A review of “All I Ever Wanted: A Rock and Roll Memoir” by Kathy Valentine (University of Texas Press, 304 pages, $26.95)

She Got the Beat: A Go-Go’s Search for Family

It’s the great irreducible truth of human existence. Human beings flourish best when they are raised with a mother and a father, as well as brothers and sisters who can challenge them, protect them, and show them how the world works. Without such a structure, children are vulnerable to depression, anger, and addiction. All the liberal denials can’t change that.

While the importance of family is the theme of countless conservative articles and position papers, the obvious importance of family has found touching new expression in an unexpected place: a rock ’n’ roll memoir. All I Ever Wanted: A Rock and Roll Memoir is a new book by Kathy Valentine, who plays bass for the girl band The Go-Go’s. Those who come to the book looking for sex, drugs and New Wave music will find it. But the more salient theme is Valentine’s longing for and defense of the traditional family. It’s not an exaggeration to say that she sometimes sounds like Ann Coulter. I’m not kidding.

Born in 1959, Valentine is the daughter of an Air Force serviceman, Clifford Wheeler, and a free spirit mom, Margaret Valentine. The two met in England and then moved to Lubbock, where Kathy was born, and then moved on to Austin. The couple divorced in 1962, an event that was devastating for Valentine, who, but a child at the time, buried her grief. Years later her mother described how Valentine would wait on the front stoop for her father to return and “cry inconsolably,” leaving Kathy to wonder “how decades could have passed with me unable to acknowledge that childhood grief.”

It got worse. Margaret Valentine embraced the 1970s free-love era in all its excesses and ill-advised stupidity. Dressed in tights or a mini-skirt, mom “hung out with a circle of academics and bohemian intellectuals,” smoked pot with her daughter, and slept with one of Kathy’s teenage friends.

“I read constantly or escaped into an imaginary life crafted with elaborate but mundane fantasies about normal families, best friends, and romances,” she writes. “I could gaze out a window or stare blank-faced at a wall replacing recurring, tedious storylines. Sometimes I wonder if the neural pathways for addiction might have started with my penchant for checking out to daydream.”

Again and again, Valentine turns to this theme, her anger at her parents’ refusal to protect her churning just below the surface. “How do you misbehave when nothing is off-limits?” she asks.

When Valentine gets a visit from cousin AJ, it’s a revelation: “I still couldn’t believe I had actual guys as family members. Deprived of brothers and a father, I was enamored of AJ’s male-ness, easy assurance, and cockeyed cast.”

As a teenager, Valentine got into drugs, sex, and skipping school. She had an abortion while in high school, an account that is searing and tragic: “It took me a long time to understand or cultivate compassion.”

Valentine was saved, as so many are, by rock ’n’ roll. Her first eureka moment came in the mid-1970s. During a visit to England, she saw American glam rocker and bassist Suzi Quatro performing on the popular British music television program Top of the Pops. Valentine had her goal: to be in a band with other like-minded female musicians.

“I thought I was just playing guitar the way I played violin in grade school,” Valentine said in a  recent interview. “It never occurred to me that I could be in a band, like Keith Richards [in the Rolling Stones], It just didn’t cross my mind until I saw Suzi Quatro in a band. It was like, ‘That’s all I wanted to do.’”

In late 1980, Valentine connected with an all-female L.A. punk group called the Go-Go’s: singer Belinda Carlisle, guitarist Jane Wiedlin, guitarist-keyboardist Charlotte Caffey, and drummer Gina Schock. Valentine, who had been a guitarist in small groups, switched to bass, spending three days learning the Go-Go’s songs before filling in for the band’s usual bassist who was out sick. The group was impressed with her playing, and Valentine suddenly found herself a member of one of the most groundbreaking, joyful, fun and talented groups of the 1980s.

Hit songs such as “Our Lips Our Sealed,” “Vacation,” and “We Got the Beat” made them rich and famous. There was also “Head Over Heels,” featuring one of the greatest bass breaks in pop history.

As expected, Valentine recounts the excess of the 1980s—the sex, celebrities, videos, cocaine, fights. It’s fun, juicy stuff, but not as profound as the sections where Valentine describes getting sober. She eventually has a daughter, Audrey, and slowly begins to assemble a family, which is “all I ever wanted.”

In the end, Valentine offers a beautiful summation: she has a reconciliation with her father before his death, her dissipated mother gets sober, and Valentine moves from L.A. back to Austin, finally to live as a family. This is a wise and spiritually rich book by a true rock and roll survivor.

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