Music

All Hail Hair Metal Heart

Shawn Macomber

Ever since grunge rock turned Heart’s hair metal meal ticket into a scarlet letter, the Wilson sisters have twisted one of the greatest arena rock trilogies ever into a Judean desert-level tale of temptation with a Mutt Lange-ish Devil offering up industrial-sized cans of Aqua-Net, too-tight corsets and platinum albums in lieu of all the kingdoms of the world.

Towards the close of Ann and Nancy Wilson’s dual 2012 Heart memoir Kicking & Dreaming Ann writes of a “typical” early nineties party at her house featuring “a dozen or so soon-to-be-famous musicians, the cream of the crop of the Seattle grunge scene,” a soiree which culminates with soon-to-be-famous, ultra creamy Jerry Cantrell crawling into the raven-haired singer’s bed, wasted and clad in her clothes—“He was sleek and lanky, and his long blonde hair covered my shirt”—whereupon, citing a preference for “skinny girls,” the Alice in Chains guitarist rules out even a modest carnal payoff for a hostess who had already endured an epic campaign of condescending concern tolling from the Future Flannel Floggers of America.

Yes, by all means, let’s back up a bit…

The evening begins innocently enough: A few partygoers ask Wilson to “tell road stories about the previous decade, what it was like to headline stadium shows, what it felt like to have a record sell fifteen million copies.”

“What was happening to you guys while that was going on around you?” asks the charismatic, sadly doomed Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr.

“Too much hairspray and cocaine,” Wilson replies—a jovial, self-deprecating bon mot that nevertheless fails to placate her future closet-raiding platonic bedmate.

“How did it go so far?” Cantrell asks. “And why did you do those videos?”

“I always loved ‘Barracuda,’” another guest sniffs, “but I didn’t like your eighties stuff.”

A splendid opportunity for Wilson to let the casually cruel, oeuvre-dissing slacker in-crowd know she was no Alice-esque submissive—Hey, if you wiseasses don’t like the house o’ triumph Bad Animals built you can always take this party to the overwrought Temple of the Dog shanty! Instead, rock goddess is reduced to meekly praising the grungers’ refusal to exude the “kiss-ass attitude you’d find at an L.A. party”—i.e. lack of basic manners—and assuring readers this last eighties stuff dig, “might have been something Nancy or I could have said.”

All too true, alas. Ever since grunge rock turned Heart’s hair metal meal ticket into a scarlet letter, the Wilson sisters have toiled with a bizarre earnestness to twist one of the greatest arena rock trilogies ever—Heart (1985), Bad Animals (1987), and Brigade (1990)—into a Judean desert-level tale of temptation with a suspiciously Mutt Lange-ish Devil offering up industrial-sized cans of Aquanet, too-tight corsets and platinum albums in lieu of all the kingdoms of the world.

Superficially, the reason for this past life-enmity is two-fold: First, the Wilsons resent that many of Heart’s most popular songs were the result of Capitol Records brass insisting the band work with outside songwriters. (“We had made a deal with the devil, in that we were singing songs we didn’t write,” Ann explains in Kicking & Dreaming, “and the devil had been right: they were hits.”) Second, the sisters fervently believe the PR minions of this devil exploited the “Wilson family endowment”—i.e. “beautiful, voluptuous, natural breasts”—in the marketing of said albums, thereby transmogrifying earthy-at-heart Seattleites into “porn kittens,” the derisive descriptor Ann drops in the Heart-centric chapter of Craig Marks and Ron Tannenbaum’s stellar oral history I Want My MTV, titled “There I Am, With My Rack.”

Now, with regard to the former, there is no shame in serving as a vessel for greatness. The strange alchemy of presentation is the record company suit’s master, not his slave. Were it otherwise, Pamela Stanley’s 1985 pre-Heart Europop take on “If Looks Could Kill” would not be background music for a strip club scene in the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Raw Deal and John Stamos would have rode the success of his 1984 version of “Alone” straight past that Uncle Jesse audition.

No dollar-signs-for-irises puppetmaster on the planet that could have summoned into existence the unconquerable A-side of Heart—“If Looks Could Kill,” “What About Love,” “Never,” “These Dreams,” “The Wolf”—sans the potent, sublime interplay of Ann and Nancy Wilson.

* * *

“Suddenly we looked at ourselves and we were in a lifeboat surrounded by water,” Ann told VH1’s Behind the Music. “Our true artistic whole selves were somewhere on a beach and we were going, ‘Hey, see you later!’ It was such a big machine.”

