Is the Mac Truly Back?

This is an odd bit of paradise for Lindsey Buckingham. He's ensconced in a plush East Hollywood recording studio, eyes closed, his bare feet tapping at the hardwood floor as he listens to a playback of "Bleed to Love Her," another forceful blend of acoustic guitar and tortured romance from the singer/guitarist. His hands beat silently against imaginary drums. Maestro Buckingham looks like a happy man.

More remarkable is the reason for this musical bliss. It's right there on the video monitor in front of him, confirming that Buckingham isn't here working on some long-awaited solo project, but that he's somehow reunited with Fleetwood Mac for the first time since abruptly quitting that fraying superstar act in 1987. Buckingham is a little surprised himself.

"If you had asked me six or eight months ago if I would be doing this, I would have said no," Buckingham says gravely. The singer/ guitarist had his reasons for leaving Fleetwood Mac a decade ago, even as it was enjoying a new surge in popularity. Various forms of excess had taken their toll. There had also been lingering resentments between him and singer Stevie Nicks in the years after the breakup of their romance in 1977. But most profound for Buckingham, the band had taken a disturbingly commercial direction in the 1980s, and thus could no longer fulfill his dreams of off-center studio wizardry.

"The priorities had gotten a little screwed up," he says. "A lot of people were having personal problems, and it was not a nurturing atmosphere creatively. It was very unfocused. Now that a lot of [that] doesn't exist, I don't know. I have to say I'm enjoying just sharing the situation with these people."

There's a beat of hesitation in his voice, as though he were still trying to convince himself that he should even be here. But the good vibes seem real enough among Nicks, singer/pianist Christine McVie, bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood, all of whom inadvertently reunited this year during the making of a still-unfinished Buckingham solo effort, his first since 1992's Out of the Cradle. "Nobody's pissed off anymore," says Nicks. Maybe so. But the ultimate test is coming now, with Fleetwood Mac's current 40-date national tour, which will deliver the band to the Summit on Sunday.

For the moment, Buckingham's taking a break from mixing The Dance, a new live release culled from the MTV special of the same name. He soon takes a call from Reprise Records president Howie Klein, and you can almost feel the steam rising at the other end of the line as Buckingham describes which major hit songs won't be on the disc. Afterward, he laughs. "Everything," he says, "is about that far from the fan."

Buckingham is dressed in casual black, the hair at his temples and chest a subtle gray -- all the band members are now, after all, in their late 40s or early 50s -- and he slouches comfortably on a porch just outside the control room. The studio overlooks a badminton net and a jungle paradise of green, right in the midst of urban Los Angeles; it's where the band (except for the laissez-faire John McVie) made almost daily visits before going on tour. At a nearby table, Fleetwood speaks quietly into a telephone as Christine McVie prepares to leave.

Before stepping into her car, the singer stops to kiss Buckingham on the cheek. "Good-bye, Lindsey," says Christine, looking reed thin in a T-shirt and tinted glasses. "Don't stress yourself out too much."

That's a tall order in a band that has thrived most when suffering the greatest turmoil. In 1977, Fleetwood Mac discovered profound inspiration in their own shattered relationships for the 20-million-selling Rumours release. That year saw the breakups of Buckingham and Nicks, Fleetwood's marriage and that of the McVies. The result was music energized by bitterness (Buckingham and Nicks) and romantic faith (Christine McVie). Songs were at times accusatory, loving and mystical, with a dark undercurrent that owed much to the ominous brooding of the Mick Fleetwood/ John McVie rhythm section.

For all the tales of bad love on Rumours, it was pure musical escapism, and it connected deeply with the masses. It remains one of the best-selling albums of all time. "We kind of captured the imagination of people back then -- the idea in those days of a sort of heavy-duty alcohol/drug band with broken relationships all kind of singing to one other," Christine says. "We seemed accessible to them, and people related greatly to the content of the songs. And the chemistry between us was awe-inspiring. People used to meet us and feel intimidated when there was more than three of us in a room. It was a pretty heavy-duty thing."  

If Rumours was the band's perfect pop document, it took 1979's Tusk to suggest real ambition. It was an unexpected reaction to mass appeal, particularly when compared to the Eagles' utterly disposable atrocity The Long Run, a different kind of reaction to success that was released the same year. Tusk was an outing that eased into focus via gentle strumming and the warm longing of Christine McVie's voice. What immediately followed was a rich fabric of sounds and ideas: Buckingham's subtly twisted rhythms and twangy guitar, the off-kilter piano that opens Nicks's "Sara," the perverse recruiting of the USC Marching Band for a horns-and-drum section on the title track. And throughout, listeners could hear the blissful sense of freedom in Buckingham's voice.

"That was probably my favorite time in the band," Buckingham says now, "because I felt the most empowered and the most spontaneous in terms of understanding what I was doing and why I was doing it."

The ultimate source of Buckingham's frustration within Fleetwood Mac originated not in Tusk's commercial disappointment (if two top ten singles and sales above four million can be called disappointing), but with the shift in internal politics that determined experimentation was not the way to continued riches, and therefore not the way for Fleetwood Mac. So what followed were records that were smooth and safe, leaning heavily on tested hit-making formulas. A Buckingham solo career was inevitable.

Buckingham was not the only notable talent within the band, but his was the vision that held it together. In 1987, Fleetwood Mac were met with renewed popularity and critical acclaim for Tango in the Night, a CD of real pop craftsmanship, but with emotions that sounded more manufactured than before. The heavy breathing of the song "Big Love" notwithstanding, the heat within Mac was largely gone.

