As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Summer 2020 Issue
By Carla DeSantis Black
On March 6, 2020, I interviewed Kathy Valentine at her home in Austin, TX, to discuss her new memoir, All I Ever Wanted. The book release was scheduled for the end of the month. Kathy had also composed a soundtrack to accompany various chapters and played several songs for me. They were amazing and the book, one of the finest memoirs I have read. It is not easy to capture the flavor and feeling of being a girl in a rock band. Kathy, however, succeeded.
As I got up to leave, Kathy checked her phone and announced that SXSW, scheduled to begin the following week, had been officially canceled by the city of Austin. Although this possibility had been rumored for days, we were both surprised to learn this was actually happening.
How could the city shut this huge event down, I wondered. Didn’t they realize how devastating such a move would be to the local economy?
In retrospect, this was the first ripple in a COVID-19 shock wave that changed the world, locally and far beyond.
Within a few days, all social activities in Austin and all across Texas had been banned, including Kathy’s national book tour. While she has since taken many of these events online, it must still be a bitter pill to swallow, after so much anticipation and work.
The genesis for the memoir was a novel approach: It began online, 140 characters at a time on Twitter. “It started as a joke because Belinda was releasing a memoir, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna do one too!’,” she recalls. “It showed me that I had a voice that resonated with readers.”
But after nine months of tweeting, the band asked her to take it down, which she did. “Maybe I pulled the curtain back in places where I wasn’t supposed to,” she admits because she was later fired from the group. It took some time for her to reclaim her place in the band, but she says now she is back and everyone seems to be in a good place.
Kathy grew up in the “me decade” of the ‘70s, the aftermath of the ‘60s sexual revolution. It was a time when everyone was encouraged to “do their own thing,” and that ethos went double for Kathy, whose mom, embraced the trend wholeheartedly.
Without an ounce of sentimentality or self-deprecation, Kathy tackles both the traumatic and joyful moments of her life equally, with a journalist’s balanced eye.
“There’s always a crack in the wall of bad where the good can start to seep in,” she writes. “You just have to notice it and let it happen.”
You did a great job in the book of not blaming anyone or being overly emotional about your life.
I was very careful to not tell anyone else’s story. I wrote about being a bully once when I was in fifth grade. The point is not to be a gaping wound to everybody, but to write the key things that move the story forward.
Was there anything you wish had made it into the book that didn’t?
No, but I need to go back through some old drafts. It really did evolve. I sent the editor the first ten pages, and she wrote back, ‘“Nobody wants to read four pages about your grandmother dying.” But it was this terrible, horrible thing for me at the end of my drinking. It’s one of these things I carry around. Then I realized, just because it’s meaningful and I remember it and wrote about it beautifully, doesn’t mean it belongs in this book. I just wanted to do a good job. I wanted to write something that I was really proud of and knew I did the best I could do.
When did you realize you had an unconventional childhood?
That’s a good question. Not until I was in the Go-Go’s. We shared a lot, and that’s when I started talking about stuff. Young people don’t realize how different the ‘70s were. It was on the heels of the ‘60s sexual revolution. Sex was very freewheeling, and there were no terrible diseases. If you got gonorrhea, you just took something, and it was over. It seemed a little simpler.
So when you think back on your mom, by today’s standards, she wasn’t doing a lot of mothering. But when you think of her as a child of the ‘60s, the dynamic is a bit different because she was more of a friend, and you had a lot of shared experiences.
She very much saw herself like that, and as a Bohemian free spirit. She was a psychology major. She saw me as a fully formed individual. My mom’s a unique person. She read the book and said she felt terrible. I told her it would have been a boring book if she’d been different. So many people have said it must have been traumatic, but it didn’t feel like that.
Has that informed some of your parenting decisions with your daughter, Audrey?
For sure. I try to make sure I’m the parent. I’m a very different mom than how I was parented. As soon as I got divorced, I thought no, no. I don’t want it to be just Audrey and me, the way it was just me and my mom. My number one priority was to make sure Audrey felt she still had a family and that her dad was very present in her life. Her dad and I love each other very much, and we’re very close. So that in and of itself was so different.
I noticed you also gave him a very sweet shout-out in the book. Is anyone from your dad’s family still in your life?
I got to the age where family had more meaning to me. They were colorful characters. I have a lot of fondness for my dad’s side of the family.
So much of what you went through were things that happened when you were in your twenties. It is a lot to carry around.
Sometimes I will post an old photo on social media, and some asshole will say, ‘oh, you must have been f**ked up.’ And I say, ‘You know, I was a rock star at age twenty-three in 1982. Show me one person who wasn’t high.’ In my conventional school years, I was very aware that we were different. And then at Greenbrier (alternative school), I found my people. In the Go-Go’s, as we opened up and learned about each other and shared, I realized I was in a band with people that had pretty traditional homes and lives. I was tortured and tormented at school. But when my mom and I would go to England, I got to see that the world was big. It saved me. And when a family member was going through a hard time, I flew her to LA to help take care of her, the way I was taken care of when I was fourteen years old. A lot of my life in this book was driven by desperation and fear and wanting to keep what I had.
Well, it’s dark in a lot of places.
It was also just survival. Once I got in that band, I realized that nobody was going to take care of me, I could take care of myself now. I could make money. I had people around me, I was part of something, I was making a difference, and I mattered. So it was everything I hadn’t had, and I was fearful of losing it. I was wrapped up pretty tightly and realized this was how I was going to survive.
You were also thought of as the “real” musician when you joined because you had experience in bands before, like Girlschool.
I always thought I was so experienced, but I realized in writing the book that I’d only been playing for five years.
What was the most challenging part for you to write?
The parts where I have to be honest about my misdeeds. I wanted to do a good job. At that time, I had been a college student for years. I knew how to write, not only from English and creative writing classes, but also from doing research. A lot of times, I would look over what I had written the day before, and it was really good, but it wasn’t memoir writing. I put on the music and sat there and would meditate and go back in time. I really tried to remember how it felt because that’s what memoir is. It’s not a journal or essay. How does it feel now to think about what happened to me then?
You said you had journals to rely on, that you had always kept journals.
A lot was scribbling something down in my Filofax. A lot of it wasn’t feelings. Once I honed that skill, I got fairly adept at putting myself in that place. I had a lot of grief over my behavior and realizing that nobody was looking out for me, that I wasn’t protected, and it didn’t feel safe to feel.
Has everything healed between you and the band?
I think so, and I think the documentary has done a lot towards that. So much of it is about the early days. The narrative is about them coming from the punk scene—before I joined the band. And looking back, I wish I was part of that because the punk scene was affecting me too. I’m glad my book shows that while it was making a difference in their lives and inspired them to start a band, it was making me realize that I didn’t have to play like Jimmy Page.
What do you think the Go-Go’s legacy is?
Not only were we the first female band to be successful on that scale, having a number one record, but we were one of the first successful indie bands. That’s a really major thing, and nobody really talks about it.
And, of course, there hasn’t been an all-female band that plays and sings and writes all their own songs that has been as commercially successful as the Go-Go’s since 1982. There’s that!
There are a lot more women session players and bands that have women in the band. That’s an improvement. But why aren’t more females starting bands? If you took fifty guy bands, there might be one Radiohead. So if there are fewer bands, there are going to be fewer that are writing hits. I often think the ‘60s and ‘70s were such a key time for bands that left an imprint on pop culture, but we didn’t really know about the women in that time that were playing.
When you are part of a successful group, it can be challenging to see yourself as an individual as well.
Now I do. Now that I am sober, I know I could never, ever let myself get completely absorbed into an entity again. This is a whole other level. It’s one thing to write the book, but then you realize it’s going to be out there to complete strangers. They’re going to know about these parts of my life. That’s a whole other trip. In interviews, I’m used to going in and saying something, and then Jane will say something, and then Gina will say something else. I’ve never had to carry everything myself.
You’ve had your own bands too, though.
But I’m always in the background. So this has been an interesting process, and it’s a message, and I’m proud to be putting it out to the world at sixty-one. When most people might want to be stepping back a little, I’m putting myself out there. It’s exciting, but also frightening.
To hear Kathy Valentine’s soundtrack to the book: https://kathyvalentine.bandcamp.com/