Even the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognition is a nod to the ceilings the Wilson sisters shattered on their way to the top of the charts: “At their point of entry in the mid-seventies, Ann and Nancy Wilson found themselves swimming against the current of a male-dominated music business that was rife with bias and sexism,” Parke Puterbaugh writes.
During his speech that welcomed the band into the Hall, the late Chris Cornell of Soundgarden recognized their indomitable will to succeed in an industry that long relegated women to backup singers or showgirl crooners, describing Ann and her sister, Nancy, as “two Joan of Arcs standing up front, kicking total ass.”
Despite her monster vocal prowess, however … despite the determination to succeed no matter the obstacles in her path … there was one that nearly destroyed her. While she emerged from the hedonistic heyday of the 1970s and ’80s relatively unscathed by drugs, alcohol caught up with her in a vicious way in 2009, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently.
“I was in for a routine physical, and my liver numbers were bad. They weren’t just bad — they were way bad,” she said. “My doctor said, ‘I’ve never seen your liver be like this before, and you’ve got to change.’ We had several conversations, and she really convinced me of that, so I did. At first, it was really hard, of course — and it still is really hard sometimes, even after 11 years.
“But the good is so good. When I first started getting sober and figured out how to be without it, a whole new world opened up. It sounds trite and cliché, but that’s the truth.”
Ann Wilson: A rock 'n' roll force of nature
Getting sober in rock ‘n’ roll is something of a revolutionary act, especially for a woman who found fame during a time when the genre’s excess wasn’t just accepted; it was expected. And those who found themselves with a habit beyond their control often discovered they had little recourse when they felt it was time to do anything about it, Wilson said.
“Back then, it was pretty much before there was a big 12 Step treatment movement. All there was, was (Alcoholics Anonymous), and there was a pall of shame that was kind of on it,” she said. “It wasn’t considered to be an illness; it was considered to be a weakness back then, so you had to be secretive about it and keep it to yourself. If you didn’t want to have people in your face about it, you went underground.
“That was a terrible way to have to do it, you know, because I think the big tours, the lifestyle, the being locked in hotel rooms and stuff made life pretty intolerable. I know that sounds like biting the hand that feeds you, but it really is a pretty isolated, insular life that can really turn on you.”
The Wilson sisters grew up as military brats, and music was an anchor during a time when roots were hard to put down. Eventually landing in the Pacific Northwest, Ann Wilson joined a band that would, after the siblings moved to Vancouver, Canada, change its name to Heart. Two years later, the debut album “Dreamboat Annie” introduced the world to Wilson’s vocal power. With an incredible operatic range, she put a unique stamp on those early recordings, which tilted toward the bluesier end of the rock ‘n’ roll spectrum. Early hits like “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You” established Heart as a vibrant new presence in rock ‘n’ roll, and while label executives tried to market the band based on the Wilson sisters’ sex appeal, they embraced a more primal sound on subsequent recordings.
“Barracuda,” for example, kicks off with a dirty, driving guitar attack before Wilson descends like a bird of prey, and the album containing it, “Little Queen,” became the band’s second million-seller. By that point, Heart was a brand as much as it was a band, and the machine propping it up meant that Wilson, as the band’s frontwoman and singer, was shielded from the aforementioned excess.
“I was the golden goose that all the people on the tour had to protect from all of that,” she said. “When I wanted (to get high), I had to be sneaky. I had to go to great lengths to cover my tracks and get it. The people who were closest to me were in on it with me, but we were a very small group of partiers. We would do a show, go back to the suite and get locked in, then party until the next night.”
From stardom to superstardom
While urban legends of debauchery surround many bands from that era, Wilson’s experience was much more low-key, she said.
“It wasn’t one of those wild parties where people were throwing TVs out of the window, but it was a long, gently rocking, constant party,” she said. “Everyone was able to maintain their lives and go on stage and all have No. 1 records and all that kind of stuff, but the quality of life wasn’t that good.”
Drugs, she added, weren’t difficult to set aside. But by the time the 1970s came to an end, a couple of things happened that changed her trajectory: Heart hit a sales slump, and Wilson started drinking more. While the early ’80s included more releases and a number of high-profile tours, the Wilson sisters dabbled in show business (Nancy acted; Ann had a hit with Loverboy’s Mike Reno with “Almost Paradise,” from “Footloose”), and the record sales declined as personnel changes were made.
In 1985, the band moved to Capitol Records, and the self-titled debut for that label proved to be a groundbreaking pivot toward a more pop-oriented sound. “What About Love,” “Never,” “These Dreams” and “Nothin’ at All” were all Top 10 hits, a trend that continued on the 1987 record “Bad Animals,” which gave them another No. 1 hit with “Alone.”
As Heart became a bigger band, so too did Ann’s appetite for alcohol, she said.
“It was mostly the ’80s for me when it became a problem,” she said. “I was mostly a pot smoker in the ’70s, and I didn’t start really drinking until the ’80s. Then it became a lost decade for me. Alcohol was a lot harder to quit than cocaine.”
For the next two decades, Wilson continued to demonstrate a shrewd business acumen, managing to stay active in creative ways even after many of her contemporaries were relegated to the nostalgia circuit by grunge. Various opportunities kept her active, with and without Heart, but alcohol slowly and insidiously became a bigger part of who she was off the stage. By 2009, that doctor’s visit was a wakeup call, putting in the spotlight all she had to lose if she continued to drink.
