Ever get that, you know, not-so-fresh feeling about an artist? It's probably because you're associating that artist's music with a separate, unpleasant experience. For instance, I know this gentleman who has a deep-rooted resentment of Henry Mancini, simply because someone threw up on him in a car when "Moon River" was playing.
This aversion has probably stopped him from seeing dozens of Oscar-winning films the late composer scored music for, not to mention the Pink Panther movies and Newhart. Hardly the late composer's fault, but try telling that to a guy who hears "my huckleberry friend" and sees regurgitated cheese dripping down his lapel.
In much the same way, I've never given the solo work of Phoenix's own Stevie Nicks a fair shake, since I used to have a girlfriend who worshiped Nicks the whole nine yards. My girlfriend wore shawls in the summertime, draped veils over room lamps, read tarot cards, believed in spooks and spirits, consulted astrological charts and sang "Landslide" with the same high, quivering voice Stevie used to have. That was no mean feat, since my ex's regular speaking voice was lower than Bea Arthur's. But that was ages ago, and one should be able to disassociate star-crossed lovers with Stevie Nicks' latest album, Street Angel. But it's hard, much the same way you can't disassociate Stevie from Fleetwood Mac and Fleetwood Mac from the horrible sight of the Gores square-dancing to "Don't Stop."
There must be plenty of other guys out there who have a Nicksnik in their past, one who used to take out the top hat and chiffon every time Stevie came to town. After all, Rumours sold a kazillion copies, and Bill Clinton couldn't have bought all of them. Pubescent girls hungry for role models in 1976 didn't have too many ideals to choose from--Stevie, Farrah, Linda McCartney, the Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman and Rosalynn Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine--oh, yeah, and for 15 seconds, porn star turned pop singer Andrea True.
Most female Fleetwood Mac fans skipped right over honey-voiced Christine McVie, probably because she reminded them too much of their mothers. If you were a girl on the edge of 17, who would you rather be--Christine, slaving away at her keyboard like it was a Singer sewing machine, or Stevie, whirling dervishly onstage like a kid with no homework? You'd pick the chick in the top hat, natch! Goodhearted McVie symbolized the perennial pushover, the silly girl always looking for daddies in a roomful of strange men. She deserved whatever she got. Didn't her former beau Dennis Wilson once surprise her on her birthday with a heart-shaped flower garden and then have the gall to send her the landscaping bill? She probably paid it, too. Sap.
Whereas Stevie empowered women. Why? Because she had intrigue, mystery and just plain weirdness on her side. Her interviews were always peppered with enough talk of fairies and witches and crystal visions to convince the easily impressionable that she had powers far beyond those of mortal tambourine shakers. In a 1980 Rolling Stone cover story, Stevie showed writer Daisann McLane photographs of Fleetwood Mac in concert, insisting that the spirit of Rhiannon, the mythological Welsh witch she wrote her first million-seller about, took over her body whenever that song was played:
"The pale shadow of Dragon Boy [is] always behind me, always behind me. You see, when I get carried off into Rhiannon, it doesn't necessarily mean I'm not carried off into Fleetwood Mac. Cause I'm just as carried off into them. Rhiannon has to wait. She just has to wait; that's all there is to it."
Wooo, makes you want to double-lock the liquor cabinets, pronto, doesn't it? But maybe she has a point. Parts of "Rhiannon" are sung in a sweet, pixy voice that one readily associates with Nicks but that virtually disappears in her work after Rumours. By the time you get to Mirage and Tango in the Night, everybody involved got tired of waiting for Rhiannon to turn up again, so they just sped up Lindsey Buckingham's voice to sound like a chipmunk, instead.
No question about it--the voice of Stevie did change. The combination of nodes, asthma and the things you go to the Betty Ford Clinic to clear up (Nicks was once a guest there) resulted in her sounding like a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Froggy from The Little Rascals.
Nicks' table-tapping mysticism on those first two mighty Mac albums goes down in the most delightful way, because it's in such a small dose. It's only when we get to the excesses of Tusk--Fleetwood Mac's version of the White Album, on which nobody wanted to be Ringo and everybody wanted to be Paul--that we get to peek into Stevie's crystal ball and see how her solo career pans out.
Sandwiched between songs about men making Christine cry (again) and Lindsey screaming his head off and hitting a Kleenex tissue box for drums, you'll find Stevie writing what guys would sneeringly refer to as "women's songs."
Songs about lace curtains, setting down roots, having children, and the closest thing on that album to a "Revolution No. 9"--the incomprehensible "Sisters of the Moon." Here, shrewd Stevie shows solidarity with her lunar ladies in waiting. Obviously, she knows something we don't, namely, that a gal has to go pretty darned far to get away from the pesky men who keep upsetting Christine. See what I mean by empowerment? Sisters are doing it for themselves--on the moon, fer chrissakes! Remember those old sci-fi films in which men are enslaved on the planet Venus by women in pointed hats and tacky swimwear? If Stevie had her way, we'd all be on that planet, all right, but the women in charge would be wearing pointed hats, long skirts, long boots and long shawls their nanas gave them. You degenerates out there who once lusted after La Nicks probably don't need to be told there hasn't been any sign of Stevie's thighs or even cleavage on an album cover since the 25-million-selling Rumours.
