Sunday 26th Oct 2015
Cocaine, affairs, reckless spending – Mick Fleetwood was the epitome of the rock ’n’ roll egomaniac. How did he, and his band, survive?
In his new autobiography, Play On, Fleetwood says that he’s 6ft 6in. He looks even taller, languid in navy chinos, a blue striped shirt with epaulettes, a gold medallion, a perfectly trimmed beard and a burnt copper tan.
The medallion is a scarab made by a goldsmith in Canterbury, and, Fleetwood tells me, a symbol of immortality because Ancient Egyptian scarabs, which are still being dug up by archaeologists, “survive against hopeless odds”. You could say the same about his band, Fleetwood Mac.
Founded by Fleetwood, John McVie and Peter Green in 1967, it is routinely compared to a dysfunctional family. The band’s fame peaked, along with their excesses, around the time of the album Rumours in 1977. A Rolling Stone cover featured the two couples – Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, and Christine and John McVie – and Fleetwood, in a giant bed, but with everybody next to the wrong partner, which was more than just some art director’s mischievous wheeze.
Both the McVie and the Buckingham/Nicks relationship fell apart during the recording of Rumours, and not long afterwards, Fleetwood had an affair with Nicks before dumping her for her best friend, Sara Recor, whom the drummer went on to marry. All the while, the band were trying to squeeze the most out of every millisecond, all of them excessive, consuming giant amounts of cocaine. They would have hotel rooms repainted in advance of their arrival and insist on having fleets of limos put at their disposal. Nicks would demand there was a grand piano in her suite. Fleetwood Mac were patron saints of the ridiculous tour rider.
It was all fabulous and depraved and, at its worst, none of the band members was even talking to each other. Yet somehow they carried on, realising that the drama was also creating great art (and making them enormous sums of money). To date Rumours has sold more than 45 million copies and is one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.
Buckingham was out of the band for 16 years – between 1987 and 2003. Christine McVie only returned this year after a similar period of absence.
But throughout it all Fleetwood has remained wedded to the cause, chivvying his bandmates to patch up their differences. As we chat, guitars, amps and various other musical instruments are being collected from the house to prepare for another reunion tour that could last a year.
Play On is Fleetwood’s attempt to explain this rock phenomenon, as well as his own chaotic love life and wild behaviour. It is also serves as a fascinating glimpse into the world of one of music’s most chronic spendthrifts.
Fleetwood Mac’s original line-up in the late Sixties. Photo: Araldo Di
Despite the staggering success of Rumours, the merchandise sales, the endless radio plays and the sell-out tours, Fleetwood never saved any money. He had no idea how much he earned or how much he spent and, in 1984, he went bankrupt. In the book, there is a story that sums up his state of mind at the time. It involves Ghana – where he had gone to make an album, The Visitor – and a Rolex watch.
“I knew that it was the beginning of the end and everything was closing in on me,” he says now. “If you are going to be without money, you may as well be in Africa where nobody has any money. I got there, got blind drunk, I had this big old Rolex on and it was a childish thing but I thought this represents all the excess and I’m done with it. I got a beer bottle and smashed it. He later got it repaired, but then lost it in a brothel in Amsterdam.
“I was sort of goofing around. They were all sitting in windows in the red light district. I had a foot massage and I lost my lovely watch forever. It serves me right.” In the book it is unclear just how many times he was made bankrupt.
“In the end I’ve lost count,” he says. “I’m like Donald Trump. I think he’s been bankrupt about seven times. You pay off what debts you can. You do what you are told by your accountant. I really didn’t have much to do with it. I carried on like nothing had happened.” But didn’t they take his houses away?
“Yes, they did. But I was allowed to keep one of the houses. It wasn’t much fun, but I didn’t feel it that badly. I had lovely stuff but I’d be quite happy in a tent.” I raise an eyebrow. If that is the case, then how does he explain the huge house we are presently sitting in?
He doesn’t really have an answer. I think he likes to impress and he likes lovely things. But there is a sense that he feels he doesn’t deserve them.
