The Go-Go’s’ Kathy Valentine on Stardom, Sexism and How to Handle a Pandemic (Video)

Valentine’s memoir, which covers everything from her rape at age 14 to her days atop the pop charts, was published just as isolation began

The subject line on the email from Kathy Valentine was succinct and eye-catching: “how to launch a book in the middle of a f—ing pandemic.” And that was exactly what Valentine was trying to do, at a time when the things she’d normally be doing — bookstore appearances, live performances, speaking engagements — had all been halted.

Valentine, best known as the bass player in the Go-Go’s, the first and only all-female band to have a No. 1 record of their own songs, has been making adjustments just like everyone else in these days of social distancing and self-quarantining. Her book release party took place on Instagram, a Q&A with fellow musician John Doe in her hometown of Austin, Texas, was moved online as well and next Monday she’ll do a Q&A with Lizz Winstead on Zoom.

It has made for a strange couple of weeks, and threatened to derail not only a Go-Go’s reunion tour scheduled for this summer, but the launch of her accomplished debut as a writer.

Her book, “All I Ever Wanted,” was published on March 31 by the University of Texas Press, with an audiobook version released this week along with an accompanying soundtrack album of songs written by Valentine to accompany specific chapters. Her beautifully written memoir does far more than chronicle the rise of the Go-Go’s to stardom in the 1980s and then their rapid dissolution amid squabbles and substance abuse. Valentine captures both the giddy joy and the crushing disappointments of those times, but her book spends as much time on her unconventional upbringing at the hands of a troubled single mother who’d rather be a buddy than a caretaker, and on her own battles with substance abuse before she embraced sobriety at the end of the ’80s.

Kathy and I have had many conversations since we first met in the summer of 1981, but we’d never before been forced to chat on Zoom. But that turned out to be the ideal medium for a conversation that covered the challenges that musicians and authors face in the age of the coronavirus; the process of exploring her life, from an unmoored upbringing to the fleeting glories of rock stardom; her experience as a young woman who survived a rape at the age of 14 and then found that even as a star, the industry wanted her and her bandmates to live up to an array of facile stereotypes; and the reckoning that is finally taking place around industry sexism.

See an edited video of the conversation above. The full video will be posted on the WrapPRO site.

How are you holding up?
I’m holding up pretty good. I feel like you get used to what’s going on and then it changes again. So I don’t want to get too used to things ’cause I know that it could get a hell of a lot worse and I just don’t know what to expect.

Musicians have lost the ability to play to an audience, which is how many of you make your money these days. You’d think putting out a book would be easier because people still stay home and can read books — but it really does put a crimp in how you get that book out there and how you promote it, doesn’t it?
Well, the thing is, I had a 23-city book tour, along with some paying gigs that were helping to finance it. And that first eight weeks after a book release is the peak. Sure, there’s going to be book festivals through the year, but that’s when the press comes out. And the bookstores that were struggling even before the coronavirus, indie bookstores, we’re all trying to support them. It was a way for them to really have events where authors come in.

The guaranteed sales that were going to happen are definitely going to be slashed. It has a huge effect for writers and everybody — but as a first-time author, I’m like, “Really?” It’s hard to wallow though. I mean, people have lost their livelihoods, they’ve lost their businesses, they’ve lost their lives, they’ve lost their loved ones and their health. When you look at the spectrum of everything that could be affected, it’s like, “OK, I get to sit home and try not to drive people crazy talking about my book every single day.”

You’ve done a great job of scrambling — you had a virtual book release party this week on Instagram, and your Q&A with John Doe was moved from a bookstore in Austin to Zoom. I guess you have to figure out how to do that stuff.
It’s not the same, but it does give you a chance to just engage. And as a musician, I’m very used to engaging — with social media, with concerts, engaging with the audience. So as a first-time writer, I like doing it. So for me it’s a way to at least keep that part of it alive.

I also feel like in this time where we’re all isolated, art and music and literature is sort of essential to our well-being.
Yeah. I think because we are pretty isolated, we’re having to get creative in how to connect. I love seeing all the people that are getting on their Instagram or sitting on their couch and playing these impromptu little shows. I think it’s really cool. I haven’t done that yet. That’s probably in the works — when people get sick of my book, I’ll start shilling for my soundtrack live.

In addition to the book stuff, you were supposed to be on a Go-Go’s tour this summer. I assume that that’s up in the air at this point.
Yeah, it hasn’t been officially canceled, but I think that concerts might not be one of the first things that come back. So that sucks. The good thing is that hopefully we can reschedule that for a time in the future. I can’t reschedule a book release.

But the bad thing was the income. I was counting on that — I was, in fact, more than counting on it, I was spending it. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll buy those boots for the premiere at Sundance cause I’m going on tour.” They’ll be on eBay.

The Go-Go's
Kathy Valentine, far left, with Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Charlotte Caffey and Belinda Carlisle / Showtime

I’ve known you for many, many years as a musician, but I didn’t know you were this good a writer. Did you?
Well, I had gotten wise to it because I’ve been taking college classes since the ’90s. I’ve done research papers, essays, I’ve taken creative writing classes where I turned in short stories and always got good feedback. So I knew I could write, and I really wanted to write a book.

My first thought was to do a collection of short stories, and then I thought, “You’re up against every literary genius in the world that’s doing the same thing. Why not write my story first?” Because that’s something I’m not up against everybody, except maybe every other girl rocker chick, or woman rocker chick, that’s writing a memoir.

I just thought, “This is the thing that I can do.” And I am super proud. Having said that, there were many times where I wanted to give up and give the advance back. I was at a party and it was telling that to a writer and they said, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, you don’t ever give the advance back.”

