Punk Rock Memoirs To Inspire A Fearless, Creative Life

January is not necessarily going to be the big refreshing escape from the year we’ve had, going by the news and the pandemic numbers. It won’t be the celebratory holidays we may have anticipated months ago. But what hasn’t changed, and what may bring some comfort, is that January is always prime reading time. That brief window – for most of us – between work ending in 2020 and starting up again in 2021 is just enough to get through at least one or two juicy reads that give you the energy and inspiration to return to work without losing your mojo.

Confession: I learnt piano for many years and I was pretty good, but I gave up – mostly to spend all my time smoking and drinking with a ragtag collection of fellow 15-year-olds at whoever’s house was devoid of parents. That’s about as close as I got to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. I never was a girl in a band, but when I think to my life’s inspirations in regards to attitude, fashion, dedication to a creative existence, bravery and originality, they are women in music.

Chances are, if you’re an Audiofemme reader, you too are inspired and influenced by pioneering, persevering women in music. If there’s ever been a time we need to feel inspired by women to overcome the odds, deal with shit and continue to do what they love for the sake of it, it’s now. Consider this a belated Christmas present, then. This is a guide to the best books on modern women in music, in my experience.

Having mentioned girls in bands, let’s start with Kim Gordon’s Girl In A Band, which was released in 2015 and made it to the New York Times Bestseller list. Gordon was the co-founder (and sole female member) of Sonic Youth, a ’90s post-grunge act that fused dreamy fuzz with anthems to teenage lust and frustration. With her slash of red lipstick, tangle of blonde hair and too-cool-for-you attitude, Kim Gordon was the ultimate ’90s alt-rock icon. Girl In A Band covers her childhood, her first creative love – drawing, painting and sculpture – and her days in Sonic Youth, too often stymied by the men around her. She bravely confesses truths about her marriage to the revered Thurston Moore, frontman of Sonic Youth, and the disintegration of their relationship.  

In October 2020 she released No Icon, a curated collection of images and scrapbook-style memoirs of Gordon’s Californian youth in the 1960s and ’70s, Sonic Youth in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to previously unseen photos, there are also hand-written lyrics, newspaper cuttings and all sorts of Sonic Youth/Kim Gordon paraphernalia that make this a keepsake for fans and a treasure chest of discovery for fans-to-be.

The foreword to No Icon was written by none other than Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein (also of Portlandia, bless). Brownstein’s 2016 memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl was so compelling, I admit I lay in bed reading it all day and had to force myself to leave the last chapter until the next day so that I didn’t miss it too much when it was over. Brownstein is candid in talking about the politics and sometimes fractious nature of working with a group of impassioned women, sharing rooms and weeks on the road in close proximity. Brownstein’s ability to tell a story, with a measured dose of hilarity and awkward truth, was evident in Portlandia, so it was unsurprising that her memoir had the raw, vulnerable truthfulness of a personal diary but the strong narrative of someone who is skilled in telling a story from start to finish without losing the momentum of fascination.

If Sleater-Kinney were the 1990s underground punk-rock phenomenon for so many U.S. girls, then Viv Albertine’s The Slits were the original she-punks. Emerging in the 1970s in the midst of a wave of angry boys on stage, Albertine’s no-holds-barred memoir doesn’t paint a pretty picture of being a girl in a band, nor a woman in the world. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys is the ultimate inspirational read. It made me laugh out loud, take deep, reassuring breaths and reach for the tissues, grip my fingernails so hard into my fist I thought I’d broken skin… it made me react.

For Albertine, growing up in a council home with her single mother and sister, the only reality for her seemed to be watching boys in bands and – at best – dating them. She developed a love affair with the electric guitar, though, and taught herself how to play with the support of her boyfriend at the time. From those early days of hanging out in Vivienne Westwood’s SEX shop, getting raucous with Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious in abandoned squats, and being belittled and degraded by roadies and engineers as inferior to male musicians while on the road with The Slits, the book traverses Albertine’s abortion, her struggles to have a much-wanted child via IVF later in life, her marriage and subsequent divorce, and her return to writing, recording and performing as a solo artist in her 60s. It’s no surprise this brilliant book is being translated into TV.

