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Guitar World Acoustic No. 25 (December, 1997)

The Big Mac

by Vic Garbarini

Lindsey Buckingham was stunned. The voice blaring out of his car radio belonged to the legendary Los Angeles deejay, B. Mitchell Reed: "That was the new Fleetwood Mac single, ĎGo Your Own Way.í [pause] Well, I donít know about that one, folks."

It was just over 20 years ago, and Buckingham had just completed a season in hell finishing an album called Rumours. Since joining Fleetwood Mac two years earlier with his partner and girlfriend Stevie Nicks, the guitarist had been on a musical and emotional roller coaster ride. Their first effort with bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood, the bandís original rhythm section, and McVieís keyboardist/songwriter wife, Christine, had been a stunning success. Fleetwood Mac (Reprise, 1975) had pulled the band out of their early Seventies doldrums, selling an impressive five million copies based on the pop smarts of hits such as " Over My Head," "Rhiannon," "Landslide," and "World Turning." But over the past 12 months everything seemed to come apart at the seams. The McVies had divorced, Buckingham and Nicks were in the midst of an acrimonious breakup, and even Fleetwood was splitting from his wife. Drugs, animosity and grief became part of the fuel that the band members poured into their sophomore album. It had been a traumatic and at times transcendent experience. But was it any good?

The passions and pathos that gave birth to Rumours would eventually result in 25 million people sharing the raw emotions of what would become one of the top three selling albums in rock history. But that was still in the future as Buckingham pulled out of the Capitol Records parking lot and onto the L.A. freeway. Heíd just finished mastering the album, but the first single, a searing rocker called "Go You Own Way," had already been released to radio. And now, ominously, L.A.ís most influential deejay didnít "know about that one." What the hell was wrong? Lindsey picks up the story:

"I raced back to Capitol and called the radio station. I was a little feistier than I am now," he chuckles. "So they put me on the air, and I said, ĎB., hey man, what are you talking about? What do you mean you donít know?í And he says, ĎMan, I canít find the beat!í"

Suddenly Buckingham knew what he meant: "It was the acoustic guitar part," he laughs. "Iíd added it at the eleventh hour; up until a few days before we mixed it there was no acoustic. The song was good, but something was missing. As soon as I came up with the acoustic part, the whole song came to life for me because it acted as a foil for the vocals and a rhythmic counterpoint. So when it comes in, you donít have a reference point for where the Ďoneí is, or where the beat is at all. Itís only after the first chorus comes in that you can realize where you are - and thatís what that deejay was confused about."

Needless to say, Reed and the rest of the world caught on fast. After a successful, if tumultuous, world tour, Buckingham convinced the bandmates to follow his avant gard, subversive pop instincts even further on Tusk, which proved a critical favorite but a relative commercial flop. He would stay with the band on and off again for another 10 years until 1987ís Tango in the Night. But he was increasingly at odds with the commercial instincts of his bandmates, who ironically needed him for his superb arranging, producing, and guitar paying skills.

Ten years later, Buckingham has reunited - at least for the moment - with his bandmates for one of the most commercially and critically triumphant comebacks in music history. The semi-unplugged The Dance album and tour feature new live renditions of their best work, plus a number of new compositions. Still, "rumours" continue to fly in the press about the bandís personal relationships. Is Lindsey really thinking of getting back together with Stevie, as one major mag reported - and is Stevie outraged at the idea?

"God, that was totally tongue-in-cheek on my part - and I assume Stevieís response was, too," laughs Buckingham, who, by his own admission, is a far more relaxed and even-tempered man these days. Rarely have a bandís personal relations impacted their work as dramatically as in the case of Fleetwood Mac, past and present.

Yet Buckinghamís exquisite playing on The Dance underscores a fact his admirers, including everyone from R.E.M.ís Peter Buck to Alice in Chainís Jerry Cantrell, have always known: Heís one of the most unique and innovative guitarists in rock. Not only does he utilize the acoustic guitar creatively on searing rockers like the aforementioned "Go Your Own Way" and the technical tour de force "Big Love," he actually plays electric guitar as if it were an acoustic. He weaves gorgeous matrixes of sound on songs such as "The Chain" and "Rhiannon" with his distinctive hybrid fingerpicking style. "I started playing acoustic and banjo as a young teenager, years before I got an electric," explains Buckingham, "and I still often think that way when I compose and play." But how did this exotic blend of Travis picking and bango frailing develop? Lindsey sat down with Guitar World Acoustic to discuss the playing that gave voice to the passion - both then and now.