By then, Fleetwood Mac was more an obligation than a useful venue for Buckingham. The band had ceased to be the setting where the singer bared his tortured soul, becoming instead merely a profitable hit factory, designed to keep the old fans happy during their morning commutes. When Tango in the Night was finished, after a year of sessions in his garage studio, Buckingham announced that he could not be part of a scheduled tour and essentially quit the band.

The quintet's only high-profile reunion came as a result of the 1992 presidential election, after Bill Clinton adopted the band's "Don't Stop" as his campaign song. When he was elected, Clinton requested that the late-'70s lineup of Fleetwood Mac reunite for his inaugural celebration and perform the song as the climax of a show populated by the likes of Barbra Streisand and a uniformed Michael Jackson. Even John McVie, now an American citizen and staunch Republican, was ready to oblige. Only Buckingham was hesitant, but Nicks finally convinced him to participate.

"I thought it was touching that for the first time you had a president who was openly professing his alliance [with] rock and roll," Buckingham says with a shrug. "That gave off a sense of possibility that maybe didn't really pan out."

If there were any hopes within the band of a permanent reunion, it was soon clear that Buckingham didn't share them. "It was a one-off thing, and I don't think anyone thought much beyond that show," Christine says. "At the airport as we left to come back to L.A., it was pretty much, 'Well, see you around....' " Soon after their return, Nicks quit the band.

"At the inauguration I just realized I wanted it to be back the way it was, or I didn't want to be in it anymore," says Nicks, who had remained committed to the band even as her solo career took off. (Indeed, she has just signed a new five-release deal with Reprise and plans to head into the studio after the Fleetwood Mac tour.) "For me, it made me realize that it had to be that five, or it couldn't be. I couldn't continue to be in a Fleetwood Mac that didn't have Lindsey in it."

Fleetwood Mac was formed in 1967 by London blues guitarist Peter Green, an alumnus of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. It was a different kind of outfit then, a quintet of dedicated blues fanatics. Green named the group after his Fleetwood/McVie rhythm section largely because he wasn't interested in the sort of "Clapton is God" hero worship that was already heading his way.

That rhythm section formed the spine of an ever-changing lineup after Green's departure in 1970. "I'm not a singer/songwriter," Fleetwood says. "I'm a drummer who's a good organizer. And I love what I do with a passion, and I still have a passion that's intact. My setup is, I have to keep this going in order to function. What will I do? Who will I play with? I can't play in my front living room. I need a band. John and I are a couple of gigsters."  

By 1975, Fleetwood had heard a little-noticed release by a duo called Buckingham-Nicks. The two singer/songwriters were struggling just to pay the bills; Nicks worked as a waitress in coffee shops and restaurants around Los Angeles, and Buckingham toured as a sideman to a fading Phil Everly. When Fleetwood called, the couple spent their last few dollars on old Fleetwood Mac vinyl, searching for something they could identify with. "I had to say to Lindsey, 'Well, I'm very tired of being a waitress, so I definitely think we should join this band,' " Nicks recalls.

Nicks had wanted to be Joni Mitchell, but instead she ended up a singer with a strange, raspy vibrato. Critics weren't immediately won over. She particularly remembers one reviewer describing her vocals as the sound of a "bleating goat." Still, the vocals were memorable. And the eventual result was a voice as distinctive as any other in '70s music, as much an acquired taste as Robert Plant or Johnny Rotten.

The self-titled Fleetwood Mac effort, released in 1975, was immediately successful; it sold four million copies and then was followed by Rumours. "It was great," Nicks says. "It made us all a mess. We did a lot of drugs -- we're all lucky to be alive. We had a great time; there was no getting around it. Anybody tells you any different, they're lying. It was incredible."

That excess sent her to the Betty Ford Clinic a decade ago, and the bloated, dazed, black-magic woman who appeared on at least one solo tour bore little resemblance to the fresh-faced California girl who had met Buckingham as a high school student. But today she's slimmed down and garbed in her usual black chiffon, sipping hot tea. "It's hard to be really famous," she shrugs, "but it's hard to be really poor and not famous."

Fleetwood Mac was, for one moment, the biggest band in the universe, seemingly oblivious to the movements of punk and disco then swirling around them. They were instead awash in limousines and private jets and Grammy Awards, and they became easy targets for the American punk movement for what it viewed as appalling rock-star excess.

Even today Buckingham sounds bitter about the punk attacks. But if the likes of Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles helped give the Los Angeles punk movement some of its fire, L.A. punks should be grateful to them, even if the band's real life wasn't so simple. It's with some irony that contemporary punk-based acts such as the Smashing Pumpkins and Hole now refer to Fleetwood Mac as one of their great inspirations.

"We were their age when we started, and we're still doing it today," Nicks says of her close friendships with Courtney Love and Billy Corgan. "So maybe we give them hope."

Like the Sex Pistols last year, Fleetwood Mac's return to the concert stage now will signify nothing more than nostalgia unless it leads the quintet back into the studio, where their work always mattered the most. The final version of The Dance isn't exactly a revelation, though the band does inject some contemporary fire into the old songs. And the inclusion of four new tunes, including the torrid "Bleed to Love Her," suggests the band again has a future -- if, that is, they choose to take it.

Fleetwood Mac performs Sunday, November 2, at the Summit. Tickets are $36.25 to $101.25. For info, call 629-3700.

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