Nancy Wilson is, of course, along with her sister Ann, the headliners of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band Heart. But, today, we are here to talk to Nancy Wilson because she was highly involved in the making of Almost Famous (with her then-husband, Cameron Crowe): from writing Stillwater’s “hits” like “Fever Dog,” to recreating what backstage at a ’70s rock concert actually looked like, to teaching Billy Crudup and Jason Lee how to physically look like rock stars on stage. (Almost Famous has just been released on a new 4K disc.)
Oh, yes, and then there’s the famous, “I am a golden god,” scene after Billy Crudup’s Russell Hammond takes LSD. You see, Billy Crudup had never taken LSD and didn’t know quite how to act. Nancy Wilson was familiar with the experience and gave Crudup some advice that, well, let’s just say that scene is just about perfect.
Ahead, Nancy Wilson explains how the song “Fever Dog” happened and what ’70s band she based the style on. And she explains why they had to teach Billy Crudup and Jason Lee to play while panties and gummi bears are flying at their heads.
Here’s how you can tell a movie has stuck around. When the Matt Damon movie Stillwater came out, there were a lot of “Fever Dog” jokes on social media.
Oh my God. That’s so funny. It’s great when it all connects. All the references all connect with each other, that’s great.
Speaking of “Fever Dog,” I’m always fascinated when someone has to create, in the universe of the movie, what would be a hit song. Because making a hit song sounds very difficult. Though, obviously, you know how to do that.
It’s a play within a play. It’s a fictitious band in a film that has, in their own era, in their own universe, has their own hit song. So it was a really fun project to write the Stillwater songs. And we had to come up with a coinage, to coin a phrase. Just based on, like, “Radar Love,” or something like that where you coin a phrase and you come up with a caricature of the nastiest person in rock, that would be “Fever Dog.” You make it up. At the time, me and Cameron were hanging out at the beach in Oregon where we’d done a lot of writing before. And we were in hysterics, we were paralyzed in hysterics with tears coming out of our eyes when we thought of “Fever Dog.” Because it’s the iconography of the mid to late ’70s blues rock: a fictitious, mid-level band song. We were just aiming at focusing straight into one exact spot. And I think with “Fever Dog,” we nailed it.
What’s also interesting is you’re not writing a number one hit. You’re writing like a number 20 hit.
It’s Top 20, yeah. It’s not as good as Led Zeppelin. It’s got to be mid-level good. So yeah, exactly, you totally get it. It’s not a tall order to fill because it’s got to be in the pentatonic, bluesy world of how a lot of what maybe Bad Company songs would go. Allman Brothers songs would go like that. A lot of the songs, radio songs, but not necessarily big, big hits.
Was there ever a time where you thought to yourself that “Fever Dog” was becoming too good. That it would be a number one song and you have to dial this back a little bit?
Yeah, just dial that back. Yeah, just take a little poetry out. But, no, we didn’t have that problem. But that would be a good problem to have! It was really, very, very Bad Company for the most part. We were borrowing off Bad Company, mainly.
The other thing I keep thinking about, Heart evolved over time. From the ’70s stuff into the ’80s stuff. And then into the ’90s with The Lovemongers. By the way, I still listen to your version of “The Battle of Evermore” all the time…
Oh, that’s a good one! Oh, that’s so cool.
But how do you get back in the ’70s mindset? You evolved as a musician over all these years and then all of a sudden be like, “I have to write a ’70s hit.”
Well, it’s just like, when you’ve lived through an era like that, you’ve absorbed into your DNA so much of the information from radio and from listening to records and going to shows. And it’s part of your persona by that point. If we wanted to, for instance, try to write a Joni Mitchell song, it would be much harder, obviously, because there’s the poetry right there. Even in the film itself, there were such authentic, rich, granular details that we made sure were in the film itself. Just the scenes in the film and the backstage areas and the detail of the roadies asleep, sleeping off a hangover on some road case in the background. Just the camaraderie and the community and the family of being. And then the whole aspect of putting on a show in these big arenas and having the moments that are bigger than life, larger than life, where the music happens? I think all that stuff is portrayed really perfectly in this film. I think a rock film is really hard to accomplish realistically because usually it’s a Hollywood translation of a rock lifestyle. But in this case, I had. And Cameron also had lived the rock life and been on the road and traveled with the band and been on the buses and the hotels and the bad pizza and all of it. So it was a real love letter to the authenticity of what it really is like to be out there on the traveling minstrel circuit with all the actors.
