Stevie Nicks: Dreams Unwound

Stevie Nicks
Crystal Visions

Onstage with Fleetwood Mac during the ’70s, the sylphlike Stevie Nicks would introduce “Rhiannon” with the explanation, “This is a story about a Welsh witch”. She became so possessed by her tale about a woman “taken by the wind” that the singer and the song appeared to become one. “Dreams unwind / love’s a state of mind”, she’d scream and shout into the microphone, arms flailing at her side in black chiffon. Ever since, Nicks has remained one of rock’s most mysterious figures, alternately celebrated and vilified, revered and ridiculed. Her impact on an entire generation of artists — from Hole to the Dixie Chicks — has been far-reaching, yet she’s not generally considered a “serious” songwriter by the male-dominated rock-critic elite. Borrowing its title from a phrase in Nicks’s “Dreams”, number one single from Rumours, the recent two-disc set Crystal Visions neatly defines an artist whose career has been a web of tears and triumphs.

Success almost escaped Stevie Nicks. The failure of Polydor Records to successfully market Buckingham Nicks in 1973 almost extinguished the career prospects of Nicks and her musical/romantic partner, Lindsey Buckingham. A phone call from Mick Fleetwood, the nerve center of Fleetwood Mac, saved the duo from obscurity. Their slightly left-of-center pop deftly rounded-out Fleetwood Mac’s blues-based rock and gave the band its first number-one album in the U.S., Fleetwood Mac (1975). The exquisitely produced, air-conditioned pop-rock of such songs as “Monday Morning”, “Say You Love Me”, and, of course, “Rhiannon”, were emblematic of the mid-’70s Southern California music scene. Though the band would eventually sell 19 million copies of the follow-up, Rumours, (1977), Stevie Nicks was not happy.

As one-fifth of Fleetwood Mac, Nicks was limited to an average of three songs an album, which made her bewitching tales of gold dust women and birds in flight seem almost apocryphal. Though the striking balance of Nicks, Buckingham, and Christine McVie’s vastly different styles accounted for Fleetwood Mac’s blockbuster success, Nicks was undeterred in seeking another outlet for her songs. With the support of industry allies like Paul Fishkin and Danny Goldberg, she embarked on a solo career soon after Fleetwood Mac released Tusk in 1979.

Anyone who stepped foot in a record store in 1981 knows the cover image for Nicks’ first solo album, Bella Donna: The singer was draped in white chiffon, standing tall against a midnight blue background in her platform boots and crushed legwarmers with a parrot perched on her hand. In the foreground sat a crystal ball centered inside a tambourine beneath a trinity of long-stemmed white roses. The puzzling arrangement of objects seemed remnants of some sort of nocturnal ritual by which Nicks became a separate entity from Fleetwood Mac.

Fresh from recording with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Jimmy Iovine presided over the production for Bella Donna and infused Nicks’ songs with a streamlined rock edge. Petty contributed “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and former flame Don Henley lent his voice to “Leather and Lace”, a song Nicks had written several years earlier for Jessi Colter and Waylon Jennings. It was “Edge of Seventeen”, though, that best translated the dark and lovely visual cues of the cover image into music: Nicks looked like the “white-winged dove” she sang about, while Waddy Wachtel’s agitated guitar riff furiously flapped along with her strident voice. Like burnt honey, Nicks invoked an otherworldly growl at the song’s climax. Twenty-six years later, “Edge of Seventeen” remains the definitive Stevie Nicks song, full of elliptical lyrics and images of clouds, rain, and night birds. No wonder it opens and closes Crystal Visions.

Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the bulk of Stevie Nicks’s solo catalog, which is crucial to understanding the song selection on Crystal Visions. Without question, the bookends of her solo work, Bella Donna and Trouble in Shangri-La (2001), have fared the best. Both are made up of songs Nicks wrote long before they were recorded and were chosen from a larger library of songs to give the records a thematic unity. The Wild Heart (1983), Rock a Little (1985), The Other Side of the Mirror (1989), and Street Angel (1994), however, represent a decade-long decline in artistic and musical quality and are easy targets for Nicks’s detractors. As is well known, Nicks battled addictions to cocaine and prescription drugs throughout the ’80s and early ’90s. She was not in excellent form, writing songs that were clumsy and impenetrable while relying on the songs of others to score hits (e.g. “Talk to Me”). Tellingly, only a third of Crystal Visions is culled from those four albums, which mercifully obviates the task of hearing Nicks struggle.

