By Chelsea Spear
In this satisfying memoir, Go-Go’s bassist and quintessential rock chick Kathy Valentine shares her experiences as a member of the most successful all-girl rock band of all time.
All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir by Kathy Valentine. University of Texas Press, 304 pages, $26.95.
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In the early ’80s, the Go-Go’s became the first all-female band to hit #1 on the Billboard charts with the first album in which an all-female band wrote and played on all the songs. The band’s discography — particularly the debut Beauty and the Beat — bristles with punk energy, chimes with perfect power-pop riffs, and all but dares listeners not to sing along with their catchy melodies. Unfortunately, the band was frequently infantilized by the media, who depicted them as fun-loving Valley girls, not as the killer songwriters and accomplished musicians they are. With All I Ever Wanted, Go-Go’s bassist and quintessential rock chick Kathy Valentine shares her experiences as a member of the most successful all-girl rock band of all time.
Valentine foregrounds her rebellious spirit and devotion to music, rooting them in her tumultuous upbringing. Her childhood and adolescence were rife with sexual assault, drug use, and a challenging relationship with her parents. The early chapters set out formative experiences that land like one gut punch after the next. While her painful descriptions of abuse, neglect, and dysfunctional family relations may inspire protective feelings, Valentine’s gimlet-eyed prose doesn’t wallow in self-pity.
The memoir really gets going once Valentine receives her first electric guitar and arrives at the Go-Go’s early successes. After the previous chapters, her account of finding a new “family” and then coming into her own as a songwriter and bassist feels like a balm. Her focus on how the band members approached songwriting and hammered out arrangements conveys the hard work that goes into making music that provides pleasure so effortlessly. Valentine’s rise makes the back half of the book, which goes into the poor business decisions and substance abuse that led to the band’s breakup, that much more distressing. The chapters on the Go-Go’s weave together quirky playful anecdotes about recording and touring — like roller skating around empty arenas before shows began and pulling practical jokes on a producer — with some of the more notorious moments in the group’s history. In the section on the infamous Go-Go’s “sex tape” — in which Valentine and singer Belinda Carlisle sexually harassed a roadie on camera — the author looks back with palpable regret at the harm she inflicted.
Throughout All I Ever Wanted, Valentine writes in a straightforward style about her struggles and triumphs. Her matter-of-fact, it-happened-to-me tone keeps her account of her eventual sobriety from wallowing in the sanctimony that can mar such accounts. On the page, she is compulsively readable, displaying the self-assured competence and grace of her playing, which makes the successes that close out the narrative especially satisfying.
The audiobook features a series of rock songs Valentine wrote and recorded that remix some of the more noteworthy passages from All I Ever Wanted into little nuggets of rhythm and melody. The songs draw readers’ attention to parts of Valentine’s story that she believes were especially important in her development as an artist and a person. But a few of the songs could stand on their own — experimental pop-single postcards from an elder stateswoman of punk and pop.
Chelsea Spear has written for the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog, the Gay & Lesbian Review, and Crooked Marquee. She lives in Boston.
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