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Heart Attack

How two sisters from Seattle teamed up to take on the world

May 15, 1980
Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart
Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart
Ron Galella/WireImage

They have led us to a new way of looking, acting, thinking and moving; to a new and sensitive way of expressing ourselves in music; to freedom in conformity.
—Ann Wilson, an excerpt from her winning entry in a 1966 Beatles essay contest

Ghost houses, we used to call them. There were always one or two in the suburban community where I grew up: houses where the curtains never parted, where trick-or-treaters never knocked – empty houses. You'd hear all kinds of stories about why the people who had lived in them packed up their belongings and fled in the middle of the night – bankruptcies, scandals, sometimes worse. Most people steered clear of ghost houses; it wasn't that they were particularly spooky, but they raised doubts. In a world where everything was supposed to be just fine, a ghost house was concrete, unavoidable evidence that something was awry. Maybe that's why they tended to be favorite hangouts for a certain type of teenager: the kids who grew their hair long, sneaked out of gym class to get high. The kids who, like the ghost houses, didn't fit in.

The house where Ann and Nancy Wilson grew upon 166th Avenue in Bellevue, a middle-class suburb of Seattle – is a ghost house now. Their parents moved to a more secluded neighborhood two years ago. To get to the old house, you drive down a two-lane commercial strip, past shopping centers and Burger Kings, past new garden-apartment developments with names like Innisfree and Pine View. "There are a thousand places that look just like this. You see them when you go on the road," Ann Wilson says as she pulls her Land-Rover off the highway onto the main street of a housing complex. "But I can remember when this street seemed psychedelic to me," she adds, laughing.

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It has been threatening rain all morning, and a sudden storm blows up just as we pull into the driveway of the house marked 541. "Did you see that?" Nancy Wilson exclaims. "Just as we passed Mrs. Nelson's house, she parted her curtains and waved. It's been years since we've come by here. But it's like nothing has changed." She looks at her sister, manages a half-smile, and Ann laughs again, a little uneasily this time.

We go inside. Since the Wilsons moved out, someone had painted the foyer walls an optimistic canary yellow. But without furniture, the split-level house feels blank and chilly. Ann immediately begins exploring the place, nosing around from room to room like a detective looking for clues. She finds them: hand prints pressed into the cement on the back porch, the kitchen cabinet where the vanilla wafers always used to be, the well-worn spot on the recreation-room floor where she and her sister practiced the guitar.

"It's still here!" Nancy yells from upstairs. "Come look." She stands in the middle of the tiny bedroom that was once hers and points out an I LOVE YOU painted in Day-Glo on the window sash. "I put that there when I was about thirteen," she explains, shyly. "I'd written a song about the rain, and I wanted to let the rain know how much I loved it." She blushes a little and locks eyes for an instant with her older sister. Ann, the dark-haired Wilson, is twenty-nine. Blond, blue-eyed Nancy is twenty-six. D.W. Griffith might have made starlets of them had they been born fifty years earlier. They have a luminous, un-self-conscious beauty and opalescent complexions that make them appear oddly ageless, untouched by experience.

Inside Ann's old bedroom, across a narrow hall, the talk turns to the sisters' teenage years: the acid trips on Ringo Starr's birthday; the stoned joy rides; the pusher who'd throw lids of grass through Ann's bedroom window; the hours spent behind closed doors in those little rooms, writing poetry, playing records, daydreaming. "While we were doing all this stuff, we felt really unusual," Ann says. "But we were pretty normal for the time we grew up in. What we experienced was going on in suburbs all over the country. We weren't that different."

Something, I interject, must have made them different. But what?

Rain pounds on the macadam driveway. Somewhere, a station-wagon door slams.

"I don't know," Ann Wilson says after a long time. "I really don't know."

The House Where Ann And Nancy Wilson live now is only a fifteen-minute drive from the ghost house numbered 541, but it seems much farther away. It is a quirky little structure, full of odd angles and ambitious skylights, tucked away at the end of a long dirt road that winds through a wooded area near Seattle. When you pass the nearest house, at the foot of the hill, the owner does not look out and wave. There are a couple of horses grazing in a paddock out front, two Volvos in the driveway, a Land-Rover parked in an open garage. Nothing remarkable – just another house in the woods that happens to be shared by two of the most successful women in rock & roll.

Heart, the band that Ann, and later Nancy, joined a few years after high school, has sold several million albums since its recording debut in 1975. The first LP, Dreamboat Annie, released on Mushroom, a small, independent Canadian label, went platinum in less than seven months. In early 1977, the band left Mushroom and signed with CBS' Portrait label, touching off a complicated legal struggle. Their subsequent records – 1977's Little Queen and 1978's Dog & Butterfly – have sold upwards of a million copies. Their newest LP, Bebe le Strange, on Epic, has cracked the Top Five.

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