Thursday, March 7, 2013

Ann & Nancy Wilson - My Big Sisters

Ann Wilson
Cover of Ann Wilson
They're not, actually. (Their mom would be stealing their song WTF?)

A girlfriend introduced me to Dog and Butterfly, the song, and the album, when I was a young teen, and I was instantly hooked.  Women with power, passion, and talent? My sisters, in spirit if not of blood.

I think this is my favorite Heart album cover
Not theirs - Ann loves Bebe Le Strange
I went back, collected Little Queen, Magazine, and Dreamboat Annie in cassette (all on my iPod now). Couldn't wait for Bebe Le Strange to come out and saw Heart on that tour at the LA Forum in 1980. Have collected most of their albums since then - and Red Velvet Car rocks, all these decades later. Somehow the combination of melody, harmony, and lyrics made me feel that they knew me - and that I knew them.

But it wasn't until I listened to their autobiography, Kicking and Dreaming that I felt I really did know them.

Genuine Heart fanatics who've followed every Rolling Stone and Circus and fanzine interview may feel like there's nothing genuinely new here.

Generally when it comes to books, I'm a reader, not a listener. I like turning pages and looking at the pretty pictures, okay? But a friend was insistent on giving me a couple of audiobooks for Christmas, I'd been wanting to read Kicking and Dreaming, and when I saw it was read by Ann and Nancy themselves, I was sold.

There are also sections read by their sister Lynn, and by others, like their co-songwriter Sue Ennis, and the band's former manager (and Ann's ex) Mike Fisher, lead guitarist (and Nancy's ex) Roger Fisher, Howard Leese, and more.  There's a narrator who announces who's speaking. Unnecessary in the case of the Wilsons. Nancy's voice is sweet, and she has a way of inflecting sentences in the MIDdle, almost as if they are a QUEStion. Ann's voice is richer and lower in timbre, but was also somewhat raspy, and I wondered if she recorded her narration with a cold.

It's quite long - almost nine hours. I became impatient with all the backstory - where's the Magic, Man? But as it continued, I saw how it all fit together.

Women in rock had traditionally been offered two places - at the microphone, and in a hotel bed, as groupies.

English: Nancy Wilson of the American rock ban...
English: Nancy Wilson of the American rock band Heart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ann and Nancy didn't want to be the Beatles' girlfriends, like their friends did - they wanted to be the Beatles; to play their own music, write their own songs, to be feminine and sexy and powerful. So they drew inspiration from ancestress Hannah Dustin, who wielded a mighty axe of her own, in a way that had not been expected of her.

Ann was raised on the story of their mother Lou taking the train from Oregon to the East Coast to marry their father, Dotes. So why shouldn't Ann  leave the US for love, to find Mike Fisher in Canada?

The life of Marine military brats, never staying anywhere long enough to have houseplants, always packing up and moving to their father's latest posting, set them up for the gypsy life of a touring rock band. The military uniforms even influenced some of their costumes in the 1980's. Well, that, and Ann's major crush on Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty.

No, They Can't Pass for Girls in their Twenties Anymore

So why is this fact treated as if the Wilsons have somehow betrayed their fans by daring to grow older (and sometimes heavier)?  They are in their sixties (or close to it, in Nancy's case). They have had hit records in five fucking decades, and yet, some reviewers continually pan them based on the "distraction" of Ann's fluctuating size. K & D discusses Ann's struggles with her weight going back to pre-adolescence (something I can certainly relate to), and the pressure this put upon her, and the band - as if the only accepted standard of beauty is thin, and the only measure of musical quality for a femme-led band is not voice, nor songwriting quality, nor musical performance, but the size and shape of the female members.

I adore Robert Plant (who, meaning no disrespect, looks like he has been "ridden hard and put away wet too many times"), and Led Zeppelin, who turned out incredible, groundbreaking music in the nine years they performed as a band. But reality is, he can't still still carry this song... and Ann can.

Btw, that's Jason Bonham (John's son) on drums
Love love love the gospel choirs & orchestra arrangement. Gives me goosebumps

Something I discovered in listening to K & D, was that Heart originally performed a 30-minute set of Led Zeppelin covers every night as part of their 5 hour set in Vancouver. That they were even dubbed by some as "Little Led Zeppelin."

Crazy On You

Ann had joined a Seattle band that included guitarist Roger Fisher, who surprised Ann with her first glimpse of "full frontal" male nudity in a post-gig hotel room.

And then she met his brother, Michael.

Ann talks frankly about her love/obsession for Michael Fisher. Quitting the band and taking off for Canada (whence M. Fisher had gone to escape the Vietnam draft), and living with him in a little round house over a stream, in a bed built on driftwood branches. "It completely took me over," she says.

