On Buckingham Nicks, 44 years later

This piece originally appeared on Bed Crumbs. About six months ago, I submitted a proposal for a book on Buckingham Nicks for the 33 1/3 series. Nothing came of it, but I’m really proud of the work I did, and I love these words about this album that I love so much that I couldn’t just put them in a drawer, never to be read by anyone else again. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

“Let me ask you a question first,” producer Keith Olsen says not even three minutes into our first phone call. It’s a warm, beautiful spring day in Lake Tahoe; he’s spent most of it trying to place tom-tom drums on a mix he’s been sent. It’s been tedious work — like Photoshop with a bad picture, he explains — but he’s worked with worse. In the meantime, my call is a welcome distraction.

“Sure,” I respond, caught a little off-guard at how quickly he jumps into things. I thought I was the one who was supposed to be asking the questions.
“Why?” he asks.
“Why?” I repeat his question back.
“Yeah. Why? Why are you writing about Buckingham Nicks? Why do you love this album?”

It’s a simple question, one I don’t have a simple answer to.

I first heard Buckingham Nicks when I was 21 years old, nearly four decades after it was released. I was home from college for a weekend, and though I didn’t even have a turntable of my own yet, I was still trying to build my personal library to have something to play when I did. My father’s seemingly endless record collection that sat untouched in our basement was — and continues to be — a reliable and plentiful resource, one I can sift through countless times and still find something I hadn’t noticed before.

“You’ll really like that one,” my father said when I showed him my selections. He wasn’t singling out his copy of Berlin or Excitable Boy, not Some Girls or Combat Rock or More Songs About Buildings and Food. He pointed to the old, faded LP from 1973 with a wind-blown, half-naked, young unknown couple on the cover, the album that you’d likely never see on a Pitchfork list of must-have albums. The corners were tattered, the inner sleeve torn, but when I pulled it out, the record itself was in perfect form. “It’s Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham before they were in Fleetwood Mac.”

I had known about Buckingham Nicks for a few years, but it seemed like a myth. Later, I would find bootleg digital rips on the internet, but at the time, I only knew it as a cult favorite long out of print on vinyl, never made available officially on cassette, CD, or any streaming service, and rarely talked about. It seemed like the holy grail of records, one that you were either lucky enough to find and hear or not.

Maybe that’s part of its enduring magic. It’s elusive. There’s no instant gratification, no shrink-wrapped copy at Urban Outfitters or quick download on iTunes or stream on Spotify. It isn’t music that presents itself to you. It has to be found, the same way I found it digging through crates of old records in a damp basement one day.

Buckingham Nicks isn’t technically remarkable. Its music and lyrics, at times, sound juvenile, show how young Buckingham and Nicks are, both in life and in art. There’s no clear focus; some tracks could belong on an entirely different project. But, still, I fell in love with it. I fell in love with it because it’s pure. It’s raw. I fell in love with it because, when I hear it, I don’t hear Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, rock icons. I hear Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, two kids my age, completely in love with each other, completely determined to become successful, however success may present itself, and not quite sure of much else.

I fell in love with it because it was unexpected, because it changed the way I looked at the Buckingham Nicks we know now, the ones I was first introduced to as a teenager, who had, until then, lived in my mind simply as two parental figures of rock and roll:

Lindsey plays the role of the aging father: there to tell tales of hedonistic glory days — the stories you can listen to and think of the way you think of your own parents in their youth, both impressed and embarrassed that they were once that cool — with a newly-mellowed and romantic outlook. There’s less of a sting to his art now. He’s less bitter, more sure of himself, but always eager to keep a hand in the game, still wanting to understand what it is the kids are doing these days.

Stevie Nicks is the great maternal comfort, the self-proclaimed fairy godmother to thousands of women and girls who find safety and comfort in her music, whose voice consistently serves as a lighthouse when feel like you have lost your way. Her words offer their guidance and encouragement, whisper confidence in your ears, sing you a soft lullaby when you can’t sleep at night.

By and large, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks seem like two people who have, for the most part, figured their shit out.

But for 37 minutes, I can slip this record on and those figures disappear. For 37 minutes, they are two young 20-somethings, forever suspended in time and acetate as my peers. For 37 minutes, we are the same: kids masquerading as grown-ups while trying to figure out how to exactly be grown-ups, as we try to figure out how to be heard in this world, looking at others doing what we want to be doing with a mixture of admiration, envy, determination, and fear. For 37 minutes, they’re just two kids trying to make something happen, knowing where they wanted to be and still trying to figure out how to stumble towards a finish line that seems to keep move further and further away.

It’s odd to think of two icons as my peers, but when I’m lying on the floor of my small New York apartment, exhausted and exasperated and wondering “what am I doing with my life?” yet again, it’s comforting — and almost too easy — to fish this record, this record that my father bought as a 17-year-old kid and unexpectedly passed down to his 20-something daughter, out of its safe spot, put it on the turntable, and think of them as anything but.

Because it’s about life — life at a very specific, tumultuous time — and all of the passion and fear and frustration that comes with it. It’s about that feeling that every 23 or 24 or 25-year-old gets and they think that they’re the first to have ever felt it: Like life is both euphoric and terrifying. Like your brain is moving a million miles a minute and everything is happening and there’s so much to do, but you don’t have the time to do it all. Like you just can’t stop thinking about time. Time is of the essence. I’ve got nothing but time, no time for living. There’s too much time. There’s not enough.

It’s about being that age where you realize that everything you’ve been told as a kid — that you are good, that you are talented, that you can do anything you want if you just work hard — might not be true. You get out in the real world and realize you’ve got competition. Suddenly, life is a race and you’re looking around at everyone else trying to do what you’re doing — so many different kinds of people trying to be the same — and you question if you’re good enough, question if you can keep up. Races are run; some people win, some people always have to lose — and you’re praying you’re not the latter.

It’s about making decisions that will affect the rest of your life. Do you always trust your first initial feeling? Special knowledge holds true, bears believing. It’s about the uncertainty of it all, about wanting independence, but wishing for a little bit of guidance once you suddenly get it. It’s about the overwhelming love you have for those rare people you find who stick by your side in the trenches — I turned around, and the water was closing all around me like a glove, like the love that finally found me.

In a few years, this feeling may no longer be true. It is not lost on me that I am now the same age Stevie was when Buckingham Nicks was released; it’s not lost on me how many times I’ve found myself inadvertently using her timeline as a barometer of my own success. It’s okay that I’m not exactly where I want to be just yet: Look where Stevie was at 23, 24, 25; don’t worry about it too much — Stevie didn’t even join Fleetwood Mac until she was 27.

In a few years, I will likely become like every other adult I’ve spoken about this album with: forever unable to separate it from this specific time in my life, forever unable to listen to it and hear anything other than my youth. I’ll probably hear memories. I’ll probably think “God, was anyone so young?”

Sometimes you love things so intensely for no reason other than because they have become a part of you, and maybe that’s why I’ve come to call Buckingham Nicks my favorite album. It’s not that it’s ahead of its time or profound or perfect. It’s just that, as much as I have wanted to crawl inside its world and stay there, it’s actually managed to do the opposite: it’s latched its claws in my skin, dug in, and embedded itself in my DNA.

*****

“So, we are going to play for you the oldest song we’ve ever played on stage. It’s from the Buckingham Nicks album and—”

Stevie Nicks is on her 19th solo date of 2016. The majority of the audience at Madison Square Garden have no idea that this isn’t her usual greatest hits tour. Most of them came for “Edge of Seventeen” and “Stand Back.” They are blissfully unaware that this tour is different; they haven’t trolled Twitter or message boards or set list sites. They don’t know that, for the two months she’s been on the road, Nicks has been filling the night with deep cuts — one, in particular, deeper than others. And yet, for such a little known album, the mere mention of it draws such screams from the crowd that she has to pause before she can continue.

Nicks continues that this song was intended to be the single, but the record didn’t sell well, so it, and the potential single, was dropped.* “We never played it. We went and joined Fleetwood Mac and we never played this song again, ever.”

In 1973, Nicks was a maid and a waitress, driving a car that was constantly breaking down and perpetually without reverse, trying to support herself and Lindsey Buckingham. Forty-three years later, as a 68-year-old woman — not a Beyoncé or a Rihanna or an Ariana Grande — she sells out Madison Square Garden as a headliner, one of few women in her demographic to do so as a solo headliner in this decade,** and she performs “Crying in the Night” live for the first time since it was recorded 43 years before.

“There were a lot of firsts with them,” Keith Olsen says.

Olsen had not heard from Buckingham and Nicks since Fritz’s demo session at Sound City in 1970 until he got a call from Stevie nearly a year later. Lindsey came down with mononucleosis and quit the band; Stevie had been nursing him back to health, she explained. They had begun writing songs together, cut their own demos on a four track machine, and wanted to visit Olsen in LA to play them for him.

“They came to my house with their four track machine and their little mixer and they set it up and pressed play and I was astounded. I said, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I think we can get a deal.’ So, I took those demos and I started shopping around. I got them, Waddy Wachtel, and Jorge Calderon all signed to one thing,” Olsen says.

In the span of six weeks, Olsen secured a $35,000 budget and a backing band that would find itself switched up more than once throughout the recording process. Wachtel was a staple, lending additional guitar parts and harmonies. Ronnie Tutt and Jerry Scheff, known at the time as Elvis’s rhythm section, snuck into sessions when they had spare time, but eventually had to leave to tour, only to be replaced with musicians like Warren Zevon collaborator Jorge Calderón and Jim Keltner, who had been building a reputation as a go-to session player for everyone from George Harrison to Carly Simon. With a brand new Neve console arriving at Sound City around the same time, Nicks, Buckingham, and Olsen were ready to start recording.

The sounds that have come out of Sound City studios defy the looks of it — even before it became better known for being a grimey, run-down hole-in-the-wall with stained brown shag carpets and chipping paint. For starters, it simply wasn’t built to be a studio. The layout has been compared to a barn — empty and cavernous, too open to contain sound. Somehow, the studio has produced an impressive list of albums, from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedos to Nirvana’s Nevermind, all recorded on the same magical analog Neve console that captured drum tracks like no other could and gave warmth and depth to an otherwise empty space.

Buckingham Nicks was the first album ever recorded on that Sound City console. The very first one,” Olsen explains. “I mean, it came out of the box, we plugged everything in that afternoon and into the early evening and it looked like everything was okay. I called in the guys and we cut ‘Crying in the Night.’ When we came in and listened back at the first playback, I remember Lindsey looking at me with a smile on his face saying, ‘Oh my God!’ Because that’s the Neve console. That was that English sound that we wanted to get really bad and there it was.”

Given the album’s stature as not only the first music recorded on the now iconic Neve board, but as the springboard for Buckingham and Nicks’s future careers with Fleetwood Mac, the question of how it has possibly remained “lost” work for 44 years astounds even their closest friends and colleagues.

“I don’t know that anybody really has an answer,” says Lori Nicks, Nicks’s friend, sister-in-law, and backup singer who first met Buckingham and Nicks in 1973 when visiting the studio with then-boyfriend and promoter Gordon Perry, and has worked with Nicks since 1978. “It’s the $64,000 question. I think that Keith would probably have a version of what happened or why it hasn’t happened yet. I think Lindsey would. I think Stevie would. And then their managers, probably, would have something to say about it, as well.”

It turns out, that’s exactly how it is: everyone involved with Buckingham Nicksmeets the question of its still unreleased status with a different take, the only similarity between stories being a fuzziness recalling details of deals worked out decades ago and uncertainty of what has happened to the rights or the master tracks or the personal and professional relationships since then.

There are a slew of unanswered questions, but, at the end of the day, what matters most is this: This is a love story. This is a love story in its earliest form, before it burnt to the ground and was rebuilt and branded as a Love Story™. A love story about two kids from San Francisco, new to LA, bouncing checks at IHOP and falling behind on their rent, trying to make it as a duo, both in love and in music. A love story about Buckingham Nicks before they were Buckingham Nicks, America’s favorite musical soap opera.

This is a love story about love in its rawest, most genuine form, the kind that still lives on today when Buckingham Nicks, no longer a couple in real life, join hands and play one on stage, built from 50 years of shared history, a lowercase love story, there to give a sliver of veracity to their stage performances.

This is a love story about youth, about what it’s like to feel very young and very old at the same time, about the love you have for that time period both when you’re in it and when you’re looking back.

This is a love story about the kind of music that rattles your cage, that may not be the best album made, but crawls under your skin and lives there somewhere next to your heart. This is a love story about music that requires playing at every important moment in your life, music that makes you feel like someone else knows exactly how you feel.

Mostly, though, it’s a love story about a lost story. The Fleetwood Mac we know today, the band that has given pop culture not only a wealth of music, but a wealth of soap opera-worthy drama, would not exist without Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Buckingham Nicks was just the beginning, the catalyst for everything to come. Yet little known is about it, both its creation and its legacy. For years, and for what seems like years to come, its significance has been reduced to footnotes or mere paragraphs in articles and biographies that focus more on gossip, sensationalism, and rumors than music.

Time moves forward relentlessly and though the music itself is not finite, the vinyl that exclusively houses it is. One day the few mentions the album manages to get now will become shorter and shorter. The opportunities for future generations to discover the album, to fall in love with or identify with some bit of it and be curious about its story, will become increasingly rare. It falls to us to tell this story now, before time extinguishes too much of its light.

*Rare copies of a single version of “Crying in the Night” with “Stephanie” as the B-side have made occasional appearances online, and once, a few feet away from me at Bleecker Street Records, selling for the reasonable price of $120, which a not-so-reasonable 22-year-old me nearly bought before a more responsible 22-year-old reminded me that things like rent and student loan bills exist. 

**Being a woman over the age of 60 to play as a solo artist Madison Square Garden is a rarity in and of itself. Since 2010, only Nicks, Bette Midler, Blondie (co-headlining with Morrissey), and Patti Smith (supporting Neil Young and Crazy Horse) have done so. 

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