YOU COULD MAKE a strong case for nominating Heart, which began life here in the Pacific Northwest, as the consummate rock ‘n’ roll band. They have an unbeatable back catalog of songs and, in sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, two of the great pioneering women in what remains a male-dominated industry.
If you want a seamless mix of the whole history of modern popular music, originals and covers alike, you could do worse than treat yourself to a copy of Heart’s “Greatest Hits/Live” album, or attend one of their now-occasional concerts. The shows are good fun, and as an added bonus, they allow those of us of a certain age to fleetingly warp back through the decades. As long as we’re experiencing “Magic Man” or “Barracuda” or “Kick It Out” in the flesh, to put it another way, we’re not old.
Set against the richly deserved plaudits for the Wilsons and their trailblazing role in the music business, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Heart already was a functioning band for several years before either sister walked through the rehearsal room door. In fact, the story of Heart really goes back as far as the fabled Summer of Love in 1967.
Reviewing Heart’s early years is almost like peering through the pinhole of a scenic souvenir charm at some Woodstock-era communal gathering, with a parade of free-spirited young men and women dancing their way through a haze of exotic cigarette smoke to the strains of an irresistibly catchy soundtrack. And it all took place right here in the Northwest.
PERHAPS THE GREAT unsung hero of the story is Seattle-born Steve Fossen, who reasonably could claim to be Heart’s founding father. Born in November 1949, Fossen attended Inglemoor High School in Kenmore. His mother, Fern, was a nurse, and his father, Norman, served with the Signal Corps in World War II before joining the Merchant Marine, spending much of his time sailing back and forth to Japan.
“On one of his trips, my Dad brought back an acoustic guitar,” Fossen remembers. “My hands weren’t even big enough to fit it, but I’d just sit there and stare at it like a sort of icon. Pretty soon, I was playing the organ and the trumpet, and I realized I could sing after a fashion.”
But at the back of it all, there was still that guitar. The young Fossen related to it in much the way some people do to their phones today: never wanting to let it out of his sight. He was hooked.
Norman Fossen also brought transistor radios home from his travels, and soon young Steve taped one of them to the handlebars of his bike. One warm day in the summer of 1963, he was riding to a friend’s house, and a song called “From Me to You” by a new group named the Beatles came on. Fossen was so excited by what he heard, he nearly fell into a ditch. The Beatles immediately became his favorite group. “Paul McCartney played the electric bass, and that’s what I decided I wanted to do,” Fossen says. “A regular guitar just didn’t sit right with me. With a bass, I felt normal.”
Soon, Fossen was a regular customer at the record counter of Ostroms drugstore in Kenmore. “The first single I bought was Herb Alpert’s ‘The Lonely Bull,’ and the first album was The Moody Blues’ ‘Days of Future Passed.’ And of course, I lapped up anything by the Beatles.”
Fossen graduated in 1968 and enrolled in classes at Shoreline Community College. Rock music also had moved on a bit by then, and FM radio rang to the sound of bands like Led Zeppelin, the Doors and Cream.
Steve and his guitar-playing schoolfriend Roger Fisher already had started a group in 1967 called The Army, perhaps an ironic reference to the Vietnam War raging at the time. They later changed the name to Whiteheart, and then, in October 1969, they became Heart. The young band did whatever it took to survive, but even then, Steve’s ambitions ran higher than playing at someone’s birthday party in a suburban bowling alley.
MEANWHILE, ROGER FISHER’S brother Mike had relocated to British Columbia rather than face the military draft, and the members of Heart often joined him there. For the next year or so, the band plied its trade on either side of the border, adding or shedding members along the way. In July 1971, they placed an ad in a Bellevue newspaper for a singer. A 21-year-old local U.S. Marine major’s daughter answered the call. Her name was Ann Wilson, and she passed the audition.
After that, Heart continued to shuttle between Western Washington and British Columbia, working up a cult audience with its mixture of imported Anglo-American rockers and power ballads belted out in Ann’s wonderfully operatic foghorn of a voice. She soon introduced her kid sister, Nancy, a singer-guitarist, although it was another three years before Nancy joined the band.
Sometime around 1974-75, bouncing up and down the Interstate 5 corridor in a small van, playing the sort of clubs so thick with smoke the musicians sometimes couldn’t see their hands in front of their instruments, Heart began to be brilliant.
MEANWHILE, RELATIONSHIP COMPLICATIONS within the band made the morally freewheeling plot of the movie “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” look like “The Andy Griffith Show” by comparison. The Fisher brothers and Wilson sisters found romance, with Mike dating Ann and Roger dating Nancy. Fossen had been married and divorced, and while he was on the road, his former wife was back in Seattle raising their small daughter. One or two other members of the band were busily exploring the limits of their own wedding vows.
Sexism was rampant in the pop business, and some of the media had trouble accepting that the Wilsons were serious musicians or, for that matter, that they were even sisters. A perhaps ill-advised publicity shot of the two young women standing back to back, topless, led to the rumor that they were lovers, a canard that stung Ann to write the caustic lyrics of “Barracuda” in reply.
Heart’s first album, “Dreamboat Annie,” meanwhile reached No. 7 on the Billboard chart, while the single “Magic Man” was rarely off the radio. The band had a hot new Seattle drummer, Mike Derosier, and suddenly life, for the most part, was good.
One evening in March 1978, they found themselves dropping in by helicopter to play alongside the likes of Aerosmith and Santana for an audience of nearly 400,000 at a festival outside Los Angeles. For Fossen, it seemed like only yesterday that he’d been riding around in the back of a smoke-filled van and existing on a diet of boiled rice sprinkled with a few vegetables. “I sat down one night and calculated I was earning $100 an hour, 24 hours a day, every day of the year,” he says. It’s worth remembering that Heart was always about passion and total commitment to the music.
