Tusk was the third album released by what had already become the most famous version of Fleetwood Mac. The history is well known but bears repeating.
The group started out in the mid to late sixties as a first rate English blues rock outfit, distinguished from dozens of others, and even most of the better ones, by Peter Green’s scintillating guitar, the rock solid rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie and some better than usual songwriting.
With Green’s departure, the early seventies’ version of the band brought on several new members–Christine McVie (née Perfect) and Bob Welch preeminent among them–and gravitated towards a mellower soul-pop sound.
The first version had kicked up some serious dust. The second version hung around.
Eventually it, too, fell apart and Fleetwood found himself in recruiting mode again.
This time, he happened on an up and coming guitarist and vocalist named Lindsey Buckingham, who already had a record out with his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks. Fleetwood and the band offered Buckingham a job. He said he would take it but only if his girlfriend could join too.
There was a big meeting–laughable in hindsight–to determine whether the two women could get along.
In the years to come, the two women would be just about the only ones who got along. But what the new Fleetwood Mac did over the next four-and-a-half years, as they were cutting each other to shreds, was remarkable by any standard.
The new unit’s first album, Fleetwood Mac, was released in 1975 and to date has sold seven million copies in the U.S. alone. Their next album, Rumours, made that, and nearly everything else released in the decade, look like chump change.
Both albums deserved their status as massive sellers and era-defining records. Good thing, because by the time they were done, Stevie Nicks was no longer Lindsey Buckingham’s girlfriend and Christine McVie was no longer John McVie’s wife.
It seemed they had taken sexual politics as far as it could go–further than the Mamas & the Papas, who had shattered under similar strains in the sixties and left a legacy in the arena other romantically entwined male/female outfits (Jefferson Airplane, Abba, Fifth Dimension) who had gotten in between couldn’t touch.
On Rumours, Buckingham and Nicks in particular, has blasted past all that, answering each others insults face to face and voice to voice on the album, the radio, and stages all over the world.
There really should have been nowhere to go.
But selling albums in the tens of millions, as opposed to mere millions, brought a whole new perspective.
How could they break that up?
And, after Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do and Players only love you when they’re playing, how could they not break it up?
A million dollars, a studio built especially for the ask, and many obsessive months later, Tusk was the answer. One which, in effect, bound them together forever, and from which they would never recover.
“Over & Over”–Gently, gently, Christine the Bystander leads us into the house of horrors. It’s placement at the top of the album might have been designed to mock the jump-start openers on their previous two albums. The mood Lindsey the Boyfriend was in, I don’t doubt such placement was deliberate. Lindsey the Producer was savvy enough, though, to give this the full late-sixties Beach Boys vibe and Lindsey the Guitarist was sensitive enough to provide a gorgeous fade that evokes a clear blue mountain lake, glimpsed through a high window.
“The Ledge”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend puts the lines You can love me baby but you can’t walk out and six feet under in the same song. He didn’t put them next to each other, but he was singing this one himself, so there’s no mistaking the meaning, which would have been the same if he had just sung the lyrics to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
“Think About Me”–Wait, we better put a hit single on here somewhere. Let’s throw it to Christine the Bystander! And Christine delivers, except, as hit singles go, Baby once in a while, think about me is not Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow or Over my head and it sure feels nice. Top twenty sure, but by this time that was counted a flop. They didn’t play it in concert for twenty-five years. If you listen close, you can hear the stinger in the lyric. That part about not holding you down and maybe that’s why you’re around.
“Save Me a Place”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend turns philosophical. He’ll come running. He promises. If you’ll love him. If you don’t, it’s all on you, because he needs to be amazed.
“Sara”–Stevie the Ex is finally allowed to get a word in edgewise and the very first thing out of her mouth is Wait a minute baby...Then she pretends to be the someone else he wanted her to be while she’s explaining how he tricked her into thinking he was the someone else she wanted him to be. Somebody understood. It went Top Ten and became the album’s only radio staple. Must have been the part about drowning….in the sea of love….where everyone….would love….to drown. The sentiment was sure fire. It had worked for Phil Phillips and Joe Simon in times past. But the hesitations were new. Very 1979.
“What Makes You Think You’re the One”–Something struck deep. Lindsey the Boyfriend is starting to hone his attack. It’s not entirely clear that the attack will be limited to words. By the end, it sounds like he’s thrown every dart he can get his hands (or tongue) on at the Stevie the Ex’s back. And if she doesn’t turn around? What then?
“Storms”–Or worse, what if she turns around and sings a lullaby? What if it’s impossibly lovely and wounded, the sound of a broken flower? What if it ends with I have always…been a storm. Watch out, she’s hesitating again.
“That’s All For Everyone”–I spent a lot of years not looking at the titles on this album so I always heard Last call for everyone. Last call for me. And that’s still what the voice says, lyric sheet be damned. Already the album is veering towards things words either can’t say or can say but better not.
“Not That Funny”–And just in time, too, since this is the sound of a man breaking into his ex’s house and telling her to stop making him do it while he punches her in the face, and the way he sings don-n-n-n’t bla-a-a-me me-e-e hardly belies the air of menace.
“Sisters of the Moon”–At which point Stevie the Ex, bound to think this might have something to do with her, is forced to turn herself into a ghost who walks through walls. When she gets to the next room, she turns and watches her temporal body from a distance, not really wanting to look, but not daring to go too far either. There is serious competition, but arguably her greatest side. The key is how she makes In-tense si-lence sound like in-tense violence…Lindsey the Producer’s grasp of the mood helps as does Lindsey the Guitarist’s blistering fade.
“Angel”–The morning after: Peace, and a powerful, lilting suggestion that what came before was just an ugly dream….or a suppressed memory. (And I’ll bet if Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend had known there would one day be compact discs and streaming services that obliterated side breaks, Lindsey the Producer would never in a million years have granted Stevie the Ex two songs in a row.)
“That’s Enough For Me”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend hears what he did the night before transmuted into something he can’t recognize or understand. He senses this might give him an edge and swears it’s all he ever wanted! Damn convincing, too.
“Brown Eyes”–Clearly personal, but because Christine the Bystander, who’s got problems of her own, isn’t involved in the main drama, she has to bury her personality under an abstract vocal, which sounds like it’s coming from that room where Stevie’s ghost wandered. Only Christine can’t walk through walls, which means she can’t leave.
“Never Make Me Cry”–Hear what I mean?
“I Know I’m Not Wrong”–Don-n-n-t bla-a-a-me me. Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend cries. You can see him clinching his fists, staring at them, wondering what they might be capable of if somebody else doesn’t take the blame very, very soon.
“Honey Hi”–Christine the Bystander still can’t get out of that room because she still can’t walk through walls. She’s started to sound more like a ghost though.
“Beautiful Child”–The memories are now so suppressed Stevie the Ex has reverted all the way to childhood.