It is one thing to look askance upon the fashions of the past. Bitching about the amenities on your suspiciously yacht-like multi-platinum lifeboat once safely on shore is quite another, and, so, the thirtieth anniversary of Heart seems as good a time as any to trace a brief history of the Wilson sisters’ supposed marooning…

Ann and Nancy Wilson spent their early years in a transient military family, feeling aimless and outcast until the day in February 1964 when via The Ed Sullivan Show Beatle-mania struck them like “a lightning blot…out of the heavens”: “Who we were, and more important, who we imagined we could be, shifted forever on that day,” Nancy recalls. And unlike the other girls at school, the Wilsons weren’t fantasizing about improbable Liverpool weddings: “We didn’t want to be Beatle girlfriends. We wanted to be Beatles.”

By 1967 the girls had performed at a folk festival and, in a paradoxically rock n’ roll moment, cleared a church’s pews of its Congregationalists with a cover of one of the Peter, Paul, and Mary songs that does not concern a strung out purple dragon. The formation of Heart is twisty, somewhat complicated origin story best explicated by the Wilsons themselves in their autobiography, but, in broad strokes, around 1970 Ann relocated to Vancouver to consummate a love affair with Michael Fisher, the draft-dodging brother of her Hocus Pocus bandmate, guitarist Roger Fisher. In Kicking & Dreaming Ann describes Michael as a charming Herman Hesse-loving Henry Higgins-esque “powerful leader” armed with five year plans a la early Communist Russia for Ann and Roger’s fledgling band, which would soon revert back to the moniker of a pre-Ann incarnation, Heart.

To his credit, Michael had considerable more success with Heart than Stalin had collectivizing the kulaks and four years later Nancy dropped out of college to join the party.

Heart paid their dues with some hardscrabble Canadian touring—two pages into Kicking & Dreaming’s prologue the band has performed at both Michael J. Fox’s prom and a Calgary club called Lucifer’s—before their 1976 debut Dreamboat Annie blew up and sold over a million copies on the strength of two still-classic singles, “Crazy On You” and “Magic Man,” the latter a sort of open letter explanation to her worried mother as to why she had left behind her military family for a commune-like existence with a dirty hippie. A mere year later Little Queen and then Magazine followed, spawning, respectively, “Barracuda” and “Heartless.”

The double-platinum (yet somewhat overblown) Dog and Butterfly (1978) and Top Five Bebe le Strange (1980) further cemented the band’s powerhouse status. Which is why Heart’s collective freak-out when 1982’s Private Audition sold “only” 400,000 copies is so odd: “The internal differences had been easier to overlook when we were a multi-platinum band, and piles of cash made everything easier,” Ann writes, “but as album sales stalled, debates erupted about who contributed to songwriting, to the live show, and who didn’t.”

Longtime drummer Michael Derosier and founding bassist Steve Fossen lost this argument and were sent packing. (Roger Fisher had already been sacked a couple years earlier over a Fleetwood Mac-lite intra-band dating fiasco.) Firmly in control, the Wilsons hired ex-Spirit bassist Mark Andes and Montrose drummer Denny Carmassi. Alas, Passionworks (1983) disappointed as well—a failure the sisters foist off on a “white sheen of powder.”

“Cocaine stripped all the humor out of our music,” Nancy explains. “The videos we made were completely without intentional comedy, but were so serious they had an almost comedic feel.”

Low went lower. CBS Records dropped the band. Ann and Nancy appeared in a coffee commercial with David Bowie, Kurt Vonnegut, and Cicely Tyson (!?!) for a cool mil, but felt the compromise keenly: “It was an incredible amount of money,” Nancy recalls, “but also an incredible sell-out.”

The Wilsons’ summation of this period? “By the middle of 1984, our Crash and Burn tour was over, and it felt like so was our career.”

Turns out, amidst this adversity holding onto their “true artistic whole selves” rated fairly low on the Wilson sisters’ circa ’84 priority list, somewhere significantly below letting up on the blow and fading into obscurity.

The Wilsons fired their manager of almost ten years in favor of a “five-foot two Englishwoman named Trudy Green” who was “obsessed” with breasts and “emphasized cleavage”(!) Still, even with the girls’ girls front and center no fewer than five labels passed on the band. Capitol Records finally agreed to sign Heart, so long as the Wilsons were “willing to cover sings written by others or…co-write with hit factory songwriters.”

