SALT LAKE CITY — When Belinda Carlisle was young, she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. She wanted to see the world and meet new people. She wanted to be a travel agent.
“I can remember my mom getting these little books, like notebooks, that we filled out every year (about what we wanted to do), and I always said ‘travel agent’ because the only thing I ever wanted to do was see the world,” the singer, who will be at the Red Butte Garden Outdoor Concert Series July 20, told the Deseret News, “… but then I figured out that being in a rock band was a much better way to do that.”
And what a rock band. As lead singer for the 1980s new wave punk band the Go-Go’s — the first all-girl punk band who wrote and performed their own music — Carlisle quickly went from Southern Californian surfer girl to rock icon, touring the world with bandmates Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock and Kathy Valentine. Their 1981 debut album, "Beauty and the Beat," went double platinum, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and staying there for six weeks.
They were true pioneers in a time when men dominated the pop charts — this was the era of "Thriller," after all — and it isn’t hard to imagine the kind of harassment and problems they could have encountered. But, said Carlisle, the Go-Go’s insisted on doing things their way, traveling with female roadies and sticking closely together.
“The Go-Go’s, collectively as a unit — men were really, really intimidated by the band, we were a force to be reckoned with. You don’t mess with the Go-Go’s,” Carlisle said.
But even the band couldn’t stop the media from repeatedly commenting on Carlisle’s looks. She was in her early 20s when the group found worldwide success and she took the brunt of the media’s scrutiny.
“(They always) mentioned how much I weighed — so I was ‘cute and chubby,’ ‘pretty and plump.’ … It was always about my weight,” she remembered. “And I never had an issue with (how much I weighed before then) — I never had a problem with it until the media put such a focus on it. … It really, really messed my head up.”
Carlisle developed an eating disorder and took refuge in drugs and alcohol. The drugs, she found, helped keep her weight down and when her weight was down, "it got people off my back,” she said.
And although the Go-Go’s had a string of hits — “Vacation,” “We Got the Beat,” “Head Over Heals,” “Our Lips Are Sealed” — they had problems within the group and by 1985 had split up. Carlisle said it was around this time that music producers discovered she was — “still am, if you’re arm is long enough” — photogenic and decided to record her as a solo artist.
Carlisle’s solo career launched her into even higher stardom, but her meteoric rise also came at a price. She had solid hits with her first three albums — “Belinda,” which featured the hit single "Mad About You"; “Heaven on Earth,” her most successful album to date; and “Runaway Horses” — but producers also turned the punk rocker into a glamorous pop star, making Carlisle a sex symbol for the era. Carlisle still struggles with the term.
“I don’t even like to say it — it makes me really uncomfortable — but yeah, that’s it and that felt very, very weird to me over the years," she said. "(It was) a pressure I never … bargained for.”
The formula for her appearance was the same as it has been for female stars for years: thin, blonde and, “You have to show more cleavage,” she remembered being told. Carlisle used drugs and alcohol to deal with the pressure, which eventually turned into a three-decade cocaine habit.
Her 1987 song "Heaven is a Place on Earth" was Carlisle's last No. 1 hit and when she turned 40 in 1998, her record label dropped her. But this setback put the singer on a road to healing that she has stayed on ever since.
“I had always been defined by my career, (so when I was dropped) it began a lot of soul searching," she said. "I read a book called ‘The Art of Happiness’ by the Dalai Lama that really, really changed my life and from that book I read a lot of books about Buddhism. …”
Carlisle started chanting to help her through her early years of sobriety, chanting as much as four hours a day. “That, in turn, forced me to face myself and it was a painful but amazing time,” she said, adding, “My life was such a disaster, (and) I should have been, you know, really depressed and suicidal but you know … I felt amazing, like everything (was) going to be OK.”
She finally got clean in 2005 and has remained sober and drug free since then. Through the years, Carlisle has had the support of her husband, Morgan Mason. Carlisle and Mason, who married in 1986, stayed together through her years of addiction and stardom, a difficult feat for any couple. Carlisle said they owe their longevity to Mason.
“My husband is way more evolved than anybody I know. … He said that he always saw the divine person (I was) underneath all of the crap.”
Long open about her addictions, Carlisle's 2010 autobiography, "Lips Unsealed,” is a no-holds-barred account of her life, and she said since its publication, she often hears from people who tell her that her honesty has helped them. She’s even heard that some AA groups read her book together.1 comment on this story
And Carlisle, who turns 60 in August, has continued to make music. In 2007, she put out “Voila,” a collection of French chanson songs that reflect her family’s 25 years in France and last year, she released “Wilder Shores,” an album of Sikh chants with a pop sensibility. The Go-Go’s, who released a new album in 2001, have continued to tour periodically despite some legal problems, and happily for Utah audiences, Carlisle joins this summer’s Retro Futura Tour, which is making a stop at the Red Butte Garden Outdoor Concert Series on Friday. Carlisle, who is headlining a show that includes ABC, Modern English and other popular ’80s musicians, promises her set will be a mixture of Go-Go’s tunes and solo material.
All in all, it’s been a wild journey for a young girl who once dreamed of traveling the world. Luckily for Utahns, her next stop is one she's looking forward to.
“I love (Utah)," she said. "I’ve met some really, really nice people there. I love it and I can’t wait to come back.”
If you go …
What: Retro Futura
When: Friday, July 20, 7 p.m., doors open at 6 p.m.
Where: Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre, 2280 E. Red Butte Canyon Road
How much: $52-$59