Heart Attack

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

Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart
Ron Galella/WireImage
Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart
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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.

Heart (lead vocalist Ann Wilson, singer-guitarist Nancy Wilson, drummer Michael Derosier, bassist Steve Fossen and keyboardist Howard Leese) is a curious marriage of musical opposites. The most commercially successful Heart songs – "Magic Man," "Barracuda" and "Crazy on You" – graft heavy-metal musicianship to emotional, image-laden lyrics. This unlikely combination is held together by Ann's powerful, three-octave soprano. She can belt and screech the hardest rock tune, then slide through every delicate nuance of a tender folk ballad.

Ann and Nancy did not live together during most of the five years that Heart has been in the public eye. Nancy was romantically involved with Roger Fisher, Heart's original guitarist, and Ann was living with Roger's brother, Mike, the group's soundman and first manager. There have been some changes. A year and a half ago, Nancy broke up with Roger; he remained in the band, however, until October, just as Heart was about to record Bebe le Strange. Ann and Mike Fisher had been together for nine years. Then, one morning last October, Ann woke up and telephoned her mother, her sister and her childhood friend, Sue Ennis. They came over to the house she shared with Mike and loaded all her belongings into her Land-Rover.

"Wham! It hit me just like that," Ann remembers. "In the car, driving back to Nancy's house, it occurred to me – this is really over. The whole business was finished in six hours." The tears, she says, lasted considerably longer.

Ann, Nancy and Sue Ennis have shared the house in the woods ever since. "This place is like a girls' dorm right now," Sue giggles. A doctoral candidate in Germanic literature at Berkeley, Ennis has been writing songs with the Wilson sisters since high school. She collaborated on most of the material on Dog & Butterfly and Bebe le Strange. Disillusioned with academic life, she took up Ann's longstanding invitation to move back to Washington and work on songwriting full time.

They make an interesting trio: the wisecracking older sister, the delicate younger one and the tall, serious, angular best friend. A day at the house with the women is alternately sober and giddy. They will sit in the living room, doodle with the piano, hash out new song ideas in hour-long sessions (this is how much of Bebe le Strange was written). They will run over to Nancy's jukebox, press a few buttons and dance vintage 1965 steps to "Poison Ivy" and "Wooly Bully." They have a volume of inside jokes, and tend to finish each other's sentences:

"Do you remember the strange night . . . ?" Ann begins.

"The night we went to Shakey's?" says Sue.

"Oh, God, the faces on those people!" Nancy adds.

Then they will convulse in chuckles and translate for strangers.

"You see," Ann explains, "this is about . . . well, the song 'Strange Night' on the new album is about one night when the three of us dressed up really weird and went over to Shakey's Pizza Parlor. It was a real family place, and Wednesday was singalong night, and there'd be all these parents and grandparents and kids and stuff there, singing 'Old MacDonald.' We drove up, walked in and just stood there for a while, just to freak everybody out."

"The song lyrics of 'Strange Night' are about that," Nancy adds. " 'Get out that wig . . . put on those shiny pointed shoes . . . we'll have a strange night.' "

"The funny thing is that people have come up to us and asked if the song is about a drag queen," Ann snorts, "Can you beat that? I think they are disappointed when we tell them the real story. People want you to be decadent, and racy. Then they find out you're just writing about some girls!

"But," she asks, "don't you think it's more fun our way?"

Ann laughs and walks into her bedroom for a minute. She swings the door shut; there's a photograph tacked to it: Paul McCartney.

Sue Ennis Recognized the girl in the picture right away. There she was, on the front page of the second section of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, under the headline 5 BEATLE LETTER WINNERS. It was Ann Wilson, holding her first prize, a Revere "Magic Eye" camera. Ann Wilson! That strange girl who sat a few seats away in German III Class, who never talked to anybody. Sue had been watching Ann all term. She carried her books funny, under her arm instead of up against her chest like the other girls at Sammamish High School, and she didn't have any friends, and didn't seem to care. Sue was a loner too, but she kept up a couple of phony friendships with girls you hang out with just so people don't think you're a total zero. Ann didn't bother with that, and Sue respected her for it. And she was into the Beatles! Sue decided that she had to make contact with Ann. But she would have to be very cool.

The next Monday, after German, Sue sauntered by Ann's desk, humming a Beatles tune. Nothing obvious – the sitar riff from "Love You To" – something only another true believer would recognize. No reaction. Sue pulled a desperate move and started beating out the rhythm with her fingertips on her loose-leaf notebook. Dum dum dum! Finally. Ann looked up.

