How a Street Angel Survives the �90s
Looking back on Mac and Forward to New Success
The Music Paper
by Robert Mineo
Her years as one of Fleetwood Mac�s signature vocalists
were both rewarding and frustrating. Now that she has only herself to think
about, she can appreciate where she came from as she steps into a new decade.
What can be said about Stevie Nicks that has not been said already? Since her emergence onto the music scene as a member of Fleetwood Mac in the mid �70s, Nicks has been labelled everything from icon to airhead. Fans, who at concerts regularly shower her with flowers and presents tend toward the former, while music critics who regularly dismiss her as a trippy mooncalf lean toward the latter. Yet, in the midst of all this, Nicks (who has just released her fifth solo studio album, Street Angel on Atlantic) has managed to carve a distinct place in rock history. She may have been spacey, but she has always been a woman who commanded attention.
Today, nearly 20 years after her 1975 Fleetwood Mac debut, it is easy to forget the high level of attention Nicks actually garnered in her heyday. At the embarking of her solo career in 1981, Rolling Stone declared its cover subject to be the reigning Queen Of Rock. And it was an accurate assessment. From the time that Fleetwood Mac first hit big through the early �80s, Nicks was THE woman in rock, instrumental in the sale of more records both solo and with Mac, than any of her peers (possible exceptions being Pat Benatar and pre-torch-song era Linda Ronstadt).
Additionally, in the time before video imagery, Nicks prefigured the role of pop artist as icon. Those who followed in later years have since taken that role to new heights, becoming savvy multimedia moguls as well. For Nicks, it was songs of crystal visions and Welch witches delivered while twirling in chiffon dresses, lace shawls and platform boots that attracted clones to Fleetwood Mac concerts while Madonna was still in school. And it was done with only the ancient forms of publicity: press, radio, concerts and word-of-mouth. In 1994, a passionate remnant of her band of followers still remains.
Confirmed as a member of Fleetwood Mac through a phone call on New Year�s Eve 1974, Nicks and boyfriend guitarist/collaborator Lindsey Buckingham added a California rock sensibility to the band�s British blues base. Mac, originally formed in 1967, had already undergone various personnel changes and at the cusp of 1975 needed a new guitarist. Despite some tangible commercial success in the US with albums such as Bare Trees and Mystery To Me, American guitarist Bob Welch decided to pursue a solo career. As a duo, Nicks and Buckingham, who began their own careers in the West Coast band Fritz, had recently released a dead-in-the-water Polydor debut. During a recording studio demonstration, Mac drummer and co-namesake Mick Fleetwood heard a portion of Buckingham Nicks and liked what he heard. He tracked the pair down and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ironically, Mac never really needed Nicks in the first place. Minus Welch, the band still included bassist and second co-namesake John McVie and his keyboardist/singer/songwriter wife Christine. Why add another �girl singer�, or another anyone, for that matter, to the fold who could not even offer instrumental augmentation? Buckingham answered the why by stating that he and Nicks were an inseparable unit. Starting out with a need to prove herself was probably the catalyst that drove Nicks to shape herself into such a compelling singer/songwriter and performance artist.
�Lindsey and I weren�t just a boyfriend and girlfriend that played music together, we were a duet.� As Nicks remembered, �[The band] was smart enough to realize that Lindsey wasn�t going to leave me to join their band. So the band simply said, �[We] guess we can work with two girls then� and they just accepted it.�
With Nicks in tow, Fleetwood Mac became superstars, setting new standards for success. Fleetwood Mac, the surprisingly successful 1975 Mac debut of Buckingham Nicks, built steam slowly, eventually hitting No. 1 after one year on the charts and setting the stage for the astronomical success of its 1977 predecessor, Rumours. Fleetwood Mac has since sold over five million copies.
Despite a high-gloss production sheen, Rumours is a raw, emotional tinderbox. While Fleetwood Mac had solidified successfully as a professional unit, its internal personal relationships unravelled. Permanent splits for longtime lovers Nicks and Buckingham and the married McVies, as well as estrangement battles (and an eventual divorce) for Fleetwood and his wife, Jenny, made for a tumultuous situation. With its three principal songwriters (Nicks, Buckingham and Christine McVie) wearing their hearts on their sleeves, the album became a series of open �Dear John� letters and acidic diary entries. The linchpin of the album is the powerhouse track �The Chain,� with writing credited to all five members. The chorus - �If you don�t love me now/You will never love me again/I can still hear you saying/You would never break the chain�, uccinctly states how broken hearts were secondary to the chain that was Fleetwood Mac. The chain was so strong, in fact, that none of the five thought seriously about becoming unshackled.
