Recently, I’ve been reading a memoir by the Wilson sisters from the band Heart and reminiscing about the past. A friend (and fan) gave it to me because we shared a deep love of the band when we were young. It perfectly captures the era of rock in the 70’s and the struggles the Wilson sisters had in breaking into a male-dominated business.
When I think of growing up and the music that played in my home, it was not the music of my friend’s homes. I would go to a sleepover and see a full size poster of Sean Cassidy on my friends wall or Abba and it felt like an alternate universe to me. Who were these people? The Guess Who, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, Nazareth, Deep Purple, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Aerosmith and later AC/DC–these were the bands that were played in my house. Big, snarling, theatrical, posturing, operatic: bass lines that changed your heartbeat if you got too close to the speakers, anthems that made you feel riotous and rebellious and bonded with everyone else who listened to them. I remember we had a little dance at the end of the year in my elementary music class and I stood beside the record player, looking at the selection without recognizing much of it. A boy put on Bee Gee’s and I looked up and started laughing. I asked him if he was serious, did he really like this group? I wanted him to say no, because I’d liked him, but he said yes and that was the end of that crush.
It was around this time that Dreamboat Annie came out. The moment I saw two women on the cover, then heard Magic Man, with Ann booting down the door of male rock in suede boots, I was hooked. As far as most of us assumed, they were Canadian. Of course they weren’t; they just dominated the Vancouver music scene and had recorded the album at Mushroom Studios on West 4th Avenue which had put Mushroom and Heart both on the map.
The songs of Dreamboat Annie had poetry in them and moments of soft, melodic voices and twelve string guitars that allowed my young self to escape into the world of the Wilson sisters, whose talent soon got noticed by the world and the album went platinum. Ann for me, was a new kind of woman I’d never seen before. In songs like Kick It Out and Barracuda there was a swagger and toughness that until that point, had largely been the domain of the rock gods who were all men–Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey–but Ann’s vocal range and power just exploded and gave us young female fans a new hero.
I would skip out of my all girl’s private school and go to my friend’s house, who had two older sisters, one of whom was a Heart junkie. Her room was like a shrine to them and I was ecstatic to find it was all Heart, all the time in that basement on west 8th avenue in Point Grey. There would be many late nights where the record needle would be gently picked up and put back to a bar or an octave or a word Ann would sing and we’d talk about it with grave respect. In those days, Ann and Nancy often did radio interviews to promote their albums and we’d lie there listening to the interview like we were hearing from the oracle of cool. I will never forget my first Heart concert at the Pacific Coliseum when Ann somehow managed to sing louder, harder, faster than the records ever hinted at. My 13-year-old mind was never the same.
A few years later, my brother started singing in our basement with a few friends. I was a little jealous because I’d hoped to be like Ann and start my own band but it turned out that while I could hold some notes, and had a little power, I lost my pitch along the way. He, however, was pitch perfect. Our lives soon centered around jamming in the basement. It was all rock, as loud as possible, played through rented amps from Long and McQuade. And as the amps got bigger and bigger, so did the sound. Sometimes I’d be walking up my street and hear the guitar, kajung kajung then the bass, thud thud thud and the drums thwack thwack wailing away and high above coming into the fray would be my brother’s voice, howling some Lynrd Skynrd song.
His band evolved and got better and better and I started to hang out at real gigs which no matter the pay, were always packed full of all the same faces that had hung out and jammed in our cold, dirty little basement space. There were other kids from our neighbourhood that were also in bands and they started playing around town and getting some attention from the local press and appearing at the famed Town Pump. The place had been a restaurant and for some reason I remember that they had windows with stuffed animals in them. I swear there was one of a mountain lion. But then it evolved into the hub of live music in Vancouver. I was underage for a long time at the Town Pump. I became expert at wrangling my name onto the guest list so I wasn’t harassed for ID. Being on the guest list usually meant free beer and backstage access which helped as I had no money in those days. My brother’s band, The Pasties, had a strong following in Vancouver and for a short while, it looked like Geffen Records was going to back them and then it all kind of fell apart. But I never stopped being a fan. Pasties gigs were always ridiculously fun because it was like our basement transplanted to a club where everyone knew each other yet somehow now my brother was being paid for singing and large flats of beer were being sent backstage. Being small, I had to stay clear of what was now called the Mosh Pit. I was once accidentally knocked into the air and across the floor at the Commodore Ballroom and bailed into a table. It didn’t help I was in 6 inch heels but I stood up, brushed myself off, and watched from the sidelines, as close to the Marshall stacks as I could.
My mom at this time was in her late 60’s and given the choice, would have preferred to sip a G & T, listen to the CBC, and read a good mystery novel but here we were, coming in at all hours of the night, playing thundering rock downstairs, or sitting in large wayward groups on our roof in the summer sun, looking out over Vancouver and acting as if we owned it. My dear mom accepted everyone that walked through the door. I’d come up from the basement sometimes to find someone having a beer with her, talking loudly over the guitars and drums and my brother’s sprawling vocals, having a meaningful conversation and I would just shake my head and wonder why they were hanging out with her. Many years later, I still have people tell me how much her acceptance of them meant to them. I didn’t see it then, but I think her non-judgmental, open door philosophy probably was one they didn’t experience at home.
I had gone to university and returned to Vancouver and got a job working at the Arts Club theatre. The job lent itself to attending late night music gigs because I wouldn’t have to get up until noon or later for work. But something was changing in the scene, and it seemed everywhere I looked friends and friends of friends were nodding off as we stood watching a band and many OD’ed or worse, had died. I hadn’t been around hard drugs before and had no clue why all these people were so sleepy suddenly? I was truly ignorant of what was happening.
I was a huge fan of the band Tank Hog at this time and who, from the second they started playing, would graft your pulse to theirs and you wouldn’t come down from the excitement of their sets until very late in an after hours bar. They saw a fair bit of success but the internal strife (and drugs) didn’t help their situation. Still, I think of them as some of the most talented musicians I ever met and had the pleasure of seeing live.
Nirvana became the new Zeppelin and grunge music came in to the Vancouver music scene in a big way. Being so close to Seattle, there was a lot of influence on our culture and my fashion shifted to dresses from thrift stores, Doc Martens that never left my feet and jet black hair cut in a Louise Brooks style bob. Then, through a bizarre series of events, I won a Green Card in the annual lottery the US holds and moved away from Vancouver. I never really went back to the music scene after several years away and lost touch with the music scene and my friends in it. Fast forward many years later and I am returned to my hometown where I’m now seeing some of those old familiar faces play around town (including my own brother Alan Doyle) and it’s kind of great to see some of those talented musicians not only survived the 90’s but are still going strong as musicians who just love to play for the sheer joy of making music.
Oh, in case you never heard of the band Heart, check out out this early recording (nevermind the terrible quality), just imagine yourself back in the era when rock gods were real.