The Go-Go's Ain't Gone
At Middle Age, the Quintessential California Girl Group
Is Out to Prove It's Still Got The Beat.
By ALLISON ADATO
photo for the Los Angeles Times by Dale Gold
Monday, 7:15 p.m.
It's raining in New York. Kathy Valentine is contemplating a
suntan from a bottle and Belinda Carlisle is naked, save for a lace
thong under an NYPD-issued blue-plastic rain poncho. Days
before their concert tour is to begin in Detroit, the Go-Go's have
agreed to play a handful of songs on an outdoor stage in Times
Square as part of the city's Fleet Week festivities. From their
dressing room, they peek at the crowd, mainly uniformed sailors on
shore leave getting drenched. Lead singer Carlisle, who ditched her
planned ensemble because of the downpour, calls for their tour
manager, Paul Spriggs. Though he has lived much of the last two
decades in buses with such bands as Run-DMC and Joan Jett and
the Blackhearts, Spriggs has never toured with five women in their
40s. He seems newly on alert, trying to anticipate their demands.
"Paul, I need a stapler," says Carlisle, smiling sweetly. In
minutes, he produces one. She fastens the sides of the poncho and
slides into black heels. While they admire her daring, Carlisle's
bandmates declare the poncho unflatteringly long. Valentine comes
to the rescue with nail scissors. Voila! "Fashion regression," says
Carlisle, 42, referring to the garbage bags she sported onstage at
L.A. punk clubs more than 20 years ago.
In the earliest days of the Go-Go's, the band's five members,
each barely beyond her teens, believed two things: First, that they
would never break up. Second, that they couldn't imagine doing this
job past age 39. But after just five years, before ever running up
against the paradox inherent in those beliefs, the band imploded. "It
never occurred to me that it would end," says Valentine, the bassist,
now 41. "I was devastated. I floundered. It took me years to find
my own musical identity."
To the public, the Go-Go's were a clique of spirited,
guitar-wielding California girls who had more in common musically
with the Beach Boys and Shangri-Las than with the synth-pop acts
that dominated '80s New Wave. Moreover, they were forever
linked to one another as pop pioneers: Not only were they the first
all-female band with an album to hit Billboard's No. 1 spot, but they
were the first to crack even the top 100. For Angeleno girls of a
certain age, the Go-Go's were a point of civic pride: They proved
you could grow up right here and become a rock star. Carlisle's
voice, with its crisp, West Valley enunciation and range that rarely
dipped below that of a school-choir alto, only encouraged these
fantasies. Since the band dissolved, each member has enjoyed
playing either solo or starting lesser-known bands. But none has
achieved the commercial success they had together and, it seems,
took for granted. "My biggest regret in life," says guitarist Jane
Wiedlin, 41, with a hint of bitterness in her Judy Holliday voice, "is
how little I enjoyed the Go-Go's experience."
The experience was marred by the collision of five strong, if not
fully mature, personalities. There remains the specter of what might
have been. What if they hadn't allowed egos and money to come
between them? What if they had spent more time in the studio and
less time partying? Today, 15 years after their split, the bandmates
are writing new material and spending their summer on tour. But,
save for some highly esoteric in-jokes, the Go-Go's have left their
old baggage behind. This time drugs, booze and on-the-road
dalliances have been replaced by acupuncture, Pilates and calls
home to the kids. (Two are married and moms.) "If you're not going
to spend money on drugs," says Wiedlin, "you might as well spend it
on a massage." On a ticket with another '80s favorite, the B-52's,
they are selling out mid-size venues and proving that there is still a
market for the Go-Go's--at least as an evening of nostalgia.
The challenge will be getting their core fans--those who were
teenagers in the '80s--to view them as a viable band this decade.
"In high school, you wanted to be them: be with your best friends,
share clothes, travel all over the world," says music-industry
executive Michelle Hinz, who was 14 in 1981 when the Go-Go's'
first album, "Beauty and the Beat," came out. "I think people still
have positive feelings about the Go-Go's because they were never a
guilty pleasure," she says. (Being a devout fan of, say, Wham! in
your 30s might be harder to own up to.) Still, fond memories will
only take a comeback act so far, she says. "You gotta have a hit.
It's harsh that way. You can put on the best show, be the coolest
people, but it's not a hit if the music isn't there."
