Wild Heart: On Stevie Nicks and her dogged tenderness
At Royal Farms Arena a couple weeks ago, CP's Performing Arts Editor Maura Callahan and I are standing among a swarm of people who all look like vaguely different amalgamations of a certain type of person I have known throughout my life—people I grew up going to church with, people I worked for, the friends, parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts of my peers and myself. A lot of these people are disappointed: The Pretenders, who are supposed to open for Stevie Nicks, had to cancel because singer Chrissie Hynde is sick.
As we wait in line at will call to pick up our press passes, where everyone else is clamoring for a refund—because they had already seen Stevie Nicks a million times and Fleetwood Mac a million times, and what if she sings songs that they don't know so well, and they were really looking forward to hearing 'Back on the Chain Gang' again only this time a little more rough around the edges maybe—an angry white woman behind us says to a Royal Farms Arena worker who is trying to help her, "I know it's not your fault, but this really SUCKS!" It's a bummer to be around all these joyless folks—I was bummed to miss The Pretenders too—but I'm able to transcend my temporary discomfort: We're about to see Stevie Nicks live for the first time, instead of sitting at home watching old recordings on YouTube, which is what Maura and I usually do.
We get into our seats—to the right of the stage, kinda close to the floor seats, and sandwiched between two old-dad-like dudes, one of whom keeps creepily looking over and gesturing at Maura. Soon Stevie and her eight-piece backing band emerge onto the stage, and after a rousing performance of 'Gold and Braid,' she greets the audience and tells us what we've gotten ourselves into.
"It's going to be different than you've seen before," she says, fingering the thick black and silver tassels tied to her mic stand. "I just had to do something for myself." So she went back into her "gothic trunk of lost songs" and pulled some of her lesser known and unreleased songs she wrote throughout her nearly 50-year career as a solo artist, a member of Fleetwood Mac, and as one half of the pre-Fleetwood Mac duo Buckingham Nicks. And then she sequenced them for this tour with the crowd favorites, including 'Gold Dust Woman,' 'Edge of Seventeen,' and 'Landslide,' among others.
Her set is peppered with anecdotes about how certain songs and collaborations came to be. Her stories are lengthy and comprehensive, and it feels as if we're all her grandchildren, as Maura observes, and we ought to listen to her. The second best story is about Prince, who she met in the late '70s at a party. (The best one is about how her song 'Moonlight [A Vampire's Dream]' is "Twilight" fanfiction; Bella was "eclipsed" by Edward—and who hasn't felt that way in a relationship before, she asked. Ugh, you're right.) Stevie's initial meeting with Prince was pretty unremarkable—she told him he needed to talk more, and then she fluttered away. She didn't hear anything else about him until 1983, when she was in a car with her new husband Kim Anderson (who had introduced her to Prince at that party), and 'Little Red Corvette' came on the radio. She started riffing on it in her head while listening to it, and they pulled over so she could write it down. After recording the song in a Los Angeles studio, she said, "Does anyone know how to get in touch with Prince?" (when Stevie gets to this part in the story, Maura shouts "Oh my god, she's gonna do a seance.")
So she called up Prince, and he happened to be in town. He came to the studio decked out in purple and velvet, she recalls. She played the song for him, and he liked it, so he played some synthesizers and guitar. "And then he was like, 'Well I'm out of here, people to see, places to go.'" The song was 'Stand Back.'
For the whole set, with only a minor hiccup here or there, she and her band sound incredible. It doesn't matter that she doesn't really hit the high notes anymore; she's adapted, and her performance is graceful—the crowd goes nuts when she twirls around in her black drapey dress and beaded and tasseled shawls (there are several shawl changes throughout the set).
Her stories between songs craft a scene of furious dedication; how she built on the momentum of her past work to keep going and making more. After the success of her 1981 debut solo album, "Bella Donna," for example, she went back to make more music and tour with Fleetwood Mac, and then put out "The Wild Heart" two years later, as an almost manic response to her fear of becoming a one-hit-solo-record-wonder.
As she introduces 'Belle Fleur,' which was released in her 2014 album "24 Karat Gold," Stevie describes it as a song that "could be written by Chrissie Hynde or Stevie Nicks or any other girl in rock 'n' roll" in the 1970s—it's about how getting more famous and "successful" meant first-class tickets and shiny limousines, which she realized were both literally and figuratively carrying her away from the comforts of home, stability, love, and her idea of who she really was. "I missed my Toyota," she says.
"This is no ticket for dreamland/ A garden for fevers to grow in/ As I run through the door of the long black car," she sings on 'Belle Fleur.'
At the heart of some of these explorations and disillusioned views of fame is a woman working it out. "I have no fear, I have only love," she sings with dogged tenderness on 'Gypsy.' And that's where her music hits me, a young woman in my 20s who feels occasionally, almost melodramatically, lost and confused about who and where I am in my life. Maybe that's true for a lot of the women and girls present tonight—and it makes me feel vaguely hopeful and idealistic that there exists some kind of intergenerational knowledge that women have and can use to support and show up for each other.
All of my current troubles have layers, and they co-mingle with one another, but perhaps my most obvious one—the one that's certainly wrapped up in all of the others—is that I'm currently about six months into grieving my dad's death, which happened a few days after my 25th birthday (he would've been bummed for me that the Pretenders canceled, but would've been jealous that I got to see Stevie Nicks). I asked my mom recently if being in your mid-20s is supposed to feel like a second puberty (shout-out to Mitski, whose 2016 album "Puberty 2" I've had in constant rotation since it came out). My mom reminded me that she had already had two babies by the time she was in her mid-20s (she had me when she was in her late 20s), and she did what she thought she needed to do to make things good for me and my siblings. "I did, learned, regrouped, and did," she told me.
And that's a thread I pick up in much of Stevie's music: so many songs about women who are younger, older, wise, lost, and figuring it out all at the same time. And tonight, the teenage girl a couple rows in front of me wearing a sweater with a skull on it is having just as much fun dancing and singing along with her friends as the gray-haired older women in our row who joyously, drunkenly slur to one another, "It's 'Landslide!'" when guitarist Waddy Wachtel starts strumming his guitar.
And at 68 years old, Stevie Nicks is still figuring it out, too. In the very last song of the night which is, of course, 'Landslide,' which she wrote when she was 25 years old, she adjusts a line from the original: "And can I sail through the changing ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Uh-uh, I don't know, oh, still don't know."