Lindsey Buckingham Won’t Stop
Buckingham on his new solo album and why his dismissal from Fleetwood Mac was the result of the other band members cowering before Stevie Nicks: “It became a little bit like Trump and the Republicans”
By Stephen Rodrick - Rollingstone
Lindsey Buckingham will tell you that he isn’t about the drama. He leaves that to his former bandmates in Fleetwood Mac.
Not everyone in his family subscribes to the same feeling. His son Will issued a declarative statement shortly after he was booted out of the band in 2018: “God, they ruined your life.”
“No, not even close,” says Buckingham with a wan smile.
He’s right, in a way. Over the past three years, there have been other life ruination candidates. In short order, Buckingham nearly died, lost his voice, had an album repeatedly delayed, and suffered through a pandemic funk.
Still, he insists, he is in a good place. Right now, Buckingham is in a Burbank rehearsal space preparing for a tour supporting his new solo album, a self-titled 10-song, 37-minute pop gem sprinkled with enough California melancholy, domestic uncertainty, and sunny hooks to satisfy a divorced Santa Cruz poet. The album has been done for three years, but because of the aforementioned hiccups it remained unreleased until last month. Combined with the best songs on his 2017 duet album with ex-bandmate Christine McVie, Buckingham has churned out an hour’s worth of pop masterpieces at an age when most contemporaries are having a hard time pushing back from the all-you-can-eat nostalgia buffet. The new record is just the latest in a startling late-career renaissance that, not coincidently, began shortly after consummate bachelor Buckingham married his wife, Kristen Messner, and his three children were born.
His new album was recorded in a home studio behind their main house. “Recording with the band was like a movie production, you had to have a schedule, a script, and negotiate everything, a constant push and pull,” Buckingham tells me.
Now, Buckingham insists, he is content. Gone is the Buckingham-described “Big Machine,” with its no-new songs and shows in arenas built more for the NBA playoffs than fingerpicking. Say hello to the “Little Machine,” where he plays with friends in cozy theaters and sings a set that includes songs created in the 21st century. “Working by myself, it’s more like making a painting,” he says. “There’s less drama.”
Maybe not? The prime spot in the rehearsal-space parking lot reads “Reserved for Kristen.” This would be unremarkable except that Kristen filed for divorce earlier in the year.
“We’re still trying to work it out,” Buckingham tells me.
His Eraserhead hair has gone gray, and the former rock god now resembles a Roman oracle emeritus. He offers some TMI that would not have been out of place during vintage Fleetwood Mac, back when Stevie Nicks and Buckingham, and John McVie and Christine, were breaking up.
“With the pandemic, we’ve been doing marriage counseling on the phone,” says Buckingham. “During one of the sessions, she told the counselor that she wanted to file to see how it feels. I thought that she should figure out what she wants and then go ahead. But our lawyers told me apparently a lot of people do that.”
The band works through its first number. Initially, all I can hear is Buckingham’s guitar, a fingerpicking marvel that makes a sound so large that it’s like he is playing in 4D. Then, the opening verse kicks in:
Reading the paper, saw a review
Said I was a visionary, but nobody knew
Now that’s been a problem, feeling unseen
Just like I’m living somebody’s dream
My children look away, they don’t know what to say
My children look away, they don’t know what to say
Buckingham sings in an anguished lament usually reserved for kids whose parents forget to pick them up from soccer practice. It’s a bit strange to hear, since for most of his adult life, Buckingham led a band that sold tens of millions of albums. God help the rest of us if he feels “unseen.”
It’s my first experience hearing live music since the pandemic began, and it’s a delight listening to Buckingham and his band work through their entire set. The middle passage features some Mac songs — “The crowd would storm the stage if I didn’t play a few” — and Buckingham tweaks them, speeding some up and slowing others down. His voice is his second instrument, sometimes wielded like an additional guitar. I can hear it in this rehearsal, spanning the ba-bam-bam-bam on “Second Hand News,” or the first needle-hitting-the-groove sound you hear on his latest single, “I Don’t Mind.”
I can hear an almost imperceptible difference in Buckingham’s voice; it’s now operating in a slightly lower register. The drop is partially because of age, but mostly because of a scare in 2019. He suffered chest pains during an elective surgery and was rushed into the operating room, where he endured an emergency triple bypass. One of the surgeon’s instruments nicked Buckingham’s vocal cords during the procedure. Some feared his voice was gone forever.
