Since she first exploded on the rock scene in 1975 as the seductive focal point of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks has been as much an enigma as a consistent platinum-selling act.
WHILE HER star may not be as high in the black night sky as it was in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Stevie Nicks’ career has spanned three decades — twenty years (including eight platinum albums) with Fleetwood Mac and five multi-platinum solo albums — with her latest, Street Angel, likely to follow suit. In short, the lady still commands respect.
Now, five years after her last solo album — the rather lackluster The Other Side of The Mirror — the 46-year-old Nicks has returned to her roots. A sparkling album, Street Angel, harkens back to her Number One solo debut, Bella Donna, and even more so to her days as rock’s reigning queen at a time when her former band, Fleetwood Mac, was the biggest act in the music world.
Recovering from recent eye surgery to correct her lifelong poor vision, we spoke with Nicks from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, where she has been since the infamous Northridge quake earlier this year.
While Nicks may have kept busy with a greatest hits album (Time Space), two solo tours, one Fleetwood Mac album (Behind the Mask), as well as a Mac tour over the past half decade, the somewhat reclusive superstar agrees that with such a long period between albums, it was time to speak up with the release of Street Angel.
However, she did make clear that there are certain things she never wants to share with her public. “I usually don’t do a lot of press, but with this record I figured that it would only be to my benefit to talk about it a little bit. But I don’t really like people knowing everything about me. I like being a mystery, and I even think I’m pretty mysterious to the people who know me really well.
“There is a part of me that isn’t available to the public, except in my songs. When I’m writing I really do strive to be totally honest. I never make up a song. They either come right from my journals or straight out of my head because of something that is happening. It’s always been important to me that people think of me as more than just a ‘tune-sayer’.”
The obvious difference between Street Angel and her more recent solo projects is the abandonment of a synthesizer-based sound in favor of the more guitar-oriented influences of her past.
“I think it has a lot to do with what you start out with,” states Nicks in a girlish voice which moves in a machine gun rhythm at times. “On The Other Side of the Mirror, I started out with Rupert Hines, who is an amazing keyboard player, so that whole album sort of went the way of the airy, surreal keyboard and synthesizer thing. It was like being in the twilight zone at times [laughs]. This album was started with [former Eagle] Bernie Leadon and Andy Fairweather Low. So I had two acoustic guitar players and myself for two months at my house in Los Angeles, playing all the songs that I showed them, which was many more than the thirteen on the record.”
“The ones that ended up on the album started to show themselves,” continues Nicks. “We were sitting in my English Tudor-style library playing my songs and it was almost like we were preparing to go out on the road as a Kingston Trio kind of act, where we would go out and play little clubs and set up the equipment ourselves [laughs]. So this album just started out from a guitarist’s point of view, as opposed to piano or synthesizers.”
For her part, Nicks hasn’t made any final assessment about the album, saying, “I think it’s too soon for me to make a judgment, but I think it’s a great driving album.”
While she has spent the last twenty years in the often-blinding media spotlight, little is known of Nicks’ formative years when she lived like the gypsy that she would sing about decades later, and something which obviously set the pace for her professional life.
Born in Phoenix, Nicks’ family moved to Los Angeles (her other hometown) before popping into a succession of cities due to her father’s successful executive career. The cities flew by like the pages of a calendar — first there was Albuquerque, New Mexico, then El Paso, Texas, and Salt Lake City, Utah. The clan headed back to Los Angeles for Stevie’s first three years of high school, before heading north to San Francisco for her final year of high school.
“It was my senior year, which is a really rotten time to have to move into a new school,” recalls Nicks. “You couldn’t try out for cheerleader. You couldn’t try out for song leader. You couldn’t try out for flag twirler. You couldn’t do anything because they had all tried out the previous year. So I was totally crushed because that was my dream at that point.”
While Nicks’ voice seems to carry a twinge of childhood regret, it’s hard to imagine what would have happened if she had been twirling flags on the gridiron, instead of crossing paths with another flower child of the Sixties, Lindsey Buckingham, during the summer of 1966.
“I met Lindsey at the end of my senior year,” explains Nicks. “We were at a party and Lindsey and I sang ‘California Dreamin’ together that night.”
However, it wasn’t until two years later in 1968, when the twenty-year-old hippie girl would speak with Buckingham again, this time it was over the phone as her future love interest asked her to join his band Fritz. “I had never sang rock before,” admits Nicks, “and I certainly had never been in a rock band, but I thought, ‘Why not?’ So I ended up being in that band with Lindsey for three and a half years. We practiced every day, and we played some really big shows.”
