Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Rhiannon you never knew

Mick Fleetwood often raved about the talents of Stevie Nicks. One of the most intense performers I've ever seen, he'd say. (Initially, the band took a pass on her but Lindsey Buckingham refused to join without her.) Considering the caliber of musicians Fleetwood has played with over the years (incl. George Harrison, Rod Stewart, Stevie Windwood, Alvin Lee, Peter Green, et. al.) you'd think he might know what he's talking about.

Still, you're skeptical. You're reminded of Nicks' 
airy-fairy canon, the teen girl fascination with legends, dreams, and visions (the ones she'll tell you she can't tell you). You imagine she writes in bubble letters with lavendar ink. But she has that precious up-turned nose and privileged California Girl complexion so you forgive her. Then there's that girly insouciant voice with its tone of half velvet, half burlap, and a vibrato like a power tool. She was the college boy dating cheerleader from your high school and the Juliet in your school play. On stage, her wardrobe was always deliriously behind the times. She was a pirouetting cloud bank of abundant sleeves and guazy skirts and Masterpiece Theater hair. Critics described her as ethereal and mystical. The New York Times called her a satin-clad pop ballerina. But you thought of her more like a Celestine Parody: cloying at best.

Yes, you might've thought that. But then, you saw this:

The song starts where you'd expect, a slightly more caffienated version than the one on record. The song takes a meditative breath at about the four minute mark. It's the breath you take before attempting to pull the barbell up to your chin from the floor. Then begins the dreams unwind, love's a state of mind refrains. Trite, sure, but it doesn't even matter. The words are secondary. They're just a conduit to push out the sound and sound is the master here. She steps away from the mike for a moment and returns as something else entirely. The airy cheerleader's face now impaled on the sharp guitar line behind her. It's as if the audience disappears as her eyes kind of crawl inside her mind to dig up what will follow. And what follows is something much more animal and real, a white hot minute of studied rage. It's a voice that rages for every woman whose power wasn't understood, loved, or respected enough. It's the rage of the Rhiannon of legend (a goddess who surrenders her power to marry a mortal). It's also the face of the betrayed, the face you'll see as she throws your clothes out the door. Musically, it's a face that probably doesn't exist outside rock and roll. For me, it's what I love most about the artform. (See these posts for other examples: Here, here, here, and here.) The video has no date but I suspect it's somewhere after the release of Rumors (ca. 1977), though it could be pre-Rumors (1975). The band is clearly on edge. There are no easy smiles or casual comaraderies between them. They're responding to each other through the senses and they're clearly feeding on it. Here's another version of the song done around the same time for television. The video quality is superior and the performance is respectable, but it's nowhere near the above. That performance would certainly have to have been unsustainable. 

Buckingham was generally considered to be the brain trust of Fleetwood Mac, writing the bulk of the material and helping to mold everyone else's with his assertive guitar. Yet it was Nicks's solo career that would prove to be by far the most successful. Her twirling mystical style of pop had its legions of adoring fans. Few mainstream pop artists are capable of her kind of intensity on display here (including her, as you'll see in a tour of her other performances on YouTube). What's above is a rare captured moment. Anyone with the resources and inclination to deliver such a performance deserves our utmost respect. Mick may've been right after all.

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