In The Studio
By Jake Brown, Crissy Boylan
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2008 Jake Brown
All rights reserved.
The Wilson Sisters' Very Musical Childhood and Teenage Years
Rock 'n' roll in the 1970s was the eccentric offspring of the pop-culturally stormy 1960s, when rock 'n' roll and the record business were both in an experimental period. New bands shaped musical genres — Bob Dylan with folk-rock, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors with blues-based psychedelic rock, Velvet Underground with the roots of punk rock, or in the case of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and to a slightly lesser degree, The Who, bands redefined rock 'n' roll itself. As the 1970s rock scene took form, groups continued to define new stylistic niches of their own — Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin with heavy metal; Pink Floyd and Genesis with art-rock; the Ramones, The Stooges, the New York Dolls, and the Sex Pistols for mainstream punk rock; Aerosmith and Kiss for hard rock; Bruce Springsteen for blue-collar rock; Alice Cooper and David Bowie for theatrical and conceptual glam rock; Fleetwood Mac with pop rock; and for women in hard rock: Heart.
The two frontwomen of Heart, Ann and Nancy Wilson, rose to the heights of rock 'n' roll as early as the mid-'70s, but they started life in a simple Seattle home always filled with music. In a 1980 cover story on the Wilson sisters, Rolling Stone described the girls' childhood and home: "Ann and Nancy grew up on 166th Avenue in Bellevue, a middle-class suburb of Seattle ... in a two-story house [where] ... the well worn spot on the recreation-room floor was where [Ann] and her sister practiced the guitar.... Inside Ann's old bedroom, across a narrow hall, the talk turns to the sisters' teenage years: the acid trips on Ringo Starr's birthday; the stoned joyrides; the pusher who'd throw lids of grass through Ann's bedroom window; the hours spent behind closed doors in those little rooms, writing poetry, playing records, daydreaming." In the article, Ann Wilson described a stable childhood in which "while we were doing all this stuff, we felt really unusual.... But we were pretty normal for the time we grew up in. What we experienced was going on in suburbs all over the country. We weren't that different.... There are a thousand places that look just like this. You see them when you go on the road."
Speaking to the girls' parents, Rolling Stone gleaned that "the Wilsons are an old military family, going back several generations. John Wilson [father to Ann and Nancy] was a colonel in the marines who settled in Seattle after retiring and taught English at Sammamish High School. While Nancy and Ann were growing up, they lived in Southern California and Taiwan with their older sister, Lynn (now in Oregon with her four children)." Living in Seattle, Washington, the Wilson sisters grew up in the same hometown as rock legend Jimi Hendrix, as well as blues and jazz legends Ray Charles and Quincy Jones, all of whom influenced the then-forming musical sensibilities of Ann and Nancy.
Music was the voice that interpreted the social changes thatAnn and Nancy witnessed as the civil rights movement gained momentum across the nation. Nancy described her record collection as reflective of the issues of the time, a collection that contained "many influences other than The Beatles, including Simon and Garfunkel; Led Zeppelin; Elton John; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Joni Mitchell; Ray Charles; Aretha Franklin; The Who; The Moody Blues; Jackson Browne and so very many more. It was such a rich time in music culture to be learning the trade! A revolution to be exact."
It helped that the sisters came from a musically open home; Nancy remembered that "growing up we always had a good sound system in the living room, and our parents would really turn it up. They loved the classics, opera, Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte, Aretha, Peggy Lee and Judy Garland as well as experimental electronic modern composers. There was no lack of variety. They became big Beatles fans too by the late '60s." Ann Wilson, in a 1980 interview, recalled her parents listening to "Porgy and Bess, Puccini, Gershwin ... the ones that were the most accessible opera ... Madame Butterfly ...and then as we got older I remember my mom played a lot of Ray Charles.... I used to love Judy Garland a lot; I thought she was really something ... and then later on my older sister got into Little Richard.... [I also listened to] Aretha Franklin, and other stuff. I got into Robert Plant a lot, I was into McCartney — I learned how to kinda say words and stuff by listening to his songs."
Revealing her family's musical lineage, Nancy explained that her parents "both had sung in choirs and our mom played concert piano locally as a college student. I remember watching her feet pump the pedals while lying under the baby grand as she practiced pieces from Rachmaninoff and Beethoven as well as ragtime greats. As a family we spent plenty of time singing with grandparents, aunts and uncles who all liked to pull out ukuleles and do funny old pub songs and Hawaiian songs that we still know to this day; we still play ukuleles and our kids are next in line." Ann added that their parents "were music lovers themselves, so they had an open attitude about music.... My mom didn't like it much when I bought my first record, which was Baby Love by The Supremes. She went, 'You were supposed to buy your school lunch with that [money]. What are you gonna eat for the next week?!'"
