Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ann and Nancy Wilson share the true story (Ava and C.I.)

Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson  have written a book with Charles R. Gross entitled Kicking &  Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock &  Roll.  This is a topic the two women are experts on having rocked it out in their group Heart since the seventies making them both trail blazers and pioneers.  The Wilson sisters survived to tell the tales.

kicking and dreaming

Whether explaining how boys in the band may have claimed fear of flying to have post-concert hook ups or how sex and gender and appearance was what the rock press wanted to focus on -- at times all they wanted -- in the 70s, the Wilson sisters share their stories.  This includes the rampant sexism on display in the male dominated world of 70s rock.

This includes noting that it wasn't just men in power trying to sexualize and take advantage of them.  Ann explains:

The topless pictures were not enough for Annie Leibovitz.  In the middle of the night, there was a knock on our hotel room door.  It was Annie with a bottle of vodka, a tray of cocaine, and her camera gear. I should have just gone back to bed, but I let her in, and we had another photo session.  She was obsessed with getting us naked, but the best she got that night was us looking tired in rumpled clothes.
The next day, I had second thoughts. I had allowed myself to be sexualized, and it was exactly the opposite of what Heart represented.  I think part of it was that because Annie was female, I trusted her not to objectify us, which had been a mistake.
We asked Annie to destroy the film.  She refused.  A behind-the-scenes brouhaha ensued, and the matter ended up in court.  Though a judge wouldn't order the photos destroyed, he decreed they be stored in a safety deposit box that could only be opened with two keys, one in Annie's possession, and one in ours.  She couldn't get to the photographs, and neither could we.
My topless photos are still there today in that safety deposit box. I've long ago lost the key.

That famous photographer wasn't the only woman to disappoint.  Manager Trudy Green was hired by the sisters because they hoped that a woman would be different, that she would fight for them to be seen as artists.  Instead, Green ended up just another person obsessed with photos of the Wilson's breasts.

A lot of people and events flow in and out of the book.  The group goes over big for the first time as the opening act on Elton John's tour.  And they're thrilled by the reaction and thrilled to be on tour with a rock legend.  Less than ten years later, they're the headliner having to deal with the self-proclaim Little Bastard.  John Mellencamp's having his biggest commercial moment and he's their opening act that wishes he was headlining.  He belittles them, he insults them throughout The Private Audition tour.  

That tour and album would lead to the press reporting Heart was over.  The attacks began in earnest. Music critic Patrick MacDonald savaged Ann for her weight on the Private Audition tour (Seattle Times) -- gleefully savaged.  Ann notes how interesting it was that this man who led the savage attacks on her weight was, in fact, overweight.

Private Audition was the first commercial stumble and a lot of people appeared to have been waiting to pounce on the group that had already hit with "Dog and Butterfly," "Straight On," "Crazy On You," "Even It Up," "Magic Man," "Barracuda" and more.  Were the attacks harsher because the critics were targeting women or was it part of the standard process where the critics love you, get tired of you, go after you . . .  Joni Mitchell's described it as a four-year presidency term, arguing you get four years and then the critics grab the knives more and more with each passing year.  Carly Simon's argued that, as you become familiar, the critics distance themselves in pursuit of something new but, if you hang in, the nastiness will fade and "it will be coming around again."

Neither Nancy nor Ann shares any strong answer as to why it went down the way it did.  The book would benefit from one because while it's true it's going to be read by fans, it's also true a lot of Heart's fans are picking up instruments and microphones and ready to follow in their footsteps.  A career is peaks and valleys and an exploration of the whys of that would have benefited many.

They don't shy from noting the low times sales wise such as with the Private Audition follow up, Passionworks, which led to even fewer sales (thought "How Can I Refuse" did get strong airplay on rock radio).  Two albums in a row that didn't meet commercial expectations and CBS dropped the band.  Capitol was part of EMI/Capitol and scoring some hits during this time.  They had Tina Turner's extraordinary return ("What's Love Got To Do With It," "Better Be Good To Me," etc.), Corey Hart's string of singles ("Never Surrender," "Sunglasses At Night," etc.), John Waite ("Missing You") and Heart could be a huge crowning glory for the company -- especially for the US division which had been lagging and had no bragging rights to Tina Turner's comeback (she came to EMI/Capitol via the London arm of the company).

Capitol wanted and needed them . . . provided they would record songs written by outside writers.  This attitude, Aerosmith would experience it as well, was one of, 'Their songs don't chart anymore.  They need a song doctor at the least, they need outside writers at most.'

This would lead to their most commercial period -- and their first number one singles, "These Dreams" and "Alone."  Nancy Wilson shares:

Bernie Taupin told me later "These Dreams" had originally been presented to Stevie Nicks, but Stevie wasn't considering new material then.  Ron Nevison didn't have to work hard to convince me to do it.  I knew it was a great song, and being an Elton John fanatic, I loved anything Bernie did.

She also shares how Sharon Hess, a 22-year-old dying of leukemia was able to come to studio as one of her last wishes while Nancy was recording the song:

On the album notes, I decided to dedicate "These Dreams" to Sharon. Every time I sing it, I think about her.  She died only a few days after we finished the final mixes. She was buried wearing a Heart T-shirt and cap, and with her favorite guitar in her arms.  It's just the way I'd want to go out.

Recording songs by outside writers (including Taupin, Holly Knight, Diane Warren and others), the eighties also meant MTV which meant video directors who wanted them to look like "porn starlets" or wanted to put Nancy on a horse (Ann: "better to bounce her big breasts").

In a demoralizing period, things only got worse as the success of 1985's Heart was followed by critics really going to town on Ann's weight in the following years.  While that was difficult earlier in the decade, it became more so with so much emphasis (via videos) put on looks and with so many of the songs recorded being written by others.

Touring meant even more press comments about Ann's appearance, "Critics began to constantly review my weight rather than my singing in our performances."  Touring also meant drugs, as Nancy explained about the Bad Animals tour:

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.

What emerges from the book is that, if you were going to put Ann and Nancy into rock archetypes, Nancy's more Lillian Roxon.  She shares the anecdote here and there, an interesting story about Stevie Nicks or about  meeting Joni Mitchell for dinner at the Four Oaks in Bel-Air ("She was drinking a cappuccino and she was a stellar storyteller.") or how she and her then-husband ended up being taken on a Scientology tour by Tom Cruise.  Ann's more Ellen Willis wanting to explore larger issues:

I am a feminist, and a proud one, but this country's obsession with weight is the biggest problem women have ever had. It's bigger than sexism because it spills over into what women think of other women, and what they think of themselves.Nancy and I have often been cited as women who broke through gender barriers in music in an era when few others did.  We never took up that cause on purpose, it was accidental, or at best the fate we were born to.  We were naive, young, and unwilling to believe that we couldn't do something just because we were females. I know rock is better for women being it, but it is a hard life for the female pioneers.

And in their different approaches, the two women bring different perspectives to enlarge the story they're sharing, a story that ultimately is about truth and honor and the hard fought wisdom that shapes us into not just who we are but what we have become.

Kicking and Dreaming is a pleasure to read and if there's any reason to hesitate before picking the volume up, it's only to decide what format: hardcover, digital or audio.


Note that Heart's latest album, Fanatic, is released this Tuesday.  Kat reviews it in "Heart Walkin' Good."
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