Houston, Texas — It had been building toward this all day. First, Stevie Nicks’ personal assistant and then her road manager had issued the warning: Don’t ask Stevie about her personal life, or else.
Now the lady herself was making it perfectly clear. If I strayed into that sanctified area, that would be it. She would walk out of the sitting room in her Houston hotel suite. And I would be left staring into the dismayed faces of assorted band members and friends.
As a prelude to Stevie’s Compton Terrace show next Sunday, photographer Sean Brady and I had flown 1,000 miles and waited a day for this meeting. Already a request to photograph during the interview had been turned down. The pact had to be made.
Besides, in a way, this emotional start to the interview cleared the air. I had accepted all along that Stevie had a right to answer “no comment” to any given question. What was contested was my right to ask the question. Here, unmistakably, was a “no comment” issued before I had even had a chance to ask the question.
“No one knows how I feel, what I say, unless you read between my lines,” Stevie confides in her current single “Stand Back.” Interviews can be the same way. Most of us prize privacy. However, a songwriter who makes a living translating personal experiences into public works of art has to live with ill-defined boundaries.
Reading between the lines written by this part Joan of Arc/part Alice in Wonderland is indeed a tricky business. Just as a symbol might lose its potency if analyzed, so Stevie Nicks seems to function best when harsh realities are cloaked in the wings of white doves and other favored images.
This perspective is brutally at odds with the needs of interviewers, but evidently exercises a mesmeric influence on some of her fans. (Just read the personal columns of the New Times, for instance, to appreciate the impact of Nicks songs like “Bella Donna” or “Rhiannon.”
Make no mistake, her mystical, authoritative persona has considerable power and flexibility. Thus, she can elevate her friend Robin Anderson, who died of leukemia, to the status of sage and martyr, while Robin’s widower, whom Stevie subsequently married, suddenly becomes a non-subject as media stories circulate about the marriage’s apparent difficulties.
After putting her personal life out of bounds, Stevie continued our Houston encounter by disowning a recent segment on TV’s Entertainment Tonight show in which she appeared to be mourning the end of that marriage. Generic comments about the difficulty of maintaining a rock ‘n’ roll marriage were misapplied to her own situation, she said.
If Stevie presents a more hard-bitten face to the world nowadays, it is no wonder. She acknowledges the change. In fact, as she talked about it, her voice trembled slightly. As I recall, that was the only falter in an otherwise obdurate stance.
“Well,” she began, “if I continue to be the same mealy-mouthed little person that I have been up until now I will never get anywhere in this world and I will have nothing. So a little bit of me is a little tiny bit harder. It has to be for me to survive in this world. Everybody else makes it that way for me.”
Presumably, most performers go into a benefit concert with some kind of commitment. Stevie’s conviction toward the September 25 fund-raiser for The City of Hope and The American Heart Association goes beyond that. Her family has a history of heart disease, while The City of Hope nursed Robin through her final months.
“It’s the only friendship that I’ve ever had or…well, I’m not going to say ever will have,” Nicks said wistfully. “We just started out together at 15 years old. She kind of walked me through life. And, as I questioned would there be life after Fleetwood Mac, I certainly questioned would there be life after Robin. Then I found that there is life after Robin, except that it’s not the same, not near as special. There’s a spirit gone, and that’s why I’m really dedicated to this leukemia (benefit). That’s why I will do anything I have to do to make as much money to get rid of this disease as I can because I would really never want anyone to experience losing someone as beautiful as her in this horrible way.”
Can you be more specific about what she contributed to your life?
“She taught me how to sing. She taught me how to use my voice. She made very sure before she left this planet that I was all right, that my voice was all right. I don’t have problems with my voice now, but I did and it took us years to fix it. Robin was one of those people (who) when she walked in the room everybody looked. She was breathtaking, and that’s why it’s so wild that she could possibly have died. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.”
The discovery that Robin was dying of leukemia was sudden, Nicks recalls. Robin called on a Wednesday, early last year, to say she was sick. Two days later she called back to say she had been given two months to live. With help from The City of Hope, a Duarte, California, institute specializing in catastrophic diseases, she eventually stretched out her life for a year.
Ironically, while Robin’s reaction to the news was that it would give her time to do some writing, Stevie used it as a catalyst for drawing and painting. “I needed to find some way of being there with her, even though I couldn’t be there. And I just sat down one day. (Producer) Jimmy Iovine went out and bought some stupid little kindergarten paints and some paper, and I started drawing this pyramid which ended up to be the first painting that I did. I would go back into a burning building to get my paintings.”
When the benefit concert was first announced, Nicks was also asked about her then unreleased album, The Wild Heart. She called it her masterpiece, and it is not hard to see the appeal for her of this metaphor for unbridled emotion helpless on the tide of destiny. Don’t blame it on me, baby/Blame it on my wild heart.
Not all reviewers have been so kind, some making unfavorable comparisons with the album’s predecessor, her first solo album, Bella Donna. Rolling Stone reviewer Christopher Connelly attacked The Wild Heart‘s “incoherent ramblings.”
