by Nick Hanover
Though they are one of the quintessential California bands of the ’80s, The Go-Go’s may never have reached the heights they did if it hadn’t been for Austin’s own Kathy Valentine. The guitarist-turned-bassist was already a street toughened veteran by the time she joined up with the band in LA, with stints in The Violators and The Textones (as well as a brief dalliance with British hard rock pioneers Girlschool) under her studded belt. And while the Go-Go’s were already building a following with their innovative pop punk, Valentine’s joining would give them an edge and also bring additional songwriting chops into the fold, with Valentine’s “Vacation” ending up one of their most iconic hits. But as Valentine’s raw and engrossing new memoir All I Ever Wanted shows, it was a brutal and heartbreaking journey to that moment and the fall back down was painful for all involved.
Born to an Air Force dad and a British expatriate mum, life didn’t really take off for Valentine or her mother until the family arrived in Austin, where her father enrolled at UT in economics. Valentine’s parents would eventually divorce and Valentine would stay with her mom, who had enrolled at UT herself after the end of the marriage, in psychology. The first third of Valentine’s memoir is focused on this time and the transformation of her relationship with her mom from one somewhat resembling a traditional dynamic to something closer to sisters or friends, as Valentine’s mom becomes more enamored with the counterculture, leading to their home becoming a party hangout for wayward youth, bikers and outlaws.
It’s from this group of people that Valentine first begins to experiment with drugs and booze as well as music, with a roaming criminal boyfriend of her mom’s giving her her first exposure to guitar. Valentine provides a vivid portrait of Austin in its ’70s heyday, from the hedonistic revolutionary culture at and around UT to the rock and punk scenes at Armadillo World Headquarters and Raoul’s respectively. But Valentine is no romanticist, she’s frank about the dangers of the era and of the hands off approach to parenting her mom had– ODs, sexual assault and abortion all loom heavily over that period and what follows.
Centering it all, though, is Valentine’s infectious belief in the power of rock ‘n’ roll and the deeper Valentine gets in her own attempts to succeed at music, the more the music industry becomes her real family. In Austin, Valentine makes some key connections with soon-to-be-legends, who provide her mentorship and support, including The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Jimmie Vaughan. Valentine writes “The support had no patronizing elements, no ‘aren’t they cute’ mentality,” adding that these musicians, who Valentine frequently points out were often men, “were rooting for us and wanted us to do well.”
When Valentine and her Textones bandmate Carla Olson eventually leave for LA, that type of community support is something they long for but often struggle to find. As Valentine tells it, it’s by pure chance that she ends up in The Go-Go’s. After leaving her mom alone in bed with a book on Christmas night, Valentine went out to see X at the Whisky a Go Go and ran into Charlotte Caffey in the bathroom, who asked if she could fill in on bass for a handful of residency dates while their bassist was sick. Valentine said yes and soon enough found herself promoted to full time replacement.
The core of the book is focused on this time, as the Go-Go’s star begins to rise and rise, bringing with it fame, money and an inevitable crash. Like Patti Smith in Just Kids, Valentine seemed to recognize even then that she was hurtling towards destiny, bound to make history, come hell or high water. In the Go-Go’s, Valentine had finally found peers who could match her musically and ambitiously, and shared a restless spirit. That connection and camaraderie would eventually enable them to conquer the musical world, despite the endless rejections from major label figures who swore an all woman rock band simply couldn’t be a chart success. But as Valentine would learn, that connection still wasn’t strong enough to keep them together through her and Caffey’s growing problems with addiction.
That connection would also bring more awareness for Valentine of the major issues in her relationship with her mother, who had definitively become the dependent in their dynamic, as well as in her romantic relationships, namely Blondie’s Clem Burke, who urged her to get sober while they lived together, to no avail. As engaging as All I Ever Wanted is as a rock ‘n’ roll rags-to-riches-to-rags-again story, its real power is in Valentine’s honest and humble exploration of her struggles with addiction, particularly her initial refusal to admit she even had a problem and the long, slow steps towards recovery once she did.
Far from judgmental or cloying, All I Ever Wanted is a candid and self-aware memoir that provides a street view of a remarkable time in both Austin and LA’s musical histories as well as a thoughtful perspective on the pressures, successes and failures of the music business and what it means to be a bold and hungry young woman within it.
All I Ever Wanted comes out March 31st via UT Press, order it here
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover