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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.

September 10, 2000|ALLISON ADATO | 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

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."

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