Edge of Everything
Photography by Danny Clinch
Stevie Nicks and I are in her oceanfront L.A. condo, its earth tones and wraparound windows floating high above Santa Monica Beach and the Pacific Coast Highway. Appropriately enough for the poetic high priestess of rock, the horizon is all metaphor. The sunset refracts off the waves, then bounces off a tight line of cars that have just turned on their headlights, gold rolling into platinum.
“I call that the diamond snake, and that the ruby snake,” she says, gesturing toward opposing rows of headlights and brake lights. “We get to just watch the whole world up here. It’s a never-ending show. Go away, cute little helicopter.” She dismisses the vista-blocking interloper with a wave, and it obeys.
Nicks, 66, shot to fame with Fleetwood Mac, which dominated the charts starting in 1975 with their peerless brand of California rock: mellow romanticism with a tense spine. The group’s two couples famously split up during the recording of their 1977 blockbuster, Rumours, which has sold more than 40 million copies. Nicks’s mystical songwriting and swirly, shawl-based stage presence set the group apart and made her an icon. Acclaim and opportunities have poured in ever since, but never more so than in the past few years.
A Glee episode dedicated to Rumours put the album back on the charts and onto the Spotify playlists of millennials. Nicks appeared in the most recent season of the super-hot American Horror Story as a singing witch, which made the classic songs she sang, including “Seven Wonders,” trending topics on Twitter. She’s a mentor on the latest season of The Voice. Recently on The Tonight Show, she and new host Jimmy Fallon reenacted the 1981 video for her first non–Fleetwood Mac hit, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Last month, Fleetwood Mac embarked on a world tour, the first in 16 years to feature fellow member Christine McVie. And the week before our interview, she sang at Adam Levine’s wedding. Somewhere in all of this, she went to Nashville to record a new solo album, 24 Karat Gold, in eight weeks (the album is due for release October 7).
“It is pretty crazy,” says Nicks, settling into her overstuffed leather recliner. “Pretty crazy.”
There was a time when things weren’t coming up roses for Nicks. The early ’80s brought her smash solo albums Bella Donna and The Wild Heart, adding songs like “Edge of Seventeen” and “Stand Back” to her repertoire, but more than a decade of cocaine use landed her in Betty Ford in 1986. An ensuing addiction to the tranquilizer Klonopin furloughed her muse and added 45 pounds to her 5-foot-1 frame, necessitating a harrowing detox in 1993. (More on that in a due course.)
But the universe shifted, and after her last acclaimed solo album and documentary, In Your Dreams, it’s looking like 1975 again for Nicks. She’s slim and smooth-skinned. (Her dermatological routine is underworldly: She avoids the sun and Botox, which she says makes its supplicants look “like Satan’s children”). Her famed platform boots are not in evidence today, replaced by fashiony Birkenstocks, to accommodate a toe that was broken when she tripped over a floorboard electrical socket.
After jumping up to lower the lighting — she is exacting about lighting, not for vanity but for atmosphere — Nicks eagerly unpacks 24 Karat Gold, a collection of songs she wrote between 1969 and 1987 and demoed on cassettes that she stored in shoeboxes. “These are not throwaways. I call these my ‘Silver Springs’ songs,” she says, citing the fan-favorite track detailing her 1976 breakup with longtime romantic and musical partner Lindsey Buckingham (the song was left off Rumours because it was too long). And Gold’s tracks will seduce even casual fans of Nicks’s work: “Lady” — whose plaintive refrain, “What will become of me?” was written when Nicks was working as a housecleaner — would have been a smash for Fleetwood Mac if it had been released in the ’70s. Ditto “She Loves Him Still,” a relentlessly ingratiating ballad. Every track details a kind of heartbreak; fans can speculate which of Nicks’s boyfriends (Joe Walsh of the Eagles, Jimmy Iovine, et al.) were the inspiration. “I had to release these songs, because I couldnot write those records today,” Nicks says. “I’d have to start having affairs tomorrow.”
But her favorite track has bigger concerns than romance. “Mabel Normand” was written in 1985 after Nicks watched a documentary about the eponymous 1920s silent performer, who was “the rock star of her time.” She was also a cocaine addict.
“In 1985, I was dancing at the edge of danger myself, just like she was,” Nicks says. “I was just doing so much coke. And it had already backfired on me completely. I saw this documentary, and I felt this union with her: Oh my God, the same thing that happened to this woman in the ’20s is happening to me in the ’80s — how can this be? Then she died, and that really scared me. She was rich, she was famous, she had everything. She had it all. And I very well could have died just as easily as she did.”
