Gold Dust Woman is a cradle-to-golden years slog through the singer’s life
Being a Stevie Nicks fan has always required that one reconcile the conflict between thinking that her Sisters of the Moon act was somehow simultaneously empowering and a little embarrassing.
On the one hand, there has been much to like about this singer and songwriter who first projected her gauzy light into the world in 1975 as the de facto front-person for the rock band Fleetwood Mac. Within the band’s framework — and later, working with producer Jimmy Iovine and musicians Tom Petty and Don Henley — her vague poetic imagery was complimented by a real rock power that turned her ladylike musings on love, loss, witches and gypsies into her own variety of feminist anthems. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, clad in diaphanous shawls and platform boots, the diminutive singer made being female seem mysterious and powerful. It was no wonder that her fans were mostly young women who copied her thrift-store, hippie princess wardrobe and thrilled to songs they could have pulled from their own velvet-bound journals.
On the other hand, that Nicks’ early heyday coincided with the emergence of punk rock also made her seem slightly silly and retrogressive. She was the tea and sympathy that girls sipped in secret when they needed a good cry, but not what they admitted to in the mosh pit. Still, there was an authenticity to her constantly-twirling version of being a woman. She was the contrasting lace to the leather of contemporaries like Chrissy Hynde or Patti Smith.
However, by the grungy 1990s her brand of girl-rock would become largely irrelevant. As Steven Davis tells it in his unauthorized, 2017 biography of the singer, Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks — a cradle-to-golden-years look at, arguably, America’s preeminent rock goddess — this diminution of her flame was as much due to changing tastes as it was to the singer’s struggles with that old rock ‘n’ roll bugaboo, drug addiction. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Gold Dust Woman, begins with the childhood of Stephanie Nicks, born in 1948 and raised in various cities across the Southwestern U.S. (Arizona, Utah, California) by parents who recognized their daughter’s talent from the start. When she was five-years-old, her grandfather, a bar singer, began taking her to saloons to provide harmonies to his country stylings. By the age of 16 she was writing her own songs. ‘“I knew from that second on that I was not going to sing a lot of other people’s songs. I was going to write my own.”’
During her last year of high school, in San Mateo, California, she met Lindsay Buckingham, who recruited her to sing with his band, Fritz. The sextet played increasingly high-profile gigs throughout the Bay Area, first at college campuses and later opening for acts like Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin at Bill Graham-produced concerts.
But, by 1971, along with Hendrix and Joplin, Fritz was kaput. By then Nicks and Buckingham had become romantically involved and headed to Los Angeles to record as a duo.
Nicks spent her first two years in L.A. juggling songwriting with cleaning houses and waitressing — while Buckingham filled his days with smoking hash and writing music. She was willing to do the drudgery and put up with an increasingly verbally, and sometimes physically, abusive boyfriend because she believed it would be short-lived. Indeed, by 1973, they had a record deal with Anthem Records and released their first album, the eponymously titled, Buckingham Nicks. It went almost nowhere.
Surely, there is more to this wildly successful woman who won the adulation of millions with a little poetry and a shawl.
Just as our heroine faced a return to serving up Big Boy combo plates, Mick Fleetwood entered the picture. The beleaguered head of the British blues band Fleetwood Mac had just lost front man Bob Welch — who had already been a replacement for two others guitarists, founder Peter Green and later Jeremy Spencer. Fleetwood had some gigs looming and immediately recruited the American guitarist and his attractive girlfriend to round out the band.
The succeeding half-decade — featuring a lineup of Fleetwood (drums), John McVie (bass), Christine McVie (keyboards/vocals), Nicks (vocals) and Buckingham (guitar/vocals) — would be Fleetwood Mac’s glory years. Starting with the album Fleetwood Mac (1975) and progressing through Rumors (1977) and, to a lesser degree, Tusk (1979), the band would ride the top of the charts, with Nicks’ songs, “Rhiannon,” “Dreams,” “Gold Dust Woman” and “Sara,” predominating.
Davis gives us a pretty good view of what it was like in the studio and on the road with the famously fractious band — and their ever-changing alliances — during those years. The McVies broke up. Christine had an affair with the sound man while John drank. Nicks and Buckingham broke up. Nicks surrounded herself with an ever-widening coterie of girlfriends, got a boob job and had affairs with Fleetwood, Don Henley and others. Buckingham started a relationship with the recording studio’s receptionist and raged uncontrollably — over loss of control and egoistic fury that Nicks, not he, was the fan favorite. Fleetwood filed for divorce from his wife, slept with Nicks and one of Nicks’ friends, all while attempting to hold the music machine together. And they all spent too much money — on things like redecorating hotel rooms for short tour stays, on houses and cars and on cocaine. They sucked up a lot of cocaine.
The author exhaustively recounts every fight, toot and affair from this era employing interviews published by other writers and a few he conducted with the band (but notably, not Nicks) while writing Fleetwood’s 1991 “autobiography,” Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac. The anecdotes illuminate the chaos. Yet the minutia of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll playbook begins to wear. One can hardly wait for that golden, but awful era to pass so that we can get on with Nicks’ solo career.
The next phase of her life, according to Davis, “had its beginning in Stevie’s new clothes.” With the help of her costume designer, Nicks switched from witchy black ensembles to looser, more colorful clothing made of “crepe, leather organza, satins.” Really? It began with more organza? Not with the realization that she didn’t want to be abused by Buckingham anymore?
More saliently, in 1979, she met publicist Danny Goldberg, who, along with Paul Fishkin (who Nicks also dated), would help her found Modern Records, the label under which she released her first solo effort, Belladonna. It was her manager, Irving Azoff, who connected her with Tom Petty — beginning a long association with the musician and his band, The Heartbreakers — and Petty who then connected her with legendary producer Jimmy Iovine. Iovine would steer the Nicks ship, taking “control of Stevie’s recording sessions with a steely will,” and more intimately, as her boyfriend for the next
Belladonna put Nicks at the top of the Billboard charts in 1981. But she was also committed to travel to France to make a fourth Fleetwood Mac album, Mirage. In fact, during her entire career, Nicks would juggle her solo work with her Mac duties.
It was at this point, weary, in a drafty French chateau, that Nicks realized she was much more famous than her bandmates — most particularly, her ex-boyfriend Buckingham — and began a realignment of the power dynamics. Flexing her new-found muscle would lead to years of break-ups and reconciliations within the group but would somehow also produce 40-more-years-worth of music.
Nicks spent the rest of the 1980s engaged in a flurry of successful and/or messy ventures including: marrying her deceased best friend’s widower (annulled after three months); having a relationship with “the love of her life,” Joe Walsh; investing in a concert promotion business; and releasing four solo albums that produced a dozen songs that charted in the Billboard Hot 100.
Significantly, she also checked herself into the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, California after years of cocaine abuse had left her with a hole in her nasal passage. She ended the decade battered, but coke-free.
Then came the 1990s, during which the formerly-diminutive pixie would balloon to “175 pounds and was smoking three packs of mentholated Kool cigarettes per day.” This deterioration was partly the result of Nicks having become addicted to Klonopin. A psychiatrist had prescribed the powerful tranquilizer on the heels of her stay at Betty Ford. She spent the next seven years (ages 39-45) stumbling around in a haze.
‘“That was the worst period of my life. They stole my forties. I might have met someone, had a child, become a mother, made some great music,”’ Nicks explained after another medical withdrawal.
The music she made during the Klonopin era had declined in quality but still sold. Yet, reviews of contemporaneous tours emphasized her weight and personal problems over the songs. Nicks was mortified. She quit smoking, bought a treadmill and went on a diet. ‘“I would never sing in front of people looking like that again,”’ she said. She also had her breast implants removed.
By the time she hit her 50s, a clear-headed and healthy Nicks was ready to complete the rehabilitation of her image. In part, she would do what other aging artists had done, and aligned herself with younger talents. In Nicks’ case, it was Sheryl Crow with whom she would record and tour. Crow, like many female musicians, (notably The Dixie Chicks) grew up admiring Nicks. She also worked with Dave Stewart, of Eurhythmics fame, who produced her seventh solo turn, In Your Dreams. This era of resurgence would also see Fleetwood Mac successfully reunited after years of estrangement, in 2015. The tours that followed would play to sell-out stadiums across the globe. And, just last year, in 2017, she teamed up with another old broad, Chrissy Hynde, for a world tour. Maybe she was not so embarrassing after all.
Fan or no, for a reader who wants to understand the definitive Stevie Nicks story, Gold Dust Woman has little in the way of real insight to offer. While the author expounds about backstage shenanigans and the motivations for Nicks’ songs — like the time she was abandoned by Buckingham at an Aspen resort which led to “Landslide;” or the rainy day in Sausalito that led to the rain washing her free in “Dreams;” and, of course, the origins of the Welch witch, “Rhiannon” — it’s fairly dull reading.
The beauty of a songwriter like Nicks’ work is in its obscurity. Her songs are often a string of unfinished thoughts held together only by the amazing musicianship of her band members and her singular, plaintive vocals. To know the nitty-gritty about where she was, or what Davis thinks she was thinking when she wrote a song or pirouetted through a video does not illuminate so much as it seems boringly beside-the-point.
Most importantly, what is lacking from this biography is the sound of Nicks’ voice. (Or, for that matter, the voices of those with whom she is closest.) While there are descriptions of her actions, they convey no palpable feeling of agency. While we are told she had a large circle of friends and lovers, there are no reflections of the kind of personal appeal that would explain why those friends hung around all night and did so for decades. (Was she fun? Was it just the free coke?) The Stevie Nicks who emerges from the musty, second-hand quotes is almost entirely petulant, humorless and moons like a teenager over the guys enlisted to steer her career. Surely, there is more to this wildly successful woman who won the adulation of millions with a little poetry and a shawl, started her own record label and resurrected herself from the ashes more than once. I think so.
If we’re left with anything that sounds like a truism, it’s that Stevie Nicks — who is turning 70 this year — is, as Christine McVie once put it, ‘“a tough little thing.”’ That’s a paltry insight for a 300-page investment.