The sad, wide-set eyes, carelessly lined in brown. The white-blond tendrils slipping, elf-locks, before her ears while an Elnetted crest sweeps down her back. The slightly drooping lower-lip. The famously fragile, much-abused, nose. Stevie in all her guises has been with me my entire adult life. As a leotarded, gamine Garbo; caped in black velvet, plumed permage tamped down by a deep hood; or shoulder-padded, embellished, and feathered to the rooftops. Each iteration slots into the complex order of things known as Stevie Nicks; each era separable but contiguous, all routed through her mild witchery and intense American mysticism. Even the way she says “intense” marked itself on my mind; I hear her pronunciation each time I say the word, the mid-vowel rising, flattened by her nasal, Californian compression of the “e” into an “i:” “intinse.” Intinse song. Intinse silence.
Look, I know it’s easy to dismiss Fleetwood Mac. They’re either soulless FM monsters, or too obsessed with production, with their own mastery over the studio, to be of interest to serious music connoisseurs. I know, more, how easy it is to dismiss Stevie, in particular, as the poster child for a kind of canny nuttiness—chalk it up to cocaine or California—; but, for me, her willful insistence on her own importance, her own centrality to the band, shelters her from this critique, even if I understand its language. And there is something to be said about her status as a songwriter in this particular, songwriter-heavy band. At the end of the day, her power, and her authority, derive from her sheer, stubborn doggedness in getting her songs onto the stage, onto the records. Her lyrics are esoteric and encoded—some might say mindlessly opaque. Her song structures are not keyed to radio playability, and almost all of her radio hits have come when Warner Brothers lopped off a verse or two to conform to those medial standards. But, in performing those songs, in giving utterance to their great many alternate voices and personae, she demonstrates, again and again, her great joy—joy that persists even when performing, or actually feeling, great pain.
When I was a girl, my friend Sarah and I spent hours (and hours) in her bedroom painting our faces, fluffing our hair and mimicking Stevie. We sang her harmonies on “Little Lies,” “Everywhere,” and “Seven Wonders,” fighting over who got to do “Sara” (obviously)—all the hits that coincided with my girlhood. It was much, much later when I understood the other musicians’ special contributions to the band—Christine’s mellow alto or Mick’s hectic joy. And, of course, I knew, from liner notes, and my developing capacities to read between her lines, that thin-voiced, finger-picking Lindsey had done something to Stevie. That there was something not-to-be-trusted about this handsome man. But I always understood Stevie’s draw, and felt that wrongs done to her were real, palpable wrongs.
My dad gave me a copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits for my twelfth birthday (along with a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s), a copy I still have to this day. I read this record’s sleeve religiously (especially the line about Stevie preparing herself for the concert in the privacy of her dressing room, “like a bride”), absorbing every detail I could from its bland PR copy. There was no mention there of Lindsey, nothing about the band’s troubled romantic history, and nothing about drugs. On the flipside was a photographic collage, a feature borrowed from their earlier albums, that collected together some of my still-favorite images of the band. Stevie in a eerily Madonna-esque white lace bustier, a remnant from the Tango in the Night tour; a posed shot of the band circa 1976, Stevie in a velvet beret; Stevie in her top hat, her tambourine rakishly tipped to her hip. And there, too, was Lindsey. If he had been erased in the liner notes, here he was, very present in an enormous beard. The band’s stories could be almost gleaned from the pictures. Almost, but not quite.
The photograph I remember most vividly doesn’t appear on this collage, though it’s important to the legend of Buckingham/Nicks. Stevie crouches with a face in pain, Lindsey leans bodily into her. I couldn’t, and perhaps still can’t, imagine the strangeness of a relationship that would produce these gestures. Why would she stand for this imposition? Why would he impose in that way? Why didn’t she just stand up and away from him?
At minute 6:45 of this eight and a half minute long version of “Sisters of the Moon,” a song that Fleetwood Mac rarely plays, I found my answer.
The song made an appearance on the 1982 Mirage tour, and was captured for the live video release of the concert. A (stupidly) hatted Lindsey leans heavily into Stevie in the song’s coda. So, probably twenty years after I’d first seen the photograph, long after I’d been absorbed into the inscrutable being that is Fleetwood Mac, I had the strange experience of sitting in my living room in San Francisco, not far from where Stevie and Lindsey met (at a Young Life meeting, no less!) in San Jose, and realizing that this was the lived moment that became that photograph (it’s currently the second image that pops up in a Google image search for “Stevie and Lindsey”).
The movement itself was probably repeated endless times over the course of their career together – it’s a trick I’ve seen them do in person. When the confusion of your romance becomes one of the driving mechanisms of your fame, you have to give the people a bit of what they want. And Stevie, the performer, knows exactly how to do this. First, she’s a crone shuffling onto stage, then a dryad madly clacking away at a woodblock. She sells the songs in a way that the songs themselves might not be able to do. Stevie’s songwriting has always been entangled with her performance—she rarely writes three-minute pop-songs—but somehow her songs became the signature radio hits of the band’s 70s incarnation, partially because her showmanship is unsurpassed. I’m sure this has to do with her songbook’s emphasis on keening crescendo. In this mode, her aim is incantation and beneficent fury. In this particular performance, as in many performances of “Sisters,” it’s the last three minutes that collapse into frenzy, into a forbidding, manic run where Stevie speaks in what can only be called tongues.
