By Sylvie Simmons
Mojo Magazine (UK)
Living in “heavy obscurity,” Stevie Nicks was a just a humble waitress with a failed debut album to her name. Then she joined Fleetwood Mac. Cue instant superstardom and its attendant lifetime of sex, drug and suspended reality. But what of her biggest regrets? “Curse the day I did cocaine!” She tells Sylvie Simmons…
The living room is dimly lit, cosy. At one end of the floor, propped against a wall, are some paintings—works-in-progress—that could pass as illustrations for children’s books. At the other end is an open fireplace with logs blazing, the California sunset having given way to a chilly ocean breeze. Two tiny dogs, neither much bigger than a hairball, one of them clad in a little pink overcoat, skitter between the stiletto-booted feet of a small woman dressed in a floaty chiffon top and tight black pants, her loose blond hair hanging down to her waist. The expression on her face is unguarded and, as always, a little bit stunned. She looks less like a major rock star who’s one year off turning 60 than someone who just fell out of a little girl’s drawing and hadn’t quite got her bearings yet. She looks, in fact, inarguably and utterly Stevie Nicks-ian.
In 1985, when Nicks was in the Betty Ford Clinic being treated for addiction to cocaine, she was set some homework: to write an essay on the difference between being Stevie Nicks real-life human, and “Stevie Nicks” rock icon. She says it was the hardest thing she’s ever had to do. It prompts a story about going to her fortieth high school reunion last month. One of the group of girls she used to hang with in her teens told her, “You know what? You haven’t changed a bit. You are still our little Stevie girl.” She cried on the way home. “It was the nicest thing anybody had said to me,” she smiles. “That I’m still the same. Because I’ve tried very hard to stay who I was before I joined Fleetwood Mac and not become a very arrogant and obnoxious, conceited bitchy chick, which may do. I think I’ve been really successful.”
She says all of this guilelessly. For someone who’s served nearly 40 years in the crazy world of rock, more than 30 as a major star and indulging in her fair share of the sex and drugs, it’s innocence more than experience that comes across. As her close friend Tom Petty (with whom she completed a five-month US tour as unpaid guest singer in 2006) said of her, affectionately, “It’s like when you’ve got a sister in the family that nobody want to talk about much.” Meaning someone you love but who’s, well, different. “Stevie,” he added, “does not live in the real world.”
She scoffs, “Tom lives in the same world that I do. Because both of us became huge successes very young, we made lots of money, and that changes your life immediately—and those thing change for you, you don’t even try to change them. They take you out of the real world, but they don’t need to change who you are.”
But who exactly is she? Besides being one of the most successful women in rock, juggling two careers—solo and with Fleetwood Mac—for more than three decades, she is also one of the most mythologised. Having made MOJO and herself steaming mugs of Earl Grey tea, Stevie Nicks settles in an armchair by the fire as we prepare to find out.
Stevie Nicks has kept a diary every day since she joined Fleetwood Mac—New Year’s Eve 1974. The rest has been committed to memory; like her performances at age four with her grandfather, A.J. Nicks, an eccentric would-be-country musician who lived in a trailer in the desert. He bought Stevie “a little cowgirl outfit with guns and boots and vest” and took her on-stage with him in Arizona bars. Her parents finally put a stop to it, but “it didn’t stop me singing. I sang all the time—to the radio, to anybody, until we moved to San Francisco and I did my own music.”
The timing was perfect. It was the mid-‘60s; Stevie was in her mid-teens. She was writing songs (her first: I’ve Love And I’ve Lost And I’m Sad But Not Blue) and singing with her girlfriends in Mamas & Papas-type harmony bands. Lindsey Buckingham went to the same high school, and the pair met when she saw him singing California Dreamin’ at a social evening and joined in, uninvited, on harmony. Almost two years later he formed a band, Fritz, remembered her and asked her to join. So by day she studied speech communication at college, by night she sang with Fritz.
The group was no great success. At the urging of producer Keith Olsen, they disbanded and Nicks and Buckingham moved to Los Angeles. Lindsey stayed home and wrote, while Stevie paid the bills working at Burger King, waitressing at restaurants, even cleaning Olsen’s house. The producer helped broker a deal with Polydor, who released their debut, Buckingham Nicks, in 1973. A mellow slice of well-produced California rock, nevertheless it flopped.
Meanwhile, Mick Fleetwood, who’d moved his band to L.A., was shopping for a studio and producer. He met Olsen, who played him Buckingham Nicks as a demonstration of his sound and got the job. Fleetwood was also looking for a guitar player—a regular occurrence, what with the band’s habit of losing them, often in unfortunate circumstances (Bob Welch left citing exhaustion; Danny Kirwan was fired for refusing to go on stage and was later admitted to psychiatric hospital; Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer both left as a result of drug-related trauma and alter joined religious cults). The offer of a job was extended to Buckingham, who agreed, if Stevie could come too.
