Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.
Kristen was my first girlfriend. We’d been friends since we were six and eight, but in middle school we tried our hands at what passed for dating for two so young. Our first date was to a lunch counter at a five and dime; she made me ask her father before she’d consent.
But mostly, we hung out together and talked on the phone. My favorite Kristen memory is riding along while her dad ran some errands one day. He drove a two-door Volvo, strange and exotic in the staunchly drive-American Midwest. At every stop, Kristen and I stayed in the car listening to the radio and talking. At one stop, Heart’s early hit “Magic Man” came on, and Kristen started singing it out loud. I was surprised by her voice, lush and smoky, as it resonated within the cabin. She could sing! I couldn’t help but join in even though I didn’t know the lyrics very well. It was a few moments of real joy, and a memory I’ll always keep.
The album that song came from was released 40 years ago this week, and it put Heart firmly on my radar. Later I started buying their old albums. For a kid who mostly listened to the Beatles and the Carpenters, Heart’s music was my first real step into rock.
The 80s were a rough time for rock music. Crossover country, syrupy love ballads, dance, and new wave all pushed rock out of the spotlight. What sold in the 70s just wasn’t working anymore, at least not on the same scale of popularity.
Heart definitely felt it — their new albums just weren’t selling as well and their singles weren’t charting as high. So they shifted with the times, making albums full of radio-friendly pop power ballads. And where they had always written all of their own songs, they started recording songs by other writers.
I still listened, still bought their albums, at first. Self-titled Heart was a serious departure from their earlier material, but it was well made. Next came Bad Animals, which moved even more toward power pop. I didn’t enjoy it as much, but when I got my chance to see them play live in support of this album, I didn’t hesitate. We got nosebleed seats; I couldn’t see the band’s faces even if I squinted. But I couldn’t miss the giant set they played on and the elaborate costumes they wore to go with their new pop image. They came out playing all of their recent hits. But once that was out of the way, they gave an all-out rock show, vigorously playing all of their ’70s hits. They came back for an encore that included a couple Led Zeppelin songs. What a great show!
And then Heart released Brigade and led with the single “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You,” a syrupy little heartstring tugger that turned me right off. Seriously disappointed, I decided I was done following Heart, and that I would just enjoy their ’70s albums and move on.
In the early ’90s I worked part time for a rock radio station. I went in for my shift one day to find that a brand new Heart song was in rotation and on my playlist. It was a surprise, as they’d released nothing new since Brigade four years earlier. And when I played it — oh my gawwwwwwd it was rock! “Back on Black II” was the song’s odd title but make no mistake, it was a return to form. I snagged a copy of their new CD, Desire Walks On, from the closet where we kept our giveaway CDs and popped it into the car and kept it on repeat for weeks. Heart was back! Back! Back to writing their own songs and back to rocking out.
Another fabulous benefit of working at the radio station was free concert tickets, top shows and great seats. The station sent me to see Heart in Indianapolis at Clowes Hall, a wonderful theater at Butler University. I had a commanding view from my seat in a box just above stage right. Heart did a stripped-down show, no costumes, no elaborate sets, no nonsense. They played songs from the new album, a ton of songs from the 70s, and only a couple songs from the 80s. And there I fell in love with Heart all over again.
One of the things I’ve always loved about Heart is how I can sing almost all of their songs. Vocalist Ann Wilson is famous for a five-octave range, way more than I could ever hope to reach. But she seldom stretches that far in one song, and their songs are almost always in keys that allow me to sing without stretching beyond my vocal range. And Ann loves to belt out a tune. Belting is my favorite way to sing!
One of my favorite songs from this album is a light rocker called “My Crazy Head.” There’s something about how I have to wrap my vocal cords around Ann’s notes that makes my whole body resonate. But while I love to sing along to it, I feel kind of silly doing it. The song tells a woman’s experience of being loved. A lot of Heart’s songs do. Obviously, those are feelings I can’t reach! But I ignore what the lyrics mean and just sing out, because it feels so good.
Click Play to listen to Heart sing “My Crazy Head.”