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Heart: Forty Years On and Still Kicking It Out

When I was in high school, like everyone else I faced the weighty decision of what to do with the rest of my life. While my classmates were on track to becoming doctors and engineers, educators and housewives, I settled on rock stardom as my career choice, much to my parents' horror. To this end, a like-minded friend and I decided to form a band. She and I met up every day after school, armed with pen, paper, and our guitars. We were hell-bent on being more than the pretty girl who thwacked a tambourine and sang in some boy's band. We wanted to be songwriters and musicians, and we intended to make any and all decisions concerning our band. We were also young, idealistic, and more than a bit naïve.

It was the 1970s after all, a time when bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Who, Genesis, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd, the Stones, and Black Sabbath dominated the charts. Men were the brains and brawn of rock. Granted, girls were making inroads as all-female bands like Fanny and The Runaways were flourishing, turning out music that was every bit as demanding as what most guys were playing at the time. And groups like Fleetwood Mac had women who were integral members of the band. Still, there wasn't a wealth of female rockers out there to look to for inspiration. Then, in 1976, a gift from hard rock heaven dropped into our laps in a band from Seattle named Heart.

At the group's core were the Wilson sisters—ordinary, middle-class young women, very much like my friend and me. But there was nothing ordinary about the sisters' talent. Ann had a voice as big as a house, and Nancy was a versatile, dynamic guitarist on par with her male counterparts. Hard rocking numbers like "Magic Man" and "Straight On," and power ballads like "Dreamboat Annie" and "Dog & Butterfly," had many hailing Heart as "the female Led Zeppelin."

Ann and Nancy didn't just sing about romantic love and heartbreak, as is so often the case with female artists, although there was plenty of that within the band—two sisters in love with two brothers, a love triangle, brutal breakups. They also used songwriting to voice their disgust over issues like the Vietnam War and the seedier side of the record industry, turning their frustration into songs like "Crazy on You" and the riff monster "Barracuda," which was written in response to what Ann calls a "record company geek's" sexist remarks toward her and Nancy.

It was a blissful ignorance to gender bias that allowed Ann and Nancy to venture out into the rough waters of rock. The California-born Seattle-bred sisters grew up in a military home. Their father was in the Marines and moved the family to different bases around the world, including places like Panama and Taiwan. They eventually settled in Seattle in the spring of 1963.

Ann and Nancy were surrounded by music from a young age. "Our aunts and uncles, mom and dad, and grandparents had ukuleles and would sing old Irish pub songs, silly little tunes, even vaudeville stuff from the '20s," Nancy told Vintage Guitar magazine in 2011. "So we just grew up with a lot of musical hams in our family! As kids, we'd put on little shows and productions—we'd lip-sync to our favorite records or play the piano or ukulele. When the family would drive across the country to visit grandma or whatever, we'd sing in the car."

When 13-year-old Ann came down with mono and had to sit out three months of school, her mother bought Ann a cheap guitar to help pass the time. But it was Nancy who took to the instrument. In fact, it was love at first sight for the 9-year-old girl with the romantic sensibility. According to Nancy, she was so enamored of the guitar that she often slept with it.

The Wilson sisters decided to start a band at a time when most girls their age were still playing with Barbie dolls. From the moment they first laid eyes on the Beatles performing on American television in February of 1964, they were obsessed. "After we saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, it really made a spark," Nancy told Vintage Guitar. "We had to learn to play guitars from that moment forward, and start making bands and playing outside of the living room and the church and the school. We started playing for money and trying to write songs. From that point forward, we were just driven to be as much like the Beatles as we could be. We were too young to think, 'We should be the girlfriends of the Beatles.' We just wanted to be the Beatles. It was kind of before puberty, and Mom and Dad really encouraged us. I took to the guitar like a duck to water. The light bulb went on, lightning struck, and I got good really fast!"

But while younger sister Nancy reveled in romanticism, Ann, who stuttered, was painfully shy and suffered self-esteem issues as a teen. She found her salvation in singing. Ann tagged along with high school boys who were in bands, making sure to let them know that she could sing. She was anxious for them to give her a listen, but they would inevitably pass her over because she didn't fit the stereotype of the tall, blond, size 0 girl. When she turned 18 and graduated high school, Ann decided to dedicate her life to singing. She joined a number of Seattle bar bands until one fateful day when she answered a newspaper ad for a lead singer in an all-male group called Heart.

In the fall of 1970, Heart, now fronted by Ann, set out on an 8-month tour of the Pacific Northwest. It was during this time that Ann connected with the power in her singing and came into her own as one of rock's most distinguishable voices. At a gig in upstate Washington, Heart guitarist Roger Fisher's brother Michael, hiding out in Canada as a Vietnam draft dodger, sneaked across the border to see his little brother's band. He and Ann fell hard for one another, and within six months, Ann had quit the band and followed Michael to Vancouver. Before long, the rest of the group joined her and Michael in Canada, and Heart was back in business.

