Nicks of Time
When Stevie Nicks returned to her Phoenix home at the tail end of 1994, just a year after quitting what was once the biggest band in rock 'n' roll, she figured that her career was all but over.
There was lots of wreckage in her wake. Earlier that same year, she had released her fourth solo album, the dodgy, drug-addled Street Angel,a flop of a disc that didn't go anywhere near platinum. The then-46-year-old rock star had spent the previous six months in an L.A. rehab clinic kicking a gnarly Klonopin habit (a drug prescribed to supplant a heady coke addiction).
Nicks spent months lodged in her desert house doing little else but nursing a depression that was larger than most of the arenas she had played over the years. Here was a woman responsible for some of the most enduring and celebrated pop ever recorded: a woman who had sold more than 50 million records.
Nicks contemplated calling it quits. She had guessed that nobody cared about her anymore. She figured herself too old to be relevant in an industry that was, after all, becoming increasingly dependent on the dreaded youth buck.
"I fired people and wasn't really nice to people and just lived in my 'oh, whatever' world," she says when asked about the years leading up to 1994. She's on the telephone in her rented Santa Monica home. "So when I went back to Phoenix, I was really freaked out. I thought, you know, I can't do it again." She pauses. Then she adds, with a hearty laugh, "I can't make that many apologies across the world again."
The easy, fish-in-the-barrel reference to insert here would be to Norma Desmond, the forgotten movie star in Sunset Boulevard. However, that would be far too easy, and lazy. Nicks wasn't about to be put to pasture, not against her will, anyway.
Enter ex-Gin Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzuela and, later, Tom Petty, the two people Nicks credits for helping lift her out of the depths of career despair. They got her off her ass.
Valenzuela and Nicks began recording songs at Vintage Recorders in Phoenix, one of which (an acoustic cover of Ricky Nelson's "It's Late") wound up on Nicks' 1998 boxed set, Enchanted.
"When I first started doing songs for Trouble in Shangri-la, I met Jesse through a local studio owner, and Jesse was so cool," Nicks explains. "I was coming out of rehab, and I was sad and I was trying to figure how to get my voice back and if that was even possible. That's where Jesse came in. He really was a strong force in talking me out of that. Jesse had just said, 'Don't be stupid. This is good. Let's get your singing chops back and get the excitement back.'
"Jesse really was an important factor in that. He was so wonderful to me, and supportive of me, that it was amazing. It really helped me to get back into the flow. I think Jesse is awesome. Later, I got a lecture from Tom Petty at the Ritz-Carlton, and I was able to say, 'You know, I can really do this again. . . .' I can, because what in the hell else am I going to do?"
Turns out Nicks was a big Gin Blossoms fan and thought it stupid that the Tempe-based band called it quits. She even goes so far as to suggest that, had the Blossoms not broken up, they might have attained a success on a par with Fleetwood Mac. If anybody could write the book on sustaining and overcoming inner-band fucked-upedness, it is Nicks. Fleetwood Mac taught us this.
"I was very sad that the Gin Blossoms broke up because I felt that they really had a shot at being a big band," Nicks says. "That decision that Robin [Wilson] -- is that his name? -- made was really a bad one. Because they could have all gone off and done solo things and not broken up that band. Because the Gin Blossoms could've been one of those bands, you know, a Fleetwood Mac type of band, a band that hung around for a long, long time and sold a lot of records. It was a unique sound, very different and very much unto themselves."
When Nicks speaks, the words shoot out quickly and offer little in the way of melodic variation. A wordy monotone implies a certain seriousness and masks self-deprecation. There is, however, a self-deprecating side to her. She pokes fun at herself surprisingly often ("I know four chords on the guitar and I don't play piano very well. . . . I throw in a bass note wherever I can figure it out.").
Since completing a North American tour that started in mid-summer, Nicks has been off the road for a week. She says she spends all her non-working time at her Phoenix home. Her voice is gruff, hoarse from spending long hours the night before doing vocals for a new Fleetwood Mac album.
"I'm so exhausted and I didn't get home until way late last night," she says, laughing. "When I woke up today, I went, 'Whoa, now I remember what recording is like.' It's over and over and over, you forget how tedious it is."
When talking Stevie Nicks 2001, all Sunset Boulevard bets are off. Of late, Nicks is a woman saddled with a few decidedly simple and un-rock-starry habits. The blow and pills are long gone. In their place, she's developed a soap opera habit and has taken to jogging.
Nicks' new album -- four years after the surprisingly triumphant Fleetwood Mac reunion tour -- Trouble in Shangri-la, is actually good. Really good. Shangri-la finds Nicks sounding almost animated, energized, with very few lapses into self-parody. She's not the diamond-studded-coke-spoon-wielding mystical chanteuse of yore, nor is she the aging star sitting atop a pedestal of vain self-fulfillment. At worst, the songs that are cringingly navel-gazy and touchy-feely still resonate as if shot up straight from the gut.
Much of Shangri-la was written by Nicks and produced by pal/fan Sheryl Crow (who brought along her sideman/writer, the brilliant ex-Wire Train guitarist Jeffrey Trott). What's weird is that Nicks' patented hiccupy croon sounds ageless. The record sounds youthful.