“We agreed, reluctantly,” the Wilsons insist, but why? Heart had enjoyed a fifteen-year career legions of hard luck musicians would have killed their own mothers to experience. What shame would there have been in going on hiatus or humbly tending to the diehards until the toot-toot of the nostalgia train inevitably sounded? (Indeed, this would be precisely how Heart passed the nineties!) Clearly fear of fading away outweighed concerns over artistic integrity; there really isn’t any other way to spin this explanation for why they hired former Led Zepplin engineer Ron Nevison to helm the 1985 self-titled record: “We were ready to have a strong producer with a vision, even if it wasn’t always a vision we shared.”

Whatever aspersions they now cast upon that vision, Heart soared into the critical and commercial stratosphere—and if this is losing one’s soul to “corporate rock n’ roll,” as the narrator of the Heart Behind the Music intones at this point in the saga, the tradeoff is not nearly as nefarious as even the plotline of the PG-rated George-Burns-as-rock-n’-roll-manager-from-Hell flick Oh God! You Devil suggested.

As for the promotional clips born of the much-derided “era of MTV excess,” Heart may breathlessly describe those gloriously absurdist mise-en-scène as something akin to hostage videos shot by crews comprised of equal parts sexual deviants, moonlighting al Qaeda videographers and Project Runway couture rejects, but the much-mocked two-shirtless-Adonis-pour-a-molten-metal-Nancy foundry scene in “What About Love” is endlessly more rousing than a woe-is-me rock star memoirist pens lines like “Having a number one album only made my struggles with weight more difficult” and compares making rock videos to wearing “shackles” and “hanging on a meat hook.”

Nancy struck a more candid note on Behind the Music:

We’ve always been sexual beings on stage, but then when it becomes an expectation, then you want to rebel, then you don’t want to be the sex symbol, then you don’t want to put on the corset, then you don’t want to play dress up.

It is an understandable human response to a hardly novel conundrum—an audience’s necessarily subjective response is bound to eventually come into conflict with an artist’s objective intent. There is also a bit of cognitive dissonance going on here—the Wilsons will recount in Kicking & Dreaming a mid-eighties tour they nicknamed “Leave it to Cleavage,” complete with a crew laminate featuring “Ann and my cleavage side by side”…then also lament the boomerang avalanche of fan gifts, flowers, and notes that were “too personal, and, at times, disturbingly sexual.”

Two points worth making here:

1. As the late, great comedian Greg Giraldo once noted, cleavage is not a smart bomb: “You might hit your target; there’s also going to be a lot of collateral damage. You might hit the guy in the Porsche. You’re also going to hit the guy with one tooth driving by on the bus”—there are consequences to leaving it to cleavage.

2. There seems to be a presupposition that the sexual stimuli was a gateway drug for the music, when it is the opposite. Alison Krauss is a beautiful lady, but you could cram her into Nancy’s combination silk teddy and gold lame tuxedo tails from the “Never” video and the nation’s youth will continue to largely ignore bluegrass. Poison famously had a condom dispenser on their tour bus—does anyone seriously believe any of the dudes not named Bret Michaels in that band would have required such a supply if they were the night crew at Arby’s? It’s a safe bet not one of those mop-top-crazed girls at the Wilsons’ high school ever thought to themselves, I really want to mount Paul McCartney, but I hope I won’t have to pretend to like the Beatles to do it.

To say rock music is a sexually charged and charging thing is hardly an indictment of the 1980s alone, as the Wilsons well know. Early Heart club dates, Ann reveals in Kicking & Dreaming, were “a war zone for a twenty-year-old female,” where “catcalls, hoots, pinches, and sexual slurs” were “practically a daily ritual” and a cover of The Who’s “See Me, Feel Me” could instantly metamorphose a crowd of otherwise polite Canadians into a howling gang of (apologies…) bad animals.

Likewise, when between a “kamikaze drinking contest,” “a cocaine snorting festival,” and several fistfights, the Van Halens proposed a brothers/sisters foursome it was probably not in expectation of edifying post-coital conversation.

The 1980s was not the end of the innocence. In Heart’s promising-but-germinal early days publicist Shelly Siegel, according to Ann, would “pass the DJs a gram of cocaine or maybe the number of a hooker he’d lined up, and say, ‘She’s yours, on Heart’” to grease the AOR wheels.

