WELL, HERE’S ANOTHER ONE BORN STANDING UP AND TALKING BACK (Stevie Nicks–Vocalist of the Month, 8/13)

First some actual history (which you’ll need, in order to comprehend just how little sense is contained in some of the statements posted immediately thereafter):

Chart action for Fleetwood Mac’s first seven American singles after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band in 1975:

Song                                   Entered chart        Peak Pos (Billboard Hot 100)
(Lead Singer)

From Fleetwood Mac:

Over My Head
(Christine McVie)               11/8/75                 #20 (14 weeks on the Chart)
Rhiannon
(Stevie Nicks)                      3/6/76                  #11 (18 weeks)
Say You Love Me
(Christine McVie)                 7/4/76                  #11 (19 weeks)

From Rumours:

Go Your Own Way
(Lindsey Buckingham)        1/8/77                  #10 (15 weeks)
Dreams
(Stevie Nicks)                    4/16/77                   #1 (19 weeks)
Don’t Stop
(C. McVie/Buckingham)      7/9/77                    #3 (18 weeks)
You Make Loving Fun
(Christine McVie)            10/15/77                    #9 (14 weeks)

And now, bearing all that in mind, a bit of commentary:

“The ‘Fleetwood Mac’ herein is the great group led by Peter Green, not the Californian mob with Stevie Nicks.”

(Source: Elvis Costello, “Costello’s 500: Elvis Costello picks the 500 Greatest Albums Ever”, Vanity Fair, November, 2000)

“Released in 1977, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’ was the initial single from Rumours, which eventually sold more than twelve million copies. As the first shot by the group since their quadruple-platinum Fleetwood Mac, ‘Go Your Own Way’ should have been an automatic smash, no matter what it sounded like, but it surfaced a few times and then vanished, quickly replaced by ‘Dreams,’ a soft ballad, which sailed easily to number one. ‘Go Your Own Way’ was rough, harsh, hard to follow. From its opening notes it was a maelstrom, excitement and nothing else. It was an assault, hammering, the singer moaning and threatening, pleading and damning; it didn’t let up for a second.

“Coming two thirds of the way through the performance, the requisite instrumental break should have provided a rest: instead it raised the stakes. When Lindsey Buckingham dropped his words for a guitar solo–a shattered, severed solo almost drowning in a dozen more overdubbed guitar parts, the off-beat rhythm chasing his lead, then overtaking him, then seeming to wait for him to catch up, which he never quite did–the song began all over again. Ten years later, I flinch every time it comes on the radio, knowing what’s coming, knowing that no matter how completely I can predict what’s going to happen, I won’t be able to catch up: the instrumental passage supersedes not only the singing that precedes it, but the ability of memory to enclose it. And the record got its due: ‘Dreams’ hasn’t been on the air since it dropped from the charts, while ‘Go Your Own Way’ has never been off the air.”

Greil Marcus (Source: “Music,” Artforum, March 1987. Reprinted in Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92, 1994)

MJB (Mary J. Blige): That is amazing. That song is so simple but very strong, like “Thunder only happens when it’s raining/Players only love you when they’re playing.” That line [from “Dreams”]is so amazing.

SN (Stevie Nicks): Isn’t it weird how today some people we know [in the music business] are referred to as ‘total players’? And that’s really what I was saying when I wrote that in 1976. ‘Players only love you when they’re playing,’ which means as a woman in rock, many of the different affairs and relationships I had were built around the music and being on tour. And then, when the music was over, the relationships were over.

MJB: I felt that. I can hear that. I don’t think that kind of stuff ever changes, you just get wiser or dumber about it.

(Source: Stevie Nicks interviewing Mary J. Blige, Interview Magazine, Feb. 2008)

“Lindsey had an amazing way of taking my songs and making them wonderful–when he was happy with me.”

(Source: Stevie Nicks, VHI Classic Albums–Rumours)

“Whatever Stevie’s music was, somehow I was this soul mate, that just knew exactly what to do with it. And that never went away, it just became a little bittersweet, in terms of WANTING to do it. There were times when I had the urge not to want to help her.”

(Source: Lindsey Buckingham, VH1 Classic Albums–Rumours)

“‘Dreams’ was hopeful. You know, it saw the breakup coming but it was hopeful that we would be okay, unlike ‘Go Your Own Way,’ which was not hopeful that we would be okay, you know? That was the thing that Lindsey and I argued about a lot, was that I try to be somewhat optimistic. In my songs, somewhere, you know, to pull out some kind of ray of light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t make up stories. They have to be real.”

