Lindsey Buckingham: Extracting the Essential
By: Dennis Cook
If he'd done nothing else outside of Fleetwood Mac people would know the name Lindsey Buckingham. As guitarist, singer and songwriter with that band since the mid '70s, he's been responsible for a good deal of their world wide success, including contributing heavily to the era defining, 30 million-plus selling Rumours, where he wrote three of the most recognizable pop hits of all-time - Second Hand News," Never Going Back Again" and Go Your Own Way." But Buckingham is actually an artist, and like most of the best ones he's kept refining his skills, finding new facets to focus his intense mind upon and working constantly, especially in recent years, to carve out an identity for himself outside the relatively safe folds of his multi-platinum band.
Which brings us to Gift of Screws (released September 16 on Warner Bros.), his fourth studio album as a solo artist, which ranges from road dust coated rockers like Wait For You" to the positively meditative Great Day," which rings with steel strings and quiet heart. It's a snapshot of a talented industry lifer still discovering fresh avenues for exploration within himself, and a positive sign for Fleetwood Mac's recently announced reunion plans in 2009. But, to look at the ragged cover photo on Screws you'd never know that a pretty happy man awaits you inside.
In the context of the road I've been down, and even in the context of Fleetwood Mac if you want to go back, the title takes on significantly more irony, and it's meant to. It was meant to be a bit confrontational. I don't know if the photo was meant to be that confrontational but it just worked out that way. Warner Brothers said it looked like a mug shot, but hey, what're you gonna do?" chuckles Buckingham. The title and the whole lyric of the chorus is actually lifted from an Emily Dickinson poem. I'm not a scholar of hers by any means but we're always looking to see what we can rip, especially things that are public domain. Oh, I hope that's public domain [laughs]. It's actually a positive thing, even though it's got an assaultive tone. She's talking about making a fragrance or perfume and how you can't really expect to get that from just the sun coming down and growing the flower. You actually have to have a vision and a certain amount of love, and apply that to the gifts that are given you, to turn the screws and press the petals and get the oil out. So, anything worthwhile, to some degree, is going to be some sort of synthesis of the raw materials you're given and the vision and effort you apply."
The notion that one has to put their shoulder into it to see results speaks to Buckingham's legendary work ethic, which has often found him doing take after take, fine tuning elements that others simply gloss over. While possibly a touch obsessive, there is a degree of craftsmanship and master class musicianship at play in both his solo recordings and work with Fleetwood Mac. Albums like Gift of Screws or Rumours don't just happen. His studio efforts have the clean lines and etched features of a skilled sculptor, where the play of light and shadow, the implied and boldly stated, are all consciously put forth.
Besides that [first] interpretation of 'screws,' you could add in the wisdom and strength you get from the things that have happened to you that haven't been so great, as in 'getting screwed.' It's not as if I wasn't aware of that as on overlay, or even the sexual innuendo, though I suppose that would be the least intentional. My sister-in-law got upset because she thought I was only speaking of sex," offers Buckingham, whose songwriting has often had a distinctly earthy backdrop, though more in a what-men-do-to-each-other way than anything carnal. It's true. In some ways, to get back to the early days with Fleetwood Mac, there was a lot of stuff going on. That was part of the attraction - a people driving by to look at the accident mentality. It's been part of the story for sure."
Buckingham's personal history, especially the niggling details of his romantic entanglement with Stevie Nicks in the '70s, has been put under the celebrity spotlight for decades. It's a position most of us will be fortunate to never find ourselves in but one wonders if the gawking and prying get to him sometimes. He has kept a much more guarded existence since Fleetwood Mac became a once-in-a-while affair rather than a day-to-day circus, where he often threw himself into the Mac's music to the exclusion of everything else.
It was almost a defense mechanism for the whole run of the band up till '87, when I took leave for a while, which was all based on the need to survive, the need to reclaim my individuality and sanity. But for a significant period of time before and after that the only way to deal with it was to put up some walls and kind of live a fairly narrow existence that was pretty much the life of a monk, in a way, but not in a healthy way necessarily - focusing very narrowly on the music. Maybe a lot of things that were left kinda unresolved from those days took a long time to tear all those walls down," says Buckingham, who has experienced a creative and personal flowering in recent years. There's several reasons for that. One is after seeing many people around me - parents, husbands, wives or whatever - not be there for their families because we were all doing what we thought we had to do back then, well, that was something I didn't want to do. So, when I finally did meet my wife - which happened relatively late [in life] - it was a real gift. And then having children changes your life. It helps pick away at old patterns and it broadens your life out and sets a whole new standard for what your priorities are. You realize there's so much of a biological imperative going on. Obviously, with that as a foundation for the last 11 or 12 years, it's been profound in making a certain turn in my life."