So liberal was the girls' upbringing that, according to their mother Lou, "we smoked pot with our kids and did other things we never dreamed of doing. I marched in a peace march with three daughters and a grandson on my shoulders.... Atthe same time our children were going through the '60s, so were John and I. We left a world of phoniness and suburban values and became active in social issues.... We had incredible friends, and an incredible support system based around the Congregational Church. It's a very liberal church, with young ministers." Captivated by the vibrant times, the Wilson girls shared another near-religious experience with other would-be rock stars who were children in the early 1960s: listening to The Beatles. Nancy recalled that "right from the beginning, as soon as we saw The Beatles play on the Ed Sullivan variety show ... Ann and I started begging and pleading for guitars. I was eight and Ann was twelve when we started learning our first chords from the trusty Mel Bay chord book. With the basic cords under our belt, we would spin Beatles records and learn every song."
More than just a strong musical influence, The Beatles helped the Wilson sisters meet a classmate who would become a lifelong friend. Sue Ennis recalled that "it was the beginning of junior year in high school, and The Beatles had just played Seattle the week before. I had just moved to Seattle; I really didn't know anybody but I was a huge Beatles fan. And they had just played August 25, 1966, at the Coliseum in Seattle, and it was just before their final show at Candlestick Park [in San Francisco]. So my dad showed me this picture in the morning paper, and said, 'Oh, there's a girl from your high school who won The Beatles contest.' And so I looked, and there was a picture of this girl, Ann Wilson, holding a little movie camera she'd won for an essay about 'What The Beatles Mean to Teenagers.' It turned out she was in my German class, but I didn't really know her. So the following Monday, I sat down behind her in class, and started singing the most obscure Beatles song off the Revolver album — which had come out recently — just to see if she knew the deep cuts. It was 'Love You To,' a George Harrison song, and she whipped around, and said, 'Oh, do you have Revolver?'
"And we started talking, and couldn't stop talking, and right off, recognized in each other a serious, serious fan-ship. It was more than just 'They're cute guys,' but that The Beatles had been an object of serious scholarship, study and dedication on both of our parts. We both recognized a mutual expertise that we felt set us apart. I would say Ann was inspired by their singing, but was blown away by the way they put chords together. She had already gotten pretty good on the guitar a couple years earlier when she'd had mononucleosis, and didn't go to school for three months. Her mom bought her a little cheap acoustic guitar, just to give her something to do, and she went after it in a big way. She learned a bunch of chords, and had a wonderful ear. And so when the Beatles came along it was her mission to learn and figure out as many songs as possible. By the way, her favorite Beatle was and will always be forever more Paul McCartney. There was definitely the 'cute guy' aspect, but it was more than that. I think it was his melodies, and that she understood that he was a melodic genius. She was in awe of the musicality that The Beatles had."
Once The Beatles had captured their creative attention, Nancy remembered that the sisters "started writing songs rightaway. Not that any of the first songs we wrote were much good, but by imitating many of the hit songs off records and the radio, we got a solid sense of song structure." To learn the guitar chords and changes between them, Nancy credited "the vari-speed feature on the turntable, which allowed us to play songs at half tempo ... extremely handy when changing to the new chord took some doing." As the sisters imitated their favorite band's hit records, they also imitated their moves, practicing rock poses before the vanity mirror. Ann recalled, "When we were kids ... [we'd] take brooms, tennis rackets," pretending they were guitars. Nancy once told a journalist that "we just had to be as much like The Beatles as we possibly could, learn every song, wear jeans with bare feet and pea coats, walk through the stores with black Beatles boots and go look at The Beatles' magazines and things like that."
Before developing their own artistic sense of self, the sisters first found inspiration in other bands, not just in the musicality of The Beatles, but in the raw power of Led Zeppelin. Nancy credited Led Zeppelin with providing the girls their first glimmer of a creative vision that would eventually become Heart. "I saw Led Zeppelin live for the first time when I was 13. I remember sitting there with Ann, and we were blushing 'cause they were so raw. It was disturbing yet alluring. We were already doing music together, mainly because of The Beatles. But when we got into Zeppelin, it really helped to form our identity. These guys were not just playing straight power chords.... What Jimmy Page did was pretty inspiring for guitar players. He married a lot of acoustic elements into hard rock. The kind of chords he used were very left of center, with a lot of dissonance — I absorbed that like a sponge. It's all over the music I write, always."
