Kathy Valentine was born with a rock ‘n’ roll heart, so it was no surprise to find herself playing bass in the Go-Go’s, whose first album Beauty and the Beat (1981) was one of the most successful debuts in pop music history. After the Go-Go’s broke up in 1985, she switched back to her original instrument, the guitar, moved back to her hometown of Austin and eventually formed another all-female band, the Bluebonnets, with whom she’s recorded three albums. She recently published All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir. PKM’s Amy Haben visited Kathy Valentine at her Austin home.
Kathy Valentine was the coolest Go-Go. In all the vintage photos of the band, she was the one with the shortish, rocker cut with spiked bits at the crown and a devilish, bad-girl look in her eyes. She had pale skin and high cheek bones, played the bass, and seemed just a little more dangerous than the tan, good-girl image that followed the band. She grew up in Austin, Texas, raised by her British mother, who was also blessed with natural beauty and an adventurous spirit. She taught herself guitar and was lucky enough to have seen many of the great guitar players of our time as they always stopped by the nationally known rock n’ roll city on tour.
While in Austin to see John Cale at the Levitation Festival, I stayed in her lovely home with its lush backyard and sweet pets. Her vibe was very warm and welcoming. She doesn’t wear much make-up or put on airs; she’s very real and happy. We talked about relationships like two old girlfriends. Being a jaded New Yorker in my late 30’s, it’s hard not to believe that romantic love is only in fairytales. Yet, Kathy has found herself in a deep relationship with her long-distance boyfriend (a New Yorker, I might add) of the past few years. She gave me hope that it’s never over in that area of life.
Kathy was gracious enough to buy me Tex-Mex and drive me to the famous Antone’s record store. The shop was originally opened by Clifford Antone, who is a godfather of the blues scene. She introduced me to the current co-owner, Eve Monsees, who also happens to be her bandmate in her badass rock n’ roll group, the Bluebonnets. Eve graciously showed me around the store while her partner in life and business, Mike Buck, manned the register. You might know him as the drummer in The Fabulous Thunderbirds, LeRoi Brothers, or Eve and the Exiles. I nabbed a few old classics and a couple country 45’s while there in the spirit of a true Texan.
Kathy has a written a revealing new book about her life from childhood to the present, All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir (University of Texas Press). It’s not a dirty tell-all of life in the Go-Go’s, but rather a cathartic analysis of her own life. The struggles and successes that made her the strong, sober, self-sufficient, musician and mother that she is today. She is extremely excited for her upcoming book tour, which includes an April visit to NYC. She played me a few moving tracks she composed while regressing back to scenes lost in time but not in memory and impact. They will accompany her words in ebook form as they correspond directly with certain chapters. A brilliant idea by a woman who usually expresses herself through music. Hard to believe more musicians hadn’t thought of it.
PKM: Tell me about where you grew up and how you got into playing guitar?
Kathy Valentine: I think because I grew up in Austin, it’s the reason I became a musician. I’m not sure I’d have become a musician if I’d grown up somewhere else. I don’t know why I think that, because I’m sure people my age have seen just as many bands as I have. There were no role models. When I finally learned how to play guitar and wanted to be in a band, I thought I was the only girl in the world that wanted to do that. To me. females in music either were groupies or they were singers or played folk guitar or sat at a piano. I’d never seen a woman rockstar. There was nothing in Austin to make me feel any differently. Pretty quickly when I started playing, I realized I had access to the best education that a musician would want. They were really lax. I was going into clubs when I was 16. The drinking age was 18, I think. I had a really wide variety of musical tastes. I liked blues. I saw B.B. King… I liked Freddie King…. all the kings. Albert King.
PKM: And Elvis, “The King.”
