The glamorous and hard-rocking sisters of Heart, lead singer Ann Wilson and guitarist Nancy, first cinched their fame in the mid-1970s with a combination of stadium-sized guitar hooks and tough yet nuanced vocals (“Magic Man,” “Barracuda”). After an early-Eighties sales slump, they staged a triumphant comeback in their self-titled 1985 record, which spawned four Top 10 singles and a huge arena tour, and continue to record and tour today.
In this exclusive excerpt from their memoir Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll, which is out on Tuesday and comes on the heels of their first career-spanning box set, the duo recount the silly ecstasy of stalking Paul McCartney across Scotland as well as their debilitating battles with drug abuse. “With all the time in the world, and plenty of money, I became the most famous customer for Seattle’s cocaine dealers,” recalled Ann, “who were more than happy to deliver, and bring me bottles of pink Dom Perignon as well.”
Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg were one of the most successful songwriting teams of the Eighties. They had written “True Colors” (Cyndi Lauper); “Like a Virgin” (Madonna); “Eternal Flame” (the Bangles); “I’ll Stand By You” (the Pretenders); “I Touch Myself” (The Divinyls); and dozens of other big hits.
We were still resistant to the idea of outside writers, but Ron Nevison told me Tom sang as well, and that helped soften me. Once Ron played a cassette of “Alone,” I needed no further convincing. I hadn’t written it, but it felt like my song. When I sang, “The night goes by so very slow,” in “Alone,” I didn’t have to act.
My sister was never one to mince words. “That is soulful stuff,” Nancy said after hearing me run through it. “You speak through that song. The song and your voice really shake hands.” Sue Ennis once told me that “Alone” was “more Ann Wilson” than any song in our catalog we didn’t write ourselves.
When it came to recording “Alone,” Ron Nevison, whose name we had started to sing to the tune of “Bad Medicine” because it rhymed, and because his dictatorial style increasingly clashed with ours, did his magic. He used extreme dynamics between the verse and the chorus, and our excellent drummer Denny Carmassi made the song more dramatic. Ron asked me to delay a moment before singing the chorus after the second verse, and to ad-lib. I wasn’t sure what to sing, so I let out a scream. It ended up being exactly the primal emotion the song needed to make it rock. I’d been singing Led Zeppelin songs for years, and now I had my own Robert Plant moment on record.
We named the album Bad Animals, a joke on our band, and our pets. It was released on June 6, 1987, a D-Day of sorts because it would determine whether our last album had been a fluke. “Alone” flew up the charts to become our second number one single. It stayed on top for three successive weeks and became our biggest single ever in the U.K. “Alone” ended 1987 as the second-biggest-selling single that year by any group.
The success of “Alone” also gave us something we didn’t have going into the release of the Heart album two years before. We now had a number one single before our tour started, or our album was out. We were following up on success, and not building to it.
We flew to Europe in May 1987 for the start of our tour. All the dates had sold out, including three nights at Wembley. Nancy and I decided we needed a week of vacation before the tour began, so we went early, and we brought along Sue Ennis.
Our intention was to have the three Connies go on a “Magic Mystery Tour” to Beatles landmarks. We spent a couple of days in London, and then drove up to Liverpool. We spent a day sightseeing Beatles neighborhoods, but found our hotel creepy, so we headed to Scotland. We were convinced we could find Paul McCartney’s farm. We hadn’t discussed what might happen when we got to Paul’s door, but with the three of us acting like schoolgirls, we were sure Paul would be happy to see us.
We had no plan, and no hotel reservations. Sue leafed through road maps while Nancy took the wheel of our rented Mercedes, and I provided commentary. We stopped the first night in an inn on the side of the road, and we drank scotch and ate haggis. The Scottish moors seemed free of the influence of MTV, and we were anonymous for the first time in years. We were one of the biggest bands in the world that year, but at the Headley Hall Country Inn, we were simply three silly American girls stalking Paul McCartney.
We knew Paul’s farm was on the “Mull of Kintyre,” which had been the title of his 1977 single, but we soon found that navigating Scotland by song title was problematic. Our Connie joke was that we were looking for “Junior’s Farm,” another McCartney song, but that farm was in Tennessee.
We discovered that the only way to avoid the long drive to the Mull of Kintyre was to take a ferry to the end of the peninsula. We didn’t have enough days to make the drive and still make our first show of the tour. After an arduous journey we came to the dock, only to find that the ferry had been cancelled due to bad weather.
The closest we got to Paul McCartney’s farm was standing on the ferry dock and looking toward the Mull of Kintyre. We knew Paul was there on the other side somewhere, someplace, somehow. We had made it all the way from the teenage bedroom of our Bellevue, Washington, house to the Scottish coast, but Paul McCartney remained beyond our reach.
