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How does a singularly talented musical artist go his own way while simultaneously standing at the creative center of one of the biggest and best rock bands of all time? Logically, perhaps, it can't be done, and yet somehow that's precisely what Lindsey Buckingham has been doing now for decades as he’s led an enduring and remarkable double life, working alternately within the context of what he sometimes calls “The Big Machine” -- namely Fleetwood Mac -- and within he’s dubbed “The Small Machine,” as a consistently daring and accomplished solo artist in his own right. Whatever machine he is artfully working at any given time, Buckingham remains one of the most consistently engaged and accomplished creative forces of our times.
Indeed, to an astonishing degree, this groundbreaking and globally respected singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer has followed the music, and his own muse, much more so than he has directly sought the usual rock star accoutrements of fortune and fame. And yet because of the famous and unexpected turn of events that led to Buckingham being invited to join Fleetwood Mac, and insisting he would only do so if his then musical partner Stevie Nicks was also asked to join, his solo career can often be overwhelmed, if not literally consumed by his huge contribution in making Fleetwood Mac what it has become in the heart and minds of millions all around the world.
This is the central paradox that has helped make Lindsey Buckingham his own man artistically. Unlike many of his musical contemporaries, this artist who gave us a classic like “Go Your Own Way” and “Never Going Back Again” on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours has precious little interest in resting on all the laurels he had rightfully earned and instead has been much more excited by the ongoing challenge of making music in the present tense. “I love -- and have always loved – the solitary satisfaction and the restorative power of pursuing new challenges, of making art for art’s sake.”
Just like Lindsey Buckingham, this paradox has been alive and well for years. Buckingham was born in Palo Alto, California, the third and youngest son of Rutheda and Morris Buckingham. He and his older brothers were all encouraged to swim competitively and indeed Lindsey’s brother Greg would win a Silver Medal at the 1968 Olympics. Yet after getting the life-changing gift of a toy Mickey Mouse guitar as a child, and being turned onto Rock & Roll by hearing his brother Jeff’s early Rock records in the house, Lindsey’s path soon became very much his own. As Buckingham explains, “I suppose you could say I focused on a very different individual and team sport -- making music.”
By the time he turned thirteen, Buckingham had fallen in love with folk music too which helped deeply influence his distinctive guitar style, and by the late Sixties, he had formed his first notable band named Fritz that soon also featured a pretty and talented girlfriend he had met at a school party in Atherton, California, Stephanie Lynn “Stevie” Nicks. After achieving some success on the trippy late Sixties San Francisco music scene, Buckingham and Nicks decided to move to Los Angeles in 1972 to make their name together as a duo called simply Buckingham Nicks.
Fatefully, not long after the release of this duo’s lovely but commercially ignored debut album, 1973’s Buckingham Nicks on Polydor Records, Lindsey Buckingham was invited to join the veteran band Fleetwood Mac that had achieved considerable success as a British Blues-based band in the Sixties, but had more recently had gone through a series of highly challenging personnel changes. Impressively, Buckingham told Mick Fleetwood that he would not leave his partner behind, and that he and Nicks were, in essence, a package deal. As it would transpire, Buckingham Nicks were arguably the best package deal in all of rock history.
And so it was the most well-known and best-loved incarnation of Fleetwood Mac came together in the winter of 1974, with Buckingham and Nicks signing on to join Fleetwood, John McVie and Christine McVie under the Fleetwood Mac banner. What followed was one of the more remarkable runs ever in rock, as Lindsey Buckingham brought not simply his many gifts as a singer-songwriter and guitarist to Fleetwood Mac, but increasingly his extraordinary abilities as a studio visionary, helping to shape not just his own compositions, but also those of the group’s two other exceptional main writers and vocalists, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, on now classic and wildly successful smash albums like 1975’s Fleetwood Mac, a surprise smash in its own right, followed by the most successful album the group – or virtually anyone, would ever have – 1977’s game-changing Rumours that would rise to number one in America for 31 weeks, and become an international sensation as well.
Yet, arguably, the single most defining moment in Buckingham’s career came in form of a stunning and now widely acclaimed masterpiece of a double 1979 album called Tusk that Fleetwood Mac released in the high profile aftermath of the largely unprecedented commercial success of with Rumours. Bravely following his muse not for the first or last time, Lindsey led the group to record this wildly ambitious and sometimes just wild piece of work that reflected Buckingham’s production genius, but also his daring dedication to following the music rather than the dictates of the music industry.
“What we had done on Rumours was not a formula,” Buckingham explains. “It was just what we tried and what worked at that time. So for me, formulas were simply never that interesting.” Inspired by a wide range of music, including the New Wave Music of the time, Buckingham produced an eclectic double album masterpiece for the band that sold many millions, but definitely not as many millions as its illustrious predecessor.