Buckingham excuses himself for a minute to greet an old Fleetwood Mac lighting director who has stopped by the rehearsal space. His guitarist, Neale Heywood, wanders over and says hello. He shakes his head in wonder. “I think everyone was wondering if this day would ever come,” says Heywood, who has played with Buckingham for decades. “Things looked pretty dicey for a while, but he’s reworked some muscles and breathing, and he sounds fantastic. I’m so proud of how he fought through all of it.”
Buckingham returns, and the band gets back to work. Someone remarks that it feels like a Friday. (An astute observation since it is, in fact, the day after Thursday.)
“Yeah,” says Buckingham with the wonderment of a stoner office drone counting down minutes to the end of his shift. “It does feel like a Friday.” He pauses for a second. “OK, let’s get back to work.”
See? No drama.
I meet Buckingham at his house in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles the day after the rehearsal. Some themes emerge.
Whatever you think of Lindsey Buckingham — The Washington Post ran a headline, “Lindsey Buckingham, Formerly of Fleetwood Mac: Rock’s Biggest Jerk or Misunderstood Genius?,” when he was ousted from Fleetwood Mac — his work ethic has never been questioned. There were the all-nighters recording Tusk, an artistic “Fuck you” to record-company requests to repeat the success of the approximately 40-million-sold Rumours, and now he’s a 71-year-old man with a bum ticker planning a tour as the pandemic rages on. I enter wondering if an artistic genius can also manage to have a content life outside of the spotlight. Three hours later, I’m still not sure.
More than once, Buckingham will point the wrong way when referring to his home studio where he hashes out songs that begin as melodies hummed into his phone. It’s understandable: A couple of years back, he and his wife sold their original Brentwood home and moved five houses up the street.
His three children are now nearly grown, and his recent separation has left Buckingham living alone except for a housekeeper and a trio of dogs. His house is tastefully decorated, the walls filled with paintings. There are no artifacts of his career and few personal touches outside of some books on French New Wave films in his studio.
Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, Buckingham closes some double doors separating the living room and the kitchen. Occasionally, one of the dogs will yap in a way that might bring an understandable “Shut the fuck up” from my host. But there are no signs of the prickly side of Buckingham’s personality. In his earlier days, he was accused of various piggish behaviors, including kicking and throwing a guitar at Nicks during a 1980 concert. The alleged tantrum concluded with Christine McVie slapping him. (Buckingham has said he doesn’t remember the incident that way.)
Still, the past is not even past. It’s impossible for Buckingham to get through a discussion of his new album without descending into the Fleetwood Mac muck. As with all things Mac, it is complicated. At its heart is the same old Buckingham-versus-Nicks conflict that has existed since the two met in the late Sixties while attending high school in Atherton, California.
It’s always been this way, beginning with Buckingham Nicks, an album the two recorded 48 years ago that led to Mick Fleetwood asking the couple to join his band. The border war began with Nicks’ resentment at Buckingham insisting they both pose topless on the album cover. The record is an underground pop classic but has never been rereleased because the duo has not been able to agree on the details of the reissue.
Then there was a breakup and the visceral “Fuck off” songs both wrote for Rumours. Since then, there have been decades of conflict and joy summarized by the two holding hands during some performances of “Landslide” and countless “I will murder you” glares across the stage, often during the same show.
Buckingham even left Fleetwood Mac for a decade after the release of 1987’s Tango in the Night, saying, “I needed to get on with the next phase of my creative growth and my emotional growth. When you break up with someone and then for the next 10 years you have to be around them and do for them and watch them move away from you, it’s not easy.” The band briefly re-formed to play “Don’t Stop” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, which eventually led to Buckingham returning to the fold, ostensibly a changed man.
There was a period of Pax Fleetwood around 2015, with Christine McVie’s return after a 16-year, fear-of-flying retirement and the reuniting of the “classic five” for the first time in decades, resulting in a triumphant tour that grossed almost $200 million. Afterward, Christine entered the studio with Buckingham, Fleetwood, John, and producer Mitchell Froom.
When I profiled Fleetwood in 2014, he expressed excitement about the potential for a new Fleetwood Mac album. “All we need is Stevie to complete her stuff and we’re set,” Fleetwood told me as he sped across Maui in a BMW that resembled a Shriners clown car with the six-foot-six drummer at the wheel.
Buckingham remained chronically skeptical. “I kept telling them, ‘You’re fooling yourselves,’” he says now. “Stevie didn’t want to do it.”
He was right. The album never happened. While Buckingham’s temper may have mellowed, he still gives the needle to his ex.
