Stevie Nicks was sitting in her den in Los Angeles' Pacific Palisades recently, overlooking the ocean, when the 66-year-old peered out the window and saw black angel wings. The wings were so pretty, she thought about taking a photo. But after several minutes, she heard ambulance sirens and realized that a boat had caught fire: The angel wings were in fact black smoke.
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It's telling that she saw beauty in a disaster. Rumours, the 1977 Fleetwood Mac album, is both one of the most elegant pop albums ever made, and one of the most savage. The record chronicles the romantic crossfire between Nicks and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, a pair of Americans who'd joined the venerable British group two years earlier, and bassist John McVie and keyboardist Christine McVie, who'd broken up and weren't speaking to one another, following her affair with the band's sound engineer. (Drummer Mick Fleetwood didn't escape the melodrama — his wife had an affair with Mick's best friend.) Though the Nicks-Buckingham romance ended long ago, it continues to yield great songs: On her new album, 24 Karat Gold – Songs From the Vault, due Oct. 7, Nicks has recorded lost songs she wrote between the late '60s and mid-'90s, at least one of which, she tells Billboard, is about Buckingham.
On the day of her album's release, Nicks, who was once married briefly, will play New York's Madison Square Garden with Fleetwood Mac, the fifth date of the band's On With the Show North American concerts, which continue through December — the first leg of a planned world trek. A year ago, the group canceled dates in Australia and New Zealand due to John McVie's cancer treatment (the band's publicist reports that he's "in excellent health now"), and this new tour reunites them with Christine McVie, who quit the group in 1998. That's a lot of ex-lovers on the same stage, and a lot of beautiful black smoke.
24 Karat Gold is an unusual idea: You recorded songs you'd written years ago but never released. Were you able to figure out in what year you wrote each song?
I don't know the exact dates. I'm pretty sure "Cathouse Blues" was written in 1969, before Lindsey and I moved to L.A. And I think "Lady" was written at the end of 1971 or beginning of 1972, when Lindsey and I got our first piano. I think it was the first song I ever wrote on a piano.
Why old songs instead of new ones?
This album was made very fast. When [John McVie] got cancer, we had to cancel our tour of Australia. I had some free time, and I thought, "Maybe I should make a record." All over the Internet, there are songs I wrote but never released, and people keep saying, "Why don't you record these songs for real?" I'd never had time to do that. Now I had an empty, precious three months.
My previous album, In Your Dreams, took a year and two months. So I called [In Your Dreams producer] Dave Stewart and said, "How do we make a record in two months?" And he said, "We go to Nashville." He told me, "In Nashville, you hire the best studio musicians, and they record two songs a day. On a really good day, they might even do three." I was laughing, because I didn't believe him. But we were there for three weeks, and we recorded 17 songs in 15 days.
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Fleetwood Mac couldn't record 17 songs in 15 months.
They couldn't, not even if you offered them $5 million apiece. In Fleetwood Mac, I play them a demo, and someone says, "That's great, but why don't we work on that second verse?" I might say, "Are you crazy?" or I might say, "That's a good idea." You mull it over.
We packed up after those 15 days in Nashville and went back to my house, where we recorded background vocals and guitar overdubs. This was all done in under three months, because on Aug. 4, I had to start Fleetwood Mac rehearsals. We didn't have a minute to spare.
Is there relief in doing a solo album, rather than going through the democratic process of Fleetwood Mac? In a band, you have to ask others "What do you think?" and then pretend you care.
Right. Because you don't really care. You're asking people to give you an opinion, just so you'll be able to say, "I totally disagree with you, and I know I'm right. But I'm glad to hear how you feel."
You spent months listening to your old songs, and for 24 Karat Gold's art, looking at photos of yourself as far back as your 20s. What did you learn about your life?
Part of me is feeling extremely old now, and part of me is feeling extremely young. Because I look at these pictures and realize I worried about things that I shouldn't have been worrying about. Like the fact that I had little marionette lines around my mouth when I was 29, and I was complaining about them. I wouldn't go out to the beach without a sarong from my neck to my ankles. Now I see a picture of myself from that era in a bikini and I'm like, "You looked great. And you missed out on a lot of fun vacations, because you were so sure that you were fat."
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So the moral is, spend more time in a bikini?
Spend more time in a bikini! All the little girls in their 20s, they're terrified of looking like they're not 16. And I'm like, "Oh, just get ready for what's to come." It's going to be way harder for them. The world has become a much more vain place.
"Cathouse Blues" is the oldest song on 24 Karat Gold, and it's a very unusual style for you, almost ragtime.
It is unusual. I think I wrote it in 1969, maybe '68. It's about some cartoon cats. They're hanging out on a fence and — I don't want to say hooker cats, because they weren't that, but they were definitely street cats. When it says "blue-gray eyes," I think that must have been about Lindsey, because he has blue-gray eyes.
At 15 and a half, I fell in love with a really handsome boy in Arcadia High School in Los Angeles. Thank God for that, because even though my relationship with Lindsey didn't really end well, the passionate feeling I had for this man — who I still know very well, and, in my own way, will always be crazy about– he brought out this love song.
When you went back to listen to songs you'd written years ago, did they each remind you of a specific period of your life?
Yes. Give "Mabel Normand" a special listen. Mabel was an amazing actress and comedian from the '20s, and she was a terrible cocaine addict. She eventually died of tuberculosis, but it was really her drug addiction that killed her. She was in love with a famous director, who tried to get her off coke, and he was murdered. Rumor has it, drug dealers killed him. I saw a documentary of her in 1985, when I was at my lowest point with the blow. I was watching TV one night, the movie came on, and I really felt a connection with her. That's when I wrote the song. Less than a year later, I went to rehab at Betty Ford.