Remarkably, considering the time that has passed, the Go-Go's
are still one of the few all-female bands out there. Alternative
favorite Luscious Jackson broke up recently; the punk-pop group
Sleater-Kinney has yet to crack the mainstream. "It's great that
we're still unique," says Wiedlin. "But it's not a great comment on
society." Of course, there are other female rock stars (Courtney
Love, Shirley Manson and Gwen Stefani), and many of them front
bands. But the dearth of all-girl bands is easy to overlook in an age
of the Lilith Fair, when female singers are backed by male
musicians, and the pre-fab Spice Girls serve up "Girl Power." As
the Go-Go's step back into the niche they vacated, guitarist
Charlotte Caffey, 43, assesses their situation this way: "It's like,
'Guys, if we don't figure it out this time, we're idiots.' "
* * *
MONDAY, 7:23 P.M.
Standing in the stage wings, Miss America, 25-year-old Heather
French, is singing along to "We Got the Beat." At her side, the
young man whose job is to tote around Miss America's tiara in a
wooden box is bobbing his head. As cameras project the crowd
onto the Times Square Jumbotron, it becomes evident that nearly
everyone--including all those servicemen who were toddlers when
the band broke up--knows the words to "Vacation" and "Our Lips
are Sealed." The Go-Go's may not have a huge catalog, but it does
include some hook-filled classics. In the dressing room after the
show, Valentine watches the Navy men through the window. "We
should have played another song. Those guys are serving the
country--we need to entertain them." "So go invite two up to your
room," suggests drummer Gina Schock, 42.
Before Valentine can respond, a representative from their
management company comes in. "Do you want to do ABC-TV?"
"We want to do whatever will help our career," says Valentine.
What might have helped their career 15 years ago was intensive
group therapy. Having forged a fast alliance during the late 1970s
L.A. punk scene, it was as if each of the Go-Go's, in a fit of
youthful exuberance, had entered into a marriage to four other
people picked up in a bar. When fame and its attendant ills
pummeled them, that untested relationship cracked under the stress
of egos that demanded equal time on albums and in the press,
varying degrees of drug and alcohol addiction, and fights over the
disparity in earnings because Caffey and Wiedlin (the primary
composers) were receiving lucrative songwriting royalties.
"We may have broken up at the height of our fame, but it was
not," Schock says pointedly, "the height of our success." While they
could take satisfaction in their popularity, they were less proud of
how they comported themselves privately. "It's like the first time you
fall in love; your eyes are just glazed over, you're just so swept up
by the whole thing," says Schock. "The second or third time around,
if you're lucky enough for that to happen, you should have your
[act] together, know what's important and what makes you happy."
In fact, there were second and third chances. Though effectively
divorced in 1985, the band reunited twice--in 1990 and 1995--at
the urging of their former record label to tour in support of albums
recycling their hits: "Go-Go's Greatest" and "Return to the Valley of
the Go-Go's." "The first time," says Valentine, "it felt good to be
friends again." The second reunion, for which they grudgingly put on
smiles and seemed little more than a five-headed oldies jukebox,
was miserable. (Caffey, then pregnant, didn't attend; guitarist Vicki
Peterson, late of the Bangles, replaced her.) After that, remembers
Valentine, "I said I would never do it again."
When the tour ended, so did any forced familiarity. Caffey
spoke to Wiedlin, but not to Valentine or Schock, who didn't learn
about the birth of Caffey's daughter until later. Valentine sometimes
heard from Schock, but never from Wiedlin. Carlisle kept in casual
contact with everyone, but lived halfway around the world in
Provence, France, with her husband and son.
The band has e-mail to thank for its current state of
togetherness. About 18 months ago, when a director approached
Caffey and Wiedlin about turning the Go-Go's story into a feature
film, they sent news of the offer to the others via e-mail. The
dialogue that ensued raised the question of yet another reunion.
Could they bear to do it again? Soon accusations and apologies
zoomed across town and across the ocean. The nonconfrontational
medium allowed them to express things they never had said
face-to-face. (Schock, who did not own a computer, was included
by phone.) Each one easily recalled incidents or offhanded remarks,
nearly two decades old, that still stung. In turn, each apologized for
The result is that the Go-Go's are by contract a band again.
Immediately, they agreed on one thing: "We can't keep playing
these songs over and over," moans Schock. So they have
committed to record a new album for release next year. The
contentious issue of songwriting royalties was settled with the help
of lawyers. Now they all share writing credit. One of their first new
compositions, "Apology," can be read as a characteristically
Go-Go's boyfriend tune or as a musical telling of how they repaired
relationships within the band.
TUESDAY, 3:54 A.M.
Jane Wiedlin can't sleep. She, too, can't quite believe that she's
doing this again, and has worked herself into a fit of anxiety over the
tour schedule, which includes several nights on which the band plays
a show, gets on the bus and arrives in the next city early the
following morning. What if she can't do it anymore? What if this was
just a bad idea?
TUESDAY, 12:30 P.M.
