April 18, 2003
Return Of The Mac
Fleetwood Mac, the zillion-selling adult-rock stars of the Seventies are back. And no, it's not just for the money. JAMES MCNAIR talks to the band about their soap-opera-like past and hopes for the future
As settings for a Fleetwood Mac interview go, Culver City Studios seems suitably grandiose. Its exterior facade is a white colonial mansion that featured in Gone with the Wind. Orson Welles filmed Citizen Kane here, and in 1933, this is where King Kong fell for Fay Wray. Today, though, Fleetwood Mac are here, just outside Los Angeles, to rehearse for an upcoming US tour in support of their new album, Say You Will. Eleven years after their White House gig in honour of President Clinton's inauguration, it's still location, location, location.
The Mac are, of course, best known for their zillion-selling 1977 colossus, Rumours. And the story behind that AOR classic is almost as famous as the music itself. Fuelled by most of California's cocaine - the drummer, Mick Fleetwood, reportedly considered a sleeve-note dedication to his dealer - Rumours featured "Dreams" , "Go Your Own Way" and "Don't Stop" , songs that commented on Stevie Nicks' messy break-up with the guitarist, Lindsey Buckingham, and Christine McVie's split from the bassist, John McVie. Nicks went on to have a brief affair with Fleetwood, whose first marriage was on the rocks, while Christine McVie started seeing the band's lighting director, Curry Grant. Even an Eastenders scriptwriter, I put it to Fleetwood, might have baulked at such close-knit dating.
"It was all part of the ongoing saga that makes the band unique", grins the lanky 55 year-old. "Unique even to this day, let me tell you. I went to Hawaii recently with my wife Lynn and our kids, and Stevie rented a house just down the road. My wife is a soulmate, but Stevie is a soulmate, too, and Lynn knows that. There's so much you can enjoy with that dynamic."
Say You Will marks the departure of the keyboardist/songwriter, Christine McVie. More important, perhaps, it sees the return of Buckingham for what many consider the first proper Mac studio album since 1987's Tango in the Night. The new record has garnered some excellent reviews, and with Christine gone, Stevie and Lindsey share the songwriting credits much as they did in their pre-Fleetwood Mac duo, Buckingham-Nicks. Talking to Buckingham, however, one senses Say You Will's precise, nine songs apiece tally is not mere happenstance.
"There were some problems with the track-listing near the end", confides the guitarist, now 53. "Stevie was in Hawaii on vacation while I was in Los Angeles trying to master the album, and we got into some over-the-phone conflicts. It's been hard for Stevie to feel good about what we've accomplished, and I really hope she will at some point. She's yet to say 'Good work on my songs, Lindsey.' "
Managed by the man Buckingham calls "Big, bad Howard" (Kaufman), Nicks clearly holds a strong negotiating hand. Her solo albums - witness 2001's Trouble in Shangri La - have consistently sold far more than those of Buckingham, and as many of the Lindeey songs on Say You Will were originally slated for solo release, you could argue that the Fleetwood Mac brand is something he's falling back on - and not for the first time. What's unquestionable, however, is that Buckingham's presence has usually served to enliven Fleetwood Mac. Indeed, without his diligent production skills and sussed, sometimes feral-sounding musicality, the post Peter Green Mac have often sounded rather bland.
This time, Buckingham's edge and grit fire his US media critque, "Murrow Turning Over in His Grave" (named after the noted critic of McCarthyism, Edward J. Murrow), and the deliciously barbed "Come" (Think of me, sweet darlin'/ Every time you don't come"). Some have alleged that he wrote the latter about Anne Heche, a former lover who went on the have a lesbian relationship with her fellow actress Ellen Degeneres. "That surprised me as much as it did everybody else," says Buckingham, but as he's now happily married with two young children, it's perhaps understandable that he declines to comment further. Asked whether people still tend to assume that his and Nicks' lyrics are about each other, however, he's more forthcoming.
"Yeah, they probably do," he laughs. "And in Stevie's case, at least some of them may be. Why 'may be '? Because it's not for me to say if they're about me. I suspect some of them are, but then Stevie has written songs all through our relationship that I assumed were about me, then discovered that they weren't, or that they were hybrids. I can be as confused about that as the general listener."
Stevie Nicks is almost 55 now. Her hair is still pleasingly big and blond. With her Yorkshire terrier Sulamith asleep in her lap, she tells me that she misses Christine McVie and her "crazy English humour" every day. "It used to be like that TV show Charmed, where they go: 'The power of three!' " she says, reminding me that she publishes her songs through Welsh Witch Music. "Chris and I had the power of two."
Nicks is now single. Her relationship with Buckingham, she said in 1997, "was as close to being married as I ever will be again." Listening to songs such as "Destiny Rules" and "Thrown Down" - "He fell for her again/She watched it happen," runs the opening of the latter - it's hard to decide whether she stills holds a candle for the guitarist or is simply exploiting a highly marketable aspect of rock's greatest soap opera. She may be doing both.
" 'Thrown Down' is about Lindsey," Nicks admits, "but I wrote that around the time of the Dance tour in 1997. Let's just say he continues to be a well of inspiration, which is terrific."
Right. But can she and Lindsey talk about their relationship more openly now? "You want the truth?" , she says. "We don't talk a lot about our past. We never have. It's like 'Do we need to go there?' And it hasn't turned out so bad, has it? Each of us has good, balanced lives now, and we're still able to make music together. So apart from being married and having our own family, what more could Lindsey and I have asked for?"
And her affair with Fleetwood? How does she view that these days? "That was a long, long time ago," she whispers. "It was like a little dream. What has lived, though, is that Mick and I still have a great love and respect for each other. Our relationship was so short that it didn't have time to build up animosities and jealousies. Mick will tell you -and I will tell you - that a lot of the reason it didn't continue was because we knew it would be the end of Fleetwood Mac. So we were very mature about that; we made the right decision."
One new Nicks song that certainly isn't about Buckingham - or Fleetwood, for that matter - is "Illume (9/11)". Nicks was in New York when the twin towers were attacked, and "Illume" documents her feelings at the time. "My Rochester show was cancelled because of an act of war," she says," and at one point we had a military escort on our wing. That whole period nearly drove me into a mental home."
"I read Stevie's poetry for that song before she came in with the music," says Fleetwood. "She was very unsettled by 9/11, as we all were. The groove for "Illume" is incredibly simple, and she was like : 'Is this any good? Is it doing enough?' I said, 'In my opinion, Stevie, this is all about you; this is your modern-day "Gold Dust Woman."' It has that Edith Piaf element coming through; that thing where the singer's relationship with the lyric is incredibly personal and powerful."
Fleetwood, one soon realises, is the Mac's most fervent flag-waver. He's done everything in his power to keep this band alive, and his close friendships with Nicks and Buckingham have left him well placed as diplomatic go-between. Toward the end of my chat with him, I can't resist playing devil's advocate. What would he say to those who claim the Mac have reconvened for the cash? "Fleetwood Mac has morphed its way back," he says. "You might say that this album is the result of eight years of people slowly getting to know each other again, so if somebody wants to be cynical and say that this is a money-making exercise, they'd be hard pushed to make a case. I don't know how we get stuff done sometimes, because we're a semi-dysfunctional family with four different managers, and it's a nightmare, really. The truth is that I hope we make a load of cash. But how we've come to this point hhas been in the lap of the Gods."