By the end of the ’80s, Fleetwood Mac fans had grown accustomed to enjoying a round of solo releases from band members between solo projects, with singer Stevie Nicks establishing herself as the most prolific artist outside the confines of the group.
Starting with 1981′s Bella Donna, Nicks spent the decade see-sawing between her solo career and Fleetwood Mac projects, and the market seemed perfectly willing to bear the extra music; both Donna and its followup, 1983′s The Wild Heart, made the Top 10, and 1985′s Rock a Little extended her streak of platinum releases. But after finishing three records in five years, Nicks put her solo career on temporary hiatus — partly because of her obligations to Fleetwood Mac following the massive success of the band’s 1987 Tango in the Night album, and partly because personal problems put a crimp in her creativity.
As she explained in a 1998 interview with People Magazine, Nicks’ cocaine dependency came to a head in 1986, when a plastic surgeon reportedly warned her, “If you want your nose to remain on your face, stop right now.” She entered rehab to deal with her addiction, but as she put it, “after I quit cocaine, things got even worse” — mainly because she left treatment with a prescription for the powerful sedative Klonopin, which she said “changed me from a tormented, productive artist to an indifferent woman.”
Even without chemical woes in the way, Nicks’ solo career faced another critical stumbling block in the mid-to-late-’80s: the frequently turbulent personal dynamics between the members of Fleetwood Mac. Pointing out that the tour for Tango in the Night went on for months, Nicks later recalled the difficulties of dealing with her Mac bandmate Lindsey Buckingham’s lack of support. “When you work with Lindsey he pretty much demands that you’re there,” she recalled. “And I was also touring. We’d tour for six weeks and come home for a week then I’d bang into the studio to try to be there as much as I could. But Lindsey was not very understanding about that. He felt that I shouldn’t have a solo career. It was like, ‘Oh, thank you so very much for giving us another week of your precious time!’ So it was never a very pleasant experience.”
Fortunately, she’d reached the stage of her career where she no longer needed to keep recording to pay the bills, and whatever urgency she felt to finish the album was solely creative. “At my age and after all I’ve been through, what I really need is to love the music that goes out,” she insisted. “I have everything I need on a living basis, so whatever the sales, I want the music to be true to me and my songs.”
To that end, Nicks sought out a new producer when she got down to work on what would become her fourth solo album, The Other Side of the Mirror. “I started out with Rupert Hines, who is an amazing keyboard player, so that whole album sort of went the way of the airy, surreal keyboard and synthesizer thing,” she explained in a 1994 interview with Music Connection. But it wasn’t just Hines’ keyboard playing that led Nicks to hire him — more importantly, he was willing to listen.
“The thing that I told him was most important to me was that my songs came through,” she later recalled. “I have archives of demos, and I have many, many friends who prefer the demos — who have them and listen to them, and that’s kind of really hard to take when it costs you nothing to do a demo and it costs you $500,000 or $1 million to do a record, and people come to you and say, ‘Can I have a cassette of the song when it was just a demo?’…It’s very important to me that what I’m saying comes through. I’m not a musician. More than musically, it’s very important that what I have to say comes through and so on this record, he did what I asked. He let me put my demo feeling through.”
Released on May 11, 1989, The Other Side of the Mirror was presented as a sort of loosely constructed song suite based around Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, although Nicks herself could be somewhat evasive on the subject. “I’m not ready to tell everybody exactly what the songs are all about,” she demurred when asked about the inspiration behind the album, “because I’d rather people interpret them in terms of their own lives, as opposed to thinking the songs are just about me.”
During an interview with Record Mirror, however, she admitted that the songs often are about her. Discussing the inspiration behind leadoff single “Rooms on Fire,” she said, “I guess the single is about when you’re in a crowded room and you see a kind of person and your heart goes, ‘Wow!’ The whole world seems to be ablaze at that particular moment. You see, I don’t write fantasy songs. Everything I write is based on personal experience. I guess I’m quite an intense, romantic person. Of course, selling lots of records means you can live a privileged, glamorous lifestyle, but it becomes very lonely as well.”
Speaking with Revolution later in 1989, she opened up further, saying The Other Side of the Mirror started out as a tribute to her grandmother. “I called her Crazy Alice; I lost her three months ago and I just loved her so much,” she explained, adding that as the album developed, it took on several personalities.
“I love making up little fantasy things,” Nicks admitted. “All the characters in my songs — the Gypsies, the Saras, and on this album, Alice and Juliet — they’re all me. But they’re all different sides of me. It’s a great way to write about what’s going on in your life without telling it in a real serious way, but the point comes over and I think people understand that. I don’t think I started out intending it to have much to do with Alice in Wonderland, though I read it when I was little. But I kept thinking about how I go back and forth from one side of the mirror to the other. And then I have a little space in between, which is when I do other things which nobody really knows about; my painting, my art, my writing.
“That’s my sanity life,” she added. “That’s when I’m pretty serious and sane. And my Fleetwood Mac life and my Stevie Nicks life, both of those are pretty heavy and I have to scurry back and forth constantly. For the past seven years I’ve been running two straight careers pretty solid, and they’re both big and they’re both demanding.”
It could get a little confusing at times. “Much of Alice in Stevie Nicks’ Alice is Stevie writing about Alice in parallel back to Stevie, so I’m really writing about Alice’s adventures as in comparison to my adventures,” she explained in a separate interview. “For Alice to run back and forth between the looking glass is kind of what I perceive my whole life to be, running back and forth between two places — which is obviously my career with Fleetwood Mac and my career by myself. And then of course, there’s the other part of my life, which is my own life, which there isn’t very much of. But I always seem to be running to one place or the other.”
She’d soon find herself running to all kinds of places, courtesy of an extensive tour that found Nicks visiting Europe as a solo artist for the first time. Although she later confessed that her growing Klonopin dependency had obliterated most of her memories of the tour, ‘Mirror’ still did well, both overseas and in the States; “Rooms on Fire” was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and the album reached No. 10 on the Billboard charts, eventually selling more than a million copies in the U.S. alone.
In spite of its success, The Other Side of the Mirror represented the end of Nicks’ time as a platinum-selling solo act. Shortly after wrapping her tour for the album, she drifted back to her duties with Fleetwood Mac, and although she departed the band shortly after the release of 1990′s Behind the Mask LP, personal issues continued to stunt her creative output until the mid-’90s; it wasn’t until she underwent another round of detox (and got a little tough love from her old friend Tom Petty) that she really started writing again, and by the time a reinvigorated Nicks released the well-received Trouble in Shangri-La in 2001, the radio landscape had tilted away from artists of her generation.
Still, Nicks remains active, both within and without Fleetwood Mac; the band reunited with keyboard player Christine McVie for a highly anticipated 2014 tour, and her most recent solo release, 2011′s In Your Dreams, broke the Billboard Top 10. Once a rock ingenue, she’s now looked up to by younger artists the same way she looked up to her own influences — a role she clearly relishes.
“I would say I am a very romantic person and very intense,” Nicks mused of her songwriting in general. “I don’t write real happy songs, but I don’t ever write a song that leaves people with no hope. Everything I write comes from reality, and then I throw a handful of sparkle-dust over it and try to make it so that people can accept it and say, ‘Life goes on no matter how bad or what kind of tragedy you’re involved in, a heartbroken love affair or whatever it is.’ You will make it. Because I’m proving it. I’m telling you that I’ve been through it all and I’m still here.”
Jeff Giles / Ultimate Classic Rock / Sunday, May 11, 2014