“I know for a fact I was simply being hired as extra baggage,” says Nicks, today, “that they only wanted Lindsey and couldn’t get him without me. They already had a girl singer [Christine McVie], they didn’t need another one who didn’t really play anything. They’re not going to say, “You stand ou there and be the star and we’ll just play.” But I so wanted to be part of it, I thought I could be their secretary or something, anything, and they understood I felt this way and never made me feel unwanted.”
Quite what McVie made of Stevie in the beginning hardly bears thinking about. Five years older than Nicks, Christine Perfect, as she was before marrying Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie, had a distinguished musical pedigree; classically trained, lead singer and keyboard player on Chicken Shack’s sole Top 10 hit, I’d Rather Go Blind, she’d topped Melody Maker’s Best Female Vocalist poll in 1969, the year before she joined her new husband in Fleetwood Mac.
Stevie nods, “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? But never once did she make me feel like that, never one comment to the effect of, ‘I could really have done without you.’ Because she knew from the beginning that I was real sensitive and that anything she’d say to me would cut like a knife.”
Nicks herself had “no hesitations” about giving up Buckingham-Nicks for Mac. “They were an established band and our album had flopped, we were bankrupt. And when I met them they were very dry and English and I loved them straight away. They didn’t audition us or anything, it was like ‘Right, rehearsal starts in four days.’ Then we started getting paid: $200 a week apiece for four weeks when we were rehearsing, and $400 a week apiece when we actually started recording. Basically, I’d been scraping together to make $300 a month waitressing to pay our rent, our food and our car, and all of a sudden we were making almost $4,000 a month overnight. I was washing hundred dollar bills and hanging them up with clothes pins! As a member of Fleetwood Mac for two weeks, I was still working at the restaurant because I’d given them notice. I didn’t just want to walk in there and say, ‘I’m going to be a famous rock star so I quit and I never liked your food anyway.’ It makes you feel bad later, and I like tying up loose ends. So Fleetwood Mac plucked us straight out of heavy obscurity. It was hysterical how fast it all happened.”
Fleetwood Mac, released in spring 1975, featured three songs Nicks had written, including the hit single Rhiannon, originally planned for the non-existent Buckingham Nicks II. The new line-up’s first album together sold five million copies. It was quite a turnaround, not just for Nicks and Buckingham, but for the band too. Months earlier, Mac had been battling in court to keep their name—their manager had put a bogus Mac on the road after Mick Fleetwood pulled out of a tour, having learned that their guitarist Bob Weston, was having an affair with his wife. Now here they were with their first US Number 1.
They were heady days as Nicks describes them—the excitement of going into the studio, the speed with which they made the album, how thrilled everyone was at how it came out. Lindsey was happy, their relationship was going great. “But by the time we came off the road, which was probably three or four months after the record came out, our relationship was not doing that well.” And by the time they started the follow-up, Rumours, John and Christine McVie were in the same boat. “It wasn’t another woman or another man, it was just the situation. The whole hugeness of it all had really hit everybody very hard. And the biggest thing is Chris and I got a lot attention, because we were the girls, and the boys didn’t like that. They didn’t like it then; they don’t like it now.”
Fleetwood Mac’s “Soap Opera” years, in which the members’ love lives came under constant public scrutiny, would overlap with the “Marie Antoinette” years of excess. Says Stevie, “I went to see that film the other night and it reminded me a lot of myself and the people surrounding me when we first started with Fleetwood Mac. The clothes and the champagne and how young they all were—and it really touched me. Because we were young too and there was a tragedy for all of us also, just in what it did to all of our lives and taking them out of ‘the real world’, as Tom Petty would say.”
Dogged by tension and extravagance and distracted by sex and drugs, Rumours took the best part of a year to record. But the lyrics aside—Christine McVie would later comment that everyone was writing about each other—the cracks didn’t show on the record’s supple ensemble playing and smooth harmonies. This was classic California pop—the band’s British blues element as good as one—featuring songs like Christine’s catchy Don’t Stop and You Make Loving Fun alongside Stevie’s darker cocaine song Gold Dust Woman and the wistful Dreams. Rumours hit Number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming one of the biggest-selling rock albums of all time. And the band, of coruse, went back on the road, with the new ???? of various members variously hating various other members’ guts. So how did someone of Stevie’s famed sensitivity manage?
