Stevie Nicks: Rock follies

Stevie Nicks, the singer-songwriter and other-worldly star of Fleetwood Mac, is one of pop’s great survivors. Now 59, she talks to Andrew Gumbel about her music, her famously turbulent love-life and the importance of not doing heroin

Stevie Nicks is telling a story about the first time in her professional career that she felt completely out of control. Strangely, it is not a story about the complex web of fiery love affairs that, on several occasions, threatened to blow her and her Fleetwood Mac band members apart.

Nor is it about the cocaine she snorted her way through in the Seventies and early Eighties, or the painkillers that blackened her moods, bloated her body and killed her creativity for years at a stretch. Somehow, like the other lucky rockers of her generation who have lived to tell the tale, she managed to survive all that.

This is a story about something ultimately more central to both her work ethic and her enduring popularity as one of the most reliably thrilling live performers on the US music circuit – her determination to control her performance on stage down to the tiniest detail.

It was 1975, and Nicks was about to go on her first tour with Fleetwood Mac, which she had just joined with her then-boyfriend and fellow singer-songwriter, Lindsey Buckingham. Six months earlier she had been poverty-stricken, living with Buckingham in Aspen, Colorado, and wondering if it wasn't time to get out of the music business for good. (She captured the mood of that fraught moment in her much covered song "Landslide", which appeared on her first album with Fleetwood Mac.)

It never occurred to her to dream up a costume for that first tour. "In my head I was still totally poor. I just went to my closet and picked out my own stuff," she said. "Then, when I got out on stage, it was a nightmare. Every night we were on tour, I realised my stuff was not going to cut it."

Musically, the tour was a success, but Nicks was miserable. And she vowed she would never again let an oversight like this creep into her work. So she invented a whole look for herself: the "English Dickensian waif in a shabby, raggedy black chiffony skirt and heavy boots". "I thought, if I'm going to take this really seriously I'm going to plan this all out," she said. "I had my hair a certain way, my make-up a certain way. I wanted it to be a complete package."

Her single-mindedness paid huge dividends. It wasn't just that she was thinking up a stage costume. She was dreaming up an image for herself that she intended to last until she was old enough to draw a pension. "Right then I thought – since I plan to do this when I'm 60, I want to make sure that what I wear now I can still wear when I'm 60."

It was, in many ways, the birth of Stevie Nicks as the world has come to know her, the moment when the dreamy, mystical, other-worldly quality she brought to her songwriting became incarnated in her on-stage image. She had become, in her own words, "the airy-fairy person" of the group.

The others developed their own stage personas, of course. "The idea was that we would all sort of be going to the same party," Nicks said. "Sometimes we were, sometimes we weren't." Christine McVie, who wrote "Don't Stop" and "You Make Loving Fun", gave herself a tailored look with velvet jackets and mini skirts and high boots. Mick Fleetwood, the British drummer who was part of the group's original line-up as far back as 1967, developed a fondness for waistcoats with fob watches.

But it was Nicks who appeared truly to inhabit her imaginary world of witches and night birds and gypsies and gold-dust women – prompting rumours down the years that she was herself some kind of witch. In real life, she couldn't be more different. For all the craziness she has experienced, she is a remarkably prosaic, grounded person – with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour – who knows what she wants and pursues it with unswerving single-mindedness. Her stage costumes, which she developed with the help of a Californian designer called Margi Kent, were inspired not by black magic so much as rugged practicality.

"What I went with was simple, precise, like a uniform," she says. "I kitted myself out like a ballerina, with a leotard, a skirt, boots and various throws ... It's made my life so easy."

Nicks is now 59 – just one year shy of that distant, twilight year she imagined all those decades ago – and she's still very much in the business of managing every aspect of her public image. When I met her at her large, improbably traditional house up a canyon overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles, she'd been up two nights running to scrutinise a new batch of publicity photographs. She could have invited press photographers to do the job – snapping her among her blood-red velvet wingback armchairs, perhaps, or on her back terrace with a view over Santa Monica towards the ocean – but she preferred to hire the photographer herself and endure a 17-hour shoot to obtain the exact effects she wanted.

Now, though, she wasn't happy, complaining that she couldn't properly judge the texture and tone of the digital pictures. "I don't know why this isn't in focus," she told her manager. "I can't tell if I'm smiling or not smiling."

Nicks wasn't catty or unreasonable about it, just very exacting. "When you get to be my age," she says, "you get protective of your image. I can either be involved or there will be no picture at all."

It's an attitude that has only hardened as Fleetwood Mac, and Nicks herself, have waned as recording artists and come to rely increasingly on their live shows to keep going. She's been alternating solo tours and band tours for the past quarter-century, along with special double-act gigs with the likes of Don Henley of the Eagles – a musical partner and ex-boyfriend – and Chris Isaak.

And she is very, very good at it. The key to everything is her voice, which is still as rich, textured and rough-edged as ever. When she tours alone, she also has a topnotch band – 10 players, usually, although she has been known to perform with a full symphony orchestra.

Together, they never fail to breathe energy and life into her old hits – "Rhiannon", "Landslide", "Dreams", "Gold Dust Woman", "Edge of Seventeen" and many more. When she appeared at an outdoor arena in the LA suburbs recently, Nicks showed her age in the way she moved: her leg kicks showed unmistakable signs of stiffness, and she dashed off stage at one point for an unscheduled costume change. But she looked great with her capes and her black stovepipe hats framing her flowing blonde hair. And her voice was dynamite.

"New artists can't do what we do – they don't get the support from their record companies," she says, to explain it all. "We just stayed on the road. We've done it so long we could be half dead and still do a great show with one day of rehearsal."

In other words, they just don't make super-groups like they used to. Fleetwood Mac are not quite unique in the fact that the key members are all still alive and still – give or take a defection or two – playing together. The Eagles, a group not a million miles away in style or audience appeal, share the same distinction. And that's quite an achievement given the mountains of cocaine both groups sniffed their way through, along with the millions of dollars they burned, when they each made their own puffed-up, self-important, top-heavy would-be masterpieces at the end of the 1970s. (In Fleetwood Mac's case, it was the double album Tusk; for the Eagles, it was The Long Run.)

Nicks had as rough a time of it as anyone. She took enough drugs to be forced into rehab, complained of chronic fatigue syndrome, became addicted to the painkiller Klonopin, had a miserable time weaning herself off it after her weight ballooned to almost 11 stone, and suffered horrific after-effects from a boob job she later reversed and always deeply regretted.

Her love life was no less turbulent. When she came into Fleetwood Mac, she was going out with Lindsey Buckingham, with whom she always had an explosive relationship. She subsequently had affairs with Mick Fleetwood and two members of the Eagles, Joe Walsh and Henley.

Somehow, though, everyone held it together – musically, and medically. And she still looks back fondly on those heyday years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "It was fun, it was a party," she insisted. "Everyone was partying. It was dangerous, but it was fun. They were fantastic, tragic times."

The secret to their survival was simple: "None of us ever did heroin. Right there, that's why we are alive. We were careful – we didn't die. But we could have."

She was lucky, too, that among her tendencies to addiction was a propensity to overwork. That too, she now thinks, was a life-saver. "We worked so hard, and toured constantly. We'd unpack from one tour and go right to work on the next record... We all worked at a very high level of excellence, always strove to be the best we could be – always ....

"So there were scary moments, but they were followed by sensible moments. If all else failed, we'd get back on the road and clean things up."

It seems miraculous, given the tentacular knot of love affairs and broken relationships, that there wasn't more obvious tension within the group. There were blow-ups – most notably over the group's failure to include the Nicks song "Silver Springs" on the Rumours album, a bone of contention and source of ownership disputes for decades to come. The nastiest moment came in 1987 when Buckingham announced he was leaving – apparently because he couldn't stand working with Nicks any longer – chased her through the house, threw her against a car and almost strangled her. But, somehow, all was later forgiven and Buckingham returned to Fleetwood Mac a decade later.

Nicks attributes the group's endurance to two things. One is the primacy of the work. When she got frustrated at the backlog of her unused songs in the late 1970s, she broke out with a solo record called Bella Donna which made her a star in her own right – at least in the United States. From that moment on, Fleetwood Mac was more or less at her mercy – waiting for her to finish her own albums, or her own tours, before returning to the fold. "The rest of Fleetwood Mac got a vacation while I did my albums," she said. "They were always waiting." She almost ran herself into the ground in the process, but musically, at least, it worked.

The other thing, for want of a better term, was the feminine touch. She and Christine McVie brought a gender balance uncommon in major rock bands at the time. They were also major players because they wrote songs as well as performed them. If they clubbed together, they could exercise a veto over the rest of the band – and they did, frequently. "We became the mums," they said. "There were times when we literally said, 'OK, we're going to have to fix this situation'. We did it many times. What can I say? Women are the caretakers. We can see a mess coming before they [the men] can."

Unlike the Eagles, who had a notorious knockdown fight at a political fundraiser concert in California in 1980, and who then vowed never to play again "until hell freezes over" – actually, about 14 years – Fleetwood Mac kept even the worst of their disputes private so the band could play on. As Nicks put it: "How important is having a stupid-ass fight on stage next to breaking up a band?"

Nicks remains a huge figure in the United States, in ways that are hard to appreciate in Europe. Sure, we all can hum the tunes from Rumours – thanks in part to Bill Clinton, who used "Don't Stop" as his campaign song in 1992 – but on our side of the Atlantic, Nicks's solo career has gone largely unnoticed. That, said her manager, Sheryl Louis, was in large part because of the very tight promotional schedule for the hugely successful debut solo album Bella Donna, which includes a great duet with Tom Petty, "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around", and her meditation on the death of John Lennon, "Edge of Seventeen", now the show-stopping closer to all her live shows. The album went multi-platinum in the United States, but barely registered in Britain. It was a similar story with her follow-up hits, "Stand Back" and "Rooms on Fire", which don't stand the test of time nearly as well because they are infused with an almost risibly dated Eighties vibe.

In the States, Nicks has never gone out of fashion, and never failed to sell out a tour. She is, in fact, by some distance the most successful solo artist ever to break out from a major band – outselling Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Don Henley and even Phil Collins, who comes closest to matching her.

Her live shows are deservedly celebrated. Just the opening guitar riff from "Edge of Seventeen" is enough to set any audience alight – its effect enhanced, the night I saw her, by an extended drum solo leading into the chaka-chaka-chaka-chaka rhythm on the bass guitar. Nicks deserves considerable credit, too, for refusing to get bored by her own material after all these years.

She and Fleetwood Mac have thought about reworking their old numbers, but it has never worked. "We've tried," she said. "We've gone into rehearsal for three months to rework our old songs, but it goes over like a lead balloon. You know the audience isn't happy. You always start with the record. You can make the middle longer, and you can extend the end – add an orchestral section, or something. But you can't change the skeleton. You can't change something that people love."

It's been a while since Nicks wrote songs with anything like the energy that she once had. Even her well regarded 2001 album, Trouble In Shangri-La, relied heavily on unused material from the 1970s, including a terrific song called "Sorcerer", pairing her up with Sheryl Crow.

Rather, she has taken her determination in new directions. For the past three years – ever since she accepted a generic invitation during a tour stopover in Washington – she has been visiting wounded soldiers at the Bethesda Naval Hospital and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. What began as a hesitant enterprise – "I cry really easily and I hate hospitals" – has turned into a mission and a charity foundation, entitled Stevie Nicks' Band of Soldiers.

Her brilliant idea is to give every soldier she meets an iPod filled with her favourite music – a big mix of slow jazz, rap, R&B and music closer to her own style. It started out, in fact, as her 16-year-old niece's iPod list, and has now grown to a selection of 937 songs.

"I realised I wanted to do something, but what can you do?" she said. "A little tiny iPod is perfect. They are too ill to be downloading music. What better can I give them than music?"

She makes sure she gets to Washington every few months – in between touring and moving house, her other big project at the moment. She's in the process of selling up the home she has owned for years in Paradise Valley, outside Phoenix, Arizona. And she has decided to get rid of her implausibly traditional house in LA, too.

She knew from the moment she moved in two-and-a-half years ago that she didn't belong there, because she was just too far away from the ocean to hear the waves at night. "I will get old and bored here," she said. "It's too big for me – a family should live here instead."

She and her goddaughter, who lives in a separate house on her property, feel they'd be more at home in a beach-front penthouse, the sort musicians are supposed to live in. And that's what they will do – just as soon as Nicks can find a good home to store her grand pianos, including a 9ft Steinway grand once played by Billy Preston and Leon Russell. On the edge of 60, Stevie Nicks still feels rebellious, and restless, and ready to rock and roll.

'Crystal Visions ... The Very Best of Stevie Nicks' is out now

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