Through The Looking Glass Darkly
by Sylvie Simmons
She's been likened to "an airplane without any radar", but Stevie Nicks is living in the real world -- chiffon robes and all.
The first thing that strikes you as you walk into Stevie Nicks' London hotel suite, besides the huge vases of flowers, little trays of candies scattered about and delicate, wistful paintings of imaginary heroes and beautiful heroines she's been painting in her spare time as gifts is this presence. Swathed in flowing black silk, lace and satin, looking like a puff of wind might waft her off the sofa any minute and send her twirling round the room like the Queen of the Fairies she still is at the age of 41, Stevie Nicks' image all but overpowers her corporeal form. When she was in that clinic getting treatment for a drug problem they gave her some homework: an essay on the difference between being Stevie Nicks the Real Person and Stevie Nicks the Star. No wonder she said it was tough. There's something not quite real about Stevie. She seems to have just stepped out of some young girl's painting or some yearning teen novel. Tom Petty -- with whom she sang a duet, "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," on her debut solo album, and with whom she dined the other evening (they were both in Londontown at the same time, plugging their new albums) -- laughed when he described Stevie: "it's like when you've got a sister in the family that nobody wants to talk about much, you know what I mean?" Someone you love a lot but who's, uh, different. "He'll say I'm like an airplane that doesn't have any radar!" Stevie laughs. "He says to me, 'You're not living in the real world,' and I say, 'Do you live in the real world, Tom?' And he's going, 'Well, I live in more of a real world than you do for sure!'"
Hardly surprising, really, that Stevie identifies with Alice of In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass--another wide-skirted, willful blonde heroine with a somewhat warped version of reality. Stevie's fourth solo album, The Other Side Of the Mirror, started out as a tribute to her grandmother ("I called her Crazy Alice; I lost her three months ago and I just loved her so much"). But somewhere down the line, it began to interweave the strange tales of both Stevie and the Lewis Carroll character. "I love making up little fantasy things," Stevie says. "All the characters in my songs--the Gypsies, the Saras, and on this album, Alice and Juliet--they're all me. But they're all different sides of me. It's a great way to write about what's going on in your life without telling it in a real serious way, but the point comes over and I think people understand that. "I don't think I started out intending it to have much to do with Alice In Wonderland, though I read it when I was little. But I kept thinking about how I go back and forth from one side of the mirror to the other. And then I have a little space in between, which is when I do other things which nobody really knows about; my painting, my art, my writing." She writes poetry and short stories, and also keeps a diary. "That's my sanity life. That's when I'm pretty serious and sane. And my Fleetwood Mac life and my Stevie Nicks life, both of those are pretty heavy and I have to scurry back and forth constantly. For the past seven years I've been running two straight careers pretty solid, and they're both big and they're both demanding."
The first career started on New Year's Eve in 1974, when Stevie was asked to join Fleetwood Mac with her then-boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham. She'd met him when she was 19 and living with her family in San Francisco. Stevie saw him singing "California Dreamin'" at a church social evening; she stepped up, joined in on harmonies and when her family moved on to Chicago, she stayed behind. The duo they formed, Buckingham Nicks, was so spectacularly unsuccessful that Stevie had to waitress at Burger King while Lindsey worked on the songs (heroes shouldn't get their fingers greasy). But an album was finally made, produced by Keith Olsen, and he played it to Mick Fleetwood one day to show what his studio could do. Fleetwood invited the two to join his band. Straightaway came Fleetwood Mac, a massive album featuring Stevie's theme-song hit single "Rhiannon". Rumours, its follow-up, sold a mind-boggling 15 million copies. But Stevie wanted another outlet for her songs, and in 1981 began her second career with Bella Donna. "I write so much that to make an album with Fleetwood Mac every two or three years, and get three, maybe four songs, it's just not enough," Stevie says. "I have so many songs that that would drive me nuts! I write constantly. I'll be sitting at the piano, writing, and Christine [McVie] will walk past me and she'll go, 'It's the mad songwriter again, writing another song. You've got so many songs. I don't know why you're doing this!' And I say, 'Christine, because I just love to do it, and it's really important to me to get whatever it is that I'm writing out, even if nobody ever hears it.' There are a lot of songs I've written that are really good, but just never made it onto a record."