Mostly because I, like everybody who was in Fleetwood Mac, loved Fleetwood Mac the entity, and nobody wanted to leave. People would be, ‘You leave, I’m not leaving.” Lindsey didn’t want to quit, I didn’t, John didn’t, Chris didn’t and Mick certainly didn’t; he just sat back and watched it. So you went up on-stage and tried to keep your problems off that stage and then went back to separate dressing rooms and hotels and didn’t go to the bar after the show, because you didn’t even want to take a chance of having a run-in in front of people. So we stayed very cloistered, especially Chris and I, because the boys could go out but Chris and I couldn’t, so we hung out together, drank tea and watched movies and stayed away from the rest of the guys.”
It didn’t always work. On-stage in New Zealand once, Buckingham got mad at Nicks… “I think I aws singing through one of his solos or something, and he walked across the stage and kicked me and then went back to his microphone and we just sort of went on with the show. Me being pretty much the ultimate professional, I’m like, OK that didn’t just happen, it was just a joke everybody. Then he threw his guitar at me, wwwosh! I saw it coming and ducked. And he would have killed me if it had hit me; a Les Paul weighs about 30lbs. When the song was over he raced of the stage but Chris was so mad she was at the dressing room two seconds after he got there. And she grabbed him—then the bodyguards came in and dragged us all apart.”
But the show, as they say, had to go on. “Let’s just say he was told by everybody, from tour manager to everybody involved, if you ever throw anything at her or kick her again, the crew will attack you and kill you, so you’d better think about it. It never happened again.” She pauses a moment. The wind is whipping up now; through the large window you can see it bullying the trees hung with fairly lights in her garden. She continues, “But Lindsey and I have had many thing happen on-stage that’s not a long time ago. We have a very hard time with each other, and he has a very hard time with me because he didn’t go after a solo career and I did. He should have and he didn’t and it’s not my fault. But he blames me.”
The idea for Nicks’ solo career was cemented during talks with Eagles manager Irving Azoff while Mac were recording Tusk, reputedly the most expensive rock album ever made. There was plenty of time to set up a label for her records, Modern, during the 13 months Tusk took to make. “That’s a long time to go into one room every day, six days a week, but it happened. And it happened because everybody was so busy doing drugs that nobody was organized, and you do things that you would think were just marvelous and the next day you’d come back in and it wasn’t, so you’d have to do it again.”
Bella Donna, her 1981 solo debut, with its mix of earthy and ethereal (the sexiness of Edge of 17) and After The Glitter Fades; the chiffon delicacy of How Still My Love and After the Rain) was in contrast “very quick, because we rehearsed for months and really knew our stuff when we went into the studio.” “We” being Stevie and the two women who still sing with her, Sharon Celani and Lori Perry, with guest appearances by Tom Petty, Don Felder and members of the Heartbreakers and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. “It only took three months. Then I did 12 shows, about a month and the last show at the Beverly Wilshire Theatre, which is on the DVD, you can kind of see in my face that it was over, and I didn’t really know if I would ever be able to come back to my solo career. I went scurrying back to Fleetwood Mac as fast as I could.” By her own reckoning, her solo career, chronicled on the forthcoming Crystal Visions CD/DVD retrospective, has actually helped Fleetwood Mac to stay together, her sabbaticals allowing the Mac to take a holiday and keep off the punishing album-tour-album treadmill while also providing her with a needed outlet.
“When you’re in a band with three writers and you do a record ever two or three years, and for somebody that writes as much as me that’s not very much.” And she does appear to write all the time—if not songs then poetry, short stories, fairytales, her diary. She refers to that as her “sanity life,” of which, frankly, there didn’t seem a lot in period that led to her going into rehab in 1985: an affair with Mick Fleetwood; a short-lived marriage to Kim Anderson, the widower of her best friend, Robin Anderson, who had died of leukaemia; a coke habit that “ate away my nose. I curse the day I ever did cocaine.”
She says she was the first in the band to go to the Betty Ford Clinic, and possibly one of the first L.A. rock stars. “I don’t know many other people that went because Betty Ford is not Malibu Promises. It’s boot-camp. I adore Betty Ford, the lady, because she saved my life, but her facility is very tough. They couldn’t give a shit that you are a rock star. In 28 days I gave up a 10-year coke habit and I could feel myself just coming back to myself. I also felt, I will never have to come back to rehab for cocaine.
Mention that she later spent 47 days in hospital to treat an eight-year addiction to prescription tranquillisers, and it’s the only time MOJO sees her bristle. After Betty Ford’s everyone encouraged her to join Narc Anon or at least see a doctor. When she finally gave in, the man she chose turned out, she claims, to be a “rock star groupie”. “I can forgive all the miserable cocaine dealers because they were completely screwed up and trying to get enough money to buy food, but this guy was rick and had no reason except that he wanted to keep me coming to his office a couple of times and tell him about what was going on in Hollywood. And I’m lucky to be sitting here today. I could have OD’ed on anything, being that bleary. I could have been Anna Nicole Smith! I don’t hate anyone, but I hate him.”
