Hate me if you must, but reading Stephen Davis’s new biography of singer Stevie Nicks made me think of that great American masterwork ‘‘Dallas,’’ the nighttime soap that kept audiences on the edge of their recliners between 1978 and 1991. Love and enmity, big hair, addiction and masochistic amounts of ambition — the band Fleetwood Mac and ‘‘Dallas’’ have much in common.
But only Fleetwood Mac has Stevie Nicks, a petite blonde who could scare the pants off J.R. Ewing if she hadn’t already charmed them off. Power attracts power, and as ‘‘Gold Dust Woman’’ reminds us, Nicks has always attained it her way and on her terms.
Nicks’ is a wholly American story, a product of dusty carports, chlorinated air, and inspiring songs on the radio. She was born in Phoenix in 1948 to a baton-twirling mom and a business executive dad, and the family moved to San Mateo, Calif., in 1964. In high school, Nicks considered becoming a hairdresser, but singing and songwriting fueled her ambition. At a church-run gathering she met guitarist Lindsey Buckingham.
A few years later they were living together, making music and blasting their synapses with cocaine. Nicks worked as a waitress and house cleaner while Buckingham slept late and practiced guitar. She wrote songs, kept a journal, but soon grew tired of finding Buckingham on the rug zonked out from smoking hash. Local fame arrived when the pair joined the San Francisco band Fritz in 1968, opening for such acts as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Nicks admired Joplin’s verve, Grace Slick’s vocal soaring, and Hendrix’s fringe-and-scarf style of clothing, which she soon emulated.
Buckingham may have been zonked out, but in 1975 Mick Fleetwood asked him and Nicks to join his band. Despite their ongoing disagreements and dysfunctions — Buckingham belittled and sometimes physically abused Nicks; Nicks began to exert her own control over the band — the couple continued to collaborate and didn’t hesitate to use their tortured relationship as inspiration for their songwriting.
The songs on the album ‘‘Rumors’’ were written under what Davis describes as ‘‘psychic battlefield conditions,’’ a war zone that continued into their respective solo careers — over the decades, songs such as ‘‘Dreams’’ and ‘‘Go Your Own Way’’ made millions of dollars for Nicks and Buckingham.
Davis, a respected music journalist, has written more than a dozen books about male musicians, and one about Carly Simon. Here the reader gets a solid chronology of Nicks’ career, both with Fleetwood Mac and as a solo artist. Davis is especially good at explaining the details of studio production and describing the extravagant and sometimes grueling conditions of the endless touring by both the band and Nicks on her own. As a solo artist, Nicks sought producers who could take her lyrics and scant melodies and elaborate them into interesting records or a new sound. Her electrifying ‘‘Edge of Seventeen’’ would not have the power it does without Waddy Wachtel’s bruising guitar and her harmonizing female backup singers.
Because ‘‘Gold Dust Woman’’ is an unauthorized biography, Davis relies on previously published material to create his portrait of Nicks, including ‘‘Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac,’’ which he co-wrote with Fleetwood. There’s nothing wrong with this, but something is amiss with the overall project. Nicks herself never quite develops in any new way; she’s more talked about than talking herself, and Davis seems reluctant to interpret or expand on his subject. Still, he’s not above innuendo: ‘‘(Some livery companies used by Fleetwood Mac in those days were reportedly instructed not to send black drivers for Stevie Nicks),’’ he writes. I’m bothered that Davis chose to suggest a racial element within parenthesis instead of giving the statement its full semantic weight and investigating its veracity.
I wonder, too, whether Davis actually likes his subject. For every description of Nicks’ ‘‘golden presence,’’ there’s many more that are condescending and sexist, beginning with his description of a 28-year-old Nicks as ‘‘an elderly ingénue.’’ Nicks has always been candid about her makeup, her clothes, and what Davis calls her ‘‘overripe’’ state, referring to the weight she gained while addicted to Klonopin. But a little of this kind of language goes a long way and reveals Davis’s ignorance about the realities of stardom, especially for women. He needs to be reminded that during his last tours Elvis wore a girdle. Ever since Nicks was pushed into taking off her blouse during the cover shoot for her and Lindsey’s debut album, ‘‘Buckingham Nicks,’’ Nicks has controlled the presentation of her body on her own terms.
You don’t last as long as Nicks has in the music business without having a spine of steel, a keen talent, and a good hair stylist. Though Nicks’s song ‘‘Silver Springs’’ was written as ‘‘a ballad of love and revenge directed at Lindsey,’’ one line from it could easily be directed at all of us: ‘‘You won’t forget me.’’ I don’t think we will.
GOLD DUST WOMAN:
The Biography of Stevie Nicks
By Stephen Davis
St. Martin’s, 352 pp. $27.99