Fleetwood Mac fired Lindsey Buckingham. So why won’t he let them go?
BY AMY KAUFMAN - LA TIMES
This is the album that started all the trouble.
“Lindsey Buckingham,” the singer-guitarist’s seventh solo venture, was finished nearly four years ago. Upon completing the 10-song collection, he asked his bandmates in Fleetwood Mac if they’d be willing to slightly delay an upcoming tour so he could promote his new music. He’d made a similar request back in 2006 and was granted two years to tour behind back-to-back solo efforts. For his new album, he only wanted three months.
But Fleetwood Mac’s 2018 tour dates had already been sketched out. Still, Buckingham says, the majority of the group — drummer Mick Fleetwood, keyboardist-vocalist Christine McVie and bassist John McVie — seemed flexible. Stevie Nicks, the band’s primary lead singer and singular superstar, however, would not budge.
The tension between Buckingham and Nicks, who were an infamously volatile couple during Fleetwood Mac’s 1970s peak, only grew from there. In January 2018, when the group walked onstage to receive their MusiCares Person of the Year award, “Rhiannon” — a song written by Nicks — was playing, which Buckingham complained about. Then Nicks, who accepted the prize on behalf of the band, felt that Buckingham was mocking her for her lengthy speech.
“Ironically,” Buckingham says, “nothing went down that night that was [as contentious] as the stuff we’d been through for 43 years.” But within a week, he was fired from Fleetwood Mac.
It was a seismic shift in Buckingham’s life — one he is still struggling to accept today, at age 71. As it would turn out, it was only the first in a series of upheavals. Following his departure, Buckingham sued Fleetwood Mac for lost wages, including the $12 million to $14 million he claimed he would have made in just two months on that 2018 tour.
After the lawsuit was settled in December of that year, he planned to turn his attention back to releasing his solo music. But a couple of months later, in February 2019, he suffered a heart attack and had to undergo triple bypass surgery. During the process, the insertion of a breathing tube damaged his vocal cords, leaving him questioning whether he’d ever be able to sing again.
He spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic focusing on his recovery. Then in June, his wife of 21 years filed for divorce.
“I’ll tell you what: Between the Fleetwood Mac stuff and the heart attack, it’s all been humbling,” Buckingham says now. “I’ve never suffered from a lack of confidence, and sometimes could get carried away with that in the process of leading the band. But everything has pulled me in a little bit. I’m not as aggressive a person as I was before, which is probably not a bad thing. It made me look around more — and become less self-involved, hopefully.”
And yet despite this assertion, Buckingham is quick to make incendiary comments about his former bandmates and associates. Sitting in the living room of his Brentwood home, he is uninhibited in conversation — his honesty about his circumstances at turns refreshing and disconcerting. While he’d like to be asked back to the band, he’s well aware that it’s probably a pipe dream unless Nicks comes around. “I realize I don’t have a lot of control over that — any control over that.”
And then there’s his new music, which is finally coming out on Sept. 17, led by the single “Scream.” He’s proud of the self-titled album, even though he knows that perhaps “one in 10 who pay attention to Fleetwood Mac will pay attention” to it. But part of the reason he’s so open about his tumultuous past few years, he says, is because he knows that drama helps fans invest in his music.
“That was part of the appeal of ‘Rumours,’” he says, referring to the 1977 Fleetwood Mac album that was created while the band members were in the midst of affairs, addictions and breakups. “I think there’s a little element of that out there right now. It’s sort of humanizing. The fact that I got [this album] out at all finally is sort of a nice thing for people to think, ‘Oh, cool, he’s still doing it.’”
Buckingham has spent the last month rehearsing for a 30-date U.S. tour, which kicked off Tuesday and will stop at downtown’s Theatre at Ace Hotel in December. On this day in August, he says he hasn’t played enough guitar yet for his finger calluses to return, though he still has three weeks left of prep time at a warehouse space in Burbank. At night, he returns to the Brentwood mansion that his wife, interior designer Kristen Buckingham, served as the architect on.
She isn’t staying here at the moment — she’s a mile away in a rented home in Mandeville Canyon. Their three children have mostly been crashing here during the pandemic: His 22-year-old son, William Gregory, is in the midst of an online internship at the Wasserman Agency, his 21-year-old daughter, Leelee, and her boyfriend have no air conditioning at their Westwood apartment; and his youngest, 17-year-old Stella, is still in high school.