The few gems from Nicks’s down period that made the cut for Crystal Visions are each accompanied by a music video on the DVD portion of the set. Nicks began making videos when MTV was still in its infancy and risible high-concept clips dominated the airwaves. Crystal Visions is a veritable encyclopedia of these. The most iconic of the bunch is “Stand Back”, a song from The Wild Heart that was structured after the chord pattern of Prince’s “Little Red Corvette”. The video is a dusky pastiche of early ’80s MTV clichés, immortalized by Nicks strutting backwards on a slanted treadmill in platform boots. An army of background dancers poses and parades around a dimly lit set for most of the video and Nicks’s golden tresses are windswept as she earnestly lip-syncs in a lacy, low-cut blouse. Her trademark twirls are routinely caught in slow motion, emphasizing the wingspan of each shawl. Considering that Nicks’s only previous solo videos had been faux in-the-studio performances (“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”), “Stand Back” was revolutionary. Nearly 25 years later “Stand Back” is still one of Nicks’ most thrilling tracks. It’s also the only solo song of hers to be performed in a Fleetwood Mac set.

Stevie Nicks “Stand Back” – 1983 Appearence

And what about Fleetwood Mac? At best, the band tolerated Nicks’s decision to venture solo. Ever faithful, she rejoined Fleetwood Mac for the Mirage (1982) and Tango in the Night (1987) albums. (“Gypsy” and “Seven Wonders” were the Nicks-led singles, respectively.) But a contract dispute over her song “Silver Springs”, a Rumours-era B-side that she hoped to include on Timespace (1991), her first solo compilation, alienated her from the band anew. “Silver Springs”, which was directed towards Buckingham, was relegated to the B-side of Buckingham’s own kiss-off to Nicks, “Go Your Own Way”. (How many 45 singles have told two sides of an argument?) But when Fleetwood Mac reunited in 1997 for The Dance, a concert album and TV special, Nicks’ fury during “Silver Springs” stole the show.

Debuting at number one on the Billboard 200, The Dance brought Fleetwood Mac back into the public eye. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham could finally embrace onstage during “Landslide” and so the miraculously reunited band set out on an exhaustive tour. Thousands witnessed how Nicks, tambourine in hand, still had a captivating stage presence. Because a whole new generation of listeners was discovering Nicks, Enchanted (1998), a three-CD box set, was promptly assembled to give younger listeners a crash course in her solo career. A few years later, Trouble in Shangri-La, her solo comeback, was greeted with much fanfare.

With appearances by Sheryl Crow, Natalie Maines, Macy Gray, and Sarah McLachlan, Trouble in Shangri-La worked to ensure that Nicks appealed to a wide-range of music-buying demographics. Even without the contributions of other artists, though, the album stood as her best solo work since Bella Donna. Crow produced some of the tracks on the album, including “Sorcerer”, a song that dated back to the Buckingham Nicks era. “Planets of the Universe”, which was written in the late ’70s, rocked in the same stormy seas as “Edge of Seventeen” with an agitated guitar riff bubbling underneath lines like “You’ll forget the chill of love / But not the strain”. For the first time in years, Nicks sounded focused and excited about singing on a record. (Say You Will, which was recorded with Fleetwood Mac in 2003, also featured some of Nicks’s most compelling latter-day singing and songwriting.)

Six years later, Crystal Visions summarizes the very best of Stevie Nicks’s oeuvre but it’s more than a collection of singles. It poignantly traces Nicks’s survival in rock and roll after nearly being destroyed by it. “Time makes you bolder / children get older / I’m getting older too”, Stevie Nicks sang 32 years ago on “Landslide” (Fleetwood Mac). A new recording of “Landslide” on Crystal Visions with the Melbourne Symphony intimates that not only is Stevie Nicks older but she’s triumphed after four tumultuous decades of “dreams unwinding”.