Growing Up in Public
By Michael Roberts
To learn all you need to know about Lindsey Buckingham, just ask him the name of the most perfect pop single he's ever heard. He'll take a long pause – since he's as much a fan as a musician, he takes this kind of question very seriously – before responding with an enthusiastic gush that paints a surprisingly succinct picture of his singular talent.
"I'll give you three," he says. "'I've Got You Under My Skin' by Frank Sinatra – the Nelson Riddle arrangement. 'God Only Knows' by the Beach Boys. And 'Louie Louie' by the Kingsmen."
After completing his list, Buckingham offers a gulping laugh, seemingly amused at how weird it must sound. But given the work he has produced as a member of the most popular version of Fleetwood Mac and as a solo artist whose latest disc, the Reprise release Out of the Cradle, was among last year's finest, each selection makes a great deal of sense. Like Sinatra, Buckingham values crooning – the art of caressing a rich, varied melody until every last drop of joy or pathos has been squeezed from it. Like Brian Wilson, the blessed lunatic behind the Beach Boys' most memorable tunes, he is an obsessive studio craftsman who tries to turn each number he records into a pristine gem. And like the Kingsmen, the dopey garage band that earned a kind of immortality thanks to one of the simplest ditties ever committed to wax, he loves stupid, sloppy rock and roll.
When he's clicking, Buckingham manages to synthesize what's best about these three artists and these three songs. But Out of the Cradle, co-produced by Richard Dashut and featuring Buckingham on virtually every instrument heard on the record, is something more than a tribute to its creator's influences. The album is a personal exploration of a dark period in Buckingham's public life. In his words, "It's a little reflective and even a little sad about the death of things, but it's also about putting all of those things in the best possible perspective, and with that clarity moving forward and finding the other things that are alive in your life."
Clearly, this is no collection of three-chord love songs. Named for a Walt Whitman poem, "Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking," the album is an extremely ambitious effort featuring beautifully played instruments (one, "This Nearly Was Mine," is part of the score from the musical South Pacific), dreamy ballads ("Soul Drifter") and lyrical excursions built of equal parts loss and hope ("Say We'll Meet Again"). With a few exceptions (the raucous "This is the Time" and the biting music-biz exorcism "Wrong"), the disc is reserved, careful, a bit dour – a noncommercial work by an inveterately commercial artist. Only brave radio programmers played it, and as Buckingham acknowledges, there aren't many of those around right now.
"Radio's running a little bit scared from itself, it seems to me," he says. "But I don't think I have it in me to try to second-guess what I thought was interesting for the sake of radio. I'd be lying to you if I said I would not have liked to have heard this album on the radio, but I think after a period of time you develop a sound that you can call your own, at which point you have to be very careful about dumping on the style du jour."
For a good chunk of the Seventies, the sound being imitated was Buckingham's. A California native, he became involved both musically and personally with another unknown songwriter, Stevie Nicks. In 1973, the pair got a record deal with Polydor and released Buckingham-Nicks, a minor work that only hinted at Buckingham's abilities. Two years later the pair were approached by Mick Fleetwood and the husband and wife team of Christine and John McVie – the then-current members of Fleetwood Mac. The group, formed in England during the Sixties, had a shifting membership that had just shifted again, thanks to the departure of Bob Welch, and Buckingham and Nicks were offered the job of replacing him.
Given the success of 1975's Fleetwood Mac and 1977's Rumours, which rank high among the best-selling records from that decade, the decision was a good one. Nicks, an extremely limited performer who wrote the Mac's most commercial songs, became the act's most prominent figure, but Buckingham was its secret weapon. His instrument acumen and production smarts made his cohorts' weakest numbers interesting, and his own tracks codified a West Coast sound that was as individual and quirky as it was hugely accessible. His "Go Your Own Way," from Rumours, was as good as Seventies pop-rock got.
Buckingham took advantage of the Mac's popularity on 1979's double album, Tusk, which sports some of the most bizarre cuts ever from a multiplatinu8m group. After that, however, much of the fun went out of the band. Buckingham stayed loyal, providing the best moments of 1982's Mirage, but in his mind he was already on his own. His first pair of records under his own name (1981's Law and Order and 1984's Go Insane) spawned modest hits and provided a forum for the full range of Buckingham's work – from wild humor to melodramatic excess. They were strange and, more often than not, glorious.
Buckingham remained a part of Fleetwood Mac until 1987. "I was just about to start a third solo record," he recalls, "when the band came in and said, 'We've got to make another album.' At this point, I knew that I wasn't going to be around much longer – I definitely had one foot out the door. They told me, you can keep working on your solo album and we can get some producer to come in and you can do guitar and whatever you want. And I thought, this is a symptom of what's already wrong. This is not the way Fleetwood Mac ever did things, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let things end this way."
As a result, Buckingham put his solo project on hold and produced Tango in the Night, an album highlighted by "Big Love," written by Buckingham for his own record. Then he was gone, and he has solemnly resisted overtures to return – overtures that reached a fever pitch after "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)," a Rumours composition he'd written with Christine McVie, became the official theme song of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. "Not being overly political, it was a curious thing to see it work its way into the fabric that way," he says, adding, "Christine actually wrote most of the lyrics about splitting up with John, and how he wasn't as devastated by it as she was, which makes it a little more ironic the way Clinton is using it."
After Clinton was elected, Buckingham reluctantly agreed to rejoin his former bandmates for an inaugural gig. "I didn't feel overly connected to any of it, really. It was short and sweet," he says. "There were a lot of questions about whether this suggested a long-term reunion, and those were quickly put to rest by me. And that was it."
Perhaps the most positive aspect of this rather ragged performance was that Buckingham decided it was finally time to play live again. In short order, he assembled ten largely unknown musicians. "I stayed away from the session boys and the tour boys," he says. "They can get a little jaded, and since I'm as hungry to express myself now as I was twenty years ago, I wanted people around me to feel the same way."
Just as important, he is planning to get started on a new recording immediately after his current tour. "I'd like to think that you will see another album from me in the next eight months," he says. "Maybe a year." He laughs: "Maybe I'm being optimistic."
Probably, given the lilt that comes into his voice when discussing the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." Released in 1966, that song wasn't a smash – it only made it to number 39 on the Billboard charts – but it remains one of the most gorgeous pop numbers ever. Buckingham doesn't even want to consider whether he could ever equal its achievement. "I can't judge myself by 'God Only Knows,'" he says. "No one writes songs as good as that."
That may be true – but it hasn't stopped him from trying.
Last Updated - 31 December 2005
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