Fleetwood Mac: Where’s Stevie?

1982-mirage-album-coverFANTASY ISLAND, Ca. – On the kitchen table in Mick Fleetwood’s Malibu mansion sits a model of the stage design for Fleetwood Mac’s upcoming American tour.

In between the tiny amplifiers, drums and pianos stand cardboard cutouts representing the five members of then band. There’s a Lindsey Buckingham doll, a John McVie doll, etceteras. Why does the Stevie Nicks doll have a cigarette burn where her heart is supposed to be? And why is a hand crumpling the flat, white expressionless thing into a little ball and tossing it into a trash can?

MALIBU, Ca. – This scenario is entirely fictitious. It is a product of a demented writer’s imagination, fuelled by observations of Stevie Nick’s apparent hostility towards the rest of Fleetwood Mac, encouraged by sadistic editor, and starved by the brain-damaged illegals who run the hotel where I ordered a room-service burger that never came and attempted to write about what really happened at Mick Fleetwood’s house that afternoon.

Certainly Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, who were all present for the interview, did nothing to suggest the above fantasy; but all three did speak somewhat wearily of the constant speculation on the part of the press and public about the future of the band. They also acknowledged that here is more grist for the rumor mill than ever before: The roaring success of Nick’s solo album, Bella Donna, and her absence from recording sessions, interviews (at least those concerning Fleetwood Mac) and tour preparations seem ample evidence to support the notion that the singer has reached the point of self-sufficiency.

Whether the topic was songwriting, recording or personalities, the conversation kept drifting back to the subject of Stevie Nicks, while the equally-absent John McVie was discussed only briefly and in the most benign of terms. The bassist, a road animal and an acknowledged studiophone, was sailing in the Virgin Islands at the time of the interview and was due to join the band a few days later to rehearse. Nicks, on the other hand, was scheduled to show up only for the last ten days of work prior to the start of the tour.

“She phones her part in,” says McVie without a trace of irony. “She asks what songs we plan on doing and what songs we want her to do. The rest of it will be decided between Mick, Lindsey and me.”

“I’m not that excited about touring myself,” admits Buckingham, who frequently expresses his preference for working in the recording studio. “But it’s something we should do, so I’m definitely going to do it. If you do an album, you might as well complete the cycle — otherwise, why do the album?” Fleetwood notes that “for the better part of six years, we all had a huge commitment to Fleetwood Mac. All we did was tour. I think that if after this much time there isn’t some sort of base that can withstand a certain amount of pounding from the people who helped create it, then it’s pretty useless.

“People have been waiting for us to break up for years, and the subject’s coming up again. The most likely one to disappear is Stevie, but there’s absolutely no way of telling whether she wants to go off and not be a part of the band, and at other times it’s the opposite.”

But there’s more to it than that. In arranging this interview, it was apparent at nearly every turn that Stevie Nicks has set herself apart from the rest of Fleetwood Mac in a way which is not exactly in the spirit of commitment. She has a record company virtually all to herself – Modern Records has released no product other than Bella Donna — and she alone among the Mac is represented by the industry’s most grudgingly-respecting hardballer. Irving Azoff, it should be noted, owns no piece of Fleetwood Mac’s action; and though his interest in this matter is solely Stevie Nicks, there’s no evidence to indicate that he’s responsible for pushing her away from the band.

No one in the Fleetwood Mac organization seems to know for sure what Nicks’ intentions are with respect to the band, and when asked if she would respond to specific issues raised in the interview with the others, a representative of Azoff’s company said, “She just wants to work on her record.”

It’s not hard to understand why Nicks might be reluctant to return to the enforced democracy of a five piece band after having established herself as a triple-platinum act with her own material and musicians — both in the studio and on the road — whose defined role is to play her music her way. But would Fleetwood Mac survive her departure?

“Why not?” asks Fleetwood from the vantage point of one who’s seen some key personnel losses in his time: Fleetwood Mac numbers among its alumni Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan and Bob Welch, all of whom were seen (by outsiders as least) as vital components of the Mac’s music. “I don’t think there’ll be a reason to madly look for someone else. If someone disappears, then that’s what happens. Who knows? The whole thing might blow up.”

“I might leave,” McVie chimes in. “How about that?”

Fleetwood then offers the ultimate scenario: “When it’s all totally finished I’ll probably still be standing there, totally deluded and thinking that everyone was still around me, waiting to go on stage.”

Touché

Fleetwood seems less concerned with the prospect of another personnel change that with maintaining an emphasis on musical growth. “I respect the fact that we’re still being creative and enjoying ourselves. The reason why we’re still here is that there is an underlying commitment to respecting the band, no matter how many times you might get fed up with it.”