“Walk a Thin Line”–Lindsey, knowing he will never again be the Boyfriend, that being the Producer and the Guitarist will never again mean as much as they did before, perhaps horrified by what he has done or thought of doing, perhaps torn apart by the ex’s retreat into a vocal beauty so pure he ca never hope to comprehend it, walks the thin line between loading every chamber and playing Russian Roulette. No one was listenin’….
“Tusk”–The sound of the fantasy rape that takes place when the Boyfriend, jilted or otherwise, has had enough! Recorded live at Dodger Stadium, with the USC Trojan band accompanying. Top Ten in the moment. Kept off my radio ever since by those very forces that put so much effort into making it easy for us to assume they don’t know what they’re doing.
“Never Forget”–None of this ever happened. It’s really just an album folks. Listen again. Right now. You’ll see.
There are no true oldies stations in my market anymore. The last one changed formats more than a decade ago. What’s left is the Hank format and a Classic Rock Formula which has been reshaped from hard-rock-all-the-time (white except for Jimi Hendrix) to a mix of hard rock (white….except for Jimi Hendrix), hard pop rock (all white), a little easy listening (ditto), plus, for the sake of diversity, “Superstition” and “Low Rider.”
It’s not exactly a true re-creation of how hit-oriented radio worked in the sixties and seventies, but it is an accurate reflection of these focus-grouped times.
Usually, I just listen to the gasbags on talk radio who at least keep me up with the news. (And represent the last, best hope Never Trumpers have of taking their nemesis down, even if they don’t know it and would never admit it if they did. Believe me, when you’re in the Byzantine spot Robert Mueller’s in, a place where so many corrupt riddles are wrapped inside so many diseased enigmas your own best hope of staying out of jail is the pubic’s inability to keep up, you couldn’t hope for better than to have Sean Hannity and Mark Levin representing the other side).
But, now and again, when the gasbags either overwhelm me or go to commercial once too often, I still pull up the Classic Hits station in my car.
I had missed a promo-promised Go-Go’s/Queen segue earlier in the day, but now I hit the button just as this one started…and, once it starts, I never change the station…
Strange thing, though. This time, all I could think about while the song was playing (and I was shouting every word–have I ever mentioned that I harmonize with Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham like a long lost sibling who shared a mother with one and a father with the other?…Or that I can’t be the first person to have considered the possibility that everyone can do this?)–was how, when the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign adopted “Don’t Stop” as the theme song and wanted Fleetwood Mac to re-unite and play it for some big occasion (the Convention? Election Night? the Inaugural?…the memory hazes, but, for my purposes here, it only matters that they said yes), Buckingham at first refused.
He gave in only when Stevie Nicks called him up and said If you take this away from me, I’ll never speak to you again.)
Don’t mind me. I get peculiar thoughts some times.
Because while all that was running through my head (without my thrush-like throat fluffing a note) I also started wondering if Oo-o-o-hh, don’t you look back might be a sentiment tantamount to civilizational suicide. Didn’t somebody say something once about those who don’t learn from the past being doomed to, etc., etc., etc.?
And wouldn’t not learning from the past you never look back to just about define Bill Clinton’s life and legacy? (Be sure you read Thomas Frank’s blind-squirrel-finds-a-nut article at the link, especially if you’ve forgotten, or never admitted, how much damage Clinton did to liberalism, damage that is likely to remain irreparable…..And, like I said, don’t mind me.)
Boy was I depressed.
Not even remembering how the ghost version of “Don’t Stop” had long since forced me to ponder whether Christine McVie having just possibly conceived the song as pure irony should be one of my heart-of-the-universe questions–how, with the slightest shift of timbre, she transformed don’t look back from the proverbial fear that something might be gaining on you to an anthem worthy of an American presidential campaign, where never a discouraging word must be heard–allowed me to shake the feeling the whole world has been had all over again every time this song plays on the radio and one of us sings along in perfect harmony without missing a note or a nuance.
Then the radio went straight into this…
…which was so much about nothing (a Curfew Riot–which sounds like the title of a Monty Python skit) it ended up being about everything. Including now.
Paranoia strikes deep….
And even though it had been too long since I heard it (and though nothing could ever match the impact of singing it, in perfect harmony–with five kids who weren’t conversant with English, or even born, when it was released–under the eaves of the library at Kent State in 1998) for me to get every note, or even every word, right, I thought…well this radio still speaks in mysterious ways some times, its wonders to perform.
After that, Tom Petty reminding me I don’t have the live like a refugee, usually the highlight of any paranoiac’s day, felt as comfortable as an old shoe.
Then “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” came on and I remembered how talk radio came to be an option in the first place.
Because the Empire planned it that way….That’s how.
Now go back to bed and leave me alone you damned ol’ Politics.
I also left off b-sides that were hits (think Ricky Nelson’s “Helly Mary Lou,” which definitely would have been here otherwise, or Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” which might have been). I also limited myself to one record per artist (else the Shangri-Las would have three or four).
And because I already covered the true obscurities, these are all by successful artists (as opposed to one-hit wonders)–most people know the acts, even if they don’t know the records.
What’s left is still a weird and beautiful secret history of rock and roll. If these were the biggest/best hits these acts ever had, the world would not have been the worse for it.
1959–“What About Us” (A-side: “Run Red Run”) The Coasters
The Coasters/Robins were not exactly slouches in the B-side department themselves. I picked this one because, in combo with “Run Red Run” it’s an early example of the concept single, which a lot of crit-illuminati types think couldn’t possibly have existed before “Strawberry Fields” or, at the very outside, “Don’t Worry Baby.”
1964–“Silence is Golden” (A-Side: “Rag Doll”) The 4 Seasons
I first heard this on a Seasons’ comp in the late seventies. I remember being shocked–I don’t think benumbed is too strong a word–to learn it was never promoted as a single (i.e., that there had once been a world where this could be relegated to a B-side because the A-side was only “Rag Doll”…and that, little more than a decade later, such a world no longer existed). Then I found out it had been a hit for an English group called the Tremeloes. Then I heard the Tremeloes’ version. Good God.
1966–“I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (A-Side: “Sunny Afternoon”) The Kinks
This is in the conversation for the greatest record the Kinks ever made. If the conversation is with me, it’s not even a conversation. And yes, I’m aware of the extreme competition.
1967–“I’ll Never Learn” (A-Side: “Sweet Sounds of Summer”) The Shangri-Las
Speaking of being shocked and benumbed…The record I think of first when I think of all that’s been lost in the fifty years since. Mainly the future that never arrived…and I don’t just mean Mary Weiss’s career.
1967–“I’ll Turn to Stone” (A-Side: “7-Rooms of Gloom”) The Four Tops
No way a handy ten of epic B-Sides would be complete without Motown, but this is a new discovery for me. I came across it when I was researching a possible post on co-writer R. Dean Taylor. To think: “7-Rooms of Gloom” as the upbeat, radio-ready side! (And FWIW it replaced the Go-Go’s “Surfing and Spying” which is the proof that Charlotte Caffey was a walking encyclopedia of surf guitar and sadly missed. Like I said, ten is a measly number.)