Soon after, Nicks went to a plastic surgeon, who found a hole in her nasal cartilage big enough to cause a brain hemorrhage with her next introduction of pharmaceuticals. “He said, ‘I know people who probably do more drugs than you who don’t have a hole in their nose like this, so what have you done differently?’ ” she says. “I would get terrible headaches, so I used to put aspirin in water, then take an eyedropper and put the aspirin in my nose. I thought I was being the best nurse ever. The plastic surgeon said, ‘Well, the aspirin ate your nose, not the coke.’ ”
Next stop, the Betty Ford Center. Her epiphany came with her realization that “if the first lady of the United States can get over this, so can I.” After she left, her handlers persuaded her to go to a psychiatrist to get on a tranquilizer to prevent a relapse. The doctor prescribed Klonopin, gradually increasing her dosage over eight years until she was left dazed, overweight, and unable to write. This time, her epiphany came in the form of Polaroid self-portraits (which she still takes every night). “I would look at them, and I would just be sick to my stomach,” she says. “I was feeling so awful. I thought, You are going to OD on something really stupid like NyQuil or Benadryl — over-the-counter stuff — on top of the Klonopin. I thought, I’m definitely not going to go out that way. If I go out, I’m going out in a blaze of glory. I’m not going out OD’ing on aspirin. So I said to myself, This is it, and it is over.” A 47-day detox ensued, during which her skin molted, her hair turned gray, and she couldn’t eat; she only turned the corner after receiving two days’ doses of the narcotic pain reliever Demerol.
Although Nicks has been clean ever since, drugs have intruded into her extended family recently. “My godson died at a fraternity party,” she says. “He had been doing heroin, but he didn’t die of heroin. He went to a frat party and he took a bunch of Xanax, and I think there was probably Red Bull and vodka being carried out on a tray, and God knows what else. He died at the frat house. He’d just turned 18, this beautiful child.”
Nicks wrote “Mabel Normand” as a kind of public service announcement. “I wanted it to be something that somebody having a problem with drugs can sit down and listen to 5,000 times,” she says. “Try to let it be an epiphany for you, 18-year-old person that is doing a lot of coke and smoking heroin and taking ecstasy and is on a dead-end road to hell. I want anybody who hears a doctor say, ‘Would you like me to write you a prescription of Klonopin?’ to get up and run out of the room screaming and take the air out of that doctor’s tires. I want them to hear the word ‘cocaine’ and think ‘brain hemorrhage, beauty gone, lines, aging, fat.’ ”
Talk turns to happier topics. Nicks first learned she occupied a special place in the heart of the gays when she found out about Night of 1,000 Stevies, the annual dress-up tribute that has become a New York nightlife institution. “I was so tickled because Halloween is my night!” she says of her very specific approach to fashion. “I read about it and told my dad, ‘It’s a huge party thrown by fabulous gay men and women. They love my clothes and my fashion and my songs, and they all go to it and play my music and lip synch!’ And my dad was very conservative, but he said, ‘That is really great, honey!’
“One day I’m going to show up, and they are not going to know it, because I’m going to be dressed as the best Stevie ever,” she says. “I will be unrecognizably fantastic until I go up on stage and take the mic and burst into ‘Edge of Seventeen’ and blow everyone away.”
Unprompted, she meditates on the current state of gayness. “I can’t say that I’m so glad that gay people like my music, because I have never looked at gay people as different from any other people,” she says. “We are all one consciousness. The fact that anybody loves my music makes me feel very good, because this is what I do. I didn’t get married; I don’t have kids. I have lots of godchildren, but it is just me and my dogs. And then I have my straight friends and I have my gay friends.”
She talks about a close companion who struggled with coming out years ago, even though she would have had Nicks’s unconditional support. “The idea of carrying that secret around would have killed me,” Nicks says. “So I wouldn’t have [been in the closet]. If I were gay, the second that I knew, I would have said, ‘OK, everybody, this is how it is, and either you still like me or I don’t care.’ I think that if you are gay, you just have to say ‘It’s great!’ And hopefully you will find a great relationship. And hopefully all the straight people will find a relationship. And hopefully all the people like me who don’t care about having a relationship will continue to not care and just have a great dog. I’m not putting relationships down — I’ve had amazing relationships. But that is how I look at life.”
