Globe and Mail
March 30, 2003
Another Mac attack
By DAVID GIAMMARCO
The Santa Ana winds are blowing in from the desert, and from Stage 9 at Culver City Studios, the mystically melodic strains of Dreams drifts onto the warm afternoon breeze. "Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions," swirls the unmistakable raspy vocals of rock's gypsy priestess, Stevie Nicks. And for a moment it sounds ... it feels ... like summer, 1977.
That year, Fleetwood Mac's album Rumours seized the airwaves, volleying a stream of superbly crafted hits to the top of the charts and unspooling an irresistible — inescapable — soundtrack for many people's lives.
But alas, this is not a dream. It's spring, 2003, and the famed members of Fleetwood Mac — the reigning dysfunctional family of 1970s rock royalty — are hunkered down in this cavernous sound stage, rehearsing classic tunes and rehashing classic tensions that originally tore the supergroup apart amidst epic indulgences during their hedonistic heyday. Stevie Nicks, guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, bassist John McVie, and percussionist Mick Fleetwood have reunited for a much-anticipated concert tour — only the second such occurrence in 21 years — all in support of an equally remarkable feat: the "classic" Mac's first studio album in 16 years.
Say You Will — due for release April 15 — is 18 tracks of exuberant melodies and alluring lyrics, brazenly fused with an instrumental aggression recalling the sprawling innovation of the band's 1979 double-album Tusk.
But while the sound is vintage Fleetwood Mac, the substances fuelling it are not.
In the 1970s and 1980s, copious amounts of cocaine and cognac stoked their frequently stormy sessions. These days, Mick Fleetwood still carries around a plastic baggie, but it's full of trail mix.
These last crucial weeks of preparation before the tour launch finds Nicks fretting — needlessly, it seems — over the road-readiness of the band.
"We just literally finished this record, and now we're trying to quickly flip over from recording mode into touring mode in a very compressed period of time," sighs Nicks, explaining that even some of the most renowned Fleetwood Mac tunes need to be relearned for the tour. "Not for me, because I never stopped doing a song like Dreams over the last 2,500 years," she grins, "but Fleetwood Mac hasn't done Dreams since 1997, and that was only briefly for three months on "The Dance" tour.
"Most of these songs I've done on every single one of my tours since I started my solo career in 1982. I've never stopped touring, whereas Lindsey and everyone else haven't played in front of audiences since 1997 ... I think they're much more nervous about the old stuff than I am."
Buckingham, however, doesn't seem to be sweating it. Rather, the consummate musician is still ruminating the "epic effort" of birthing a new Fleetwood Mac album, something no one — least of all himself — imagined happening after his acrimonious departure following 1987's Tango in the Night. "After leaving the band, I was really able to push the envelope on my own ... so that this coming together really started to make sense in terms of what I could give back," reflects Buckingham, 53, who also engineered and produced Say You Will. But somehow this wouldn't be a true Fleetwood Mac reunion without some expected unease between Buckingham and ex-paramour Nicks.
"I think Stevie is seeing part of this record through some dark colours right now," hints Buckingham later in the afternoon, "only because towards the end we had some conflicts about running order and some other things, and she hasn't quite been able to come out the other end and say, 'Wow, this is really something!'
"I think it's hard for her to feel the catharsis that I'm feeling, and that Mick is feeling ... it's been hard for her to turn and say, 'Gee, nice job, Lindsey — thanks for working on my songs for an entire year.' But having said that, which really only speaks of maybe how difficult it got near the end, the whole thing was pretty great."
A perplexed smile then spreads across Buckingham's face. "I must admit," he says, shaking his head, "there did seem to be a weird sense of destiny to all of this."
To fully understand rock n' roll's sudsiest, longest-running soap opera, you must rewind through Fleetwood Mac's private — but mostly musically documented — record of inner-group marriages, divorces, affairs, animosities, band defections, drug abuse and alcoholism, back to 1967. That's when Fleetwood and McVie first formed — alongside guitarists Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer — what was originally a British blues band that gained fame for their hits such as Albatross and Black Magic Woman (which would be re-recorded in 1971 by Carlos Santana to greater success in the U.S.).
By then, however, the first of many odd occurrences began afflicting Fleetwood Mac: In 1970, Green descended into madness after a bad acid trip and left to become a roving religious zealot, while shortly thereafter, Spencer mysteriously disappeared into the Children of God cult. Keyboardist Christine Perfect then joined the band, becoming McVie's wife and infusing their sound with a more pop sensibility. A string of temporary musicians would come and go (including one fired after an affair with Mick Fleetwood's wife) until Fleetwood, having transplanted the band to Los Angeles in 1974, stumbled upon a record by little-known California folk-rock duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. He soon invited the romantically linked pair to join the band, andthen everything coalesced for Fleetwood Mac.
The new lineup's eponymous 1975 album featured a rejuvenated direction into a winsome rock, pop and blues blend that yielded Top 20 singles Over My Head, Say You Love Me, Landslide and, what would become Nicks's signature song, the bewitching Rhiannon. The album soared to No. 1 and sold over five million copies, but that unexpected triumph would be dwarfed by the monster lurking just around the corner.
