Behind the Curtain: Learning Important Lessons with the band Heart
Down through history, some unbelievably outrageous things have been said … were likely to have been said … maybe were said … probably were said. We’re talking world class, top of the line, 24-karat gold-plated idiocy. In other words — or actually, precisely in these words — some real batshit, howling at the moon, straightjacket, drool dribbling down the chin unadulterated lunacy. These famous last words as they might be described were typically uttered in the face of unchecked hubris, an arrogance and ego so all-consuming that the speaker had no concept of what a foolish weenie he was making of himself.
These aren’t written down in the history books next to the more well-worn phrases you probably know — “War is hell,” “The British are coming,” “I’ll be back” — but it doesn’t mean the words weren’t spoken. The real truth is they weren’t written down because nobody wants to remember them. But the sad truth is, somewhere, sometime, in unguarded and unthinking moments, with heads full of grand visions and lofty ambitions, a sense of pompous self-importance clouding better judgment, and caution thrown to the wind, these morons, these mental midgets, opened their mouths and let fly a volley of consonants and vowels that would forever mark them as Idiots and Imbeciles with a capital I.
I’d like to share with you now what I believe were some of history’s lesser-known and highly forgettable quotes and the context in which they were idiotically uttered:
Who said it: Col. George Armstrong Custer.
When it was said: Sunday, June 25, 1876. Approximately three minutes before the Battle of Little Bighorn is about to begin.
Setting the scene: A sunny day in Big Horn County, Montana. George is addressing his battalion of 700 men. He looks cool. His thick handlebar mustache is recently trimmed and his shoulder-length curly brown hair has been carefully coiffed and oiled. He is rockin’ his sportiest military hat and white gloves and looks for all the world like a rockstar ready to hit the stage. He is so cocky and full of himself that it oozes from his ears.
What he said: “Boys, in a few minutes we will go into battle. Did I say battle? Hell, you’ve had bigger fights with your old ladies after strolling in at four o’clock in the morning stinking of whisky and cigars. No, this is going to be a cakewalk, a no brainer. Easy peasey. I mean how many of them could there be? Fellas, if ya got ‘em, smoke ‘em. Geronimo!!”
Who said it: Harry Morris Warner [this dude created Warner Bros.]
When it was said: An early morning in September 1927. The Jazz Singer, the first film to feature talking, will be released in four days.
Setting the scene: Harry is in his exquisitely-appointed New York office. The weather is mild but there is the hint of a cold wind coming. Winter is knocking on the door. The 46-year old mogul has brought together all the studio heavies, all the executives, all the yes men, all the highly-paid cats who tremble whenever they’re in the presence of the man himself. And trembling they are because Mr. W. as he is referred to never convenes a meeting this early [Harry digs a late-morning cup of coffee at home before coming into the office] nor calls one on such short notice [many of the assembled are still stifling yawns and wiping sleep from eyes that have just opened an hour ago] unless there is a major disturbance in the force. No, there is something in the air and these cats feel it just as surely as they sense the changing of the seasons.
What he said: “Good morning, people. I hope I didn’t wake anybody up, hah hah hah [cue: nervous chortles from the gathered assembly]. We’ve got a problem, boys. Big problem. Huge problem. Mad crazy problem. The Jazz Singer premiers in four days and I think it’s going to bite the big one, dudes. Who the hell wants to hear an actor open his mouth? What have they got to say that anybody would want to listen to? We’re in it deep, guys. Up to our freaking eyeballs. The first time one of these cats says something on film we’re finished. Over. Kaput. That’s all she wrote. Arrivederci, baby. People want to watch, not listen. You all may as well start cleaning out your desks now. This talking thing is the kiss of death and it’s puckering up to give us a big smooch right where the sun doesn’t shine. But I did bring bagels and lox so eat up. Who wants a schmear? See you in the unemployment line.”
Who said it: Steve Rosen, novice rock writer and the world’s biggest putz.
When it was said: A late night sometime around the end of 1974 or the beginning of 1975.
Setting the scene: Heart had just finished a blistering set of originals and covers at a club in Vancouver called Clancy Muldoon’s.
What was said: “Man, the band is great but lose the girls.”
Now, that comment in and of itself wouldn’t qualify for first place in a competition of the all-time stupidest comments to ever escape the lips of a human being if the words had simply been spoken to someone at the club, somebody who was there that night drinking and checking out the band. I may have even had an excuse for letting fly with those nine words if I had had a buzz on or was trying to impress some girl with witty repartee.