(Source; Stevie Nicks, VH1 Classic Albums–Rumours)

“The songs that he wrote about me were horrifying. You know ‘Go Your Own Way’ is one way to say…the really worst thing you know?….You know, ‘shacking up is all you want to do,’ which was not true! And I had to listen to him sing it on stage every night and he’d look at me when he’d say it and I would just be going, ‘You know, don’t look at me when you say that!’ that tender love song that you wrote for me, you know…How mean.”

(Source: Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac documentary footage, circa 1990’s)

“Tolerable in a group that was vying for a Dorian Gray medallion by decade’s end, she proved a menace solo, equally unhealthy as role model and sex object.”

“not a diva–a transgendered arena-rock god in all his/her grand self-regard”

(Source: Noted feminist Robert Christgau’s entire commentary on Stevie Nicks’ solo career, Christgau’s Consumer Guide–first quote from 1980’s edition, 2nd quote from 1990’s review of Time Space: The Best of Stevie Nicks)

“‘Women, shit!’ the tall convict said.”

(Source: William Faulkner, final line of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem–aka, The Wild Palms, 1939)

And now, an attempt to wrest some sort of meaning from this tangle:

Stevie Nicks stomped through the California Rock scene in the seventies the way Michelle Phillips had done in the sixties: taking scalps, sampling the moment’s hip drugs, providing a certain aura of quintessence. That much they had in common.

There were some differences.

Michelle Phillips was a good harmony singer who needed confidence lessons from Mama Cass out front no matter how many A-list movie stars bowed down at her feet behind closed doors. Beyond that–and most crucially–she clearly knew her place.

Stevie Nicks was a strong writer, a mesmerizing, cantankerous front woman, and one of the greatest singers of the rock era. Beyond that–and most crucially–she clearly knew it wasn’t her place to bow down to anybody.

The quotes above are representive, but, even without them, there would be no need to guess which one drove the crit-illuminati stone cold crazy.

That might seem a little strong ,but when the lady in question has people pretending (that’s the kindest word I can think of to describe someone claiming the radio has ever stopped playing “Dreams”) that your biggest hit left the air for good when it “dropped from the charts,” to make way, ultimately, for the most famous of the “horrifying” songs your ex wrote about you, then, well, “stone cold crazy” seems just about right.

And it seems just about right even before one gets to such enlightened fare as “transgendered arena rock god” (written at just about the last moment when a Liberal-Playing-at-Radical like Christgau could use “transgendered” as an insult before the next round of re-education set in–there will, of course, never be a moment when the wrong sort of woman can’t be described as a “menace” by the cramped souls in the cheap seats or when “unhealthy…sex object” isn’t code for either cooties or VD). At that point, I guess she should just be grateful for small favors: the occasional backhanded compliment–the term “guilty pleasure” comes up a lot–and whatever relief she can manage to feel that we don’t still dip witches in the village pond and hang ’em if they don’t drown.

For the record, Fleetwood Mac went from being a very good band to an important one the moment Stevie Nicks (and, yes, Lindsey Buckingham) joined and went from being an important band to a very good one the moment she (not Buckingham) decided to focus most of her energy on one of the very few major solo careers any singer who got famous in a rock band has ever managed (and, near as I can tell, the only one anyone has ever managed on a similar scale without ever really leaving their original band).

To steal a phrase from Reggie Jackson, another misunderstood seventies-era visionary, in Fleetwood Mac’s truly epic period, Stevie Nicks was the straw that stirred the drink and everybody, including the other members of the band, pretty well knew it.

That does not mean she was musically more important than the others. That’s a totally different call. It would, for instance, be hard to be more important than Lindsey Buckingham himself, who, as an ace singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer, was an extremely rare quadruple threat. And nobody ever said Christine McVie was anything but a great singer, or that Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were anything but an awesome rhythm section. I mean, one measure of just how great Fleetwood Mac was at that point was that Stevie Nicks didn’t completely dominate it.

But she was the combustible element. And if you listen to the albums the band made in the five years before she showed up–or even the scorching guitar blues records made by the original lineup Elvis Costello loves so much in the years before that–what you hear, always, is a real good band that was very much in need of some combustion.

How she managed this was some blend of “bleeding obvious” (there was the talent, the drop-dead looks, the tendency to actually dress like a witch, or at least like nobody else) and “who the hell knows?” (whatever was inside her that drew great, angry songs like “Go Your Own Way” out of Buckingham, whose real passions otherwise were mostly for techno wizardry, or that lifted Christine McVie out of her previously–and subsequently–unbreachable comfort zone, or that made Mick Fleetwood figure he had to get in the scalp line himself at least once, and so on and so forth).

Whatever her “it” factor finally was, the public nearly always responded to it just a little bit more than it responded to the rest of the group.

