I Was 15 and Interviewing Fleetwood Mac: A Memoir
Sometimes a door is unlocked and you’re meant to open it.
On a cold October night in Manhattan, the way to the Beacon Theatre box office wound around a square block on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Walking behind the historic theater on Broadway two hours before showtime, I realized I had come upon the backstage door. I followed my instincts, and surprisingly it was unlocked. Suddenly I was walking on to the rear stage-left looking out to the empty pre-show seats.
I was with my grandfather who drove me down into Manhattan because, even though I had a weekly newspaper music column, I was 15 and too young to drive.
There was a cloud of smoke to our left and when I looked over, I saw John McVie, Fleetwood Mac’s bassist and co-founder standing in front of his amplifier. I immediately reached for my camera and lunged ungracefully forward. “John can I get a few shots?” Without waiting for him to respond, I realized I was invading his space.
“Can’t you see I’m tuning up my bass?” he said indignantly, his cigarette dangling under his piercing steely eyes. The smoke continued to rise. Now it felt like scalding steam.
We waited a few minutes and then he came over, still warily looking upon me as we made introductions.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Steve Wosahla from the Messenger-Press.” I chose to leave out the part that I had just started freshman class at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut. I stood in a gray polyester leisure suit that my grandfather had bought me at Wanamakers, when he told me, “If you want to be a newspaperman, you have to look like a newspaperman.”
“Hi,” my grandfather said with an authoritative certitude, “I’m Dexter Halle from The New York Times.” The sound had a certain cache, as it always did when it rolled off his lips.
In the next few minutes, McVie warmed up and was inviting us upstairs. It was the last night of Fleetwood Mac’s debut tour with their new members -- guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and singer Stevie Nicks.
Although he wasn’t here to cover the show, my grandfather did in fact work for The New York Times. Like his son, my uncle Bob, they both sold display advertising and newspaper ink ran in my family’s bloodlines. My parents first met in New York City at the World Telegram when the city had a dozen daily newspapers. My uncle also published the Messenger-Press, a weekly newspaper in Allentown, New Jersey. From the time I was 12 years old, I spent Christmas gatherings trying to convince him I could write a better column than Rob Gardner, who penned "Music Notes."
One summer day, I called him to tell him I had written a review of an Elton John album. It was around the time Rob had gone off to school. He put his managing editor and future wife Joan on the phone to listen. After finishing it, they sounded surprised and said it wasn’t bad. Soon they created a column for me called "In the Groove." I wasn’t just Steve Wosahla anymore. To my friends, I was Steve Wosahla and I was in the groove. But the unrelenting teasing was worth the ride I was about to go on.
I’d been writing less than three months but a plot was hatched one Sunday when my grandparents came to visit. I mentioned that the great British band Fleetwood Mac was coming to New York. I read liner notes like paperbacks and I had studied Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees, exploring the interconnected histories of the great British bands like Fleetwood Mac.
“Call the record company and tell them you want two ducats,” my grandfather suggested. He’d been the dean of a broadcasting school, a radio personality and was involved in theater.
“Ducats?” I wondered.
“Don’t worry, they’ll understand.” I felt better knowing what I was asking for, so I went to the dictionary and found it was slang for tickets and an expression he’d likely used in his old theater days. I mailed a letter to Bob Merlis, who was the head of publicity at Warner Brothers in Burbank, requesting review tickets. I soon heard back from their New York office run by Liz Rosenberg. They would be in my name at Will Call at the box office.
Now, at the Beacon Theater, we were up in the dressing room talking to John McVie and we hadn’t even gotten our tickets.
“I Said No Interviews In New York!”
The gradual noises of pre-show activity started getting louder -- a rhythm of touring and something McVie was used to from years of being on the road.
There was a twitch in his left arm. I noticed that an image of a penguin was tattooed on his forearm. It had come to be the band’s symbol. It was a creature he was fascinated with, having visited the London Zoo and photographed them. They had called one album Penguin and they were featured on the insert of their new “white” album, as it would be come to known.
