You See Your Gypsy: Stevie Nicks Turns 75
Why the Fleetwood Mac songstress remains a vital force of nature in rock ‘n’ roll
For all the moments in her life where Stevie Nicks was a one-woman Behind the Music compilation, she has endured. Celebrating her 75th birthday today, she’s back on the road with dates scheduled the rest of the year.
Nicks has settled into her role as classic rock’s beloved sister, mother and aunt. She’s made it through the relationship misfires, the personal losses and the two drug addictions that took up over 15 years of her life, to become a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
Saying the name “Stevie Nicks” conjures up the mental images: voluminous blonde hair, fabulous shawls, lace, sparkles, gowns with skirts that flowed and flounced, the ehtereal, the mystical, all with that distinctive voice, an image that launched the ongoing Nights of a Thousand Stevies.
But there was only one Stevie, a teenager in the Bay Area who inadvertently tossed a pebble into a pond at an after school get-together in 1966. That day, Nicks, unprompted, walked up to another high school kid who was playing guitar and singing the Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreaming” and started adding the harmonies.
That other high school kid was indeed Lindsey Buckingham and if this were the biopic, they’d immediately start dating and making music together that night.
But the reality was a different matter. The ripples took a while, two years in fact. By that point, Buckingham was in a band called Fritz. When their lead singer left, Buckingham asked her to join.
The relationship would follow, but in a move that the other members of Fritz had to retroactively kick themselves for, Buckingham and Nicks weren’t used as songwriters for the band.
What Fritz did do was provide musical training for them. In Nicks’ case, she was up front as the lead singer for a band that opened gigs for the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Chicago.
Despite others’ efforts, Fritz, again never utilizing Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks as songwriters, couldn’t get a record deal. When the band broke up, the pair left San Francisco for Los Angeles, continuing to work on their own songs in hope of getting a contract.
The efforts paid off, when they got signed, recording what would become Buckingham Nicks, released in September, 1973. The album was well-received but Polydor pretty much did little to support it, so would-be hits like Nicks’ “Crying In The Night” languished. By the year’s end the pair were without a label and a manager and, to this date, the album has never been reissued (to fans’ ongoing decades-long consternation).
Nicks continued to work day jobs, as a server at a theme restaurant and cleaning producer Keith Olsen’s house, while Buckingham worked on their music. Things were at a point where Nicks was, if not ready to quit, felt that she might have to go back to school instead (she’d originally gone to college with the goal of becoming an English teacher).
Instead, through happenstance, Nicks and Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac New Year’s Eve 1974 to fill the void left by Bob Welch’s departure earlier that month.
Things went from zero to 60 very quickly. Four albums over the next 12 years, all of which went multi-platinum. The group, which had never cracked the Top 40 in the U.S before, did so 14 times in that span thanks to the songwriting trio of Christine McVie, Buckingham and Nicks.
Nicks went from worrying about having enough money to pay for food and bills to having more disposable income than she knew what to do with.
This being the ’70s, one outlet for that disposable income was cocaine, one that would suck up increasing amounts of Nicks’ cash as quickly as it went up her nose.
What was thought of as a party drug turned out to be anything but for Nicks, but the worst effects didn’t happen right away. But chemical highs were far from the only ones Nicks was experiencing at this point.
Fleetwood Mac’s commercial success was a fortuitous confluence of obvious musical chemistry with three writers growing and emerging in their craft. McVie’s pop writing was sharp and affable, contrasting with Buckingham’s slightly more left-of-center approach. Nicks grew up on country and folk, with those sensibilities resulting in more imagery and even storytelling working their way in.
A couple of Nicks’ first standards had their origins before the Buckingham Nicks album, as early versions of the witch tale “Rhiannon” and the weary doubt of “Landslide” dated back before its release.
VIDEO: Fleetwood Mac “Landslide”
“Landslide” was written when Nicks was home alone while Buckingham was on the road playing in Don Everly’s backing band. That gig lasted for three shows before Everly, tired of fans wanting nothing but old Everly Brothers hits, pulled the plug. It was enough time for Nicks to ponder both her relationship and where her career wasn’t going.
