Dad was real ambitious," says Christopher Nicks, Stevie's twenty-seven-year-old brother, referring to Jess Seth Nicks, who in his fifty-odd years has been president of General Brewing, executive vice-president of Greyhound and president of Armour Foods. He slowed down for a time in 1975 after undergoing open-heart surgery, but he now does concert promotion and is building an addition to his own arena in a large amusement park in Phoenix.
"Our father would always be getting promoted and transferred, so we never grew up in any one place," adds Christopher. "We moved from Phoenix to New Mexico to Texas to Utah to Los Angeles to San Francisco. You name it. Just as we were making friends, Dad would come home and say, 'I got promoted!' Stevie had it pretty bum with all the relocation. The move from L.A. to San Francisco came between her sophomore and junior years. In L.A. she had just started with her little bands, the first being Changing Times, a four-piece Mamas and Papas thing. They meant a lot to her."
While growing up in the Bay Area, Stevie blossomed as a beauty and came out from behind her granny glasses long enough to become first runner-up as homecoming queen in her junior year at Menlo-Atherton High School. When the family headed for Chicago in 1968, she stayed behind to play with Buckingham in a band called Fritz, working (for one day) as a dental assistant and then as a hostess in a Bob's Big Boy.
"We learned a lot from our father about being strong and not doing anything half-assed," says Christopher, now the promotion coordinator for Modern Records. "But Stevie isn't hardened, and it hurts her sometimes. Although her intelligence saves her, people still take advantage of her.
"But," he cautions, "she'll never lose herself. And we live by the fact that when all else fails, we have our family."
And yet time has begun to erode that fortress. Stevie credits her late grandfather, Aaron Jess Nicks, with her will to sing. An ardent but failed country crooner, he taught Stevie to sing the female parts of call-and-response country songs like Goldie Hill and Red Sovine's "Are You Mine" while she was still a toddler. Living out of two trailers in the Arizona mountains, AJ, as he was called, was a bona fide eccentric but also a talented guitarist, fiddler and harmonica player. He took Stevie along with him to gin mills to sing and dance as he played. She was about five when AJ had an argument with her parents, who forbade him from taking their daughter on the road for a small tour, and he stormed out of the house.
"He went away for two years and we never saw or heard from him," says Stevie. "I was very upset. I still have a cassette of him and me singing 'Are You Mine.'" About a year before he died, in 1973, she wrote a song for him called "The Grandfather Song":
My grandfather taught me to sing at four
Took me everywhere, had me dancing on bars
Paid me fifty cents a week to practice my guitar
Told my mother and father I'd be a country star
Sing like you mean it
Grandfather, put your heart into it
Grandfather, always knew you would do it
Singing timeless country music.*
"I knew he was going to die," says Stevie, "and I didn't ever play it for him, because there was a line in it that said, 'I can still hear him playing though he'll soon be gone.' I couldn't change that line, and I couldn't sing it to him. That was when I decided I would never write another song that I could not play or show to somebody, 'cause he should have heard that song." (Bella Donna is dedicated to Grandfather Nicks.)
But sometimes loved ones do not live long enough to receive the gifts intended for them. Stevie's beloved Uncle Jonathan was dying of cancer of the colon the week she began working on a composition for him. The night she completed it, John Lennon died. The song was called "For John."
"It was written," she supposes, "in a premonitory sort of way."
Shortly afterward, she began work on "Edge of Seventeen" (title courtesy of Tom Petty's wife, Jane), a song about her feelings toward these tragic deaths.
"The line 'And the days go by like a strand in the wind' – that's how fast those days were going by during my uncle's illness, and it was so upsetting to me. The part that says 'I went today . . . maybe I will go again . . . tomorrow' refers to seeing him the day before he died. He was home, and my aunt had some music softly playing, and it was a perfect place for the spirit to go away. The 'white-winged dove' in the song is a spirit that is leaving a body, and I felt a great loss at how both Johns were taken. 'I hear the call of the nightbird singing come away . . . come away . . .'
"I can't believe that the next life couldn't be better than this. If it isn't, I don't want to know about it. I think that if you're reincarnated, you're probably reincarnated as many times as you want to come back – once you've cleaned up your karma, your office. I think my grandfather is very close right now; I don't think I would have put country songs on my album if he wasn't. I try not to analyze it too much, but I think that for me, in the next life, it will be easier."
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