Check out the cover of Bella Donna, on which she's dressed like either a mummified Jenny Lind or a New Age Barbie (lithium crystals sold separately). On The Wild Heart, she's covered from head to toe in a long robe that looks as if it were borrowed from the hermit on the inside cover of Led Zeppelin IV! Say what you want about Madonna, but the Material Girl saw a marketing void and, by cracky, she filled it.
The problem with Ms. Nicks' solo albums until now is that they've all sounded like by-projects of the Fleetwood Mac albums they concurrently came out with. Most of the material feels as if it had been passed over by the band for sounding too much like "Dreams." You can almost hear John McVie saying, "C'mon, Stevie, I'd like to play some other notes besides F and G!"
Unfortunately, the band learned this valuable lesson after Tusk, for which every song she submitted bore an uncanny resemblance to Mac's only No. 1 hit. Henceforth, she would no longer keep her visions to herself.
On her first solo outings, she continued to alienate guys with more of those "women's songs." Although only Stevie and her background vocalists are ever captured for posterity on the album covers, the guys are given more than equal time in the grooves. In fact, men have played a significant hand in three of her biggest hits. Who can forget "Stop Dragging My Heart Around," on which Stevie and guest Tom Petty trade quips about how worthless Tom is? That ungrateful witch--and even after he lent her the Heartbreakers for her entire solo career. She probably doesn't even sneeze in a recording studio without Benmont Tench there to say, "Gesundheit!"
Then there was her celebrated duet "Leather and Lace" with Don Henley. Not only did they trade vocals, but they managed to sound like two Jewish tailors down on Orchard Street, swapping fabrics bolts. "Give to me six yards of your leather, Don, and take from me six yards of my lace." Oy!
Nicks' most notorious and successful coupling was with Prince. He supposedly collaborated with her on her Top 5 hit "Stand Back," but is not listed in the album credits. Perhaps he was getting in some early practice in the fine art of namelessness.
Now that Stevie has finally left Fleetwood Mac for good, her albums no longer seem like one-third of the pie served up too many times. There's a completeness and variety on Street Angel's corner. Uptempo songs. Good God Almighty, thank heavens for little uptempo songs. Promotional material accompanying this snappy new release says it hearkens back to her first two guitar-oriented solo albums. Bullshit. It's way better than those boring outings. Two songs into it, you'll hear more hooks and chord changes than on her first four solo albums combined.
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If anything, Stevie has finally figured out that the key to a successful solo album is covering all the bases. She now rocks as hard as Lindsey and pops along as effortlessly as Christine. Even better, it sounds as if she's finally locked that no-good witch Rhiannon in the enchanted broom closet for good. No guest duets this time out, but everyone's favorite Wilbury, Bob "Lucky" Dylan, shows up on Stevie's kind rereading of "Just Like a Woman," which says less about Stevie's stature in the pop pantheon than it does about Bob's willingness to show up at everything from the Grammys to a car-wash opening these days. According to her bio sheet, Stevie recounts, "Bob didn't want to do anything on it--until I begged him. I told him, 'There's got to be some sort of spiritual connection. A lot of people will have never heard this song, and it's got to have you on it.'" And it does! Can Bob really believe Stevie's assertion that more people will hear this version buried near the end of her album than his hit version which still gets mucho airplay on oldies and lite-music stations? She has him under a spell, I tell you. This scary line of reasoning could easily land the gullible Mr. D a duet with Joey Lawrence on a very special episode of Blossom and ruin Dylan's ever-lapsing credibility more than a Self Portrait II would if he isn't careful. Regardless of his intentions, he doesn't sing a note, plays negligible acoustic guitar, and his harmonica is so low in the mix, it might as well be in the next life. Maybe they just left it in his mouth while he was sleeping.
If there are those of you who need one reason to care about Stevie, let "Blue Denim" sidle up to you. In 32 seconds, you'll be whooshed into a scrumptious Fleetwood Mac chorus that recalls those halcyon days of 1976. "In some ways, he'd forgotten me/In some ways, he got to me," she sings about a departed lover in easily accessible layman's terms.
Stevie sounds sexy again, like she actually has a reason to leave her bedroom filled with stuffed animals. "I'll come back to get you," she howls over yet another tasty Mike Campbell coda. This Heartbreaker has got to be rock's most uncelebrated guitar slinger, right after Lindsey Buckingham. Key word here is "tasty."
On paper, songs about Greta Garbo and a homeless woman who doesn't want to leave the streets may seem like pure treacle, but these babies got some claws to em. Pop aficionados will appreciate "Dockland," which is really Looking Glass' "Brandy" recounted from the girl on the western bay's point of view. And what would a Stevie Nicks album be without at least one weather report? The woman who once reminded us that "thunder only happens when it's raining" is now imploring us to "Listen to the Rain." Coupled with this sound advice are reassuring affirmations for the listeners, like "you're consistent and that's good." Well, Street Angel is consistent and good. And about as cosmic as the Shangri-Las. Stevie may be a bad witch, but she's not an evil one. And that's good.