“I have been blessed with cartloads of money,” he says candidly. “The past is a huge chunk of my life. I get [told] all the time, ‘You don’t have to be doing what you’re doing.’ Proportionately if you went down the pecking order of the band, I’d be last on the list, [but] people ask, ‘Would you fancy putting another 20 million in your bank?’ And you go, ‘Oh yes, that’s pretty good.’ ” Fleetwood doesn’t write any of the songs and so makes the least money, which is what I think he means when he says he is “last on the list”.
But it is also typical of the rueful tone of the book. Inextricably tied up with the out-of-control spending and the rock’n’roll excess are his failed marriages. Besides Recor, the 67-year-old has two other ex-wives, one of whom, Jenny, the sister of Pattie Boyd (the girlfriend of Eric Clapton), he married and divorced twice. In fact, the book reads in many ways like a broken and distorted love letter to Jenny, who is the mother to two of his daughters, Lucy and Amy.
During Fleetwood Mac’s wild years, the drummer would leave her in a big house to go on tour. On the occasions that she joined up with him, she felt uncomfortable; she liked early rising and the band never went to bed before dawn, everyone was in an altered state, and she would be variously sober, pregnant, or not doing well on drugs.
Was his love for Fleetwood Mac greater than his love for anybody else?
“I think it has been, yes,” he says. “I didn’t consciously think that, but when you put together a book like this there is a lot of pain. Jenny helped me write the book and there’s lots of stuff I don’t think I even knew about Jenny. I wanted and needed to go there.
“Jenny and I will always love each other. I think that comes over. A lot of old couples have this thing where they are not jumping each other’s bones every five minutes, they’ve been to hell and back, they have made the move to separate, and then they think, ‘But we have this thing which is truly a friendship’. It was not planned that way but there is something there forever. Me and Jenny have an incredible friendship.” It seems to have taken writing a book for him to realise the mistakes he made.
“Yep, I was a nutcase. She is married to someone else. She has been married twice. But I still see her twice a year in Maui. We have children together, but aside from that we have unconditional friendship. And sometimes it’s better when you’re not going through the intricacies of a full-on relationship which is physical, emotional and business.
“In retrospect I’ve said ‘Oh Jenny’ when she wrote some stuff in her own words for the book. I mean I was on my knees. You can’t go back there but I’m so sorry. She knows that.” Of course, throughout his marriages to Jenny, through the periods of can’t live with her, can’t live without her, everything was exaggerated by his addiction to cocaine.
Mick Fleetwood & Stevie Nicks performing live onstage at Rock N’ Run
benefit at UCLA in 1983. Photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Fleetwood once worked out that if he laid out all the lines of coke that he had ever snorted (estimating an eighth of an ounce a day for 20 years), the line would be seven miles long and it could have looped around Hyde Park.
Stevie Nicks was his chief partner-in-crime, addicted to “fun”, as he has put it previously. He once told Jenny (cruelly) that he thought he knew Nicks from another life. Does he still believe that?
“Yes. Me and Stevie are very connected. It is certainly not a stretch from my Irish mind that might have been the reason, but it did get complicated.” When Recor appeared?
“Had I taken a breath and realised…” His voice trails off. “It’s unbelievable really. In reality, it suited Stevie to have an on-off relationship. I was married and she had other boyfriends. It was a convenient, exciting affair that suited both people but I didn’t realise the proportions of it. I didn’t realise she would have been so upset when I met Sara because when we first hooked up it was an affair. We never felt the need to tell everyone around about us. A few people knew but it was all cloaked in this crazy world.” So does he mean he never discussed the boundaries of their relationship, about what was cool and what was not?
“No, because it was all cloaked in this crazy world. But there’s no doubt that Stevie was hurt.” (Although, as is the Fleetwood Mac way, the crisis inspired a bestselling song, Sara, which Nicks wrote in the wake of the affair.)
Lindsey Buckingham was another casualty of the Fleetwood Mac soap opera. “Lindsey once said it took him years and years and years to get over what happened,” says Fleetwood. “He is a happily married man now, but he will still talk about it as if it was” – he clicks his fingers – “yesterday and say, ‘That was really brutal for me.’ And Stevie will have her own interpretation. For someone like Lindsey it was like being in hell. He suffered terribly.”
When Fleetwood told Buckingham that he was having an affair with Nicks, Buckingham simply said: “Nice of you to tell me. I appreciate it.”