They might, of course, if she released albums more frequently. Her last solo album was over three years ago. "Well, there was Tango In The Night, the last Fleetwood Mac album, and when you work with Lindsey he pretty much demands that you're there," Stevie says. "And I was also touring. We'd tour for six weeks and come home for a week then I'd bang into the studio to try to be there as much as I could. But Lindsey was not very understanding about that. He felt that I shouldn't have a solo career. It was like, 'Oh, thank you so very much for giving us another week of your precious time!' So it was never a very pleasant experience." All history, of course, now that Buckingham's left Fleetwood Mac. He's been replaced by two guitarists, Billy Burnette and Rick Vito, described by Stevie as "sweet, sophisticated, very very open and willing--they don't have ego problems." When she gets home to L.A., she plans to spend "as much time as possible" before her solo tour co-writing with the two of them. "This time I want to spend a lot of time with Fleetwood Mac; I don't want to leave them on their own. I've always been the mediator in Fleetwood Mac anyway, so they need me there if for nothing else than that. Because I tend to keep everybody above water and laughing."
Now there's a turnaround. Stevie Nicks, with her tendency to soar off to Planet Chiffon every five minutes, waving her tambourine at the crowds below, would seem the last person with the job of keeping anyone down to earth! "They may think of me as a certain image. 'Well, she's kind of airy-fairy and she probably flies around her house in black chiffon,'" Stevie bristles, "which is all not really very true. But, on the other side of it, the fact is that a part of me is that way. There is a part of me that has to depend on fantasy, because if you can't be somewhat of a fantasy person, then you can't write. If you can't believe in dreams, then you can't believe that things will work out, so what are you going to write about? That image of me may not have been much of a misconception when I was just in Fleetwood Mac, but it certainly is now," she continues. "Just being in Fleetwood Mac all those years, I wondered if there was life after Fleetwood Mac, and it was very frightening for me to do my own thing. Because I would think, what if it flops? That would be horrible and it would hurt Fleetwood Mac. I don't want to hurt Fleetwood Mac but I don't want to hurt me either, and be disappointed and unhappy and cry for days because I made a big mistake. But at this point, I know if I'm going to continue to be able to do both these things, then I've got to be stronger and be more disciplined and down-to-earth."
But she still finds it hard going. She hates being "the boss" in her band, and always employs somebody else to do the telling off. She works closely with her best friends, backing singers Sharon Celani and Lori Perry-Nicks, and she loves to co-write with people. On this album she's written with Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, with Belinda Carlisle producer Rick Nowels and with her own producer Rupert Hine. She also sings another duet, this time with Bruce Hornsby. And the reason for all these collaborations? "I don't like being on my own." She describes making her album as a "wonderful experience," which is a pretty good thing, since she doesn't have to make albums any more. As she says, "at my age and after all I've been through, what I really need is to love the music that goes out. I have everything I need on a living basis, so whatever the sales I want the music to be true to me and my songs." Most of her songs are melancholic, soaked with longing, real romantic. "I would say I am a very romantic person and very intense," she agrees. "I don't write real happy songs, but I don't ever write a song that leaves people with no hope. Everything I write comes from reality, and then I throw a handful of sparkle-dust over it and try to make it so that people can accept it and say, 'Life goes on no matter how bad or what kind of tragedy you're involved in, a heartbroken love affair or whatever it is.' You will make it. Because I'm proving it. I'm telling you that I've been through it all and I'm still here."
Most of what she's been through you've read about before -- the soap-opera that Fleetwood Mac became when she and Christine McVie broke with their Mac men around the same time; the short-lived marriage to the widower of her best friend; deaths that shattered a very close family; and most recently the drug business. She was never a "druggie," she says--never took hallucinogenics ever, in spite of psychedelic titles like "Bella Donna" and "The Other Side of the Mirror"--and only got into cocaine late in life because of the pressures of work. "I never ever used drugs to create," she says. Still, there are aspects of the music business that she finds "very very difficult. I hate feeling like a commodity, just like they're selling a box of soap." But she came through and she's carrying on, because there's more about the music business that she loves. There's a band to put together for her solo tour, songs to write and--an ongoing project--a possible ballet or animated film based on her ten songs of "Rhiannon". It tells the story of the Queen of the Bright World trapped among people who can't understand her goodness, gentleness and strange slant on reality. "The desire to do what I do," says Stevie, "to sit at the piano and write some words that I love, is still as strong as it ever was."
Thanks to Tami Lee for sending the article to The Nicks Fix.