[Side note: I mean, c’mon, how many spectacular lies, blatant half-truths, and downright dumb things have been said in the face of trying to get a girl’s number at a club or bar? You never made some outrageous and completely foolish statement in hopes of closing the deal and sharing breakfast the next morning with some insane hottie?]
So, getting back to the club in Vancouver, no, I hadn’t been drinking nor was I trying to zoom some girl. I hadn’t said those words to a patron who was there that night and I wasn’t talking to a waitress or bartender. No. I had said those words — those nine single-syllable words that took exactly 2.5 seconds to escape my mouth and would remain to haunt and taunt me for a long time to come — to [cue drum roll] Roger Fisher. Roger freaking Fisher, guitar player for Heart. Not some miscellaneous person watching the band, not some anonymous clubgoer standing at the bar.
That would have been too easy. That exchange would have allowed me to walk away with my reputation intact — whatever my reputation was at that time as a rock writer who had been knocking around for about two years — but no, life isn’t like that. Life isn’t easy. It’s full of hard roads and moments that test you and sure as shit I was out there on that vast highway alone waiting to collide headfirst into my own sense of self-importance.
Let me back up a bit and retrace my steps and explain to you how I ended up letting fly with this verbal faux pas.
I had flown to Vancouver from West Hollywood to interview Nazareth. I wasn’t even there to see Heart. The Scottish band had just released their sixth album titled Hair of the Dog and were blowing up with “Love Hurts” The 1,072-mile flight from Los Angeles to Vancouver took a little bit over 2 ½ hours and when I landed, I hailed a taxi to my hotel and unpacked. The phone rang and Nazareth’s management told me I’d be interviewing guitarist Manny Charleton in a couple of hours.
This is the fuzzy part. I don’t remember exactly what publication the Nazareth interview was for. My first thought was I had been flown there by Guitar Player but in looking through back issues of GP I couldn’t seem to find any story about him. So, I really can’t say for sure. However, dear reader, it is important to take note of the fact that I was writing for Guitar Player at the time (more on this later).
I remember that the interview with Charleton went crazy well. He was a very friendly man and though it was sometimes difficult to decipher his thick Dunfermline, Scotland brogue, we had a great time together. We talked about guitars and had some good laughs. Such a good time in fact that he invited me to accompany him later that evening to check out one of the bands playing at Clancy Muldoon’s a local Vancouver clubs. That sounded like a plan and after our interview I returned to my room (the band was staying at the same hotel), cleaned up and then met up with Manny to drive over to the club.
From my recollection, Clancy Muldoon’s was a pretty large room with a substantial stage. When we entered the club, everyone there knew who Manny was and seated us at a table not far from where the band was performing. After a couple drinks were set in front of us, the Nazareth guitarist told me, “You won’t believe how great this band is at doing Zep covers. These girls are amazing and they sound exactly like them.”
Manny’s comment is a telling one because in late ’74, early ’75, there were not a lot of women in rock. There weren’t. Suzi Quatro had been around and her sister Patti had shaken things up with Fanny but other than those two, females in rock and roll were a relative rarity. Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde, Pat Benatar and others were still years away. In my stone aged-way of thinking, women had no place strapping on a guitar and fronting a rock band. It was a shortsighted and simpleminded philosophy but there you go.
I’m sitting there absorbing Charlton’s comment about the girls when the lights dim and Heart takes the stage. They storm into “Immigrant Song” and I was dumbstruck. Guitarists Roger Fisher and Nancy Wilson had pegged the guitar parts and the rhythm section of Steve Fossen and Michael DeRosier had managed to recreate the same groove John Bonham and John Paul Jones laid down on the original. The vocals? Ann Wilson was able to virtually duplicate every note Plant sang. Her phrasing and delivery were perfect and because she was a woman, her range was naturally higher than a male’s and so she could nail all the falsetto stuff with ease.
I glanced over at Manny and he was enthralled. Heart was an amazing band with spectacular players. When they did a version of “Going to California” and Nancy took off her electric and picked up a mandolin to cover those string parts, I thought, “There’s no way she can pull this off.” But she did. Wonderfully. In fact I was blown away by their entire set, which included songs like “Magic Man” and “Dreamboat Annie,” the title track from their debut album that would be released in a little less than a year’s time.
The lights came back up and Manny was jacked. He said, “Was I right? How good were they?” I still couldn’t get my head around the idea of women rocking and I was going to say something like, “Isn’t it weird having girls in a band?” but I kept my mouth shut. For the time being, I was still safe from early onset senility.
I could see the guitar player sauntering over to the table. He recognized Manny and obviously wanted to come over and say hello. They greeted each other and then the Nazareth guitarist introduced me: “Roger, this is Steve Rosen from Guitar Player Magazine.”