Caffey goes shopping at Sam Ash Music for a practice guitar
amp and at Bloomingdale's for a Wonderbra ("good onstage
support"). She browses the shoe department but feels she can't
drop $200 on a pair. "In the old days I never thought about
money--but then, of course, the clothes were so ugly in the '80s
there was nothing I wanted," she says. "Now I'd rather buy
something for my daughter." While on the road, Caffey logs onto
her e-mail to download digital home movies of her 5-year-old. With
two musician parents (Caffey's husband is Redd Kross singer and
guitarist Jeff McDonald), daughter Astrid is already plotting her
ascent. She has made up a band, called Sno-Cone, and
occasionally picks out clothes and announces, "This is what I'm
going to wear when we play Japan." The band schedules a break
midway through the tour. When Caffey flies home, Astrid asks her,
"Mom? Can we go up and cuddle, like in the old days?" "The old
days?" laughs Caffey, a bit horrified. "It was just three weeks ago!"
WEDNESDAY, 5:24 P.M.
As the limousine pulls away from the hotel, one band member,
whose identity will remain undefined, announces she has forgotten
something in her room. The car stops and she runs off. The others
are getting antsy as rush-hour traffic clogs the streets. Finally, the
Go-Go in question returns, having sprinted conspicuously through
the hotel lobby with a personal massager. The other four collapse in
laughter. "That," says one, catching her breath, "was totally worth
WEDNESDAY, 9:30 P.M.
MTV News reporter Kurt Loder is on their plane from New
York to Detroit. He greets them: "Uh, welcome back." Pause.
"What are you doing here?"
"We're playing," says Valentine. "Friday. You should come."
Though Loder is the senior man at the cable channel's news
division, this is the first he has heard of a Go-Go's summer tour. He
is en route to Detroit to cover an Eminem concert. Back when the
Go-Go's sold as many records as Eminem does, the L.A. folk
singer Phranc used to perform a song called "Everywhere I Go I
Hear the Go-Go's." (". . . through the sound of dropping bombs /
they're dancing to them in Lebanon . . . .")
To approach that popularity today will require proscribed
comeback rites codified by MTV's grown-up sister network, VH1.
Recognizing this, the Go-Go's cooperated with a "Behind the
Music" documentary in what proved a genre-defining episode: Fast
fame. Drugs. Drunken sex antics caught on tape (and recently
available on EBay). Lawsuits. Dissolution. Sobriety. Redemption.
Caffey's revelations were particularly affecting. Although all of
the women recounted nights lost to alcohol and cocaine, the quiet,
pridefully punctual guitarist admitted to a consuming heroin
addiction. So carefully had she hidden her past that after watching
"Behind the Music," one of Caffey's sisters called to say that the
show must have gotten it wrong, that Caffey had had, at worst, a
drinking problem. And some of the mothers at Astrid's preschool
questioned why she would discuss a problem she had put behind
her long ago. "I decided to talk about it because I take my sobriety
very seriously," Caffey says. Neither she nor Valentine ever touch
alcohol now, though the others drink socially. Surprisingly, she
doesn't associate life on the road with her addiction. "The year after
I got sober I went on tour with Belinda," says Caffey. "I thought I'd
try it out and see what happens. And [taking drugs] didn't appeal to
me. I'd rather have a piece of chocolate cake."
Listening to Caffey recount her story, Wiedlin is nodding. "I
don't think the worry is, 'Are the Go-Go's going to get me back on
drugs?' Instead it's been, 'Are we going to be able to get along and
not lose our minds?' "
WEDNESDAY, 10:55 P.M.
Arriving at the hotel, each checks in under her tour pseudonym
(Babe Lincoln, Iona Trailer, Sharon Needles, etc.) Then they
escape to the privacy of their own rooms. Not hanging out together
every minute is one of the new rules for sanity while touring. "It used
to be that everybody was up everybody else's ass," is how Schock
puts it. "Years ago, if Belinda and Kathy decided they wanted to go
into Detroit for dinner and hadn't asked me immediately, I would
have felt like I was missing out on something. Now I'm happy to
stay in my room and read. Back then, we were partying every night.
I might have brought books with me, but I probably never read
THURSDAY, 12:05 P.M.
The Go-Go's board the bus that will be home for five weeks
(the tour ended in early August) and pick bunks, as if it were the
first day of camp. The beds are stacked three high, and the middle
row is coveted. (The top sways; the bottom is noisy.) It is agreed
they will rotate so everyone gets a chance to sleep in the middle.
Schock puts James Brown on the tape deck and Carlisle settles into
a seat with a book about UFO sightings.
THURSDAY, 2:40 P.M.
In a men's locker room at the small sports arena they've rented
for rehearsal, Carlisle is calling home to France on her cell phone.
