By Michael Corcoran
The wild child who grew up in Austin and would probably be a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame if not for the Runaways and runaway egos.
The woman, the mother, who takes college English and history classes at St. Edward’s University and who recently got her real estate license.
They are both Kathy Valentine, who left Austin for L.A. when she was 18, moved back as a 47-year-old in 2006 and has never stopped playing the electric guitar.
“I’ve only played bass in one band,” she says on the phone from her home off Bee Cave Road. That was, of course, the Go-Go’s, who from 1981-85 showed a nation of teenage female rockers that they too could one day be all over MTV (which used to mean everything). The Go-Go’s were party girls who didn’t always get along, which made for one of the all-time greatest episodes of VH1′s “Behind the Music.”
Valentine wrote some of the band’s biggest songs, so she still loves the sight of the mailman, but she’s no longer a member of the group that was her life as a young woman. They tried to leave her behind, and she sued them in May for breach of contract. Let’s see if we can sum up Valentine’s side: the other Go-Go’s realized that if you divide a sum of money by four instead of five, you get more for yourself. (Note: the suit was settled out of court.)
The first question of the interview for this story, therefore, was not “R-r-r-r-rember when you were in the Go-Go’s? That was awesome.” This is about Valentine’s life in Austin, before and after THAT band, as well as her upcoming appearance as keynote speaker for MEOW Con, a sort of all-grrl South by Southwest happening this weekend at the Renaissance Hotel. Valentine is happy to not talk about the band that broke her heart, but every once in awhile she drifts into Go-Go-Land for stories about that crazy time.
Valentine has never been careful of what she dreamt for. It’s always been rock ‘n’ roll. Her mother Margaret, a hip, pretty divorcee with a British accent faded by Doug Sahm records and the Texas sun, had a boyfriend who left his guitar and amp behind one week; when a 15-year-old Kathy strummed her first electrified C chord, she felt power when she needed some. Around the same time, a late-night music TV show aired footage of Suzi Quatro fronting her band in England, and “I was just blown away,” she says of the pioneer rocker who Valentine gets to honor at MEOW Con. “It hadn’t dawned on me until then that a girl could be in a rock band.”
The third epiphany of a 15-year-old Kathy Valentine, who dropped out of Reagan High freshman year and went to “a hippie
school” in Bastrop called Greenbriar, was seeing the Fabulous Thunderbirds at a Sixth Street bar called the Lamplighter. The year was 1974 BA, before Antone’s. “My girlfriend and I, we were both transfixed by Jimmie Vaughan,” she says. “She wanted to be with him, and I wanted to be him.”
There were frequent visits to England to see Margaret Valentine’s family, and on one of them, when Kathy was 16, she fell in with a band of women who would eventually form the heavy metal group Girlschool. It was 1975, and the first gurglings of the London punk scene also caught Valentine’s attention.
When she returned to Texas, she started Austin’s first punk band, the Violators, with guitarist Carla Olson, bassist Jesse Sublett and drummer Marilyn Dean. “Kathy and Marilyn were a couple of free-range kids; they were wild,” says Sublett. “Kathy would crack you up, man. She was a cross between Keith Richards’ little sister and Lucille Ball.”
While Sublett started concentrating on the Skunks, the band he formed with Olson’s boyfriend Eddie Munoz, the rest of the Violators moved to Los Angeles.
“We were so homesick,” Valentine says. “We’d go out to see every Texas band that played L.A. — the Werewolves, Doug Sahm, Gary Myrick and the Figures.” It was Sahm who had first called her on to a rock club stage, when she was 16 and played “Carol” at the Rome Inn with Sir Doug’s band. Valentine and Olson were Texans lost in L.A., so they called their next band the Textones.
“In L.A., there’s always a carrot dangling in front of you,” Valentine says of spending ages 18 through 21 in the ultra-competitive Hollywood rock scene. “You think every show is your big break. There could be five people in the audience, but one of them could be the guy who signs you to a record deal.” The Textones felt they’d really broken through when they lent their equipment to Nick Lowe for his “Cruel to Be Kind” video. Every time the camera caught the drum kit, there was that band name: “TEXTONES.”
But the twangy new wave band struggled, while another female rock band in town was starting to get big. The original Go-Go’s were awful, almost a joke band with that sorority girl trying to be Exene and the musicians falling all over the instruments they could hardly play. (Full disclosure: I saw them in 1978.) But the addition of serious drummer Gina Schock brought a solid foundation. The group needed a new bass player and they’d be on their way.
One night at the Starwood nightclub, guitarist Charlotte Caffey approached Valentine and asked her if she could play bass. She couldn’t. “Sure,” Valentine replied, then spent a week teaching herself how to play the Go-Go’s material on four thick strings. Her first show with the band was at the Whiskey a Go-Go on the night 1980 became 1981. She turned 22 a few days after that.
The 1981 debut LP “Beauty and the Beat,” which closed with Valentine’s “Can’t Stop the World,” sold over 2 million copies, and the Go-Go’s became the sensations that their L.A. predecessors the Runaways never were. Valentine wrote the title track of the 1982 follow-up “Vacation” while a member of the Textones, but when Jane Wiedlin improved the first line to “Can’t seem to get my mind off of you” and Caffey changed a couple things on the chorus, all three were credited as writers. “I didn’t think about it at the time,” Valentine says of relinquishing partial royalties for a song that she’d already recorded with full credit. “We were all in it together.”
Belinda Carlisle was the star of the Go-Go’s, but because Valentine, Caffey and Wiedlin wrote most of the material, they made more money than the singer, which no doubt created some of the interband unrest. After just four years and four Top 20 hits (“Our Lips Are Sealed,” “We Got the Beat” and Valentine co-writes “Vacation” and “Head Over Heels”), Carlisle left to start a solo career, and the Go-Go’s went-went away.
But there have been many reunion tours since the band first reunited in 1990 and formed a corporation with Valentine and the other four members as equal 20 percent partners. Once thought of as something of a novelty, the Go-Go’s are now hailed as trailblazers and can still fill 3,000-seaters with ease. Valentine continued as a member of the group and was set to embark on a new tour in August 2012, when she fell at home in Austin and broke her wrist. Although Valentine played bass on the encore of a show in Austin on Sept. 25, 2012, she was replaced on the tour.
(Update: Valentine rejoined the Go-Go’s in 2018 and will tour with the group this summer.)
Like Margaret Valentine in the ’60s, daughter Kathy is now a single mother raising a daughter in Austin, but the circumstances are a lot different. Kathy Valentine’s father was an airman from Lubbock who met her mother when he was stationed overseas and brought her back to Texas. After the divorce, when Kathy was 3, he wasn’t around much.
But Valentine and ex-husband Steven Weisburd, a musician turned lawyer, share parenting duties of 11-year-old Audrey. Where Margaret and Kathy “seemed to move every year, from one tiny, furnished apartment to the next,” there is stability in Audrey’s life.
“I’ll really be glad when it’s behind me,” Valentine said of her lawsuit in 2013. She was ready to close that chapter so she can write her book. It’s like that old song by a band called the Go-Go’s. You can’t stop the world, why let it stop you?