[Note: Remember when I earlier mentioned the Guitar Player tie-in? Well, here it is and it’s about to bite me in the butt].
Fisher was obviously a fan of GP and when he heard I had written for the magazine, his eyeballs did pinwheels. He began talking enthusiastically about his guitars, amps, experimenting with tones and effects. Roger was and still is a lover of all things guitar. He told me about the guitar he was using and guitars he was building. We were chatting back and forth like long lost friends. He was a tremendously bright and passionate person and wore his heart on his sleeve. I liked him immediately.
Which makes you probably wonder, “If you liked Roger so much and dug the band, why did you still end up making such a douche remark?” and to that I can only say, “I have no freaking idea.” Why do we say the things we say? Who knows what crackbrained, addleheaded stuff lurks in the hearts of men?
That’s not entirely true. In all likelihood, I said it because I felt emboldened, invincible. I was a 21-year old neophyte rock journalist and here I was on an all expenses-paid junket to Canada, sitting at a table with Manny Charlton from Nazareth and being complimented and praised by Roger Fisher from Heart. Who wouldn’t feel bigger than life and isn’t that what hubris is all about? A sense that you can do no wrong? That you’re Superman?
There wasn’t a hint of Kryptonite in sight and Roger and I got on famously. I felt indestructible. I thought, “I can say anything to him” and so I did. And even as the words were leaving my mouth, my brain was saying. “Don’t say it, nimrod. Do not say it, nitwit.” You know you shouldn’t say it, your brain is screaming at you, every molecule in your body is telling you to back off but you don’t. You’ve all done it, right? Said things you should have never said and ended up apologizing for them for the rest of your life? Sure you have.
So there I was, lips parted, an intake of breath and expelling those nine fated words: ““Man, the band is great but lose the girls.”
The second I spit out the words I thought, “Oh, shit. What have I done?” For a brief moment, I looked at Roger and prayed he hadn’t heard me. The club was loud, recorded music was playing and it was hard to hear above the clinking of glasses and the chatter of conversation. I looked in his eyes and realized he’d picked up on every word. I waited for his reaction. At the very least, I figured he’d lash me verbally and I would have deserved it. Or thrown a beer in my face. I prepared myself for what was coming but nothing ever happened. Roger just smiled and mused, “Yeah, I know it’s different but the girls are great.”
If I was in a band at the time and some clueless chowderhead came up to me and made that kind of comment statement, I’d respond with a litany of curse words such as he’d never heard before. But Roger Fisher was a much bigger person than I was thankfully and he may have thought, “This Steve Rosen dude is such a fool, he’s not even worth getting mad over.” Or maybe he understood that my mouth had gotten away from me. Either way, the guitarist for Heart simply sat there and absorbed my astonishingly asinine words.
A few weeks later, he even sent me a couple letters from the road. I’d given him my address and when his correspondence arrived, I thought, “Oh, man. Now he’s going to give me the written bashing I deserve.” Instead the letters contained more stuff he wanted to tell me about guitars he was building and life on the road. He even sent me an early copy of Dreamboat Annie.
Here is an excerpt from his letter dated November 11, 1975.
“Though much belated by bad test pressings and a Canadian mail strike,” Fisher wrote, “here it is—Heart’s first attempt to communicate with the masses via vinyl. I’m anxious to hear your reaction to the album and any other news you think might be of interest to me. By the time we get together for an anticipated and much dreamed of interview, I should have an impressive array of valuable contributions for the music world.”
I loved receiving those handwritten letters from him and indeed about four years later I’d fly to Seattle, Washington to finally interview Roger and Nancy Wilson for Guitar Player [that story appeared as a cover in December 1979]. By this time the band had released four albums — Dreamboat Annie, Little Queen, Magazine and Heart & Butterfly — and scored a number of hits with “Barracuda,” “Straight On” and others.
When I sat down with Roger for the GP interview, he was all smiles. He couldn’t wait to tell me about how amazingly the band was doing and about how he had finally realized his dreams of building his own guitars. I was going to bring up what I’d said to him years earlier but I decided to let sleeping lions lay. Instead, Rog gently grabbed my arm and with a wink and a nod said, “We kept the girls and we’re doing OK.”
To say the least. Heart would go on to sell like a gazillion albums and have more hits than a hired mercenary. Thank goodness Roger Fisher hadn’t listened to me all those years ago. Thank goodness Roger Fisher was a smarter man than I was.
Thank goodness Roger Fisher had heart.