Kicking & Dreaming – A Story of Heart… (book review)

Kicking & Dreaming – A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll – Ann & Nancy Wilson with Charles R. Cross (It / Harper Collins) book review

There’s a point in the new Heart autobiography, Kicking & Dreaming, that’s common among musicians over 60…as kids they see the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and it changes their lives forever.  But, an interesting thing happens at school the next day that shows where the Wilsons were coming from.  While most of the talk amongst their friends was how cute each Beatle was and how they’d like to date one of them, Ann & Nancy wanted to BE the Beatles.

And thus began a life-long battle of having to prove themselves.  And as much an influence as the sisters have been on future generations of women rockers, you get the impression that pushing their gender was not their main objective.  They just wanted to be musicians, period.

To say that Ann & Nancy have had a busy year would be a bit of an understatement.  They kicked things off with the release of their box set, the extremely enjoyable Strange Euphoria (read our review here). They followed that up with a brand new studio album, one of the band’s best, Fanatic (we reviewed that one too). Oh, did I mention they received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?  Somehow, through all of that, they also found time to complete this memoir.

There are several things that set this book apart from the multitudes of others currently on the shelf.  First, it’s written equally by both Ann and Nancy, so it acts as more of a conversation than an autobiography, making for a very easy, enjoyable read.  Second, there’s nothing here that qualifies as tabloid material – the girls don’t have any particular axe to grind (although they do have some very funny club owner stories), there’s not any big revelation, and even the tales of sex & drugs are given in a matter-of-fact way.  There’s nothing sensational about this book.  Instead, their goal is to tell their story as honestly as possible.

The book spends a great deal of time chronicling the sisters’ childhood.  You get an idea of the events that helped shape them – from the constant moving from state to state as a military family, to the ribbing that Ann received in school for her weight and stuttering problem.  Music became the sisters’ escape.  Eventually Ann formed a band, later inviting her sister as well.

One of the great things about Heart is that their songs were real, and oftentimes came from actual experiences.  Take, for example, their breakthrough single “Magic Man.”  The lyrics “come on home girl / mama cried on the phone / too soon to lose my baby / my girl should be at home” were words actually said by Ann’s mother, begging her to quit the music business and return to Seattle.  “Baracuda,” another of their classic tunes, was written about a radio promo guy they met in Detroit.

Of course, it never hurt the band’s popularity to have, not one, but two stunning females as a focal point.  There’s some great tales of Don Henley & Glen Frey of the Eagles, and Eddie & Alex Van Halen both trying to bed the sisters (to no avail), as well as advances by Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin.  There’s also a not-too flattering account of an encounter with southern rockers the Marshall Tucker Band.

They clear up one of the most controversial events in the band’s history – an ad in Rolling Stone, placed by their record label, insinuating that Ann & Nancy were lovers, as well as bandmates.  Under a seductive photo of the pair, the caption read: “Heart’s Wilson Sisters Confess: ‘It Was Only Our First Time!’”  This incident, meant as a desperate publicity stunt by their label president, sparked one of the ugliest court battles in music history.  Eventually, Heart was ordered to deliver one final album, in turn for their freedom to record elsewhere.

During the early peak years of the band, Ann & Nancy were dating brothers Michael and Roger Fisher, who both are quoted in the book.  This combination lover/sister/brother/bandmate quadrangle eventually came to an end.  They smartly gloss over some of the lean years of the early Eighties.  Amazingly, the sisters rebounded in 1985 with a new record contract and heavy exposure on MTV.  Of course, this didn’t come without a price.  They spent so many years de-emphasizing their sexuality in hopes of being taken seriously – only to have Capitol records exploit their good looks to the hilt in their videos (they joked that they were now being billed as “Heart…featuring breasts!”).  And, while Ann & Nancy had co-written just about everything up to that point, their label insisted on bringing in outside songwriters.  They immediately hit paydirt with Taupin’s “These Dreams.”  Yet, with that success, their own songwriting and vision was pushed aside.

Eventually, the Big Eighties came to a screeching halt, and the sisters found themselves without a record contract.  This was a time for reassessment, and both decided to adopt children (there’s a great story of Ann trying to chase her daughter around while being scorned by Hillary Clinton).  Eventually, they put the band back together, but this time, on their own terms.  It’s no accident that they’ve released two of their finest albums (2010’s Red Velvet Car, and this year’s Fanatic) late in their career.  For the first time in their history, they’re calling all their own shots.

Heart is the only sister-led rock band that’s lasted through the years.  That, in itself, makes Kicking and Dreaming interesting. But, it’s Ann & Nancy’s honesty about their long and tumultuous career that truly makes this a must read.  –Tony Peters