GWA: Rumours was one of the first "subversive" pop albums. People can find grief, joy, sadness and revenge - the whole range of human emotions you were all going through - wrapped in surprisingly upbeat music. Is that the key to its success - then and now?

LB: I think youíre very perceptive and right when you say that people hear Rumours as being totally negative and painful, and yet at the same time having a quality of healing and optimism that transmutes all that. A lot of people react first to the sunniness of it on a purely musical level, especially if they donít really listen to the words. I donít want to use the word "Californian" [laughs], but under that sunny surface the underpinnings are very dark. And I think that is the reason it holds up - it covers the whole gamut of emotions. So, depending on what youíre looking for, you can probably find it.

GWA: In the same sense, when you added that acoustic guitar to "Go Your Own Way" it balanced the angry, punky energy of the electric. It added a wistful longing feel.

LB: Definitely, that was the idea. The acoustic brings in the right brain, the feminine aspect, to complete the emotional landscape of the song. Itís funny: Stevie once said something like, "Well, Lindseyís songs were always kind of negative and my songs had a note of hope in them." I think thatís open to interpretation.

GWA: Donít you feel the Ďhope" in that song is expressed by the intensity of your playing?

LB: Sure, you listen to the solo and whatever set of emotions you can label from that is not pessimistic at all. Also, thereís a lot of humor in that song.

GWA: Stevie recently said she really resented the "shacking up" line. Does she have a problem singing it now? Did she then?

LB: No, not at all. She still doesnít like that line, but some things will never change. And my feeling was that that line, in particular, was pretty funny. Which, of course, was just my way of making fun of something that was painful on other levels.

GWA: You tend to even fingerpick you electric as though it were an acoustic. Joni Mitchell has told me that she plays like that because the guitar then becomes a whole orchestra of sounds. Is that why you developed your unique style?

LB: Thatís true. Because the thumb can act as a surrogate bass, I can have two different rhythms going on simultaneously, and two different melodies. And the percussiveness of the fingerpicking implies drums. But my fingerpicking on the electric is a direct outgrowth of my plating the acoustic as a young teenager.

I started out doing a basic Travis thing, but I donít know what it is now. John Stewart once told me that I was "frailing" the guitar, which is a banjo technique.

GWA: You actually use a banjo on the live version of "You Make Loving Fun," on The Dance. Is that a recent skill, or something you subliminally picked up during the Sixties folk boom?

LB: Yeah, I owned a banjo when I was 12; it later was stolen. That was í62 - and the Beatles hadnít come along, Elvis wasnít making great records and folk music was the fresh thing. Iím one of the few people who admits he was a big Kingston Trio fan. [laughs] I got semi-proficient and got some chops that did carry over into things like "World Turning," which is directly attributable to my having played the banjo.

GWA: Everything youíve done from "The Chain" to "Big Love" has that guitar/banjo hybrid sound. How do you blend them when you create a part?

LB: Well, Travis picking on the guitar is technically a three-finger pick, though you tend to use your fourth finger sometimes. Itís based on alternating the bass notes with your thumb between the root and the fifth usually, and your other fingers play off that. On a banjo, you donít really have a bass note. Your reference point is more the high 5th string, which is a drone, and you donít fret that. And banjo picking tends to be organized in triplets, and so thatís the main combination of elements youíre hearing in my approach.

GWA: John McVie and Mick Fleetwood constitute one of the most unusual rhythm sections in rock history. Was it difficult for you to musically mesh with them?

LB: To be honest, I was pretty ambivalent about joining them in the first place. I was the new kid on the block, and I didnít see the potential, I have to say. I thought Johnís playing was too busy; and when we rehearsed I wasnít used to Mickís Charlie Watts sensibility - playing way behind the beat. I did think that John was stepping all over my guitar parts, which to some degree he was. But I eventually realized thereís a certain tension created by threatening to step all over each other all the time, but never quite getting there. I think thatís really more the case, and it was just a process of me learning to appreciate it. In fact, Mick and I have this kind of implied musical joined-at-the-hip kind of thing on stage that was there from the beginning. We both have a very male spirit, which kept the whole thing from turning into ABBA.

GWA: This reunion, with itís massive tour and release of The Dance, started during the recording of your solo album. Yet, for more than a decade, you said that you no longer felt creatively and personally comfortable with the band. Why go back now? Were you dragged back in? Or looking for some kind of closure?

