The Go-Go's are in the final stages of their “Farewell Tour,” which ends Tuesday, Aug. 30, at the Greek Theatre, a fitting place to wrap up their remarkable career. The band was born and bred here in Los Angeles, emerging from the depravity and DIY spirit of the L.A. punk-rock scene and redefining what female-driven pop music could be in the process.
Their bubbly and bodacious tunes celebrated girl power before it was a catchphrase, and Jane Wiedlin was a driving force, co-writing the band's best-known tunes, singing backup and playing rhythm guitar.
Wiedlin recently contributed a story to John Doe's new book, Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, about her early days in the L.A. scene, revealing how the friendships she formed with singer Belinda Carlisle and guitarist Charlotte Caffey (and later Gina Schock on drums) evolved into her groundbreaking band. She shared some shocking revelations as well. She may be small in stature and beguilingly baby-voiced, but Wieldlin is a badass who not only continues to write and rock in her 50s but also fights for animal rights and continues to inspire a new generation of feminists on- and offstage. I spoke with her via phone during the tour last week.
How has the farewell tour been going?
I have to say it’s the most fun tour I can ever remember having. I think we're all really taking each day and kind of being in the moment and remembering that it might be our last time in a particular city. And everybody is getting along. It’s just been a big love fest, which is exactly how I hoped it’d be.
What are you noticing about the crowds for this tour in terms of age — hardcore older fans or newer, younger ones?
We do have a lot of longtime fans. Some fans who’ve been with us for 40 years and that’s just crazy. There are new young people, too. And you get the multigenerational families, which is cool, especially when they bring young girls and they get a chance to see women rocking out and playing instruments. I think it’s so important that young girls get exposed to that.
Absolutely! I’m taking my 9-year-old daughter to the Greek. You guys are touting this as the “final” Farewell Tour. Is that really the case? No more Go-Go's shows ever?
Well, we’ve been together since 1978 and we’ve had a great run. We feel grateful that we’re alive and healthy and happy. But for the last few years we’ve been saying maybe it’s time to hang up our touring hats. And it feels good to go out on a high note. Right now we’re playing to thousands of people every night and people are happy to see us. I think it’s good to do it while we’re all in good health and still popular, rather than to keep schlubbing away ’til were 80 years old and there’s five people in the audience.
So no shows in the future?
Well, not any Go-Go's tours. We’re not opposed to the idea of one-off shows, but we don’t feel like touring anymore after this. Touring is very exhausting. It looks like a ton of fun and it is, but it really hurts your body and it’s just hard. It’s a young person’s sport for sure.
You mentioned everyone’s getting along right now. It’s no secret that the band has had, as most bands do, its share of conflicts over the years. How have the members' relationships been in recent years leading up to this tour? Had you all been keeping in touch before this tour was planned or did the tour make for a new bond?
Honestly, when you’re in a band, it really is like being married. You have five women together over decades and decades and decades. Alliances are formed and broken, then new ones are formed and then broken. There are times when everyone gets along, then times when everyone hates each other. It’s complicated. It’s not like just being business partners. There’s more to it than that. Making music together is a very intimate thing. And we’re all very different people, so things have gone up and down. But one thing that’s been happening the last four years or so is that everyone has tried really hard, and worked on ourselves to be more communicative, more forgiving, more appreciative of each other. And it’s really showing this year, which is great because this is when it really counts for us.
What about Kathy Valentine? I know you have an amazing bass player right now, Abby Travis [who’s a personal friend], but what is the status with your best-known bassist?
We haven’t played together in such a long time so we’ve lost touch. But I wish her the best and I hear she’s making a ton of new music and living a great life, which is fantastic.
You do a lot of different things including animal-rights activism. What are your life plans after this tour ends?
I’m in the middle of writing and recording a solo record, so working on that. I’m going to Mexico for fun after the tour, and then I’m going to Amercian Samoa to volunteer for a spay and neuter clinic. This charity I work with called Animal Balance has us going to different islands and staging these clinics to help with overpopulation problems with dogs and cats.
Any chance of doing TV again? I loved you on the VH1 show The Surreal Life, which was one of the first popular reality shows. What was doing that like?
Well, I’m not really a fan. When I agreed to go on that show, it was because I was broke and needed cash. I didn’t know what reality TV was. I had been living in Central America in Costa Rica for a few years, then I came up to do that show. Man, it was a crazy experience. The kind of reality I actually love are the competitive shows like cooking shows, or talent shows, making things like on Project Runway, not ones that are personality-based. The producers try to fuck with people’s heads. Not a fan of that fake drama. I just tried to be myself. I talked to Vince Neil about it before. He said just be yourself all the time and you won't have anything to regret later. I do regret that I cried almost every day. And we were drinking almost every day.