“We never knew about the hookers until years later,” she adds. “We were pretty sheltered but if we had known it would have been a difficult ethical situation for us…”

Not impossible, just difficult. Which is to say ambiguous. Those Intro to Philosophy students who arrive at a definitive conclusion as to whether, given the advantage of time travel, they would (hypothetically) smother bouncing baby Hitler in his Austrian crib can now move onto pondering whether (hypothetically) they’d allow other women perform sexual acts on scumbag DJs to make themselves famous.

At any rate, it is not all that clear why the arena rock get-ups are particularly embarrassing. Consider, for example, this fetishist-heartening remembrance of the Little Queen (1977) cover shoot: “We were in Los Angeles at the time and discovered that in Hollywood you could rent anything, including a gypsy wagon and a goat.” Or this from Nancy: “For a time Ann wore an outfit onstage that was a bathrobe she purchased at Nordstrom’s. After she sewed rhinestones on it and wore it with purple tights and knee-high boots, it was fashion.”

It’s enough to make one wish Tim Gunn would burst out of a nearby phone booth.

“Our favorite part of Brigade was the outfits we wore on the album cover,” Nancy writes. “We called them Cadillac’s because they cost almost as much as a new car.”

Yes, it sounds as if they were dragged kicking and screaming (and dreaming) to the foot of Mount Excess.

* * *

The golden age of Heart ended with the somewhat undervalued, prophetically titled 1993 album Desire Walks On—the band’s last album for more than a decade. Though the Wilsons had accumulated enough clout by this point to run off the dread outside songwriters, Capitol nonetheless insisted they include the Mutt Lange jam “Will You Be There (In the Morning)”—a song Ann dismisses as “horrible” yet which nevertheless appears on both The Essential Heart (2002) and Greatest Hits: 1985-1995 (2000).

Still, the single underperformed. Apparently as pleased with a gold star for participation as with a gold record, the Wilsons engage in some oddly self-flagellating Schadenfreude: “This time the hit-making machine failed.”

So did the record.

The hearts of Heart blame it on grunge.

Okay, sure. Who from that era doesn’t?

***

If, as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome posits, the television screen truly were “the retina of the mind’s eye” and if, as the Wilsons liked to joke during the 1980s heyday, MTV had reduced their band to “Heart, Featuring Breasts,” then the towering anthems and sublime balladry of the Capitol years should no longer be so much as a blip on radar of the tech-addled American public’s psyche.

The horseback slow-mo cleavage bounce Nancy achieved in the “Alone” video?

Miley Cyrus has created more titillating images with her father and Internet porn might actually be more accessible than potable water at this point.

And yet those songs persist, earworms that have burrowed deep into that corner of an entire generation’s prefrontal cortexes where primitive joy and elation lies mostly dormant, waiting to be incited. Songs recorded in analog studios a quarter century ago are now beamed into our cars; digital recreations, encrypted and attached to our hips, are on call 24/7. Lesser iterations warble out of the mouths of Kelly Clarkson and random American Idol contestants.

They are drawn, like the rest of us, to the power and the glory; to that ineffable…something.

Heart’s three post-millennial/post-reformation albums—Jupiter’s Darling (2004), Red Velvet Car (2010), and Fanatic (2012)—are perfectly serviceable, enjoyable efforts and, of course, several of the 1970s singles will continue to be passionately exalted, but nothing in the band’s catalog has yet matched the consistent majesty of the Heart era. Perhaps it was the marriage of the aural brainstorms of all those various “outside songwriters” to Ann and Nancy Wilson’s exquisite essence. Or maybe it was just a moment in time where lives and circumstance collided to create magic.

Whatever it was, those cocksure preening grungers at Ann Wilson’s party, so in love with their own purported substantiality, sure got it wrong.

It is, then, something of a saving grace that Ann shares a story from another party as well; Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, still a few years away from OD’ing in a Seattle condo, sits in a lounge chair “looking at the sky, sipping on a beer” while Ann swims in her pool:

Suddenly a huge meteor went over us. It looked like a bright piece of coal, and for a second it lit up Layne’s face…In that moment there was nothing dark in his life.

“Did you see that?” he said excitedly. “How close do you think that was to us, Ann? How lucky are we to have seen that?”

“It was really beautiful,” I said.

“Do you have any idea,” Layne asked, “how rare it is for a meteor that big, and that bright, to come that close to us?”

Of course, Ann understood it very well. She’d ridden one herself, creatively, and left a good number of rock fans enriched and enlivened in the still lingering tail.

“We are really, really lucky people, Ann,” Staley told her, speaking as much for the rest of us as himself. “You and me.”

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