LB: No, I didnít have to be dragged back kicking and screamingÖbut there was an element of that to it. [laughs] What happened was I saw Mick and he had totally turned his life around. And he came to play drums on my project. When we needed a bass player, one guy didnít work out so we thought of John, and it worked out really well. Further down the line I was looking for help on vocal choices, and so we asked Christine down. Suddenly, there were four of us in the control room discussing music. It felt odd, but good. I think a small light bulb went on over at the record company, and I have to say Mick was lobbying for it behind the scenes - which made me feel I was stabbed in the back with a very small knife. [laughs] But I have to cut him some slack, because Fleetwood Mac has been his whole life, really. So when I talked with Reprise, I said I would be 40-plus dates in the States, and thatís all Iím committing to - at least for now. And I donít ant to feel like the bad guy if I hold to that.

GWA: Thatís called setting boundries, and itís very healthy.

LB: Yes it is - thatís what my shrink tells me! If you asked me a year ago if Iíd be doing this, Iíd think you were nuts. I got into this partly to grease the machinery that would help the solo album when it came out. But Iíve been pleasantly surprised thereís been an added bonus, which is that weíre all having a really good time. So Iím not going to discount anything in the future, including possibly doing a group studio album. But Iím playing it by ear.

GWA: Is there any sense of discomfort or compromise in going back and doing the old tunes?

LB: There is an aspect of a time warp for me in doing this. And I donít think anyone else fells that. But some nights Iíll be playing "Rhiannon" and wondering "What year is this?" So in this context I do sometimes feel this is a nostalgia feast as opposed to what I would be doing with my own music now. All this falls under the "petty needs" category. But I think "Big Love" and "Go Insane" get as close to the approach that Iím interested in doing now, which is to get maybe one or two guitars to do the work of a whole track - or to do more experimental fingerpicking things, which youíll hear on my solo album.

GWA: Tusk, a gutsy, almost alternative follow-up to Rumours wasnít a blockbuster. Was that the first indication that you might have to leave for musical rather than personal reasons?

LB: Well, it wasnít a blowout, by any means. Once I started showing the band the stuff I was coming up with, they were really into it. The record company, on the other hand, went, "Oh f*ck!" [laughs] The backlash came more in the form of, "Weíre not going to follow that process again." I was disappointed that the priorities seemed to be about selling records, and not about musical growth. And the new music that was coming along, like the Pretenders, the Police and especially the Clash. Between us, I would have much rather been in the Clash than Fleetwood Mac at that point. But it helped me define what my priorities were at the juncture. I wasnít buying the premise that if it works, letís run it into the ground. Maybe that goes against our idea of what capitalismís all about, but I think the only way you have a long-term career is by being true to what you believe is right, to your true intentions.

GWA: How much did drugs contribute to the dissolution that finally led to the split after Tango in í87?

LB: As far as being creative, it kept getting worse and worse, as did the way the individuals in the band conducted their lives. Drugs affect everything, because your priority becomes to do drugs. It was tough in the end. Stevie, you really couldnít talk to her, you couldnít make eye contact. It was hard to recognize someone I had known and lived with a few years before, and there were a lot of hurtful things going on.

GWA: But why did the breakup wind up dragging on, in effect, for 10 years - from Rumours to Tango?

LB: You figure 10 years is a long time not to put some issues to rest. When people break up thereís usually a period of grieving, and thereís a natural distance and you move on. I was never allowed that. Normally, youíre not having to work with or see that person every day in a studioÖ

GWA: And have to share your deepest emotions with them through their music.

LB: Right, exactly! We were working on such a fundamental level with each other, giving over the most vulnerable parts of ourselves to people weíve been so close to before. Really, getting through the whole 12 years was like an exercise in denial for me. Cut to 1997 and Iím in my garage working on my next solo album, and suddenly all these things come to the surface and Iím able to look at then in a more adult way. And you realize that everyone did the best they could. So finally all the baggage is gone.

GWA: Are there certain songs youíre all doing now where you can feel the difference - where you can feel that things have healed?

LB: Maybe "Landslide", but itís not the specific songs, itís the whole experience. Thereís the sense of the unit on stage being something different than it was. Weíve all gone through our respective trials and weíve come out the other side, hopefully wiser for it and more caring and sensitive to the other individuals, and really appreciating that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in a way we couldnít before. I wasnít the only one who had baggage. Everybody had baggageÖand it was hard and so convoluted by the inner social dysfunctions, if you want to call it that. And Iíve been surprised and gratified by how positive this tour has been. It used to be bitter, or sometimes bittersweet. Now - itís just kind of sweet.