1982 Fleetwood Mac Mirage“There is definitely a chemistry that transcends everything else that might happen before or after we’re on stage,” McVie elaborates. “We play well together and sing well together. That side of Fleetwood Mac I really enjoy. And I feel very comfortable working with Lindsey. Dare I say this with him present?” She casts an affectionate wink his way. “I have a lot of respect for this man; I don’t really imagine anybody else being able to do what he does with my songs.

“There have been many rough times,” she continues, “but we’ve always ended up on some high note, standing around and jamming, or whatever, just really getting a charge out of playing together. It’s a joyous situation, and that takes over the bad points.”

“That may have something to do with why Stevie is the way she is now,” Buckingham suggests. “Because she is not a musician, she doesn’t share in that thing with us. She can feel totally out of her depth – which she is, on some levels – and you can understand why she doesn’t want to come down to the studio or be involved in certain things.”

In spite of the overwhelming commercial success of her solo album, there is a certain, well, amateurish quality to Nicks’ songs. The way she lays a lyric across a melody sometimes makes for awkward phrasing and contributes to the spaciness of her musical persona, as does her rather childish lyrical point of view regarding life and love.

Buckingham, Nicks’s former lover and bandmate of hers since the late ‘60s, when both were members of a Bay Area group called Fritz, admits to having always considered her songs “a little flaky.” But, “there’s obviously something about her material that people relate to. She’s always been a little bit hard for me to take seriously, because I really appreciate a beat, having been weaned on Elvis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

“There’s something emotional that gets through, through,” he says, “and her voice’s so recognizable. I’ve been listening to Stevie sing for years and years, and when you’re that close to it, it’s easy to overlook certain aspects of anything.”

“Stevie’s very prolific,” McVie notes. “She writes constantly, and all her songs are like babies to her, even though some of them are rubbish. When I write, I sit down and work on an idea until it’s finished, but Stevie cranks out songs all the time.”

Between her songs and the way she appears to be conducting her life, Stevie Nicks comes off as a modern-day equivalent to the movie queens of the ‘30s, reaching inside herself for some ill-defined personal misery to fuel her creative machinery. Buckingham says that in all the time he’s known her, “Stevie has never been very happy, and I don’t think the success of her album has made her any happier. In fact it may have made her less happy.

“She’s flexing come kind of emotional muscles that she feels she can flex now that she’s in a more powerful position. There’s a certain amount of leeway in how you can interpret Stevie’s behavior, I’d say, but at the same time there’s no denying that her success is making her feel that she can pull things that she wouldn’t have felt comfortable pulling before. And most of them aren’t particularly worthwhile, but she’s venting something — loneliness, unhappiness or something.”

When a band member chooses not to participate fully in the process of making an album, it puts a certain kind of pressure on the people who do the work. Given the unique approach that Buckingham takes to record-making, it’s easy to see how an artist as moody as Stevie Nicks could second-guess what he does to her material.

It’s in discussing the musicians’ studio relationship that he most complete picture of Fleetwood Mac emerges. Here, egos collide and coalesce for months on end; the pop magic that results has, ultimately, little to do with technology or technique, and everything to do with talented artists following the late sportswriter Red Smith’s dictum on how to do your best work: “Open a vein and bleed.”

“There’s an exquisite sense of checks and balances in Fleetwood Mac, and that’s one of the things that makes the band work,” Buckingham observes. “Everybody’s always checking each other out to a certain degree, not only in choosing the material but on every level of our creativity. Maybe that contributes to the albums taking as long as they do. It’s not the most efficient way to do things, but it does seem effective in the end.”

While it’s not unusual for a band member to walk into the studio, criticize the music and then walk out again, Buckingham is philosophical about it. “It’s just something you expect to happen from time to time,” he says. “It just goes with the territory.”

Fleetwood agrees. “We definitely have a problem sometimes with Stevie and John, but if they hate being in the studio then they certainly have less right to complain about what’s done. That’s just a matter of fairness — and that’s why I hate being away from the studio. There are usually two or three poignant moments during the making of an album where there are hurt feelings walking around — ‘What have you done to my songs,’ or that sort of thing. But there’s also a lot of stuff which is appreciated by others.”

“Having a producer’s kind of mind, I might take something too far,” concedes Buckingham, “but it’s better to have too much on a track and prune it back than to not have enough.”

“Lindsey’s never that adamant about keeping a track a certain way,” comments McVie. “If everyone says that they think it’s caca, then obviously he’s not going to feel happy about it being on there anyway.”

1982 Fleetwood Mac Schlitz BeerBuckingham has been referring to Mirage as “a reconciliation of opposites” from the time of the first sessions. “There are some aspects of Tusk and some aspects of Rumours,” he explains, “but Mirage is a much more of a band album than Tusk was. After Rumours sold 16 or 17 million copies, we had the freedom — and the courage — to try some other things.

“I got a lot of support from the band during the making of Tusk, but when it became apparent that it wasn’t going to sell 15 million albums, the attitudes started to change. That was sad for me in a way, because it makes me wonder where everyone’s priorities are. To me, the point of making records is to shake people’s preconceptions about pop.”