1968–“Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” (A-Side: “Abraham, Martin and John”) Dion
I love “Abraham, Martin and John” unreservedly. But I can only imagine the shock that must have occurred to anyone who turned it over in 1968. It’s still shocking.
1969–“Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” (A-Side: “Snatching It Back”) Clarence Carter
A sermon on sex. Guilt-free, too. Until the end. Starts funny as Richard Pryor. Ends deep as James Carr.
1973–“Something” (A-Side: James’ nine hundredth version of “Think,” all necessary.) James Brown
George Harrison’s favorite version….of hundreds.
1977–“Silver Springs” (A-Side: “Go Your Own Way”) Fleetwood Mac
Left off Rumours as a casualty of the permanent psychodrama that was Buckingham/Nicks. Else they just didn’t have room (hahahahaha!). Restored to various versions of the album in the CD-era, with stunning outtakes added on the multi-disc release. The rare song left off a classic album which, when restored to its original running order (at the top of the second side), doesn’t just improve the album but force-multiplies its power.
1981–“Psycho” (A-Side: “Sweet Dreams.” What else?) Elvis Costello and the Attractions
I was gonna go with Tanya Tucker’s “No Man’s Land,” which is scarier, but I decided to keep this an all rock and roll affair.
Love the cheering at the end. What else should one do after “Mama why don’t you get up?”
On the outtake disc for whatever Special Edition of Tusk it is that I own, Fleetwood Mac’s version of the Beach Boys’ “Farmer’s Daughter” has never sounded like much more than Lindsey Buckingham’s throwaway homage to Brian Wilson.
Caught at random on YouTube the other day, it sounded like one of those secret gifts the radio used to bring. …
…I wonder if that’s because, in ways that the mere calendar can’t do more than hint at, we’re so much further away from them than they were from 1962?
Forget wheel chairs, my sources at CIA–as reliable as any–inform me that Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham have mutually reinforcing codicils in their respective wills that instruct their legitimate heirs to send their embalmed corpses on an international tour every three years until the seventieth generation times seven has passed from the earth.
This war will never end.
And, as long as Mick Fleetwood’s heirs are willing to provide one of grandpa’s drum loops, you can bet it will still sound pretty damn good.
I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”
It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.
Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:
Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)
Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)
The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)
Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)
Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)
Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)
Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)
The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)
London Calling The Clash (1979)
The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)
1999 Prince (1982)
Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)
Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)
I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.
That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.
So it goes.
My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dimefor reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life, The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.
Besides Tusk, that leaves:
These, I’ve obsessed over.
Some time or other.
Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.
Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.
Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.
That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.
Boy, do I feel foolish.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?
One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.
And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.
You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.
But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?
Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.
And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).
For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.
Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.
There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,” in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
Before I have to put this knife in your throat.
All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.
That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.
Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.
Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.
It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.
But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.
I skipped Paul Kantner, in part because I didn’t have much to add to what was already being said, in part because I was enduring my annual Australian Open hangover (just now clearing), in part because I kept hoping the Death Train would pull in for a rest.
Alas, it rolls on, and now it’s coming for the prophets.
By the time he stepped out in front of Earth, Wind and Fire, one of the three or four greatest funk bands (and twenty or so greatest rock and roll bands) ever, Maurice White was really just claiming a space he had helped create.
As a Memphis-born, Chicago-bound session drummer, he played on lots of seminal records in the sixties, none more so than Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me,” the 1965 smash that paved the way for Aretha Franklin’s breakthrough two years later (Dave Marsh once accurately dubbed it “the greatest non-Aretha Aretha ever,” and, as he also noted, the more remarkable for coming first). After that, White joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio and, across a number of albums, laid down the bottom for the funk-oriented jazz that EWF would one day turn into jazz-oriented funk.
Thereafter, along with leading one of rock’s essential bands, he also found time to be one of the era’s most formidable record men, kicking off the career of Deniece Williams and making perhaps his finest record with the previously fair-to-middling Emotions.
But it with his great band that he left his deepest mark. As a quadruple in-house dynamo (singer/songwriter/drummer/producer) he was probably matched in the seventies only by Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham–and even Buckingham shouldered a bit less of the load than White did.
Eventually, there were a slew of Grammys and the usual assortment of additional honors, plus 15 gold or platinum albums between 1973 and 1988–impressive for anyone, staggering for a funk band.
Above all that, there was an over-arching message, one that began in troubled times, lasted through the false “morning” of the eighties and still calls out to the future we threw away. Just in case we don’t manage to snatch it back, I hope the music will still be around to remind whoever’s up next of just what is possible.
Maurice White moved to the next plane yesterday after losing a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
All he left behind, out of Africa and America, was a past worth reclaiming here and now and a future worth living for anywhere and any time.
As session man:
As producer and record man:
And as Mighty Mighty Man (singer, bandleader, front-man, record man, soul man):
Ah well, the train rolls on down here, but I have it on good authority that they’re dancing in heaven tonight.
Compared to that, having my first car wreck, in 1981, while trying to remember the lyrics to “Caroline, No,” is chicken scratch.
For some of us, car wrecks come and go. ’71 Mavericks come and go. But you only get one chance at The One.
Oh sure, other factors were definitely involved. Maybe he just “helped” cost me The One.
The One had a boyfriend after all. And they were engaged. So that made two mighty impediments. My honor and hers.
Plus it was summer and summers are short, and I wasn’t the sort to make short work of pursuing anyone, let alone The One.
Especially if she had a boyfriend and they were engaged.
Which I didn’t yet know they were on the second night of my summer–not, as it happened, the second night of her summer or the boyfriend’s, me being a late arrival to the Southern Baptist Conference Center due to Florida’s Junior College system, exactly one year away from reform, still being the only college system in the entire south that was on a different schedule from the rest.
So the second night–my second night–it was.
The night of the Talent Show.
I’d already met The One by then. Lobby of the Girls’ Dorm. Rainy day. She noodling on the piano and singing “You Light Up My Life,” me politely inquiring for the person the front desk had told me would assign me a room in the Boys’ Dorm.
I didn’t know she was The One by virtue of her being good-looking or singing “You Light Up My Life.” In 1979, whatever degree of interest the first factor drummed up was bound to be mitigated by the second.
In 1979, the ubiquitous presence of “You Light Up My Life” in the Air of Everywhere, was one of many, many factors that had me regularly contemplating slitting my wrists.
No, she didn’t become The One until our eyes met, ever so briefly, and I saw somebody who was in the same kind of trouble I was in.
Which meant I immediately started thinking of her as The One who could get me out. And of me as the one who could get her out.
And I didn’t give up hope when I saw her walking around with some guy the next day.
Hey, it didn’t mean they were engaged!