Buckingham and McVie’s harmonies and Fleetwood Mac’s supple musical backing helped “Rhiannon” take flight. Initially, her songs didn’t get the positive notice of the others, but things began to turn with a live performance on The Midnight Special in February, 1976. The clip now is a marvel. She goes full bore with a magnetic performance, standing unflinchingly when the camera zooms in for the full face close-up as she repeatedly sings “All the same, all the same, Rhiannon!” on the outro.
VIDEO: Fleetwood Mac performing “Rhiannon” on The Midnight Special 1976
Her Rumours contributions were highlights of mood. “Dreams” was more subdued, but unsparing in Nicks’ feelings towards Buckingham. “Gold Dust Woman”, more intense and more prescient than she realized, given how close Nicks would eventually get to her own grave with a silver spoon.
Nicks’ relationship with Buckingham grew more tumultuous. By accounts, Buckingham wanted a degree of control that made the relationship increasingly untenable.
Even before joining Fleetwood Mac, there were signs, as allegedly happened during the Buckingham Nicks cover shoot. Nicks had spent what little money she had for a nice, white blouse for the cover, only to get asked to take the blouse off, posing topless and leaning against Buckingham.
“I was crying when we took that picture,” Nicks said years later. “And Lindsey was mad at me. He said, ‘You know, you’re just being a child. This is art.’ And I’m going, ‘This is not art. This is me taking a nude photograph with you, and I don’t dig it.”
By the time they recorded Rumours, it was clear the personal relationship wasn’t going to last, which worked its way into the songs (“Dreams” and Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way”, in particular).
Nicks made the call to end it near the end of the sessions, but the two both agreed that the band came first and they’d do what they could to keep it working.
VIDEO: Fleetwood Mac “Go Your Own Way”
While it often worked well musically, there were notable flare-ups. Nicks and McVie both remembered a New Zealand show during the tour where Buckingham allegedly threw a guitar at her. An even nastier blowout happened in 1987, before Buckingham left the group ahead of its Tango in the Night Tour.
Even with the successful reunions that started with 1997’s The Dance, with Buckingham’s personal life calming down and Nicks’ sobriety, there was a certain inherent awkwardness.
In 2015, she told Rolling Stone, “Relations with Lindsey are exactly as they have been since we broke up. He and I will always be antagonizing to each other, and we will always do things that will irritate each other, and we really know how to push each other’s buttons. We know exactly what to say when we really want to throw a dagger in. And I think that that’s not different now than it was when we were 20. And I don’t think it will be different when we’re 80.”
A few years later, the button pushing led to Buckingham’s departure from Fleetwood Mac again, this time not by his choice. But as the ’70s ended, they were still making it work.
VIDEO: Fleetwood Mac “Sara”
Tusk brought the poetic “Sara” to the Nicks canon. Her voice cut through the backing vocals which envelop the percussive backing like a comforting fog.
“Sisters of the Moon” is a great example of the musical chemistry she and Buckingham had. Even if by her own admission, she didn’t know what the lyrics were about, his guitar work lets the song soar, particularly with the closing solo, his most searing with the band.
Nick subsequent Mac hits would glance at the past. The nostalgic “Gypsy” explored the pre-fame days when she and Buckingham were struggling. The pop loveliness of “Seven Wonders” remembers a past love affair with fondness and some wistfulness.
While Nicks wasn’t holding back with the group, her solo career became the bigger showcase.
The songs on her solo debut Bella Donna began when she started writing demos during a break in the lengthy Tusk sessions. She didn’t start recording it until after that album’s tour.
The extra time proved beneficial as two of Nicks signature solo songs were the last two recorded.
“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, the only song on Bella Donna not written or co-written by her, was intended by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell to appear on Petty’s 1981 album Hard Promises.
They’d written “Insider” for Nicks, but Petty liked the song enough he decided to keep it for his own album. That, and the acknowledgment that a woman’s POV gave “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” an extra punch, led to it becoming a duet.
Nicks sang over the finished Heartbreakers track, her lead vocals replacing him on the verses and her harmonies backing him on the refrains. The result is a classic duet by accident.
“Edge of Seventeen” is built upon that instantly recognizable guitar riff by Waddy Wachtel, inspired by Andy Summers’ on the Police’s “Bring On the Night”, but more chugging and insistent and without dissolving into reggae lite.