Fleetwood says that making Tusk was crucial from a strategic standpoint. “It was no big master plan, really, but Tusk may be the most important album this band will ever do — strategically, apart from the music.

“If we hadn’t done Tusk, Lindsey would have a problem expressing himself within Fleetwood Mac,” he continues, pointing out also that Buckingham extended his Tusk experimentation on his solo album, Law and Order, and brought the fruits of his labors to bear more subtly on Mirage.

“One of the reasons Tusk happened the way it did was because I wasn’t doing any solo work,” Buckingham says. “On Tusk I was doing a lot of things at my house, playing a lot of instruments myself, just like I did on Law and Order. That’s a valid approach to making records. But this time I wanted all my songs to be band songs, and result of that is an album that is a little less bizarre. Tusk had things that were good artistically, but it wasn’t good for the whole band, and I thought that I should limit that to my solo albums. If I want to be in a band, we should play as a band — and maybe the result of that is that Mirage is a little more traditional in some senses.”

Traditional in every respect, one might say, except that 14 months passed between the first sessions (at Le Chateau in Herouville, France, later switching to Larabie Sound and the Record Plant in L.A.) and the album’s release. Buckingham quips that “Fleetwood Mac albums take about five years off your life,” but is stumped when asked to explain why.

McVie jumps in. “Well, this particular one wouldn’t have taken quite so long had it not been for all the other albums (meaning Lindsey’s, Stevie’s and Mick’s solo LP’s) that were being made as well.”

It’s fitting that McVie came to Buckingham’s aid when he was at a loss of words: although it’s not generally recognized, the two share a mutual respect for each other as musicians that pulls the band together in a special way. “I’m not really a writer. That’s not my strong point, lyrical or melody wise. “Trouble” (on Law and Order) is a good melody, “Go Your Own Way.” I’ve had my moments, but I don’t consider that to be my strong point at all. It’s the style involved.”

Says McVie: “I don’t tell Lindsey, for example, ‘I want you to play such-and-such kind of guitar, that lick,’ That’s why Lindsey has got the additional production credit on the album — he’s been largely responsible for helping to bring across on the record the atmosphere that I want to come over on a song that I write.”

“She and I have a real valid kind of rapport between us,” Buckingham continues, “something that was there before we even met. It’s like she can play the piano and I can play the guitar just wonderfully along with her. It’s almost like parallel lines during our formative years of music until we met, and it gave us a lot of common ground.”

For McVie, the bottom line is that “we play well together,” referring to the entire band. “A lot of parts of Fleetwood Mac are really fun and rewarding. Of course, there are other people that we all play with and work with that are just as much fun, but not quite in the same way, I dare say, just because of the amount of years we’ve had together.”

“When you play with other people, of course, it’s a lot of fun,” Fleetwood states, “but I would say it’s very unlikely — certainly for myself — that this situation will ever happen again in the reference of a musical combination. That commitment’s really the reason why the band is still here.”

With the mention of the word “commitment,” the talk again turns to Stevie Nicks. The disinterested observer can’t help but question her contribution as this point, but the musicians who work with her are a bit more charitable in their analyses and deductions.

“There’ve been many times when she might come out in the studio and try and sing along, and we’d tend to say, “Don’t do that right now, let us work this out first,” says McVie. “Now she’d just go to the studio and go, “There’s no need for me to be here.” She does feel left out.”

Fleetwood’s take on the whole situation is that the process Fleetwood Mac goes through form day one in the studio through to the finished product is a highly-disciplined one, and that “Stevie doesn’t have the appreciation. She just emotes and goes into something, which is exactly her forte. But she does that all the time rather than being able to control and place where she does it — which is not a fault, it’s just the way it is.”

But the key to understanding Fleetwood Mac in 1982 is not in wondering so much about the future without Stevie Nicks, but in understanding that the point was and always has been to make good music, and have fun doing it. Maybe that’s why Fleetwood himself can seem so unconcerned when discussing Nicks — the band plays on, regardless. “That notion is the most important thing: appreciating in a non-belabored way that the key element with all the people is to make the mistake of being very boring, and realizing all too late that they are fucking boring. Then the magic’s gone; whatever’s there has long since passed you by.

“I consider myself very lucky to have been involved in a situation which had a lot of groundwork what led you to being able to make very objective, humorous analogies to what you’re doing, and having no puffed-up illusions about how important you are.”

And at that point, the question of whether or not Mirage is the end of Fleetwood Mac as we now know it is moot. In fact, McVie says “it definitely isn’t.

“This band has lived from day-to-day for seven years or so,” she points out, “and there’s always been some kind of turmoil from within — that’s common knowledge. I’m quite sure we’ll go on for another seven years doing the same thing.”

© David Gans / The Record / September 1982

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