I even got my hopes up that evening when we all showed up for the Talent Show and filed into the auditorium from opposite ends and, in a crowd of maybe two hundred, I found myself walking down the fourth aisle straight toward The One, who was, I immediately noticed, sans boyfriend.
So how much of a boyfriend he could be (me not knowing they were engaged) huh? How much of a boyfriend could he be if he wasn’t even willing to accompany her to the Talent Show?
We sat next to each other and while there was little chance for actual conversation, we both laughed at all the same things. How could we not, she being The One and all? Others may have laughed, too. Probably did. Probably at the same things we did. But who cared? What was important was the building of the first small bond.
All that serendipity. I couldn’t possibly have asked for more, two days in.
Then, to close the show, the Elvis Impersonator came on.
Guy named Eddie.
He had the sideburns (permanent fixture). He had the rhinestone cape (borrowed for the occasion, God knows where). He had the screaming girls patting down his forehead (all in good fun). He had the scarves (proving he meant business).
He was clearly taking it seriously even if nobody else was and I was prepared to be generous.
And, yeah, interested to see how The One would take it.
Now, I already knew Eddie was the only guy in the Boys’ Dorm who had brought a record player with him (he might have been the only one who knew they were allowed). I also knew that one of the records he had with him was this one:
What I didn’t know–what I don’t think too many people knew–was that this was the only record he had with him.
So when the scarves had been distributed among the faux-faithful and the faux-screams had all died down and one of the girls on the stage went over to Eddie’s record player (which had us all wondering why it was there as the previous acts came and went), and, after carefully checking that Eddie was ready for his cue, prepared to drop the needle, I sort of expected a young man who had taken due care with all those other facets of Elvis Impersonation to, you know, sing–or at least lip-synch–an Elvis song.
Which he might have, if he had actually possessed an Elvis record.
Instead of, say, Endless Summer.
Call me immature. Call me crazy. Call me no longer prepared to be generous.
But even at the all-in-fun Talent Show for the 1979 summer staff of the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina, I wasn’t ready for an Elvis Impersonator to lip-synch to the Beach Boys.
And, even if I had been somehow ready for that in theory, I certainly wasn’t ready for the Elvis Impersonator to, in fact, start lip-synching to “I Get Around.”
Everybody else laughed. Including The One.
Which was okay. I was raised in church. I knew man was born in sin and nobody was perfect. There was nothing to forgive. It was between her and God.
Well, her and God and everybody else in the place, who did what you naturally do when “I Get Around” comes on (whether an Elvis Impersonator is involved or not) and started bopping in their seats. You know, bop a little to the left, bop a little to the right.
Clap your hands.
Let your body sway.
In time with the music.
Everybody, including The One.
Everybody except me.
In that moment I was a Clanton at the OK Corral.
Yes, I was in what turned out to be my rather brief “rock snob” phase, but I was only in the early stages of my Elvis fandom, still not quite sure how far that thing would go.
I could have stood Elvis being mocked.
But the Beach Boys?
No. That was a bridge too far.
“Surfin’ Safari” maybe. “Catch a Wave?”….maybe.
“I Get Around?”
Elvis was one thing.
Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al?
Those were my brothers.
I stayed stock still. The literal stick in the mud.
The One noticed.
After about the third bop to the right she didn’t bop quite as far, presumably because she didn’t want to keep bopping into my cold rock of a shoulder.
And as the song neared an end and the bopping gradually ceased, she leaned over and whispered something to her girlfriend (truly gorgeous and the one girl in the place everybody but me thought was better looking than The One, and they were inseparable right up until one particularly high social occasion in the middle of the summer when The One decided to, just once, and ever so casually, let everybody know otherwise, after which I never saw them together again, but that’s another story for another day).
In the moment, her girlfriend whispered back, at which point the music stopped entirely and I heard every word.
“Maybe he doesn’t know who they are,” she said.
Did I mention that I spent a lot of time in those days contemplating blades and wrists?
I didn’t really contemplate them less as the summer wore on.
And the funny thing was, it was otherwise a great experience.
You know, otherwise than having my best chance at really bonding with The One totally blown, and having her walk around thinking I must be the jerk of jerks, and an ignoramus to boot on the one subject where I wasn’t. All because Brian Wilson had produced a piece of music that put me past reason, a record that had come on the radio the summer I got that ’71 Maverick and helped teach me what freedom was, thereby leaving me permanently honor-bound to defend him as best I could even–or especially–in the strangest and most inconvenient of circumstances.
But, of course, she did not stop being The One. Not ever.
Not when I found out a day or two later that she was engaged (these things get broken off, don’t they?). Not when I barely saw her for weeks on end and found no chance whatsoever to speak with her at any length beyond hi-and-bye. Not when I joined the choir because I heard she was in it and it turned out I couldn’t get next to her because we were rehearsing a cantata and she had a speaking part and so was always at the front of the stage, separate and apart, even at practice.
Not when I found myself sitting next to her boyfriend on the bench at a softball game between innings, just past Summer’s midpoint, and somebody came up to him and asked him if it was true he and The One had broken up and the boyfriend said yeah and I said, ever so casually, “Wow, you guys had been going together a long time hadn’t you?” and he said “Naw, I just met her the first week we got here.”
The week I was still back in Florida. Attending classes at the only college or ju-co system in the entire south that let out a week late.
Just in case you think this absurdist story has some sort of resolution or happy ending, or even an unhappy ending, you may rest easy.
The story that began with me believing The One was engaged, and therefore off-limits, even if the whole “I Get Around” episode hadn’t made things indisputably awkward, had no ending.
Too close to the end of the summer, I said, there on the bench, just past Summer’s midpoint.
Too much chance she, now on the rebound, will shoot me down for too little reward, I said (and don’t forget the “I Get Around” incident…I said).
Besides, hey, I only just left home for the first time. I’m all of eighteen. There’s lots of time.
Probably once you get away from home this happens on a pretty regular basis. I said.
The One. Hah!
So that was my version of an ending, really. Just me watching her the rest of the summer. Watching her go through the motions. Watch her start skipping choir practice even though she was one of the key performers, while, I, of course, kept going, kept watching through windows and seeing her pop up in the distance, kept watching her wear, from that distance, the same mask of careful reserve that I was wearing and present the same absolute determination to let no one know just how much trouble she was in, that I was presenting.
Watching her prove beyond all doubt that I wasn’t wrong that very first day when I looked her in the eyes and knew what we shared.
Watching her, knowing we could save each other if I made a move, if I dared to reveal myself. And then wondering if what we would really do was destroy each other, knowing what we shared.
So yes. I talked myself out of it–out of even approaching her.
But the one remaining time I got close to her by accident, I didn’t walk away. I didn’t leave.
Which was why the story never really ended.
Because all we ended up doing was sitting at a breakfast table, with maybe six other kids, maybe two weeks from Summer’s end and she said something and somebody else said something and she said something back and I, as I periodically did in those days, thought of something clever to say and went ahead and said it and everybody laughed really loud.
