When civilisation, or at least the internet, threatened to collapse because 20-year-old Miley Cyrus danced provocatively at the MTV Video Music Awards, seemingly everyone had a response.
For veteran pop star Belinda Carlisle, who was topping the charts with the Go-Go's and as a solo artist before Cyrus and her cohorts were born, the reaction was one of relief at not having had to brave the celebrity machine at such a young age.
"I don't know if I could have handled it, because I don't know how the younger artists deal with it," notes 55-year-old Carlisle. "Little old me wandering around Los Angeles might have a paparazzi pop out and photograph them and I'm hardly newsworthy any more, but that times one hundred or one thousand would be incredibly annoying and frustrating."
To find a 20-year-old Belinda Carlisle in 1978, you would have had to look in two places, both on Cherokee Ave in the then run-down, crime-ridden neighbourhood near Hollywood Boulevard. At 1655 was the Masque Club, the scabrous rock venue where the first generation of LA punks played, including the Go-Go's and the Germs, who Carlisle also briefly drummed for as Dottie Danger, while a block away at 1746 were the decrepit Canterbury apartment, where Carlisle and her friends resided amid junkies and illegal immigrants.
Carlisle has had a long and genuinely strange career. Three years after the Canterbury era, the Go-Go's hit No 1 on the American charts with the tangy, glorious Beauty and the Beat album, spearheaded by singles such as We Got the Beat and Our Lips Are Sealed. Carlisle launched a solo career in 1985, with 1987's Heaven on Earth album starting a succession of commercial radio staples, including Heaven is a Place on Earth and I Get Weak.
"Those years went so fast. When you're younger, time just flows differently," says Carlisle, who now has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. "When I look back, I managed to really pack it in from 1978 to 1998. I could always predict my schedule because it was make an album, promote an album, go on the road, repeat. In retrospect, I got a lot into such a short time."
Not surprisingly, Carlisle now has a slightly different criteria for her career. "I only do what's fun, whether it's recording or touring," she says. "This life can be really difficult and it's hard, especially when you're in your 50s. My philosophy of touring is two nights on, one off, which is good for my voice, and, if it's a place that I don't like, I won't go."
Carlisle, a Buddhist and vegetarian, who posed nude for Playboy magazine in 2001 and starred in a 2009 West End production of Hairspray, has divided her time with her husband, Morgan Mason, and now 21-year-old son, James, between France and Los Angeles for the last two decades.
In 2010, she released an autobiography, Lips Unsealed: A Memoir, which documented years of alcohol abuse and cocaine binges.
"Performing is much more fun now. I'm nine years sober, and I always went on stage after having a few drinks, because that's what I had to do to connect and be able to perform," Carlisle explains. "When I decided to stop drinking, I was really afraid about what it would be like on stage and whether I could still do it. But actually it's a lot easier. I can be present and enjoy it and, not to sound pretentious, but when you connect with a groove, it's like you're part of something greater than yourself."
Before a tour starts now, Carlisle has the enjoyable dilemma of selecting a set list from her solo career, with several Go-Go's favourites included. The Go-Go's have also re-formed and tour regularly, although bassist Kathy Valentine recently departed in acrimonious circumstances.
Three-quarters of the songs Carlisle will play in Wellington are hits, she claims. The rest are singles that didn't click. "I have a really amazing back catalogue that I can work with and sing from that people know and enjoy," she says. "And despite years of booze and cigarettes, my voice is strong and mature. I'm a much better singer."
Like many veteran artists, Carlisle sells more concert tickets than albums. Her solo albums have sometimes drifted away from pop music, most notably with Voila, a 2007 collection of French chanson standards sung in their native tongue and delivered with great affection for the original compositions.
"The French didn't like it very much. It was critically acclaimed all over the world, except France," admits a rueful Carlisle. "They're iconic songs that people in France know. The American equivalent would be doing Hound Dog, by Elvis Presley, so I can understand the response. They weren't bad reviews, but they certainly weren't great reviews."
Her recent single, Sun, has the 4/4 backbeat and massed synths common to contemporary club music. When it was first suggested to her, it was called Run, so Carlisle rewrote the lyrics with Go-Go's bandmate Jane Wiedlin, making it into a song about triumphant rebirth. Now she just needs to go to a nightclub, albeit one different from the Masque Club, to hear it.
"I'm actually going clubbing on Saturday night for the first time in 20 years," laughs Carlisle. "My friend told me about a great club in LA and convinced me to come with her – I'm guessing things have changed slightly. My son is coming too, which is funny. Is that inappropriate? I think I'll be OK."
Belinda Carlisle performs at Wellington's Opera House on December 1.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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