Those early years with Fritz turned out to be perfect training for the future, but Nicks admits that she had no idea of it at the time. “I don’t think I would have ever been able to just walk into Fleetwood Mac and been cool about being center front stage if it hadn’t been for those three and a half years in Fritz. I would have been totally nervous and ‘stage-frighted-out.’ But Fritz was like an incredible amount of preparation experience, which I didn’t really know was preparation at that point.”
Like many unsigned bands, it was the very goal of being discovered which ultimately led to the demise of Fritz, as Nicks and Buckingham got a quick lesson into the ways of the music business. “This producer named Keith Olsen [who would go on to work with Fleetwood Mac and Nicks during her solo years] invited the band down to L.A. to do some recording, but it was very obvious that everybody wanted to break Lindsey and I away from the rest of the guys in the band.”
In fact, Nicks now says that it was the dissolution of the band that brought the musical partners into a more personal relationship. “It was the guilt that drove us together,” Nicks says with a laugh. “That’s why Lindsey and I started going out. We just felt so bad because everyone in Los Angeles was trying to kill our band. I mean, after three and a half years together, these guys were our best pals in the world and they were just being shut out, and it was very obvious.”
With the other Fritz members gone, Buckingham/Nicks made their first and only album. While this self-titled cult classic has grown to become one of the most in-demand vinyl albums, it was anything but a commercial success at the time of its 1973 release.
As for the possibility of the album ever coming out on CD, Nicks points an accusatory finger at her former partner. “If Lindsey would just call me back, we would release the album because there are a lot of labels, including Atlantic, who are very interested in it. But Lindsey has just been incommunicado lately, and if he doesn’t call me back soon I’m going to put a huge ad in Billboard that says, ‘Lindsey Buckingham is the reason that Buckingham/Nicks hasn’t been released on CD,’ because it’s all him. So sign the petition because I’m doing what I can.”
As their debut album basically flopped, the two struggling musicians had no indication of the stardom that was just around the corner. In fact, Nicks was working as a waitress in Hollywood, while Buckingham worked on the music at their apartment near Canter’s Restaurant on Fairfax in the heart of Tinsel Town.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, as Buckingham and Nicks struggled through this period of shattered dreams, an English blues drummer by the name of Mick Fleetwood happened to be visiting Sound City Studios at the tail-end of 1974.
Fleetwood was searching for studios to record what would be Fleetwood Mac’s next album, while at the same time searching for a new guitarist to replace the recently departed Mac guitarist/vocalist Bob Welch.
During his trip to Sound City, producer Keith Olsen wanted to show Fleetwood the sounds that the studio was capable of producing, so he grabbed a tape that happened to be laying on the console and turned it up.
The song that came on was the seven-minute epic “Frozen Love” from the Buckingham/Nicks album. Fleetwood was instantly grabbed by the guitarist on the tape and inquired as to who it was. Olsen explained that the guitar player was part of a duo, who probably wouldn’t leave his musical partner, who also happened to be his girlfriend.
Not to be dissuaded, Fleetwood made the call anyway. Nicks picks up the story from here: “We got a call from Mick on New Year’s Eve night of 1974 going into ‘75, asking us to join Fleetwood Mac. At that time, Lindsey and I were really poor, I mean, we were like really starving. We were totally disillusioned, we were both miserable, totally unhappy with each other and the world in general, and I told Lindsey that I thought we should do anything that was going to raise our lifestyle, and he agreed.”
Ironically, Nicks had no idea who or what Fleetwood Mac was at the time. “I went down to the record store that night and bought every Fleetwood Mac album and we listened to all of them from front to back. I was looking to see if there was something that I could add to this band, and I felt that there was a kind of mystical thing throughout the band’s history from Peter Green’s bluesy guitar to Bob Welch’s “Bermuda Triangle” to Christine’s sort of ‘airy-fairy’ voice, and I thought that it might work. Of course, they didn’t need another singer, they needed a guitar player, but they couldn’t get Lindsey without me, so they had to take us both.”
As the band hit the road for an extensive tour behind Fleetwood Mac (which, unofficially, became known as the band’s White Album), their powerhouse performances brought more converts to the band, with the charismatic and mysterious singer with the strange little voice quickly becoming the center of attention, as the album eventually topped the charts fueled by the Top Ten single “Rhiannon.”
However, success didn’t come easily, as a series of internal breakups threatened to destroy the band before it had a chance to discover its full potential. First, the marriage of bassist John McVie and keyboardist/vocalist Christine McVie dissolved, as did drummer Mick Fleetwood’s marriage and finally Nicks’ long-term relationship with Buckingham.