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Didn't a doctor warn you in the '80s that if you did one more line of coke, you might have a heart attack?
He said I'd have a brain hemorrhage, actually. The documentary really scared me, because I saw this beautiful girl go downhill so fast. Sometimes you can't see it in yourself, but you sure as heck can see it in someone else. And suicide was never my MO. I'm basically a happy person. I was a happy person back then. I just got addicted to coke, and that was a very bad drug for me. It was obviously a very bad drug for Mabel too. She had a gang of rich kids, like Lindsay Lohan today. That same bunch of girls comes around every 15 years.
What about "Hard Advice"? What's happening in that song?
It's a lecture Tom Petty gave me one day about something that was going on in my life. I'd asked him to write a song with me — this was about two months after I came out of rehab for [addiction to] Klonopin. I was still in a fragile state, after 48 days of hell in rehab. And Tom said, "You don't need help to write a song. You just need to get over this experience that bummed you out so bad. The relationship you were in is over, it was over a long time ago, and you need to move on." And I went home and wrote this song.
You've toured with Tom, you've recorded a few duets, and his band members contributed to your first two solo albums. Wasn't he also tangentially involved in "Edge of Seventeen" [from 1981's Bella Donna]?
I asked Tom's wife, Jane, when she met him. She said, "I met him at some point during the age of 17." But I thought she said, "The edge of 17." I said, "Jane, can I use that? Can I write a song called 'Edge of Seventeen'?"
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I always thought "Edge of Seventeen" was about lusting after a younger guy. But recently, I read that it's about John Lennon's murder.
It is. And "Edge of Seventeen" is also a little bit about Tom. "He seemed broken hearted/Somethin' within him," that was Jane talking about Tom. I bet a lot of people thought I was talking about me, but I was chronicling their relationship as she told it to me.
I notice you haven't said which of your ex-boyfriends "Hard Advice" is about. That reminds me of a story Don Henley told years ago, about your [Fleetwood Mac] song "Sara." He said you got pregnant while the two of you were dating, and Sara was the name you gave the unborn baby.
Had I married Don and had that baby, and had she been a girl, I would have named her Sara. But there was another woman in my life named Sara, who shortly after that became Mick's wife, Sara Fleetwood.
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So what Henley says about the song is accurate, but it's not the entirety of the song?
Right. It's accurate, but not the entirety of it.
Fleetwood Mac's Rumours is, famously, an album made while both couples in the band were breaking up. But you and Lindsey were already having problems when you joined the band in 1974. So I wonder if the previous album, Fleetwood Mac, is also a breakup album.
We were breaking up when Fleetwood Mac asked us to join. We moved down from San Francisco to L.A. in 1972, and made Buckingham Nicks in 1973, and were having problems all through that. When we moved, it was lonely. I didn't have any girlfriends. And I was the one who worked. I had to be a waitress, and a cleaning lady, in order to support us — because Lindsey didn't want to play four sets at Chuck's Steakhouse, where we could've made $500 a week. To him, that was selling out. He wanted to play original music, so I went along with that.
When we joined Fleetwood Mac, I said, "OK, this is what we've been working for since 1968. And so Lindsey, you and I have to sew this relationship back up. We have too much to lose here. We need to put our problems behind us. Maybe we're not going to have any more problems, because we're finally going to have some money. And I won't have to be a waitress."
I made Lindsey listen to all the Fleetwood Mac records. And I said, "I think we can do something for this band. We'll do it for a year, save some money and if we don't like it, we'll quit." And he's like, "But Buckingham Nicks, I still think the record's going to start to break out." I said, "You wait around. I'm sick of being a waitress. We are joining Fleetwood Mac and we're going to be great."
I got an apartment on Hollywood Boulevard, he moved back in with me, and we kind of put our relationship back together. We weren't fighting about money, we had a really nice place, and we were going to work with these hysterically funny English people every day, making great music.
Christine was like my mentor, and the only person who could buffer Lindsey. She could totally soothe him and calm him down, and that was great, because I wasn't good at that. We were sailing along on the highest wave. It was OK for a while, until it wasn't. At the end of 1976, that's when it just blew up.
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So do you hear premonitions of that breakup in the Fleetwood Mac songs?
Absolutely. Some of those songs came from two years before, when we broke up. People didn't examine that record as much, because to the public, it looked great — two couples in a band. And by the way, Christine and John weren't doing so great either during that album.
I feel bad for John. If Lindsey wrote a mean song about you, you could write one about him. Christine could write one about John. But John didn't get to write a mean song about anyone.
No. John just got to snarl and play bass. That's why it's good to be a writer, because you get to lash back. And had John been a writer, he would have a lot to say.
Why haven't you written a memoir?
Because I wouldn't be able to tell the whole truth. The world is not ready for my memoir, I guarantee you. All of the men I hung out with are on their third wives by now, and the wives are all under 30. If I were to write what really happened between 1972 and now, a lot of people would be very angry with me. It'll happen some day, just not for a very long time. I won't write a book until everybody is so old that they no longer care. Like, "I'm 90, I don't care what you write about me."
I am loyal to a fault. And I have a certain loyalty to these people that I love because I do love them, and I will always love them. I cannot throw any of them under the bus until I absolutely know that they will not care.
The world is ready, but the third wives are not ready.
The third wives are not ready. The husbands are not ready either.
You said getting revenge is one reason it's good to be a writer.
Yes, but you also have to be kind. Just because a relationship ended badly, and shitty things happened, you cannot tell that to the world. But you can write a song about it, in three verses and a bridge and a chorus, that tells the really magical moments.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of Billboard.