Bless This Mess

The Go-Go's, sweethearts of pop, move beyond old sins

First time I saw the Go-Go's: early 1980s, at a local punk-rock club. Belinda Carlisle, girl of my teen-cream dreams, was chubby back then -- soft and round and pretty. A girl flirting with being a woman, the angles in her face still obscured by baby fat. She couldn't sing, not really, but she tried. What came out of her mouth was a monotone yelp, the sound of a little girl trying to be tough. Even now, she admits: "I don't have a great voice, but I have a unique voice." The band -- Charlotte Caffey (lead guitar), Kathy Valentine (bass), Gina Schock (drums) and Jane Wiedlin (rhythm guitar) -- was better than Belinda. Still is. She dressed like a Valley Girl playing at punk playing at pop. She was a cheerleader fronting the drill team. She sang songs about how shitty it was to live in Los Angeles, her homeland.

"We're all dreamers, we're all whores/Discarded stars," she sang, and she knew. She'd been there as a Germ (however briefly), she'd go back there when the Go-Go's went busto a few years later. Sure, she'd have her solo successes -- more hit singles by herself as sugar-pop diva than with the band, go figure -- but it'd never be the same again.

It's almost 20 years later, and Belinda's on the phone from her home in France. She was nearly killed a few hours ago: A "wind vortex" threatened to throw her boat into the rocks. She laughs about it now -- might have made a funny epilogue to the band's Behind the Music. The dreamer, the whore, the discarded star is back. Again. As a Go-Go. This happens every few years: The band breaks up, gets together for a show, a best-of, a tell-all TV special, then parts again. This time's a little different though: There's a new Go-Go's album to pushpushpush -- God Bless the Go-Go's, the first record from the band in 17 years. The disc contains lots of songs about forgiveness, regret, years wasted, chances blown, making up, making out, growing up, growing old. The songs have titles like "Unforgiven," "Apology" and "Insincere." The closer, "Daisy Chain," is a history lesson, an apologia: "Punk rock girls with some noise to make/Hollywood 1978/Babe said, 'Let's start something great'/We couldn't wait . . . Soon the other stiletto would drop/For the Sweethearts of Pop/Who knew we were going down/So careless with what we'd found."

Head over heels, still: The Go-Go's return sounding 
everything, and nothing, like they did 20 years ago.
Chris Cuffaro
Head over heels, still: The Go-Go's return sounding everything, and nothing, like they did 20 years ago.

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All five Go-Go's are in their 40s. Some are mothers. Most have been detoxed. Some, more than once. The best thing you can say about the record: It sounds like the old ones, especially the finale, Talk Show. The worst thing you can say about the record: It sounds like the old ones, especially the finale, Talk Show. Seventeen years later, and it's like yesterday never happened, which is just as well. Have you ever actually listened to a Jane Wiedlin solo album?

"In some ways, recording this album was just like recording Beauty and the Beat," Belinda says, invoking the name of the 1981 record that made them legends before they ever became stars. "We knew that the songs were about regret. We just felt we did the best that we could; we gave it all we had. It's just the energy in the studio was there, and it's definitely captured in the same respect as Beauty and the Beat. But we had no expectations at all back then, and we really have no expectations at all with this. I think that frees you up to put more energy into the project and not have to worry about all the crap that you can't control."

As far as "comebacks" go-go, this one's not such a bad idea. Better the Go-Go's than, oh-oh, the Cult. Or Guns N' Roses. At least Belinda didn't have to go out and get hair plugs, like Axl. (From a recent edition of the New York Post: "The mercurial Guns N' Roses front man has secretly undergone a series of hair transplants that left him with 'big, scarred patches on the back of his head,' a source tells us.") The timing is perfect: First came the Behind the Music, with its requisite amount of dirt-dishing and confessing. The stories are tawdry, titillating: We used to be sluts. We used to shoot smack. We argued over songwriting royalties. We hated each other. The special, part of VH1's secret deal with labels to boost back-catalog sales, ends with the tease: The band's back in the studio, working on its fourth album (or maybe that was the Bangles' Behind the Music -- hard to tell them apart). Then the band starts showing up on Letterman, Leno, Rosie, Stern. They play "Unforgiven," co-written with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. The song sounds like old Go-Go's -- vintage Go-Go's, if there's such a thing. Shiny, unhappy. Light, but dark underneath.

"We can't get rid of what we came from," Belinda says, laughing. "It's simple as that. It's a combination of everybody's style and musicianship and their level of musicianship; it's a sound that we can't even try to duplicate in our own individual solo projects. When we play together, and no matter what we do, it sounds like the Go-Go's. We did [that] Brian Wilson tribute in New York, and we were givin' 'Little Honda' and 'Surfin' U.S.A.,' and they sounded like Go-Go's songs. So our concern wasn't, you know, sounding like the Go-Go's. We were concerned about sounding modern and current."

They do sound current and modern. And they don't. Perfect.

Belinda talks about what "good will" the band has engendered, why everyone's rooting for the band this go-round. I suggest to her that it has something to do with the fact that the band broke up on the uphill side of fame: Talk Show, with "Head Over Heels" and "Turn to You," was the band's best, far better than Beauty (most anything by anybody's better than the forced Vacation, released in 1982). If the Go-Go's had disbanded after the second record, maybe the audience would have just said good riddance. She agrees. She regrets the band broke up at all. It was just too much too soon, and they were too stupid to handle any of it.

"I don't know what could have been or what would have been or whatever, but I do regret that we were so young and overworked," she says. "And there were all these problems. I regret we didn't handle it. We didn't know how to communicate with each other, which is something we do really well now. With all the negativity and being so uncommunicative, the band could have had more years if we had handled it right and had taken a year off. It was just so out of control. It wasn't even about the drugs. It was just out of control -- resentments, mostly, and things that could have been dealt with easily if we had taken a year off. We just had bad advice and management and guidance. It wasn't anybody's fault. That's just the way it was."

And the way it will stay -- the past, frozen in amber (and on VH1). Forget about the book you've read and heard so much about in recent years. Forget about the movie, too -- the debauched major motion picture about the life of girls go-going through men in hotels, on tour buses, wherever and anywhere. Belinda has no interest in rehashing the war stories again. Behind the Music squelched whatever interest she had in revisiting the past, not when there's a future ahead of this band for the first time in almost two decades.

"There are a lot of things that have never been talked about that people would find extremely interesting," she says. "But after this whole Behind the Music thing, I started thinking twice about airing dirty laundry and going into more detail and all that kind of stuff. To be honest, a movie and a film are way down on my list. There's just so much more to think about. At the end of the day, it's just: Who cares?

"The one thing I liked about the Behind the Music was that it showed the origins of the band, and a lot of people think we came from a manufactured place, like a Spice Girls or Destiny's Child or something like that. But it was our concept. We did things our way. We had no idea how to play instruments, no idea how to write songs, and to come from that and then three years later have the No. 1 album in America? That's really weird. It was obviously meant to be."

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