McVie had picked up a bass at age 16 and let his studies go to hell for the love of blues. He got his schooling in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. In the summer of 1967, he and drummer Mick Fleetwood had formed the band Fleetwood Mac during the height of the British blues explosion. But now eight years later, in some ways, Fleetwood Mac felt like a new band with the California couple who had released one album as a duo called Buckingham Nicks.
McVie admitted he was exhausted and looking forward to sitting by the pool for the next few weeks upon returning to Los Angeles. But he was excited about their new single “Over My Head.” Now, he said, the album was starting to pick up momentum, with just 100,000 copies more toward making it a gold record.
Suddenly there was a stir and a tall, slender, blond-haired man appeared, staring in disapprovingly at McVie and his two guests. He looked like he was in charge and as he stormed away, I could hear him yelling in the hallway.
“I said no interviews in New York!” I learned it was John Courage, the band’s tour manager.
I had now pissed off two people this night and the show hadn’t even started.
McVie seemed unfazed and was in a mood to talk. With noticeable relief in his voice, he could say the “fake” Fleetwood Mac scare was behind them. A few years before, manager Clifford Davis booked a Fleetwood Mac tour. The only problem was that when fans got to the shows, the real members of Fleetwood Mac were not onstage. As audiences demanded refunds and promoters went to court, the real Fleetwood Mac filed an injunction which prohibited him from using the name.
McVie described it as a very uncreative period with regular visits to their lawyer’s office over a period of eight months.
“We were worried about how our audience would respond,” he told me. “Would they come out after being ripped off at $6.50 a head?”
Soon Christine McVie, his wife and Fleetwood Mac's keyboard player, arrived. The daughter of a music professor at a teacher's training college, McVie illustrated the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s quirky retro roots album Kiln House and joined them for their next album called Future Games. She too was a veteran of the blues boom and played in the band Chicken Shack before joining Fleetwood Mac with guitarist Bob Welch after original guitarists Green and Jeremy Spencer departed.
The new single “Over My Head,” and the lead track from the second side called “Say You Love Me,” were two of the new album’s best songs. The type of music she was into now, she described as being “free and easy-going” and traced back to “Come a Little Bit Closer,” a song from the previous album Heroes Are Hard to Find, the last that would feature guitarist Bob Welch.
“It was a gradual thing we could all see coming,” John said about Welch’s departure and the night on New Year’s Eve when Welch announced his plans pursue a solo career.
A recent article in Rolling Stone said that Christine felt Bob was taking over the group. “That article was written by someone who didn’t like Bob,” she told me. “At the time he interviewed me, John and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary and I was a bit tipsy. There were no hard feelings with Bob.”
When Fleetwood began looking for studio to record the band’s new album, he went to Sound City and producer Keith Olsen played him a record there to demonstrate the studio’s capabilities. It was made by guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and singer Stevie Nicks. Fleetwood was struck, particularly by Buckingham’s guitar, and asked the duo to join the group. The record Fleetwood Mac had been made in six weeks and was now gaining momentum.
The show I saw that night reflected both past and present and hinted at a bright future. Christine McVie kicked off the set with the blues standard “Get Like You Used To Be.” Guitarist Buckingham played like there were two guitars in the band and ably captured the essence of previous forebears, replicating the tormented frenzy of Peter Green’s “Green Manalishi” and Welch’s trippy and mysterious signature song “Hypnotized.” The harmonies of Buckingham, McVie and Nicks gave older songs like “Why” and “Hypnotized” a greater resonance than they had ever had before.
Nicks seemed to fold right into the mystical realm of the band’s prior incarnations. On a new song about a Welsh witch called “Rhiannon,” she channeled her idol Janis Joplin, bringing the song to a theatrical climax. Buckingham’s blazing guitar prowess came spewing forth during “Rhiannon” and on “Don’t Let Me Down Again.” Later, during “World Turning,” a new song that he co-wrote with Christine McVie, he dazzled and stalked the stage with his killer riffs richocheting throughout the theater.
After the show, a crowd gathered by the side of the stage. I walked up to Lindsey and told him I had been up earlier and asked him if I could come up and thank John. He said yes and I learned a valuable lesson right then and there about believing and acting like I belonged.