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Besides that, there were earlier periods of time when there was an intention to put out solo work and it was, for lack of a better term, intervened upon by Fleetwood Mac. If you call yourself a band member you want to be responsive to the needs of everyone, and more than once that happened. On the last occasion when we put out an album in 2003 [Say You Will], pretty much a whole solo album got folded over into that," continues Buckingham. And perhaps the most significant reason [for the recent creative surge] is three-plus-years ago I said to the band I was putting a boundary around a period of time, which I'd never done before. I said, 'So, please don't come knocking, I have a very clear intention to put out two CD's in a relatively short period of time, for me, and tour behind them. Please allow me to do that.' So, we got Under The Skin  out and we even got a concert CD/DVD out [2008's Live at the Bass Performance Hall] between and now we have [Gift of Screws]. It all happened because I put that hold on this time."
Both Skin and Screws feel incredibly personal, a truer glimpse into the man than we've seen in some time. As he points out, the walls do seem to be crumbling and some green grass peeking through the holes in the mortar. Screws, in particular, merges different facets of his past, from the hyper pop-ish-ness of Rumours to the undisguised experimentation of Tusk, but filtered through his current, compassionate sensibilities.
There's certainly some reference points that go back to things that were done earlier. I gave Warner Brothers Under The Skin, which was a much more specific look at one aspect of what I do [i.e. solo, acoustic singing and playing], and I was excited about that because it delved into something new for me. But it wasn't that accessible or didn't express a full range of personality, which [Screws] does," observes Buckingham.
One thing Skin did accomplish was to highlight his extraordinary and unique gifts as a guitarist who swings somewhere between Django Reinhardt and Robert Fripp, something he often doesn't get much credit for.
I think so, too [laughs]. One reason is my style is hard to label. Another reason I took for the lack of focus on that part of things was with Fleetwood Mac the guitar playing has to be in service of making a good record, if you want to call it that. It has to be in service of the song, in service to the overall production. In doing that, quite often you don't notice what's going on [with the guitar]. If you took it out you'd hear it but within it completes, it counterpoints, it supports the melody and atmosphere of the song in a way that doesn't draw attention to itself."
It is more fun to be able to strip down any existing things and start with a guitar on its own terms. When we [he and Nicks] first joined the band it was a lesson in adapting down. Not only did I have to change the kind of guitar I was using to fit the existing sound but there was also a pre-existing style between Christine McVie's piano and John [McVie]'s bass, a lot of melody and space being filled up, and you've got to work with the holes you could find, which weren't that many [laughs]. You have to pick your spots to play and suddenly you find yourself discarding things you would normally do," says Buckingham. So, it's nice to have that empty palette to start experimenting around, and to have that palette be about the electric guitar."
It's worth remembering that Buckingham stepped into some mighty guitar shoes when he joined Fleetwood Mac on New Year's Eve 1974. Peter Green was revered, in England especially, in a near Clapton-is-God fashion, and his successors, Danny Kirwan and Bob Welch, were no slouches, both players of nigh infinite melody and hard string edge. Was there any pressure to play in the styles of his predecessors?
Not so much in trying to emulate a style but early on, if you can imagine us going on the road and doing a two-hour set, we'd only done one album. So, on some level, I was like a cover band guitarist doing Bob Welch stuff, Danny Kirwan stuff, doing Peter Green stuff. There was a kind of lounge element until after Rumours, when we could pretty much lose [the earlier material]. We did keep doing 'Oh Well' for a while but it took a while to pay our dues," recalls Buckingham. That's cool. We were the new kids and we needed to do whatever needed to be done to get us out there to play music."
Even out touring on his own, Buckingham still carries a bit of the Fleetwood Mac mantle with him, never fully able to step outside their big shadow.
When I went out last year, what I thought about was certain staples I couldn't contemplate not doing, nor could I have contemplated the audience being that happy if I hadn't done them. So, of course, I had to throw in 'Go Your Own Way,' 'Big Love,' 'Never Going Back Again' and maybe 'Tusk' in there as givens," says Buckingham. Then, the challenge became making a show that's trying to have a tone similar to the Under The Skin album, which was a much lighter and more produced acoustic album, with one or two guitars doing the work of a whole track. It doesn't vary and it's probably way more mature than [Screws], if you can even use that word with this genre [laughs]. The challenge became to create something that felt like the album but still worked in other things."
This time, the challenge with a more rocking album is how do we hit the ground running and then not run out of steam? If you're going to start by rocking right away, to make the statement the album is making, how do you not run out of building room by the end? That's our current challenge," says Buckingham. The only thing to make sure of is to never rely too much on Fleetwood Mac or it becomes unclear what show you're doing. They're my songs and they can be used in the same way as Stevie uses Fleetwood Mac songs in her shows. It's just a matter of emphasis. Ultimately, you want to offer the discerning fan an experience that's unique."
Lindsey Buckingham is currently on tour with his solo band behind Gift of Screws. Tour dates can be found here.