The U.S. leg of the Bad Animals tour started in Denver in August, and we were then on the road for much of the next two years. The album would go on to sell over three million copies. We sold more tickets than ever, but our isolation on the road continued. Whenever we had more than a day off, Nancy would fly home to Cameron, and I would usually stay with the band.
For a brief while, I took up with a bad boy named Fred, who looked a little bit like Paul McCartney. I liked him because he was a gentleman who opened doors and escorted me places. Cocaine was a constant on that tour, and Fred always had a supply. Fred was wealthy and had his own butler named Master Bates. Fred claimed the source of his wealth was from Oklahoma oil, but everyone else around me thought it was from dealing drugs, something I failed to see, or acknowledge at the time. It was a road romance for me, during a time when I was open to casual sexuality. Cocaine also affected my ability to make smart decisions.
Our relationship fell apart when Fred decided he was going to make a film about Heart. Because of our relationship, Fred had shot a lot of footage. Soon, everyone around me began to freak out that Fred had been given too much access. Once I asked him to give us the film that was the end of Fred and me. It was only then that I realized how shady Fred had been. He died a few years later from drugs. It’s amazing to look back and think that I made it through that time in one piece.
Cocaine continued to be an issue in my life. I had never suffered from stage fright before, but I began to occasionally have panic attacks onstage. If anything went wrong with any aspect of the tour, I thought it was my fault because I’d gained weight. If we had a bad review, it would end up on my seat on our bus, left by either someone in the crew or the band. Cocaine was a very powerful appetite suppressant, and too many times I thought it would help cure my problems, and I used too much too often. It made me paranoid, and, at times, physically ill. But I kept at it.
There was so much pressure. When I went onstage, everything was on me, and every eye in the audience was looking at me. I felt I was being silently critiqued on every single song. I couldn’t forget any words. Because I felt self-conscious about my weight, I felt I had to prove to myself that I could nail every single high-powered note.
At one show, the panic came upon me all of a sudden, and I lost my focus. I had mixed cocaine and champagne the previous night, and, though I was sober onstage, the mixture had made me sick. I was freezing cold all of sudden, and the only way I was able to continue was because of sheer muscle memory. If I hadn’t been onstage, I would have stopped to do breathing exercises, but at that moment, that wasn’t possible. What came over me was an uncontrollable surge of adrenaline, pure fight or flight. I wanted to flee from the humiliating criticism, and from the pressure to personify the MTV sex goddess image in real life.
It couldn’t have been more than five seconds that I was frozen, but it seemed like a lifetime. But my sister knew me and sensed something was off. She stepped forward, and began a guitar solo that wasn’t planned. In that moment, I was able to gather it together and move forward. It didn’t happen again that night, and knowing that Nancy had my back at all times gave me the ability to continue with the tour. But it happened many other times on the tour. Nancy learned to look over at me to see whether I was out of control, and she would make goofy faces, or start walking like Gumby, which would immediately bring the attention to her, so I could compose myself. She was trying to make me laugh, so I could catch my breath.
As the Bad Animals tour continued, the panic attacks began to happen earlier in the day, before I ever walked onstage. It finally got to the point that they would begin the instant after my wake-up call in the hotel. I would stare at the ceiling and think, “I’m supposed to be onstage tonight, and I can’t possibly do it.” But I did it.
We had a number of threats that year from crazed fans. Some insane rumor had started that we gave our royalties to Charles Manson, while another said we were in a witches’ coven with Stevie Nicks. Those stories pulled out kooks, who felt the need to try to contact us. We began to travel with a bodyguard whose job it was to keep us safe, but that increased our claustrophobic existence.
We never did a single drug until after the show. No one in our band died or overdosed. For that reason, and because all the other bands of the era seemed far more out of control, I thought we were holding it together. But drugs took us away a bit. That is the truth. Most everyone in the band struggled, and we all went far, but I went the furthest.
When the Bad Animals tour finally ended in late 1988, I imagined that with rest and peace, I would clean up, and things would improve. I was mistaken. Things got worse. With all the time in the world, and plenty of money, I became the most famous customer for Seattle’s cocaine dealers, who were more than happy to deliver, and bring me bottles of pink Dom Perignon as well. They would collect their money and leave me with my drugs and my booze.
It was only years later, looking through a pile of old clippings, when I noticed a 1979 interview I’d done that so clearly illustrated what some of my views were back then in my youth. “Rock and roll contains both beauty and filth,” I said. “What Oscar Wilde says – and this is especially true for a rock and roll artist – is that an artist feeds on the fight between vice and virtue. That’s true for me. I hate and love the vice, and I hate and love the virtue. I like sin, and I like to get high. I have very untraditional views of motherhood and the family unit. In the world today, that’s considered vice.”