Several years ago, you wrote an autobiography of sorts on Twitter, 140 character as a time. Were you already thinking ahead to this at that point?
No, that was totally as a lark. And that gave me some confidence. It showed me that my voice kind of resonated with readers. But I took it down because the band didn’t like it. It was very on the fly, and I didn’t realize that maybe I had pulled the curtain back more often than I should in a way that upset my bandmates. So I took it down right away as soon as I found out.

But ultimately, you know, that wound didn’t go away, and that was part of the reason that they said they didn’t want to work with me a few years later. It led to a horrible episode in my life, and in another way it kind of opened the door. ‘Cause once I was kicked out, I’m like, “OK, I’m doing the time, I might as well commit the crime and really write a book.”

But that experience helped guide me as far as making sure that I only told my story and that I didn’t do anything that would be harmful to someone else. If it happened to me and somebody else was there, I felt like I could write about it. But it wasn’t my job to say what they were doing, you know? Even talking about “Saturday Night Live,” where we were so bombed, I said I was bombed.

And by the time I was in the middle of the book, I was back in the band and things were healing. So the book I wanted to write was never about spilling the dirt. It was just my journey. Even my mom, who was the most vulnerable in terms of having her less-than-stellar actions revealed, was so supportive. It really gave me a new lens to look at our relationship. And my mom said, it’s more important that you write this story than that she looked like a great mom.

When you’re delving into that difficult relationship, does that make it easier to process it and forgive her?
Absolutely. It really was a processing thing. And as a mother at the same time, I’m writing about being 14 and I’m a mom to a 14-year-old. So it was a pretty interesting position to see my past. And it helped me see what my mom did.

I did feel loved, you know? I know people that had all the boundaries, all the guidance, all the conventional structure around them, and they didn’t feel loved. I was like a, a free-range kid, but somehow I felt loved. I didn’t feel protected, I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t feel guided. I did not feel parented, but I felt loved. Things like that are aren’t always black and white.

You also wrote a soundtrack album that uses music to interpret many of the chapters in your book, including the one where you describe what was clearly a rape, although you didn’t think of it as that at the time. You’ve said that after you wrote that song, you cried for days. Was writing the song more difficult than writing the chapter?
It was different levels. Writing the chapter really made me realize that I was raped. Before that, for all those years, I thought of it in terms of being a stupid teenager who got myself in a bad situation and who had given permission. I had said, “Oh, just do it,” ’cause I wanted it to stop, I wanted it to be over. I didn’t connect it as rape. When I wrote (the chapter), I was like, “I’m a 14-year-old with a college guy, and I’m saying, ‘No, please don’t.’ I was raped.”

But when I wrote the song, there was something about the melody and the lyric as I wrote the chorus that just opened it up, that was ripping it out. Writing it took the box from way down in the sorrow place and put it on the shelf. And then writing the song opened the box, and it was Pandora’s box. The grief and the mourning, and why wasn’t I protected? And that’s sad. The sadness of just wanting that power — you know you’re not going to be able to stop him, so the only empowering thing I could do was say “Just do it.” Like, give him permission. There was something about that that was just so sad, that a 14-year-old girl would try to find a little piece of power in a situation where she had none.

In a lot of ways, beyond your personal story, the book is really about how women are treated in society and in the music business, whether they’re struggling to find a way in or whether they’re at the top of the charts and being stereotyped and compartmentalized. I think you used the term lady boxes.
The sad thing is I used the phrase lady box, but I didn’t realize that had any sexual connotation. It wasn’t even meant to be a clever double entendre. I just felt like there were certain boxes that you got put in, archetypes: the whore, the virgin, the girl next door, the butch… Maybe not so much now, but in 1982, as we got successful.

And on our part, we weren’t consciously supporting that or fighting it. We were just kind of showing up. And if we showed up and a photographer and a stylist said, “We’ve got these cute outfits and we’ve got these balloons,” sometimes we were just like, “Yeah, yeah, OK.” And other times we were like, “No, no.”

It was very interesting to me how men musicians had been so supportive to me. As I wrote it, that was one of the things I started realizing over and over. From the minute I started, the guys I looked up to validated me and gave me encouragement and support and opportunities. All along the way, even up until when the Go-Go’s are opening for the Police and they celebrate our album going past theirs on the charts. I think that’s a really cool thing.

The Go-Go's
Valentine, with cigarette, during the filming of the Go- Go’s’ “Vacation” video / Showtime

Do you feel like your daughter is growing up in a world that will give her more agency and more power than you had?
Oh, absolutely. I wrote in the book about meeting (Los Angeles rock ‘n’ roll Svengali) Kim Fowley for the first time and the way he talked about the (female) artists that he had. And I was so shocked because I had only been around men that were supportive. This was like 1978, ’79. Men weren’t called out as much for sexism. It was nothing like what we have now, with people being called out all the time,

I do believe that with this generation, there’s going to be a reckoning. It’s just, reckonings take a long time.

When you were writing the book, did you have a specific kind of reader in mind?
I didn’t. I just wanted it to be a well-written story. And I don’t even know if Go-Go’s fans are gonna like it. The ones that have read it have told me that they were surprised how much they enjoyed the parts before and after the Go-Go’s — they were drawn to it wanting some big reveal about the band that they’d followed and loved, and were surprised at the human parts that resonated with them.

I think memoir is a window into something that you don’t always have access to. I want people to know what it feels like to be a kid who is confused and lost. And I want them to know what it feels like when you plug a guitar into an amp the first time, and what it feels like to have your mind blown and go, “That’s what I’m gonna do!”

It’s for musicians, or for people that have questioned their talent and their abilities, or they’ve lost their job and they wonder, “Was I just lucky?” I went through stuff that anybody goes through.

Kathy Valentine All I Ever Wanted
University of Texas Press