Kathy Valentine: I didn’t see Elvis play, although he did play in Austin. This is all before punk rock and everything. My mom’s from England and I always lived between Austin, Texas and the U.K. which is what really changed my music career. Even though I learned guitar as a 15-year-old, I was learning songs like, “Blowing In The Wind.” We went to England when I was 14 and there was a Top Of The Pops Christmas Special on TV and Susi Quatro was on it and that was the first time that I saw a female being a rockstar. That changed everything for me. I came back to Austin and was really single-mindedly fixated on… A: Having a band and B: Finding girls to do it with. I think I wanted sisters. I was never drawn to playing with guys. I wanted an all-girl band. I thought I was the only person who wanted that. It took awhile to finally start playing in a band, but in the meantime I was out seeing amazing music. We had this place called The Armadillo World Headquarters. You could literally see Ray Charles one night and The Ramones the next. You could see Bruce Springsteen one night and the Dictators the next. Their booking was really great. I had access to all of that. So I’m really grateful to have grown up in Austin. I always joke, “Who becomes a musician to be in Ambrosia, ya know? I wanted to be in a cool band.”
PKM: You mentioned to me a great moment when you were hanging with Keith Richards and you were trying to stump him with songs. Tell me more about that.
We went to England when I was 14 and there was a Top Of The Pops Christmas Special on TV and Susi Quatro was on it and that was the first time that I saw a female being a rockstar. That changed everything for me.
Kathy Valentine: That happened in the 90’s when Don was producing Voodoo Lounge and my dearly departed friend, Don Smith, was engineering. My band was doing some overdubs with an associate engineer at Don Was’s studio and Keith showed up. I reminded him I’d met him in ‘85 and had bragged about my 1962 Strat at the time. So I showed it to him and he played it and liked it. Then I asked him to show me some of his favorite blues licks. That happened for a bit. Then, as I was doing a lot of deep dives into the blues, it wasn’t so much as trying to stump him, as telling him my new discovery, which of course, he was already hip to. “Frankie Lee Sims!” I’d practically shout. And he’d come back with, “Lucy Mae Blues!”
PKM: What was the most unexpected thing that you remembered and dove into while writing the memoir?
Kathy Valentine: I made playlists of songs that coincided with every year, all of my favorites, all the hits, all the genres, from 1970 to 1990. Which is the span of the memoir. I would listen to these songs, and basically meditate and go back in time. I didn’t write until I felt something, and then I tried to write with that feeling in my whole being. It kept me honest. I cried a lot. The most unexpected thing was how, 40 years later, music resonates so deeply and has such an indelible place in our life. I mean we all know that, and we all say, “Oh, that song takes me back,” but it surprised me how reliable and dependable music was as a portal to my different experiences.
I always joke, “Who becomes a musician to be in Ambrosia, ya know? I wanted to be in a cool band.”
PKM: You dated fellow musician Clem Burke in the 1980’s. Were you two touted as a power couple of the music scene? Is it hard dating a fellow musician?
Kathy Valentine: We were a cool couple, I think. A Blondie and a Go-Go. Both of my relationships during my successful years were with musicians and it really helped to have boyfriends who understood that life. Clem had to be with me when I was a failure, too, and it could not have been easy. He was immensely supportive and deserved better than what he got with me. But we survived and are fam.
PKM: You created songs which accompany certain events of your life, including one which touches on a sexual assault. Did you feel these songs were cathartic for you? How will you release these?
Kathy Valentine: These songs will be part of the audio book and will also be released on digital platforms. Making the soundtrack was the most creative and fun musical experience I have ever had. Mikel Rouse, as a brilliant co-producer and sound wizard made sure everything that I recorded got super modern treatment. His universal knowledge of all kinds of music, and my daughter’s taste influenced me, and yet I got to use all my own strengths. I utilized my judgement and taste for hooks, melodies, classic rock n’ roll guitar, and bass lines. I knew nothing about synths or beats or keyboards, but I figured it out and recorded them anyway. And I had an entire book to draw lyrics from! Some of the lyrics still make me cry when I try to play them. I don’t know if I should do some at my book events because I’ll start blubbering.
PKM: You should! You were the last member to join the Go-Go’s. They were initially a punk band in the late ‘70’s and evolved into a pop group. You took on the bass when joining the Go-Go’s after being a guitar player and went on to co-write the hits including, “Head Over Heels,” “Vacation,” and “Has The Whole World Lost Its Head.” Do you feel like your reputation is consistent with this work? Or do you feel like the fans and journalists give others more credit?
