Every day is (Kathy) Valentine's Day
In the spare elegance of her West Lake Hills home, Kathy Valentine curls up in a comfy armchair. Austin's recent ice storm has left a raw chill in the air, so she's snuggled under a black corduroy coat lined in shocking pink. Outside, the steel gray sky matches the introspective look on her face.
At 48, she's earned the few smile lines etched around her mouth and hazel eyes. They enhance the maturity in her face yet don't mask the tears welling up. Despite her place in the most popular all-girl band ever, the Go-Go's their decades, platinum albums, and international adulation the unhealed wound of a tender adolescence in public school still throbs painfully.
"I only lasted about half a semester at Reagan High School," explains Valentine. "That was the unraveling of a terrible couple of years that I have a strong distaste for. I didn't have my music then. The only solace I found was being a complete wild child. I was just ... different.
"In school, the only people that would have anything to do with an oddball desperate to fit in were those who got high and drank. It was miserable. Seventh grade, eighth grade: Finally it was enough. My mom got me into Greenbriar, a free school in Bastrop. At Greenbriar, they embraced people that were different. In fact, I was different from them because I wasn't a full-on hippie. I'm still grateful she had the courage to take me out of public school.
"Looking back, it's fine."
A catch in her voice stops her, her gaze fixed on a vague point on the wall. A manicured index finger wipes the unshed tears away.
"But when you're 15 years old, it's everything."
Head Over Heels
By 17, Kathy Valentine had already done time in Austin's Violators, quite literally the first local punk band to play in the Drag's seminal DIY hole in the wall Raul's. That was January 1978.
"Everything in Austin was conducive to me being a musician," she nods. "I wouldn't have had my career and life if I hadn't been here. My friends and I would make the rounds, sneak into the clubs, go to the Broken Spoke, then move on to the Lamplite and Mother Earth. We wanted to catch the right set by the right band at the right time.
"I'd go to the Rome Inn and hear Jimmie Vaughan and think, 'I want to be like that.' I thought there'd never been anything cooler on two legs on this planet than Jimmie Vaughan. I loved Doug Sahm. He was the first person who ever let me onstage, let me sit in at the Rome Inn on 'Carol.' I was terrified. Terrified!"
Making the rounds led to familiarity among scenesters. Valentine remembers the first time she saw Jesse Sublett and Eddie Munoz at Austin's premier rock & roll club of the day, Mother Earth. "They looked like they were in the Faces. They looked like full-on rock stars, playing in Jellyroll. Their haircuts were perfect, their clothes were perfect, they were rock-star handsome."
Valentine and her schoolmate Marilyn Dean introduced themselves to Sublett and Munoz and were thrilled when the two treated them as equals. Valentine was even more excited to discover that Munoz's girlfriend, Carla Olson, owned a '59 Les Paul and a Marshall stack. "I pestered him to introduce us," she remembers. "I think he wanted to keep me as the 16-year-old he could try to get it on with, but I wanted to meet Carla. When I met her, I was like, 'Yes! Let's do a band.'"
The Violators were born about the same time that Sublett and Munoz traded in Jellyroll's glam for the Skunks' punk. All-girl, the Violators gleamed in Runaways black leather, pretty girls all: dark-eyed and baby-faced Marilyn, tough Kathy in her spiky haircut, Carla with her impossibly long blond hair. The only problem was a lack of other female musicians, so Sublett was drafted on bass.
The Violators braved a number of gigs, even after Sublett dropped out to devote his attention to the Skunks. Valentine thought L.A. was more happening, so while the punk and burgeoning New Wave scene was exploding in Austin, she headed there with Marilyn Dean. Once situated in Southern California, Dean went her own way while Valentine bided her time until Carla Olson migrated west. The two formed the Textones and recorded a single.
"It became evident early that we were in two different bands," explains Valentine. "I would write my songs and sing them, and she would write her songs and sing them, but it didn't seem to work together.
"I quit my job and got unemployment and quit the band. I met a friend who had a beautiful house in the hills, who'd lived the good life, took limos around, knew famous people. She was crazy and wild and gorgeous. I got to hang out and do it, too. My friend, who roadied for the Go-Go's, told me about the opening. That's when I got asked to join the Go-Go's. I'd never played a bass before, but I learned it in a four-day crash course.
"They had good material, and I liked their songs. All of a sudden, I was onstage at the Whisky. Their bass player wasn't getting her job back if I had anything to do with it. I was determined to be better to look better, play better, be more fun, be more happening. To be the one they wanted. And I fit really well. That was why I'd come to L.A.
"I was 21."
We Got the Beat
The Go-Go's place in rock & roll history is singular: They were the most commercially successful girl band ever. Not even the Bangles could touch the Go-Go's golden California-girl charm and bright, punky power-pop. With 1981's Beauty and the Beat, the Go-Go's brought girl bands into the modern era. They had authentic punk roots and matched Debbie Harry for girl-group influence, but they undertook more thoughtful subjects amid sweet feminine harmonies.
