"Should I let you in?"
The first album I ever bought—not counting a TV-offered compilation that I wanted for "Disco Duck" as a kid—was Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go's, even with that unnecessary apostrophe. To this day, it's one of the best albums I own, filled with inspired West Coast pop tunes that flirt with punk and get to third base with the '60s girl-group sound, like bubblegum stuffed with razorblades.
When Belinda Carlisle peeled off to go solo, I dutifully followed. I think Belinda is a terrific album in its own right, even if Carlisle minus her ragtag rocker-chick cohorts had become a bit tight and less fun once she reinvented herself as Ann-Margret Jr. I really didn't love some of her other solo stuff, but stand-outs like "Circle in the Sand" kept me interested. I simply loved The Go-Go's, and that, too, kept me hooked on their lead singer through her solo ups and downs—the whole "we're a band, not just a singer" thing worked better for me on The Go-Go's than on Blondie.
But reading her memoir Lips Unsealed (Crown, June 1), I felt about as connected to the proceedings as if I'd never heard of Carlisle—I'd thought of myself as a bit of a fan (I was pretty excited to meet her when she was plugging her satisfying Voila collection here in NYC), but it turns out I truly had no clue who this person was or what she'd gone through in the '80s. Or that she'd still been going through it in the '90s. And for half the '00s, for fuck's sake.
Is it common knowledge that Belinda Carlisle was still a complete junkie as late as March of 2005? I'd assumed she got clean back when she became a dedicated redhead and grew cheekbones. I feel pretty stupid for not having divined the existence of her inner demons, but it did make her book much more eye-opening than I'd ever expected.
The first part of the book had me humming "Girl of 100 Lists" from the second Go-Go's album Vacation because it reads like a brisk yet irresistible checklist of all those little details fans crave regarding the formation of the band, its unlikely success and its rapid rise to becoming the first all-female rock band to hit #1. Carlisle winningly recounts being a fan of the punk movement and then simply becoming a part of it despite having no real ambition.
After a trip to London to see punk performed in its birthplace (and for the shopping—don't forget that Carlisle is a proud Valley Girl), our heroine returned and was chatting with local musicians Jane Wiedlin and Margot Olaverra in Venice at a party:
"...[T]he three of us found ourselves sitting on the curb, with beers and cigarettes. We talked about the Sex Pistols' show in San Francisco, which was still fresh in our minds, and I added stories from my trip to London, and eventually we were talking about starting our own band.
"Margot had been trying to get something together for months. She had, in fact, started learning to play bass and had already recruited another girl, Elissa Bello, to play drums.
"Jane and I jumped in without having to think about it. Jane said she wanted to play guitar. I'd wanted to play bass, but since Margot had already claimed that role, I was left with one option—the lead singer."
And that was all it took to form The Go-Go's. (Getting started was simple, getting rid of Olaverra and Bello when it was their time to go-go was not!)
Carlisle does have quite a few juicy anecdotes, such as getting "zonked" with Jim Carroll and his crew after an early show, dating Calvin Klein godling Tom Hintnaus (pictured) and the late Michael Hutchence of INXS fame and gullibly getting into situations that will have you screaming "Don't do it!" (such as the pre-fame time she posed nude for a scumbag promising she could be in Playboy one day—she was, but...), but the greatest pleasure is in just soaking up the atmosphere of the late '70s/early '80s L.A. music scene.
There is a slight monotony to the way in which Carlisle's writer puts this all together, and the over-reliance on snippets from gig reviews (some bad—many with which the diva surprisingly agrees) suggests she might not remember some of her wildest times. Like the title of that infamous video from the era, showing some of the blasted band members cavorting in a hotel room, this Go-Go was gone-gone.
Carlisle's frank handling of her 30-year drug-abuse problem is shocking and initially compelling, including detailed stories of her efforts to score illegal substances around the world, even in places where her life may well have been in danger. However, it does not make for fascinating reading if you haven't been anywhere near the places she's gone with her addiction. After a while, it's depressing to read about Carlisle's inability to comprehend why misfortune seemed to follow her even as she was gifted with plenty of amazing things as well, such as a lovely family and an exciting if uneven career.
Belinda's greatest production...her son James Duke Mason
In fact, her marriage to Ronald Reagan worshiper Morgan Mason and giving birth to the amazing James Duke Mason seem to be the two things that have saved her from an early death. Her husband is described as having been there to support and/or dole out tough love as needed through the best and worst of times, while Duke sounds like he was more mature and level-headed than his own mother until she got her act together.
On a sidenote: Madonna fans will be intrigued to read how bitterly envious Carlisle was of her fellow diva's svelte figure in the "Papa Don't Preach" video:
"I struggled with jealousy when Madonna released her great song 'Papa Don't Preach.' From her True Blue album, it was an instant hit that took radio by storm and soared to number one. But my problem was with Madonna herself, not the music. I looked at her body and thought, 'Oh my God, she looks phenomenal and it's because she's skinnier than me. I have to get that skinny."
I wouldn't go so far as to say she argues Madonna was to her as that Billboard writer was to the late Karen Carpenter, but suffice it to say that she took undue notice of Madonna's ability to get and stay skinny. Carlisle has been haunted by her weight, a sensitivity set in motion thanks to a rocky childhood—beautifully and sensitively recalled here in ways that will resonate with all the "fatties" of the world (myself included)—and irritated by the media once she entered the spotlight.
Lips Unsealed may not be a must-read, but if you're drawn to it at all, you'll probably be ultimately won over, as I was, by Carlisle's candor and her eventual inspiring turn-around. She comes off as incredibly self-effacing, an emotional drifter and late bloomer surrounded by incredible experiences—one who's been fully present to appreciate them since March of 2005 and counting.