- TUSK AND THE 70s DREAM
Back when it was necessary for me to listen to pop radio in secret—my greatest generation parents having been reinforced in their anti-rock convictions by religious (re)conversion—I used to tune in the old console stereo that had been lodged in my bedroom because there was no other place to put it in our small house in the no man’s land between Seattle and Tacoma. I got my listening orders from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on AM, which I listened to regularly along with pro basketball games from up and down the West Coast at night during winter and Seattle Mariner baseball games during the summers. AM steered me wrong from the beginning, of course. When I should have been listening to Led Zeppelin and their followers at age 14, that most impressionable moment researchers tell us has the greatest influence on our tastes, I was locked into the AM countdown. I’m still catching up to Page and Plant, and I eventually got wise to Costello and the Clash, and jazz came still later, but this remembrance is about something far stranger than any of it: Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.
When first I understood Fleetwood Mac as an entity connected to particular songs, the title track of their 1979 album Tusk was a Top Ten single, according to Casey. It immediately grabbed my ear and I assumed that this was what the band always sounded like—a collage of tom-toms, Lindsey Buckingham whoops, and of course the USC Trojan Marching Band, all 100 or so strong. For a long while there it was my favorite song, and I only became dimly aware over time that this was also the band that had become a rock titan through the string of well-crafted singles from the Fleetwood Mac and Rumours albums. (Yes, Peter Green/Danny Kirwan/Jeremy Spencer/Bob Welch fans, I know what you want us all to know. We know.) And then I later figured out that Fleetwood Mac was the galaxy from whence Stevie Nicks had landed. Little sister was a big fan.
The band’s recent news making, including the ouster of guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, made me think back to that adolescent moment when something as artistically daring as “Tusk” the song and, as I later discovered, Tusk the album, actually penetrated my mostly innocent musical consciousness. Along with Blondie, the band also tapped into the other great interest among adolescents like me—sex. There was something very adult-like about Fleetwood Mac’s 1970s hedonism. Apparently, it was the fun you got to have once you had made more money than you knew what to do with. The band’s vague relationship confusion (who did whom, and the photos along with an infamous Rolling Stone cover suggested multiple combinations) surely played off the real-life breakups that became such a big part of the Rumours mystique. But Tusk was where I came in, and judging some of the band photos, I couldn’t tell if Lindsey had the attention of both Christine McVie and Nicks or if they thought he was one of their own. That the album is basically an aural brief for the manic-depressive effects of too much cocaine, and the fact that manic-depressive is pretty much the normal state of many people who are 14 years old, meant that the music seeped in deeper than I could have known at the time.
Tusk arrived at the beginning of something, whatever it was, for me, and it came at the end of something else, the post-Sixties hangover in which I came to consciousness: pollution, gas shortages, the Carter presidency, the sense of decline and reduced circumstances that our family’s own situation seemed to exemplify. And yet there was this band spending a million bucks on a record that subverted all expectations, because they could. Stephen Holden’s Rolling Stone review of the record is well worth reading. He describes so well the sense of an era about to vanish and how the sound of Tusk translates that bittersweet moment into songs and production choices that make the impending loss all too real. I hear deep melancholy in the work of McVie (“Brown Eyes”) and Nicks (“Beautiful Child,” “Storms”) on this record, a sense of longing for what is already slipping away or is long gone. (Is it that exact sensibility that made me latch onto, in true geek fashion, The Lord of the Rings at almost the same time? Is thus a historian made?) Buckingham’s manic episodes, while bracing, are nevertheless defensive in tone (“I Know I’m Not Wrong,” “Not That Funny,” “That’s All For Everyone,” “That’s Enough For Me”). What is being lost? It sounds too glib to say “idealism” because the band couched all of its work in the language of love and sex. Brian Wilson acolyte Buckingham may have learned new musical tricks from the Clash, say, but the lesson was not how to infuse your songs with overt politics. No London Calling—to reference another great 1979 double album—here. Someone is “undoing the laces” for Stevie in the “sea of love where everyone would love to drown.” But her song (“Sara”) is about a memory.
