the Go-Go’s wound up in recovery. At one point, one of the members partied so heavily, even friend-of-the-band John Belushi was worried about her.

After the breakup, Valentine reeled. She struggled to establish a solo career, was the victim of a home invasion robbery, and burrowed deeper into alcoholism. Carlisle’s thriving solo career became an ongoing source of injury. Her first hit, “Mad About You,” had initially been a Go-Go’s song.

The end of the Go-Go’s wasn’t really the end. There was a giddy reunion in 1990, then a series of increasingly less giddy ones. Valentine was fired from the band in 2012 (she later sued), capping what she describes as the group’s “worst and ugliest era,” though she provides no details. The book devotes only a too-short, two-page epilogue to their last few decades.

Even a lawsuit couldn’t keep the women apart: The Go-Go’s are currently together and on an upswing, the focus of a recent Broadway musical and an upcoming Showtime documentary. They had booked a summer tour before the novel coronavirus scuttled their plans. “Dysfunction is in our DNA,” Valentine writes, “but it’s a tendinous and strong imperfection that seems to also keep us connected.” 

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