The COVID-19 shutdown exacerbated Buckingham’s marital issues, he says, and at first his wife told him she just needed a “spatial break.” He was surprised when she filed divorce papers and is still hopeful that they’ll be able to work things out.
Which is, deep down, the same way he feels about Fleetwood Mac.
When Nicks gave the band an ultimatum — it’s either him or me is the way Buckingham says it went down — he was disappointed that no one stood up for him.
“It would be like a scenario where Mick Jagger says, ‘Either Keith [Richards] goes or I go,’” he says. “No, neither one of you can go. But I guess the singer has to stay. The figurehead has to stay.”
Nicks is, undeniably, the star attraction in Fleetwood Mac — and her draw has only increased in recent years as she’s cemented herself further in the pop culture firmament. Her witchy style has become a fashion reference for Free People-loving millennials, she occasionally drops in on Harry Styles tours to duet on “Landslide” and, before the Delta variant hit, she was set to headline major festivals like BottleRock Napa Valley and Austin City Limits.
While Fleetwood Mac fans were certainly dismayed when Buckingham was axed — he was replaced for the 2018/2019 tour by Crowded House’s Neil Finn and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — they still showed up in record numbers to fill arenas and sing along to the band’s classic songbook, including the Buckingham-penned “Go Your Own Way,” “Second Hand News” and “Monday Morning.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time the band has gone through personnel changes. In 1987, Buckingham left Fleetwood Mac of his own accord for a decade; Christine McVie was gone from 1998 to 2014; Nicks was largely absent in the early ‘90s. And plenty of Baby Boomer favorites have proved popular without their iconic members: The Eagles minus Glenn Frey, Journey absent Steve Perry, and, coming soon, the Rolling Stones without their late drummer, Charlie Watts.
Buckingham says that when the band and their manager, music mogul Irving Azoff, dismissed him, they were less concerned with Fleetwood Mac’s legacy, or with its fans, than they were with appeasing Nicks and continuing to cash the million-dollar-plus paychecks from a single arena or stadium gig.
Mick Fleetwood has “never quite gotten to the point where he’s financially stable all the time,” Buckingham says of the band’s namesake. “He’s been married and divorced many times. He’s just not smart with his money.”
The same theory applies to Christine McVie, whom Buckingham says sent him an email after his firing that read: “I’m really sorry that I didn’t stand up for you, but I just bought a house.” (Both she and Fleetwood declined to comment for this article.)
In negotiations with the group, Buckingham posits, Azoff “threw me under the bus.”
“Irving doesn’t need the money, but he’s still driven by the money,” says the guitarist, who also used to be managed by Azoff as a solo act.
“I have historically declined comment on artists, but in the case of Lindsey Buckingham, I will make an exception,” Azoff says in a statement to The Times. “In speaking with Stevie, her account of events are factual and truthful. While I understand it’s challenging for Lindsey to accept his own role in these matters and far easier to blame a manager, the fact remains that his actions alone are responsible for what transpired.
“Frankly,” Azoff continues, “if I can be accused of anything it’s perhaps holding things together longer than I should have. After 2018 when Fleetwood Mac evolved with their new lineup, my continued work with the band was due entirely to the fact I’ve been aligned with Stevie Nicks in thought and purpose from the earliest of days.
“While financial gain was not a motivator for me,” Azoff adds in reply to Buckingham’s comment, “it was a delightful bonus that the band scored their highest grossing tour ever without Lindsey.”
Buckingham’s issues with Nicks, meanwhile, center on far more than a paycheck. At the root of it all, he says, is the fact that he and his onetime lover, who joined the band as a couple in 1975, never got closure when their relationship came to its rocky conclusion. (Nicks had a short-lived affair with Fleetwood in 1977.) Because they had to focus on “Rumours,” the exes compartmentalized their emotions and never took the necessary physical space to get over one another.
So when his mind returns to his exit from the band, he comes to the same conclusion: Nicks wanted to “cut herself loose” from having to compete with him onstage after so many years. “I think she saw the possibility of remaking the band more in the Stevie Nicks vein,” he continues. “More mellow and kind of down, giving her more chances to do the kind of talking she does onstage.”
Nicks tells a different story. Through her publicist, she describes Buckingham’s recollection of the 2018 events as “revisionist history.”
“His version of events is factually inaccurate and while I’ve never spoken publicly on the matter, certainly it feels the time has come to shine a light on the truth,” Nicks says. “To be exceedingly clear, I did not have him fired, I did not ask for him to be fired, I did not demand he be fired. Frankly, I fired myself. I proactively removed myself from the band and a situation I considered to be toxic to my wellbeing. I was done. If the band went on without me, so be it.
