After a fall from rock stardom, daring to embrace once again
The miniature cheesecake sat in front of Stevie Nicks like a cruel temptation, crowned with a glaze of mandarin oranges and skirted with puddles of chocolate sauce. She took a bite, just to test it. Then she put down her fork, deciding the pleasure was not worth the penance.
“I’ll eat a dessert if it’s really good,” Ms. Nicks said as the light from several candles in her suite at the Ritz-Carlton here flickered across her face, still made up from the concert that had ended two hours before, at 11 P.M. “But I won’t waste a carbohydrate unless it’s killer.”
This is the vow of a woman who was 30 pounds heavier just last year. It is also a clue that Ms. Nicks knows something about indulgence, and about paying the price for it.
Touring incessantly in the 1970’s and 80’s as a lead singer in the rock supergroup Fleetwood Mac, then as a solo act, she snorted enough cocaine, she says, to burn a permanent hole in her nose. She took inadequate care of her raspy voice, which on some nights lost its muscle, embarrassing her onstage.
And she occasionally seemed to be twirling toward oblivion, a casualty not merely of excess but also of a persona that was wearing thin, of so much chiffon and so many balletic dance spins that she verged on self-parody. Some comedians mocked her. Many critics savaged her.
But time, tastes and entertainment careers work in ways as mysterious as the lyrics to some of Ms. Nicks’s songs, and suddenly, at the age of 49, she is enjoying a rock-and-roll renaissance.
Fleetwood Mac’s reunion tour, which goes to Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving night, has sold out dozens of large venues across the country over the last two months. The group’s current album, The Dance, which was made from live performances in May featuring old hits and a few new songs, has been a fixture at or near the top of the Billboard charts since August.
And the first single released from it, “Silver Springs,” was ineluctable on MTV, VHI and many FM radio stations until a few weeks ago. Ms. Nicks wrote this haunting romantic dirge, which also features some of the most stirring singing she has ever done. One newspaper critic raved that it “inspired shivers.”
But Ms. Nicks is encountering more than just renewed favor. Nearly a quarter-century since she joined Fleetwood Mac and 20 years since its seminal collection of songs, Rumours, became one of the highest-selling albums of all time, Ms. Nicks is finding a new level of recognition as one of the more influential women in modern rock.
Isaac Mizrahi and Anna Sui, the fashion designers, recognized her witchy wardrobes of black gossamer and velvet, gargantuan boots and glittering beads as inspirations behind collections they put together over the last year. Her name also pops up regularly in reviews of some younger artists like Tori Amos and Jewel, who share either her penchant for opaque lyrics or idiosyncratic vocal shadings.
And a new generation of rock musicians, from Courtney Love to Billy Corgan, the lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins, are doing cover versions of Ms. Nicks’s songs and publicly acknowledging a debt to her.
“She had a huge effect on everybody, whether they admit it or not,” said Ms. Love, who paid tribute to Ms. Nicks in an interview she conducted with her in the October issue of Spin magazine.
Ms. Love said Ms. Nicks’s unwavering adherence to a highly personal, deeply feminine songwriting and performing style at a time when men almost completely ruled rock was “pretty subversive.”
“Any girl who takes the stage with total individuality is influenced by Stevie,” Ms. Love said. “She was a huge influence on me.”
Ms. Nicks says she is well aware of such sentiments and is tremendously moved by them. In fact, she says, she appreciates everything about her long career more than ever before, and she tends it with newfound attention and diligence.
If her singing on the new album and tour is stronger than in the past, it is because she quit smoking on Jan. 1 and does 40 minutes of vocal calisthenics several hours before every concert.
“I’ve never done that in my whole life, ever,” Ms. Nicks said in a speaking voice much like her singing voice: at once coarse and tender, bitter and sweet. “I’ve never taken voice lessons. I did not know that you could be totally hoarse and have almost complete laryngitis and work with a really good vocal coach for an hour in the afternoon, so your voice has time to settle, and you can sing like a bird.”
Ms. Nicks says she is also sober, having quit cocaine around 1986. And two years ago, she had eye surgery to correct vision problems that she says were responsible for occasional stumbles onstage.
“I’m old enough and mature enough and — if you want to be mystical about it — ancient enough in my wisdom to take a little better care of everything: my emotions, my body,” she said. “Because I care now. I’m not going to miss out on anything in the next 20 years like I missed out on things in the last 20.”
Ms. Nicks’s down-to-earth honesty and warm, slightly sassy laugh during the course of an early-morning snack, which consisted of a cup of coffee and the warily eyed, barely grazed cheesecake, were surprising, given her reputation for ethereal poses and metaphysical musings.