But as an adult woman, my days of vice were coming to a close, and my family was not about to let me stay in the filth any longer. Nancy and Sue announced that we were all going to Hawaii for a Connie vacation that month. That sounded like fun, but also a great place to party. When we all three sat down on the plane, I asked who had brought the party favors. “There is no more party for you on this trip,” Nancy announced. “You’re getting off the party.” Over the course of our vacation, they helped me get my life back in order. It wasn’t an intervention, just more a wake-up call from my two best friends. I was still drinking. It also didn’t mark the last time I ever did drugs, just the end of the downward spiral.
Part of the reason we didn’t question the amount of drugs during the cocaine-infused Eighties was because most bands we toured with were worse than us. Some of our touring mates would have roadies whose only job was to line-up bottle caps full of blow on the back of the stage, so they could stay high during their entire set. We never did drugs onstage, and never before a show.
For a brief time earlier that year, Stevie Nicks became our best friend. She came to one of our shows, and she and her girlfriend just sort of became part of our entourage, traveling with us. She brought along a stack of fashion magazines, and her drawing books. We were partying hard that month, but Stevie, with her Courvoisier and blow, outdid us.
When the tour got to Arizona, Stevie invited us to a party at her house. Her home was filled with all these pictures of her, like it was a shrine to Stevie Nicks. We spent most of the night digging through her closets trying on clothes with her. It was fun to be girls together, and her closets were full of millions of shawls and colored tights wedged into teeny drawers. We spent hours there.
When it came to drugs, though, we couldn’t keep up with Stevie. She had a system where she could do various substances, and then do other substances to help her sleep. We never knew how to do that, and, at some point, we had to leave to sleep.
But during those years, we did lose track of time, and often, of our behavior. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being Keith Richards, we squeaked in there at the peak as a five. We were half of Keith. Okay, on the Keith scale, maybe we were just a three, but that was plenty awful enough.
In 1989 we began to work on Brigade, our third album for Capitol. We switched producers, but the overall concept was the same. The label thought we needed to rock harder, so in addition to the Diane Warren song “I Didn’t Want to Need You,” they insisted we do a song Mutt Lange had written called “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You.” It was originally intended for Don Henley, but he passed. The demo was country.
Ann positively hated it. “What does that even mean?” she said during our first run through. She did sing it, and we begrudgingly turned it into a Heart song. It ended up being one of our most controversial songs, even getting banned in Ireland and a few other countries. The label was right about it being a hit, though: It went to number two on the Billboard charts and helped made Brigade our third multi-platinum album in a row.
But the glory of chart success increasingly came with a price. We did “All I Wanna Do” on the Brigade tour, but retired it after that. When years later, I brought it out again as a tour idea, Ann said she’d try it in rehearsal. She got as far as the first verse, but after the line about “lonely boy in the rain,” Ann stopped singing and flagged down the band. “Ah, for fucks sake,” she said. “I can’t do this. I’m grossed out by this song.” It was the first time in our entire lives I saw her stop any song once she had started it. Ann has to “be” the song to sing it, but by Brigade, we were struggling to figure out how to be ourselves in a multi-platinum world that we didn’t make. Still, Ann always possesses a perfect instinct for what’s authentic to our band. There have been many times I was truly grateful when she steered us away from artistically compromised situations.
Our favorite part of Brigade was the outfits we wore on the album cover. We called them our Cadillacs because they cost almost as much as a new car. We had them made to our specifications, and to look a bit like Sgt. Pepper’s. But they were also an homage to our dad, who was the one Wilson who had truly been in a brigade.
Another hit album meant another giant tour. We started that tour in Germany, but before rehearsals we were already burned out. We were in the town of Bremen, and our first morning we were woken at the crack of dawn by screaming. We couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, but when it happened again the next day, we discovered it was the horse-drawn “Gherkin Pickle” wagon. It went through the streets every dawn loaded with beer-swilling tourists. Our party days were winding down, and the last thing we needed was that kind of local color. We were exhausted, and that was before the tour had even begun.
As kids, Mama had repeatedly told us never to curse. But each morning in Bremen, both Ann and I could be heard to take the Lord’s name in vain repeatedly whenever the goddamn-mother-fucking Gherkin Pickle wagon came by, with its incessant horse clip clops and beer stein clanks.
By the time our tour ended six months later, we were brain dead. Even the goddamn-mother-fucking Gherkin Pickle wagon couldn’t have woken us.
From the book Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll by Ann and Nancy Wilson with Charles R. Cross. Published by Harper Collins.