Wilson Sisters Talk Heart to Heart

Kicking, leaping and belting out rock & roll in the tradition of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, Ann Wilson makes Heart beat. She talks about the high emotional price of being a woman in a business dominated by men.

Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart
Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson of Heart
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It may seem strange that anyone would object to being compared to such an illustrious group of artists, but Ann Wilson, Heart's dark-haired, 27-year-old lead singer, flautist and songwriter, does have a point. Coming out of nowhere, Heart is the first hard-rock band dominated by women – primarily Ann, with her 23-year-old sister Nancy just a step behind – to enjoy the smashing sort of success that comes from selling 2 1/2 million copies of their debut album (Dreamboat Annie with its hit singles, "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You"). Heart's second album, Little Queen, is currently following suit; the only difference is that Queen is selling faster than Dreamboat.

There are four men backing up the Wilsons (lead guitarist Roger Fisher, keyboardist Howard Leese, bassist Steve Fossen and drummer Michael Derosier). Heart's manager, Ken Kinnear, is quick to emphasize that "this is a group," but it would take a blind, deaf and very dumb person to miss the fact that Heart is Annie's band.

At Bill Graham's Day on the Green concert May 30th, the group was easily the most spirited, and the audience of 50,000 at the Oakland Stadium took to Heart with an enthusiasm that neither Steve Miller nor the Eagles managed to arouse. Onstage, Ann leaps, kicks, bends nearly double while belting out the torrid lyrics she writes with Nancy (mostly) and Roger Fisher.

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The band's show, though framed with hard-rock numbers (they open with "Magic Man" and close with their Runaways-like zinger and latest single, "Barracuda"), moves through some lush sounds, reflecting a kind of Renaissance/Steeleye Span sound. "Think about the Northwest woods," says Ann, trying to describe the band's "Sylvan Song," which opens to the sounds of birds twittering and crickets chirping. "Picture an open, stormy beach with a forest behind you and the mist and the woods and the cool moss."

It's Heart's day off between shows at the Oakland Stadium. Ocean Beach, at the western edge of San Francisco, is wreathed with chilly mists, but Ann and Nancy Wilson leap from their silver Fleetwood limousine, kick off their shoes and dash toward the waves anyway. "Is it really the ocean?" Ann exclaims. "We've been touring in the Midwest for weeks. This is like coming home." Looking strikingly like the good (blond) and evil (dark) sisters in Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, Nancy and Ann play tag with the ocean swells. Half-soaked from the spray, they run down the beach until, breathless, they collapse against the concrete sea wall.

I ask Ann if she feels any jealousy from the four men in the band because of her position as leader of a group formed nearly a decade before she joined. "There's really no jealousy," she says. "All the time, I say, 'Today I'm going out to do four interviews and if you guys want to come along, follow on, represent yourselves.' They always choose not to 'cause it's too much work; they'd rather lie out in the sun."

We pile back into the limousine and head for an old-fashioned Russian restaurant in San Francisco's Richmond district, before moving to an interview on radio station KSAN. A cadaverously thin pianist eases themes from Doctor Zhivago into the room and a tuxedoed violinist plays mazurkas and troikas to each table. Ann and Nancy are entranced. As we toast the success of the band's concert the day before with glasses of zubrovka vodka (flavored with buffalo grass), I ask Ann why she thinks she's making it as a woman in a rock band, while so many others, like Suzi Quatro, have vanished into the remainder bins.

"I guess it's because she was a bit macho and unwomanly," says Ann, nibbling on a piece of herring. "By womanly I don't mean you have to sell yourself out or anything like that. Hers was a temporary kind of appeal; people might be waiting for some kind of female appeal that's more natural, more balanced. Neither way over to macho nor way over to sleaze.

"I wouldn't say we're all that clean," Ann continues. "I mean, we're as clean as anybody, but how clean is anybody? We sort of stand for everybody's sexuality, not just freaks'. We're not women dominating men or the other way around – the sexual fantasy that we give onstage is a very natural one."

"I'd call it humanistic, too," Nancy adds. "It's the power and the strength of the male side of the rock scene along with the more delicate and appealing female talents on the acoustic music – in the soul."

Another vodka toast, this time to tomorrow's concert. I ask the Wilsons if, in a business dominated by men, their femininity is going to be crushed in a whirlwind of publicity and tour pressures.

Ann shrugs stoically. "I guess we'll just have to find out if it beats us down," she says.

"But we're not going to let ourselves be exploited," adds Nancy.

To a large extent, it's this particular streak of feistiness which kept Heart's spirits up when the group fell into a legal morass about six months ago – around the time that Dreamboat Annie was going double platinum.

The way the Wilsons and manager Ken Kinnear tell it, their record company – a fledgling operation called Mushroom Records, which hails out of Vancouver – began to wander from what the band considered to be its best interests. The only alternative, they say, was a complete break, which happened last January. The details of that fracture are expected to keep lawyers on both sides in gainful employment for several years to come.

"It all started to happen," says Nancy, "with the advent of money on the scene."

Ann says, "We left Mushroom because we had to. We really resented the fact that we spent ten months on the road last year with very few breaks, and every time some big laud was heaped on us Mushroom would say, 'Yeah, we did this and this.' Two hundred concerts, a million and a half people we played to. . . ."

"We felt there was a trend beginning in some of the publicity they were putting out about us," Ann continues, "that was a bit vulgarizing, especially of Nancy and me. There was a full-page ad in the format of the National Enquirer called the National Informer . . . vulgar! [Under a bare-shouldered photo of Ann and Nancy was a headline reading, Heart's Wilson Sisters Confess: 'It Was Only Our First Time!'] We don't wish Mushroom any ill will, we just had to leave to keep our art intact." 

Heart's roots go way back to 1963 when Steve Fossen joined up with Roger Fisher and his brother Mike (currently the band's soundman) to form a Seattle bar band called the Army, which transmuted into White Heart and then, around 1967, into Heart. It was an all-male rock band, playing the Seattle/Vancouver bar scene until 1970, when Ann took up with Mike Fisher and cast her fortunes with the band. Sister Nancy joined in 1974, almost a year before Heart signed with Mushroom. (Ann still lives with Mike while Nancy lives with Roger, eight minutes away by boat, on Seattle's Lake Washington.)

The Wilson sisters grew up in a military family – their father was a Marine Corps officer for 25 years – and spent their Wonder Bread years moving from one military base to another – Ann was born in San Diego and Nancy in San Francisco. "I think," says Ann, "that that's how we survive on these tours." And early on, they developed a reputation as singing sisters:

"Nancy and I just started singing together as children," says Ann. "And we started playing guitar together when I was 13 and she was eight [during a three-month joint hospitalization for mononucleosis]. I remember a talent show in the seventh grade – I sang the 'Swinging Shepherd Blues' dressed up as a clown, but that was a little too heavy for my vanity. We picked up Paul Simon and Peter, Paul and Mary songs from albums, and soon Beatles songs. We decided to have a protest rock group which is pretty close to impossible when you're 14 and you have nothing to protest – we grew up in a relatively sheltered existence. We tried to write songs about how we weren't getting enough to eat and we didn't have any roof over our heads . . . but we really did."

For the singing Wilson sisters, the change from an acoustic act to electric was much more painful than the switch from club act to concert act. "The electric guitar was a big step for me," says Nancy, "but I didn't spend a lot of time trying to adjust. It wasn't like, 'Hey, little lady, come strap on this here big guitar.' We took it in steps as much as possible."

Later in KSAN's studio A, the DJ, who happens to be Chinese, introduces Ann as Nancy. "No," she says, "I'm Ann, but it's all right, our father does it all the time."

"Yeah," says the DJ, "well, you white folks all look alike."

A listener calls to ask whatever became of Magazine, the album Heart was working on when it left Mushroom.

"It's still going to happen," Ann says. "As one result of our legal difficulties, four of our songs were put on ice by the courts, including the title song."

Another listener asks if the Wilsons can sing "Don't Touch Me There." After a long silence – the Wilsons have never sung "Don't Touch Me There," after all, and bear no resemblance to the Tubes – Ann chirps, "Yeah, we did that for a while but, y'know, Nancy didn't want to sing it anymore."

Finishing up the interview, the DJ asks the Wilsons if they've received any TV offers. "We were offered one serial-type thing," Ann says, laughing. "The Heart Show! I think that would make us too accessible to the public, it would dispel any hipness the band might have – after all, it's really hard to do anything artistic on a weekly TV show. Anyway, I couldn't be doing a series just because they needed a group with women in it."

Being in a band, traveling all over the country, living in hotels I just couldn't give a child any kind of meaningful existence. Rather than thinking about me Oh, I'd like to have a cute little bundle I try to think about the kid.
—Ann Wilson

Ann and Nancy are still at KSAN, talking about sexuality for a Population Institute tape that will be sent to radio stations as public-service messages.

"I learned about sex on my own," says Ann. "I think most people do. My first experience was just hideous, but it had to be that way 'cause I had to do it on the sly, so it couldn't be this beautiful, open thing. I wasn't exactly straight, either. I remember feeling that sex was this great shrouded mystery that I wasn't supposed to even look at, not until I was married."

The Wilsons are asked about the effect on their audience of sexual rock. "Porno rock, as we call it, is really dangerous to young people's minds. Just in the last few years since disco came in, we've seen people become less interested in each other and more interested in each other's bodies. Sex has become this real surface game.

"It's really maddening to us," continues Ann, "as women, to see young girls just lay themselves at the feet of any male who happens to be involved with rock & roll. It's really a sad sight, like sheep to the slaughter. It's so rare now when a girl actually says no. I wonder how many rock & roll babies there are around the world."

After the taping, I ask the Wilsons if they have trouble with groupies. "Us?" says Ann. "We're not really into it, and men, generally, are too proud for that. I don't think they're quite as quick to lay themselves at a girl's feet.

"In a lot of ways," she continues, "it's easier to be a woman in rock. So many doors are open since we're new and different. I think I'll really like it when people stop thinking of it as a novelty" – she does a Steve Martin imitation – " 'Hey, that's freaky, that's weird, they got women in their group.' It'll be neat when it's more commonplace."

The next day, in their dressing room backstage at the Oakland Stadium, the six members of Heart are sitting around after their performance.

Ann is now, as usual, the most vocal. Though there's no sense of tension, the group's founding members, à la Fleetwood Mac, are conscious of the changes wrought by Ann and Nancy. "By being so creative, and coming up with such good ideas," says Roger, wearing only a pair of jogging shorts, "they've challenged us males to do the same."

Both Nancy and Ann are sitting next to Roger, holding his hands. They look like a classically protective nuclear family.

I ask Ann one last question about the particularly bitter lyrics on" White Lightning & Wine," from Dreamboat Annie. The words are about the cannibalistic nature of rock & roll sex:

Sweet little one let me love you some
Take me or leave me alone
The gooder they come, the harder they fall
Turn around you are a nasty joke.

How do the very beautiful, very seductive singing sisters avoid being caught up in all this misery?

"That song was written in anger," Ann replies. "We just try to laugh at it . . . if you fight it, it will drive you crazy. I mean, what can you do?"

This story appeared in the July 28, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 244: July 28, 1977
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