The song had its origins in a conversation with Tom Petty’s then-wife Jane, who’d said she and Tom had met at the age of seventeen. Said through Jane’s southern accent, Nicks heard it as “edge of seventeen”, thinking instantly it would be a cool phrase for a song.
The song turned into an intense, anthemic expression of grief, as Nicks was experiencing her first family loss at the time. Her uncle John’s passing after a battle with cancer made its way into the lyrics both literally (“I went today… maybe I will go again… tomorrow” referring to her seeing him the day before he passed) and metaphorically (the white-winged dove and the nightbird). On top of that, John Lennon, a friend to Nicks’ boyfriend (and Bella Donna producer) Jimmy Iovine, was murdered the same week as her uncle’s death. They were grieving on opposite ends of the country.
The lovely ballad “Leather and Lace”, a duet with Don Henley, was also a big hit. Nicks, whose earliest exposure to music included listening and singing along with her grandfather’s country records, had written the song for Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter’s duet album of the same name.
Bella Donna remains Nicks’ best solo album, with quality material beyond the hits. “After the Glitter Fades” is heartbreak steeped even deeper in country. “Outside the Rain” is basically Stevie Nicks engagingly fronting the Heartbreakers. “Bella Donna” is a nifty piece of L.A. studio pop.
1983’s The Wild Heart was mostly more of the same, Bella Donna, Part Deux down to another Petty duet in “I Will Run to You.”
The biggest outlier became its big hit. “Stand Back” was inspired by hearing Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” on a car radio. The song has a more danceable drum beat with keyboards from Sandy Stewart (the other singer heard on it) and Prince himself. That gave Nicks’ emotional vocals something different to play off.
VIDEO: Stevie Nicks “Stand Back”
The keyboards also heavily flavor “If Anyone Falls” and its sticky chorus.
“Nightbird” and “Sable On Blond” are more Mac-esque (the latter featuring Fleetwood on drums) while “Wild Heart” is more epic-length Stevie.
1985’s Rock a Little saw Nicks become the latest to succumb to stereotypical ’80s production with more drum machines, synths and general business.
“I Can’t Wait” succeeded in spite of itself, its sturdy chorus surviving the clattering sonic choices. “Talk to Me” throws in less of the kitchen sink (although it features sax solos one can picture the oily shirtless guy from the Lost Boys playing), with Nicks’ committed vocals making the plea for communication come through.
The album’s boosted by its moments where the era’s production is more subdued: the beguiling “Some Become Strangers”, the strong “No Spoken Word” and the sturdy return to the Heartbreakers well of “Imperial Hotel”.
Nicks got a wake-up call when a 1986 doctor’s visit revealed a hole in her nasal cavity. She was told that her next hit of cocaine and any hit thereafter carried a huge risk of a fatal brain hemorrhage. She checked into the Betty Ford Center after finishing her Rock a Little tour.
Rehab was a success, but her attempts to ensure that led to even worse problems than cocaine had. A psychiatrist, who she called “Doctor Fuckhead” in a 2015 Rolling Stone interview, prescribed her the tranquilizer Klonopin. What started as one pill per day morphed into a habit to the point where she’s said since that she doesn’t remember the tour for 1989’s The Other Side of the Mirror.
The album itself, full of introspection sometimes couched in inspiration from Alice in Wonderland is a mixed bag, lacking in the consistency of its predecessors. It’s not lacking in recommendable tunes, however: the shimmering “Ghosts”, the bluesy “Whole Lotta Trouble”, and the tenser “Doing the Best That I Can (Escape from Berlin)”.
Things came to a head during the sessions for 1994’s Street Angel, Nicks’ least favorite solo album. There were conflicts with producer Glyn Johns. An even lengthier rehab session broke her Klonopin addiction, but her label rushed the mixing and mastering sessions without her in order for her to have the product to tour behind.
It’s hard to argue with Nicks’ opinion, as the album as a whole is her weakest. The dated production is gone, but the songs as a whole don’t reach the heights of her best work. The album isn’t without some hidden gems. “Love Is Like a River” was her best rock song in years and would have been an airplay candidate had it come out a decade earlier. Likewise for “Listen to the Rain”, which has a real rootsy charm.