Can you relate to "losing it" for a Magic Man - or Woman?

Michael Fisher was Heart's first manager. He had a "five year plan," and was quite controlling of various details, including Ann's diet. When Nancy joined the band, she became involved with lead guitarist Roger Fisher, Michael's younger brother, forming as it were a"never-ending double date," with Ann and Michael as the alpha couple.  The problem (or one of them) was that Roger "wasn't built for monogamy," something Nancy discovered early on, but accepted/tolerated, until her attraction to drummer (Michael) Derosier inspired her to make a formal break with Roger.

Sometimes a woman (or man) can take so much, for so long,in the interest of preserving a relationship, and then it simply becomes too much.

I love the brass horns on this; not so sure about Nancy's sailor suit

Roger Fisher was very open about his "dalliances," but part of the issue was his drug use (something not unique to Roger), and another part was that while he was a brilliant performer live, he struggled when called upon to lay down studio tracks, repetion after repetition.  After a period of intense friction within the band, RF was voted out, and shortly after, Ann's boyfriend Michael (who had also strayed physically and emotionally), was gone as well.

Bebe Le Strange was the first post-Wilshers (Wilson-Fishers) album, and although it was still filled with passion and emotion and sold well, the two albums that followed, Private Audition and Passionworks, met lackluster sales. Most chart-breaking rock bands never lasted beyond five years. Was Heart finished?

Leave It To Cleavage

Heart dubbed every concert tour with a nickname. A tour particularly laden with accidents and mishaps was subbed the "Crash and Burn" tour.

The Eighties were dusted with a fine white powder called cocaine for almost everyone in in the music industry, Heart included. New management, new record label. MTV was the big thing, calling for expen$ive video productions costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, corsets, hair spray, stilettos, and musical compromises like outside songwriters that it sounds like, in retrospect, the Wilson sisters greatly regret. (Though they wouldn't say so outright, perhaps so as not to alienate their fans who loooove their eighties material, which brought them greater Billboard charting than previous efforts.)

I do love this song, and many, if not all, of their eighties hits, especially There's The Girl

Ann and Nancy did refer to it, however, as a "Deal with the Devil." Fans who'd seen the videos expected to see the hairsprayed, elaborately made-up Wilson sisters in concert. Never mind that moving across the stage in heels for two hours ain't the same thing as a .3 second shot in a video. Additionally, the almost continuous MTV-play of their 80's material meant that instead of fame expanding their worlds, their worlds were shrunk. Following the assassination of John Lennon by a crazed fan, and death threats against them, Ann and Nancy could not even hang out in the lobby of their hotels. They would bring a VCR in their baggage, order room service, and hole up in their hotel rooms, watching classic movies like Gone With The Wind, rather than being free to explore their host city.

Ann also detailed the painful experience, early on, of learning that the groupie/one night stand experience was not something she could experiment with. The band had visited a club in one tour city, there had been been many attractive people there, including an attractive and charming male fan Ann invited back to her hotel room.

In the morning, she awoke to hearing him call in to a radio station with a whispered, "Guess who I'm in bed with?" This wouldn't have been radio-worthy for an Aerosmith groupie, or a Rolling Stones groupie, but it brought home the point that "road romances" were not gender-neutral.

Other Miscellaneous Details of Kicking and Dreaming

  • It bugged me that although song lyrics were spoken, there weren't audio clips of the songs, or the lyrics being sung, rather than read. Copyright issues, no doubt.
  • The intriguing details about the Magazine album, and finishing it under armed guard.
  •  I loved hearing about the "birth" of one of my favorite songs, Mistral Wind.
  • The many stars who tried (and failed) to bed the Wilson sisters, either separately or together.
  •  Ann referring to "the song writing me," something I often feel about a story.
  • The glimpses of the birth of the Seattle grunge movement, and Ann as one of its "mothers," down to sheltering its stars in her home and (platonically) in her bed.
  • I cannot now remember which Heart band member wore unitards so as to show off his third nipple.
  • The birth of the Lovemongers acoustic group.
  • The 1995 official Heart hiatus as Nancy needed to work on babymaking.
I highly recommend this book - loved the audio version, and plan to pick up the hardcopy, when funds permit, as well as fill in the holes in my Heart musical collection.

Leaving you with one last taste, one of my ultimate favorites, Love Alive. It's got everything (except top recording quality): amazing vocals, Ann's flute, fabulous interaction between Nancy and Roger, great guitar solo, wonderful acoustic guitar, driving bass, blood harmonies...

Are you keeping your Love Alive?
Have you read or listened to Kicking and Dreaming?
Do you have your own Heart memory?
If you have one, what's your favorite Heart or Lovemonger song?

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