“That was not the issue,” says the drummer. “It was about life itself in the band. Lindsey suffers a lot more because by nature he suffers. I am sorry that we didn’t think about Lindsey enough. We just thought he was OK, but he needed to be acknowledged.”
In the book, Fleetwood also admits that he and the rest of the band failed to notice Peter Green’s spiralling mental health problems, something that has been blamed on the vast quantities of LSD he took.
“He haunts me,” says Fleetwood. “His illness could have come on without any drugs. He was incredibly sensitive. You would never have known how much Peter was suffering. We never knew he was in a whole heap of trouble. We never had the tools of recognition because he still seemed like Peter, and when the transition came, it was something that pushed him over the edge. This delicate incredibly, sensitive person was already asking himself questions.
“He wrote a song, Man of the World. It’s terribly sad. There are words in it, ‘I wish I’d never been born’. We should have realised, but we just didn’t know.”
Green quit the band in 1970, although he came back for one tour, and became a recluse. His genius was lost, but the rest of the band morphed into something else and became both combustible and indestructible.
In retrospect, Fleetwood’s childhood prepared him perfectly for his role as the band’s paterfamilias. His father, an RAF fighter pilot, moved the family from base to base, giving Mick a taste for the peripatetic lifestyle of a band. And, as a writer (he wrote poetry and short stories), he also encouraged his children to feed their artistic sides. Fleetwood’s sister Susan became an actor and his other sister Sally became a sculptor and
“They gave us a whole chunk of freedom of expression,” he says. “We weren’t suited for anything else but going into the arts.” His father’s military background also informed Fleetwood’s impressive dress sense. Even the around-the-house outfit he is wearing today is smart.
“He always imbued in us that we had to be fully presented, and I don’t think boarding school did me any harm in that respect. When I moved to London that was the start of a traumatic experience because nothing fitted.” And that’s when he began to get creative. He was reinventing military clothes and mile-long knitted scarves. Fleetwood loved the Sixties.
“A whole generation that didn’t want something to be the same. Established families and people with money mixing with people in the arts and musicians. After the war people needed a reverse and it turned out that music was really part of it,” he says.
I wonder if being in a band that was constantly on the road, dependent on each other, distant from the everyday world and bonded by their mutual excesses was perhaps his attempt to recreate the family unit? “In many ways, yes,” he says.
But Fleetwood’s parents loved each other very much and enjoyed a long and happy marriage, something their son has never been able to recreate. “My relationships have all been thought provoking and soulful, but what didn’t transfer from mum and dad was that I loved the freedom which means I became selfish in so many ways,” he says.
Fleetwood with then-wife Sara and daughter Lucy in 1990. Photo: Jordan
Fleetwood is still in touch with his third wife, Lynn, with whom he has two children, twin girls Ruby and Tessa, and says he is “very happy” with his current partner, Chelsea Hill, a language teacher with whom he lives in Maui.
The only ex he doesn’t talk to is Sara.
“She’s the only person that I’m not in contact with, but perhaps it’s the best way,” he says. “I don’t think Stevie is in contact with her either.” The relationships he has been most loyal to are those in his band.
As more suitcases and instruments are carried from the house, Fleetwood tells me that he is excited about the forthcoming tour.
“We are doing 40 odd shows in America and then we’ll go to Europe as long as we’re all healthy and happy.” Is everybody healthy? I refer to John McVie, who is in remission from colon cancer. “Yes. I mean we didn’t know that John was going to get cancer. He’s fine now, but you can’t start etching up what we’re doing for the next five years.”
Christine McVie had been determined she had retired from rock’n’roll. Nothing could tempt her back, she said. But then she appeared on stage with the band at the O2 arena in London in September 2013 and rejoined officially in January this year.
Nothing, it seems, can stop Fleetwood Mac.
“We’re not a bunch of dudes who just say, ‘I’ll see you on stage’. We are all ex-partners and people who have shared houses together, so we work at something to make it possible,” says Fleetwood. “It’s incredibly emotively driven. It’s real. We don’t always get it right, but we work at it.”
Play On: Now, Then And Fleetwood Mac by Mick Fleetwood (Hodder & Stoughton
£20) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £17.50 + £1.95 p&p. Call
0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk