Thursday, June 21, 2018

Fast Times in San Diego -- Heart's Nancy Wilson Makes a Rare Solo Appearance at San Diego County Fair on Friday

Nancy Wilson, co-founder and guitarist of the iconic rock band Heart, has for the last 44 years been overshadowed, somewhat, by her sister Ann Wilson, the band’s lead singer.

While that’s not unusual -- lead singers typically get the most ink -- the reality is that Nancy and Ann are equally responsible for the commercial and artistic triumphs of Heart, which is easily the greatest rock and roll band ever led by two women.

The Wilson girls kicked off their esteemed music careers inauspiciously in 1966 with an all-girls band called The Viewpoints. They did mostly Beatles covers. Heart came to be in 1974. And it didn’t take long for stardom to follow.

Ann’s inimitably haunting vocals were of course a staple of the Heart sound from the beginning. But the sensibility of the band, which has always brought a winning combination of hard, electric Led Zeppelinesque rock with acoustic, introspective Joni Mitchellesque soft folk, comes largely from Nancy.

One might say that the heart of Heart is Nancy's soul. Both yin and yang, tender and tough, her physical beauty is complemented and even surpassed by her musical depth. Nancy, who appears Friday night in concert on the Grandstand Stage at the San Diego County Fair, sans Ann, is so much more than a pretty face.

She's a warrior. An innovator. A pioneer. She made a name for herself as a female rock-and-roll guitarist when you could count them on one hand. The lead guitar is of course historically the domain of men. Talk about shattering the glass ceiling!

Nancy just never appeared the least bit intimidated by the boys. Talent will give you that confidence. And she can rock out with the best of them. A rocker to the core (“Barracuda” “Kick it Out”), she is also an intuitive and sensitive songwriter (“Dog and Butterfly” “Dreamboat Annie”). The two are not mutually exclusive. 

Nancy's Connections to San Diego and 'Fast Times' 

Many of my fellow San Diego fans of Nancy Wilson know that there is a whole other dimension to her legend. Do the words “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” ring any bells?

There's a fun and fascinating connection between Nancy, San Diego and the legacy of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the acclaimed book and movie that are spot-on depictions of California high school life in the late 70s/early 80s.

If you’re a longtime San Diegan, and perhaps even if you aren’t, you probably know at least some of the details of the back story behind Fast Times.

The book and film were written by Cameron Crowe, who grew up in San Diego and was married to Nancy Wilson for 22 years before Nancy filed for divorce in 2010. They have twin boys.

Crowe, as depicted in his own masterpiece film “Almost Famous,” was a young rock journalist, a literary wunderkind who was penning wise-behind-his-years prose for the underground paper the San Diego Door and other rock pubs when he was still wet behind the ears.

As a still young-looking twentysomething writer for Rolling Stone magazine, Crowe re-enrolled “under cover” at Clairemont High School in San Diego and got to know a lot of the kids.

Cameron then changed the names of the kids to protect their identities, and changed the name of the school from Clairemont to Ridgemont, and wrote about the experiences he witnessed at the school. The rest is history.

The movie, which contrary to popular belief Cameron wrote but did not direct, touched a deep chord. It was an enormous hit. And it was controversial because it was honest about teenage sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The book and movie are about real people: the Clairemont High Class of 1979. Next year the real people depicted in the book and film celebrate their 40th reunion, for real.

One of the kids depicted in the book and move is my old friend Andy Rathbone. The “Rat” character in the movie was based largely on Andy, who was known since grade school as "A. Rat." He and I were on the Daily Aztec student newspaper together at San Diego State in the mid 1980s and he is now a very successful writer of computer books. 

Andy was not happy that Cameron used Rathbone’s nickname “Rat” in the movie, because that identified him, so Andy filed a defamation lawsuit against Cameron. But Andy dropped the lawsuit after Cameron called him and apologized. They remain friends to this day. Cameron, a genuinely nice guy who I have interviewed several times, felt bad about it all and gave Andy one of Nancy Wilson’s guitar straps.

In “Fast Times,” Nancy plays the hot blonde in the corvette that Brad (Judge Reinhold) spots and flirts with. Problem is, Brad forgets he is wearing a goofy fast-food delivery boy hat. When he realizes that she is actually looking at his silly hat, he throws the hat out the window, and the blonde (Wilson) laughs and drives away.

It was the best movie depiction of a sexy blonde in a cool car since Suzanne Somers drove up in that '56 T-Bird in “American Graffiti,” and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) spends the rest of the film trying to find her.

I’ve written about the Fast Times/San Diego saga for years, because it fascinates me and seems to fascinate readers. Here are just a few of my Fast Times-related stories, several of which are now posted on Cameron Crowe’s personal website: 

San Diego Union (now on Cameron’s website): 

Premiere Magazine (now on Cameron’s website): 

The Reno Dispatch (the publication you are currently reading): 

People magazine (my byline at the bottom):

But back to Nancy… Her musical gifts and contributions to the music world are well known. Heart has sold more than 35 million records. She co-wrote most of the band’s biggest hits, including the classic “Magic Man,” “Crazy on You” and “Straight On” among many others. 

Nancy, who’s also written and performed songs for a number of films, is of course a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And she is a hugely underrated rock guitarist.

She rarely ventures out on tour without Ann. It will be interesting to see what her solo show looks and sounds like. Ann is also venturing out on her own this summer, appearing as an opening act for guitar hero Jeff Beck and Paul Rodgers 0f Free/Bad Company fame.

Nancy, a guitar virtuoso from the age of 10, is a creative and clever musician and fine singer in her own right. She’s also built a successful career as a film composer.  

But I think it's fair to assume that rock and roll guitar remains her first love. Nancy has always been a performer at heart, a people pleaser who seems most comfortable on a stage or in a recording studio. You are in for a treat Friday night. This promises to be one of the most interesting and enjoyable shows of this 2018 San Diego concert season. Fast times, indeed.