This video makes me ecstatic and sad. This is at the height of Stevie’s cocaine addiction, and if you look closely you can see the breast implants that she would later claim marked the onset of her decade-long battle with Epstein-Barr. This is years after she and Lindsey broke up, after she ended her affair with Mick Fleetwood, after she walked out on Joe Walsh. It is less than three weeks after she lost her best childhood friend, Robin Anderson, to leukemia. Two months before she would marry Robin’s widower, Kim, in a short, ill-fated bid to deal with both losses. She is a woman in pain, but with more pain, and deeper, left to come.
But, the strangest thing about this winning, oracular moment is that it comes at the end of a concert film in which Stevie’s contribution underwhelms me. It’s only during “Sisters of the Moon” that she evokes her Delphic persona. The caterwauling, ethereal harmonies she usually hits in “The Chain” come in too late, and “Rhiannon,” usually her absurd milestone of a song, is off-key and quavering. But here, in “Sisters,” fully in command of her audience, she whirls, babbling and weeping by the song’s end.
When I caught sight of this little moment in the concert footage, I couldn’t believe I had found this clip. That I had seen, even second-hand, mediated by time and YouTube, this particular snippet of her performed life. And, again, it’s a performance as much as it is a feeling. She is supremely, gratuitously weird. Her desire to inhabit her own words is intense (again, intinse, in Stevie-speak). This holds true even as those words change, slipping in and out of competing meanings with every new performance. Here, for example, she delivers a cutting retort to Lindsey’s lyric, “Some say illusion is her game…” he builds the song’s bridge into his solo with “Does anyone know her name?”
Stevie sings back. And, performed this way, it does read like a slap to Lindsey. His stagey slights won’t be tolerated in this performance; she needs him to know it’s not, any more, about him. She sings:
And so we make our choices,
But, darling, there never was any choice,
We listen to their voices,
But we ignore our own voice,
And when the people who gather round you
Do you remember they were the most cruel?
And when they ask will you be my sister, brother,
Sister, brother…of the moon?
And then you say no, baby!
She rewrites as she sings through these lines, her persona rapidly vacillating between subject and speaker. I want, too to point to the startling little addition of “darling” in the second line, an element that feels, in this forum, like a critique of the condition of romance. Then, the sense of absolute stasis implied with “there never was any choice,” a lyric usually sung as “when there is no choice” (my emphases). Finally, the last line of the verse, the last line of the song—that “no, baby!” It repeats frantically, channeling all of the bluesy sixties rock she learned from into a tumultuous, forbidding scold. It’s hard to tell, in this moment, if this is a song about the misery one can experience at the hands of a critical group, the misery one can feel at the hands of one dear Darling, or if this is a song keeping misery, through sheer, vocal will, from securing its hold on a life.
And yet, even in a performance so full of pain, probably some of her life’s worst pain given the show’s timing, there is a deep delight in her capacities. To show to us the play that comes from giving tension—mystery—full reign over her body, as fraught as that reign might be. There is, in these moments of translucent, crazed grandeur, an incredible, bodily commitment to the words she sings. Even if they never turn out that way again.
—Claire Jarvis: Welsh Witch
Claire Jarvis! Oh, this is something…..
So many people need to read this. Leigh Bardugo, starting with you.
Oh, I was hoping this would be a Claire Jarvis byline…
Also, Heather Love.
As an AVID Stevie fan, I am disseminating this throughout the fandom =)
I loved this so much. Poignant and thoughtful and now I must go put on SCARVES.
Always a pleasure to read anything about the Mac and Stevie in which they are taken seriously. They deserve it. One little historical quibble: The Mirage concert was not after she had cast off Joe Walsh; it was before. She and Joe started going out (or whatever) during her Wild Heart tour, for which he was the opening act. That tour started in 1983. Most accounts I’ve heard have them on and off from 1983 to about 1985.
Ah, I’d always thought the Joe romance overlapped with the short Don romance. Thanks for the clarification!
As with some songs she sings, she did not just sing some, rather she was the song. There will never be another like Stevie and the above commentary was well stated and then some. The beauty of the group Fleetwood Mac is the ability to know when a song is being performed and when it has become it’s own life force. There is a difference as you can see when allowances are made during performance according to the vibe on stage. An unspoken understanding that is personal and necessary when several members are involved to create such a performance. They spent themselves to the max to let some songs fill the air with their very life force. Remember, the songs come to Stevie, waiting to be born, at the right time.
Claire, you write well and thoughtfully about some trivia through which I wander.
I loved this so much. Poignant and thoughtful and now I must go put on SCARVES.