Fleetwood Mac: Back on the Chain Gang

Fleetwood Mac were the lovingest, fightingest, druggingest band of the '70s. Twenty years later, as documented in their 1997 cover story, the psychodrama continues

October 30, 1997
Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks, Mick Fleetwood, rolling stone archive, old, photo, Lindsey Buckingham, John McVie
Fleetwood Mac on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

Twenty minutes after coming offstage in Burbank, Calif., Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie look just a touch stunned in the unsparing light of a trailer that's serving as their ad hoc lounge. A film of sweat fights it out with their foundation makeup. They've just played 90 minutes' worth of what was meant to be Fleetwood Mac gems. Tonight's show wasn't entirely to their liking: Nicks muffed the first verse of "Dreams" while crane-mounted TV cameras cruised and snooped, and McVie simply seemed to be hoarding strength for the next taped show – Friday evening, 19 hours from now. They have the wide-eyed graciousness of party givers who can't get their guests to leave as they politely shake hands and slump back beside a zealously beaming Winona Ryder, who rises to depart with a fervent observation: "Weren't they amazing?"

You can see on the ladies' faces that they don't feel that amazing tonight, but they're glad for Ryder's dewy-eyed vote of confidence. When a man is tired of London, said the essayist, he is tired of life; and if you tire of this rejuvenated band, you are tired of, well, classic rock. You could feel both audience and band rediscovering that in the first few measures of the first number, "The Chain": Mick Fleetwood's peaty bring-out-your-dead opening drumbeats; Lindsey Buckingham's astringent guitar; Christine McVie, Nicks and Buckingham's baleful harmony – "Listen to the wind blow/Watch the sun rise . . ."; and John McVie's darkly muttering bass combined to pretty well blow the dust off the legacy and bring you forward in your seat – this is as bleakly intoxicating as what the trade magazines call pop music can get. By the time Buckingham was squeezing out an anguished "And if you don't love me now/ You will never love me again," he had reclaimed, at 47, the title of angriest dog in rock. Fleetwood's face, which in repose is capable of a kind of distracted, off-putting gravity that wouldn't be out of place in an old German vampire movie, creased happily as he patted the song to a close.

The True Life Confessions of Fleetwood Mac

It's from 1977's Rumours, of course, the only cut on which all five shared the writing credit. It's also the band's old and new testament to its own tortured togetherness, because it perfectly captures the ominousness of that chain letter warning you of loneliness and loss: "I can still hear you saying/You must never break the chain."

As we know, this band did individually suffer – whether because it broke the chain or because it really could not – a string of woes including but not limited to heartbreak, enmity, alcoholism, cocaine addiction, penury, divorce, carpal tunnel syndrome and, as Fleetwood tried to pound the body back to life, being sandwiched on a nostalgia package tour, in 1995, between REO Speedwagon and Pat Benatar. In place of Buckingham and Nicks, that Mac iteration featured such unlikely figures as one-time Traffic operative Dave Mason and Bekka Bramlett, daughter of the redoubtable '70s rock duo Delaney and Bonnie.

It was Buckingham, of course, who left the gate open for the impostors with his repeated walkouts on the band, but he is also the creative linchpin of the fivesome. Nicks had her solo hits like "Edge of Seventeen" and a pair of great duets with Tom Petty; Christine McVie is a viable solo artist with (like Nicks and Buckingham) a label deal at the Mac home base of Warner/Reprise; and Fleetwood and bassist John McVie are always employable as what Fleetwood calls "gigsters" – but Buckingham is the tormented genius you could lift out of '70s rock and set down, with his fierce chops and raging vocals, anywhere you like. Among the mixes for his next solo album, which is on hold as the band tours, is a cut that takes its title from the last word of the lyric "Think of me, sweet darlin', every time you don't come" and features a honking guitar workout that should serve as a do-ya-feel-lucky-punk invitation to any doubting arrivistes who haven't replaced their six-strings with samplers. Buckingham's back-to-back performances of "Big Love" and "Go Insane" (the latter of which shows up only on the long-form, costs-money video version of the band's new live album, The Dance) made the audience in Burbank stand up peering, midway through the generally sedate tapings, like a crowd watching stock cars flip over.

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The wall chart of the Mac's fortunes goes in its rough strokes by 10-year jumps, at least in the Buckingham-centric view of things: from 1967, their founding as an English blues band; to 1977, when Buckingham and Nicks invigorated the band's 25 million-selling Rumours; to 1987, when, after the torturous Tango in the Night sessions at Buckingham's house, he balked at touring and was sent away; and now to 1997, when Buckingham has been persuaded to join up again and co-produce The Dance. The question that hangs over the entire enterprise is whether the current U.S. sweep of 43 dates in major cities will turn into a world tour. And while Nicks and Christine McVie hint that they may yet opt out of the larger plan, it's really Buckingham's call to make.

"You know," says Nicks, who still wears chiffon but is a good deal more battle-hardened (and speaks a bit deeper) than the hippie priestess of one's former imaginings, "Lindsey made a whole lot more money than everybody else did because he produces. The producers get paid first. And he probably didn't spend nearly as much money as everybody else did; he lives way simpler. So he didn't have to do this for money, you know. The rest of us would all like to put something away for, you know, our golden twilight years. But he has to want to do it, or we don't want to do it, either."

If Buckingham is the brains of the operation, Fleetwood is the heart and viscera, keeping the beat going in every sense. Picture him just a few years ago, Rumours money squandered, brandy bottle near, coked out and lying in a borrowed bed in a damp cellar watching soap operas, and you know this is a heart through which hard times and bad habits could not drive a stake.

The reunion may have been inevitable from the moment that Buckingham invited Fleetwood to help with his solo album. "I had some ambivalence about Mick," Buckingham says. "He was clearly into my album, and yet I knew he was to a substantial degree instigating this whole band thing. I couldn't be mad at him, because Fleetwood Mac is his life's blood, really. He's spent his whole life trying to keep the ship afloat.

"Everyone has said to me, 'This is going to be a good thing for you,' and, of course, you kind of are suspicious of their motives, too. I'm a suspicious guy. I'm working on that."

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