“We didn’t come up with the band’s name by accident,” Fossen notes. “Of course, having said that, the money didn’t hurt,” he adds with a chuckle.
THE SCENES ENCOUNTERED by Fossen and his colleagues in the rock music world of 40 years ago aren’t granted to many mere mortals. There was the afternoon of the vast Texas Jam held in 110-degree heat at the Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas. “It was like a battlefield,” says Fossen. “People were crying, passing out from dehydration. We came on, Roger and Nancy hit the chords of our song ‘Mistral Wind,’ and at that exact moment a cool breeze picked up and the temperature dropped by about 15 degrees. We all just stopped and stared at each other. I know it sounds crazy, but there were times like that when another force seemed to join the band.”
By and large, Heart avoided the temptation to trash their hotel rooms or succumb to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, although there seems to have been an incident when a lawnmower somehow ended up in a Holiday Inn swimming pool. “We weren’t exactly the Rolling Stones,” says Fossen, “although I did see Keith Richards in an elevator one night, and what I chiefly remember was the color of his skin. It was green.”
Anyway, life was good. But these were still the shark-infested waters of rock music. In due course, there were issues with Heart’s original record company, leading to a protracted legal battle over their sophomore album. One or two band members whose tenure preceded that of Ann and Nancy Wilson were surprised, to put it no stronger, that “Dreamboat Annie”‘s front cover had shown only the two sisters, in the gauzy pose that led to all the gossip about their relationship, and nothing of the other musicians. And then there were those intramural love affairs. Forget “The Young and the Restless.” With the possible exception of Fleetwood Mac, this was the most emotionally charged public soap opera of its day.
IN 1979, NOT long after the release of Heart’s double-platinum “Dog & Butterfly” album, Nancy Wilson parted company with the band’s founding guitarist, Roger Fisher, and began a relationship with their mutual colleague Derosier. Fisher was understandably upset both by this turn of events and by certain other developments in the band’s music.
It was not a good time for the group members to find themselves thrown together on the road, and Fisher’s frustrations came to the boil one night in Portland, where those who witnessed his fury both on stage and in the dressing room afterward long spoke of it in hushed tones, like old salts recalling a historic hurricane. Both Fisher brothers left the band’s orbit shortly afterward.
“It seemed like we’d all shared the same dream in the early days, but money and other things reared their ugly heads,” says Roger Fisher, who remains one of the most exciting and versatile guitarists in rock history, with a Hendrix-like ability to go zigzagging down the bass notes of his instrument while simultaneously climbing into treble register. Whatever else you can say about Heart, they were all superbly accomplished musicians, which isn’t necessarily true of every commercially successful rock band.
FOSSEN AND DEROSIER left in 1982. Over the years, the phrase “creative differences” has become something of a cliché that gets thrown around to cover everything from the band’s singer running off with the piano player’s girlfriend, to the manager embezzling everyone’s money. But the term really did apply in Heart’s case.
“We recorded an album called ‘Private Audition,’ where it was clear we were straying a long way off-course from Heart’s original sound, and suddenly the whole thing was about as much fun as a root canal,” says Derosier.
“It was sort of a relief to leave when we did,” adds Fossen, even if it meant he was effectively being fired from a band he himself had helped start 15 years earlier. “We took it from the basement of my parents’ house to playing for nearly half-a-million fans at the California Jam festival, which isn’t bad for a skinny kid from Kenmore,” he adds with a smile.
Fossen drifted in and out of music after that, indulging his love for the wilderness. “When you’re rappelling down a cliff in a Northwest snowstorm, you need to have a better-than average knowledge of your equipment, a bit like playing the bass,” he says.
There was another “From Me to You” moment in early 2013, when he learned that Heart was being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “I nearly drove my car off the road with excitement,” Fossen remembers. “Mike Derosier and I flew down to L.A. in a private jet. We were treated like royalty for the week, with room service and limos at our disposal round the clock. Then we got to play ‘Crazy on You’ live with Ann and Nancy, which was great; collected our awards; and flew home to Seattle again. Two nights later, I had people over for dinner, and at about 6 in the evening, I was down on my knees with a pair of rubber gloves on, scrubbing the toilet before the guests arrived.”
It’s one of Fossen’s many engaging qualities that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. “Ah, the glamour of being a rock star,” he says.
MEANWHILE, FOSSEN AND a prodigiously talented Seattle-area singer named Somar Macek put together a band to play classic Heart material at clubs and venues around the Northwest. Joining them were Derosier on drums, and versatile musicians Lizzy Daymont and Chad Quist on a variety of guitars and keyboards.
They call themselves Heart by Heart, and they’re much more than a run-of-the-mill tribute band. For one thing, they play the greatest hits of Heart in their prime, which is what most people want to hear, without any of the new material. But more important, they bring the same fire and conviction to the stage as the enthusiastic young activists of 1975, and they have the band’s original rhythm section to keep it real. For fans, it’s a win-win situation.
To call Heart a successful Northwest rock group seems barely adequate. As configured from around 1975-82, it was a musical force of nature. Prolifically creative both on record and on stage, the band members meshed together as a true ensemble: heavy-rock muscle tethered to a folk-music sensitivity.
I asked Derosier whether he ever felt tempted to diverge in any way from the blueprint of the songs he helped propel to the top nearly 50 years ago. “If someone has a vintage 1955 Thunderbird, you might want to check under the hood sometimes, but you don’t mess with the basic design,” he says. “It’s iconic for a reason.”
Or put another way: Heart by Heart keeps the classic songs alive in the same way an accomplished orchestra playing Mozart or Beethoven does. Except you can dance to them.