Mosh Pits and Smiley Faces

Belinda Carlisle’s memoir covers her punk youth and her pop success.

When I heard that Belinda Carlisle, former lead singer of the Go-Go’s, would be publishing a memoir, my first reaction was: This is a terrible, sad idea, much like Courtney Love’s latest record, Nobody’s Daughter. It might highlight the impossibility of aging gracefully when fame, adventure, and your best ideas visit you when you’re young. It might read like a bid for a spotlight that started dimming years ago, like something you’d pick up only out of irony, nostalgia, or pathological superfandom.

But Lips Unsealed, Carlisle’s self-effacing review of her raucously wasted youth, is good enough that it almost makes you forget she spent much of the ‘80s renting out her voice to power ballads. Though the second half of the book turns into a typical recovery memoir depicting Carlisle’s triumph over cocaine through dinners with Deepak Chopra, the first half is an oddly charming document of a revolutionary time and place, one that puts a Valley girl gloss on the tales of punk depravity told by Penelope Spheeris’ documentary TheDecline of Western Civilization and Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s oral history We Got the Neutron Bomb.Carlisle’s account of L.A. punk suggests a scene where girls and boys appeared to be on equal footing, and girls’ friendships and connections were an engine for the noise.It captures a moment after legendary ‘60s groupie Pamela des Barres, whose claim to rock fame came from bedding big names, and before ‘90s riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, who saw their music as an insurrection against sexism.

Without femininity or feminism as their organizing principle, the women making music in Carlisle’s bohemia—Exene Cervenka was one of them—didn’t fall into any of the girl-band clichés that dogged another L.A. girl band: the Runaways. By fronting or playing in bands with men, they threw over the forms of the ‘60s and ‘70s—girls politely harmonizing in threes or riding solo as singer-songwriters. The girls in that L.A. scene had a style that wasn’t overly sexual, either; they created another form of havoc by ransacking thrift stores for a theatrical, overturned-jewelry-box aesthetic.

Carlisle places female camaraderie and collaboration at the center of the Go-Go’s story. They had a female manager, not a male Svengali who conjured them into existence, and female roadies. They dreamed themselves up, and what they dreamed up initially was more snot-nosed and raucous (one early song was a kiss-off to the L.A. Times’ pop critic Robert Hilburn) than the New Wave bubblegum they later became famous for. But no matter your stance on New Wave bubblegum, the band should also be given credit for the fact that their 1981 debut, Beauty and the Beat, made them the first all-female band to write and play their own songs on a No. 1 record. (Which means that they had only one another—not some guy—to sue over creative contributions.)

Inevitable infighting aside, it’s clear that the friendships Carlisle made with other women fueled and inspired her as much as the bands she loved did. It wasn’t a boyfriend who introduced Carlisle to the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls—it was a girl she befriended in a high-school art class. With that same girl, she moved to Hollywood to be in the middle of the rock scene. They have shit jobs and live in crumbling apartment buildings from the ‘30s. They concoct wild outfits for themselves. They hang out in the parking lot of the Rainbow and the Roxy, L.A.’s two major rock clubs. It’s with this friend that she becomes a founding member of influential punk outfit the Germs. (A bout of mono keeps Carlisle from playing with them for real.) And when she’s in the thick of the scene, it’s another girl who gets her a spot as a backup singer for a circuslike band of thousands. It’s with girls that she hatches a plan to actually start her own group.

Men figure, but Carlisle’s comically persistent streaks of modesty and romanticism seem to have vaccinated her against using, to quote fellow ‘80s queen Pat Benatar, sex as a weapon. She dated musicians, and she wanted fame, but, as she tells it, she was not taking the groupie route to stardom.When notoriously dissolute Who drummer Keith Moon buys her a drink at the Rainbow and asks her to come back to his hotel room with another lovely lady, she makes an excuse and splits. When, another evening at the same club, a wrecked Bon Scott, lead singer of AC/DC, grabs her shirt as she makes her way through the room and propositions her on sight, she twists away and skitters back into the night. “I wasn’t remotely ready or interested in anything like that,” she writes of her 19-year-old self. “Even with a rock star.”

While reading Carlisle’s memoir, I was reminded of a book by rock critic Joe Carducci called Enter Naomi: SST, L.A., and All That. It’s a story of L.A. punk, and of Naomi Petersen, who took publicity and concert shots for SST Records, the label run by Greg Ginn, founder of legendary punk band Black Flag. Petersen, who died at 39 from drinking, was, like Carlisle, a Southern California girl who threw herself into music to drown out the sound of schoolyard teasing—Carlisle for being overweight, Petersen for being half-Japanese. Petersen might have initially wanted romance from Black Flag’s roadie, but once spurned, she quickly recovered from her devastation and found her place as a respected comrade.

It can sometimes seem that, in narratives of rock fandom, the only way to be counted a legitimate girl is through sullenness or disaffection—think Kat Dennings in the fictional Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. But Carducci presents a portrait of a girl bucking the usual rock chick stereotypes: Like Carlisle, she wasn’t a groupie, and she wasn’t tougher than nails. She was girlish but brave in her own unassuming, contradictory way. She loved the British punk of the Damned and withstood raging mosh pits to get her shots, but she sprinkled her journals with smiley faces. She seems to have been universally beloved by the bands she photographed as well as the staff of whatever restaurant job she was working at to make money—her status didn’t make her exclusionary. She wanted to be around the people who made the music that was necessary to her, and she put herself among them without a larger-than-life persona.

Both books tell a story that doesn’t get told enough, or get heard enough, which is the story of how girls become and remain serious rock fans, how they base friendships with other girls on their love of music, how their romance with musicians and music is often not primarily sexual. In short, what music fandom looks like when it’s female and not fixated on front men but on self-invention, world-decoding, and connection with others. (For another L.A. story like this, see Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s comic book saga Love and Rockets. *) The reason for the absence of these stories from pop culture maybe the same as the reason an apologetic Capitol Records exec gave for not being able to sign the Go-Go’s: Girl stuff like that won’t make money.

Correction, June 18, 2010: This article originally referred to three Hernandez brothers as the authors of Love and Rockets. In fact, while Mario has contributed to the series, Jamie and Gilbert were the principal authors. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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