Everybody except The One.
The One’s head snapped around and she stared at me and what it sure looked like was the stare of somebody who knew she was looking at someone who was in the same kind of trouble she was in.
Somebody who could save her.
Or go down with her.
Two weeks to go in Summer.
It took me three whole days to talk myself out of going anywhere near her again.
Though if she had showed up at one more choir practice? If we’d still been having choir practice?
But probably not.
I was running scared by then. And time was short.
Maybe she wasn’t The One after all.
She never did get that thing about “I Get Around,” did she?
You could say I was very romantic and you’d probably be right. You could say it was no big deal. You could say it was kid’s stuff.
You could say you could never really know, on the basis of such thin reasoning and thinner experience, that she was The One.
You could say that.
But then I’d have to say this.
I never dated her, barely even spoke to her. I never married. And I never forgot her, the way I forgot everybody else.
And I never stopped hoping that she, too, somehow got past the trouble she was in. That she didn’t go down.
After which, I’d also have to say something like:
“You want to know how you know The One was The One?”
All of that happens. All of that I just described.
That’s how you know.
So, yeah, Brian Wilson owes me.
I owe him more.
* * * *
Maybe not my life. Maybe not quite.
It wasn’t his music I was listening to in 1984 when the clouds finally rolled away and I knew I was going to survive. It was somebody else’s music.
Somebody he had inspired pretty directly as it happened and maybe I’ll write about that some other day, too. But the thing is, it could have been almost anybody who made music after a certain point because after a certain point almost everybody was inspired by him…pretty directly.
Just going through my usual, general listening the day after I saw Love & Mercy in the theaters for the first time, I heard him in Stevie Wonder, in Bob Marley, in the Beatles’ Revolver, all over Fleetwood Mac’s classic period, where, listening to acolyte Lindsey Buckingham’s version of “Farmer’s Daughter” on the disc of outtakes for Tusk, I was especially struck by how naturally it fit in with everything the band had done since Buckingham joined.
One could go on.
There are a lot of books on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, plus a number of documentaries. I haven’t read or seen every single one. But I’ve read and seen my share. All of those combined don’t come close to telling how much it cost to make that soul-saving music as Love & Mercy does.
That’s the film’s great achievement.
You could nitpick it as art, maybe even as craft.
When I saw it the first time, in my local theater, the sound system wasn’t up to snuff. The dialogue seemed to be coming out of one speaker, which was working fine, but the music was coming out of a second, damaged speaker, and barely audible.
Pretty big handicap that. Not being able to hear the music too well in a musical biopic about a man whose particular genius was hearing the world slightly differently than everyone else and whose life story was the struggle to both mediate and communicate that difference.
It didn’t matter, though. Not in the least.
That’s how good Love & Mercy is. With the foreground music (mostly by the Beach Boys themselves) almost inaudible, the background music completely so (as I found out a day later when I had a chance to see it in Birmingham, with a sound system that worked, and could actually hear the period music that lent depth and scope to several key scenes), and me wondering whether it was a stylistic choice meant to reflect Wilson’s near-deafness in one ear, the movie still left me overwhelmed, staggered even, unable to leave my seat until the ushers finally came through sweeping the trash.
So maybe Paul Giamatti’s evil psychiatrist is a little over the top, even for Eugene Landy. Maybe I wish the other band members (besides Mike Love, generally regarded as a heavy, who is well and sensitively represented here) could have played a slightly bigger role. Maybe the balance between Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn, and his second, Melinda Ledbetter (played with a wonderful style of good old American can-do optimism by Elizabeth Banks), could have been a little more even. Maybe a few of the more conventional scenes do look a bit awkwardly expository and pedestrian sprinkled here and there amongst the sheer lyricism of the recording studio bits, the jolt of Wilson’s famous airplane breakdown (where Paul Dano manages to communicate real terror, the genuine spectre of death, in a circumstance where we know, as Brian Wilson did not in that moment, he’s going to survive and a moment the rest of Dano’s astounding performance has to measure itself against), or the dream-like disorientation of the late scenes where Dano’s baby-faced Boy-Man and John Cusack’s ravaged Man-Boy, finally fuse as one with a power and immediacy that’s only achievable on film, that, for once, uses the medium to go beyond the capacity of page or stage.
Like I say. Take all those maybes and throw them away.
The movie could be less good than it is–and, frankly, it’s remarkably good by even the usual standard–and still retain its power, as long as it kept the main ingredient, which is the triangulation of Dano, Cusack and Wilson himself, into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its considerable parts.
Yeah, I know how that sounds.
A movie that ain’t gonna clear 20 mil at the box office made Brian Wilson larger?
I’ll get to that.
But first, I better offer some assurance that I know at least a little bit…..
I know who the Beach Boys were/are (yeah, that really sets me apart).
I know they have a fan base that is even more curiously divided than the Beatles’ fan base when it comes to which version of the band matters most. (Shorthand–“I Get Around” or Pet Sounds?)
And I know if you put a gun to my head I’ll have to call up my memories of finding freedom behind the wheel of that ’71 Maverick and leave no doubt which side I come down on.
Not the side Love & Mercy celebrates as it happens. Those marvelous studio scenes involve Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” and not much else. My least favorite Beach Boys as it happens, which doesn’t mean I don’t love them, too.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter.
Because I also know these choices are pretty silly. Maybe the sillier the more intensely they are felt. I don’t know too many people who really love early “fun” Beach Boys (or Beatles) to the exclusion of what came later, or vice versa. And, if you really do put that gun to my head, I might just go ahead take Wild Honey over Pet Sounds or “I Get Around.”
Heck, on a given day, I might take this:
…All of which I now know are pieces of Brian’s story, written and sung, respectively, by Carl, Dennis and Carl again before those particular parts of that story actually came to pass. And if they are pieces of Dennis’ and Carl’s stories, too, well, maybe that’s one of the things brothers are for and maybe sharing an abusive dad creates a bond that defies easy exegisis.
So I might indeed take any one of those, or any of a few dozen others, over any of what’s more generally celebrated, in Love & Mercy or elsewhere.
On a given day.
Which goes to show just how underwhelming these debates can be.
Because me and pretty much every other real Beach Boys’ fan would fight you to the last breath before we gave up any of it and feel a hole in our departed souls forever if we lost even one song that doesn’t mean a rip to us personally.
So far so good. We’d do what any lovers would do for the art that sustained them. Good for us.
And I know a few things.
Good for me.
But the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson also belong to that rare group of artists who matter far beyond any personal reaction/relationship you or I might have to or with them or their art.
Which obvious statement having been made, it may now be worth reviewing just how their particular relevance came to pass.
It came to pass, in short, because between about the summer of 1962 and some time around the end of 1967, Brian Wilson had a run of creative and commercial success matched by few American artists in any medium before, during or since.