“I have to only assume that she just didn’t have any new songs,” he says with a shrug. “I sent her some tracks of mine, because back in the prime Fleetwood Mac creative days that was something that fulfilled her. It completed her in a way that I don’t think she has been completed since. She could have availed herself of that, but she didn’t want to.”
Buckingham worked out his frustration in the studio, converting the aborted Mac songs into the well-received Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie album and tour in 2017. On the new solo record, Buckingham channeled his angst into the subject of the very poppy and dyspeptic “On the Wrong Side.” It touches on both his dissatisfaction at touring endlessly with Fleetwood Mac without any new songs (“I’m out of pity, I’m out of time/Another city, another crime”) and a sense that he had wasted so many hours trying to work through band chaos (“Time is rolling down the road/Love goes riding in a hearse/We were young, and now we’re old/Who can tell me which is worse?”). The song has some trademark Buckingham touches: a ripping guitar solo, an insistent beat, and some treated backing vocals that make his voice sound a bit like Nicks and McVie. “It’s a song about trying to regain some of my center that might have momentarily been lost through the travails of the band,” he says.
Buckingham was given a permanent release from the travails when he was fired in early 2018. Signs of a rupture had been in the air. The band played a desultory set at Dodger Stadium as part of the Classic West concert in July 2017. Asked what he had been looking forward to about the show, Buckingham told the Los Angeles Times, “Just close your eyes and take the money.” The band reconvened in January 2018 as the honored guest at a MusiCares Grammy event that featured an introduction by Bill Clinton and a well-received five-song set. Buckingham was fired shortly after returning to Los Angeles.
There was talk at the time that Nicks had grown tired of Buckingham’s behavior, particularly him smirking and acting out during her speech at the MusiCares event. Buckingham says that’s bullshit and that it was his new record that forced the rupture. Already recorded and mastered, Buckingham asked the rest of Fleetwood Mac to delay an upcoming tour for three months so he could release his album and take his new songs on the road. When they balked, Buckingham suggested that since the band was only doing three shows a week, he could book gigs in the same city for the off nights. He thought they were still having a debate about it when he had a conversation with the band’s manager telling him he was out.
For months, Buckingham’s emails and calls to the other members of Fleetwood Mac went unanswered. He filed a lawsuit against the band that has since been settled. It doesn’t take much to get Buckingham to cough up his take. According to him, the villainess is — you will be shocked — Stevie Nicks: “I think she wanted to shape the band in her own image, a more mellow thing, and if you look at the last tour, I think that’s true.”
Fleetwood Mac added Crowded House icon Neil Finn and Tom Petty guitarist and longtime Nicks friend Mike Campbell to the band’s lineup and set out on the road, delivering a set that included Finn singing “Second Hand News” as well as some Fleetwood Mac songs that predated Buckingham, Christine, and Nicks joining the band. Most of the band would leave the stage when Finn sang “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”
“I didn’t see it,” says Buckingham. “I’m sure it was fine. Although just looking at the set list, the whole thing seemed somewhat generic and perhaps bordering on being a cover band. We’ve all had our ups and down, but we always put the band’s legacy first. But what this did was dishonor the legacy that we built.”
Buckingham hasn’t seen any of the band members since his firing, but has been back in touch with Fleetwood. They had a dinner on the books not long ago, but it had to be canceled with the latest flare-up of Covid-19. To him, his dismissal was the result of the other band members cowering before Nicks. He makes a thermonuclear analogy.
“I think others in the band just felt that they were not empowered enough, individually, for whatever their own reasons, to stand up for what was right,” says Buckingham. He pauses for just a second and then plows on. “And so, it became a little bit like Trump and the Republicans.”
Fleetwood has hinted that Buckingham could be welcomed back if Nicks comes around. It’s unlikely that comparing Nicks to Trump will help those chances.
Buckingham wonders if his ability to have a family while in his late forties and early fifties was difficult on Nicks. In fact, Nicks told Rolling Stone in 2015 that “Lindsey and I would always laughingly say — which we both knew was never going to happen — that, like, when we were 90, and everybody else was dead, maybe we would end up together in an old folks’ home.… So when his first child was coming, I think we were walking in an airport, and I said, ‘Well, I guess we’re never going to get to that old folks’ home.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I guess we never are.’”
“It certainly wasn’t lost on her that, even though I waited till I was 48 to have my first child, I did get in under the wire,” Buckingham says.