The clarity of the internal struggles turbocharged Rumours to ultimately spend 31 weeks as a No. 1 album, spawning four Top 10 hits and shipments of over 13 million copies. However, the repercussions from that turmoil never really evaporated. To this day, Nicks states that Buckingham, in particular, has no desire to work with her again. Though all five members did reunite for the Clinton inaugural ball in January 1993, which �healed a lot of wounds,� that chapter of Fleetwood Mac has been closed for good. �It was quite an ending,� said Nicks. Today, Mac is again a five-member unit that includes guitarists Billy Burnette and Dave Mason, vocalist Bekka Bramlett (daughter of Delaney and Bonnie�s Bonnie Bramlett) and, of course, Fleetwood and John McVie.
After Rumours, subsequent releases, though usually in the multi-platinum sales range, never even came close to the decidedly unrealistic standard that had been set. Tusk, an ambitious double album follow-up released in 1979, managed to sell a few million copies. Unfortunately, that was perceived as a relative disappointment, especially by a sagging record industry hoping for a high-profile spark plug. Buckingham hung on for two more studio releases, Mirage (1982) and Tango In The Night (1987), and Nicks and Christine McVie lasted for one more, 1990�s Behind The Mask.
Each release, and the passage of time, brought the Mighty Mac out of the stratosphere. That albums such as Pink Floyd�s Dark Side Of The Moon, The Eagles� Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and, of course, Michael Jackson�s Thriller have since reached equivalent sales levels has only aided in diminishing the truly unprecedented nature of the reign of Rumours.
As if soured relationships were not enough to spark a fire that would eventually consume what had become Fleetwood Mac, Nicks herself wound up adding more fuel to the flames. Being the breakout star, and often the focal point, of Mac had never really been a fact warmly embraced by the other members. Besides the hordes of Stevie wannabes, the tunes that Nicks penned had a knack for being the more popular and memorable parts of the Mac repertoire. Most notably were �Sara,� �Rhiannon� (her show-stopping signature piece) and �Dreams� (the gold-selling No. 1 single). In fact, the latter single still remains the only Mac Top 40 entry to achieve such a lofty status, a particularly prickly point. �I got a lot of flack for [the clones], and [the success of �Dreams�] didn�t go over well either.�
Turning established popularity into a highly successful solo career proved the most flammable of all fuels, however. �[The solo career] definitely didn�t go over well,� she said. After Bella Donna in 1981 -- her huge solo debut that includes the heavy-duty Tom Petty duet �Stop Draggin� My Heart Around� and the white-hot �Edge of Seventeen� -- Nicks began to alternate solo albums and tours with like Mac outings. The ensuing string of gold and platinum platters -- The Wild Heart (1983), Rock A Little (1985), The Other Side Of The Mirror (1989) and the eventual Timespace: The Best Of Stevie Nicks (1991) raised Mac�s mire more than any tambourine-tapping teenage clone could ever hope to do.
�Every time I would come off the road from my solo career, and I�d always be late [to return to the recording studio], I would walk in and no one would mention my solo career. All they would mention was the fact that I had half them up.� Despite the clear displeasure with her moonlighting, which did benefit the profile of the band as well, �they didn�t ever really do anything quite radical enough to push me out. They knew if they did, I would walk.�
With a resume such as this, one would expect this woman to be ready to retire from the rock �n� roll lifestyle. Yet Nicks declared, �I�m a nomad; I�m a gypsy. I travel and I sing, that�s what I do. I love that.� She never really thought that the chain of Fleetwood Mac would be broken; the final decision to leave was prompted, at least in part, by the prior departure of former partner Buckingham. Though it has since proved to be liberating for her personal and artistic schedules, Nicks admits that �Lindsey and I joined Fleetwood Mac as a set, and breaking up that set, to me, wasn�t the best idea for Fleetwood Mac. Unless it was going to be the original five again, there really was no reason for me to ever go back.�
As an artist, all avenues of creativity, writing, painting, photography, can now be more vigorously pursued. As a songwriter and singer, the further cultivation of outside collaborations and even choice reinterpretations (options rarely, if ever, available within Fleetwood Mac) is far more possible. Of the latter, her recast of Bob Dylan�s �Just Like A Woman� on Street Angel, complete with Mr. Dylan on guitar, is one example. An exceptionally fruitful relationship with Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell shows commitment to the former. �He writes these incredible [instrumental] tracks and I get, basically, what is leftover that Tom [Petty] didn�t want.� Nicks tends to always use the tracks intact. �He just sends me the songs and doesn�t care what I do with them and he is always pleased.�
On the prospect of current or continued sales numbers, Nicks stated that �the selling of the records has never been all that important to me.� She still feels capable of viable offerings and appreciates that she can still create them. �I am totally grateful that I have the opportunity to make more records, that people haven�t lost interest in what I do to the point that I am out of the game.� And on being a self-professed rock �dinosaurette,� she says, �I think it�s a great position to be in. I love my age and I love having the wisdom of the last 20 years, of meeting all these intense people and having the rock �n� roll life experience.� Seemingly, an elder stateswoman, worthy of the ear of subsequent generations of women musicians, has been born. �My mind has been blown a million times by the lessons I have learned and the things I�ve come through.�
Certainly she has learned to display grace under the pressure of negative reviews, something women artists can tend to receive a bit more due to male misperceptions. Despite public adulation, critics still remain, at best, mixed about Nicks as a respectable source of artistry. While Nicks admits that �when I was younger, I sort of enjoyed writing in code so that I knew what I meant and certain people knew what I meant but a whole lot of people didn�t,� this lead to assessments that amounted to rudely drawn potshots at an overly sensitive and at times mystical outlook. Even today, the strength of her output is still measured according to the quality of the usually stellar accompanying musicians. Saying that Nicks is only as good as the collaborative company she keeps gives little credence to the quality of the artistic base upon which the end product lies. The heavyweights that often join her party (like Petty, Campbell, Don Henley and guitar whiz Waddy Watchel) may be solid augmentations, but they are far from necessary validations.
Equally unfair, Nicks has at times been overlooked as a woman figurehead in rock. Although her foundation is built upon the role of �girl singer� (historically the only role offered to women in pop music), she has added a distinct twist to the old formula. While legend built around an alluring stage presence and compelling vocal style, both were rooted on her distinct songcraft. Even if that craft got pegged as flaky, the songs were all her own and did forge a unique artistic vision.
While her chosen persona -- a Grimm�s Brothers recast of Scarlett O�Hara complete with pixie dust -- may reach backwards instead of forwards, the artist living this rock �n� roll fairy tale is far from an inept damsel awaiting her Prince Charming. Yes, she would love to have her own PC, as well as his offspring, but she is not merely sleeping until his lips meet hers. Instead she writes songs about him and gets him to perform or produce on the record.
Additionally, it is still notable that Nicks and fellow female Mac mate, Christine McVie, were two thirds of the Fleetwood Mac songwriting triumvirate with Lindsey Buckingham. Two primary female songsmiths in a band of that magnitude was unprecedented, though the Wilson sisters of Heart took it one step further by actually leading the band as well (Mick Fleetwood still remains Mac�s undisputed overlord). Of the band�s 16 Top 20 hits, Nicks and McVie were responsible for 13. The combined strength of their individual contributions to the band�s success make a powerful reciprocal to Buckingham�s often touted, and undeniably excellent, production prowess. �There were all men, and for a touch of femininity, there was Chris and I, and we were really the two women of THE BAND. It�s not like having a wardrobe mistress and a stylist.� And as Nicks emphatically stated, �There was never any problem between me and Chris; that�s what everybody, I think, always thought.� She unashamedly added, �I miss her.�
Today Nicks does say that her accomplishments are treated in a more fair and realistic manner. �There are a lot of situations where they talk about me as a writer and that is really all I ever wanted.� She added, �If people don�t remember me for anything else but being a good songwriter, that will be cool for me.� If a current review of the new record by Sophie B. Hawkins can claim that the singer is being cast as a �Stevie Nicks for the �90s,� she must have made at least some sort of mark (though it seems pushy to assume that the original article does not desire to fill that role herself). So there she goes again, Stevie Nicks, the rock �dinosaurette,� pitching her wares with the same urgency that drove �Rhiannon� 20 years ago. While many of her male dinosaur counterparts continue to churn out lyrics of teen angst and lust that their children have probably already gotten past, Nicks is content to write from an ever-maturing, clearer view. �I don�t feel the need to write in codes so much. I�m a little braver now, so it�s easier for me to say what I really feel without sugarcoating it. What I am trying to say when I write songs is: �I know it is really hard and I know what you�re going through is really tough, but I went through it and I made it.�
This article was transcribed and sent to me by Dark Angel, with thanks
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Last Updated - 13 June 2004
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