The Guardian (04/18/2003), Excess Baggage
The Guardian, April 18, 2003
Mental illness, drug abuse, affairs, breakups - it's a miracle that Fleetwood Mac are still alive. But here they are with a Rumours-era lineup, and their first proper album in 16 years.
By Paul Lester
If the story of rock'n'roll is one of drug-fuelled debauchery, insanity, extravagant shopping habits and a little music-making, there are few who have put in as many good hours shaping that story as Fleetwood Mac. The tales of the band's remarkable excesses are legion: vocalist Stevie Nicks, for example, reportedly burned a hole in her septum the size of a 10p piece with cocaine. Mick Fleetwood, the drummer, managed to blow £8m on drugs, drink and failed property deals, bankrupting himself. Guitarist Lindsey Buckingham spent a comparable amount living for two years in Los Angeles' extraordinarily expensive Four Seasons hotel.
Even by 1972, before the arrival of Buckingham and Nicks, Fleetwood Mac had already lost three guitarists, two to recognised mental illness. One of them, Danny Kirwan, ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Another, Jeremy Spencer, was recruited on the streets of Hollywood by the Christian hippie cult the Children of God. The third, Peter Green, was diagnosed as schizophrenic after chasing his accountant with an air rifle because the unfortunate actuary had attempted to give him a royalty cheque. In 1975, American folk-rock duo Buckingham and Nicks entered the picture and the band's problems really began. That time, Mick Fleetwood admits now - with some understatement - was "pretty messed up".
What happened to the band between then and Buckingham's dramatic departure a decade later has entered rock folklore. The young couple, the epitome of early-1970s California hippy glamour, had already split up when they joined the band. Now there were two disintegrating relationships to deal with in Fleetwood Mac, since McVie and his keyboardist wife Christine were no longer on speaking terms. Even Mick Fleetwood's marriage was on the rocks after his wife, Jenny Bond, had a fling with the band's sound engineer.
Then, just when it appeared that every possible romantic ruction had been explored, Nicks and Fleetwood quickly fell in and out of love. Nicks recently spoke of this affair. "Mick and I will both laughingly tell you that [our affair] was not cocaine-induced," she said. "There was a big party one night and everybody was drunk. It was just a mistake, a bad mistake and we knew we were doomed. We knew that, if we continued, the band would really break."
Somehow, amid the atmosphere of creeping loathing and simmering tension, the band managed to record an album. A good album: Rumours, which is full of exquisite melodies and coded lyrical messages from the songwriters - Christine McVie, Buckingham and Nicks - to each other and to other members of the band. Released in 1977, it went on to become one of the biggest-selling records of all time.
The band celebrated by partying hard, becoming synonymous with west-coast superstar indulgence and cocaine dementia. Today Fleetwood is matter-of-fact about the era. "It was fun for a while," he says. "Then it turned into a bloody nightmare."
Fleetwood Mac are about to release their first album for 16 years. Say You Will is a follow-up proper to 1987's Tango in the Night (1990's Behind the Mask and 1995's Time were lacklustre affairs). Recording sessions for Tango in the Night may have proved even more tortuous and unpleasant than those for Rumours, climaxing with Buckingham storming out and vowing never to return - "There's ugly and there's ugly", he says of that period now - but four out of five Rumours-era Mac players are now back in place.
The only one missing is Christine McVie, who left, apparently for good, in 1998. "She didn't want to be on the road; she hated touring and living in hotels," said Nicks recently. "You know when you look at someone's eyes and you know they're finished? That's the feeling I got when I looked at Christine."
Buckingham, half egghead recluse, half California hunk in his white T-shirt and black jeans, says: "She had issues that she needed to sort out back home." Because McVie's songs were the most mellow and syrupy, he claims there is now "more of an edge to the music".
McVie's departure has galvanised a band that, by rights, shouldn't be here at all. That Buckingham, Nicks, Fleetwood and John McVie were able to spend time in a recording studio together after all the rancour and regrets is astonishing enough. That Say You Will is being hailed as their best work since Tusk, the double-album follow-up to Rumours now hailed as a masterpiece of mainstream pop invention, is incredible.
"Doing this album is a huge investment at this point in our career," says Fleetwood, who acknowledges that it might have been easier to have "put a few of the old hits together" and climbed aboard the nostalgia bandwagon. But there is credibility at stake here. The venerable drummer, 55, is charged up by Say You Will's 18 new compositions, nine apiece from Buckingham and Nicks. Once the fiercest critic of Buckingham's outre experiments on Tusk, Fleetwood seems genuinely in awe of the producer's achievements this time round.
