California Dreamin’: Jenny Lewis, Stevie Nicks, and Sisters of the Moon
California is where people go to reinvent themselves as their own ideal, but for native daughters of the Golden West, the transformation process is a little different. After making it all the way to the farthest edge of the country, where else is there to go but inside your own self? Jenny Lewis’s new album, The Voyager, exists within the tradition of ’60s and ’70s male California rockers like the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds. But when Lewis laments being “the only sister to my own sorrow” in a world of men, she’s not really alone. As women artists who’ve had to forge new paths for self-expression and personal fulfillment, sometimes finding themselves isolated out on a ledge as a result, Jenny Lewis and Stevie Nicks are sisters of the moon.
Stevie Nicks was born in Phoenix, but she moved around the western U.S. with her family throughout her childhood, clocking stays in San Francisco; El Paso; Albuquerque; Arcadia, California; Salt Lake City; and Atherton, California. She met her longtime musical and romantic partner Lindsey Buckingham at Menlo-Atherton High School by singing a harmony over his rendition of the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.” It was an extremely prescient way to meet; the Mamas & the Papas were an East Coast band who had relocated in the West and pioneered the burgeoning genre of folk rock. The Mamas & the Papas created an idealistic new paradigm for mixed-sex rock bands — a reflection of the idealistic new gender paradigms coming into hippie consciousness as a blowback against the Father Knows Best ’50s. With the rise of second-wave feminism came a sincere hope that men and women didn’t have to be competitors, that they could be friends, colleagues, and cowriters. The Mamas & the Papas seemed to be living proof that this dynamic could exist, that men and women could collaborate and respect each other, letting their voices be heard equally. This optimistic dream was eventually complicated by the cynical intrusion of real life, paralleling the ’60s on that front as well. The marriage between John Phillips and the Long Beach–born Michelle Phillips was incredibly volatile. John attempted to fire his wife from the band in 1966 after she conducted an intra-band affair with Denny Doherty and an extra-band affair with Gene Clark from the Byrds. (She rejoined the group later that year.) Mama Cass Elliot was almost kicked out of the band before the group’s big record contract was even signed, at John’s insistence. John was said to be openly derisive about Elliot’s appearance and weight. Elliot nursed an unrequited crush on Doherty that he was aware of but did not reciprocate, and she was extremely hurt to learn about his secret relationship with Michelle. Arguably, these complicated internal dynamics were what made the band work so well. Despite the smooth sound of their arrangements, there was passion and a crackling friction beneath the surface.
Around the same time, Grace Slick, Tina Turner, and Janis Joplin were demonstrating that female rock singers could be just as wild and intense as any man (and more so). Men and women had been playing together in folk groups, and male-female duos were popular in country music long before that, but popular music was still largely gender-segregated. Girl groups thrived in the late ’50s and early ’60s, until they were wiped out by the British Invasion, which was mostly stocked with bands full of limey young men. Stevie Nicks moved to Los Angeles in 1968, the year the Mamas & the Papas broke up, which was also the year Joni Mitchell and erstwhile Brill Building superstar Carole King set up camp in the wilds of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon (having relocated from Canada and New York, respectively). Laurel Canyon was mythologized into a place you could go to become your true self. By the late ’60s, it was a sacred countercultural locus that attracted pilgrims, many of them young women drawn there by the example being set by Mitchell — a female artist who created on her own terms, who was allowed to define herself in relation to nature, rather than her relationships with men. Relationships with men were integral and fueled the work, too, but there was a sense that goals traditionally assigned to women — marriage, child rearing, the caretaking of men — could be taken off the table in favor of the more vital task of plumbing the depths of your own artistry. The flowering creative rapport between Mitchell and flagship Laurel Canyon group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young became the new iteration of the Mamas & the Papas’ California dream.