Memoirs are my favourite way to climb into a musician’s mind and poke about in their memories, finding the nuggets of gold that will sustain my creative soul for life. A good set of essays, or insightful analysis, when written with people and genuine experiences at its core, can also be food for thought. I’m currently reading Revenge of the She-Punks by Vivien Goldman, which was released in 2019. Goldman, now in her 80s, is on the cusp of releasing her first punk album in 2021. Known as “The Punk Professor” due to her transition from a music journalist/band manager/musician/broadcaster/biographer (and more) to adjunct at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, this is a woman who lives, breathes and creates punk rock music. She-Punks looks at the feminist history of punk rock, encompassing The Slits, Bikini Kill, and L7 all the way through to Pussy Riot in the 2000s. Consider her the expert.

Other titles to add to your reading list include Patti Smith’s Just Kids (among others), Poppy Z. Brite’s Courtney Love: The Real Story (as well as her diaries), Debbie Harry’s Face It, Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless: My Life as a Pretender and The Go-Go’s Kathy Valentine’s All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Memoir.

Whether you’re actually a musician or an aspiring one, or women who make brave choices are your spiritual sisters, these books are likely to move you. They’ve certainly moved me, and fundamentally assured me that in my strangeness, my deep need to create, my ability to survive while making mere pennies for a living, are all perfectly valid ways to live in this chaotic, strange world that is not so friendly to women. I hope they’re nourishment for you, too.

Share your favorite punk rock reads with Cat Woods on Twitter or Instagram.

Bassist Kathy Valentine Discusses The Go-Go’s Documentary, Writing Her Memoir, and “Club Zero”

Ginger Canzoneri couldn’t believe it. The band she managed, the Go-Go’s, was one of the hottest groups in Los Angeles, regularly drawing adoring, sellout crowds at top clubs. But despite the acclaim, they couldn’t seem to land a record deal. Even more flabbergasting was the reason why. “I had a file folder of rejection letters from record labels in Los Angeles [saying] ‘Thanks, but all-girl bands just don’t sell records.’” Canzoneri says, still sounding mystified, in The Go-Go’s, a new documentary about the band that recently debuted on Showtime. The quality of the music, enthusiastic audiences, and media raves didn’t matter. It’s a band of girls? Nope!

But as we know, the Go-Go’s and Canzoneri ended up having the last laugh. IRS Records finally signed the group, and their debut album, Beauty and the Beat (1981) became the first album by an all-female band, who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments, to top the Billboard charts, with classic singles “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” also rocking the Top 40.

And for most people, that’s where the band’s story starts: the moment they crashed into the mainstream and became “America’s pop sweethearts” (a label that still makes them cringe). But The Go-Go’s, directed by Alison Ellwood (History of the Eagles; Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place), opens up that story, finally putting the band’s history, and all their accomplishments, in their proper context. It’s a film that re-establishes the band’s importance, and their influence; a film that says, yes, the Go-Go’s mattered.

The band’s early period is arguably the most exciting in the film. The Go-Go’s started out as a part of the scene that centered around legendary LA club the Masque in the late ’70s, hanging out with the likes of the Germs and X. “I thought it was common knowledge that the Go-Go’s came from the streets of LA, the LA punk rock scene,” says Kathy Valentine, the band’s bassist, speaking on the phone during a whirlwind day doing press for the documentary. “And I was a little floored when Alison said, ‘No, this is a narrative that I don’t think has been told.’ And then I started realizing – for so many people, their only knowledge of the Go-Go’s is videos, MTV appearances, and pop songs on the radio.”

“There never would have been the Go-Go’s without the punk rock scene in Los Angeles,” Jane Wiedlin (rhythm guitar, vocals), says in the film. There’s a riveting clip of the group’s first lineup playing a St. Patrick’s Day gig, vocalist Belinda Carlisle’s black hair, black attire, and fierce glare totally at odds with her sunny, California Girl persona of just a few years later. Torn t-shirts and ripped fishnets were de rigueur; even a trash bag could be a fashion accessory. “The punk scene gave me an outlet to act out and be the badass that I thought I was,” Carlisle observes in the film.