She misses her son. When she finally gets through, she learns that
Duke is taking a nap; she'll have to try again later. "I could call 12
times a day, but I don't," she says. "It's torturous." At 8 years old,
Duke has no aspirations of following his mom into music. Instead,
she says, he takes after his grandfather, the actor James Mason.
(Carlisle's husband is Morgan Mason, a former Reagan
administration aide, who now runs a cable station in Europe.) "My
son has a concept [of the Go-Go's], but he's not interested," says
Carlisle. "Before I left he asked me why I couldn't just do this all
over the phone."
THURSDAY, 3:50 P.M.
The ploddingly slow tech rehearsal in this empty arena in
Saginaw, Mich., grinds to a standstill as Schock, behind the drum
kit, takes a last drag on a cigarette. A couple of the others, some
reformed smokers, bark at her to hurry up. "Are we playing or
smoking?" At an earlier rehearsal they had equipment problems,
causing similar tension. "We used to be such prima donnas," says
Schock. "We would have walked out." But this time no one storms
off. The sulkiness quickly passes. "I'm on constant monitor now,"
admits Valentine, "checking if I snapped at anyone."
Over the last 15 years, each woman essentially has been the
boss of her own career or band. But while they enjoyed the
freedom of self-determination, those leaner years gave them an
appreciation for what they gave up. The other projects, says
Schock, "helped us grow as musicians and writers. But ultimately,
despite what you've learned in that time, how are you going to get it
to the public unless you're in a band that can make that happen?
The Go-Go's is the forum to get what we do out there."
FRIDAY, 3:45 P.M.
A fan from Chicago is waiting to see his idols before they board
their bus. He quit his waiter job to follow the band's tour, beginning
in Detroit. Equally flattered and appalled, they sign a stack of his
pictures dating back to the early '80s. "I don't even have some of
these," says Wiedlin. The fan offers her a few duplicates. Inside the
bus, they pore over them, jaws dropping over ill-advised perms,
pumps worn with Day-Glo sweat socks and a decade's worth of
bad belts. "We were babies!" "Look how thin I was. And I always
felt fat!" "It's all so embarrassing. I can't look. Wait, lemme see
FRIDAY, 8:17 P.M.
The sun has not quite set over the outdoor arena in suburban
Detroit. Beach balls are volleyed across a crowd that is happy to
welcome the Go-Go's back; the last time they played here was
1984. Schock, who began the evening with one leg shaking from
nerves, is comfortably smashing away behind the drum kit.
Valentine and Caffey amuse themselves with bits of guitar stage
business, as Wiedlin twirls and Carlisle improvises a dance of
Emma Peel poses. If, as teenagers, they believed that doing this job
would look ridiculous after a certain age, they are no longer
surprised that it doesn't.
As in New York, the audience sings with the hits. Then it's time
to debut a new song. "Pretend you like this just as much," jokes
Wiedlin. Whether these people will go out and buy the new album
remains to be seen.
FRIDAY, 9:40 P.M.
At a small reception after the show, Caffey is beaming. There
are aspects of the performance that could have gone more
smoothly. Who cares? "The whole time I was thinking, 'I get to do
this still.' " Regardless of the band's future prospects, they are
ensured a place in the pop record books. More significantly, they
share a place in each other's histories. Schock, for one, can't talk
about the vine inked around her wrist without telling the story of the
long-ago day when she and Wiedlin wandered into a Sunset
Boulevard tattoo parlor and made some chemically clouded, yet
permanent, cosmetic decisions.
In the post-Go-Go's years, says Valentine, "I put band after
band together and learned that you can have great musicians, but if
you don't have that chemistry, it doesn't work. You put us five in a
room together, and something happens. It's never been a question
of 'Do we still have it?' But rather, 'Do we want it?' " Without irony,
she echoes a sentiment from the band's beginnings: "We might not
want to be doing this in 20 years, but right now there's no reason
we can't have a really good run."
* * *
- - -
Allison Adato last wrote for the magazine About R.E.M.'s Michael
Stipe and his foray into feature film production. She wishes she
had been born a Go-Go.
Styled by Anita Morand; hair and makeup: Danielle Russell;
Jane Wiedlin: Heike Jarick sweater and Piane Gonda choker; on
Kathy Valentine: Christina Perrin tank top, Xin on Melrose
necklace and Slane & Slane choker; on Belinda Carlisle: Prada
sweater, Vivienne Tam at Bloomingdale's skirt, Jimmy Choo shoes,
Slane & Slane ring; on Gina Schock: Christina Perrin jacket,
William Reed tee and Tommy Hilfiger pants; on Charlotte Caffey:
PureJoy shirt, skirt and tie.