During those years, it was a Fleetwood Mac song written by Nicks that caused her to leave Fleetwood Mac. She wanted to include the beautifully clear-eyed “Silver Springs”, the best song she’d written for Rumours, on her upcoming best-of. Fleetwood said no, wanting the song for a Fleetwood Mac box set.
She left the band in 1991, a hiatus that lasted six years. But, the inevitable reunion of their Rumours-era took place, which resulted in six tours, a live album and a studio album over the next 20 years (albeit almost 15 without McVie, who mostly walked away from the music business).
Those commitments, along with an extended bout of writer’s block in the ’90s, have meant Nicks has been less forthcoming with new material ever since, releasing three albums — 2001’s Trouble in Shangri-La, 2011’s In Your Dreams and 2014’s Songs From the Vault: 24 Karat Gold.
But if the pop marketplace has changed into a much less hospitable environment to artists with Nicks’ skillset, it’s been as much a case of sticking with quality over quantity as it was being beholden to the latest Fleetwood Mac Plays The Hits tour. Any of the three could have been worthy, successful follow-ups to Bella Donna and The Wild Heart.
Shangri-La was a definite return to form where Nicks was front-and-center even with the notable guest stars (especially Sheryl Crow, who played on six songs and co-produced five of them). “Sorcerer” dated back to the Buckingham Nicks days while “Planets of the Universe” was another take on the upcoming breakup with Buckingham from the Rumours sessions. But most of the album was new material, with “Every Day” boasting a lovely pop hook, “Bombay Sapphires” combining her mystical edge with her relationship eye, “Fall From Grace” going along at an open road with the top down tempo and “Too Far From Texas” a smartly-done duet with the Chicks’ Natalie Maines.
Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame was a wise choice to produce In Your Dreams, which is solo Nicks at her most Mac-like (and not just because Fleetwood drums throughout the album and Buckingham appears on guitar and backing vocals on “Soldier’s Angel”).
Nicks shows a palpable comfort level here without coasting. She handles rockers (“Ghosts Are Gone”, “In Your Dreams”) and ballads (“For What It’s Worth”, “New Orleans”) with equal aplomb.
She’d dabbled in past material on the prior two albums, but 24 Karat Gold was a deep dive. She said the album was inspired by her assistant showing her various demos of unreleased songs on YouTube and fans asking variations of “Hey, are you ever gonna record that song?”
The 1940’s ragtime shuffle of “Cathouse Blues” was Nicks’ first song, a love song that dated back to the late ’60s.
“Mabel Normand”, written a year before Nicks went to Betty Ford, was about an alleged real-life gold dust woman, a silent film actress whose alleged cocaine addiction is in historical dispute but her life being cut tragically short (by tuberculosis at 36) after a series of scandals caused by others misdeeds, real and made-up, derailed her career was not.
The appealing country soul of “Blue Water”, done with appropriators Lady A, is a style that fits Nicks comfortably. So does the roadhouse grit of “I Don’t Care.”
And “Lady” belongs in the upper reaches of her canon, a vulnerable showstopper of Nicks’ chill-inducing voice and a piano, a spare combination one wishes she’d utilized more in her career.
If the album had moments that could have used some tweaking here or there, the fact that it was recorded quickly (in 17 days) gives it an unfussy charm.
Nicks’ latter work fitting in well with her classic ’70s and ’80s work shouldn’t be a surprise. Based on how she has talked about her life growing up, she is clearly her mother’s daughter, raised at an early age to be strong, independent and to take no shit.
Even in the early days, her doubts were more about her circumstances, not her skills. She’s an artist who knows her wheelhouse and even as she explores its outer reaches, she knows herself and her audience, no small reason why her appeal has endured.
And that voice. Nicks didn’t have the classic woman pop singer voice of others on the radio when she broke through – the classic Linda Ronstadt, the sheer warmth of Karen Carpenter or McVie, the everywoman quality of Olivia Newton-John. She had a rawer edge that made her sound older than she actually was.
As she’s become classic rock’s grand dame, a role she was born to play, she’s aged into that voice, which she wears as well as the most fantastic dress in her stage wardrobe. She’s adjusted her range a bit live, but still has the strength of spirit, albeit wiser, that she had almost 50 years ago.
With the drama well in the past and being able to tour again, Nicks can enjoy a secure legacy and a fanbase that’s stayed with her and, knock on wood, another strong album or two.
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