Despite his silver beard and aristocratic demeanour - he is wearing a Turnball & Asser striped shirt, "as worn by the Duke of Edinburgh", he points out with a smile - there is an adolescent energy and a childlike glee about Fleetwood. "We're not blase," he says. "We're like a bunch of kids going, 'I wonder whether people will like this record?' Christine not being here has meant a change of plan. It's sonically different. The boundaries have been pushed, and Lindsey was very much at the helm of that particular issue."
Buckingham, 53, realises the time is right for his return to the fold. "It's been gratifying to come back and, having made the decision, to see it totally vindicated in everyone's eyes," he says. "I'm totally psyched."
He also accepts that he got out at the right time. "It was a survival move," he says of his decision to quit in 1987, when the band was at its most self-destructive. "Everyone was at the height of living their lives in a crazy way - it was far from being the ideal creative atmosphere. I just hoped my karma would allow me to leave without it being too damaging. It was excessive. People were basically indulging in certain substances. Including myself. It was like, when in Rome . . ."
F leetwood Mac began to overindulge seriously during the recording of Rumours, when black velvet bags of white powder were regularly found beneath the studio console. Their 1978 world tour on the back of that album was an eight-month bacchanal that made Led Zeppelin look like S Club Juniors.
When not on tour, they seemed to compete with each other for the title of Most Ostentatious Consumer. Christine McVie bought a mansion, outside of which she parked a pair of Mercedes-Benzes with licence plates named after her dogs, two lhasa apsos. Nicks cemented her reputation as rock's ultimate ethereal white witch when she moved into a mock-Tudor residence above Sunset Boulevard, commonly referred to as Fantasy Land. McVie had a schooner at Marina del Rey and a house in Beverly Hills. Fleetwood acquired a clifftop residence in Malibu and a fleet of vintage cars. Even Buckingham, who, compared with the others, was fairly abstemious, shared a sumptuous LA home with Rumours co-producer Richard Dashut.
Their lives were like something out of Dallas or Dynasty, as Buckingham notes. "Rumours was out of control in terms of the phenomenon," he says. "The music was good, but it got to the point where I thought much of our success was based on us being this living musical soap opera, where our lives were just there for everyone to examine. It brought out the voyeur in everyone."
Was he offended by this gory fascination with the unravelling of their lives? "Not really. There's nothing wrong with that, that's part of the deal - anyone who has any kind of notoriety has got to accept that. But the fact that everyone was indulging in things they thought they had to made for a situation that derailed the band and undercut my sense of values."
For Buckingham, whose musical ideas transformed the band from local British heroes to international stars, the pressure - of being in a band with his ex-lover, of having to sustain the group's unprecedented commercial success - was shattering.
"It was most difficult for Lindsey because Stevie was the one who pulled away emotionally," says Fleetwood. "He would say, 'I'm doing this for her and making her music, but I can't have closure.' " Buckingham, who admits he tried to maintain his distance as the madness took hold, can only agree. "It was very difficult all through the making of Rumours, with such a unique situation - you know, with two different couples comprising four-fifths of the band going through the process of breaking up while the album was being made. Only later did it become common knowledge. Back then, we had to go through this elaborate exercise of denial, keeping our personal feelings in one corner of the room while trying to be professional in the other."
It was, he says, especially tough for him to work so closely with Nicks. "That's not a healthy thing. Normally people who break up separate themselves geographically."
A fragile, intense soul, Buckingham sought refuge in his music. Inspired by punk - "I always said I wanted to be in the Clash" - and determined not to put out Rumours II, he worked obsessively and virtually alone in the studio. He emerged in late 1979 with Tusk. Costing a reputed $1m, it was immediately decried as rock's Heaven's Gate, a monument to hubris and drug-addled experimenting. Today, despite selling "only" 7m copies (compared to Rumours' 25m), Tusk is viewed as a landmark of radical MOR to rival the legendary 1967 grand folly, Smile, by Buckingham's hero Brian Wilson.
"I had my downs with Rumours, then I bounced back with Tusk," says Buckingham. Unfortunately, he was soon crushed by "the backlash from the band when it didn't sell 15m copies". "That," he admits today, "cut me off at the ankles. I had nowhere to go."
