Heart's Ann Wilson talks women, new book 

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Ann Wilson has memories of Indianapolis. And not necessarily good ones.

"I remember playing in Indianapolis and being turned away from a bar because we were women," she says on the phone in mid-July. "It was a gent's club. We'd never heard anything like that before, out West.

"They didn't want any chicks in there jabbering away. They wanted a place for a guy to go, have a beer, and not have to worry about women," Ann says, laughing.

Times have changed in the 40-some years Wilson's toured with her sister Nancy in their band, Heart. But have all the changes been good for women performers?

"The pressure on these young women is just unbelievable," she says. "They have to look like actresses, sound perfect, go through adjustment committees for their clothes, for their voices, for everything they say, their political opinions, their home lives, everything."

"I feel so lucky I came out in the generation I came out in, because we didn't have that kind of pressure. All we had to do was sing really good and be on the radio, and go out and do shows."

No question Heart is the standout female-led classic rock group, and they're beginning to get industry recognition for that. The Wilson sisters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. While Ann mentions it as one of the most memorable moments of their career, another ceremony that took place just a few months before tops it.

"One of my most proud moments has to be the Kennedy Center Honors [in tribute to Led Zeppelin] that happened last December," Ann says. "It was classy and we were being asked to sing one of our most holy songs of all time. It was really, really something. I'll never forget that as long as I live."

The Wilsons performed "Stairway to Heaven" at the ceremony, which included the living members of Led Zeppelin. It was special for Heart, since they're touring and performing with John Bonham's son Jason Bonham as part of the Led Zeppelin Experience. But their allegiance to the songs of Zep goes much deeper. Heart has released many recordings of covers of the band's songs - and in their new book Kicking and Dreaming, they write about their earliest incarnation as a cover band, where they gained followers with their solid set of Zeppelin covers. (In 1975, they write, they were covering "Stairway to Heaven" when the members of Led Zeppelin walked into the club, fresh from a set at the Pacific Coliseum.)


Heart performs "Stairway to Heaven" at the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2012.

In those early days - days when they were being refused entry into Indy clubs - Wilson wasn't thinking much about taking care of her legendary voice, likened to the growl of Robert Plant.

"I used to smoke cigarettes, drink, sit around with the guys and party," she says. "Then I'd go up and sing four sets and be hoarse at the end of every night. I learned over time if I wanted to have a clear voice, the clear voice that was on the records, I had better make some changes."

Of course, that didn't exactly stop the partying. Ann - who has been upfront about her struggles with addiction - wrote of a night of excess with Stevie Nicks, who didn't take kindly to the name-check.

"Stevie Nicks turned out to be pretty grumpy about our party night together," Ann says. "We just put it in there because it wasn't anything, really. It was just a pretty typical party night in the '80s that rockers would have. But she was pretty sensitive, so perhaps we should have spared her."

Ann may have spared the Nicks story, but she certainly wouldn't un-write the whole book, which she describes as "cathartic" to pen.

"It was kind of like being in therapy. It was great, because now that the book has been out for a while, people are looking at us differently," she says. "You can tell when we do a show, they've read it. You can see there's a lot more tears in the eyes of the audience, because they feel they know us better."

But back to that club in Indianapolis. I asked Ann if this is where she thought the state of women's rights would be in 2013, thinking back to when the Wilson sisters were on the cover of Ms. Magazine in the '80s.

"How can you be a thinking woman and not be upset?" she says, about challenges to women's rights. "Why are people not understanding that if abortion goes down, things will go back to the way they were - [things] that were so brutal and so awful. ... And that's just one aspect. I just don't get it. I don't get why women still do not get equal pay. It just makes me really, really angry.

For Wilson, who describes her sister, mother and herself as "strong women," in her book, this is a personal topic.

"I have a 22-year-old daughter who has two babies," she says. "We have had the most incredibly wildfire debates about the topic of choice. All through her teenage years, I demonstrated what it was to be a single mom, working, coming home, being with the kids, having a family.

"And she now blames me for not being there enough, for working. She believes that the ultimate right way is the 1950s nuclear family. You know, a dad, a mom, 2.5 kids. It's just amazing to me that she and many of her friends are so, so - not just pro-life - they're anti- choice. Anti-anti-anti-choice."

Ann conquered the male-dominated world of rock, her sister at her side. She beat addiction, brought her band back to the top of the radio charts after a few free-falls and raised two kids as a single woman. So, I'm inclined to listen to her when she says this:

"When you're bringing up kids, you tell them and tell them and tell them, 'Don't do this. Don't do this.' But the only way they will learn is by doing it. And the I would hate to see this [not fighting for reproductive rights, equal pay, etc.] be one of those times for young women."


Heart performs "Barracuda" in 1977.

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Katherine Coplen

Katherine Coplen

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Always looking for my new favorite band. Always listening to my old ones, too. Always baking cakes. Always collecting rock and roll dad quotes.

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