Saturday, October 17, 2009

FLEETWOOD MAC'S UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Fleetwood Mac's unfinished business
If the bust-ups are over, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham still have unfinished business as their latest tour hits the UK
Dan Cairns

Mick Fleetwood, 6ft 6in of military bearing, white beard, gold watch chain and pinstriped waistcoat, sits back in an armchair that can barely contain his extensive frame. “You know what I’d love?” the Fleetwood Mac drummer says to a hovering assistant, eyeing the bottle of water in front of him with some disdain, “A little glass of red.” In the old days, that little glass of red would have been the first of many libations, accompanied by copious quantities of cocaine: when the band recorded Rumours, a velvet bag full of the drug was kept beneath the studio mixing desk, for dipping into at will.

Nowadays, the group’s remaining co-founder is drug-free, and, though he still carries about him an unmistakable whiff of volcanic unpredictability, the 62-year-old seems to be settling into his role as the calm centre of the Fleetwood Mac storm. During the band’s mid-1970s commercial heyday, he served briefly as their unofficial manager, which, considering that he was running amok on brandy and cocaine, probably says a lot.

Thirty-plus years on, the group have individual managers, together with an impressive number of helpmeets, chauffeurs and eagle-eyed enablers. The band appear to travel for the most part separately, with their own retinues. What Lindsey Buckingham will later describe as the “residue” of historic dysfunction still requires placating. They could surely, I suggest to Fleetwood, just sort it all out themselves, couldn’t they?

“It could be a lot easier,” he agrees with a characteristic chuckle. “You know, make a decision and move on. We all used to be so much more in control of our own destinies, we just bundled along ourselves and did pretty well — considering. I always call the managers, and I don’t mean it nastily, the Gang of Five [Christine McVie, who left the band in 1998, is still represented], like a kind of Maoist thing. So, yes, things take a little more time now. But, you know, we’re still here.”

Fleetwood is holding court in a hotel suite in Copenhagen, the city where, several days later, the four surviving members of the Rumours line-up — Fleetwood and his fellow original bandmate John McVie, plus Stevie Nicks and Buckingham, who both joined in 1974 — are due to kick off the European leg of their current world tour. To accompany the dates, a double album of greatest hits is being released, featuring the songs that make up the majority of the set-list they will perform. It is the first time they have headed out on the road without a new studio album to promote, but that, says Fleetwood, has its advantages. “There’s a lot less of that pressure, of having to rehearse a load of new songs, then force people to listen to them.” Does he wonder why they didn’t try it years ago?

“I always joke with Lindsey,” he replies, “that we’re probably the worst run but most ongoingly successful music franchise in the business, if you look at what we don’t do and what we could have done. If you were a cynic and went, ‘Huh, they’re just doing it for the money,’ it’s like, ‘Hang on a minute, I wish we had.’”

None of this is said with any apparent bitterness: Fleetwood has the avuncular-referee role down pat. He admits the biggest pleasure he derives from the hits-only set list is the opportunity it gives him to place the band’s key albums in some sort of perspective. The biggest surprise, he says, is how linked they strike him as being: the feeling-their-way radio pop/lingering blues hybrid of the new line-up’s self-titled 1975 debut, the soft-rock masterclass of Rumours and the wildly experimental disjointedness of 1979’s Tusk. And how uncategorisable. “As poppy as our legacy is in many ways,” he says, “I think, equally, there’s a darkness about it. We’ve never done coy and cute.”

The tension Fleetwood admits marred the band’s previous world tour — to promote 2003’s Say You Will album — is, he believes, less evident now. Not that things don’t remain unsaid: this is Fleetwood Mac, after all. But there is still no chance, he says, of recruiting a group therapist, of the type documented in the Metallica film Some Kind of Monster. “At various times,” Fleetwood laughs, “I think we’ve all been to one on our own. When it sort of imploded with emotion was when all of us were besotted with emotional overload, so nobody could sort of take the back seat and come in impartially. But it’s like kids in a playground. Last week someone was your best friend, and this week they’re inviting someone else round for a play.”

Several days earlier, in a different suite at the same hotel, one of the other kids in the Mac playground reclines with a Lady Bertram-like torpor on a giant sofa, her eyes hidden behind vintage Aviator shades. It would simply not be possible to talk to either Nicks or Buckingham about their love affair, which famously crashed and burned during the Rumours sessions, in tandem with the collapse of the McVies’ marriage, without reopening a can of worms. “Residue”, Buckingham called it. I’m not sure that does it justice.