"So, you're into the Beatles," she said, yawning.

"Yeah," Sue twirled a strand of hair around her index finger, pretending to be bored.

"I suppose you didn't get to see 'em."

"Left mezzanine, thirtieth row, third seat in."

"What didja wear?"

They sat in the cafeteria together next period and didn't stop talking long enough to eat lunch. Ann had a younger sister, Sue found out, and they played guitar in their own folk group. Ann thought the Moody Blues' Justin Hayward was supercool, and she had a crush on that weird-looking transfer student with the British accent who Sue had been mooning after for months.

That afternoon, Sue ran home from the bus stop, clutching her books under her left arm. There was someone else!

It was in many ways a classic adolescent girls' friendship: the shared confidences, the private jokes, the neatly pulled-off capers. "Nance and Sue and I built a protective wall that we lived behind," Ann remembers. "An exclusive society with its own language and its own culture." They called each other Connie – pronounced Cah-nee in a mock little-girl voice – because the name summed up everything they hated about the super-straight high-school girls they couldn't, and wouldn't, become. They broke rules: once they stuffed Nancy, who was underage, into the trunk of Sue's Mustang to sneak her into a drive-in showing the R-rated Candy.

But because this was the suburbs, and because it was the late Sixties, the fantasy world they shared had an added dimension. "We were physically here," Ann explains, sweeping her arms to indicate the tract-home landscape outside her parents' house. "But most of the time we lived out there." "Out there" was "swinging London," go-go boots, Yardley green eye shadow. "Out there" was grass and LSD. "Out there" was also music.

They played and wrote songs constantly, moody evocations of late-adolescent alienation. "Sensitive in the suburbs," Ann jokes now, a little sheepishly. "I guess it seems funny to be writing songs like that when most of what you've been doing so far in your life is sitting in your room."

In 1968, Ann and Sue graduated from Sammamish High School, and it all changed. Sue, the girl who had always kept a few "socially acceptable" girlfriends, who always did well in class, decided to leave Bellevue and go away to college. The triumvirate was broken, at least temporarily.

Ann Wilson, the loner, had other ideas.

"Vancouver. God, the whole time I was up there, I felt like we were in a dream. I really wanted to get back home."

It is breakfast time at the Wilson house, and Ann is sipping Tab as she tells the story of what happened to her after high school. Nancy and Sue wander in and out of the kitchen. occasionally adding to her monologue.

"It began in Seattle. I met Roger [Fisher] and Steve [Fossen], and we formed a group. I was the 'chick singer' – ha! One night we had a gig playing in Bellingham. which is a college town up north. Mike [Fisher] was in Canada then, times being what they were.

"Before I knew Mike, when he lived here, he went through this 'acid priest' phase. Got into Eastern religion. At one point, he was running around in military fatigues, with his head shaved, giving acid to people. Anyway, we played this club in Bellingham, and Mike sneaked down to see his little brother's new band. He'd heard his brother say there was this chick in the group, and when he walked into rehearsal. there she was, sitting on the dance floor wearing old jeans with this big ciggie hanging out of her mouth, a glass of wine, trying to learn the words to this Janis Joplin song, 'Move Over.' Yeah, man. A tough chick, y'know? Mike kinda went, 'God, who's that!' and stuck around that night. He drank a pitcher of beer, and we started to get to know each other. It was one of those deals where things go gonnnnggggg! He asked me to go up to Canada with him. But I was too scared. The 'tough chick' thing was all a front. I thought he just wanted to, uh, make it or something. But eventually, I just had to move to Canada. I just kind of came to him. It lasted nine years.

"It was really hard times. There I was, I'd followed this man to Canada. We all lived in this one room – this is the story everybody in the band hates now – and ate brown rice. Steve and Roger were married then, and they had their wives there, and Steve had a child. I had to learn to be one of the hens. It just drove me crazy! This middle-class princess from Bellevue had to wash her hair in cold water and be the cook of the house.

"Nancy finally came up. We were so crazy to play together. And when she did, I started to return to myself, 'cause I was getting real far away, really starting to become 'a chick.' Anyway, you get the picture.

