Fleetwood Mac: Stevie Nicks, Macramé Goddess

Bella Donna (1981)
Bella Donna (1981)
Bella Donna (1981)

To steal from Groucho Marx (after all we’re talking nicks), the trouble with doing interviews is having to sit down next to someone you don’t like. See, I’m the leather type myself; don’t go for chiffon unless it’s on a slice of bread with a bit of dead animal on top. Don’t go for spirits, unless they come in a bottle marked “Smirnoff.” Don’t go for cosmic airbrushed cake decoration types whose albums come in scratch and sniff roses and kitties and sea spray; leather, now that smells good. Don’t go for platform boots unless Gene Simmons is wearing them. Don’t go for much about Fleetwood Mac really except ‘Albatross’ (adolescent romance memories) and Christine McVie (subtle, sensible, excellent songwriter) and (for the same reasons I like Adam Ant) Lindsey B.

There’s a lot to be said for Stevie Nicks, surely. My old man’s brother wants to “protect her”; my old man wants to; we won’t go into that. A kid called me up and asked me for any old press photos of the lady, told me he thought she was “ladylike” and the girl he’s been trying to date likes her a lot. There’s a few million more fans out there I didn’t have time to get to with the deadline Creem gave me. But they definitely seem to like her. Me and Groucho were having our doubts.

I approached her apartment — left turn past the male models on roller skates, swerve past the little bundles of suntan oil and stop before you hit the lifeguard tower at the beach where the white, chopping waves are whipped by the storm’s dark passion…sorry, she sort of does that to me — as I was saying, I approached her apartment by the seaside with all the joyous anticipation of going to the dentist. And there weren’t any magazines in the waiting room; just a maid ironing those miles and miles and miles of wispy chiffon. Wouldn’t have been at all surprised if they’d turned on a fog machine.

They didn’t. Instead they offered me a glass of wine. I’m beginning to warm to the lady — who wafts in, in those boots and that outfit, after a visit with her hairdressing girlfriend. You’ve got to hand it to Stevie. At least her life and her image/vision are one and the same. Yes, the apartment’s filled with satin and cushions and plants and fairy-tale books and there’s even a collection of stuffed horses (not the Roy Rogers’ Trigger kind, these are little booboos collected from all over the world) whose photos she takes and whose lashes she mascaras. And yes, she says things like “I feel that there are spirits everywhere when I’m writing my songs” and means it. And yet, in spite of my better judgment I’m turning my back on Groucho and actually liking the lady. Okay, one of the reasons is the wine. But another is her realization of her dove-in-Jell-O image and her self-deprecating humor about some of it. Another — and believe me I’m not easily hyped; I’ve done enough interviews now that I know when I’m getting a line — is that, whatever else she is, Stevie Nicks strikes me as being very honest. And in rock ‘n’ roll — especially up there in uranium-album type rock ‘n’ roll — that makes up for a lot of things (except maybe the leather; never liked the stuff, she says). Anyway, you lot enter the conversation as she’s talking about doing her solo stuff and balancing it with her Fleetwood Mac work (Bella Donna and Mirage respectively).

“I’m the baby of Fleetwood Mac — ha! I’m 33 years old, a very old baby, but it’s hard for them to watch me walk away and do anything. Because everybody in Fleetwood Mac is possessive — including me. Everybody in Fleetwood Mac is jealous. That’s why it’s so passionate and always will be, because we never achieve boredom and there’s always some fiery thing going on. It causes us a lot of grief, but at the same time it’s never something that you don’t find interesting. I can’t really figure us out. It’s a strange grouping of people.”

You can say that again. Bit like a grown-up’s version of the Monkees or something. You know, the cute one, the kooky one, etc. etc. If you’re stuck for party games anytime, try doing the Guess Which One Of Your Friends Likes Which Member Of The Mac. It tells you as much about your friends’ personalities as any self-help paperback.