I still hear a certain hard-won ruefulness in the album along with a “not dead yet” defiance. Sometimes I hear it in the same song. McVie’s “Over And Over” is the record’s first attempt to wrong-foot the listener—no buoyant or rocking curtain-raiser this. The song’s deliberate modesty maintains its profile until the rideout. Then John McVie double-times his bass line, Buckingham’s restrained guitar work tingles, and Christine McVie’s organ chords thicken the sound, leading to a Mick Fleetwood cymbal roll that sounds like the sonic wave the entire track has been waiting to unleash. It sounds like the band could keep this quiet but intense groove going forever. It’s a mirage though (to cite the title of the next album). Track 2 finds Buckingham on “The Ledge,” and the album’s neurotic ride really begins.
Fleetwood Mac’s great rival, the Eagles, wrote about the dark side of the California dream on Hotel California and “Life In The Fast Lane.” Fleetwood Mac went about it in a subtler way. First, they simply lived the dark side and didn’t talk much about it. Second, it was all in the drama of the music, especially in tunes like “The Chain” and “Gold Dust Woman” on Rumours and “Sisters of the Moon” and basically the whole of Tusk. Compared to the hard sheen of the 1980s—the mechanical drums and synthesizers, the asymmetrical haircuts, the shoulder padded fashion, right-wing politics, Mickey Rourke movies—Tusk does indeed sound like the last moments before awakening, when you can feel the warmth of the bed and of the extraordinary person beside you, and can inhabit the cushion of sleep without yet ending it by opening your eyes. The dreams have been unsettling, but perhaps not so much as the future you know is mere moments away.
- LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM’S “TREASON” TOUR
It is a far from original observation to state that our cultural obsessions—sports, music, all the rest of the expensive life spice advanced society affords—are inherently irrational, even if you can formulate good reasons for one’s fandom. The reasons don’t really matter in the end, they rarely convince non-believers, and the best one can hope for is that one’s loved ones are not driven mad by the obsession. That Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar style is significant precisely because it is free of the blues mannerisms (and cliché) that many rock fans demand takes up any of my mental space at all is perhaps cause for concern.
I am far from the only person riveted by the latest Fleetwood Mac saga, the sacking of guitarist/sonic genius Buckingham and the band’s touring with veteran rockers from Crowded House (Neil Finn) and the late Tom Petty’s long-running outfit the Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell). Parsing the Buckingham-Stevie Nicks relationship has been a parlor game for Mac watchers for decades, but this time it appears that Nicks has broken the chain for good by presenting an ultimatum designed to oust the guitarist. Buckingham’s lawsuit has been filed.
Setting aside my extreme discomfort with the reconstituted band opening their shows with “The Chain,” the emblematic Rumours track written by the five band members, and my disgust at the band lying to the press that Buckingham had refused to tour with them in 2018, I have to come to terms with my own obsession with Buckingham, whose name recognition and popular success outside of Fleetwood Mac have been muted at best. When you peel back the layers of the band’s recordings, Buckingham is at the center, no matter who wrote the songs. The eeriness of “Gold Dust Woman” and “Sisters of the Moon” is about more than Stevie Nicks’ delivery, after all. Tusk was his baby, and it was the riskiest left turn a major rock act had taken to that point. When he left the band in 1987 before their Tango in the Night tour, it meant the end of the band as far as I was concerned. I felt the same way this year—I am clearly a Buckingham partisan and there was no internal debate.
