All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir

All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir by Kathy Valentine, the bass player of the Go-Go’s, was published last year. It follows the first Go-Go’s memoir, Lips Unsealed by Belinda Carlisle, which came out eleven years ago, and it was inevitable that I would make comparisons between the two. One contrast that I found striking is how well the Valentine memoir was written. I had no suspicion that it could have been transcribed from interviews and it thus read like a written book. Within the memoir Valentine revealed she had an English degree and is a songwriter after all so she is perfectly capable of writing her own memoir. I did not see any additional author credit so it could very well be that the genuine Valentine herself penned it. She had kept her old journals and calendars so had instant cues to trigger memories. In regards to Lips Unsealed, however, I got the impression that Carlisle’s book was more of a series of transcribed interviews. The only other comparison I wish to make about the two memoirs is that during the Go-Go’s heyday in the early eighties, the five band members were certainly proverbial rock ‘n’ roll party girls who liked to drink and do drugs. Not all of them got deep into drugs, mind, as Jane Wiedlin and Gina Schock never became addicts as Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey and Valentine herself were. Yet both Valentine and Carlisle spent the latter parts of their memoirs documenting their quests towards sobriety.

Valentine wrote a rapid read, which as a fan I naturally lapped up, but seeing that the book was comprised of 44 chapters over 265 pages, it meant that the reader was never far from a new development in her life. In spite of their brevity, the chapters were loaded with reminiscences which were not tainted by the perspective of today–often a flaw in memoirs. By Valentine’s own admission, she retained all band records (“I keep everything!”) so when she wrote about getting high as a 22-year-old, it read like the words of a young woman, and not of the 62-year-old she is now.

We relive the moment when Valentine had her first guitar lesson at her alternative (dare I say “hippie”) school:

“I doubt that I knew my hands on that guitar would forever shape my life. But while I strummed those songs, the diaphanous thread that tugs us down any given path fastened to me like a strand of spider’s silk. It would stay intact and attached forever, with music on the other end pulling me forward.”

Valentine was the last of the Go-Go’s to join the band–in the ensemble that made them world-famous–and described the meeting with Caffey in the washroom of the Whisky a Go Go on Christmas night, 1980, when she asked Valentine to play bass for them for eight upcoming Go-Go’s shows. I learned more of the rough days of early Go-Go’s history from Valentine’s book, yet I acknowledge that Carlisle had more to say before Valentine had even joined the band.

At first, critics looked at the Go-Go’s as a novelty band of cute chicks, and ignored that they played their instruments, wrote all their material, and had hundreds of gigs behind them. Their punk roots gave them an edge that kept them from being branded pure pop, yet it was still hard for them to snag a record deal. As women in such a male-dominated industry, they experienced the sting of sexism, yet, as Valentine would say repeatedly throughout her memoir, never from their fellow male musicians. The men whom she gigged with or otherwise encountered in showbiz always showed her respect as a musician. It was always the industry types such as record executives, radio people and interviewers who acted like sexists. This was reflected in the questions they asked:

“Reporters never asked our opinions on anything of substance. There were no conversations about sexism or feminism. The most common question remained ‘What’s it like to be in an all-girl band?'”

Being part of the Go-Go’s enabled her to meet many of her rock heroes, including Keith Richards. I especially liked Valentine’s use of simile in her account of meeting him:

“I couldn’t take my eyes off Keith, watching how he moved and played. His signature rhythms were like algebra, the reduced essence of each song.”

I consider myself a Go-Go’s fan and own some of their albums and follow the band’s as well as each member’s career, yet I don’t follow the gossip. Valentine wrote about the behind-the-scenes panic that ensued after Wiedlin announced her departure from the band, and the Go-Go’s urgent need to find a replacement. She took us along on the recruitment project that eventually hired Paula Jean Brown as the newest Go-Go. Unfortunately Brown had only two Rock in Rio shows under her belt before the band broke up in 1985.

Valentine did not shy away from the scandals or the low points and wrote openly and maturely about what drove the band members apart and what led them back together again. On more than one occasion she dropped hints of resentment towards the Bangles, who followed the Go-Go’s superstardom while her own group of “big sisters” collapsed. Her alcoholism impeded her attempts to establish herself after the band broke up, and a phone call to sober Caffey saved her life with her introduction to AA.

The memoir ends formally with the band reuniting in 1990 but she summed up the thirty years that followed in a two-page epilogue. Truth be told, I thought the Go-Go’s would never perform again in their famous lineup of five when I heard that Valentine had been fired from the band in 2012. In All I Ever Wanted, Valentine poured her heart out confessing how much she felt most comfortable being part of a band. And in order to remain part of the Go-Go’s, both Valentine and her fellow band members resolved to work things out. Now sober and reunited with her beloved band, Kathy’s happiness bleeds between the lines.

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