Speaking of drinking and debauchery, your story in John Doe’s book is great. You discussed living in the punk rock apartment complex called Canterbury along with him and so many legendary scenesters and music people. How did you approach writing that?
I was nervous I wouldn’t remember stuff, but as soon as I started writing, more and more came back. Then I actually called Alice Bag, who's an old friend and also lived at the Canterbury, to verify a couple of things. Then Pleasant Gehman and I shared stories and so did Charlotte [Caffey] and I. That was fun. I felt good when I read all three of our stories because I saw that there’d be continuity. Anyone who reads the book will notice that certain stories will come up over and over, but from different viewpoints. It’s a very cohesive book considering it’s written by 12 different people.
What stands out when you look back at your days in the early punk scene?
I had just turned 18 and living on my own for the first time. Canterbury was like a punk rock dormitory, except with hookers, and drug addicts and homeless, rats and cockroaches around us. I maintained a lot of friendships from that time, including the girls from The Go-Go's. And I've found a lot of my old punk rock friends from then on Facebook recently, which is great. That was the most exciting time of my life. Anything seemed possible and I felt invincible.
Before you got into the punk scene, you were very into glam and David Bowie. Something you shared in the book really stood out: the incident when a promoter, um, pleasured himself on you at a glam club. It was pretty horrifying, in fact. Being an attractive young female going to shows and clubs, was that the kind of thing you had to deal with a lot?
I was 15 and still in high school when that happened. My feeling was the glam scene of the early and mid-’70s, which was a precursor to the punk scene … oh my gosh, a lot of very shady things happened with underage girls. It was an accepted thing in those days and it took me years, decades actually, to understand that I’d been molested. One day, I just thought holy crap, I was molested. I’m not making light of molestation; I’m just saying in my case, it was something that happened. I was this dopey young girl with no experience, who got taken advantage of by a much older man who should have known better.
Is it a stretch to say that the glam scene was far more sexist and even dangerous for women as opposed to the punk scene?
No, it’s not a stretch. It was. The glam scene was more male-oriented and the punk scene was way more woman-positive and more female power–driven — although of course in the music business, crap like that happened all the time and still happens. Let’s face it, we still live in a very misogynistic world. It’s one of my hopes that maybe The Go-Go's countered that a little bit. We made music on our own without having to fuck anybody to get there and without having a male manager. Even though at the time none of us were calling ourselves feminists, we definitely were.
Nowadays, I think if you’re not calling yourself a feminist, then you need to get your head checked. It’s really important that women stand up for themselves and for each other, and that men stand up for women, too.
Agree! Which leads to my next question. Would you say looking back, in a general sense, that The Go-Go's encountered a lot of sexism, or were you gals lucky and spared from it?
Well, we had a difficult time getting a record deal because we were women, even though we were a popular unsigned band, all up and down the West Coast. We would sell out anywhere we played and the amount of attention we were getting, if we had been men, we probably would have gotten a good deal. But we couldn’t get anything.
Finally, Miles Copeland [The Police’s manager] started his own label, a small label called IRS Records, and he signed us for a small budget. It turned out to be the best thing for us, and IRS became like a family to us. It was a good experience. Sure, we encountered sexism along the way, but I don’t feel like we ever fell victim to it. There were times people would make remarks and ogle us and stuff, but we were a pretty strong unit and a real force between the five of us.
You co-wrote a lot of The Go-Go’s' biggest hits, catchy anthems everybody will be singing along to at the Greek. Did you always have that ability or did you just give it a shot and luck out with the gift?
No. I had never written a song before The Go-Go's. I didn’t have any musical ability before that. But that was the great thing about the punk scene. It allowed anybody who wanted to start a band to do it. It didn’t matter if you knew what you were doing or you didn’t. You would be met by a group of people that were going to be intensely supportive of you, even if you sucked.
But you don’t suck, so that worked out. Go-Go's songs are perfect pop, but they always had an edge.
Well, I think we kinda sucked in the beginning. Overall, I feel like we just tried to do something pretty real and down-to-earth. We had fun and we made something pretty raw and pretty natural. We’ve been doing it that way for so long, we couldn’t change it even if we wanted to.
The Go-Go's play the final stop of their Farewell Tour at the Greek Theatre with Best Coast on Tuesday, Aug. 30.