John gave me the address of their office on Beachwood Drive in Hollywood and told me to send the article to a woman named Judy Wong who ran the Penguin Promotions office.
On the way home, my grandfather put the challenge to me: “Now you’ve got to write it up.” I knew I’d have to make this one count and it took a few weeks. When I read the finished article to him over the phone, he was sharply critical. He insisted, “You need to get the flavor of the audience.” A few drafts later, I might have liked to think I was clairvoyant when I wrote the headline “Fleetwood Mac: They’ve Only Just Begun.” If my life had changed that night, so too were things about to change for Fleetwood Mac.
On a hot August day, the phone rang. It was Christine McVie calling from a break during the making of the band’s new album that was going to be called Rumours. When I reminded her we had met at the Beacon Theater for the Messenger-Press, she remembered but then said, “I thought that was for The New York Times.”
Fleetwood Mac had by then sold over three million copies and just went to number one on Billboard after some 60 weeks on the charts. “It’s been quite a turn of events,” McVie reflected. “We haven’t had time to turn around and take notice of anything except the fact that we’ve been working so hard.”
McVie had an unpleasant surprise when a long forgotten solo album was re-released. "I'm not at all happy about it," she confided. Describing it as "archaic," she admitted to being thoroughly embarassed. She described being "pushed" into making the record by her manager, following two albums with Chicken Shack. "I'd just like to make it clear to anyone that's interested that it's eight years old."
While Sire Records was using her name to market the reissue, she could at least take solace in Mick Fleetwood's assessment. He told her, "Chris, it's not that bad. You've got to realize how dated it is and the musicians you used are pretty diabolical. If you take it in that respect, it isn't that terrible."
The phenomenal success of the "white album" as it was becoming known, had been so enormous that it allowed Fleetwood Mac to take its time. Had they released it in February or March as originally planned, she speculated that it might have seemed dated by now. “We couldn’t have released it anyway,” she said in acknowledging the enormous success. “It would have been a waste.”
McVie told me about the problems the band faced in the studio and how it slowed things down. “A little voice kept telling us we needn’t finish it so soon.”
For starters, there was the tape machine they nicknamed “Jaws” because it kept eating the masters. There were problems with speakers and pianos wouldn’t stay in tune for more than a half hour.
“Even if you don’t use a piano on a track, you have to have a piano to tune to, something which is accurate. Otherwise when you start overdubbing, you have to tune to the track instead of just whipping out a keyboard. I think we went through about seven pianos and eight piano tuners. It was like one step forward, two steps back. It was driving us crazy.”
Calling it a “varied and interesting album,” she told me the new album followed on very well with the last one. “It reflects in a lot of songs the general situation within the band," she said. "A lot of the songs are written about one another, not necessarily about each other but people involved around the group. It tells a story, quite accidentally. Each track is definitely saying something about a situation that has happened in the last year.”
Over that summer, as “Rhiannon” scaled the charts and the band started a six-week tour, the well publicized news about her marital break-up paralleled stories about Lindsey and Stevie’s split and the dissolution of Mick and Jenny Fleetwood’s marriage. With many stories flying around, this in turn led to the title Rumours.
“John came up with the title mainly because of the emotional traumas which have been going on in the band,” she revealed. “And because of that, rumors do fly around which aren’t necessarily true.”
Earlier in the year, it was said that Fleetwood Mac was going to drop Lindsey and Stevie and recruit Peter Green back into the group. “That was one of the weird things floating around,” she added. “We very rarely hear from Peter. We usually hear about him from our friends in England. The last we heard was that he was crying over joy with the album.”
For the new record, distribution-wise, the songwriters had equal counts. Stevie had written two more songs than she had on Fleetwood Mac, making it four, Lindsey had three songs and Christine wrote four. “We’re also singing a lot on each other’s songs," she told me at the time. "It’s not like it’s Lindsey’s song, Stevie’s song or mine. It’s pretty well integrated.”