In five years, working with a series of collaborators, not one of whom ever came near matching the achievements they had with him in any other context, he wrote and/or produced (sometimes uncredited) thirteen studio albums (about half of which now routinely and deservedly rank with somebody or other’s version of the greatest ever) that yielded twenty-eight chart hits (most of which became instant and permanent radio staples).
As a producer, he was a legitimate rival of Phil Spector and the Motown giants. As a vocal arranger, his only peers were Smokey Robinson and John Phillips. As a falsetto tenor, he was in a league with Robinson and Frankie Valli. As a songwriter/composer he drew comparisons to everyone from Benjamin Britten to Duke Ellington all whilst being the main American push-back against John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with whom he managed a close run despite never having any collaborator who could do for him what they could do for each other.
He did all that while carrying the scars of severe parental abuse (from his father), deafness in one ear (which may or may not have been caused by that abuse), auditory hallucinations which wouldn’t be properly diagnosed for decades, the predilection for drug addiction that could probably be deemed inevitable with such a background, and, oh yeah, the likelihood that the already tenuous aspects of this little psychic collective would be made manifest when an accident of geography and the sheer enormity of his talent placed him in a spot his basic personality was spectacularly unsuited to deal with, i.e., at the epicenter of “Los Angeles in the Sixties.”
Not to mention a band that wanted to keep having hits while he was pursuing his ever more elusive muse. Hits they could play in front of the live audiences who would pay the bills, call the radio stations, keep the legacy alive.
You want to make a movie that enlarges that legacy, you have to go some.
Love & Mercy goes some.
It escapes the boundaries of whatever might have been rationally expected because, using two actors who look nothing alike, jumping back and forth in time from the eighties to the sixties in a style that certainly flirts with incoherence, it turns Brian Wilson into something no version of his real self ever quite managed, which is to say a Character.
However close they remain to the facts–and Love & Mercy is, by most accounts, pretty darn faithful–bio-narratives, be they film or some other fiction, are never really about those facts. They’re about the story. They’re about the story the same way Brian Wilson’s music is about the sound.
Not the lyrics (or the dialogue), however relevant. Not the music (or the plot), no matter how idiosyncratically brilliant, or transcendently familiar.
The SOUND…and the Story.
Love & Mercy is what it is because it gets the supreme relevance of its story the same way the man it’s about got the supreme relevance of his sound.
And what the film makes abundantly clear, finally unmissable, is that the music Brian Wilson once made did indeed define certain aspects of our cultural psyche that would otherwise beg definition. Yes, the Southern California division of the American Dream. Yes, the “California Myth.”
All of that.
But not just that.
Any Beach Boys’ fan who ever listened at all closely (and it’s one measure of Wilson’s genius that you could genuinely love the band without doing so, that the experience of smiling every time they come on the radio and leaving it at that, is no less valid, no less definitive, than dropping acid while you listen to your bootleg copy of Smile, or, if you like, SMiLE), knows that summer, as Brian Wilson defined it, was really two seasons.
Summer…and End of Summer.
He didn’t take forever to lay down the distinction.
His first top ten hit was this…where it’s always the first of June:
His second top ten was this…
…Where it’s always the end of October.
Over time, certainly over the entire stretch of the Beach Boys’ ride at the top, Summer and End of Summer would bleed into each other, become almost inextricable in the collective imagination.
And, because Brian Wilson was who he was–because his End of Summer was bound to finally dominate his Summer, hit after hit, permanent radio classic after permanent radio classic–his End of Summer became our End of Summer.
Love & Mercy catches that quality like nothing else I’ve read or seen. Like nothing except Wilson’s own music, which this movie really does makes larger because, consciously or otherwise, it places his life and work–a life and work that were hardly unfamiliar to those of us most eager to see this movie–in that larger context, leaves him not just any Character, but a Character in a story that’s bigger than either artist or audience could ever be while that Character (which is, finally, related to, but not bound by, Wilson’s actual life) was yet undefined.
There’s no way I can overstate the improbability of this.
The director, Bill Pohlad, is no proven auteur. It’s his second feature as director (he’s an accomplished producer). His first, two decades back, was a flop. Paul Dano was evidently previously known for playing heavies (as someone who doesn’t see a lot of modern movies, I confess I’d never heard of him). John Cusack has, by all accounts and every piece of evidence I’ve seen, been coasting for years. Brian Wilson himself has been written and talked about, endlessly, obsessively, some might say far beyond the normal constraints of mere sycophancy, going all the way back to the Sixties, without ever being remotely pinned down or having his edges truly defined.
And without all those people somehow landing on the same page at once, none of the movie’s other strengths–a uniformly excellent cast (just because Giamatti’s over the top doesn’t mean he isn’t genuinely scary, though nowhere near as scary as Bill Camp’s finely wrought banality as Murry Wilson, the father who would rather choke on a thousand bones than accept that his son is better than he is at the only thing he himself was ever any good at), a strong, poignant script, a deep feel for the physical and emotional details of two periods that, in the real world, were actually made for the express purpose of rejecting each other and forcing a choice between Summer and False Summer, a choice we’ve never quite been up to making–would really matter.
As it lays, with the essentials firmly in place, everything in Love and Mercy reinforces everything else. The memory of the movie’s flaws, whatever I think they are, are already, after two viewings, flowing around and through and over the overwhelming memory of its strengths, in the same way a cut that would never work on its own suits a great album because it simply….fits.
As to what no filmmaker–and no genius seeking form for his life, even in an era he helped define–could ever arrange?
We live in America.
In America, the Sixties one day became the Eighties.
And, in America, the Eighties never ended.
Summer became End of Summer. And since End of Summer never ended, Spring isn’t going to come around anymore.
Neither is Summer.
So this Summer, you can sit in a movie theater and watch Paul Dano define the spirit of the young man who is terrified, more than anything else, of becoming the older, irreparably damaged man John Cusack finally knows, in a climactic scene that’s genuinely heartbreaking and somehow simultaneously cathartic, as though he’s finally accepted he’s taken the world’s last punch and is still standing, can never re-capture what he once was.
All he can do is face the worst and live his life.
Maybe with the help of The One who found him in a car dealership.
Which is, of course, how it worked out in “real life.” (And, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I don’t know what Melinda Ledbetter looked like in the eighties, but if she looked anything like Elizabeth Banks in tan jeans and an uber-coordinated sweater, she might have given anybody second thoughts about having The One be anyone but her.)
All great for Brian Wilson.
No one could be other than terrifically relieved and genuinely happy that he, too, made it through. That against very long odds–odds that took so many of his contemporaries and both of his brothers–he got to live his life.
But that’s not why Love & Mercy is a great movie. Not because it shows that, too, and let’s us share that happiness and relief.
It’s a great movie because, in its bones, it knows what the scared kid who ruled L.A., the loci of our last great romance with ourselves, at the last moment when that was worth anything, knew all along.
Summer is short.