The extent to which Buckingham–or the record company, or somebody–would go to counter this effect seems to have been considerable. “Landslide” and “Gold Dust Woman” were natural singles from their respective era-defining albums that went unreleased–and got picked up by the radio and played for the next forty years anyway. “Silver Springs” was left off of Rumours (where it would have been one of the strongest tracks on one of the greatest albums ever made) for “time and length” reasons that have always sounded frankly ridiculous. Released as the flip of–get this–“Go Your Own Way,” it became arguably the most famous B-side to come out after the 1960’s (when flip-hits were still pretty common) and has constantly bobbed to the surface on various re-releases ever since. (And it’s another measure of how great Fleetwood Mac was that they could leave a track as strong as “Silver Springs” off an album that was following a jillion-seller without knocking a hole in the boat.)

The upshot of all of that and more was that every attempt to rig the game in the alpha-male’s favor effectively backfired.

Partly this was just due to the quality of Nicks’ voice. She was, without much doubt, the most prominent and gifted heir of Brenda Lee-style husk and Lee had been the most popular female vocalist of the sixties. And being gorgeous never hurts commercially. Hard to hide all that.

But I think those qualities still come a long way behind the main factor–the real reason I suspect Nicks has been inordinately popular among the women vocalists who have come after and seems to strike an especially strong chord with hip-hop era black women.

To put it as succinctly as I know how: Stevie talked back.

Not only that, she talked back in a direct and forceful way that hadn’t happened quite so forcefully and directly before in rock or pretty much anywhere else. She talked back–directly–to a man who was somewhat obsessed with publicly–and directly–cutting her down. And who very pointedly wasn’t going to make up with her in the last reel. Whatever the realities of her relationship with Buckingham during Fleetwood Mac’s transcendent period, whoever was really to blame for what, that was the way the dynamic played out in public.

“Go Your Own Way” hit the radio and the record bins and, despite Greil Marcus’ delusional claim otherwise, was in fact a very big hit. A very big hit which was a straightforward “you-know-she’s-really-a-whore/slut-don’t-you?” attack on the woman singing harmony and standing next to him on stage every night–a harmony and a stage presence, incidentally, that won him a degree of fame he, for all his talent, almost certainly never could have achieved without her.

That was strange enough by itself–at least as weird as any dynamic that had ever existed in the Mamas and the Papas or the Jefferson Airplane or Abba.

But Grace Slick tended to write and sing more memorably about the times than her feelings and the other women in those groups didn’t write at all, so it meant something different when you could flip the 45 of “Go Your Own Way” and listen to “Silver Springs” not as a throwaway, but as an equally great record that literally told the other side of the story.

And if anybody wanted to wait four months until “Go Your Own Way” dropped off the charts (after performing right in line with the band’s previous singles), then they could hear “Dreams” following hard after–“Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do,” chased onto the airwaves by, “Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom, well who am I to keep you down?”

That sort of thing might (or might not) seem fairly mundane now, a generation and a half after riot girl power erupted (in the underground at least). But it wasn’t mundane then. If you wanted to hear some sort of female empowerment in the mid-seventies Top 40, you mostly would be settling for songs about hanging in there like “I Will Survive.” Great record, no doubt–and necessary–but it wasn’t exactly moving the ball forward.

That’s where Stevie Nicks came in.

Not only did she offer in-time responses to age-old attacks on “wanton” women, but these were responses that rang out like gentle curses. The woman who could rock as hard as anybody alive tended to whisper when, without turning around, she was–magically if you will–parrying the knives aimed at her back.

So in a sense, for all that she accomplished after–a solo career that produced another solid handful of radio staples (and not a few magnificent performances–see below), a decade or more as rock’s go-to harmony session singer (which made her as much a descendant of Darlene Love and Merry Clayton as of Brenda Lee), a career as a “role model” that worked out just fine no matter how many rock critics followed Lindsey Buckingham’s lead–her place in the pantheon was secure the minute “Dreams”–that “soft ballad” that worked as a knowing, inescapable psychic knee in the groin of the sexual element of male privilege that, no matter how far we think “civilization” has come, is still the foundation stone upon which all the other privileges are built–started up the charts.

That makes “Dreams” a pretty big deal even now. Because if that was all there was to Stevie Nicks, it would be enough. If there were no cataclysmic live version of “Edge of Seventeen,” no glorious throwaways like her Buddy Holly and Ricky Nelson covers, no definitive take on “Silent Night,” no bridge to transcendence on the version of “The Insider” that appears on Tom Petty’s 30th Anniversary Concert DVD, no three and half additional decades of popping up from the ether every few years and reminding us who she really is, there would still be “Dreams,” the song that made the crit-illuminati start lying their collective asses off the moment it appeared and has never stopped annoying them since.

