She can't read music. She believes in angels, witches and magic wands. Can this be a serious songwriter? You bet!
All your life you've never seen/A woman--taken by the wind
- Stevie Nicks, "Rhiannon"
I first saw Stevie Nicks the way most people do: from a distance. She was onstage with Fleetwood Mac at a football stadium outside Boston; I was with 60,000 others in the the bleachers, wishing I'd brought binoculars. The band bounced up and down as they played, and everybody was having a perfectly cheery time, but there wasn't much real excitement until about halfway into the show. That was when Nicks--a tiny figure in black chiffon and a top hat, her wispy scarves all aflutter--stepped forward to say, "This is a song about a Welsh witch," as the band kicked into "Rhiannon." Stevie tore through the song, her voice darker and rawer than it had been on the multimillion-selling Fleetwood Mac LP, singing almost fiercely yet pirouetting around the stage between verses. From the bleachers, the rest of the band looked relaxed but earthbound. Stevie, singing about dreams and transformations and promises, was an apparition.
That aura of airborne innocence is her trademark. On the back cover of Bella Donna, her 1981 solo album, she holds three white roses and peers into a tambourine like a child playing make-believe. She seems to float somewhere outside the mundanities of the entertainment business, in a private world of "crystal visions" that show up even in her most direct songs. Although her success is anything but insubstantial--Stevie and what she calls her "weird little voice" have sold some 22 million records--her image remains curiously elusive. Is Nicks, at 34, really as guileless as she seems?
Her associates treat her that way, with a mixture of deference and protectiveness. Before we could meet, I was politely scrutinized and quizzed as to my intentions (honorable). And when I arrived at the appointed hour, a small retinue was there to greet me, including Stevie's easygoing brother, Christopher Nicks, and her nervous record-company president, Danny Goldberg. Entering Nicks' $700-a-day Helmsley Palace hotel suite, 50 stories above midtown Manhattan, I was ushered past a tableful of fashion magazines into a hush, plush parlor with an opulent bouquet as its centerpiece. (Both magazines and flowers, I would find out, were Nicks' efforts to personalize the place.) I had just enough time to gawk out the window and savor the vertigo before Stevie made her entrance. Hobbling a little on ultra-high platform boots and wearing a diaphanous antique pale apricot blouse--with, she showed me, a shawl artfully arranged to hide moth holes--Stevie shook my hand and settled on the couch. Her entrouage glided away discreetly.
Oh, mirror in the sky/What is love/Can the child within my heart rise above...
--Stevie Nicks, "Landslide"
Nicks may be chaperoned, but she's not shy. Just the opposite: "I love to talk," she said without apology, like someone who's used to being the center of attention. In our long, rambling conversations, Stevie seemed utterly unguarded, willing to say whatever popped into her head--less the rock millionaire than a dotty recluse in a ghost story. Of Bella Donna's success, she said "Somebody is waving a magic wand for sure over this whole thing." And believes she has a guardian angel; she believes her soul has been around for three million years. And she is fascinated by all sorts of mystical ideas and what she sees as wondrous conicidences. For instance, she read about a white-winged dove and immediately decided to write a song about it ("Edge of Seventeen"), then found out afterward that the white-winged dove nests only in the saguaro cactus--which is native to Stevie's hometown, Phoenix, Arizona.
"A lot of little magic things give me terrific ideas," she said excitedly, "as if somebody leaves them for me and I find them. I'm constantly aware--they say Gemini's eyes are always ready to be entertained--and I like to find things that are just pretty to stare at: a ring, or a piece of material, or anything. I might look out the window, like at the green tower over there--something to give me a little tiny idea that I can make into a big idea. But I need that little idea to start with."
In other words, Nicks lets intuition guide her, and she does so far less self-consciously than any other adult I've ever met. She described Bella Donna as "a chronology of my life and all the people in it," but the album and its songs represent just part of the writing she does: "a mixture of prose and poetry and whatever. A lot of times I stay up all night, writing and recording little things--not in any real disciplined way, but because I love it. I don't sit down and practice the piano, I don't want to learn to read music, I don't want to study--I don't want it to be school. It's supposed to be fun." Nicks hopes to turn some of her output into a children's book and some into a quasi-autobiography, "if I get someone to help me edit these thousands of pages."
Disciplined or not, Nicks is one of the most successful songwriters in pop, and on her own terms. While the rock business has become increasingly hard-nosed and professional, Nicks has stayed a happy amateur who channels her wide-eyed romanticism into songs her fans cherish. Through wonderous coincidences of her own, she has forged a career while surrounded and sheltered by a loving extended family who wanted--they didn't let me be lazy.
"You know, it's much easier to make an album by myself than it is with Fleetwood Mac. I don't have to deal with five personalities--mine included--only with what I want." Still, Stevie added, it's a lot of responsiblity to go solo. "When it's yours-and-four-other-people's album, it's easier to let things go by. But you can't be nonchalant when it's your own album. For Bella Donna, i couldn't blame mistakes on anybody else, because that's my name on the front of the record."
With Bella Donna a hit album and the continuing popularity of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks has the best of two worlds: recognition on her own and the comfort of being in a group. She also has the time and money to do anything she pleases. "This is the first time in my life I've been really free," she agree. "Now I have my rent, and I have enough antique lamps, and two Yorshire terriers, one Doberman Pinscher, two cats, a wonderful family and lots of good friends. What I have left to do is my music--I can do the things I need for my soul.
"My songs are out, and that's all I ever wanted. And when I see people singing along to one of my songs, I want to go out and hug them. I have trouble remembering the words myself--and they know them all!"
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