Besides, who wanted emo Go-Go's anyway? They were at their best as five attractive young women performing their own bouncy music. They were New Wave, a spunky contrast to the growing Southern California hardcore scene of the early Eighties. The Go-Go's image pirouetted away from gum-cracking leather girls toward well-bred sincerity. Their telegenic good looks, able musicianship, and remarkably well-written songs made their videos fixtures on MTV.
"Those Go-Go's songs were indefinable," muses Valentine, "but they were smart. The lyrics in songs like 'This Town' and 'Lust to Love' were classic. They certainly weren't average, clichéd takes on the subjects. But I liked the fun stuff, too: 'We Got the Beat' and 'Skidmarks on My Heart.'
"I was fortunate in the Go-Go's that I was enough of a writer, so when they asked me to be a permanent member, I said, 'Only if I can write.' They had great songs, but I didn't want to be in a band where I didn't contribute. Charlotte [Caffey] and Jane [Wiedlin] were the main writers before I joined; then I became the third main writer. They are really talented, so getting to work with them all these years has been good."
Valentine wrote and co-wrote many of the Go-Go's biggest hits. Her intuitive understanding of their musical dynamic rendered "Head Over Heels," "Vacation," and "Can't Stop the World" among their biggest hits.
"That's one element that typifies a Go-Go's song: fun. It's melodic, should have a good beat [drummer] Gina [Schock] is one of our strengths. When I write a song for the Go-Go's, I think, 'What are our weaknesses, what are our strengths, what do we do good?' I've written songs when the Go-Go's were broken up that I've put aside; 'That's a Go-Go's song.' Eventually, something happens so that it will come out and get used."
1982's Vacation followed Beauty and the Beat, while Talk Show came out in 1984. They broke up in 1985. Success was its own demon, but drugs and alcohol as well as health issues infected the band. Like teenage sweethearts who never got over one other, they reunited briefly in 1990, put out a greatest-hits package, split, recorded God Bless the Go-Go's in 2001, and found lucrative new life in touring, which included a sold-out date at Stubb's last spring.
"There's still a lot of fighting and lot of factions, a lot of, 'These two can't stand these three, and this one's mad at that one.' It's never stopped. It's been going on for three decades now. But we have a great time despite our personal problems with one another, which we still have a lot of.
"People like that about us: It's real. We're not doing choreographed dance steps with a big show. We hardly have any lights or backdrops. We don't have a 'show.' We're the cheapest bunch of broads to hit the road and go out there to have a good time."
"It's honest and has been serving us for a long time. Last year we toured more than we'd toured in 20 years."
Can't Stop the World
So how is it that the Go-Go's have gotten such short shrift in books detailing not only rock & roll but women in rock? Even Gillian Gaar's She's a Rebel gives more references to Goldie & the Gingerbreads than the Go-Go's. Did perky melodies and the band's shiny, happy girlfriends image undermine their more substantial efforts? They were and remain the template for thousands of girl bands since. Why would this groundbreaking band get no credit for its uniquely feminine drive?
"Not until the late Nineties did I realize what the Go-Go's had become," shrugs Valentine. "There was a time when we were overlooked a lot in the Nineties; 'Women in Rock' and riot grrrls were everywhere. We were so overlooked. I'd always look for us in articles and books. Nothing.
"To me, it's pathetic that there's nobody like us. If Belinda [Carlisle] didn't live in France and wanted to work more, we could be cleaning up. In the corporate world, where they throw money at bands, it's crazy. There's no one like us. We're so in demand! It's weird that so few women have enjoyed this career and success that I've had.
"Even now, I see young girls at shows just in awe. They're not looking at us just thinking, 'There's a bunch of fortysomethings being silly.' They see Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, but they don't see groups of girls or women playing their instruments and having the time of their lives. Because that's what we do. And we have a great time."
Valentine's acute empathy for girls trying to find their way led to her latest project with Charlotte Caffey. The two are co-producers/co-creators of a reality show for the CW network and brought in Susanna Hoffs and Vicki Peterson of the Bangles. The four are creating an all-girl band through the series' audition and competition process.
"That's what I want our show to do: I want to guide girls into a band," asserts Valentine. "And the tunes ... the magic of the Go-Go's was really about the songs. Our songs transcend decades now and are catchy, good stuff. I think it's about finding girls who can write as well as those who can play and sing. There's that window from age 15 to about 30 that you have to get the girls. With my studio here and all the talent that's in Austin, I'm hoping to find and nurture some females. And with the TV show, that should happen.