Of course it was inevitable (more or less) that all that other stuff would exist–once the impulses that created “Dreams” did. There was no way anyone as driven and gifted as Nicks was going to remain in the shadows, or go back to them once she had fully emerged–and frankly she had already emerged before “Dreams” was a record. Probably even before it was an idea. I’m not even sure it’s her signature record. Plenty would vote for “Rhiannon” or “Landslide,” and I wouldn’t say they were wrong.

But “Dreams” was the no-going-back point. The way into the future.

Not the first time a woman stood toe to toe with men generally. That had happened plenty–even in rock.

Just the first time a woman stood toe-to-toe with the particular man who was saying particular things about her.

In the same band.

Or, as Elvis Costello would have it (and I’m sure the fact that he was never able to stay on the radio himself had nothing to do with his failure to comprehend all this), in a “Californian mob,” which, of course, happened to be three-fifth’s English.

Goodness knows we should be used to the six thousand degrees of separation from reality that the boys with the thinking caps and the typewriter minds practice by now, let alone the sort of rock musician who lives to impress them.

But I’m pausing here, this particular month, to celebrate the woman who made the idea that we should accept it utterly obsolete the minute she showed up.

Annoy on, lady. I’m with you.

Fleetwood Mac “Rhiannon” (Live on The Midnight Special: 1976)

Fleetwood Mac “Go Your Own Way” (Live Performance: 1977)

Stevie Nicks “Edge of Seventeen” (Live at Red Rock: 1986)

Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty “The Insider” (Live Performance, 2006)

Stevie Nicks and Chris Isaak “It’s Late” (Live on Television: 2009)

 (NOTE: Steven Rubio has rightly pointed out in comments that Brenda Lee being the most popular female vocalist of the 1960s is a contestable statement. I just want to clarify that I was referencing Joel Whitburn’s Billboard research, specifically Top Pop Singles: 1955-1999, which places Brenda third overall for the decade behind the Beatles and Elvis and, of course, first among female vocalists. As I’ve explained in a number of my Elvis posts, “charts” are not definitive barometers of “popularity.” But they are the only useful objective public evidence that exists. Apologies for the short-hand and thanks to Steven for pointing out the need for a clarification.)

 

5 thoughts on “WELL, HERE’S ANOTHER ONE BORN STANDING UP AND TALKING BACK (Stevie Nicks–Vocalist of the Month, 8/13)

  1. Just a terrific piece! Came at a good time for me, as I’ve been reconsidering my own opinion about Nicks. I suspect I’ve underrated her because I’m old enough to have seen Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac at the Fillmore West in the 60s, and when I saw the Buckingham/Nicks version in the 70s, I was impressed but I missed the blooze. I would have chosen on of the earlier Edge of Seventeen videos … the Red Rock one takes too long to get going, and takes too long to be finished. Also, much as I like Brenda Lee, I think it’s a stretch to say she was the most popular female vocalist of the 60s … Aretha, among others, would have something to say about that. But I’m nitpicking. I’ve linked to this on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

  2. Thanks Steven for the kind comments and the links!

    I probably should have mentioned in the piece that I didn’t value “Dreams” as much in its own day as I do now…It wasn’t necessarily a song I wanted to hear twice an hour when I was sixteen! And I didn’t know anything about the dynamic within the group so their songs were just songs and this is one instance where the dynamics mattered a lot. I think the girls in my high school probably could have taught me a thing or two–on this as on many other subjects.

    On Red Rock…I like all the stuff you don’t so I’ll just have to say different strokes for different folks on that one. (lol) (though, of course, the 81 version, in particular, is terrific as well)

    On Brenda Lee, I used Joel Whitburn’s end-of-the-millennium research, which shows her to be the most popular chart act after the Beatles and Elvis in the 1960–69 period. Not entirely conclusive as charts aren’t perfect barometers, but it’s the closest thing to objective evidence that exists so far as I know. (Record sales as reported by record companies barely qualify as jokes.) Since that’s not a well known fact, I can see where it might be confusing so I’ll definitely add a note of clarification to the post.

    And I think the “original” Fleetwood Mac was a terrific band and I’ve actually been listening to them quite a bit lately. I do, though, have my common cavil with white blues bands (especially the British ones) The playing was generally a lot better than the singing.

    Granted, I might have felt differently if I’d been lucky enough to catch them at the Fillmore!

  3. That’s interesting about Brenda Lee. I wouldn’t have guessed it. She sneaks up on you, a bit like Alison Krauss, who I also love, and who somehow ended up having more Grammys than any other woman in history. Well-deserved, but there too, I would have thought Aretha had her beat.

  4. You’re not entirely wrong. Aretha has a slight edge overall because she was more successful in the seventies and beyond….I should have known not to take that little tidbit about Lee for granted, though. It’s been my go-to trivia question for the last decade plus and no one’s ever guessed it!…I’ll have a long take on Brenda one of these days. She rarely gets her due.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.