Saturday, November 9, 2013


The Wilson Sisters ~ Kicking & Dreaming

I recently finished a book I didn't think I'd love, but the story of the Wilson sisters' rise to musical fame, is endearing and definitely historic.  They tell the unprobable story of creating and driving the female-led rock band HEART, the soundtrack of my adolescence, to success.  A recent listen to their 1978 album, Dog & Butterfly, put me right back in my junior high-school bedroom, snugged up close to the speakers, relishing every word, every note...Ann's voice still transports me & I loved that they were sisters (I am the eldest of 5 girls).

KICKING & DREAMING: A Story of HEART, Soul, and Rock & Rollby Ann & Nancy Wilson is pure coming-of-age story, mixed with the sounds of the 1970's 'hard rock or disco' era.  You were apparently one or the other.  They describe in detail the feeling of experiencing The Beatles and Elvis on variety-show TV for the first time, how powerful and formative that experience was.  After forming their rock band Heart, they describe the surprise surge of success and the constant change in the male-dominated music industry, as it worked to organize the many groups that rushed to play in their wake.

I'm including this review in The Lead Sheet because of the following quote by Ann Wilson, where she discusses her early musical learning experience and parent support:  "In my junior and senior years in school, choir became a huge part of my life.  I was a second alto.  The hundred-member choir was filled with cliques like the rest of school, but our instructor, Allen Lund, changed my life and was the best teacher I ever had.  He taught me how to breathe while singing.  He said to imagine my body as an empty pitcher, with my breath being water going into the vessel, and to breathe from the part of the pitcher where the water hit first.  Once I learned that, my voice soared.  But the most exciting part of choir came senior year, when we traveled to Europe for a series of performances.  Our mother organized fundraising for the journey and signed on to be a chaperone, and consequently fourteen-year-old Nancy got to tag along. We went to Norway, Sweden, Holland, and Germany and sang in cathedrals and opera houses."  When someone says, "changed my life," in regards to education, I listen up.

The Wilsons were a military family, and consequently moved many times as duty called, but eventually the family ended up in the Pacific Northwest.  Ann Wilson, the eldest, describes her introduction to school music in seventh grade and explains the process of a sectional 'challenge', something I remember well.  "That year (1962) I started to play the flute and joined the school band.  Bellevue [Washington] schools were very supportive of the arts, and my band teacher was first rate.  For each instrument there was a chair ranking, and to move up a notch you had to challenge the person ahead of you to a playoff.  I started as seventh chair, but after two successful playoffs, I moved to fourth chair, where I held steady.  Anything above third chair was nearly impossible to obtain, and would have been held by girls who got straight A's, and were super committed, which I was not.  Still, being good at the flute was one of the few areas in my life where I felt I was on solid ground."  I can identify with this statement so much.  Short of good test scores, it's not always easy to showcase your skills or show your personality in academic classes, nor is it easy to mix with students outside your year.  Music classes actually make both of these challenges non-issues.  Wheras educators may take vastly different paths to teaching and testing a student's understanding, music performance classes basically run the same way.  Simplified, it begins with sightreading, moves on to practice & perfecting, ultimately culminating in an exciting performance.  It must be comforting to a student who moves constantly.  More than any others, I remember my junior high and high school band and orchestra teachers the most.  Add to that, some of my very best friends were found in those Los Angeles Unified School District classes (including saxophonist, Ravi Coltrane, son of John Coltrane, who sat next to me in junior high school and high school marching band. :0 Bringing his quartet to our hometown theater, I was so happy to reminisce and proud to introduce him to my jazz-loving boys).

Purely because it is interesting and news to me, I include the last quote from Nancy Wilson:  "When I was growing up, Mama once told me something about scientific research on music: That when you die, the last thing to go is your memory of music.  When all else is gone, there is still music in your brain.  Mama couldn't talk anymore, but she was lying there in bed tapping her toe to the music we were playing."  This brings to mind the amazing music-therapy work Oliver Sacks describes in his book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music & the Brain.  When brain-damaged patients were so injured, they seemed completely cut off from reality, often music was the only way to reach them.  Music Therapy is real and happening.

A postscript: I often tell my boys how different shopping for music was when Dog & Butterfly was all the rage.  I babysat every weekend and usually made $10.  The next day saw me at the Topanga Mall selecting my next album.  Holding the large vinyl cover, many of them works of art, ripping off the cellophane to see what awaits inside.  Hoping for lyrics, and many more pictures, and laying that beautiful pristine black disc on the turntable for the first time was all part of the magic.  The switch to CDs, while audibly superior, just doesn't meet the vinyl experience, and a download?  Not even close.  And don't get me started on buying songs instead of albums!  We, born of the late 1960s, are from the era of the Rock Opera.  Bands took seriously the idea of creating a related collection of songs.  I can't imagine breaking that up.  Yet, kids do it every day now.  It's the norm, though my boys and their friends relish my substantial collection.  (For anyone interested in reading about the changes in the music industry from vinyl to audio-tape to CD to video to download from an industry insider, you can't do better than Tommy Motola's new autobiography called Hitmaker: The Man & His Music.)

Motola, Tommy.  Hitmaker: The Man & His Music.  New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013.

Sacks, Oliver.  Musicophilia: Tales of Music & the Brain.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

Wilson, Ann & Nancy.  Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of HEART, Soul, and Rock & Roll.  New York: Harper Collins, 2012.