Stevie Nicks and beau Lindsey Buckingham had been performing as a folk duo called Buckingham Nicks for two years when they joined the preexisting British blues-rock band Fleetwood Mac in 1975. Buckingham had been called on to audition at Sound City for Mick Fleetwood based on his guitar work for Buckingham Nicks. He told Fleetwood he would join the band only if Stevie was admitted, too, declaring the duo “a package deal.” Fleetwood Mac already had one female member, keyboardist Christine Perfect, who had become Christine McVie and joined Fleetwood Mac in 1969, when she married bassist John McVie. Fleetwood Mac rebooted the Mamas & the Papas’ utopian, perhaps naive notion that a band could contain romantic partners without combusting. In San Diego, the two couples that made up Heart were also trying to make it work, and overseas, ABBA was doing the same thought experiment with pop. By the mid-’70s, the hippie dream of the late ’60s had congealed into something darker and more cynical. The assertion that women could be rock stars had stuck — as the Laurel Canyon scene galloped on through the ’70s, Patti Smith was debuting in New York, and male artists championed female songwriters and vice versa — but the dynamic was fraught beneath the surface. Even if male musicians proclaimed they wanted women on the same plane of importance, their actions didn’t always bear that out. Joan Baez’s cosigning of then-boyfriend Bob Dylan helped rocket him to a superstardom that eclipsed hers. The crumbling of their relationship in tandem with his sprouting status as generational iconoclast is documented in alternately hilarious and heartbreaking detail in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back. Linda Ronstadt’s early-’70s backing band grew tired of being known as anyone’s house band, and members Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner broke off to form the Eagles. Graham Nash’s endorsement of Joni Mitchell was perhaps the tender exception. Even after their romantic relationship ended, he always maintained, and has continued to maintain, that she is one of the greats. Nash’s awe of Mitchell’s talent never seemed to make him defensive or threaten his ego. He even respected her decision to leave him, knowing he couldn’t hold her back.
Any band has a complicated internal dynamic comparable to a romantic relationship, wherein playing together onstage is the sex. Throwing real sex into the mix tangles things even more. How does a relationship between two artists not devolve into a competition about who is more gifted? Is it emasculating for men to bow in the presence of greatness, if that greatness emanates from a woman? Is there anything more electric and intimate than watching someone sing critically and revealingly about a lover who is standing right there onstage, whether it’s Lindsey Buckingham or Jay Z? It’s possible that women reap extra benefits from performing in groups with men: They are less likely to be sidelined as “female artists” and more likely to be considered just “artists.” A respected male musician’s cosign helps female musicians be taken more seriously, as with Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj or David Bowie’s support of Lorde. But women artists crave the support of women, too. Being able to hang with the guys is a prerequisite, but being the only woman in sight can get tiresome. For a woman to admit she might be starved for some female companionship can be taboo, because it means acknowledging that gender differences exist (which never seems to benefit women in an argument). Just as integral to Fleetwood Mac’s appeal as the twisty romantic action backstage during the Rumours years was the sisterhood displayed onstage by Nicks and Christine McVie. Maybe the central romantic relationships couldn’t hold, but the friendship between the two women endured. When Nicks was attempting to woo McVie back to the band in 2013, she dedicated “Landslide” to her onstage at London’s O2 arena with the introduction “This is for my mentor. Big sister. Best friend.” Toward the end of the set, McVie joined the band onstage for the first time in 15 years since leaving, playing one of the many huge hits she’d written for them, “Don’t Stop.” She rejoined the band full time this year.
McVie told the Guardian she’d left Fleetwood Mac because she “suffered from some delusion that I wanted to be an English country girl, a Sloane Ranger,” but after living in isolated Kent for 15 years, she realized “it’s not really what I wanted at all.” Preferable to the traditional country life is “being with the band, the whole idea of playing music with them.” The touring life on the road was the one she was destined for all along. Nicks also tried a somewhat more traditional path once. She married her best friend Robin Anderson’s widower, Kim, in a misguided attempt to provide a stable household for their young child after Robin’s death from leukemia. Nicks says of this period, “We were all in such insane grief, just completely deranged.” The marriage lasted eight months. Neither Nicks nor McVie are currently married, nor has either one had any children. The counterpoint to the ideal of “having it all” is the reality that nobody, male or female, can have it all. If you’re out on the road all the time, you might miss your kids growing up; but if you spend all your time watching your kids grow up, you might miss your opportunity to go out on the road. Life requires choices and trade-offs, as youthful idealism gives way to more pragmatic age.
Stevie Nicks is not afraid to talk and write openly about regret. Some of her greatest songs are gothic romances — crying out to the past despite knowing it won’t reply. She is blunt and open with interviewers about personal topics some people would consider off limits. In 1998, she told Us magazine, “It isn’t easy to find somebody. I’m not used to having to tell anybody when I’m going to be home, or where I’m going, and most men don’t like it. They try to say that they like it, but in the long run, they don’t. This pretty much goes for rich or poor. I really don’t think that I’ll ever get married. And I’m fine with that, you know?” Stevie also talks openly about how her life has required certain trade-offs, and that those are the ones she doesn’t regret. She told Us, “I mean, I could get sad about it, because of course we all wish we had a beautiful little baby to play with. But when it comes right down to it, would I want to give up all those years of singing? Would I just have been not that great a mom and not great a singer because I tried to do both?” Nicks lives in the present, but acknowledges the constant impact of the past.
Her new album of old recordings, 24 Karat Gold: Songs From the Vault, isn’t out until October, but the single “The Dealer” has been released. The songs are taken from existing demos, many of which have circulated forever as bootlegs among Stevie fans. The album was inspired by Nicks realizing the tapes were now all floating around on YouTube. There are songs she wrote for Fleetwood Mac, for her solo albums, and even a Buckingham Nicks outtake.
Jenny Lewis was born in Las Vegas and grew up in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Van Nuys. Her parents were entertainers who enlisted her in show business as a kid, making her the family breadwinner. She started the indie-rock band Rilo Kiley at age 22 with fellow former child actor Blake Sennett, her boyfriend at the time. The great Mamas & the Papas’ experiment was carried out once again, to the same brokenhearted results. Lewis’s new solo album, The Voyager, is her first in a few years, and while previous solo albums Rabbit Fur Coat and Acid Tongue grappled with her past and present, The Voyager dives into a fear of the future as she enters the end of her thirties. “Is this the beginning of middle-agin’? Or is this the end of civilization?” she sings on one track. The songs grapple openly with life’s big questions in no uncertain terms — lifelong partnership? Procreation? Are there other options available? The Voyager is about being a rambler who is coming to terms with the desire to keep on ramblin’ for as long as possible, maybe all the way until the end, and what that means for a woman as opposed to a man. Lewis’s songs have always matched sweet-sounding music with caustic lyrics, calling to mind masters of poetically cutting power pop like Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and, perhaps most of all, Tom Petty. Lewis, like Nicks, isn’t afraid to couch a melancholy message in a beautiful song, or to use her songs to call out everyone around her, but most of all herself. Her arrangements are as lush as the lyrics are astringent, which makes them feel all the more subversive, toxic, and tropical, like Steely Dan.
Lewis’s songs are thoroughly Californian. There is a laid-back quality that permeates even the most urgent songs on The Voyager. Like Nicks, she isn’t afraid to be an open book of sorts, at least under a veil of aphorisms in her music. Her willingness to discuss these issues in her lyrics means journalists feel comfortable asking her about them. Several interviewers on her Voyager press tour asked whether the lyric “I’m just another lady without a baby” meant motherhood was imminent for Lewis, which question she answered each time with the explanation that none of her lyrics are meant to be taken literally, and that she considers the songs to be her children. Like Nicks, Lewis may be sarcastic, but she’s not really cynical. Any lyrical bitterness ultimately feels like a defense against getting hurt. Her heart remains open to the world, in defiance of the fact that the world might hurt it. Stevie Nicks demonstrated that a rock star could be vulnerable and that vulnerability could be a kind of strength. Lewis’s sound on The Voyager draws on the tradition of soaring ’70s rock, but maintains the uniquely feminine sensibility that has always been part of her work because it is an integral part of who she is. Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, and Christine McVie redefined what Los Angeles rock stardom could be for women in the ’70s, and Lewis now bears the torch. Having helped Haim and always enlisting a lot of female musicians to play with her, Lewis has a dream of more sisterhood in rock that might become real. Hearing McVie describe what it was like to hold court with Nicks in the Rumours era sure made me cry. “We felt like, together, we were a force of nature. And we made a pact, probably in our first rehearsal, that we would never accept being treated as second-class citizens in the music business. That when we walked into a room we would be so fantastic and so strong and so smart that none of the uber-rockstar group of men would look through us. And they never did.”