As Buckingham notes, “In retrospect, Tusk may very well have saved us. Rumours was a moment in time, a beautiful, crazy, soap opera moment, and no matter what formula we tried to repeat, I don’t think anything could have recreated that moment totally. You can end up defining yourself by a series of expectations from the music business community and to an extent the music listening community. And if you try to limit your thought process according to that, you lose some perspective into why you got into music in the first place. If you’re looking directly for the commerce, I think you end up like some Wall Street wacko. For me, it comes down to what you’re upholding, and I thought then -- and I think now -- it’s important to hold up the idea of being an artist rather than simply the pride of maintaining a certain commercial status.”
This forward-thinking point of view helps explains all that has followed. Buckingham still took a key role of subsequent successful Fleetwood Mac albums like 1982’s Mirage and 1987’s Tango In The Night, before leaving what had become an increasingly dysfunctional musical unit. “The band embraced Tusk -- or were onboard at the end -- but after it didn’t sell 16 million, there was a kind of backtracking,” explains Buckingham. “There was a feeling I had gone too far. That was when I felt the need to exercise the far left side of my brain, and that was the beginning of wanting the Small Machine to run alongside the Big Machine.”
So now, Buckingham began to follow his muse more fully on solo albums like 1981’s Law and Order, 1984’s Go Insane, and following his departure from the group, 1992’s exquisite and deeply personal Out of the Cradle.
Yet Fleetwood Mac floundered badly without Buckingham’s musical guidance, and in 1993, a request from Bill Clinton to play “Don’t Stop” -- his Presidential campaign song -- at his Inaugural Ball kick-started a high profile reunion of Fleetwood Mac that set the stage for the massive success of The Dance reunion TV show effort in 1997, and the extensive touring that would follow.
Time and time again, Buckingham found the needs of the Big Machine seemed to take precedence over his solo efforts. “A pattern emerged decades ago,” he recalls. “I would start what I thought a solo album and at one time or another, I would be prevailed upon to put it aside or help transform it into a Fleetwood Mac album instead. This sort of “album interuptis” continued through Say You Will, Fleetwood Mac’s 2003 compelling album recorded without Christine McVie who had chosen to leave the band. So in 2004, Buckingham asked to take three years off from Fleetwood Mac, so that he could focus on establishing his solo career. “I just wanted to focus on other things,” said Buckingham, and the result was two excellent and ambitious solo albums, 2006’s Under My Skin and 2008’s Gift Of Screws.
Increasingly, now, Buckingham’s solo work began to powerfully reflect his own life and “Big Love” as a late blooming husband and father – including his stellar 2011 album entitled Seeds We Sow. “There used to be that adage that children are death to the artist, but I have not found that,” Buckingham says. “In Fleetwood Mac, we spent so many years so defended and walled up. We had crazy girlfriends and boyfriends, and in retrospect, we were pretty crazy ourselves. Somehow we got through that. It’s a minor miracle that my wife Kristin showed up, but she did eventually. I didn’t even know I was ready to grow up, but she knew and she conspired with my mom. Now that I’m a parent, boy, is that karmic or what? At 47 or whatever, my mother had to think, won’t he ever settle down. Thankfully, I did, and I think having more of an investment in life has been a good thing for me as an artist, and I’ve actually been more productive even as the music business has gotten smaller.”
For Buckingham, Christine McVie’s surprise decision to return to Fleetwood Mac fold in 2014 for the group’s massively successful and acclaimed On With The Show tour has brought Buckingham a renewed sense of excitement about his work within the band. “Somehow it feels like we’re addressing the enduring nature our music now,” he explains. “Our tour is a retrospective, but there’s an arguably age-inappropriate energy I try to bring to it that keeps things vibrant for me here and now. And these days, I try to bring something back from the Small Machine into the Big Machine.” Buckingham says that sessions he’d done with McVie have been some of the most exciting of his life, and a reminder of their musical chemistry. Still, Buckingham says, “I hope we’ll do more with Fleetwood Mac. But what’s going to happen in two years? I can’t say. In a way, I admire the Eagles because even though they don’t get along sometimes, they have still come around to be able to do the same thing for the same reasons at the same time, and I’m not sure we’ve ever gotten that down.”
Of his own respected place in the world, Buckingham says, “I am slightly under the radar as a solo artist, but a lot of interesting things happen there. Yes, I’d like to be able to tour solo more and reach more people, but it’s never been about persona, or celebrity for me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m the JD Salinger of rock and roll, but I have always seen the limitations of pushing yourself forward as a celebrity first. Today you see so many people out there trying to get that next visibility hit without any context and sometimes without any reason.” Making this kind of “Second Hand News” never really meant that much sense to Buckingham. With a wry laugh, Buckingham adds, “I have all sorts of street credibility now, but probably not as much marketability as a solo artist, especially because like a lot of us, I’m not getting any younger. But I am at peace with who I am, and I have a strong sense of who I am, as opposed to some in this business who seem to just become a projection for the tags other put on them.”
Perhaps most impressively, at a time when some are merely looking back for fun and profit, Lindsey Buckingham continues to create at the top of his game, and to look forward to his remarkable and fully engaged life making great music and fearlessly going his own way.
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