Chris credited engineers Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut for their hard work together, including remixes of the singles “Say You Love Me” and “Rhiannon.” And with the release being pushed back, she said the band was having a chance to get to know the songs better.
She described “Oh Daddy” as a slow blues song about Mick. Stevie contributed “Thunder,” of which Chris said, “I daresay it’s directed to Lindsey. It’s very difficult to say exactly what they are all about. You just have to hear them for yourself.”
Buckingham contributed “Go Your Own Way” and another of Nicks' is “Gold Dust Woman.” Chris’ “Yesterday’s Gone” was an up-tempo shuffle rock and roll song.
While not worrying about releasing singles because the album was shipping gold, McVie named several possible choices. One was called “You Make Loving Fun” and another is “Don’t Stop,” which she described as being highly commercial. Stevie had two possible candidates and it was just a matter of deciding. “The ones we’re thinking of might no be the ones. We’re just going to wait and see.”
As far as Chris said, the marital breakups hardly had an effect on Fleetwood Mac. “It only hampered us from time to time,” she told me. “It was no more so with myself and John than with Mick. When you disagree, you tend to argue whether you happen to be ex-married or friends. We really get on well together. If we couldn’t work it out emotionally, I don’t think the band would be together.”
Rumours & Heartaches
"The Chain" was the third song in Fleetwood Mac's nearly two-hour set in Hartford and the band was playing with an even more agressive stance than was hinted at in their newly released album Rumours. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks gave the song its intense melodic vigor. They seemed intent on conveying its importance. But drummer Mick Fleetwood was playing with such a forceful punch that one would think his life depended on it. (Maybe it did.)
Fleetwood Mac's worldwide tour kicked off at the end of February just after the release of Rumours but only four days into it, they were forced to cancel two and half weeks as Stevie Nicks developed an extremely serious throat problem. Outside of a six week tour the previous summer, the band had been confined to the studio recording Rumours for nearly a year. Consequently they were slowly finding their way back into the groove, gathering momentum gradually along the way. But that night's show and the previous night's Long Island date gathered a rather good response from both the media and fans. The following night's concert in Maryland completed their brief American run before a three week European run started that April Fools Day.
"There was excitement on the stage tonight," Chris McVie told me, over a tall glass of wine backstage in the band's dressing room after the show. "I kind of feel like tonight and last night we are getting back into our old form. Since we've gotten back on the road, the problem we've had is trying to figure out a good set of songs. The audience has sort of been used as guinea pigs to find out which is a good combination of songs."
For someone who, four days prior to the tour, had as many wisdom teeth removed -- only to turn into dry sockets -- guitarist Lindsey Buckingham looked remarkably at ease. McVie quickly filled him in on the "problems" the band was experiencing this tour.
"Personal problems?" Buckingham casually asked.
But McVie was quick to say, "We are past the emotional traumas."
"Tonight was the best set wise," Buckingham added, sitting down with a cup of coffee. "It was a totally different set, though. We're doing a different set each night, trying to somehow work in a batch of new material smoothly. At some point a year ago, we went through exactly the same thing with the white album. I think we'e one or two combinations away from the right thing."
Success still appeared a bit new to McVie and Fleetwood Mac. "It's like being off the road eight or nine months and all of a sudden you've got a number one album and group," she said.
It also forced the group to consider who they were playing to. "The thing is," she said, "we have to adjust to our new fans. Most of the audience that comes to see us are new fans that only know the white aalbum or Rumours. So when they hear somethign like 'Why' or 'Station Man' or even 'Hypnotized,' I would say that a good sixty per cent of them don't even know who the hell Danny Kirwan or Bob Welch is." In fact they were considering dropping "Station Man" but got a telegram requesting it for that night's show.
Chris, who was 33 at the time, said, "I'm old enough to be half of the audience's mother." The reason was self-evident as the old hard-core Mac fans weren't coming out. But playing to the younger people had made her feel "teenage" again; and it's like Stevie will tell you. "It keeps us young at heart."
Rumours, now certified platinum for over a million sales, was keeping the band excited. When I asked Chris if it's Fleetwood Mac's best, a flat "yes" was her response. "I mean you can't get more positive than that." She added that the album was "just five people getting to know each other better."