"I'm really proud of the Go-Go's now, and there have been times when I wasn't. There have been times when I didn't see my experience in the best light. There have been times where in a weird way it limited me. Then I watched Wendy Melvoin [of Wendy & Lisa] play one night, going back and forth between guitar and bass, and thought, 'There's nothing wrong with being the bass player for the Go-Go's.'
"I wouldn't love it if I had to do it the way we used to. I'm going to L.A. on Sunday. I'll be gone for seven days and make a pile of money and play three shows. I've got to be the luckiest, most blessed person on the planet. I pick the one thing I want to do in my life and get to be the one in a million who supports themselves doing it. I wrote a little ditty about a guy when I was on the plane from Austin back to L.A., and it's been earning me income for 20 years.
"What's not to love?"
Nothing in Kathy Valentine's life prepared her for the day she walked into a music store in 2001.
"I walked into a Guitar Center, one of those places you want to get in and out of as quickly as possible," she recalls. "A nice-looking guy smiled at me. The Go-Go's had been pretty high profile, just done our first album in 17 years, a lot of TV appearances. I was being reserved, smiling back, that's all. He approached me and asked if I was single and said I had beautiful eyes and could he take me to dinner. I was unsure and asked for a business card, saying I would contact him. So I got his card, and he said, 'You should contact me. I'm a nice guy.' That was the clincher."
The following week, while on the road, she came across his card and researched him on the Internet, then sent him an e-mail. The correspondence continued for six weeks. Four months after their first date, Kathy Valentine and her nice guy were engaged. Two months after that they were pregnant.
"I say it's my first marriage, but I've always maintained that being in a band is a marriage," laughs Valentine. "It's about as married as you can get, to four people. I've been in bands nonstop since I was 15 years old, and it's given me such an education in relationships. I'm so grateful. Being in a band made me a better wife. You can't walk away, which is how you should approach a marriage."
Marriage and baby Audrey came in short order, as did Valentine's first solo album, Light Years. Her interim bands, such as the Delphines and the Blue Bonnets, added to her résumé, yet here she came, her solo debut full of beautifully crafted tunes that didn't make the listener think of the Go-Go's. Still, her discontent with life in L.A. and her pleasure at marriage and motherhood made her long for her Austin roots.
"After being a Go-Go, I floundered. I was lost for a long time. My identity was wrapped up in that band. It took a number of years and a number of bands for me to go back. Go back and pick up the Strat, remember Austin, Jimmie Vaughan. Go back.
"I can still taste the nachos from the Armadillo. I remember the way the chair felt in the beer garden. The smell inside, backstage, I remember it so distinctly. It had a profound impact on me. I loved acts like Freddie King. I was enthralled to stand in front of him watching sweat pour off his face. I saw Ray Charles, B.B. King. ... I got such an education between Soap Creek, the Armadillo, and Antone's. The first show I went to in a nightclub was John Lee Hooker. Who else got to do all that as a teenager?"
Valentine and her husband spent time house-hunting in Austin last year and found what she sincerely calls "my dream house" west of town. Her always-solid relationship with her mother, Margaret, bloomed further with Audrey's birth. Now, Valentine takes pride in taking her daughter to Zilker Park to ride the train, just as her mother did with her. Bittersweet memories now crop up in unexpected places as she rediscovers life in her hometown.
"As an adult it took me a long time to peel that away, what had been subconsciously cultivated as a survival technique. I realized, 'I'm not a tough cookie. I'm a softy.' One day, I dropped my mom at the dentist and had a couple of hours to kill. The car just involuntarily went over to the old places we lived in Northeast Austin. Oh my God. I saw the house where I got drunk for the first time, passed out in the yard, then got delivered home by the police. It made me feel so sad.
"I saw my junior high and the church across the street with the little covered door where I used to smoke cigarettes, do acid before school, and see how long we could go before we'd skip. It's an odd thing to be old enough to look back on these parts of your life that made you who you are but are another life."
Beneath the Blue Sky
"She was really into princesses," Valentine smiles ruefully at the cartoon prettiness of a trio of Disney princesses on Audrey's place mats. "I was worried for a while. We were watching The Wizard of Oz one day, and she said, 'When is Dorothy going to get married?' She's past that now."
Mama looks relieved and walks back into the living room, Audrey tagging not far behind.
"Audrey, what do you want to be when you grow up?" asks the interviewer.
Audrey grins a little shyly, leaning against the white wood of the doorway. She toys with a lock of strawberry blond hair. "Guess."
"Noooo," she heaves with all of the exasperation a 4-year-old can muster at a thick-headed adult's question.
"I know, veterinarian!"
"No. There's only one more thing to be."
Standing at the top of the two wooden steps leading out of the great room, framed by the doorway and hall as if she's on her own stage, Audrey's impish expression changes from coy to confident, without dropping a beat.
"I'm going to be a rock star."