“And after many lengthy group discussions, Fleetwood Mac, a band whose legacy is rooted in evolution and change, found a new path forward with two hugely talented new members.”
Indeed, Nicks has been reluctant to speak about the 2018 split. In an interview with The Times last year, she would only say that it was “a long time coming” and that being around Buckingham made her feel sad — “like a dying flower all the time.”
“That wasn’t caused by me,” Buckingham says, defending himself. “You could do a whole analysis on Stevie at this point in her life and what she’s allowed to happen and what she’s allowed to slip away from her. Her creativity, at least for a while it seemed like she wasn’t in touch with that. Same with the level of energy she once had onstage. I think that was hard for her, seeing me jump around in an age-inappropriate way. Also, she’s lonely. She’s alone. She has the people who work for her, and I’m sure she has friends, but you know.”
When Buckingham is reminded that Nicks has repeatedly asserted she chose to focus on her career over marriage or children, he does not back down. “Well, maybe she never did [want that], but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make her feel alone as a result.”
Told of Buckingham’s comments, Nicks now reiterates that though she was “thrilled for Lindsey when he had children,” she “wasn’t interested in making those same life choices.”
“Those are my decisions that I get to make for myself. I’m proud of the life choices I’ve made and it seems a shame for him to pass judgment on anyone who makes a choice to live their life on their own terms.”
Buckingham hasn’t seen any of the new group’s shows but hears they’re “on the edge of being a cover band” because they’re playing “a range of material lacking a center.” But even when he was in Fleetwood Mac, Buckingham wasn’t always on board with their creative direction.
Following the dazzling success of “Rumours,” Buckingham steered the band in a starkly different sonic direction on 1979’s double album “Tusk.” While “Tusk” is now revered, at the time is was viewed as too esoteric, only selling about a fourth of the albums that “Rumours” did.
“Mick came to me a year later, in the wake of it not being nearly as mega as ‘Rumours,’ and said, ‘Well, we’re not gonna do that again,’” Buckingham recalls. “So maybe I did feel like I had something to prove at that point. I knew I couldn’t give up that part of my palette. The audience that has the ears for your music, they’re gonna find it.”
Cameron Crowe, who began interviewing Buckingham in the ‘70s for Rolling Stone and since cast him on his Showtime series “Roadies,” is one of those fans.
“Lindsey has been vindicated over time for all the angst that went into ‘Tusk,’” says the filmmaker. “He created something that stands the test of time. When Fleetwood Mac fans talk about their favorite stuff, they almost always go to ‘Tusk.’”
Buckingham can still quote a review of his 2006 album “Under the Skin” that described him as a “visionary” — although “nobody knew it.”
“Maybe that’s been a bit of a problem — feeling unseen,” he admits. His highest-charting solo single to date was 1981’s “Trouble,” which reached No. 9 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and he’s scored modest solo hits with “Holiday Road” (best known as the theme from “National Lampoon’s Vacation”) and “Go Insane.”
Buckingham plays all the instruments on his new album, which he crafted in a studio at his last Brentwood home — he’s since downsized to his current house, further down the same avenue — on a 48-track reel-to-reel, using a razor blade to cut two-track tape.
He’s written two new songs since his heart attack. He says his voice has mostly returned to normal, though he’s had to lower the key of a few songs he’ll be performing on his upcoming tour. Sometimes he gets lightheaded when he stands up too quickly, “but it’s nothing that isn’t manageable.”
He did hear from Nicks after his bypass, and he’s emailed and texted her a few times since, though he says she doesn’t usually respond.
“She’s very guarded and protective of her own world, and I think she sees me as a potential upsetter of that,” he says.
His relationship with Mick Fleetwood is better, though it mostly exists via text message. “He’s talked about getting us back together. But that’s him, and he probably didn’t want to see me go in the first place. I know he didn’t. But there’s a difference between him saying that and Stevie saying that.”
So no, he says, he isn’t hanging his hat on a reunion. Anyway, the fans who still approach him on the street? To them, he’s still a part of Fleetwood Mac, there every time someone plays the band’s deathless recordings.
“People don’t talk about my involvement in Fleetwood Mac in the past tense. It may be chronologically in the past, but it’s living now,” he says. “Fleetwood Mac was the big machine. I can still get on with the small machine.”