The songs of the album, including the single "Go Your Own way," each dealt with the romantic break-ups and emotional problems which spat up in the heat of the previous year's enormous success. But to McVie and Nicks, expressing themselves was easy, even though in most cases they were almost trading words to John and Lindsey, in that order.
"It might have been insulting, it might have been flattering, it might have been whatever," Chris said of the songs. "The fact that was you were making a statement about something or somebody. We didn't go into the studio with that in mind. It just happened."
"When you go though it with everybody else, you're very aware of it so there's nothing to hide," revealed the candidly open Stevie Nicks, who joined the conversation with her white wine in hand. "We all talked too many hours, each one with each other about everything that was happening. It wasn't embarassing ... it just happened."
"It's the most positive it has been since the band started," Mick Fleetwood added as he dropped in, providing the perspective of someone who had seen everything go down in the band's extensive if not strange history. "When the band first started in '67, there was a lot of energy. In one way or another, looking back it somehow depleted as things do. Now it's very much the same as it was in the beginning as far as the momentum. And it's unusual that the band goes back after seven years. When Stevie and Lindsey came into the band, it was, for sure, a new spirit, that everyone involved picked up on."
At least on the outside, Stevie didn't appear to be letting her vocal problems bother her tonight. The concern at this point was what was described medically as "potential nodes." On the stage, Stevie had a deep but lofty voice, which filled the arena. But offstage she spoke in a somewhat gravelly tone. It had created a situation where her vocal chords were rubbing together all adding up to a blistering throat. At that point, with a vocal therapist traveling with her on the road, she was learning to project her speaking voice higher.
Her humor added much brightness to the picture. I asked her just how weak her voice was. After humming a string of high notes, she said: "We'll know in a couple of weeks. It doesn't always feel right. It's not terrific but it's not terrible. It's somewhere in the middle."
Stevie Nicks was a cheery conversationalist. You would never know that she joined the band just two years earlier, judging by her comments. That night, she was throwing out the one-liners. Chris was saying something about Fleetwood Mac being the start of a book. Stevie almost whispered when she called Rumours a second chapter, as if she might be scolded for stealing it from ex-Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, who called his latest album by the same.
"Nobody ever really leaves Fleetwood Mac," she declared, suddenly assuming the role of major spokesperson for the night. "They're all here in spirit."
The subject switched to "The Chain" and suddenly a seriousness came over Nicks.
"I think we should talk about 'The Chain,'" she says.
She goes on to explain that the song was the first to be written for Rumours, back in its planning stages. It was McVie's tune but she didn't like the verses, so Lindsey wrote them. They kept the chorus and the guitar part which they loved. But as the months went on, they had trouble trying to figure out a lyric idea for it. They asked Stevie to come up with some words for it and she did.
"It's the first time the three of us have written together, which is wonderful to us," she shared. "We have three spirits in that somg working with John and Mick. You can't ever count them out." The writing credits are attributed to all five members.
Might the words be a bit symbolic?
Nicks' face lights up and her smile sparkles."'The Chain keep us together' was my addition. It was what I wanted to say. All of the problems, all of the break-ups and everything else couldn't break the very heavy duty silver chain that's keeping everybody together."
Something stuck in my mind when I left the Beacon that first cold October night. It was something John McVie told me about how he was able to walk down a street and go unrecognized -- and that’s the way he liked it. Although as MvVie said the ladies might be noticed in clothing boutiques, and Mick was recognized for his odd appearance. But he made the point: "We keep privacy the way anyone does.”
That was all about to change, and by the time I spoke to Christine a summer later, it had. She now had to travel under an alias. The next time they came to New York would be in just a few months from the time Rumours was released. Less than 18 months from the night they hit the stage at the Beacon, they’d be the biggest band in the world. I’d soon be picking up my tickets for two shows at Madison Square Garden from the band’s management inside the Plaza Hotel.
This time I would leave my leisure suit behind.
I was a newspaperman and soon there would be magazine articles. But this was rock and roll after all -- and this felt like the big time.