But in other ways, she conformed perfectly to expectations. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of Ms. Nicks’s current popularity is that she has achieved it not by reinventing herself but by reinvigorating the time-tested model, dusting it off for another dizzy whirl through the limelight.
Sitting at a table in the dining area of her suite, she wore a black chiffon skirt and a black velvet jacket, holdovers not only from the just-finished concert but also from the distant past.
The suite itself had been given subtle aspects of a high priestess’s lair, with candles placed here and there, a scarf spread over one lamp and the harsh bulbs in two others replaced by softer, redder, moodier lights.
A certain sense of spooky poetry was always at the core of Ms. Nicks’s appeal.
In popular Fleetwood Mac hits and fan favorites like “Rhiannon,” “Gold Dust Woman” and “Sisters of the Moon,” she wrote and sang of magical, charismatic, tortured women like the one she pantomimed onstage.
It made her a superstar, a commercial force as potent in the late 1970’s and early 80’s as Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston now. The songs she contributed to Fleetwood Mac, from “Dreams” to “Sara” to “Gypsy,” were powerful engines behind the group’s multi-platinum albums.
But Ms. Nicks also had her part in the group’s romantic fractiousness.
The songs on Rumours, many of which are resurrected on The Dance, chronicle her breakup with Lindsey Buckingham, the band’s lead guitarist and male vocalist, and the pianist-singer Christine McVie’s divorce from the bassist John McVie. Subsequently, Ms. Nicks had an affair with the band’s drummer, Mick Fleetwood.
Ms. Nicks began making her own records before the Rumours lineup of Fleetwood Mac finally dissolved in 1987, juggling a solo career and membership in the band for many years. Her first three solo albums, Bella Donna, The Wild Heart and Rock a Little, sold millions of copies.
Her image, moreover, was indelible, perhaps best exemplified by an annual event at Mother, a Greenwich Village night club where hundreds of people from all over the country come every spring to pay homage to Ms. Nicks, many of the men donning Nicks-ian drag. It is called “Night of a Thousand Stevies.”
But somewhere along the way, the mixture of reverence and ridicule with which Ms. Nicks was always treated began to tip in the direction of the latter.
As her voice moved from her head and throat to her chest, it sometimes got stuck in awkward places in between. In the early 90’s, she also battled the herpes-related Epstein-Barr virus, which dragged down her performances during a tour to promote her fourth solo album, The Other Side of the Mirror.
Her most recent solo album, Street Angel, released in 1994, sold poorly, and its accompanying tour subjected Ms. Nicks to the humiliation of appearing onstage in a zaftig form that shocked fans.
“It was a horrible, horrible thing for me,” she says, her voice dropping to a pained whisper. “I said, ‘I will not go onstage ever again if I don’t lose this weight.'”
With the help of Dr. Robert Atkins’s famous low-carbohydrate diet, she did. “I just made a decision,” she says, “that I was going to be healthy and I was going to enjoy my life and I was going to enjoy my singing and I was going to enjoy how incredibly lucky I am to have been in a big, huge rock-and-roll band and been very successful and have songs that people loved and that they recite at their graduations and their funerals and their bar mitzvahs and their baby showers.”
“Silver Springs” could become another of those classics. A studio version was originally recorded two decades ago for Rumours, but the other members of Fleetwood Mac decided it was too long and cut it from the album. It was consigned to the B side of a single and rare appearances on a handful of radio stations.
But when the band members began rehearsals this year for the limited series of concerts to be recorded and assembled into The Dance, they decided to revisit “Silver Springs.” Ms. Nicks, singing in a craggier but more powerful style, transmogrified this tale of estranged lovers from a wistful lament into an anguished reproach.
“Her voice is amazing,” said Mr. Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. “It’s matured into something almost as beautiful as it was when she was young. It’s different, but just as distinct.” Mr. Corgan, 30, met Ms. Nicks about a year ago, has become friendly with her and says he hopes to work with her on her next record. “I think she’s so ready to re-emerge as a completely vital artist,” he said. “It’s like she told me: ‘I feel like I’m coming out of a fog.'”
Among the things Ms. Nicks says she sees more clearly now is the importance of family. She spends much of her time in her house in the Phoenix area, where her parents, younger brother, his wife and their daughter live. Ms. Nicks never had any children and says she is single for now, and maybe for a while. Music is once again absorbing her attention, and giving her back what comfort she needs.
That was obvious when she paused before leaving the stage of the Lakewood Ampitheater in Atlanta to thank fans for staying faithful and coming to the show. “It matters,” she told them, “more than you’ll ever know.”
Frank Bruni / New York Times / November 25, 1997