Riding the Demon: Music, Love and Addiction

Biography of Ann and Nancy WIlson“Backstage he threw part of the guitar at me, and it whizzed by, just missing my head.” Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day in 2012? Nope. Roger Fisher in 1979, as described by Nancy Wilson of Heart.

The relationship between love, madness, addiction, self-destruction and creativity is always a complex one. Passion is the fuel, whether it comes from love or pain – or both.

I’ve been reading the new Ann and Nancy Wilson biography, Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll. Fascinated and horrified at turns, I am nonetheless appreciative of the matter-of-fact way Ann and Nancy talk about their love relationships, their music, and the role of addiction throughout the book. The narrative switches back and forth between the two sisters’ viewpoints, although at times it seems to almost come from the same person. The book touches on so many issues that I can identify with – from Roger Fisher’s narcissistic drug-fueled sexual excesses in the band’s early days (as told by Nancy) to the melancholy admission of alcohol problems and body image issues at the end (by Ann). The love story between the two sisters and the two brothers (the “Wil-shers”) breathes like a sleeping dragon throughout the book. In one of the last chapters, Ann tells of the last time she saw Michael Fisher. Never married, it’s clear she never quite got over him. If you watch footage of Roger Fisher talking about Nancy (in VH1’s Behind the Music), it seems he took a long time getting over her as well.

To be fair, this is a story not just of the passions of youth, but the tension between gender and creativity. There was no shortage of sexism in the music industry then – and it’s still there now (although perhaps a bit less overt). Ann and Nancy, along with other female rockers like Pat Benatar, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith, blazed new ground, inspiring women and pissing off men left and right. The book describes, without a trace of self-pity or victimhood, how the Wilson sisters constantly had to deal with sexual advances, and were often dismissed as artists or criticized about their looks due to their gender. This problem still dogs women in many public arenas today from politics to entertainment. Fans and the media care more about how female musicians act and look than how they sound, and do not hold male artists to the same standards. Ann and Nancy also had to navigate the problems that came from easy access to drugs and alcohol, in an era and culture that encouraged excess and a lack of personal boundaries. These two talented women describe first hand the demons inhabiting some of the most famous rock and roll icons (Roger, Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Stevie Nicks), as well as their own struggles, particularly Ann’s, with alcohol, drugs, and romance.

The romantic element seems almost predictable when men and women are in a band together. It’s a tale that is played out in bands every day – the singer falls for the lead guitarist, or the drummer. (In my case, it was the drummer, so I can relate). But here’s the thing: I don’t know the Wilsons, but I do know Roger Fisher. A musician myself, I worked briefly a few years ago with Roger, and he is a brilliant artist. Passion drives him. The Roger that I know is a sweet and intelligent guy. When I met him, I knew little about Heart or Roger’s past, and I’d like to think that I formed my opinion of him based on who he is now, not who he was during his time with Heart. There were several times reading the book that I cringed. I felt for all the people involved, even though I don’t know them, because to me, they are real people, not icons. They made great music and great money (at times), but there was a personal price they paid. The book doesn’t whitewash either the ugliness of the industry or the complexity of mixing music with pleasure. Because I am a musician, the book raised a lot of questions for me about whether it is truly possible to stay sane in the whirlwind of the creative process, especially when romantic entanglements ensue.

Passion is such a hard master. It is exhausting and hard to control. As an artist who is today romantically involved with another artist, it is of paramount interest to me how to sustain the creativity and passion and not cross over into the dangerous territory of addiction or destruction. It’s one of the first questions I asked my partner, Stevie, the first day I met him at Roger’s house when we were working on a cover of one of Roger’s songs: when there’s so much intimacy and passion in making music together, how exactly do you stop from letting those relationships cross the line – and ultimately blow up? Actually, I’ve asked quite a few musicians that over the years, and none of them has ever had a good answer.

There are some people who say that Heart was never the same after the Wil-shers broke up and Roger was kicked out (and Derosier and Fossen left): the song-writing wasn’t as good, the performances less compelling, the guitar work serviceable, but not brilliant. It’s a curious thing, this tension that creates such good material, but ultimately self destructs in its inherent instability. It’s not a new thing in rock and roll, or even in art as a whole. The list of highly creative (and dead before their time) artists in almost every field is lengthy – from Andy Warhol to Amy Winehouse. Power couple lineups, like Fleetwood Mac and Heart, have inevitably imploded. An alliance between true artistic and intellectual equals, as it seems to have been between Nancy and Roger, or Ann and Michael, is rare. I have that today with my partner, Stevie, and I cherish and guard our creative flame. While it burns, incredible and beautiful things are created out of the fire.

I am glad (heartened?) that Ann and Nancy Wilson have survived and are still writing and performing. For that matter, so are Roger Fisher, Mike Derosier, and Steve Fossen. This early lineup of Heart was, in my opinion, the most creative and dynamic group of artists in rock and roll. It was liquid rocket fuel, propelling them all to fame quickly on a flame that was brilliant, but ultimately unsustainable. Front and center for me in this book is the fact that the women who fronted Heart were nothing short of amazing, and they have survived the crucible of their fame. Their musical talent and work ethic were and are to be admired by any musician, male or female. Artistic talent, especially when mixed with love and addiction, sometimes comes with a hefty price tag. I’m not sure the Wilson sisters have mastered their demons, but they certainly accomplished things few women in rock have before them or since. And they lived to tell the tale.

If you are in a creative endeavor with someone you love, I’d love to hear your feedback on how you manage that tension below. Creating art and music is an amazing aphrodisiac, and I’d like to hear your tips on how to manage the process and harness the passion without letting it consume you or having it blow up. I have a vested interest in the subject.

 

 

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6 comments

  1. One of the things my partner Eric and I seem to have working in our favor is that we’re good at completely different things. I write lyrics and melodies, and I sing; he arranges the songs and plays most of the instruments.

    A guy I dated once said he didn’t want to make music with me because I was “too intense” and creating together required “too much intimacy.” Eric and I are equally intense, and we love the intimacy we share when we work together for hours and hours on a song.

    We’re not trying to make a career of this, so we’re not under tons of pressure. A big challenge is time. We both work FT jobs. I’m in two bands (I’m the leader of one, and the second is with Eric), and I’m frequently asked to sing for other people’s projects. In addition to our band, Eric is in four others and is in high demand to sub in other people’s shows. He also plays in the pit for musical productions. Between practices, rehearsals, and gigs, this can leave us pretty exhausted.

    It’s totally worth it though. We’re both doing what we love, and making songs together (which are performed primarily by my band) creates a level of intimacy that is indescribable. You make so many mistakes while creating together, you can’t be shy with ideas, and you have to be honest when you think something’s not going right. These are the foundation of a good relationship.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Julie. It’s great to hear about a couple making the creative thing work! I totally agree that the level of intimacy achieved is indescribable… “the foundation of a good relationship.” So true.

  2. Good insights…

    I like to ask musicians, if music was a person, how would they describe their relationship with it…

    I always choose my faithful, yet demanding, husband. 😉

    what about you?

  3. effing brilliant. Thank you…nice piece…I will read this book. I have been fortunate enough to have a small peek inside this tumult, and with that tension came the release of brilliance.

    1. Thanks for reading my review and commenting, Tom! I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. Certainly seems it was a time of much emotion and creativity.

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