“It’s Bella Donna grown up,” Nicks still insists. She says she doesn’t read reviews. Someone must do it for her though, because she knew enough about Connelly’s review to mention it by name. “I don’t care,” she continued. “I just care about the kids, and they like it, and I like them and they like me. (Reviews) put me through a lot of grief. I mean, I don’t forget it for weeks. I don’t like to see scary movies, either, because I walk around with them for weeks.”
Band members and friends drifted casually into the room in ones and twos, as Stevie huddled into her chair and dutifully addressed the questions. What does The Wild Heart album represent to her? Is there an overall feel?
“Freedom,” she promptly replied. “It sets me free. It sets me free from Fleetwood Mac. It sets me free from Stevie Nicks. It sets me free from the person who drives me. You always have to please somebody. It is letting me go. I’m all right. This is two records now. So the first record wasn’t just a fluke accident. And I can go and write and dance and do children’s stories and do whatever I want now and no one is going to be saying to me: ‘You still aren’t a proven solo artist.'”
Even though her songs may not be made public in the same order they were written, she says her albums represent personal eras. Bella Donna, for instance, has associations with Scottsdale, where she lived when she was writing several of the songs on that album. Eventually, she had to sell her house because, quite simply, she couldn’t spend enough time there. Now she rents a house in Los Angeles and lives the life of the road.
“Every song I write is a story of my life. If I approach writing at all, that’s how I approach it. As I write down each new experience, I get better at telling a story. All of my songs are in eras, where I’ll write three or four songs in a four-month period and they’re definitely their own thing. Then I’ll dance or I’ll draw or I’ll do something else for a month or two. Then I’ll come back and get an idea for a song and that will be off on a whole new three- or four-month period. I’m already thinking about the next album. We’re already about seven songs into it. And it’s very different from Wild Heart.
“It’s called “Rock ‘n’ Roll”. I wrote this song about three years ago. I lived on the beach, and this song is about the fact that the beach was always shaking and I always thought it was an earthquake. So I had to learn to know not to pack my bags and run out the back.
“It’s real rock ‘n’ roll, and was written before Wild Heart. It was really written right along with Bella Donna. But I knew the second I wrote “Rock ‘n’ Roll” that it would be the next record after Wild Heart.
What are your options now? Sooner or later will you say goodbye to rock ‘n’ roll?
“That’s probably why I’m working on this painting and my book (of children’s stories). I think what I’ll do is I’ll gracefully slip out of it and nobody will really know.”
Is there anything Fleetwood Mac can give you now that you don’t have as a soloist?
Stevie’s whispered remark quickly turns into a laugh.
“I love them so much they drive me crazy. Eight years together — you can’t rip that out of your heart. There’s no way. It’s a part of you.”
Apparently, Fleetwood Mac exists without really trying. Whatever is in store for the group lies way beyond Stevie Nicks’ current tour.
Is there a competitive element between the members of Fleetwood Mac?
“I don’t think there’s ever been a competitive element between any members except for Lindsey (Buckingham) and me, and that started way before Fleetwood Mac and goes right on to this day and will go on till we die. That’s just the way we are — Mr. and Mrs. Intense.”
Your own family has a history of heart disease. Does that frighten you?
“No, because I have a prolapsed heart valve, too, just like my mom and (brother) Christopher. My heart just pounds away all the time, and I figure it’s just going to do what it does. I’m the same as my dad: If I have to worry about that there’s no reason for me to be here. So I don’t. I try to take good care of myself. I’m really having to change my life, and I am doing it and loving it, because for the first time in my whole life I have actually said I’m going to exercise. I feel younger than I have ever felt. So I’m really excited.
The previous night Stevie had generated some of that excitement at Houston’s circa-20,000 seat Summit arena. The transition from Fleetwood Mac to solo status has brought a corresponding increase in presence. She alone is overseer to the chemistry on stage. Now, as before, her magic depends as much on atmosphere as physical stimulation.
One is drawn in by those half-understood images and expressions of mourning, defiance and fatalism. She is a character actress who, in her only role, finds insight through suffering.
At her side, guitarist Waddy Wachtel’s bold fills and animated bounds provided necessary fire. Bassist Jerry Seay (formerly of Mother’s Finest) seemed a little intimidated by this partnership, while on the platform behind them much of the musical ballast came from Roy Bittan, piano; Liberty DeVito, drums; Benmont Tench, keyboards, and Bobbye Hall, percussion.
Nicks interacted closely with her backing singers, Lori Perry, Sharon Celani, and Carol Brooks. She seemed relieved to have that female presence there.
Romantic clothes — long dress and shawl — were the expected Nicks apparel. Not anticipated was Stevie’s drift away from the ephemeral ballet steps of previous tours toward bolder choreography. There was much stamping of the feet and frenetic head shaking.
In Houston, as at Compton Terrace, Joe Walsh was on the bill, too. He provided an interesting contrast: abrasive rock and devil-may-care attitude. If Walsh offers himself as a presidential candidate, don’t be surprised.
Andrew Means / Arizona Republic / September 18, 1983