The next Fleetwood Mac album, 1982's Mirage, lacked the audacity of Tusk and the hardcore tunefulness of Rumours. It was a compromise, caused by a loss of nerve. "I had my confidence knocked," Buckingham says. He did, however, find the band's final project as a five-piece, Tango in the Night, "empowering", if only because he "had to take the reins" due to everyone else being too wasted to show up at the studio. It was a superior piece of 1980s pop product on which the producer dexterously managed to polish away any signs of degeneracy. "We recorded it at the house where I live now in west LA," says Buckingham. "There were a few ghosts of old relationships there. But they all went away the day we sat there and watched the bulldozers come in."
The various band members found different ways to numb the pain. On the road, Christine McVie would regularly knock back a bottle of Dom Perignon on stage and another after the show; she also embarked on a short-lived affair with wayward Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. Her ex-husband John, meanwhile, had an alcohol-induced seizure and was busted for possession of cocaine and firearms. Nicks traded a raging dependency on cocaine for a near- fatal addiction to the tranquilliser Klonopin. Breast implants inserted in 1976 precipitated a long bout of Epstein-Barr syndrome. Her skin was falling off and her hair was turning grey. Chronic exhaustion set in.
Even Fleetwood, usually the dependable one, was fast blowing his millions - and his mind - trying to satisfy his every whim. "For years, I was a raving lunatic," he says now. "I just flipped out. It was too much. Anything and everything that got in the way of Fleetwood Mac suffered, including marriages and children." This attitude also had a catastrophic effect on his relationship with the band's musical guiding light. The drummer's hedonistic lifestyle may have suited McVie ("truly a brother"), but it didn't work for Buckingham.
"I pushed Lindsey away, because he was never really much part of all that stuff," says Fleetwood. Did he frighten him? "In a way, yes, I probably did. We all have people we know like, 'Oh, I can only take him in small doses, he's off again . . .' The lifestyle and the trimmings became unattractive to Lindsey. He thought I was going to force him to sit in a corner and drink a bottle of wine with me. I was a crazy guy for a long time. Lindsey's very private, and he will never be otherwise.
"When Lindsey left [in 1987], I was so pissed off. I thought, 'How could he do that?' He was having a breakdown - or at least thinking, 'I can't do this any more.' But all those things are so long ago."
If anything, Say You Will has the torrid power that was missing from much of Fleetwood Mac's post-Rumours output. The music is searing and intense. "I have to say," declares Buckingham, "that my guitar playing is the best I've ever committed to record, and I think Mick would say the same about his drumming. It's more aggressive, more emotional." Has the pain not yet dissipated? "I don't think it ever will," he says. "In some ways, that makes it more bittersweet."
Fleetwood believes Say You Will has provided a final opportunity for the band's two remaining songwriters to exorcise old spectres. "Some of it is retrospective catharsis," he says. "There's stuff being addressed here and it's like, 'Oh my God, it took that long!' There were one or two stones left unturned. But it's pretty much done now."
As are the band's old habits. With Buckingham newly married and Fleetwood having just become a father of two girls, they're hardly likely to start burning the candle at both ends again. "Will we succumb on the road? Absolutely, 100% not. I can say categorically there is not one element of this band that is attracted to going back to the oh-so-great days of the 70s when we used to get stoned out of our heads all the time."
Now all that remains is to overcome anxieties about the new album's reception. For a band that flew so high and enjoyed such colossal success, they are oddly bedevilled by insecurities. "We still need to prove it," says Buckingham, who worries that people will think Fleetwood Mac are "incredibly unhip" - even if, as he admits, "I did all my suffering for my art long ago."
According to Fleetwood, the band never believed its own press anyway. "We're all really accessible people," he explains. E ven Nicks? Isn't she a real prima donna, the J-Lo of her generation? "Absolutely not, not for one moment in her life. Even when she had problems with substance abuse, she was always incredibly connected to the real world. We never had entourages or thugs telling people to 'clear the restaurant now!'
"We led wild and crazy lives and, yes, we're very lucky that we're not cynical or burned out or damaged, but we never had that veneer of delusional behaviour where you believe your own bullshit," he says finally, heading back to prepare for Fleetwood Mac's grand return. "We're not slick players or Hollywood types. We're almost to a fault way too open and honest. That means that people, for better or worse, know us. And that keeps you in the real world. It also maybe makes you more vulnerable. But what's so bad about being vulnerable?"
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