"Mike had the business head. He drove our truck. He and Rog and Steve built all the equipment for Heart. It sounds like we were spaced out, but we weren't. We were organized and efficient. We thought, 'Okay, first we'll make enough to buy a truck. Then we'll make enough to buy better equipment. Then make a record. Then, after that, we'll be able to move to the States.' "

She pauses, then continues. "After Dreamboat Annie – with things happening so fast – we got a manager. But Mike and I continued to be patriarch and matriarch of the group. As the years went on, things got more polarized – he handled the technical aspects and I sort of took care of the music. But he would still advise me on the artistic aspects of things, and that eventually turned into a problem. After a while, I stopped wanting to be advised."

From the bedroom, Nancy chimes in, "Me too."

"It was a hard fight. From the beginning, when we all had nothing, and had to really rely on each other, remembering those days makes it hard to wrench apart, to get free. Five years. It was hard. And with Mike and me, it was kind of a Pygmalion story. He was the one person who really encouraged me, who said, 'Come on, Ann, you can do it.' Then his job was finished. It was really hard for both of us to realize that. I left him, but I'd really left him a long time ago."

She sits silently for a moment, then puts down her glass and jumps off her perch on the kitchen stool.

"Come on. Let's go out driving."

Come on, Connie. You can do it. Go. Now!" Sue Ennis barks.

Ann cranes her neck around to make sure, then zips the Rover across three lanes of traffic. She manages this maneuver while maintaining a steady high-third harmony to a four-voice version of "The Cruel War" (the Land-Rover has no radio). Other songs on the four-part hit parade: "Sealed with a Kiss," "99 Bottles of Beer" and "The Name Game." It feels as if we're cruising to summer camp.

"I guess it really has come down to the boys and the girls in Heart," Ann reflects. "We didn't purposely set out that way, but that's the way it's worked out, 'cause the girls write the songs, and we all live together, and we're old friends. We don't try to beat 'em down or anything. We have boys who are very, very good musicians, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're the creators."

Has it ever occurred to her to do without the boys?

"No. Nance and I really like being in a band. If it wasn't these boys, there would be other ones. That's the real truth of it."

She shrugs, downshifts and pulls off the exit ramp for downtown Seattle.

Howard Leese Is An Affable twenty-eight-year-old with shoulder-length shag-cut blond hair. He has played keyboards, synthesizer and guitar with Heart since the Dreamboat Annie LP. His role in Heart seems to be co-musical director. He writes charts and helps the Wilson sisters translate their ideas into technical language.

"The band is a pretty democratic thing. There's no duking it out," he tells me. "The girls bring us the songs, then we hash things out. Sometimes the songs change a lot. 'Strange Night' came in as a folk song, then turned into heavy rock. Then sometimes they bring us a jewel in the rough, like 'Mistral Wind.' That song had bars of 5/7 and 9/8 in it – a pop song! Ten years from now, that's the song people will remember us by.

"Roger? He was nontechnical, a 'feel' musician, and just didn't fit the band. I did the lead on the recording of 'Magic Man' when Roger was having trouble. Sometimes he would forget his lead parts and have to learn them over before we went out on tour again. But he'd been in the band almost thirteen years, and we went along with it. Probably longer than we should have."

Roger Fisher, 30, lives with his brother in a house several minutes away from the Wilson sisters' in the Seattle outskirts. He is currently working with his own band, Fisher, and looking for a record deal, but he's willing to talk about Heart. He chooses his words carefully, and stops often to make sure he is understood.

"I have no animosity toward anybody. Whether or not I had to relearn my guitar parts, I always gave 100 percent onstage. The break was pretty mutual. The girls weren't liking anything I was playing. I was so depressed in the last year and a half. There was no future! Ann doesn't think much of lead guitar playing.

"You see," he sighs, "back in Vancouver, it was mainly Mike at the wheel. His spirit had Ann and me cranked up to do our best. But once we got more famous, we lost sight of the need for greatness. It's Ann and Nancy's band now. It's not a group."

It's two weeks before the first date of a ten-month tour to support Bebe le Strange, and Heart has rented the Seattle Paramount, a splendid old art nouveau theater, for five nights of rehearsals. There's every reason for the rehearsals to be tense; without Roger Fisher's guitar acrobatics, the band has lost much of its visual focus. In addition, all the songs have to be reworked – the guitar breaks reassigned to either Nancy or Howard Leese, or written out of the arrangement. Yet the atmosphere is relaxed, even a little careless. Most of the old songs get one run-through, and nothing is played more than twice. The evenings end promptly at 10:30.