“We saw no reason why we couldn’t be just as good as the boys, or men,” she goes on to say. “We weren’t going to be anything but a great band.” The band’s growing ambition led to original drummer Elissa Bello, who’d refused to quit her job to become a full-time Go-Go, being replaced by Gina Schock (Bello admits her dedication to the band wasn’t as strong as the rest of the group; “I stuck my toe in the water, but I never dove in all the way”).

And then one day, lead guitarist/vocalist Charlotte Caffey brought in a new song: “We Got the Beat.” Despite its obvious strengths, she admits to be “terrified” to bring it to the group because it was so obviously a pop song; “I thought, ‘These guys are going to throw me out of this band.’” But the group recognized its merits, and it indicated a shift in musical direction. Then Wiedlin brought in “Our Lips Are Sealed,” a song she’d written based on a letter from her erstwhile boyfriend, Terry Hall of the Specials, that was another foray into pop. It was too much for original bassist Margo Olavarria, who felt the group was moving away from their raw punk roots, with the motivation now being, she says, “Less about art and more about money.”

But Kathy Valentine, who would end up replacing Olaverria, recognized that the ultimate power of a band rests in the quality of their songs, and that the Go-Go’s songs were built to last. “The thing is, a well-crafted song is a well-crafted song,” she points out. “You could slow down a Buzzcocks song, or you could take ‘God Save the Queen’ — the elements of a good song are there, whether it’s played fast or snarled or pounding 16th notes. So the Go-Go’s, the bones of our songs were well-crafted, hooky, with smart lyrics.”

She credits Richard Gottehrer, who produced their first two albums, with giving their records their trademark sound. “Richard said, ‘Let’s give these melodies some room. Let’s slow it down a little bit.’ That was the big change. And now, when our music gets played, it doesn’t sound dated. And I’m so grateful that Richard knew that this needed to be a classic sounding band that didn’t adhere to some kind of trend of what was going on in studios in the ’80s. And a lot of bands do sound super dated. And I feel to this day, when I hear [our] music, I can’t believe how well it stands up.”

The group was not so happy with how others wanted to market them, once fame arrived. Their discomfort with their first Rolling Stone cover shoot clearly still bothers them nearly 40 years later. They reluctantly agreed to don men’s underwear for the shoot, but were mortified by the juvenile headline slapped on the cover: “Go-Go’s Put Out.”

“It was actually very weird to be sexualized,” says Valentine. “I know that guys had crushes on us and stuff, but it’s not like we were out there  dressing suggestively and gyrating around and grabbing our crotches. We were just kind of hopping around. The whole weird thing with the first Rolling Stone cover was, ‘Here they are in their underwear, and they’re still not sexy!’ Here they are without their clothes on, in their underwear, and it’s still the girl next door. Why isn’t it enough that we could just put our clothes on and smile and take a picture? Why is that not enough for this band? It’s enough for guys to go stand by a wall, or stand on a railroad track, or walk down the road, or all those photos you do with the guys. So that was annoying.” A later cover featured the band fully clothed, but with another questionable headline: “Women On Top.”

In addressing this and other controversial issues in the band’s career, The Go-Go’s allows the band to reclaim their own story on their own terms. They’d all felt that VH1’s Behind the Music episode on the band had been exploitative. “It had the format and structure of a reality TV show, where you form-fit the content that you shoot to fit the structure and narrative,” Valentine says. “Every time the show would go to a commercial it would say, ‘When we come back, more about Charlotte’s dance with the devil!’ I mean, it was so dramatic. It really focused on Charlotte’s drug addiction. They like to focus on the salacious parts.”

Conversely, while the band members openly discuss their substance abuse issues in the documentary, it’s not the focus. Bello and Olavarria get to tell their side of the story about their dismissals, and Canzoneri frankly admits her pain when she was sidelined after the group took on high-powered management. The publishing difficulties that led to the first break-up are also detailed.