You taught Billy Crudup and Jason Lee how to create their stage personas?
Oh, yeah. We took a couple of weeks in a rehearsal space, we called it Rock School and watched a million Who videos and Zeppelin videos. And Crudup was not a player. So, the other guys were players already, but he was the one who really needed to perfect.
And he’s supposed to be one of the greatest guitarists in rock at the time.
Peter Frampton came and helped out and was another consultant on the Rock School project. But it was a lot between me and Billy Crudup, that I think he got the body language and stuff. Because I said, “You can’t look healthy and upright. You cannot have good posture. You have to be slouchy and you have to lean on one leg and go backwards and look like you’re standing in water all the time.” A lot of these cues I gave him for body language, he was really good at picking it up and adding it to his performances.
Okay why is that? I don’t know anything about this, so why would you need bad posture and standing like you’re in a puddle?
You’re kind of standing in some water because you’re like some seaweed in the water. So you’ve got this fluidity going on in your body language.
So you’re not like an upright Olympian player. Gravity is all over the place for you and you’re slinky and slouchy and crouchy. And if you’re going to be in your other world, there’s another world you’re in when you’re playing. And people might just run up to the front of the stage in front of you while you’re trying to concentrate on your music, playing your songs. And they’ll be like, “Please, please, please, please, please, sign, sign, sign something, sign something, sign something.” And you know, you can’t sign anything. So that was some of the stuff: I would run up to them when they were rehearsing the song stuff. I would go, “Please, please, please, please…”
So you’re actively trying to distract them to get them used to it?
Oh, that’s interesting.
And throwing stuff at them! And there’s panties flying at your head. And there’s Gummi Bears and stuff coming at you. So, it’s not a war zone, but sometimes-
It sounds like a gauntlet.
It’s a gauntlet. That’s the right word. But once in a while, an M80 would go off behind the stage. We’re glad it wasn’t on the stage. And I gave them some other advice for the Golden God scene where he’s on the roof at the party.
Oh, what was that?
Yeah, he was like, “Have you ever been on LSD?,” because he wanted some more direction. So I said, “Yeah, I have been on LSD in the late ’60s. I wouldn’t do it now.” But he said, “What was it like?” And I said, “Well, your brain is like an observatory that opens up to see all the stars above. And you have this electricity coming out the ends of your fingers and your hair. There’s electric bolts, little lighting bolts coming out of the ends of your fingers. And you’re in the heavens.” And I think he did a really good job with that scene.
He looked like he had electric lightning bolts coming out of his fingers. It’s a funny story and it speaks so well of him as an actor. He’s so suggestible and I thought he just really nailed it.
Billy and Jason, were you modeling their stage presence after you and Ann? Were you Billy? Were you like, “This is how we interacted on stage and if you do this this is going to work”?
That’s a good question. I think with me and Ann it was a different dynamic just because we’re sisters … and female. But with guys in the band, with the egos of guys, and the way guys’s egos interact, that’s what we, with Cameron, too, were trying to portray. The best scene that explains that most of all would be the argument over the T-shirt.
It’s like, “I do the biggest job in the band and you’re just a guitar player with mystique. Your looks have become a problem.” And that’s the male ego. To me, that’s pretty brilliant the way that scene was pulled off. Because it just speaks volumes of the rock and roll male ego trip.
Speaking of that, re-watching this in 4K now, I had never noticed before that there’s a scene a few scenes later where it shows Jason Lee as Jeff Bebe, wearing a shirt that just says, “Jeff Bebe.” It’s so funny.
That’s really funny. I know, that’s really funny. I remember that day when we were shooting that scene that he wore the Jeff Bebe shirt, really funny. There’s so much authenticity going on in that film that Hollywood could never really get right with a rock film. They always get rock and roll wrong if you ask me, because it’s just through the lens of Hollywood.
Yeah, it seems like, especially the biopics, they have a way of showing the band together and starting to write their songs. And they somehow come up with all their hit songs all at once as they’re sitting there in one session.
It just magically appears out of thin air.
Well, I’m glad we’re still talking about this movie and we’re talking about Stillwater. And there’s a movie called Stillwater in theaters.
Oh my God. I must see that.
They do not play “Fever Dog” in it, so don’t go in expecting that.
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