“The first thing I did when I decided to do it, was that I met with a group of friends, people who were closest to me, and we sat around and talked,” she said. “They wanted me to go into a traditional ‘recovery-by-the-sea’ type of place, but I didn’t want to do that. I had little kids, and I wanted to be there for them. So I made a public vow that if I fell off the wagon, I would go to one of those places.
“And then I went into therapy. I went four times a week until I could gradually go once a week, and I had methods that included meditation, big-time. Whenever I felt that urge, that voice saying I can have just one, I go there instead, and that’s how I did it.”
Ann Wilson: Sobriety as a way of life
For Wilson, sobriety meant more than just putting down the alcohol: It meant addressing the reasons she had found it such a balm for emotional pain. Some of it, she said, stemmed from her innate sensitivity. Much has been written about her weight struggles, which she addressed publicly with lap-band surgery in 2002, but the emotional scars from those who made it an issue in the 1980s were still painful.
“Back when I was drinking and drugging, that was a place to escape to,” she said. “But when I stopped, I guess I stopped caring as much. I stopped being so vulnerable, and I developed a little thicker skin.”
And over the past decade, she’s come to realize that sobriety is a radical act. Many of her peers have embraced it, and artists of all ages continue to speak out about its benefits. She’s no different, but what is different is her authenticity. For Wilson, sobriety wasn’t a lifestyle choice as much as it was a save-her-life choice.
“I think that people, when they can separate their own desire to drink less or drug less or not at all from how hip it is to be in recovery … when they can do it for their own reasons other than being hip … that’s the bomb,” she said. “Then it’s going to work.”
And when a friend approaches it from that desire to truly change, it’s an honor to be a part of that journey, she said. She’s not a sobriety activist so much as she is someone who lives by example, and when she can share with others the means and methods that have contributed to her own well-being, it’s rewarding, she added.
“I’ve been the listening ear and the crying shoulder for other people in recovery, people who are going to meetings and were way more vulnerable than I ever was,” she said. “For me, a lot of it is about how I take care of myself. When you feel good, the mind-body connection is so powerful, because the mind is not only up in your head, it’s throughout your whole body.
“When you feel sick or nauseous or whipped out or ashamed because you’re hungover, you don’t feel very serene. In fact, it’s just nerve wracking and pitiful. It’s pathetic, but when that goes away, when you feel good physically and mentally, then you do feel more serene.”
With that serenity, Wilson co-wrote the band’s biography, “Kicking and Dreaming,” with her sister. She resumed performing and touring. And she opened herself up to love, she said.
“I felt more confident in myself to fall in love, to give myself to someone and accept someone,” she said. “That was a huge life-affirming, serenity-giving thing.”
A song of 'Revolution'
Her husband, incidentally, is responsible for her most recent musical project: A blistering cover of the title track to singer-songwriter Steve Earle’s 2004 album, “The Revolution Starts Now.” It’s the first release since her 2018 album “Immortal,” and while Earle is known for his incendiary political commentary both in song and out, Wilson chose to take a more personal approach to the song, she said.
“My husband sent it to me on a playlist when we were sort of virtually courting, and I just thought it was great,” she said. “I felt that that song can mean different things at different times and in different situations. At this moment in time, I think that our population has never been as polarized as it is now. (Over) the last four years, it’s kind of degraded into a stressful, hodge-podge of the lowest common denominator of human emotion — ‘We hate you, you hate us, let’s just blow each other away’ kind of thing.
“That’s another kind of rock bottom for a population that claims to be an idealistic democracy, but of course democracy means compromise. I think it was the perfect thing to drop in that pool as a way of saying, ‘You know what, we need to think of this as a new way and try to rise above our basest feelings here and think about the future.”
It’s a call for unity during a time of immense stress, something that Wilson certainly feels as well. She’s been in COVID-19 lockdown since March, she said, making extremely limited public excursions, but she’s chosen to embrace the time at home as one of creativity. She’s written seven new songs, she said, with five or six already recorded, ones she’ll be dropping a single at a time in the coming months. The music business standstill because of the coronavirus means any tour plans, for herself or for Heart, are up in the air, but she’s as anxious as anyone else to get back before an audience for whom her voice is a time machine back to halcyon days of yore.
Hopefully, she added, some of those fans recognized their own problems, as she did, and got the help they needed to get better. And for those who have yet to take that leap, she has some words of encouragement:
“If it’s too abstract in terms of just doing it for quality of life, I would suggest going and having a deep physical and getting all the numbers,” she said. “Go the scientific route. Sure, doctors are going to tell you to drink less, that you shouldn’t smoke, but go into stuff like your liver numbers, like I did. Because if that doesn’t convince you and throw up a big red flare, then nothing will.
“I just think it’s important for people to remember in this day and sage that the sobriety/non-sobriety line is just a dotted line. It’s not a big fence that separates people. It’s something that you can just step over real easy. You’ve just got to change your lifestyle, that’s all, and there’s no shame involved. I think shame is the thing that stops people the most in terms of their health.”
And on the other side of that line, she added, is something beautiful. It’s not perfect, by any means, nor does sobriety guarantee a life free of stress, strife and turmoil. But it does mean that she wakes up feeling good each morning, without regrets of what she did or might have done the night before.
“I’m not sane all the time!” she laughs. “(Recovering) addicts are some of the most cool, but also some of the most insane, people of all. And I just do my best. I try to meditate, and I really am in a good marriage right now with somebody who’s a fantastic listener and who understands what I’m trying to do and doesn’t try to hold me to an ideal of perfection. I don’t try to be perfect; I just try to be my best self.”