The End of Summer, when it comes, is forever.
So no, I haven’t forgotten what happened in the Summer of 1979.
I haven’t forgotten that Brian Wilson owes me.
But, there’s something else Love & Mercy helped me remember.
It helped me remember that he warned me, too.
He warned all of us. And kept insisting the storm could be endured.
Eventually, some of us, even me, learned to listen. And most of us survived the trouble we were in.
(L–R: Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie: Fleetwood Mac, circa nineteen seventy-something…What could possibly go wrong? Clearly these folks love each other!)
In the late seventies Fleetwood Mac’s music was so ubiquitous I never bothered to buy any of it. If I wanted to hear them they were never more than a radio click and half an hour away. (“Dreams” alone filled the air so insidiously that I knew the words without ever once having paid the slightest attention or even begun to wonder what they might mean.)
Anyway, I was on a budget and I kind of figured they were going to be around.
I liked them, then, when they were everywhere…but they weren’t exactly the soundtrack of my inner life.
They’ve come pretty close to being that in the last five years or so.
Sure, I’d gotten around to buying their records long before that. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk… Some comps, one or two things from their earlier period with Bob Welch and their even earlier period with the great Peter Green (eventually even the fantastic box set with all the Green-era music).
I’d even gotten around to listening to them. Quite a lot.
Good things abounded. Great things weren’t uncommon.
I think I resisted Rumours a bit more than the rest, though, kept it squarely in the like-don’t-love category for far too long, for the usual lunk-headed reason. You know, how could anything that popular (27 million sold to date “officially”…which, given the standard accounting practices of the forever-going-broke music business, means the 40 million often mentioned as the “real” number is likely still low-balling) be that good?
I mean, I’ve never thought The Dark Side of the Moon, or Thriller, or the Saturday NIght Fever soundtrack, or Born In the U.S.A. or Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–to mention some albums with similarly stratospheric sales numbers that I actually like–were that good or that special.
Not change-my-life special. Not forever-deep-in-the-marrow special.
So it came as quite a surprise to me when Rumours somehow joined the list of those select few that are forever-deep-in-the-marrow-life-changing. Even more of a surprise because, even now, I’d be hard pressed to say why and how this occurred.
Normally, I’m spilling over with ideas on a subject like that.
But, with Rumours I come up dry.
Of course, bonding with rich So-Cal rock stars (who had previously been, for the most part, either semi-rich British blues-rock stars or No-Cal rich kids) is not my usual thing.
And, as far as the album’s major theme goes, I’ve never had any heartbreak romances to start with, let alone gone-to-pot-cry-in-your-cocaine aftermaths.
But that doesn’t explain much. I never particularly needed any kind of personal identification badge to bond with the musicians I loved. Just as a for instance, the soundtrack of that inner life I mentioned in the late-seventies when I was living in the deep South and politely ignoring Fleetwood Mac (and most of the rest of the decade), was the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons.
I’d never touched a surfboard or been anywhere near a knee-cracking Jersey goom-bah either. Didn’t matter.
Then again, Brian Wilson didn’t actually surf and Frankie Valli was running hard to get away from the Tony Sopranos of the world. So I learned not to be too surprised by the barriers rock and rollers could break through, including those set up by their marketing departments.
Besides, when Fleetwood Mac’s then-latest incarnation reached us down South they didn’t need a marketing department.
One day, nobody ever heard of them. Next day they were scratch-their-name-on-your-school-desk cool. With everybody. Well, probably not with punks, but if there were any punks running around my part of Jackson County, Florida in 1977, they were keeping quiet about it (which I guess would mean they weren’t really punks anyway). For everybody else, “Over My Head” was the fanfare, and Rumours, arriving the following year, was the coronation. I mean, I knew at least one person who condescended to (“You like them?”) and/or despised (“Oh God, I can’t stand them!”) every single band that mattered. The two bands everybody agreed on were the Beatles (who everybody loved…except for the few people who merely liked them) and “the Mac” (who everybody liked…except for the few people who actually loved them).
I wonder what we, and the rest of the world, would have thought if we’d heard the version of Rumors that now exists, strewn across bonus discs for the 2-CD version released in 2004 and the 3-CD set released in 2013? (NOTE; There’s also a 4-CD version, which apparently has both bonus discs, a DVD, vinyl version, etc….but that’s for when I’m really rich.)
I’ve heard both bonus discs before this week…had these particular releases around for a while and was actually quite struck by the 2004 release the one time I sat and paid attention all the way through.
What I heard this week, though, when I finally sat down to listen close, was something different, something that probably has to do with just how much I’ve absorbed the original Rumours LP over the years (especially since acquiring that 2004 version, which has “Silver Springs” restored to the original release and nesting smack dab in the middle, where it was originally slated until it was nixed at the last minute, supposedly because its length would compromise the fidelity of the album back in the pre-digital age, more likely because Lindsey Buckingham, from some combination of fear, anger and spite, wanted Stevie Nicks to have as little room to fight back as possible).
So while I still have no real idea how the original Rumours (meaning the album that the public originally heard, which, in this case maybe even more than usual, was not the album originally created) came to occupy such a place of consummate familiarity, I have all kinds of ideas why the other album nested inside it is likely to grab hold just as deeply, now that I’ve finally managed to hear it.
The first reason is that, miraculously, that underlying/undermining album isn’t merely half-formed, the usual series of interesting false starts, confined to mere allegations of the greatness that’s only waiting for a last coat of studio polish to bring it kicking to life, but a thing that’s every bit as great as the final product while also being a markedly different entity altogether.
Mind you, the perfect alternate Rumours doesn’t exist in a neat package. The cuts on the 2004 release and the 2013 release are completely different with the former being mostly outtakes (that is something close to finished tracks) and the latter mostly demos (meaning very rough early takes, often with the sparest possible accompaniment and different lyrics). Each has a few songs or fragments (other than “Silver Springs”) which didn’t make the final cut.
What’s remarkable is that just about everything deepens and enhances an album known to millions, rather than distracting from it or “replacing” anything.
There are some stunning numbers on the 2013 “demo” disc. I’d point especially to a version of “The Chain” (the one song from the finished LP not included on the 2004 extra disc) that reveals it as the Stevie Nicks’ song it was always meant to be (Buckingham and Christine McVie shared mighty leads on the finished cut); a slightly slowed down, passionate take on Buckinghham’s “Go Your Own Way” with a key line altered; a stunning track from McVie called “Keep Me There” which is as fine as anything she ever did (and which was eventually combined with Nicks’ song to make the final version of “The Chain); and a heart-stopping Nicks’ vocal on a fragment of the never-finished “Doesn’t Anything Last” that answers Buckingham’s tormented fragment of the same song on the earlier disc, the brevity of which amounts to a tragedy.
One could dive deep in other words and I would certainly need these tracks at the very least to program the dream double-LP the thirty-four “extra” tracks spread across the two discs could easily comprise, even pared to essentials.