“John’s always going to the beach, Mick’s always going to the Renaissance Faire, Lindsey’s always going to visit his tailor, I’m always going to a Halloween party and Christine is like Christine always looks in her kind of cool clothes,” Stevie chuckles.

“It’s funny to see us before we go onstage, standing in a circle. We look ridiculous! Totally absolutely ridiculous! John’s got his crew socks and his cut-offs and his T-shirt and his baseball hat. Mick’s got his velvet knickers and the same tights and the same shoes he’s worn for a hundred years — you wouldn’t want to be within 50 feet of him in that outfit, especially the next night when he’s put it back on after it’s been in the bus all day and never dried! Lindsey wears the same two Armani suits, one white and one gray, every night,” and Stevie’s got her cosmic tablecloths. Hey, give her a break; she lived in San Francisco at a time when macramé making and pottery pottering were de rigeur and at a very impressionable age. And — she’s not so daft — “I realized if I wanted to be in Fleetwood Mac I was going to really have to figure out a gimmick — like toe-dancing or something nobody else could do.”

It’s hard to think (harder still for young folk) of Fleetwood Mac having existed without Stevie Nicks. Harder still to think she reckoned they didn’t even want her to join and that she had to resort to wearing fairy outfits.

“It’s true. At first they didn’t need another girl singer. Why should they? They needed a guitarist, not a girl singer who didn’t really play piano or guitar or anything. It’s human nature. They’re not going to say, ‘you stand out there and be the star and we’ll just play, right.’ I know for a fact that I was simply being hired as extra baggage. They couldn’t get Lindsey without me.”

Fleetwood Mac wanted Lindsey (don’t we all!) but Stevie had had him for a long time. This goes back to San Francisco, 1966. “I was a senior, he was a junior.” Fairy princess met matinee idol in college, they “sang one song together and I never saw or heard from him again for two years.” That bad? No, he loved her singing and remembered her when he was forming a rock band called Fritz. Stevie had been in a couple of high school bands before, Mamas and Papas type of things, but had settled as a solo artists of sorts plunking an acoustic guitar and singing self-penned songs in the coffee houses around Acidland.

When she was young, Stevie had a cool grandfather. Aaron Jess Nicks, a failed country singer, harmonica tooter and general eccentric, lived in a trailer in the desert. He bought little Stevie “a little outfit with guns and boots and vest — I was a happening cowgirl” at the age of four, and took her and the ubiquitous tambourine with him on tours of the Arizona ginhouses. Until daddy Nicks —a one-time brewery president; what a man to have for a father — put a stop to her early career and moved the family to Texas, Mexico, Utah, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“We moved every two years. All I remember about Phoenix is cactus — and meeting Tex Ritter,” and a few of the tunes, which she warbled to herself when she wasn’t singing along “to the radio, to the Ronettes, to the Beach Boys, to Janis Joplin, to anybody that I listened to until I moved to San Francisco and basically did my own music.” Everybody in San Francisco did, remember? Not that the Nicks Senior thought this was any career for their little peach-blossom, so she went to college for five years.

“I wanted to go to hairdressing school,” pouts Stevie. It is she who trims her poodles’ hair, not to mention the band’s crew. “But they didn’t go for that idea at all, so I went to college. I should have gone to hairdressing school because that would really have benefited me more. I was singing with Lindsey the whole time and found it real difficult to study.”

I can understand the problem. So could Lindsey. They threw in their lot together, packed up the macramé plant holders and headed down south to L.A. in search of fame and fortune, or at least a Polygram record contract. It was, to quote a song of the day, a long time coming.

“It was two years of solid depression. It was hard when you practice that hard and you sound that good and everybody tells you that you should be doing something else. You want to say, ‘Well obviously we’re not from the same planet, because I didn’t sit with this guy for five years and sing like this for you to tell me that nothing we do is commercial. You’re crazy.’ It was a terrible time. Because Lindsey and I just couldn’t understand how we could sit down and sing a beautiful song to you and nobody liked it — and it was so pretty it made me cry. It was like, we don’t belong here, nobody understands us.”