“Lindsey is definitely still angry with me,” Nicks says in her dusky drawl. “Absolutely. He’s never quite understood why we broke up. Even though he’s married and he’s very happy, and he’s a great dad, I think that he never really forgave me for breaking up our relationship.”

Long characterised as an away-with-the-fairies fruitcake, Nicks strikes me as having a core of steel, no matter her languor or penchant for woolly soliloquy. By her own admission the only member of the band who could rival Fleetwood — with whom she had an affair — for hedonism, she long ago conquered her drug addiction, then endured a lengthy and briefly life-threatening dependency on the tranquillisers she had been prescribed to wean her off cocaine. These days, she appears to be physically somewhat fragile, but the mischievous candour remains. She tells me she finally went to see a psychologist “about five years ago, a really sweet little lady, and we were just talking about my life, and I was telling her about those years, when Lindsey and I first moved to LA, and I was a waitress, a cleaning lady, and anything else I could do to pay our rent, and I said to her, ‘But there was something about those years that I really loved.’ And she said, ‘Well, in many ways, Stevie, the day you joined Fleetwood Mac was the saddest day of your life — because it was the day you stopped being the caretaker.’ You can imagine, there was a real big silence in the room when she said that”.

When Nicks and Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, they were at the tail end of a four-year struggle to make it as a duo, and heavily in debt. But they both to this day believe that they would have made it on their own terms, and it is this sense of unfinished business and unrealised dreams, together with nostalgia for a time before what Nicks calls the “very fast and very hard” ascent to stardom they experienced with Fleetwood Mac, that appears to haunt them still.“It was scary,” Nicks continues. “To not have enough money to even file a tax return, then to have so much, eight months later, that you had to hire someone to file it for you. All of a sudden you have a big, huge house, and you end up filling up your time, doing drugs and just getting lost in that whole world. I didn’t any longer have the responsibility of having to watch out for Lindsey. We all just stayed in great places, and we got room service. Nobody had to cook, nobody had to clean up the kitchen.”

She looks suddenly lost. “We joined Fleetwood Mac, we made a record in three months, put it out, went on the road in May. We did a four-month tour, we got home and we had close to $1m between us. What Lindsey grieves for, in my opinion, is, if he had the chance to go back and decide, when we were beginning the second Buckingham-Nicks record and we got asked to join Fleetwood Mac, he would not join.” Again, she pauses. “If we had not moved to LA, would Lindsey and I have gotten married and had kids? Probably.”

The man she refers to, and whom she can, on one level, still not let go of, sits in a dressing room, legs up on the chair in the lotus position, the tension crackling off him as audibly as it does off his music. Easily the most uncomfortable interviewee — however courteous — of the three, the band’s 60-year-old sonic architect answers in carefully structured, emotionally arid chunks, cool where Nicks is confessional.

“When we first got together to talk about the tour,” he says, “because Stevie had some trust issues in terms of her perception of how things ended up at the end of the last tour, my comment was, ‘Stevie, if nothing else, you and I have known each other since high school, and we need to have this thing end up in a way that dignifies how it started.’ And you wouldn’t think that, at this point in our lives, it would be a work in progress. You’d think that things would be fine. But there is still an evolution going on.”

If he shares a similar degree of regret with Nicks about what they lost, rather than gained, by joining the band, he hides it well. His answers are startlingly impersonal. “When we made the decision to join, we both gave up something that had been more essentially ourselves. And it wasn’t just giving up the synthesis between the two of us in terms of how we wrote together, sang together. It was Stevie losing herself to having been singled out as Stevie Nicks, in capital letters. This is one of the things I think has been hardest for her over the years, having sort of been asked to be this person who’s out front, the pressure of that. And what I gave up was a great deal of my style as a guitarist. I mean, I had to adapt to an existing situation — something as fundamental as changing the guitar I used because it didn’t fit into the pre-existing sound.”

Watching Nicks apparently goading Buckingham during the rehearsal later, complaining about the loudness of his guitar and asking for further ear protection, you rewind to that answer — about his “style as a guitarist”, for God’s sake — and begin to see why she might feel the need to poke him for a reaction. Buckingham cuts a moody, needy figure, the human equivalent of a Just Married car, with others forced to bang and clatter along the road behind him. From his drum stool, Fleetwood observes the scene impassively, a weather eye on the sort of playground scrap he has doubtless witnessed many times before. Then the band strike up the opening chords of Dreams, Nicks purrs “Now here you go again”, and you think, that’s why we still bother. And why they do, too. Heaven knows, though, they don’t make it easy.

The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac is released tomorrow on Warners. The British tour opens in Glasgow on Thursday

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