As amazing as it may seem, there have been 27 members of Heart since the group’s formation in the mid-1970s, including the revolving door of multiple drummers who have come and gone in, as characterized, Spinal Tap-like fashion — albeit less explosively. But of course the heart of Heart has always been sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, “partners in creativity, business, and a force of two against the world.”
With Fanatic, a fine new album of edgy immediacy and introspection, the multi-disc box set retrospective Strange Euphoria, and the announcement that Heart has been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the beat goes on for the first female-led rock group. “Kick it out!,” indeed.
The gamut between creativity and business, aspiration and the reality, is couched in a wide-ranging array of life experiences and stages of musical evolution deftly captured in Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll, a memoir written with rock biographer Charles R. Cross. Structured in sections traded off between vocalist Ann and guitarist Nancy — with a few pages here and there offered up by a handful of friends and colleagues – Kicking and Dreaming is not a tell-all or warts-and-all confessional. But it does dutifully and candidly chronicle some escapades via the sex and drugs seemingly pervasive to rock and roll — and they do name names — with the Wilsons’ own drug use rated by Nancy at three on a scale of ten, “with ten being Keith Richards.” As for other artists on a human decency level, it pays to be a class act with potential biographers (take a bow John Paul Jones and Joni Mitchell), while those lacking the social graces should especially take heed of peers mentally kicking ass and taking names. (You can change your name, John Cougar, but you can’t hide).
As for self-assessment and setting the record straight when it comes to addressing misconceptions about the Wilson personas, the book might try to dispel Ann’s image, as the younger Nancy not entirely convincingly says, as “fierce and raw, and me as ethereal and angelic; even though those roles had little basis in reality, they had more to do with our hair color than our personalities.” That seems a debatable simplification, while the truth that emerges throughout the respective narratives is much more multifaceted, in line with Ann and Nancy’s complex personalities — and not entirely unconnected to their profession. Both had relationships (most notably with guitarist and manager brothers Roger Fisher and Mike Fisher) that wreaked havoc with their emotions and the group’s progression. And Nancy’s marriage to writer Cameron Crowe, though it ended in divorce, lasted for 27 years, mostly happy ones, especially as it led to parenthood and twin baby boys. But the fact that she lived in Los Angeles with a growing family while Ann was in Seattle, led to such professional and personal strain that Nancy quit Heart, leading to a hiatus for the group for much of the ’90s.
Furthermore, the battle that Ann faced with her weight had repercussions for such aspects as public image and video appearances in the commercial 1980s, while her cocaine habit — indulged in partly as an appetite suppressant — made her paranoid, panicky and self-conscious about her weight, leaving her unfocused in performance. “What came over me was an uncontrollable surge of adrenaline, pure fight or flight,” she says. “I wanted to flee from the humiliating criticism, and from the pressure to personify the MTV sex goddess image in real life.”
And that was even before the so-nicknamed “Leave it to Cleavage Tour” was launched. Artistic freedom was decidedly not in cards for much of the heavy-hair ’80s, as the stream of early hits such as “Crazy on You,” “Magic Man,” and “Barracuda” dried up and CBS Records, for whom Heart delivered seven albums and sold 12 million records, dropped them. After being rejected by five labels, Capitol Records swept them up under the condition that the Wilson sisters take on outside writers or cowrite with hit-factory songwriters. The result was the group’s biggest-ever album, the eponymous Heart (followed by Bad Animals and Brigade), and a string of hits such as “What About Love,” “These Dreams,” and “All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You.” Ann and Nancy had mixed feelings about this multi-platinum era of their career, resentful of the objectification, compromises, and corsets, but thankful for the sales that allowed them to build their own studio in Seattle, and to buy new homes, one of which became a sanctuary for musicians in the burgeoning grunge movement.
As for the Wilsons’ own grunge-like spirit of independence and defiance, their true sense of individualism hearkens back to, as Kicking and Dreaming’s most absorbing and cohesive chapters attest, their childhood and teenage years as music grabbed hold of them and never let go. Raised by loving parents, Ann and Nancy and their oldest sister Lynn (called the most rebellious of them all), moved around a lot to wherever their Marine officer father was stationed in the U.S. and overseas, a potentially disruptive turn of events for children trying to negotiate the barriers of school-age socialization. But Ann and Nancy, though four years separated them, found refuge in their sisterly bond, furthered along by Ann’s interest in singing, and Nancy’s attraction to the guitar.
Central to the solidification of that bond, and to the girls’ musical advancement, are two events. The first was the arrival of the Beatles, and their first landmark television appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on February 9, 1964, a day that marked, as Nancy puts it, “Who we were, and who we imagined we could be. … From that day forward, we were aimed like arrows.” Only that aim wasn’t in the same direction as other girls their age who found fascination with the Beatles for other reasons than music. Amounting to a “conflict that would often repeat,” Ann and Nancy — in an experience that even hampered the formation of their own pretend Beatles band — hit upon a revelation:
“The girls we grew up with saw the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones as romantic conquests, their music simply a soundtrack to kissing, hand-holding, to girl-boy love stuff. It’s not that Ann and I didn’t imagine romance as part of our future, because we did, but music was more important. To us, the Beatles were deadly serious stuff, something we studied like scholars, looking for meaning and wisdom.”
The second seminal circumstance occurred in 1967 at Ann and Nancy’s first public debut as a duo at a “Youth Sunday” show at the Wilson family’s First Congregational Church. In an act chalked up in part to unwitting indiscretion and naivety, the girls performed — during a time when Vietnam War sensitivities had even divided the congregation — an antiwar song containing the word “hell,” and for when the music was to be over, the Doors’ “When the Music’s Over.” “Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection,” indeed! Between the performances of the two songs, most of the audience was gone. Feeling “equal parts guilt and pride,” Nancy tried to sort it out but ultimately concluded that the experience “lit a bonfire under us because we saw for the first time that what we did on stage could have an impact on an audience, even when it was a negative impact. … It was a turning point.”
Ann and Nancy Wilson may have lost sight of this liberation and unique vision — their own “rage against the machine,” as Nancy borrows a term — in the Capitol years of the ’80s and the disorderly ’90s when personal and familial issues splintered the artistry of Heart into side projects and solo turns. Nevertheless, persons, places, and things coalesce nicely in the closing pages as renewed efforts and inventive songcraft gain ground into the mid- to late-2000s and after 2010 as the sisters are once again “aimed like arrows” with strong albums like Jupiter’s Darling, Red Velvet Car — which became their first Top 10 album in 20 years — and now Fanatic. They are indeed “no longer lampooned for the very idea that they wanted to rock. That subtle change might be Heart’s greatest blow against the empire.”
For that quality and for being one of the few groups to have Top 10 hits in four different decades, they are once again indeed “partners in creativity, business, and a force of two against the world.”
But sometimes that “force of two” can be problematic for a dual memoir. If chronicling such crazy-quilt lives and careers — in sometimes two distinct settings and situations — makes for a scattered and fragmented narrative toward the final third of Kicking and Dreaming, that’s not necessarily a refreshing change from the book’s overall balanced and smoothed-out account, one that likely benefits from the as-told-to guidance of Charles R. Cross. The overarching third biographer, as much as he adds to style and structure, may seemingly contribute to a too-homogenized autobiography in which the two subjects’ “voices” are indistinguishable without referring back to a section head, and a reader may yearn for Ann and Nancy’s more individualistic personalities to emerge, even if it surfaces in a less seamless memoir.
Then again, maybe we should consider ourselves lucky that this wasn’t an autobiography by all members of Heart over the years. A force of 27? Kick that out!
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