on lindsey buckingham, "bad men," and revisionist history
hey, hi, hello. it’s me again.
i wrote most of this in my notes app last night at 1 a.m. after a very generous sippy cup of wine at the lindsey buckingham concert. it was my second concert in close to two years, though the first i wasn’t working at in some capacity, the first i was back to lowering the median age at, the first indoors, first impulse merch purchase, etc. etc. etc. but anyway the reason you’re getting is this is because it was also the first time that i had some thoughts that compelled to write about music in months, and the millionth time i’ve felt compelled to write, once again, about two of its best messy bitches for whom i have a long and complicated love, like a kid caught in between feuding divorced parents. who knows if it works! that sippy cup of wine got to me!
okay great, another very welcoming and promising intro, carrie, way to go!!!
okay thanks sorry love u bye
It’s a Thursday night in New York and I am watching Lindsey Buckingham draw out every syllable of “Never Going Back Again” so much he practically doubles the song’s original jaunty length. It’s a Thursday night in 2021 and we are all—well, save for the group of 40-something bleach blonde women dancing in the front row while the rest of the theater remains stoically seated, but they’re another story—wearing masks and watching him promote a new album while singing a song first made popular in 1977. When Buckingham begins the opening licks, so slow and decided and cautious they would be unrecognizable at first to most casual fans, the crowd erupts in loud cheers—easily the most deafening of the evening thus far—and he looks upwards and I can’t tell if it’s looking for the grace to sing something painful or if it’s an annoyed eye roll caught midway, letting his displeasure show that this is the song they scream loudest for. Lindsey Buckingham has promoted several solo albums in the shadow of Fleetwood Mac, but this might be the one time it looms so large it cannot be ignored.
“Never Going Back Again” is a sad song that thinks it’s a happy one, which is maybe the most tragic kind of sad song. Maybe in 1977 Buckingham truly believed in the naive rebound lyrics he wrote. Maybe he really believed if he made his fingerpicking delicate enough, made his voice pretty enough, he really was over and done with repeating the same mistakes he’d made before with his (very famous) ex and onto something as bright and promising as the melody he was playing. But songs are just a moment’s feelings captured and preserved in acetate forever. Like any good songwriter still lucky enough to be playing their decades-old work today, Buckingham knows what happened after, not just in the immediate but in the forty years that followed. He knows all the feelings, the endless cycle of fights and reconciliations that have followed, and he does little to hide it.
The “Never Going Back Again” of today is not a pop-y song of triumph, of pulling yourself up and out of a low period and setting out on a new path once and for all, not even close. It’s a song laced with the weight of regrets and faults. Buckingham drags “where I’ve been” to agonizing lengths, lets his voice fade out like a whisper—only for it to rise with righteous anger as he shouts “been down one time, been down two times.” He’s been down several more times than twice, certainly, and there are no happy memories there. Or maybe there are, and that’s why it stings all the more. Every other line then follows softly, sadly, until the resigned sigh of “I’m never going back again.” He has, and would, go back in a heartbeat if asked, and he knows that. It’s almost too bleak for me to watch; it feels wrong to clap at the end. The audience gives it a standing ovation. Buckingham has been on stage for at least an hour. It’s the first of the night.
To be a Lindsey Buckingham fan is to hold credible allegations of his being a Bad Man in one hand with the Maybe Not Bad Man he is today in the other. In recent years, I have made easy decisions about artists I’ve disliked and difficult ones about artists I have loved. I’ve welcomed this look back at the past, at the women who have been hurt or harmed to varying degrees by the misogynistic mechanisms of rock and roll. I’ve played a part in it, even. For years now, I have asked myself to revisit and reconsider all the men whose voices fill my headphones—not just the ones undergoing public scrutiny—bracing myself to be heartbroken or angry about their depictions of women, or their stealing from Black artists, or their political views. So why has Lindsey Buckingham escaped the cancel culture of my brain?
Maybe I’m looking for something more, something so damning and unforgivable that could justify breaking my attachment, could give me the unequivocal sign to walk away. When I say I believe women, does that mean I am a hypocrite for still having questions, for finding plot holes in the remembrances of drug-hazy fights? When I say I believe women, why do I half-write off backstage altercations where everyone was high out of their minds as “not okay, but just how it was back then”? Is it wrong for me to question the accuracy of unauthorized biographies written by men with no stake in the game, men who know that salaciousness sells? Memories are not immune to warping facts, but the feelings often remain true; salaciousness is never 100 percent fiction; and drugs aren’t ever an excuse for an adult’s harmful behavior. I know this. I believe women, and I believe in holding people accountable for their actions. But I also have to believe in redemption.
I’m so tired of talking about cancel culture. The thread has slipped away so that even the parts of it that can be good have become muddied, the intention seemingly lost. We’re so quick to cancel these days—which, hey, I get! It’s easy, it’s clean, it feels good. But what gets lost is the more complicated and difficult matter of how we decide who is held accountable for their actions and ultimately forgiven, who is allowed a second chance, and what that looks like.
We make so many exceptions for men we call geniuses, don’t we? They are ones that, most of the time, come with people (often other men) imploring us to separate the art from the artist, to use a brilliant or prolific artistic output as a means to justify looking past personal behavior. I am not one of those people. I don’t believe you can separate art from artist, particularly when it comes to something as deeply personal as songwriting. The clues are right there in the text. Which is why I like to think Buckingham is one of the Better Guys, one of the men who have atoned for their past sins, grown up and gotten themselves on the path to betterhood. I do not think he is guilt-free of any wrongdoings, nor do I think he is a new man; I do not think any person, particularly one with the ego required to become and maintain a stature of celebrity, is capable of fully ridding themselves of their asshole past. (You don’t have to look much further than this press circuit at things he’s said unkindly or unskillfully; even if the petty little passive aggressive digs that come from a place of hurt are not as savage as they would have been in the past, they still leave a bad taste.) There are limitations to being a critic, of course, of not knowing personally all the parties involved; I’ll never know the full story. But I like to think, from the psychobabble he sprinkles in between songs on stage and in interviews and the lyrics of the songs themselves—which in recent years have become full of longings and regrets, vulnerabilities and apologies—that he is one of the few who has done the work. All of which could be performative in some aspect, of course. Maybe Buckingham, like many artists, finds it easier to be vulnerable in public settings, offering up apologies to a room full of strangers instead of privately, directly to the people they are met for. Maybe some smart publicist gave him self help talking points worth repeating in public. Maybe we’re all just suckers for a narrative that has been written long ago and only further committed to as time has moved on.
Maybe Lindsey Buckingham does not deserve my forgiveness. He would not be the first person I offered it to who was not worthy of it. Maybe it is not even my place to offer it to begin with.
Lindsey Buckingham is promoting a new solo album—a very good one, at that—but there’s still that pesky bit about his famous firing from Fleetwood Mac to address in nearly every interview. It’s been three and a half years, but the aftershocks linger. The joke is that no matter how rapidly and drastically the world changes, the one constant you can count on is that, at any given moment, two members of Fleetwood Mac hate each other. It used to be a lot funnier. Now it’s just—like the two members most often at war—old, and a little bit sad.
“It’s unfortunate that Lindsey has chosen to tell a revisionist history of what transpired in 2018 with Fleetwood Mac,” Stevie Nicks said in a press statement responding to Buckingham’s recent slate of interviews. “His version of events is factually inaccurate, and while I’ve never spoken publicly on the matter, preferring to not air dirty laundry, certainly it feels the time has come to shine a light on the truth.”
It certainly caught my attention, this accusation of revising history, of spinning the narrative this way, as if they haven’t both been doing that for the past 50 years, as if she hasn’t been guilty herself of doing the same thing. I could (and almost did) write a book about the ways in which their stories have changed and become increasingly sanitized over the past decade. This is not unusual; almost every boomer rock star is doing it in some way. Theirs is the first generation of musicians to contend with and craft their own legacies while they are still living.1 In the quest to self-mythologize, there is a tendency to gloss over the ugliest parts of rock history, all the sex and drugs part of it that grew to be more gore than glamour, to paint yourself as someone who has overcome struggle without detailing the struggle too deeply, because what matters more is that you are now reformed and, above all else, palatable for a wide range of audiences. In the era of standom in which we deify celebrities just as often as we cancel them, we have forgotten that it is possible to be both a fan and a critic, to love someone enough to respectfully disagree with them. If Stevie Nicks and her PR team want to stop airing dirty laundry in favor of fashioning her as the Disney princess of rock and roll, that’s her business. I can’t say it doesn’t make me sad—I find the roughest and most unfiltered parts of her life, the ones she now seeks to minimize to an anecdote or airbrush over, the most compelling and humanizing—but I understand why she wouldn’t want to revisit them in detail, and why we are not entitled to her pain or her shame. We are not even entitled to seeing her truly candid and unpolished. But I can’t help but feel like something gets lost in the revisionist history meant to preserve her legacy in a very specific, controlled light.
Stevie Nicks has every right to falsify her own life, but she has no right to falsify history, which is what happens when the narrative gets revised. It gets easier to fashion yourself as the triumphant survivor, to conveniently leave out parts of stories that don’t fit anymore, the ones that do not absolve you of some bad behavior yourself, to set the scene with a clear villain and a clear victim-turned-hero. But history is not black and white. History is grey matter. History is two people with dueling egos behaving badly, two people finding redemption, and two people (and Irv Azoff) in the trenches of the aftermath together, pulling the puppet strings of public persona with white knuckled grips.
It’s a Thursday night in New York and the weather is hovering at such a perfect 72 degree mark that when I get off the short train ride home I walk for another half an hour. I am playing a live version of Buckingham’s “Shut Us Down” on repeat and walking aimlessly, circling blocks, thinking about agency and about legacy.
Loving Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks is exhausting, and I am so tired of making jokes equating being a fan of theirs to being a trapped child of divorce. I’m tired of asking myself if I forgive him, tired of asking myself if I agree with the persona and narrative Stevie Nicks now perpetuates. I’m tired of the teenage dramatics of two people who have known each other since they were teenagers but now in their seventh decade still unable to stop pushing buttons, still unable to bury the hatchet and let their history and the things they love outweigh those which they hate. I wish I could just listen to their music free of any backstory, but no one has ever been able to do that. Not when it was first made, and certainly not now.
They know that they are never going to stop going back again, never going to stop poking at the ashes of their relationship, the still-burning embers of which grow fewer and fewer each time they return. And I will follow them, curious to find out what happens next. We’ll go down one time, two times, and many more, and each time will be a challenge to reassess and readjust what I think. The records will never change, at least not technically, but they will, and so will I. The actions might be repetitive, the narrative might twist, but at least it will never be boring.
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(There was a great piece about this awhile back that I can’t find now; if anyone recalls it and can send it my way, that would be great!)