A few years after his initial departure he returned to the band for the 1993 presidential inauguration performance of “Don’t Stop,” the Clinton campaign theme. I watched his first solo performance with his new band on PBS’s Center Stage around the same time and was astounded—here he broke out his new solo acoustic arrangements of “Go Insane” and “Big Love” that remain jaw-dropping decades later–rock passion and Renaissance delicacy. I was probably the only person at Riverport Amphitheater in St. Louis that year specifically to see hometown legend Tina Turner’s opening act: Buckingham and his “guitar army” playing music from his recently released pop masterpiece. Out of the Cradle’s intricate guitar work and confessional songwriting made nary a ripple in the new world of Nirvana and PJ Harvey (love ‘em), but it remains perhaps his most complete solo effort. He returned to Fleetwood Mac for good (we thought) in 1997. I caught him again in 2008, all by himself in 2011, and snatched up seats for his recent Solo Anthology Tour at the vintage 1926 Orpheum Theater on a rare rainy night in downtown Los Angeles.
And on that night, all of Buckingham’s virtues as a musician were on full display. He had put together a crack band anchored by Los Angeles studio drumming legend Jimmy Paxson. The show was tightly paced—his song introductions dispensed with, the band turned from one four-minute melodic gem to another. The pop-perfect “Trouble,” several songs from Out of the Cradle, a rarely performed “Slowdancing,” a howling “Holiday Road,” scattered gems from more recent albums, and a few of his Fleetwood Mac tunes added up to a crisp and varied show. His solo acoustic set remained as riveting as ever. Paxson’s thunderous beat on “Tusk” shook the old movie palace.
And Buckingham, recently turned 69, showed not only the expected pick-free prowess on an array of acoustic and electric guitars, but sang better than I’ve ever heard him, allowing for some lowered keys to accommodate diminished range. The power and passion of Buckingham’s performance could be attributed to several factors—taking care of himself as he ages, continued woodshedding on his instrument, the way his musicianship is showcased apart from his old band. But surely the knowledge that he was playing at home for family and friends and that the crowd were there as clear partisans in the Fleetwood Mac/Buckingham dispute must also have played a role. Above all, Buckingham conveyed an absolute joy in performance and with sharing his music with a wildly appreciative audience. That it was a tenth the size of a typical Fleetwood Mac crowd seemed not to matter. It was one of the best performances in any genre I can remember.
Many of Buckingham’s songs are chronicles of emotional betrayal (“Go Your Own Way”). Others are confessions of fear, laments for loss, or defiant self-cheerleading in the face of uncertainty. More than most artists, the songs seem transparently autobiographical. Buckingham is no poet—he effectively explores the ragged edges of his own psyche in song. These hymns to uncertainty, fear, and regret are often fastened to brightly melodic choruses and delivered with nervously powerful singing and his furious fingerpicking guitar work, making for transcendent performances.
Throughout the concert, it was hard not to link the lyrics Buckingham sang with such clarity to his unjust departure from Fleetwood Mac. “Never Going Back Again” was the most obvious example, but there were many others. “Spread your broken wings and learn how to fly,” goes “Don’t Look Down.” “It’s out of my hands/So I’m off to other lands” he sang in “Soul Drifter.” “Why won’t you tell me what’s going on” “Tusk” began. He closed with a song from his excellent 2008 album Gift of Screws. “Deep down there’s freedom/Deep down there will be a reason/At the end of this season/We will rise from this treason,” goes the chorus. “Treason”’s acid yet hopeful take on betrayal indeed seemed to encapsulate the position in which Buckingham finds himself. He is what is now called a “legacy artist”—in other words, an aged one—who has never really sustained an audience on his own. But as his Los Angeles concert showed, it doesn’t matter. In purely musical terms, his old band has already lost something it can’t replace. Buckingham, who has conveyed a strong sense of loyalty to the band in recent years, is gaining another thing the band lost—perspective, and the chance to record and perform new music, something the Mac, and especially Nicks, appear to have lost interest in. The chain has been broken, and that is a terrible way for Fleetwood Mac to behave on a purported farewell tour, but the man onstage at the Orpheum played as though he had been set free.