In 1976, Mick Fleetwood marshalled the troops up the California coast to Sausalito, where over the course of a year-long stint at the Record Plant, the blood and guts of their romantic meltdowns spilled into the recording studio. John and Christine McVie divorced, Buckingham and Nicks split and Fleetwood separated from his wife.
"Usually when you have a bad breakup, you aren't still locked up together all day," says Nicks, dressed in her trademark Dickensian attire of wispy lace and flowing chiffon. "It was so intense every day, so heavy ... it was like being in the army. I was never as exhausted in my whole life as when we were doing that album." That album was, of course, Rumours, named by McVie as a nod to the scandals surrounding the band, which arrived like a hurricane in February, 1977, to spend 31 weeks at No. 1.
To date, Rumours has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, making it the second biggest-selling album of all time. Ironically, that made the path between then and now an even rockier road for Fleetwood Mac, faced with having to match that mammoth success. The band was next spurred on largely by Buckingham in 1979 to record a complete about face: the wildly experimental double album Tusk. But despite selling millions of copies, Tusk was deemed a commercial failure.
Virtually imprisoned by near-mythic expectations and vastly deteriorating relations, the band still soldiered on throughout the decade to record two more albums: 1982's Mirage and 1987's Tango in the Night. By then, however, both Nicks and Buckingham had branched out into successful solo careers, and the band slowly eroded despite Fleetwood's best efforts to keep everyone together. "Sometimes I wish I played another instrument, but I'm a drummer, so I inherently need to have a band to play with and I'm relatively useless without that," explains Fleetwood with a shrug. " I was always playing the mediator and trying to make things work and keep everyone happy — at a great cost to my private life, my marriage, my time with my children."
Neatly attired in a crisp white shirt, jeans and with now short gray hair, Fleetwood looks far more distinguished than in his "eccentric Keith Moon days" and he partially blames himself for the disintegration of his beloved band. "During the 'crazy' times towards the end of the eighties, my life was so involved in alcohol and drugs and just having a good time, that my managerial skills were completely blunted out," he admits.
"Stevie and Lindsey both know that I'm not a maniac any more," adds Fleetwood with a laugh. "That feels good."
The undeniable propellant of Fleetwood Mac has always been the potent chemistry between Buckingham and Nicks — often taking the form of vicious lyrical battles — as when Buckingham jabs in Go Your Own Way: "Packing up, shacking up is all you want to do." Though they each have indeed gone their own way personally (Buckingham is recently married with two young children), it's apparent there still exists some unresolved heartache for the pair, who have known each other since high school. "It's a curse," Nicks admits quite candidly. "And if I really was a witch, you know that's the first thing that I would make stop. But there's been nothing I could ever do to fix that."
"Yeah, I'm sure Stevie and I still have a few conversations to have," concedes Buckingham, who also figures those old demons probably helped spark the vitality heard on Say You Will. "There was certainly a period of time during the making of this album where it felt like we were really going at it through the music. You can really feel the energy between us ... I don't think that's ever going to go away."
How such tensions could produce such exquisite harmonies remains one of the most enduring — and endearing — enigmas surrounding Fleetwood Mac. "People say that to me all the time," admits Nicks with a smile. "They'll say stuff like, 'I'm sorry that you guys had to be so miserable and suffer so much, but we're really glad that you did because otherwise, we wouldn't have these songs.' So it's all been a real Catch-22 situation."
Though Buckingham feels Say You Will represents the "healing" of Fleetwood Mac, there is one valuable link missing: Christine McVie. The elegant songbird opted out of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle after briefly tasting it again on "The Dance" tour in 1997, and the band decided that she couldn't do the record if not prepared to tour. In hindsight, Buckingham feels it was maybe for the best.
"One of the things that made this album as strong as it is, oddly enough, is the fact that Christine was absent," he says. "Because on a musical level, you have more room for Mick, John and myself to manoeuvre. And on an emotional level, the absence of Christine gave John an opportunity to be a little more down in himself, a little grittier, and not so on his guard. Because the occasional button might have gotten pushed being around Christine."
What originally started off as Buckingham's fourth solo album, Say You Will evolved into a Mac reunion when a regime change at Warner Brothers forced Buckingham to reconsider releasing his project amidst the corporate uncertainties. While waiting for the dust to settle, Buckingham invited Fleetwood and McVie to help lay down some tracks, and from there, "the gravity of Fleetwood Mac just sucked me in," he smiles. "It was just like old times."
Once Nicks became involved, Buckingham had already rented a house in Bel Air to record, which he says further helped to provide a revived communal spirit for the band. And according to Fleetwood, the experience helped erase some of their painful past. "It was very different," he laughs. "I mean, there was no drug abuse, no alcohol abuse, no romances falling apart, no midnight creeping from door-to-door and sleeping with each other ... we're all very different people now."