“The cops were called, which I thought was totally unnecessary,” Heart‘s Ann Wilson says last month by phone from Colorado. “It was something that could have been worked out in a family meeting, but instead, it just went ballistic. I think it was overblown and just grew this other head. My gut reaction [after I found out what happened] was, ‘Let’s get everybody in a room and hash it out.’ All the emotional, super hyper-drama could have been avoided in the first hour.”
On August 26th, 2016, Heart performed at Auburn, Washington’s White River Amphitheatre, 30 minutes from where Ann and sister Nancy grew up near Seattle. With the families of both members backstage, it was supposed to be a celebratory homecoming show for the Hall of Fame duo in the midst of their U.S. tour.
But as the band began their last song onstage – a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” with Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready – a different scene was emerging backstage shortly after midnight. Nancy’s then-16-year-old twin sons asked their uncle, Ann’s husband Dean Wetter, if they could see Ann’s new tour bus. Wetter brought the teenagers and Nancy’s stepdaughter to the vehicle, but asked them to keep the door closed so the dogs on the bus couldn’t escape. When the twins exited the bus after the visit, the first one out left the door open for the other two behind him, enraging Wetter.
According to a detective’s report in court documents obtained by Rolling Stone, “Dean became immediately upset and began calling [one of the teens] names … slap[ping] him on the back of the head, causing pain.” The teen asked why he hit him, with Wetter responding by “punching [the teenager] in the back of the head with a closed fist, causing [him] to be stunned and see stars.” After Wetter grabbed him by the throat, Nancy’s other son intervened. Wetter grabbed the other teen by the throat and, according to a police report, began “squeezing [the other son’s throat] to the point that [he] could not breathe. [He] said that he was unable to breathe or talk and that he feared for his life and felt pain in his neck.” Police arrested the then-66-year-old Wetter, charging him with two counts of assault, one felony and one misdemeanor.
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“We just have to get through this first. It’s been kind of a nightmare.” –Nancy Wilson
On March 9th, Wetter pleaded guilty to two non-felony assault charges in the fourth degree. And while he won’t officially be sentenced until April 14th, all parties have agreed to a plea that will allow him to avoid jail time in lieu of two years unsupervised probation, individual counseling, group therapy, a ban on any alcohol or drugs, $3,000 restitution and no contact with Nancy Wilson’s two sons. (When asked for comment, a rep for Wetter replied, “Dean is not available for this article.”)
While Wetter admitted to police that he hit the teenagers on the night of the assault – “He said that he lost it with them and that he should not have touched them,” police wrote in their report – the aftermath is murkier; a Rashomon-like she-said/she-said that has threatened to upend the future and legacy of one of rock & roll’s most successful bands.
Wetter first appeared in the sisters’ lives in the 1980s on a blind date with Ann that Nancy, ironically, had set up. The pair went out for sushi and sake, with the night, and brief courtship, ending with Ann’s unsuccessful sexual advances. “He drove me home and I really put the make on him,” Ann says. “And he didn’t want to go there. He’s a super intellectual, brainy, complex, sensitive guy. And that’s not how he rolls, so he declined.”
The two reconnected three decades later while Wilson was on a promotional tour for the sisters’ autobiography Kicking and Dreaming and married in 2015. “We’ve been inseparable for two years now, 24/7,” Ann says. “He’s such a different animal from anyone else who’s ever come into our family that [Nancy] never really understood him. And that had a lot to do with what happened. He was demonized before we even got married because he’s a free spirit. He’s completely blunt and honest and open. He holds nothing in reserve and that puts people off right there. People take it personally.”
But one woman’s “free spirit” is, to quote Nancy’s description, another’s “oddball.” “He’s hard to know,” Nancy says of Wetter. “We were really trying to get to know the guy and it takes time to know anyone. He’s one of those crankpots and he’ll kind of mouth off about kids. What I didn’t know is that he’s a guy that had some issues that really came between me and wanting to see him anytime soon.”
Nancy says she hasn’t had any contact with Wetter since the assault, due in part to, according to her, Wetter never trying to apologize. “Ann came up on my bus [after the incident] and said, ‘I guess Dean must have touched the children, and he’s sorry, but he had to lie down and take a nap,'” she says. “And I’m like, ‘What? That makes no sense.’ I don’t think it was very cool of her to have to try to apologize and cover for him. I thought if he was an adult all by himself, he would face it and come and say he was sorry and try to explain the behavior, but that’s never, ever happened.”
But Ann claims Wetter wanted to apologize, but wasn’t welcome. “When I came offstage and Dean told me what had happened, the first thing he said to me was, ‘Go over onto Nancy’s bus and clear the way because I want to come on there and apologize and talk to them,'” Ann says. “I went over on Nancy’s bus and it was a scene where everyone in the Heart camp was sitting around. Everybody was all upset … and they wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t listen.”
“My side really hurt her side. Her side really hurt my side. We’ve got to let those heal and get some counseling.” –Ann Wilson
According to Ann, Wetter spent the ensuing three or four days after the incident in a jail cell as the band continued their U.S. tour. They managed to finish the tour, performing 20 more shows – Nancy calls them “excruciating”; Ann, “complete hell” – with the sisters, for the first time in their 43-year career, opting for separate dressing rooms and only communicating via third parties. Nancy considered walking away from the rest of the tour, requesting that Wetter not be allowed backstage, close to the stage or near her children.
The Wilson sisters have not been in the same room since Heart’s final show of the tour last October – Nancy describes the relationship now as “pretty strained” – though they occasionally talk via text message. The assault put Ann in an unenviable scenario: Defend your husband or defend your sister.
“I’m a person who is completely authentic in my love for my husband and understanding of him,” Ann says. “I know him and I know he was really provoked. And it was wrong for him to get into it, but I think he’s a person of extremely high moral fiber. It was just totally unfortunate all around.”
“I’m an eternal optimist because I’m from a really strong, tight family, and I don’t think any drama that’s temporary is going to change our strong relationship,” says Nancy. “We just have to get through this first. It’s been kind of a nightmare.”
Ann agrees with the sentiment, but adds that Nancy “feels Dean is a monster and is always on the attack.” “Dean is a Zen warrior; he’s not a fighter,” she says. “That was a really unfortunate situation that gave everyone the wrong impression about this guy. If she can look around and see that everything really is OK and that her boys were scared, but not hurt, harmed or even marked, then we’ll get back together as a family.” (In a statement released after the publication of this story, Nancy said, “As much as my sister would have liked to solve this as a family matter, it is categorically against the law not to report any violence against minors. The parents could face serious charges for not reporting.”)
According to Ann, while the assault became the most extreme division between the sisters in recent years, it wasn’t the first. As of a couple years ago, Ann says, “We no longer had a shared vision for what we wanted for Heart.”
“We didn’t want to see ourselves as an old, has-been legacy band just going out again and again to make the big bucks,” she says. “I saw that happening the last couple of years more and more. [Nancy] has a vision of playing the same old meat-and-potatoes set in Europe. It can just go on forever. I just wanted to not call it a static thing that’s going to ride down into obscurity without at least trying to evolve. I don’t mean to say she’s wrong.” She pauses, as if searching for the perfect words. “We just differ, that’s all.” (Nancy disputes the idea of being a “mindless jukebox spewing out old hits,” but admits to a desire to “get
some new territory under our belts” alongside playing European and U.S. festival dates.)
“We just don’t need the high school drama swirling around the camp. We just need to talk to each other.” –Nancy Wilson
After the ill-fated tour, Ann and Wetter, feeling like “pariahs” on the West Coast, moved to Florida for four months. It was Ann’s first long stretch of free time in a decade and she says, despite the circumstances that led to her relocation, she’s happy to not have “Heart hanging in my future like a deadline.” “Nancy and I love each other,” she says. “We want to be friends. My side really hurt her side. Her side really hurt my side. We’ve got to let those heal and get some counseling.” In January, Ann announced a U.S. tour billed as “Ann Wilson of Heart” that continues into July.
The business of Heart, and its lucrative future touring plans, has effectively ceased since last year. “I’ve had no livelihood for a really long time now,” admits Nancy, who formed new band Roadcase Royale with Prince protégés Liv Warfield and Ryan Waters and current Heart members Chris Joyner, Dan Rothchild and Ben Smith. Warfield, whose commanding, soulful voice and R&B background complements Nancy’s rock and folk roots, opened for Heart in Los Angeles, and the band subsequently spent four days at the end of 2016 recording rough demos for their forthcoming EP.
Nancy says the band employs the “Pearl Jam ethic,” relying on a democratic “art-by-committee” model to steer the music’s direction. The funky, nimble “Get Loud” (co-written by longtime Heart lyricist Sue Ennis) sits next to the dulcet, yet muscular, cover of former Men at Work singer Colin Hay’s “Hold on to My Hand.”
But the EP’s most emotionally wrenching song is “The Dragon,” an ode to Wilson’s friend and deceased Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley. Wilson originally wrote the song – a dark, tense track that shifts between mellow acoustic guitars and a grinding grunge-like hook – in the mid-Nineties after watching Staley struggle with heroin addiction. “I saw such a beautiful band of brothers suffering and limping like walking wounded,” she says of Alice in Chains. “They couldn’t even do their music hardly anymore and it was such a sad thing that I wanted to write that.”
In an interview last month, Ann referred to Heart as being on a “temporary hiatus.” Asked if that is still accurate, she removes a key word. “I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘temporary hiatus.’ I would say it’s a hiatus,” she says, laughing. “We don’t need that little qualification right there.”
Still, both sisters insist the group hasn’t broken up. “I do see a positive way forward and that’s our friendship,” Ann says. “Nancy and I didn’t do this thing. We are each other’s friends and have been and will after this. Right now, we’re supporting each of our families. Nobody in this situation is evil. We have to be like trees that grow around the little imperfections.”
For Nancy, who appears to be the more optimistic of the two sisters, the “victory lap I was hoping to have this summer” is on hold, perhaps indefinitely, until “feelings all settle down and people can just be adults and talk to each other.”
“If [Dean] makes [Ann] happy, then I’m really glad for her,” she says. “Everyone makes mistakes. It’s been freaky and more negative than it needed to be, but I’m willing and ready to humanize it all and get back into a dialogue, with Ann in particular, about if we’ve still got Heart. I feel pretty positive that we do, but it’s been impossible to know that for a long time now.
“It’s so unnecessarily competitive and those are the kind of destructive behaviors that harm big, positive relationships like me and Ann’s,” she adds. “I just know in my gut that me and Ann are going to be fine. We love each other and we’ve weathered all kinds of stuff in the past together no one would ever imagine and this is just one of those things. We just don’t need the high school drama swirling around the camp. We just need to talk to each other.”