A Classic Profile:
The Heartbeat of Heart -- Mike Derosier
by Christopher Sandford
Anyone brave enough to open Rolling Stone knows that an obsession with best-of lists is a symptom of male narcissistic personality disorder. I mean, they’re everywhere. Maybe it all began sensibly enough, with just a nod to someone’s favorite album, but it’s since evolved beyond all reason: lists endlessly shuffled and reshuffled, as if by the John Cusack character in High Fidelity, trying to make sense of his serial disasters with women by constantly ranking and re-ranking not just songs but for all I know individual hooks and riffs and fills as well. Even if you disagree with the choices about half the time (and what use is a list if you can’t argue with it?), it’s reassuring proof that despite or because of all the other toys of our distracted age, people still care passionately about music.
The question is, of course, which people and what music? And in a purely partisan spirit I offer here the band Heart in what many of us stubbornly think of as their glory years of around 1975-82.
That particular version of the lineup had it all: the wonderfully operatic foghorn of Ann Wilson’s voice, and the all-round versatility of her kid sister Nancy; the utility man (every great band needs one) Howard Leese, the rock-solid Steve Fossen on bass, and Roger Fisher’s inimitable guitar chops. But for my ears at least, what really lifted the whole thing out of the majors and into the World Series was Mike Derosier’s locomotion behind the drums. Sure, he had - for that matter still has - the sort of John Bonham backbeat that can make a stage jump up and down, or pin you back in your seat like one of those old Maxell blown-away TV ads - listen to the way the hammer hits anvil in a number like “Barracuda” - but he also became one of the great rock texturists, able to imbue simple song structures with surprising depth and subtlety. It reminds me of the old Anthony Burgess gag about the original Louvre museum in Paris and the modernist glass pyramid that sits out front. The pyramid, he said, was something complex done very badly; the museum was something simple done very well. Mike Derosier’s drumming also falls into this second category. He’s a master craftsman, and as responsible as anyone else for having made Heart the greatest all-round rock band in the world in their day.
Born in Seattle in 1951, Derosier went through the more or less traditional musical evolution of the era: big bands on the family radiogram, clarinet at school, and the great moment when he sat down behind his first kit at the age of twelve. His role models were the likes of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, then the Beatles and Stones and the other bands suddenly rocking up the old Ed Sullivan Show, and all that followed; Carmine Appice was a big later influence. “My parents were cool,” Derosier says today. “My Dad just told me to make it as well rounded as I could: play a few shows, do a little teaching, and maybe I could make a living out of the whole thing.” The family even took it in their stride when the five other members of Heart turned up at the door one day in July 1975 and piled into Mike’s childhood bedroom to talk and play music. The band were making a record up in Vancouver, BC, and they needed a drummer. Derosier got the gig. The album in question was called Dreamboat Annie, and it went double platinum.
“It’s a funny thing,” Derosier, one of rock’s smartest and most acute observers, says today. “But when you get to that level, everyone seems to have an opinion about how the drums should sound. I mean, no one really hassles the guitar and keyboard players, but there’s always someone who thinks they know best about how to mike the guy at the back.” There was never a one-size-fits-all formula to Heart, but it’s fair to say that in general Derosier went for a clean, uncluttered sound and an absence of the blankets and pillows and all the other debris then popular when it came to damping down the beat. “It was a constant struggle,” he says with a laugh. “Still is today, to some extent. What you’re really trying to do is to serve the character of a particular song. Sure, I’m always open to suggestions, but the guy actually sitting there at the kit is the best judge of what works and what doesn’t.
“The other thing about making music at that level is that it’s all about chemistry,” Derosier adds. “Not only between the band members, but forging a connection with your audience. Can some guy play air guitar or dashboard drums to your song? It’s not the only test, but it’s one of them; you’re always trying to stretch yourself as a working musician, but never so far that you lose sight of the people who got you there in the first place. I’d say Heart got that balance about right, at least for a while.”
It’s not a state secret that Heart also had a certain emotional tension to its classic lineup. For several years, Roger Fisher and his elder brother Mike, the band’s soundman, were dating Nancy and Ann Wilson respectively. That all unraveled in 1979, and for a while Nancy took up with Derosier. It probably wasn’t the ideal time for the band to go out on the road again, and the younger Fisher’s frustrations came to the boil one night in Portland, where those who witnessed his fury both on stage and in the dressing room afterward long spoke of it in hushed tones, like old salts recalling a historic hurricane. Both Fisher brothers left the band’s orbit shortly afterward; Derosier and Steve Fossen followed in 1982. “We were recording an album called Private Audition, and the songs just weren’t really there,” Derosier says. “We weren’t moving forward. Everyone was getting frustrated, or I know I was, and in the end it was sort of a relief to leave. I still had seven great years, though, and I’ll never forget them.”
The good news is that a few years ago Derosier joined Fossen in a band called Heart by Heart. Trust me, and I speak as a diehard fan of the ‘70s lineup, it’s much more than just another cover act. They not only play the greatest hits of Heart in their pomp, which is what most of us want to hear, they do it with a power and a conviction that lose nothing in comparison to the originals. Derosier is as hot as ever, no one bothers with any of the variable new material, and you can stroll up and chat affably with the band members afterwards. Win, win, win, in other words. You could do much worse than treat yourself to a show when they come to a town near you.