Kathy Valentine: Well, I certainly pulled my own weight, but the Go-Go’s would be nothing without the songs, “We Got The Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed.” The writers of those hits were Charlotte [Caffey] and Jane [Wiedlin], Gina [Schock] on drums and, of course, Belinda [Carlisle]. Honestly, I feel like I’m known just the right amount for what I did in the band. I wouldn’t mind for a minute also getting some credit as being a really great all-around musician, songwriter and producer, but there’s no room in the Go-Go’s to be known for those things, and my career choices have been focused on being in rock n’ roll bands as a member. So I haven’t positioned myself to being known for anything other than being a cool chick in a cool band. At 61, wtf, here I am, telling everyone now: I’m really good at a lot of shit. I don’t need validation and I don’t need to be heard, but I do need to do it and say it.
PKM: After the Go-Go’s, you formed the Bluebonnets, which is a blues-oriented band with another all-female line-up. You returned to guitar with the Bonnets. Was it refreshing to get back to your original instrument? Have you always enjoyed playing with women rather than men?
Kathy Valentine: Playing guitar is what I’ve always done when I’m not in the Go-Go’s, but I love playing the bass in that band. I like playing in bands with women, but I like co-ed bands, too. I just held on for so long to that very first longing I had when I began playing guitar – to be in a band that was in the pantheon of the greats. I got as far as I got and it was good, but the real longing was deep. I always just wanted to see women in bands who had the longevity, weight and cultural gravitas of the classic bands.
“Bye Bye Baby” video by director Kat Albert for The Bluebonnets:
PKM: The Go-Go’s were the first all-female group (who also wrote their own music) to make it to the top of the Billboard charts in history. Do you feel like an inspiration to other female musician’s out there? Have you ever taught younger musicians or held lectures?
Kathy Valentine: I know we inspired a lot of people, and that’s a very fulfilling thing to hear. I have mentored and supported younger musicians and bands many times over the years. My primary aim would be to continue to highlight the lives of female musicians whose stories haven’t been told, just for the sake of interest and because they deserve it. I would also like to see women musicians and artists become so normalized that we never have to read a “Women Who Rock,” story again.
I always just wanted to see women in bands who had the longevity, weight and cultural gravitas of the classic bands.
PKM: Amen. You’ve told me that your band felt like a family to you. There have obviously been ups and downs throughout the years. Do you still keep in contact with them?
Kathy Valentine: Yes. We continue to grow, evolve, and communicate better. The documentary has been particularly healing.
PKM: You made a solo album called Light Years while pregnant in 2002. With Ace Frehley, Gilby Clarke, and Craig Ross who plays in Lenny Kravitz’s band, among other notable musicians. That must have been a fun time. Can you tell me more about that process?
Kathy Valentine: I loved doing it. I couldn’t believe how cool it was to do whatever I wanted without having another band member give their approval. Every thought or idea I wanted to try, I did. It gave me a lot of confidence in my musical talent. I got to try and do everything, and so much of it was really good, that record really helped me believe in myself. It’s really nice when you get that feeling from yourself, and don’t need someone else to think it. I don’t think I’d believe it unless it came from me.
I would also like to see women musicians and artists become so normalized that we never have to read a “Women Who Rock,” story again.
PKM: How are you looking to spend 2020? Is there a book tour on the horizon?
Kathy Valentine: I expect a huge year. My book tour will take me to wherever I can get to, until the money runs out, then I’ll probably still keep going. I also have to outline my next book!
PKM: Name a few things that fans might not know about you?
Kathy Valentine: I’m pretty much an open book- and my book might have a few surprises in there, but let’s see. I’m pretty handy: I fix things around the house all the time. I’m creepily ritualistic: I’ll follow some random pattern for weeks and will only stop when I replace it with a new pattern. I wake up in an extraordinarily good mood every single day, full of hope and good cheer. By the end of the day, not so much! I think Oscilococcinum really works. My preference is to sleep diagonally across a king-size bed.
To order a copy of All I Ever Wanted: