Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks'

'Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks.'
'Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

If you were Stevie Nicks, the biographer you probably wouldn't want is the guy who collaborated with Mick Fleetwood on a 1987 memoir that broke the news of the affair Nicks and Fleetwood shared in the late '70s. Nicks's reaction to the Fleetwood book, though, was ultimately a shrug.

"You could've put more in about you and me," Stephen Davis reports Nicks saying. "What about that kiss we had behind the curtain in Australia, with [Fleetwood's then wife] Jenny inches away?"

Nicks wasn't so enthralled as to collaborate with Davis on his biography of her, nor has she written her own recollections. "The world is not ready for my memoir, I guarantee you," she said in 2014. "All of the men I hung out with are on their third wives by now, and the wives are all under 30. If I were to write what really happened between 1972 and now, a lot of people would be very angry with me."

For aging men with giant egos to be very angry with Nicks would, of course, be 100% on brand. She emerged from the quintessential era of the misogynist, eye-rollingly fragile male rock star (an era Davis chronicled in his bestselling Led Zeppelin book Hammer of the Gods), and although she's suffered innumerable personal and professional slights as a result, her art and presence have always managed to rise to the top.

That's been the case since she joined Lindsey Buckingham's California high school band, Fritz, in 1968. The talent of the bassist-turned-guitarist-turned-producer was already evident, as were Nicks's gifts as writer and performer. Although Fritz got big enough to open for acts like Janis Joplin and Santana (Davis notes that Fritz could very plausibly have opened for Fleetwood Mac), they never had a hit. Eventually "Buckingham Nicks" became an eponymous duo, who were struggling to promote their self-titled debut album when the Mac came calling.

Doubtless helped by his history with Fleetwood, Davis is clear and insightful regarding the transformation of Fleetwood Mac from a virtuosic but forgettable British Invasion blues band into the completely unforgettable transatlantic hybrid they became when their newly-hired guitarist insisted that his musical (and, for only a short while longer, personal) partner be considered part of the deal.

It's unsurprising to read about an exchange between founding bassist John McVie and producer Keith Olsen while they watched Nicks "twirl to a playback of 'Rhiannon,' leaping about the big, boxy studio wearing a gauzy dress and ballet slippers. McVie muttered to Olsen, 'You know, mate, we're a f---ing blues band.' Olsen replied, 'Yeah, man, but this is the shortest road to the bank.'"

Still, that exchange makes the merger sound more cynical than it was. Fleetwood and the McVies (John and Christine) knew the band needed Nicks and Buckingham, and knew that their presence could open new space for the talents of Christine McVie, who would no longer be the female singer in a band of grungy blues bros.

The rest is history, and Davis further institutionalizes the notion that Rumours (1977), that singularly elegant unified masterpiece about the band's own dissolution, was the quintessence of a collaborative period that began with Fleetwood Mac (1975) and ended with Tusk (1979). Don't expect Davis to jump on the train of revisionist praise for the latter double album: he dismisses "The Ledge" as "faux punk rock drummed on shoe boxes in Lindsey's bathroom."

The rest of the Mac weren't thrilled when Nicks announced her plan to release solo albums without actually leaving the band, but she stuck to her guns and cemented her iconic status for the MTV era with hits like the Prince-assisted "Stand Back" and the rumbling "Edge of Seventeen."

One of the best stories in Gold Dust Woman describes the inspiration for that song's title. Nicks, we learn, asked Tom Petty's wife Jane when the married couple first met. Jane's Florida accent produced an answer that Nicks initially misheard — but tucked away in her mental notebook, with Jane Petty's permission.

In Davis's account, Nicks's professional relationship with Petty was a long, ultimately rewarding pas de deux that started with Nicks deciding — before she'd even met Petty — that she'd happily leave Fleetwood Mac to join the Heartbreakers. When no such invitation was forthcoming, she instead stole Petty's producer Jimmy Iovine, much of his band, and his song "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around": a classic that Petty wanted to keep for himself, but ultimately yielded to Nicks's evocative performance and her powers of persuasion. It became the breakout solo hit she needed.

The Mac, of course, continued — in various incarnations and with varying levels of success. Sometimes Nicks was integral to this success, as when she twisted Buckingham's arm to get him to play at Bill Clinton's inaugural ball in 1993, and sometimes she wasn't, as for 1987's Tango in the Night: a huge comeback that Nicks was all but absent for, wrapped up in solo work and drug addiction.

Davis doesn't dwell on the drugs. Having written numerous books about classic rock, he seems to understand that the most important thing to know about drugs, from a music fan's perspective, is that nothing much of value tends to get produced when you're on least, beyond the base level of the sea rock stars tend to swim in.

He dwells further on Nicks's many lovers, but how can't you when the list includes Don Henley, Joe Walsh ("the one," Nicks has said), Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, and Jimmy Iovine? Nicks has cultivated, in her view, true emotional connections to these many creative men, who continue to inspire her (for better and for worse), seemingly in perpetuity.

Nicks has also always had intense personal relationships with women. Although her many female friends aren't as well-known as her male companions (because, patriarchy), they're an important part of her story. She's often traveled with an entourage of women who echo her distinctive fantasy-tinged style, echoed by the untold millions of women who have turned out to see her perform — often waving scarves of their own. The Tusk standout "Sara" is about much more than Nicks's close friend who betrayed her by taking up with Fleetwood, but it's typical of Nicks's life and art that that story is wrapped up in the song's significance.

This Saturday, May 26, Stevie Nicks turns 70 years old. She's a singular figure of her generation, and one whose music is tightly cherished by younger generations as well. "There's a reason Nicks and Buckingham are trapped endlessly rehashing their decades-old conflicts onstage, beyond just the fact that it's profitable," writes Emily Gould. "The idea of love as a power struggle, for most heterosexual-leaning women, is endlessly relatable."

It's a tragedy that this is the narrative Stevie Nicks has been forced to embody, but in the end, the answer to the musical question of "Rhiannon" — "Will you ever win?" — is yes.

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