Her latest spontaneous rendezvous was provided by American Horror Story creator-writer Ryan Murphy. She became acquainted with him during the Glee episode, and she reached out to him to volunteer her services. “I called him and said, ‘You know, I could do just a walk-through in a long black dress and just be like, ‘Hello witches, goodbye witches!’ Just something really dramatic and fun.” Murphy immediately summoned her to New Orleans, where production on American Horror Story: Coven was under way. She showed up on set and was handed a 20-page script, which induced “a panic attack,” as she puts it. “I’m not an actress, never wanted to be an actress. I can’t remember lines. I have to have a teleprompter.”
She ultimately played the show’s version of Glinda, a good witch with powers who chooses not to practice. She sang “Seven Wonders,” “Rhiannon,” and “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You” as Jessica Lange looked on and wept. Twitter instantly went crazy. “My favorite thing of all time is those scenes with Jessica Lange,” she says. “That show took my music to a lot of people. Television is really the new movies. I love sitting right there on my big couch watching TV by myself. A couple of hours of Law and Order, and I’m good.”
A few months later, she mentored 12 contestants on The Voice. “I feel very invested in these kids,” she says. “I feel like I have sent 12 children into the world.” Would she and Lindsey Buckingham have competed on the show when they were starting out? “I would have dragged Lindsey kicking and screaming. However, yes, we would have,” Nicks says. “If that was the only way we could get our music across, then no doubt. He would have hated it, but he would have done it. I would have said, ‘There is no backing out of this — this is the way it is going to be.’ Because one time somebody might see you and say, ‘That girl should be in my movie’ or ‘That guy should be in the next Geico commercial,’ right?”
Nicks’s famously volatile relationship with Buckingham is stable, for the moment. “Lindsey and I just never change,” she says. “We are exactly who we were when we moved to Los Angeles. There’s always going to be that jealousy-resentment thing that we wish would go away but never does, so I think that we’ve both learned to live with each other.”
Buckingham, Nicks says, would be happiest if she didn’t do anything other than Fleetwood Mac. “He knows that’s never going to happen, so that is, I think, his biggest problem with me,” she says. “I wish that he could not care. Who said it? ‘Ever lovers, never friends.’ There’s something to it. I hope one day, when we’re too old to tour anymore, that we can sit down and just be friends. You know, when you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen, and that’s what I hope happens with Lindsey and me.”
Nicks says that all her recent opportunities have assuaged an occasional creeping insecurity. “Sometimes when you wake up in the morning and you go, Does anybody get it? If I died tomorrow, what would go on? Did I actually touch people? Did I make a wave here?” Nicks says, stroking the long rivulet of blonde hair falling along her shoulder. “In the last couple of years, I have actually started to say to myself, Yes, you did. You have actually made a wave, and it has swept over a lot of people. It’s opening doors for you to step up, into whatever you want that isn’t even rock ’n’ roll anymore.”
To wit, she has owned the rights to a collection of Welsh myths, which she hopes to turn into a miniseries. She’s also gearing up to present a gallery show of her career-documenting Polaroids — some of which form collages inside 24 Karat Gold — in New York City. Her manager and her favorite producer, Dave Stewart, are hounding her to do a one-woman show. She says she has enough demos stashed in those shoeboxes to record three more albums. The Fleetwood Mac tour will take her to 25 cities. She also continues to train her voice militaristically: 30 minutes a day.
It’s closing in on midnight, which means it’s time for an apartment tour, including her thoroughly rock-star bathroom, which has a cavernous tub and sparkly shower tile she points out proudly. A sign hanging above the tap reads, don’t piss off the fairies. Her dogs, a 16-year-old Chinese crested and a Yorkie puppy, clamber underfoot. The Yorkie has used the room for its intended purpose. “Untrainable!” Nicks says in mock exasperation.
As the evening winds down, she remembers what she told the contestants on The Voice. The season hasn’t aired yet, and she keeps thinking about the results. “They are so nervous that you are nervous for them,” she says. “The best thing I actually said to all of them was, ‘No matter what happens after this, just this day, never forget about it. It’s a dream come true. Take everything that happens today and tomorrow with you for the rest of your life and just totally dig on it, and tell everybody the story. Enjoy it, and think about it when you’re going to sleep, and never forget it. Because these kinds of times never come again.’ ”