Before work could even begin on the documentary, Ellwood had to get all the Go-Go’s together again. Valentine had been fired from the band in 2012, not rejoining until 2018. She used the time away from the group to write All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir, published earlier this year. “In writing that part of my story, I was really able to come to a mindset where I’m not gonna let ugliness taint and ruin for me what was one of the biggest joys of my life,” she says. “So when the band invited me back, and things healed in that regard, it was so much easier for me to let go and forgive and take my rightful place again, because of writing the book.”

Revisiting her past also allowed her to serve as an impromptu fact checker during her interview for The Go-Go’s. “There were lots of times they had to stop the camera, because I’m like, ‘No, no, you got that wrong,’ or ‘No, that date was this,’ or ‘No, this is what really happened.’ I knew my shit, because I had exhaustively documented and researched my facts!”

Though the film packs a lot into its 97-minute running time, it still doesn’t cover the entire story, skimming over the past 30 years since the 1990 reunion. But the ending is in the present day, showing the band at work on their first new single in nearly two decades, “Club Zero.” It’s an instantly catchy song made for the dance floor. But pay attention to the lyrics, and you’ll see this bright and optimistic song is also an anthem of empowerment, a deliberate choice on the part of the band members.

“When we decided to write a song for the documentary, it was a big deal, because we’ve never generated material while living in five different places, so it was challenging,” Valentine explains. “But the first thing we did, was we came up with topics that we felt we could write and sing about that we were comfortable with at this stage, as Go-Go’s in our 60s. And at the top of the list was what was going on with the patriarchy, and #MeToo and Times Up. There was just this strong feeling that, without being preachy, we wanted an anthem that really summed up the attitude of so many people, which is, we’re fed up. Things have to change. And that is the overriding sentiment; there’s large swaths of people that have just had it, whether it’s racial injustice or income inequality or women tired of being marginalized or LGBTQ [rights].” Valentine says the band went for a “Love Shack” vibe, except that Club Zero was a place where, as the lyrics say, zero fucks are given.

“I think the timing is kind of uncanny. It’s really grown on me, and I’ve started to feel like this could be really the right song at the right time,” Valentine says. “I don’t really dial up my expectations ever about anything anymore. I just kind of always expect the worst and hope for the best. But I don’t know, there’s something about ‘Club Zero’ that just feels really right for the time.”

While celebrating the Go-Go’s breakthrough of being the first all-female band to top the US album charts, the documentary also points out that no other all-female band has done so since, begging the question: why not? “I think about it a lot,” says Valentine, “because when I first became a musician, that was my longing, was to see all-female bands at the top. It’s just harder for women. If she gets to that point in her life when she starts a family and stuff, she’s not gonna go leave her kid at home. And unless you’re successful on a level of a Chrissie Hynde or whatever, it’s really hard. It’s a struggle for women in the professional realm all across the board.”

“That doesn’t mean there’s not really cool, awesome female bands out there. There’s tons of them,” Valentine adds. “Probably every city has got a cool female band in it. But for every one female band there must be hundreds and hundreds of guys starting bands.” As The Go-Go’s demonstrates, the band continues to provide inspiration to countless female musicians. “We’re not a super active band now, but I still think we put out a really positive, empowering message for women that as you get into your 60s, you can still be relevant. Maybe not in the way the pop culture defines the way a musician or an artist should be relevant, but there’s something about this band that, if I wasn’t in the Go-Go’s, and I was in my 40s or 50s, I would be inspired by seeing us,” Valentine says.

“The endurance of the band is in itself such an achievement. I’m so grateful that the documentary highlights the endurance, not only of the songs and the music, but of the band,” she adds. “I’m really grateful for what we are and what we have accomplished. I’m really grateful that these women are in my life, and that we are close, and that we care about each other, and that old hurts and betrayals have been forgiven, and that we have healed. That’s what I’m grateful for.”

The Go-Go’s is available now on Showtime.