Nancy, meanwhile, had gone off to college in Oregon to study art and German literature and to experience life on her own without her big sister. But after a little coaxing, Ann persuaded Nancy to leave school and join the band in Canada. And after some persistence on Roger Fisher’s part, he and Nancy began a personal relationship.

During the next couple years, Heart established themselves as the best band in Vancouver. After conquering the Canadian club scene, they took the next logical step and cut an album. The band went into Vancouver's Mushroom Studios to record what would become their 1976 debut, Dreamboat Annie. The album featured arguably two of the greatest songs to come out of the classic rock era—"Magic Man" and "Crazy On You." It was just a matter of time before the whole world caught on to Heart.

Over the decades the Wilson sisters fought their fair share of battles and struggled to keep the focus on their music and not their looks. They waged war on their own label, Mushroom Records, who, in a publicity stunt gone wrong, published a tabloid-worthy ad insinuating the sisters were incestuous lesbians. They fought industry attitudes toward women when their new record label made them over with big '80s hair and garish makeup. Heart even shifted to a lighter pop sound to better fit the times, which resulted in a slip in record sales. And when Ann's weight became an issue, she was relegated to the background in the band's music videos, leaving the spotlight to fall on Nancy to fill the sexpot image. The press, fans, and even Ann's own bandmates felt her looks had become a liability. She soon began suffering debilitating panic attacks on stage as her insecurities resurfaced.

By the mid-'90s, after two decades in the business, Nancy decided to take a break from music to concentrate on raising a family with then husband, writer/director Cameron Crowe. Ann followed suit three years later to raise her two adopted children. Heart officially went on hiatus in 1998.

Ann and Nancy used that time to reassess things. Their sound had strayed from what had made them great in the first place. The Wilson sisters needed to take a long hard look at where they were musically, and where they wanted to go.

After spending time on various side projects and solo work, the sisters reunited in 2002 with a brand new lineup and took Heart back out on the road where they were met with a warm reception from fans. In the last decade, Heart has released two of the strongest albums of their career: Jupiter's Darling and Red Velvet Car. The latter record, issued in 2010, featured a return to the melodic hard rock and folk sound of early Heart albums. Red Velvet Car became the group's first Top 10 release in 20 years. Overall, the band has sold more than 30 million records. They have had 20 Top 40 singles, seven Top 10 albums, and four Grammy nominations.

Last year was a pivotal year for Heart. In June 2012, they released Strange Euphoria, a box set that takes a comprehensive look at the band's career. The set includes seldom-heard rarities, live performances, and demos. In September Heart was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. September also saw the release of Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock and Roll, a memoir the Wilson sisters co-wrote with Seattle rock scene expert and veteran music journalist Charles R. Cross (Nirvana's Heavier Than Heaven, Jimi Hendrix's Roomful of Mirrors). The book chronicles Heart's highs and lows on their journey to becoming one of the most significant bands in all of rock. Mostly it's a story about two sisters—women—who don't know the rules and end up blazing their own trail for it.

On the heels of their book, Heart released their fourteenth studio album in October titled Fanatic, the band's most evolved and heaviest album to date according to Ann. The record cracked Billboard's top 25, becoming Heart's twelfth album to do so. And if all this weren't enough, the Wilson sisters capped off the year with a performance of "Stairway to Heaven" as the finale to the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Led Zeppelin. In addition to visibly moving Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, their rendition brought the entire Kennedy Center audience to its feet, as well as countless viewers who tuned in to catch Zeppelin get their due.

Heart continues to rack up accolades in 2013 with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past April. The honor was a long time coming and cemented the Seattle band's legacy. The group also embarked on a summer run of tour dates with heir to the Led Zeppelin drum throne and Bonzo spawn, Jason Bonham and his Led Zeppelin Experience. The Heartbreaker Tour, as it is dubbed, began in Florida in mid-June and runs through late August. I caught the recent Pittsburgh date, and it's a can't-miss show for anyone who's ever been a Heart or Led Zeppelin fan. The concert is a Zeppelin sandwich—Bonham's band opens the show with a set of Zeppelin tunes, Heart plays a thrilling set of their own material in the middle, and then both bands come together for a raucous encore of even more Zeppelin hits, including the exotic, plodding "Kashmir" and the goose-bump inducing "Stairway to Heaven."

It's been nearly four decades now since Heart made their debut with Dreamboat Annie. Pretty impressive when you consider how many bands fall apart after just a few albums, never mind a few decades. Both sisters attribute their longevity to a lifelong love of music and to the kinship between them, an invisible bond like twins are said to possess. Ann and Nancy think their friendship even trumps their sisterhood, and believe that if they weren't related, they would've found each other as musicians.

In her acceptance speech for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ann said, "I had the wrong looks, gender, DNA, and hometown for music business success in the era we grew up in." But what she and Nancy had—chutzpah—they had in spades. The Wilson sisters empowered and encouraged girls like me who dared to dream big.

My friend and I never quite made it as rock stars. We've long since taken other paths in life. But music is embedded in our souls, just as it is the souls of Ann and Nancy Wilson, the two women who left a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow all those many years ago.

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