Reflections of a Rock Star

By Kevin Tankersley

Kathy Valentine talks about writing her memoir

Pictured: Photo provided by Kathy Valentine

Kathy Valentine said it’s just not right that for years Waco was known for the confrontation between law enforcement and the Branch Davidians. But she feels that she can relate.

“I get it,” she said. “I mean, I’m constantly written off as the bass player in the Go-Go’s, even though for 40 years I’ve been in other bands, I’ve written tons of songs, I’ve produced records.”

And now, she’s written a book. “All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Memoir” was released last month by the University of Texas Press. It’s Valentine’s story of growing up in Austin, moving to Los Angeles when she was 19 and joining the Go-Go’s shortly thereafter, and more.

“I’ve always written pieces and essays and started becoming aware at some point that I had a story to tell,” she said. “I’d read some rock memoirs, and I would think, ‘I’ve got stuff to say, too.’ And I just was trying to think of what my future was going to be. I wanted to write, and I thought, if I write a memoir, that will kind of open the door — it’ll say to people, I’m a writer. And hopefully, it’ll be good and people would accept me as a writer, and it would open a path to a new career or a new journey.”

Valentine was always a prolific reader and writer, even though she dropped out of formal education as a teenager. She didn’t find her niche at public school in Austin, she said, because “I knew that we were very different, and that was just painful, because you just want to fit in when you’re a 10-year-old or 11-year-old.” So she then spent some time at the Greenbriar Community School near Bastrop. The school’s philosophy, Valentine wrote, is to “leave the kids … alone, and they’ll figure out what they want to learn.”

It was at Greenbriar that Valentine formed her first bands, with other students who also had parents “who were not boilerplate.” Valentine was raised by her mother, Margaret Valentine, who was 21 when Kathy was born, in 1959. Margaret and Kathy’s father, Clifford Wheeler, divorced in the early 1960s, and he wasn’t part of Kathy’s life for about 40 years.

Valentine writes candidly about her childhood and teenage years growing up in Austin, moving from one rental house to the next, dating much older men and being involved with alcohol and drugs — sometimes with her mother and many times to excess — a habit that she carried for many years, until she was 30 and woke up after being “blackout drunk” in New York. She was at a low point, in her life and in her career, and she realized, she wrote, “I desperately wanted something to change. Anything would be a start. I had one thought: If I stop drinking, at least one thing will be different.” And she did.

In January of this year, Valentine wrote on Twitter, “31 YEARS SOBER TODAY.”

Staying sober is not a challenge, even when she’s on tour, Valentine said in a recent interview in Austin.

“No, it’s never been a struggle,” she said. “For me, it was just like, when I was done, I was done. Once I stopped, it was just a weight off of me, like I didn’t have to struggle with it anymore. And I wrote about that quite a bit.”

Valentine said writing about the tough times she survived “was very difficult and very therapeutic.”

“I’ve had my share of therapy. So that’s a journey and learning who you are without affecting it or filtering it. So I thought I had dealt with pretty much everything,” she said. “But the book did it on such a deeper and more profound level. And still, to this day, I’m still processing things. It was hard but really healthy.”

The prologue of the book jumps right into Valentine joining the Go-Go’s after a chance meeting with the band’s lead guitarist, Charlotte Caffey, in the bathroom of a club on Sunset Boulevard, in Los Angeles. It was Christmas night, 1980, and Valentine joined the band, playing bass — an instrument she didn’t usually play — on New Year’s Eve.

“We only got two practices before we went live,” a four-night, eight-show gig at the famed Whisky A Go Go, Valentine said.

“What surprised me when I was writing was how easily I could remember how it felt to be on stage with them the first time. I was really feeling it,” she said. “I knew how to write that because I could really feel it, and that’s what I tried to do with all that. I want people to know what it felt like to have worked, to move to LA and wanting to make it in the business, and then you’re on stage and people are going crazy. I wanted to convey what that felt like because it was intense.”

The band released its first album, “Beauty and the Beat,” in 1981. It sold more than 2 million copies and was atop the Billboard charts for six weeks. The Go-Go’s were the first, and still only, all-female band to have a No. 1 album on which they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments.

“We weren’t thinking that we are the first all-female band,” Valentine said. “We were trying and working really hard to just get airplay and to make our record available, to have people know about the record.”

The Go-Go’s recorded two more albums, and all the members have pursued solo careers over the years while occasionally reuniting, though there have been legal and financial issues that have been divisive. In fact, Valentine was out of the band for five years and sued the remaining members after a dispute over royalty payments. The band is scheduled for a 12-stop tour this summer, with shows scheduled on the East and West coasts.

“It’s nice to get to go out and tour with a new level of — we’re very much like sisters, and it’s a new level of closeness and appreciation and gratitude and, for me forgiveness, and letting go of … that heartbreak and that sadness so that I can experience the blessings and joy of getting to do it again,” she said.

In addition to the book, Valentine has recorded a soundtrack with songs to go along with each chapter of “All I Ever Wanted.”

“That opened up a whole new way of being a musician, and I loved it so much that I’m also interested in doing a series of short stories with musical soundtracks,” she said.

In addition to short stories — she’s had one published in a literary journal — Valentine has plans for other writing projects.

“I feel like there’s a lot of stories of women musicians that haven’t been told,” she said, “and I’ve been very interested in writing some of these stories.” Two of those include Fanny, an all-female band from the 1970s; and bass player Carol Kaye, who played on more than 10,000 recordings in a career that spanned more than 50 years. She played in recording sessions with Sonny & Cher, Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand, The Temptations and many others.

Another book Valentine has in mind is a guide to having a successful divorce.

“Every woman who is pregnant gets a book called ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting,’ and she reads it. And her husband reads it, and it’s your bible,” she said “I want to write one of those about divorce. Divorce happens all the time. And it’s a really difficult road to go, and a lot of times it ends up unnecessarily ugly and messy and terrible. I’ve had a very successful divorce, and I’m interested in doing not a self-help book, but a guide, like, this is what worked for me, this has worked for other people and how you can navigate.”

Writing is “exciting,” she said. “As someone who’s basically been writing songs and been in a band for most all of my adult life, to have new and interesting, fun ways to be creative is really cool.”