As Nicks explains, it was anything but a walk in the park during the making of their classic album Rumours in 1976. “In a normal situation, you don’t break up with someone and then see them the next day for breakfast. But within Fleetwood Mac, you saw that person the next day, so the sarcasm level went way up and the little digs got to be thousands a day, and people would just slam out of the studio.”
Then, Nicks adds this obvious aside, “Great tragedy definitely led to great art. You had five people who were very high strung and over the edge really easy. Everybody was really screwed up, but we got the greatest rock & roll soap opera out of it.”
The result of this personal turmoil was an album that would spend an incredible 31 consecutive weeks at the top of the charts. In the process, Rumours became the biggest-selling album in history at the time with more than 20 million copies sold to date.
Following the seemingly endless touring that helped propel Rumours into the record books, the band returned to the studio for work on their Sgt. Pepper-like opus, simply entitled Tusk.
The recording took longer than the previous two albums combined, as Buckingham’s creativity took on a meticulous, almost scientific approach, something that didn’t exactly endear him to the rest of the members.
Yet, a steady diet of booze and Peruvian Marching Powder enabled the group to get through it and may go a long way in explaining the double album’s somewhat scattered focus.
“Tusk took thirteen months to make, and you had to be there every day,” Nicks says without a hint of exaggeration. “There was no calling in sick, you were there from two in the afternoon straight through to seven the next morning, and sometimes we didn’t even go home. It was really intense, and it probably was as nuts as we got. The only thing that Fleetwood Mac ever did in abundance was a lot of cocaine and a lot of drinking, and luckily we never did anything else.”
Nicks goes on to say that the pressures of following up two consecutive Number One albums, along with the band’s notoriously intense touring schedule, led to a lengthy ride in the fast lane. “Everybody was so tired all the time and really haggard. That’s why cocaine was so much a part of our lives; we were just too tired every day to go on. We had commitments here and commitments there, and the record company barking down our backs, asking why the album was taking so damn long. To this day, I don’t even know what Tusk was; it was just this intense thing. It’s a great story to tell but it wasn’t much fun to live.”
Following another extensive worldwide tour behind the multi-platinum Tusk, which failed to top the charts like its two predecessors, Nicks began to look seriously at a solo career. After five years with Fleetwood Mac, Nicks had amassed a large backlog of material and presumably an equal amount of artistic frustration, which became obvious when the down-to-earth singer explained the reasons behind the launching of her hugely successful solo career.
“I realized that two or three songs every two to three years wasn’t enough for me,” states Nicks. “Not only was it just two to three songs, it usually wasn’t even my favorite two to three songs. The band would hear fifteen to twenty of my songs when we’d do a Fleetwood Mac album, and they’d invariably pick out the two songs that were my least favorite. So my favorite songs would never get used.”
Nicks goes on to say, “By the time I got to Bella Donna, I had tons of songs that I really loved, and nobody was ever going to hear them. It was like I was working for nothing. That’s absolutely why I decided to do Bella Donna; to look for other avenues outside of Fleetwood Mac.”
What that solo debut did was show that Stevie Nicks was not some sort of Lindsey Buckingham puppet, as the album topped the charts in 1981 on the strength of three Top Ten hits — “Leather And Lace,” “Edge Of Seventeen” and the Tom Petty-penned “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”
Returning to the Fleetwood Mac fold a year later, Nicks began to feel the strain of balancing her solo career with the band that made her famous.
“I had to give up everything to be in Fleetwood Mac for more than fifteen years, and that’s not a lie, that’s really true. You couldn’t have any kind of a normal life to do what I’ve been doing all these years.”
Nicks goes on to cite the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. “The reason I finally left Fleetwood Mac was that having to go back-and-forth, and back-and-forth got to be too much. This is the first time that I won’t have to go back-and-forth. It was always a pain. I made it work but it really took its toll on me because when Fleetwood Mac got to go to Hawaii for two months and rest, I had to go in the studio for my own thing. Then to take some time off, I had to go back in the studio with Fleetwood Mac. This will be the first time in fifteen years that I haven’t had two demanding jobs.”
Having officially quit Fleetwood Mac after their much-publicized performance at the Clinton inauguration, Nicks seems more than a little enthusiastic at the prospects of the future. “I’m totally excited about this because I don’t have to be dreading the fact that I have a whole other job to go home to.”
In the meantime, it’s nice to know that Stevie Nicks has returned with arguably her finest album ever, and is set to hit the stage in the coming month and embark on a whole new chapter of her solo career.
© Steven P Wheeler / Music Connection / July 1994