Nicks says the Peter Pan thing reveals itself in her writing. "I really write the same way now as I did when I was 16. My songs pretty much come from poems that pretty much come from what's happening to me in my life. So that allows me to write, I think, with a more kind of youthful feeling. Because, at 53 years old, I'm not much different from the person I was when I was 20, when I was wondering about that world of romantic possibility."
This from a rock star whose career saw a grand exit on the heels of sour record sales figures and coke-binge rumors, only to return after a sobering hiatus to find revisionist historians lauding her as a grand pop matriarch.
She's learned that in this life, timing is everything. Moreover, it is now cool to dig Stevie. Courtney Love, of all people, sings her praises. As does Macy Gray. Destiny's Child samples her and invites her to be in a video. Even Patti Smith has come clean. Sheryl Crow hails Nicks to the heavens. Nicks sounds genuinely confounded by so much slobbering reverence from those she influenced. "I didn't expect it at all," she says.
In the 1970s, songwriters did what they did and could become famous simply because other people dug it. It was a time when you could sell tons of records, become a huge pop star, all on your own terms. Hence, Fleetwood Mac. When all that started to change late in the decade (again, in part, because of Fleetwood Mac), when the process became fodder for corporate schemes, the artist took a seat at the back of the bus. The record biz became little more than a glorified drive-through.
Nicks agrees that pop music in the '70s, and that which she grew up on, was at the very least allowed to breathe. The songs weren't squeezed of their soul simply to fit formats. But she won't take blame for the latter.
These days, a pop star has one, maybe two hits and she's out. All this after having to nearly disrobe for the privilege. For Nicks, this new pretty-in-pink, here-today-gone-today nature of the record industry took a bit of getting used to.
"The companies are very different now," she says, with an audible shrug. "For Fleetwood Mac, in the beginning, for the first, say, 10 years between '75 and '85, we had such a close relationship with Warner Bros. We would go over to the label and we knew everybody by name. There seemed to be a true artistic relationship between the industry and the artists. That's very hard to find now. You know what's in those Top 10 spaces and it's a lot about rap and it's a lot about Britney Spears and it's a lot about that total teen thing."
In theory, an audience could grow old with an artist. It's an idea that seems wholly antiquated now. Picture Britney and her fans at Nicks' age. Grace is hard to imagine.
"The only bummer about that whole thing is what about all the people that are my age," Nicks continues, laughing. "All the people that were Fleetwood Mac fans in 1980, what happened to all of them? So I kind of said, especially with Shangri-la, all these songs could fit into a 17-year-old's life. Because it's all about angst and searching and life."
Nicks echoes Peter Pan pathos. She simply refuses to buy into the dead-at-30-buried-at-60 pop mythos. "You have to be philosophical in this day and age. Because if you are not, you will just get depressed and stop playing music and become an old person. This is even true for young people. Even young people who just stop listening to music and become old. People my age are searching for that song that comes on that just knocks them out like when we were 25. I know I am. I am always waiting for that song by somebody else that just kills me. But, again, I don't let what is going on affect me too much. Because I know when it all comes down to push and shove that the really good song is gonna win. Doesn't matter if I'm singing it or Britney is singing it or Backstreet Boys are singing it or 'N SYNC is singing it. It doesn't matter who is singing it."
Nicks levels her career perseverance on the fact she's eschewed the wife-and-kids routine. Career and longevity are two ostensibly mutually exclusive terms when Rock Star is your job description. If only to sustain the idea that there is a possibility of being adored at an advancing age, the hit tunes have got to keep coming. Nicks claims no worries when it comes to dwindling sales success, even after Shangri-la stalled in the lower reaches of the Billboard charts: "As soon as somebody says to you, 'Okay, write a Top 10 single,' you run screaming from the room. What is a hit single? Really, what is that? As soon as you start thinking about music in those terms, you're messed up. It will taint everything that you do."
Nicks, in fact, considers herself no different from "all those little 16-year-old girls who are searching for the love of their lives. We are all searching. So that's how I write my music. Really, my songs aren't so very different than the very first song I wrote when I was 16. I think that when you get married and have children and divorce your husband and have to pay child support and blah, blah, blah, you don't write the same anymore. That's how I feel with this record."
What did former beau and bandmate Lindsey Buckingham think of Trouble in Shangri-la?
"He thinks that it is a very good record. Lindsey does not ever and has never thrown out compliments to me about anything outside of Fleetwood Mac. And on this record he said, 'I think that is the best thing that you have ever done.' That meant a lot."
"I was in Aspen a week ago for three days," she continues. "I wrote 'Landslide' there in, like, 1974. So I was walking around the streets of Aspen going, 'You know what? Aspen has served you well for "Landslide,"' and that song has served me well my whole life. So I thought I'd better write another song, so I wrote about what happened in New York. I just gave it to Lindsey last night -- just the raw cassette and a set of words -- and I'll see when I return in two weeks what he has done with this song."
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