One-Man Book Club takes a moment to ponder the wondrous mediocrity of Belinda Carlisle
What seemed like half the freshman class of Bishop McGuinness High School went to see the Go-Go’s on their Vacation tour at the Oklahoma City Myriad Center University of Oklahoma Lloyd Noble Center (speak, memory! Or speak, Derba! Or, you know who would really know — Andrea Martinez). Thanks to the interwebs, I can at least confirm that this happened on October 2, 1982. We had the beat.
A couple days after that, this kid named Mark Marron — who was an ADD thug with a frightening overbite; one of those total assholes who always shows up in movies about how awful high school is — declared the Go-Go’s to be lesbos and called me a fag because I had the Rolling Stone cover of the band (the Annie Leibovitz photo of them in their bras-and-camis) taped up in my locker. I took it down. What a horrible feeling, even now.
From then on, none of the boys (except me) openly liked the Go-Go’s, and all of the girls did. You could write an academic paper on 1980s Bible Belt adolescent gender identification rituals about that — but do include the whole boys-who-play-Ms.-Pac-Man thing as a corollary. (A happier memory: The crisp air of the October 1984 evening the Go-Go’s came back, junior year, on their Talk Show tour and played the OKC Zoo Amphitheater. Utter bliss — dancing around with the cool girls. By then I did more or less what I wanted. What a difference two years makes.)
I stuck with the Go-Go’s even after they broke up. I liked Jane Wiedlin’s Blue Kiss album in ’85, and I might have (might have) sang along into a hairbrush with Belinda Carlisle’s “Mad About You” a time or two. Svelte, redhead Belinda’s Heaven on Earth is surely one of my all-time guiltiest pleasures, so out of tune (and actually out of tune, on some cuts) with the 120 Minutes aterna-guise I tried to latch onto in college. I stick with them even now: Four tickets to see their “farewell” (yeah, right) reunion tour next month at Wolf Trap. That’ll be $188, please.
What a long way to get around to telling you that the One-Man Book Club seized upon a copy of Lips Unsealed, Belinda Carlisle’s new memoir, upon spying it the other day on the new-releases table in Borders. I had no idea it was even in the works. (I haven’t paid Belinda any attention in years, except to watch her gay son’s YouTube videos.)
Look, I’ve got my own deep nostalgia trip going on lately. I threw my 20-year-college-reunion invite in the trash. I’ve been making a massive playlist of “college songs” and I’m thisclose to dragging out my Mac Plus one of these nights, to plug it in and read all the old letters and musings stored on its hard drive. I don’t need a Belinda Carlisle book just right now, thanks, but …
Well, if you insist.
Here’s the thing: I’ve always wondered why Belinda became so successful, post-Go-Go’s, for doing stuff that is so mediocre. (And actually, the Go-Go’s are not arguably brilliant, either. That was more about a moment and a look and a pop-culture shift from the ’70s to the MTV ’80s.)
Guess what? Belinda wonders the exact same thing.
This book is a horribly wonderful study of the essence of mediocrity, told by someone who’s just as baffled as you and I are about it. I read the book in a night. We go from her mildly unhappy childhood in the San Fernando Valley to the punk heyday in Hollywood, where she lived in the legendarily filthy Canterbury apartment building and knew all the seminal punk and new wave rockers of the “Rodney on the ROQ” era. That’s where the Go-Go’s started — all the stuff you’ve heard before; the dresses made of trash bags, the boozin’ and floozin’; the evolution from unskilled girls with guitars to bubblegum rock group. Who doesn’t love a drug-fueled rock memoir? Once again, I had to get up and go to the kitchen spice rack so I could remind myself: How much is half a gram?
Well, those grams add up. Belinda put so much toot up her nose over the years — to hear her tell it, for pages and pages and pages, it sounds like it stopped being fun around 1985, but she was just getting started. Count me as one of those suckers who believed, when we saw the video for “Heaven is a Place on Earth” or saw her anti-drug “Rock Against Drugs — RAD!” public-service ads, that Belinda looked so good because she kicked drugs. See?
That is not the case. She marched to Bolivia for another 20 years; went on a three-day coke binge as recently as 2005, in a London hotel room. But, she writes, she’s been sober since then — thanks to the usual discovery of Jesusless spirituality, including trips to the river Ganges and dinner parties with Deepak Chopra. Eh, whatever works. Belinda, you’ll understand if we wait and see?
More intriguing is the undercurrent of showbiz that pulls Belinda along as an unenthusiastic celebrity who barely qualifies as a musician — from one bad solo record to the next, through the years, most recently finding herself quickly eliminated on Dancing with the Stars.
The refreshing (and depressing) part is how much blame she’s willing to take. Every time she heard a new recording of her voice — from “Our Lips Are Sealed” on down — she cringed. (America cringed, too, eventually; but Europe loves her.) There’s a great scene when the young Go-Go’s first hear a tape of their debut album, Beauty and the Beat. It was so not the edgy, punk record they set out to make. They were mortified. But the deal was done. Mediocrity worked its ineffable magic. Hank Stuever spent his allowance on it, many times over.
You know what she’s good at? Being a Go-Go. Michael and I went to see them four years ago at the 9:30 Club. They played every track from Beauty and the Beat, in order, to celebrate the album’s 25th anniversary.
I looked around. All the new wave girls from everyone’s high school were there, along with their very best gay male friend. Everybody get on your feet / We know you can dance to the beat…
Great stuff, and I’d add only two things: 1) They got better as they went along — “Head Over Heels” is a drastically underrated pop song; 2) The Belinda spread in Playboy changed the lives of many teens from the ’80s. Or so I hear.
You read a whole book about Belinda Carlisle?
Which desert island are you stranded on?