This seems like a good time to hear from Nicks, who responded with this statement when asked for comment:
“It’s unfortunate that Lindsey has chosen to tell a revisionist history of what transpired in 2018 with Fleetwood Mac,” Nicks wrote to “Rolling Stone.” “His version of events is factually inaccurate, and while I’ve never spoken publicly on the matter, preferring to not air dirty laundry, certainly it feels the time has come to shine a light on the truth. Following an exceedingly difficult time with Lindsey at MusiCares in New York, in 2018, I decided for myself that I was no longer willing to work with him. I could publicly reflect on the many reasons why, and perhaps I will do that someday in a memoir, but suffice it to say we could start in 1968 and work up to 2018 with a litany of very precise reasons why I will not work with him. 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 well-being. I was done. If the band went on without me, so be it. I have championed independence my whole life, and I believe every human being should have the absolute freedom to set their boundaries of what they can and cannot work with. 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.
Further to that, as for a comment on “family” — I was thrilled for Lindsey when he had children, but I 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, even if it looks differently from what his life choices have been.”
Alas, like Nicks, Buckingham is now on his own.
The guitarist is a firm believer in “Write what you know,” and like most writers, he stacks the deck in his favor to the detriment of those around him. I mention that I enjoyed the melancholy lilt of “Santa Rosa,” from the new album. Without much prompting, Buckingham blurts out, “My wife wanted to move the entire family up to Santa Rosa Valley.” (It’s about 50 miles northwest of Brentwood.) “She wanted to build a house on a horse ranch.” The song makes it clear that Buckingham wasn’t planning to follow his wife to horse country. “I just thought, ‘You’re really yanking the kids away from their whole world,’” he recalls. “That was a notion she had for a while and eventually backed off.”
Buckingham says his wife has become accustomed to him mining family stuff when writing his solo songs. (One of Buckingham’s more joyous songs is 2006’s “It Was You,” an effusive love song to Messner thanking her for marrying him and giving him a family late in life.) He’s clearly been thinking about their relationship and wonders where it went off the rails.
“Last February, she just said, ‘I need some space, I’m renting a place for a while.’ And it started off being three months,” says Buckingham in a notably quiet voice. (Messner was not made available for this story.) He loses himself in thought for a moment.
“Perhaps there’s a difference between my being 50 and her being 30 when we met, and her being 50 and my being 70 now,” he says. “Of how one is perceived at the midpoint in her life.… She can take as long as she wants. We have dinner once a week, she wants to come out and see some tour dates.” He smiles hopefully: “I have a lot of optimism we’re going to work things out.”
Despite their difficulties, Buckingham knows that he owes Messner for helping get him back on his feet after his heart surgery in 2019. “Everyone was tiptoeing around my voice,” says Buckingham. “But at first, I was more concentrated on just being able to walk and get around again.”
Buckingham saw a speech therapist but saw little progress. He then flew out to Boston and sat down with a vocal-cord specialist at Massachusetts General. “He told me my voice was going to be what it’s going to be, and I had to just wait.”
So, he waited. Buckingham lost his father and a brother at an early age, and those wounds have left him preoccupied with lost time. He’s addressed it on his solo albums with covers of the Jagger-Richards song “I Am Waiting” and his own composition “Time Precious Time,” featuring one of Buckingham’s more haunting vocals, a repeated sing-scream of the words “Time, precious time.” The new album continues that trend with a cover of the Sixties folk classic “Time.” “I recorded ‘Time’ first,” says Buckingham. “I think at the time the idea of ‘Time, where do you go?’ was more academic.” He smiles a bit. “But in the three or four years since, with the number of things that have gone down, the whole meaning of the song became something I felt much more on a visceral level.”
It’s getting late, but I ask Buckingham if I can take a look at his home studio before I depart. We head into his backyard. It’s magic hour in Los Angeles, and the sun has a golden hue as we walk on his manicured lawn.
Buckingham admits that he would love to play with Fleetwood Mac again: “It would be great to end 46 years in a better way.” He shrugs his shoulders. “But it’s not up to me.”
I’m not sure what I am expecting, but Buckingham’s studio startles me with its sterile atmosphere. The space is devoid of any personal touches. Well, except for one. There’s a giant mixing board that Buckingham has used since the Tusk days. “I guess I could learn Pro Tools, but I think I could get lost in that.”
He gently pats the board.
“I’m keeping this one.”
The relationship between Buckingham and the board has been the longest, most successful one of his life.
There’s no waiting, there’s no voice talking back. He looks lovingly at all the knobs and faders.
And then Buckingham heads back to the main house. There are a couple of good hours left before sunset.