In 1977, Rolling Stone’s Annie Leibovitz set off to photograph Fleetwood Mac with a clever idea in tow: Get all five members of the band in bed together. Leibovitz knew that both of the band’s internal couples had split up before making their current album, Rumours. Bassist John McVie and his wife, keyboardist Christine, had divorced, while guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and singer Stevie Nicks were off again from their lengthy on/off relationship. And yet the band had pulled together to create an album that documented their pains and heartaches under a gloss of brisk, folksy, commercially irresistible pop-rock. When Leibovitz arrived at the shoot and told the band about her plan, they balked, but the photographer had brought along drugs and a case of champagne; lapsed inhibitions won the day. She snapped a career- and era-defining shot of Buckingham clutching Christine, a giggling Nicks curled up in Fleetwood’s arms and John oblivious to one side, reading a magazine. A gloss of woozy innocence hangs over the scene. Group sex and ’70s hedonism never looked like such wholesome, upbeat fun.
I’ve seen this photo many times — back in the era before the internet it was occasionally reprinted, and Rolling Stone republished it in a special anniversary issue in 2004. But when I stumbled upon it recently on a Fleetwood Mac website called The Blue Letter Archives, it hit me in an especially poignant way. Maybe it’s because I’ve been immersing myself in the latest Rumours repackage: an expanded, three-disc edition made up of the original album plus live performances and never-before-released studio outtakes. (For Rumours super-nerds there’s a four-disc “deluxe” edition which adds previously released outtakes from a 2004 edition, a DVD of archival footage and the original album on vinyl.) Rumours and Fleetwood Mac have been revived plenty of times before — they’ve toured on and off for the past decade, after reuniting for Bill Clinton’s 1992 inauguration and the 1997 album called The Dance — but this new package is hard to beat.
While the 2004 outtakes hewed closely to the final cuts, the new batch captures the band much earlier in the recording process, and shows how lyrics, playing and production evolved in the studio. In “I Don’t Want to Know (Early Take),” Buckingham’s vocal and guitar playing are positively garage-y; it’s FMac as secret cousin to Big Star and godparents to R.E.M. McVie mumbles during the chorus of an early take of “Oh Daddy” — Nicks hadn’t yet contributed the line, “And I can’t walk away from you baby, if I tried.” “Never Going Back Again (Acoustic Duet)” tries out three-part harmony on the verses, showing how deeply and thoroughly the band approached every vocal line on the album. But the biggest revelation is “Dreams (Take 2).” In the liner notes, Nicks says she was thrown out of the studio one day because she didn’t play an instrument, found a romantic nook and composed the song on the spot. She brought it back to the band and had to nag them to get their attention: “I really think you’re going to want to hear this.” It ended up being the biggest hit of their career and their only No. 1 single. On “(Take 2),” with the band still fishing around for parts, Nicks’s vocal is emotionally complete, full of complex nuances of anger and vulnerability; it’s as if she’s channeling the ’70s’ sweetest kiss-off from directly another dimension.
Nicks’s undeniable star power is one thing; I subscribe to the theory that Rumours also persists because of the tension between the album’s bright, cheerful surfaces and the devastation within. You can take it at either level. It’s a big, fat dinosaur of a classic rock album, one of the top-20 sellers of all time with more than 33 million copies sold, an album for rah-rah political campaigns and feel-good supermarket muzak; it’s also one of the most tender breakup albums ever, with selfless sendoffs like “Go Your Own Way” and bittersweet, tentative pledges like “Songbird.”
Maybe that’s why, after 35 years with it, I’m still not fatigued. Rumours was big in my household when I was growing up — we had it on vinyl for the home stereo, portable 8-track for the car — and by the time I was 15 I was a full-fledged Stevie fanatic, channeling her airy-fairy style in my journal, belting her songs from the backseat and mimicking her vibrato. (“Don’t do that to your voice,” my mother chided. “You think it sounds good, but it doesn’t.”) I had a renunciation period in the ’80s and early ’90s when I went indie, but I’m glad those old attitudinous walls have come down. Indie kids today love Fleetwood Mac for their songs and dedication to craft — just give half a listen to last year’s Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac, where Antony over-emotes the crap out of Nicks’ “Landslide.” I know plenty of 20-something hipster gals who’ll wax militant about Stevie’s awesomeness. When I got my Rumours box set, I immediately posted a Herbert Worthington photo of the band circa 1977 to my Facebook page. What adorable freaks they were, decked out in bell-sleeved silk tunics, top hats, bandanas and hairy chests. I wrote, “We don’t have to choose. Fleetwood Mac and punk rock were both awesome in 1977.” “Yes,” “Yes,” “Yes,” said the comments.
And maybe that’s why Leibovitz’s photo of the band tangled up in sheets brought out such an onslaught of feeling in me. I’m at a different place in my life. I’ve never listened to Rumours as a 47-year-old divorced person before — I’ve never experienced it from that aftermath side. I looked at that photo, and just as I sang my way into Stevie Nicks’s voice as a 15-year-old, I Photoshopped my life into that picture. I imagined myself in bed with a recent lover who didn’t work out, with my ex-husband on one side and his ex-wife on the other, with the ghosts of our past and future lovers fanning out toward the margins. We all bring our lovers to bed with us, even when we’re alone. Rumours communicates that truth every bit as well now as it did then. I only hope that the next time those marketing whizzes in the fading music business repackage Rumours for yet another generation, they remember to tuck in a couple of tissues.