On the last night of rehearsal, the band invites family and friends to come by. During the middle of the set, Mrs. Lou Wilson, a pretty, fiftyish woman with bright blue eyes much like Nancy's, introduces herself. We move out into the lobby, sit on the stairs and talk while the sound of her daughters' band echoes softly in the distance.

The Wilsons, she explains, are an old military family, going back several generations. John Wilson, her husband, was a colonel in the marines who settled in Seattle after retiring and taught English at Sammamish High School. While Nancy and Ann were growing up, they lived in Southern California and Taiwan with their older sister, Lynn (now in Oregon with her four children).

"Yes, the girls have been able to hold onto the friendships and the values they've had from childhood. I was so afraid when I saw they were intent on entering the world of show business. But they haven't gotten tough or hard." She smiles thoughtfully. "It's a miracle.

"I don't have all the answers to why they haven't changed, but I have a theory," she continues. "We had incredible friends, an incredible support system based around the Congregational church. It's a very liberal church, with young ministers. At the same time our children were going through the Sixties, so were John and I. We left a world of phoniness and suburban values and became active in social issues. We smoked pot with our kids and did other things we never would have dreamed of doing. I marched in a peace march with three daughters and a grandson on my shoulders."

Ann, according to Mrs. Wilson, had a difficult childhood. "She was born just about ten days before her father left for Korea. All my loneliness and my fears, and here was this beautiful little baby that looked so much like him. Well, I smothered her with more affection and love than was normal." Ann had a bad speech impediment, and was obese during adolescence. Her stammer began to disappear when she took up the guitar, but she still has a running battle with her weight. "Ann learned very early that trick she has of standing outside of herself and making fun of herself. It was a defense."

Once, Mrs. Wilson says, she asked Ann what it felt like to be onstage in front of thousands of people. "It was a silly question, but I knew she'd really tell me what was in her mind. Do you know what she said? 'I think, okay for all of you. You guys used to call me fatty!'

"She's always so scared before she goes onstage," Mrs. Wilson muses, almost to herself. "Mike used to walk her out every night. I wonder who will walk her out now?" She stands up to go back inside, drawn by the music. "She'll be all right. I know she will."

"It is a little scary. When we were on the road and I was with Mike, and Nance was with Rog, well, we were protected from being hassled, from being lonely. This time, I don't know. Nance and I are going to try to always stay in a suite with two bedrooms attached to a living room. That way, we can have friends up, play guitar, watch TV. . . . "

Nancy Wilson interrupts her sister, laughing a little. "We'll be each other's keepers!"

Sammamish High School is a low, tan-colored cinder-block sprawl, the kind of building that was built quickly and cheaply to accommodate the sudden influx of students in the early Sixties. There is a large parking lot out front, athletic fields filled with gym classes on either side, and a carved totem-pole bulletin board by the entrance that reads WELCOME TO THE HOME OF THE SAMMAMISH TOTEMS. When we pass by, on the way back from the "ghost house," Ann pulls the Land-Rover into the lot, almost by reflex.

"God, I haven't been here in ages," she says, looking at Sue. Almost at once, they both say, "Let's go in."

It should be weird, like the "strange night," but it isn't. Here are these two strange girls-well, not girls, women – one dressed in Carnaby Street regalia, the other in a large cowboy hat, being trailed through the corridors of Sammamish High between fifth and sixth periods by a woman with a notebook and a photographer with four cameras hanging from her neck. But what is weird is that, for five minutes, nobody notices.

Finally, a boy wearing a neat tie, a student government sort, one of the social types, walks over and shakes Ann's hand. "Welcome to Sammamish. Will you be attending our performance of 'The Music Man'?" He adds, almost as an afterthought, "I enjoy your records very much." And walks away.

We move farther down the corridor, past the German classroom where Ann and Sue met, past the art department. Ann turns around and sees we're being followed, discreetly, by about fifty students--cheerleaders in uniform, studious girls carrying books up against their chests, boys with their hair still wet from gym showers. Kids who fit in. She signs a few autographs, and we flee to the Land-Rover.

"Sort of like A Hard Day's Night, huh?" someone says when we get back in the car.

"Yeah." Ann chuckles wryly. "A lot like Hard Day's Night."

She hits the gas, and we high-tail it out of the parking lot, turning left instead of right at the light, which is the only way to keep from getting caught by the proctors if you're cutting out of sixth-period study to hang out at the ghost house.

This story appeared in the May 15, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 317: May 15, 1980