They’re not the first people who thought L.A. recordbiz types are from another planet. They’re not the first people who came in search of money and earned it working as waiters. That’s where Fleetwood Mac found them, “pretty desperate and pretty green.” The latter could have something to do with Stevie working in a Beverly Hills vegetarian restaurant. A year earlier and they’d have found her desperate and greasy — she was a french fry server at a Burger King.

“It was straight out of obscurity — heavy obscurity. I was a member of Fleetwood Mac and still working at the restaurant for two weeks because I’d given them notice. It was strange. It would have taken me weeks to make what I was making on one week with Fleetwood Mac, but I didn’t want to walk in there and say ‘well now I’m going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll star so I quit! And I never liked your food anyway.’ That makes you feel bad later. I like tying up loose ends [cf. macramé].

So I quit my job, three weeks later we were recording, we finished the album in three and a half months, and four months later we went straight on the road. And boy was it a big shock!

They made me feel wonderful. I fell madly in love with all of them immediately, and even though I knew in my heart that they didn’t really need me, I would try to be really good and maybe I would find a way to be needed there. I didn’t know what else to do. I liked them so much that I was willing to realize that logically I was lucky to get asked to join the band at all, so I would have to be so helpful in everything, right? At least I could be a secretary or something, anything, because I wanted to be part of it.

And they knew it. They understood I felt this way. And they were real careful and never made me feel unwanted. Christine very willingly gave me the stage, which I thought was very cool of a woman to say, ‘oh she’s five years younger than me, and I’ve worked for 10 years on the road, killed myself, and her she is, our new frontwoman!’ It was incredibly big of Christine to just move out of the way because I do tend to kind of animate around. I drive Chris nuts. Crazy!

Chris will tell you that there were times in the last six or seven years when she was a little jealous. And I swear to God I never knew. She never let me know. Never one comment to the effect of ‘I could really have done without you’.

And I’m sure there were times when I’m flying around the stage in my gossamer chiffon where she had to think to herself, ‘wow, what’s this? Fairy school?’ And never once did she make me feel like that. Because she knew from the beginning that I was real sensitive and that I love her so much that nothing she’d say to me would cut like a knife. So she was always very careful.”

People are around Stevie. Naturally there’s a few in this rock ‘n’ roll world who want to stick the knife in, but most of the people who come across her want to be nice. When she was doing her solo album, the record company president — President — called up, and instead of discussing units told her to take is easy, “This is the best moment of your life, Stevie, and I want you to be happy.”

“They all know that I’m real vulnerable and that I can break real easily if I don’t get back a little bit of the love that I try to put out. If I feel that I’m putting out and I’m alone somewhere on an island by myself, then I start to die a little. And for some reason the business people seem to understand that.

I’ve had 50 people call me today and say, ‘if it’s too tough Stevie, stop. It doesn’t matter.’ With most artists they say, ‘look we need this interview, too bad if you’re tired.’ It’s strange. It wouldn’t be so amazing if it was my Mom, but it is amazing when it’s the president of Atlantic or the president of Modern Records or Irving (Azoff, manager).”

The vulnerability showed up on the last mammoth Fleetwood Mac tour when the last mammoth Fleetwood Mac album was released. Stevie’s voice was shot and her vocal chords didn’t look like healing. Endless trips to doctors and specialists led to nightmares about never singing again.

“My voice is alright now. I worked a long time on it. But a year is too long. I could probably tour six months a year solid, but I cannot tour for 12. I’m not 18, you know. It gets harder and harder to be wonderful every night in front of all those kids that you’re 15 years older than. I’d like to tour for two months on and two months off. Three weeks off doesn’t cut it.

I can’t even get all my clothes unpacked and cleaned and packed again in three weeks.

Otherwise it’s not fair to the people you’re playing for. I don’t want a tired Stevie walking out onstage and trying to do ‘Rhiannon’ when I’m dead. You can never call in sick. You can be on the side of the stage with terrible cramps and all of a sudden you’ve got 30 seconds to try not to even let that come into your head. I’ve seen a lot of concerts that because of extreme exhaustion aren’t special. For me there’s nothing I’d rather do than go to a great rock concert. But there’s nothing I’d rather not do than go to a rock concert by a great band that isn’t good.”

Choosing the odd date here and there rather than a major tour to plug the solo album, Stevie was planning a film/musical of Bella Donna, “so we could really do it like the Othello of the ‘80s.”

Talking of film, time to catch up on the various Stevie Nicks projects that don’t involve lifeguard watching. A ballet of ‘Rhiannon’, possibly a film with Stevie as heroine, “though whether or not there’s ever going to be the time for it is another question. Bella Donna was hard enough to get together, to pull two and a half months out of a hat. To make a movie is a lot longer and I can’t see that kind of space coming up anywhere.” A series of children’s fairy stories, including her The Golden Fox of the Last Fox Hunt, her tales have the pain and suffering removed, she says. Stevie loves dreamlike stuff — stating the obvious here. “I feel there are good spirits everywhere when I’m writing my songs, helping me. I just feel them and feel good. And it’s not stupid or mystical or weird. I just get a good feeling from — I don’t know — the air”. She believes her dreams (designed album covers from the things) but doesn’t get them analyzed because “I like a little mystery in things.” She’d like to live in a pyramid. She believes in reincarnation — she used to be a monk. But she doesn’t want to talk too much about it because “I think that side of your consciousness is sort of its own thing, and I don’t want to bring that too much into this life. It’s like a quiet inspiration.”

Where were we? Oh, books. She’s also writing an autobiography full of “the love affairs, the heartaches, the tragedies, the incredible happiness” of life with Mac. “It didn’t start out to be anything but my journal — I keep a very formal diary and have been for almost seven years now — but as I became a better typist it became more of a book.

“It’s real intense. It’s a story Taylor Caldwell (author of her favorite romantic novel, Ceremony of the Innocent) should sit down and I should tell it to her and she ought to write it, because it’s that kind of thing. The story itself is as incredible as any story you’ve ever seen in a movie. And you wouldn’t have to make up one thing. It tells exactly what it is.”

And what’s that?

“There’s the wild side to me and the free side. As I get a little older and a little wiser, there’s still the wild side that doesn’t want any discipline whatsoever in her life, and the part of me that knows the only way I can get to people is not to be so terribly out of control, to balance the two.” Hard when you’re in a band like Fleetwood Mac where everything you touch turns platinum.

“But it didn’t! I’ve seen the tides change. I’ve seen the people turn away. I’ve seen people get the wrong impression of five people I love, myself included — because it doesn’t work every time, especially if you’re so confident that it will work.

Once you’ve decided you’ve done the best thing you’ll ever do, you’ll never do something else. It’s truly better to stay at number two because there will always be the hope of doing something more creative and better. When you’re number one, everything goes to the wind and there’s no place to go except down.”

And talking of down, how did it feel to be the Soap Opera of rock (when Heart’s Wilson sisters weren’t trying to grab the titles), what with all the divorces and the like?

“It was like, here we go again. It’s hard to be in a band with somebody and work with them and be in love with them and not get angry at them and go home and not remember that they screamed at you onstage. It’s a rare group of people that can get through that, blissfully in love. Rare. At least Fleetwood Mac stayed together completely, where Heart kind of changed it.

But then you could never fire John. It would be like Fleetwood —,” Stevie pauses. “You can’t fire the Mac!”

And finally, since this is a mag about women in rock, what about it, Stevie?

“Fleetwood Mac couldn’t go onstage without me or Chris. We’ve fought hard to be anything but background singers. I think we would rather quit and do something else than be a background singer. I go back to Janis Joplin — too far back. There aren’t too many women in the rock business I feel any kind of respect for at all. See, people like the Eagles have made me terribly critical too. There’s nothing I’d rather see than a great woman singer come along, one that I could listen to. But there’s not too many.”

Sylvie Simmons / Creem / 1982

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