Hate is not a word that surfaces very often during a conversation with Nicks. She admits the simmering tension that exists between Buckingham and herself, but there appear to be no hard feelings towards ex-lover Mick Fleetwood. An argument over her decision to use her song Silver Springs on her 191 solo retrospective Timespace, and not, as he wanted, on Fleetwood Mac retrospective The Chain, blew over…but then, both were massive sellers. In fact, Stevie’s initial Best Of featured a new song, Desert Angel, dedicated to the American military serving in Operation Desert Storm, which resulted in another turning point in her life.
In 2004, a Washington DC Army hospital approached her to ask if she’d be willing to make personal visits to the bedsides of young veterans injured in the war on Iraq. Stevie’s eyes light up when she talks about it. She’s set up a fund, she says, and planned her whole solo tour around being able to go back as often as she can. Wasn’t she nervous about getting so closely involved—after all, didn’t she once attract a stalker who was convinced she could cure him of homosexuality with mystical spells? She looks puzzled. “I’ve never heard that one. But you know people keep the really weird stuff away from me, so a lot of that stuff I don’t really hear.”
Yet she seems aware enough, in general, of the myths that surround her, of people’s fantasies of who “Stevie Nicks” is. If in the past she might have played into those fantasies of the ethereal Californian pop enchantress, you sense there are limits now. She declares, for instance, that she “won’t have a face lift”. “The idea of looking like a caricature of myself is horrible,” she winces. “I feel that if you stay animated from within, that people don’t see the age, so I try to forget about it. I deal with it by just being me.” And she has been used to being “me” for quite some time, her short-lived marriage aside, she says she “never had children [because] I didn’t want to compromise my art.”
As a parting shot, she also admits to being happy as a workaholic. “I do have this crazy world where I pretty much continually work all the time,” she smiles. “I can break real easily if I don’t get back a little bit of the love that I try to put out but I’m happiest when I’m working. The other stuff I try to laugh about. Sometimes I’ll wake up and I’ll go, So what is going on in the fabulous life of Stevie Nicks today? And when I do find myself getting tired or complaining, I get really mad at myself and say, You have no right to complain, Stevie. You’re a lucky, lucky girl.”
Crystal Visions: The Very Best of Stevie Nicks (Warner Bros CD & DVD) is out in the UK on September 24.
A Tonic for the Troops
In 2004, a US military hospital invited Stevie Nicks to visit its woulded young soldiers. She’s been going ever since. Here she explains why.
“We were playing Washington DC and my manager said Walter Reed Army Medical had asked if I would like to visit. What could I say? I was there from two in the afternoon until almost one o’clock that night. Basically you go in—and believe me, I never thought that this would be anything I would ever do—and you put on a gown and gloves and they say, Well this guy’s name is John Jones and he was injured in a blast and lost both legs. He’s had bad day, but he’s very excited to see you. You go in and I just say, My name’s Stevie Nicks, what happened? Because they would like to talk about it. I don’t sing to them, just talk. And then the USO comes in and takes a Polaroid and then it’s on to the next room and, This girl, Amanda, who was in a blast and lost one leg and a hand, and you just suck it all up and sit and talk to Amanda for 15 minutes. You don’t even have time for a cup of coffee, you just keep going—and when I walked out of that hospital after having seen about 40 guys and girls who’ve lost arms and legs, I was so completely blown away by it all and by how these kids’ lives would never be the same.”
“So I said, I’m going to have to do something about this. I have to do something for them. I thought, maybe I can buy gym equipment for their physical therapy, and then I had an idea. I could take them music. I could give them iPods and fill them up with songs from all different artists and I can take them music. So I called everybody I knew and said I’m starting a foundation and I’m going back in two months, and that’s how my Stevie Nicks Solder’s Angel Foundation started.”
“I’m very, very dedicated to this. I’m not a mother, but I feel incredibly motherly to all these kids—they are so young, 18, 20, 22, and a lot of them are there for anywhere between a year and 18 months—and they love the music. I sign everything—the iPods, the box they come in, the T-shirts we take them. A lot of my girlfriends have started doing this with me and we have bags of popcorn and a movie, so it’s fun. They’ve just built a place in San Antonio, Texas, specifically for amputees and burn victims, and so I’m going there—in fact I’ve planned my whole tour around it so I can hub out of San Antonio and go there and figure what they need.”
“I’m so happy that that one time they invited me to go I actually went, because I feel like it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Pictures from the Sept 2007 edition of the popular UK music magazine
Thanks to trackaghost for providing the original scans and for Daniel from Stevie Nicks INFO for allowing the text to be added to this site