As the girls blossomed into songwriters in their teenage years in the mid-to-late 1960s, their compositions were tried out for their first live audiences. Nancy recalled, "While we were still living at home writing songs, we'd always audition them for anyone who'd listen. Lucky for us there was always a supportive friendly atmosphere even if the learning curve was still curving." The support system the girls had growing up was invaluable to their future success; Ann summarized it with a quote from their mother: "Mom would always say ... that it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do your best, and you're happy. I don't think she thought we would end up in a rock band."
Childhood friend Ennis explained that "music was always playing in their house. Their dad was a school teacher, and he'd come home at three o'clock and put on music — whether it was the radio or an LP. [He'd] walk around the house and correct papers, whistling and singing along. So it was a very relaxed — compared to my family at least — kind of a dreamy atmosphere. The parents were there of course, but they didn't really meddle, and we just spent hours up in the bedroom, playing records, away from them. So once we'd lock into this music haven we inhabited together, we were inseparable."
Even as children, Ann and Nancy had an ever-present sisterly and creative closeness. As Ennis remembered, "Ann would say, 'Call me up,' and I'd call her to talk about The Beatles. And I'd find that her sister Nancy was always there in the background, laughing and jumping around, and Ann would barely pay attention to me because they were laughing so much. So I really wanted to meet this little sister. I had my own beloved sister, but we were never like Ann and Nancy; they were just spiritual twins. Nancy was 12 years old and Ann was 16, and at first, I couldn't understand why Ann would be hanging around with a 12-year-old. Until I met her, and then realized that she was brilliant and funny and not a kid. My friendship with Nancy started later than Ann, but it was almost as instantaneous, because we instantly fell in together over this passion for music."
Ennis recalled, "When I met Nancy, at age 12, they already had a little group going called The Viewpoints, that was based around complex harmonies. They had always had big harmony singing in their family growing up. Their earliest songs were definitely influenced by putting similar chord progressions to The Beatles' together. I don't think they had their eye on being a rock band back then though. I think they wanted to be just a musical group with great harmonies. In addition to The Beatles, they were inspired by The Left Banke — 'Walk Away Renee' and 'Pretty Ballerina' — and even The Association. Those types of softer sounds. Their harmony singing had started when they were kids traveling in the car with their family, and singing all the time. Especially with their sister Lynn, too. They were doing musicals, and one of their greatest harmony songs ever was 'If I Loved You,' the famous song from Carousel. The three of them had a natural ear and blend, those extraordinary 'blood harmonies' that families have. So by the time I came into the picture, they were really good. The first time I met Nancy over at their house, she and Ann got their guitars out and started playing, and they were mind-blowingly good. I had a guitar, and they taught me chords, and we started to sort of jam off other people's songs. You'd be singing a Beatles song, and then keep playing the chords, and develop something new. Then I remember fairly early on, I hadn't seen them for a couple days, and went over to visit. Ann and Nance said,' We wrote two songs last night. You want to hear them?' One song was called 'Through Eyes of Glass,' which Ann later recorded for the Topaz label. But even back then upon first listen, I thought it was incredible. I couldn't believe the professional level it was on for beginning songwriters. I could hear a little Beatles influence but it seemed original too. I think this was the first song they seriously wrote, where they said, 'Let's write a real song,' instead of jokey songs. Because we'd written a lot of songs prior with crazy lyrics, but when I heard that song, I knew they were even more talented than I already thought."
While the stereotypical teenage girl spends all her time socializing, Ennis recalled that Ann and Nancy preferred tospend every waking moment of their time writing and singing together. "When I first met [Ann], she was the most single-minded person I'd ever met, including all the adults in my life. She just wanted to write poems and short stories, draw — she was a pretty good artist — and sing. That was it. She didn't want to read books, or go to movies much. She had no interest in going outside. In high school, she was definitely not a social butterfly. Ann was a super-outcast at school; she went her own way, and the first time I saw her, she was like no other girl in our high school. She had her own style: she carried her notebook and her books sort of under her arm like a guy, rather than the proper way up around her chest to look cute and girly. I remember I invited her to my sixteenth birthday party, and because I was a pretty good student I had some smart girls in my circle, and I thought, 'Oh, this is great, we can all get along. I can introduce them to my odd, weird, fantastic artist friend'; it was oil and water. Ann would stay by herself, while I was talking to some of the other girls, and she'd come over, and sort of whisper, 'Hey, come over here, let's talk about The Beatles.' She just didn't want other people. She is an extraordinary being. My theory is that she was dropped on the earth from another planet, just because she was out of step with what ordinary teenagers do. I was intensely drawn to her because of that. And sometimes along the way I felt like I needed to protect her, give her little hints about certain things to show her how other people operated. She was just her own, odd, fantastically gifted person. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Heart by Jake Brown, Crissy Boylan. Copyright © 2008 Jake Brown. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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