But, for the sake of clarity, I’ll stick to the 2004 disc as its own mystery.
Or maybe I should say its own clarification: the ghost that haunts the great heart of an LP that defined its troubled era as thoroughly as any album has defined any era before or since so thoroughly that it finally lights up the dark places and throws shadows on all the easy assumptions 40 million and counting are bound to have engendered.
The first eleven tracks of what I’ll now call the Ghost Disc, track Rumours closely. Ten of the twelve songs (including “Silver Springs”) are placed in their familiar running order, with “The Chain” and “I Don’t Want to Know” (the song that, according to Nicks, replaced “Silver Springs” on the finished LP) omitted and a track called “Think About It” added.
Deprived of that “polish” I mentioned, the Ghost Disc becomes a lot of new things: an unlikely marriage of Gram Parsons and Fairport Convention; a hard link between the “country-rock” of seventies L.A. and the “alt-country” movement that would emerge a few years later in bands like Lone Justice and Jason and the Scorchers; a sharp reminder that Rumours itself was born largely of the intersection between pain felt and pain masked.
And, most of all, a singer’s album, by which I mean an album where writing and producing and playing become truly secondary and the voices of the three greatest singers to ever join in one band (and with the possible exception of the early Temptations, the three greatest to ever be in one vocal group) to tell parts of the tale with a clarity that was bound to be blunted or buried when fame had to be validated and front office suits had to be mollified.
I don’t mean that the versions of “Second Hand News,” “Dreams,” “Don’t Stop,” et al, which exist here are “better” than the famous versions. That would be silly. Rumours, after all did validate their fame and pretty much every claim ever made for it or them.
For instance, I certainly wouldn’t want the world to be without the irresistible, anthemic flourish that opens the finished version of “Don’t Stop,” which here is reduced to a soft piano roll with a hint of Randy Newman in it before it gives way to the Fats Domino stomp it always was (and maybe thereby proves just how much both Randy Newman and Christine McVie owed to Fats).
But, now that I know it exists, I wouldn’t want to be without the subtle shift found in the song’s tone here either.
In it’s never-wear-out hit form it was the most optimistic song imaginable (and a breath of fresh air on Rumours itself, a welcome respite breaking up the vicious, epic cutting contest the just-broken-up Lindsey and Stevie were carrying on), a straightforward assurance that tomorrow will be better.
Here, with the production muted, the emphasis in the harmonies ever-so-slightly altered, the song becomes double-edged, precisely poised. The difference between joy and melancholy, reassurance and doubt, is left hanging on the knife edge until the “O-o-o-o-o-h” that lifts the hit version into the world’s best smile, shifts the tone entirely in the direction the hit refused to go.
Suddenly “don’t you look back” carries an unmistakable hint of its famous corollary….
You know…”Because something might be gaining on you.”
Then the band break up into giggles and it sounds like they’re trying to fend off a haint that just walked through the door.
No longer suitable for a presidential campaign’s theme music in other words.
Those kinds of twists and turns exist throughout the Ghost Disc.
The voices, brought forward in the mix, singly or in harmony, carry new dimensions on every single track (“Never Going Back Again,” the one track that’s now an instrumental, sounds like a delicate piece of chamber music crossed with somebody’s bluegrass record collection…in other words, it suits the mood just fine).
“Dreams” is more forceful, less wistful. “Second Hand News,” stripped of Mick Fleetwood’s thrilling, just-right, drum flourishes (here he sounds like he’s driving nails or maybe like he just learned to keep time on the kit and can’t get over the rush) becomes naked, vulnerable, as if the man singing is actually hurting rather than remembering hurt. “Songbird,” always quiet, becomes utterly still. “Silver Springs” too, becomes quieter, less epic, more personal. Ditto “Gold Dust Woman,” (which starts here with somebody screaming in the other room, rides the country guitar licks that got buried in the final mix, and then gets repeated, quieter still, more vital still, in the “demos” section of the disc). “You Make Loving Fun,” always a bit of an (admittedly deathless) sing-a-long before, here levitates between unstoppable passion and nagging doubt and moves to the very top of McVie’s vocal chart.
After that, you get a killer version of “Oh Daddy” that amounts to a duet between McVie and her ex-husband’s bass, punctuated by McVie/Nicks harmonies that would raise the hair on a corpse.
And all of that is followed by what might be the album’s piece-de-resistance, a Nicks’ number called “Think About It.”
As deservedly famous as “Silver Springs” became over the years for being what somebody called “the greatest song ever left off an album,” “Think About It” (a version of which ended up on Nicks’ first solo album, where it was about a tenth as good) might deserve the title even more. Since it didn’t appear on the original album, and apparently wasn’t even considered, there’s nothing to compare it to.
There or elsewhere.
The closest I can come is to say it’s probably what a band like Little Feat was always aiming for and, if they never quite got all the way there, it’s probably because they didn’t have Stevie Nicks.
There are five additional demos and two “jams” and they’re hardly incidental. They include the aforementioned extra take of “Gold Dust Woman,” Buckingham’s version of “Doesn’t Anything Last,” and his killer guitar work on “For Duster (The Blues).” Every cut is worthy of interest. Every cut adds something to both the legacy and the mystery. Taken together they demonstrate, all by themselves, just how off-the-charts the raw talent in this band actually was when it was producing the album that defined them.
But I’ll leave it there. It will probably be years before I fully absorb the implications of all this. I haven’t encountered anything like it before–a truly “alternate” version of a truly great album that has just as much to offer–and I’ll be surprised if I ever encounter the like again.
But I listen to this and think about what might have been and God how I wish that picture at the top was a lie…that something other than paychecks and professionalism could have somehow held them together all these decades.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote a long piece on Stevie Nicks, which was built around her biggest hit “Dreams” (from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours) operating as an answer record to Lindsey Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way.” I’ll let the piece explain how I felt about her, the song, and why I thought she and it were significant.
I’ve just found an interview with Nicks on YouTube which was literally posted about a month after I wrote the piece. I think it makes a nice companion/sequel.
For those who don’t care to listen to the whole thing (and I highly recommend it if you have the time), I draw special attention to the segment from 34:30 to 37:30 where she discusses the pact she and Christine McVie made when Lindsey and Stevie joined the band about how they intended to be treated as women in the male-dominated rock god world.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Nicks and McVie, who kept their decision to themselves (that is, they lived it out rather than promoting it), were routinely slagged as exactly the wrong kind of role models for the enlightened world that punk-feminism (or something) was going to bring us. (You can read the quotes from enlightened fellows like Elvis Costello and Robert Christgau in my piece to get the general flavor. Believe me, there was a lot more where that came from and not all of it from men…As late as 1997, Christgau’s wife, Carola Dibbell, was calling Nicks a “crazy aunt.” As a compliment, of course.)
Anyway, this was one of the shortest hours I’ve ever spent: