Mick Fleetwood on "Rumours"-era excess: "I'm damn lucky I never killed anyone!"

EXCLUSIVE: Fleetwood Mac drummer tells Salon new "Rumours" stories, reflects on Stevie Nicks affair, shares regrets

Published November 8, 2014 7:00PM (EST)

Mick Fleetwood      (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Mick Fleetwood (AP/Chris Pizzello)

The Mick Fleetwood pictured on the back of his new memoir, "Play On: Now, Then and Fleetwood Mac," looks fabulously content. This is the rock star as elegant dandy, stylish in tails, draped in an accent of gold jewelry, a trim white beard. It's an advertisement for the good life, if not living right.

Crazy, isn't it? Because the Fleetwood on the cover has a wicked gleam in his eye, as he peers out from under a rakish hat, hair down around his shoulders. This is the Fleetwood of the mid-t0-late '70s, the drummer whose band was re-energized by the arrival of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who recorded 1975's "Fleetwood Mac" with "white powder peeling off the walls of every room" in the studio.

But the madness was only beginning: The relationships of Buckingham and Nicks, along with John and Christine McVie, were unraveling amidst angst, affairs and mountains of cocaine. "Rumours" chronicled the dissolution of it all, selling tens of millions of albums worldwide. They were among the biggest bands in the world, and they lived every moment of it to the extreme. "The drugs of course were plentiful," Fleetwood writes, "and we partook of the finest Peruvian flake quite a bit, both to numb the pain and to find the energy to persevere."

Even grander extravagance followed, and I don't just mean "Tusk." Their contracts required fleets of limos to be available on demand. Nicks and McVie wanted their hotel rooms freshly painted in specific colors before they arrived; Nicks also required a white piano. Cocaine was measured out to the entire touring party after the show -- "everyone who lined up got their packet" -- at a specific announced time in each city. "It was fabulously expensive, wonderful and sometimes depraved," he admits.

The hits, of course, have fueled presidential campaigns and never gone away. Even the albums you think you know are studded with gems. The albums get discovered and rediscovered and continue to influence new generations. (Note to anyone in high school, or ahem, later than that, who I made of fun for loving them, from behind the righteousness of my Smiths shirt: Sorry about that!) And the five-piece band from those iconic albums is now back together and touring into next year -- Fleetwood calls it a "victory lap" in the book, so you might check it out while you can -- but he also reveals that the band is working on new material.

All of this, of course, is the stuff of great rock memoir, and "Play On" doesn't hold back on the stories behind the songs or the dramas on the road and in the studio. Fleetwood is also deeply reflective on the relationships he sacrificed to the band, whether as a father, a husband or a son. We talked last week in New York. There was only 20 minutes and he gives long answers. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You have had a very outgoing, friendly persona in this band, and yet you also reveal yourself here to really have been a difficult person to live with, to have been married to -- it's a revealing, intimate book, but perhaps the person who comes off the harshest is usually you.

I think it's fairly evident that I've discovered I like to be liked. If I had to fall down on a weakness, I'd prefer that to be one of them. But you can go too far the other way, which became evident working on the book. There were times where I caused problems by not speaking enough and just thinking like some child that everything is always going to be okay. After some quiet reflection, that felt like unbelievable naiveté.

How important -- and difficult -- is it to put all these relationships straight? The band seems to be back in a place where people are friendly and functioning and happy, reunited with Christine again, but you also go back through your personal relationships and marriages, which were difficult and affected by drugs and drinking. You took the rock lifestyle seriously, you loved it, and picked the road over family. Perhaps you found a family of sorts on the road, but when faced with actual family choices, you usually chose yourself. 

Yes. It's really good to hear that people are going straight to the reveal -- I wanted to take responsibility, and not get too heavy, and, "Oh, I'm the worst person in the world, and I'm sorry," and all this stuff. But I wanted to be open and that it's OK to run yourself down a bit, because you need to own certain things. If it feels really personal, well, that's really, really, really what I wanted to do.

The word you often use in the book is the "lifestyle." And there are times when you're selfish, maybe even cruel, all in the service of that lifestyle. 

It was hard to do, but it was OK. That's going into a whole other... that could be a bit of stepping up on a podium or something, but I'm quite changed from about four years ago. I went back and I started drinking again, and my relationship with my now ex, Lynn, we were unhappy. There was no relationship going on with her or myself, we just weren't developing as people, and I look at some of that in terms of slipping into my old drinking habits -- not by any means back to where I used to be when I was in my 20s or something, but it wasn't cool, and I wasn't able to listen. And that's painful.

Winston Churchill's line over the years was always something like "I've gotten more out of the gin that the gin has gotten from me." Christopher Hitchens always echoed that as well. 

Oh, yeah. Yes, yes, yes.

So if one was to substitute cocaine for gin, or wine -- do you feel you've gotten more out of the drugs and the drink than it took from you? I don't mean to romanticize it, but you all made some landmark albums under some sustained influences. But there were personal consequences as well.

No, I understand. But it's part of, God knows, this band's legacy. And majorly with me. Stevie's been very outspoken about her journey, and you know, I think a lot of that is always romanticized ... especially because we were really quite naive and we were very overly open about probably too much. In retrospect, that's okay, because I think people really identify with the vulnerability, with the realness. None of this stuff is fabricated, but having said that, by being an open, slightly naive book, I think we did pay the penalty of being aggrandizing -- and the war stories became completely untrue, the proportions of the depravity and God knows what.

But there's nothing you can do about it. I would say that, having prefaced that, I'm damn lucky I never killed anyone when I was driving or any other thing. Emotionally and socially, in terms of relationships with family, those are real not good marks. Lots of love, but that lifestyle definitely took a toll. Again, I'm not sitting around whipping myself, you know, with fish hooks and stuff about it, because you've just got to move on and take responsibility.

How about the music? 

The music and the fun, I'm loath to say, I don't think was impaired at all for a while by our lifestyle. The whole of "Rumours" -- I doubt there was one track that I ever played on that I wasn't high. It sounds OK to me.

Could it have been done otherwise?

I'm sure it could have, you know, but it wasn't. And that's the age-old fascination of looking back. I still enjoy my wine. But I stopped drinking for 14 years, and then I went back and started, you know, drinking too much. Now I drink moderately and I think, I think, we have that all in line. I truly believe that. I'm also very leery about it, because the great thing is now, you can't go on living like that. You won't be alive. I'm enjoying being fit. And being able to play and be conversive with my 13-year-old, nearly 13-year-old daughters, and not have to turn around 10 years later, and say, I'm sorry I read you so many fairy tales drunk that you couldn't understand me. You know, it's not cool.

So there's a bit of both, and I'm not hedging answering you, but we've already gone into something that's romanticized; it's something that actually turned really shitty. So you're reining yourself in, and yet here I am, doing what we originally did by being, I think, completely open and frank, and as we were back in the day. And you pay some form of a price maybe for doing that. Now, it's A-OK, because we have a much better perspective, or certainly I feel that I do.

I think it's reining yourself in. There is definitely some romance to the war stories, you know -- it's literally like war stories, where you go, "Well, I know the guy was a hero." The hero eventually says under his breath, "Well, yeah, I did do pretty good, and I did haul three people on my back actually -- but they think I hauled 40 on my back now. And I didn't."

Well, one thing that's true with all these war stories is that you held people together. What people forget sometimes when talking about mythological rock and roll stories is that there are very real people and very real human emotions attached. One of the essential roles you play, time and again in this book, is to hold the band together, hold people together, when they were fractured or emotionally drained and perhaps not in the right mind to do the kind of work that had to be done. 

Well...  I think there were moments -- they're not too many -- and I haven't ended up like Scrooge, where you mutter, "What have I done?" and you wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night and go, "I should have let the whole thing just go, and no one would have had all this trouble." So I'm OK with that. I really am OK with it. In a humorous moment or two, I go, "Wow, I never looked at it like that. Maybe that wouldn't have happened."

That's interesting -- you mean you have thought that you might have saved people some pain if you had simply cared less about keeping the band together? There's a story in here about seeing a devastated Lindsey Buckingham in the studio, morose and distraught, and you laid it out to him: "As a musician, you're either in a band or you're not, and he needed to decide which he wanted to be."

Yes. But I think it's all very, very suspect, that train of thought. You know, there was no one who was a child. And I understand that in many ways. I think the creativity of everyone that's come in, from Peter Green to Lindsey -- Peter Green resonates in terms of intensity, like Lindsey. Incredibly focused. And Lindsey, if you hadn't noticed, excused himself for 14 years from Fleetwood Mac. So the point I'm getting to is this: Everyone has a choice. Everyone has chosen to plug themselves back into it, which is a lovely thing. The fact that a couple of old cronies, me and John McVie, just kept plodding ahead, was the story that you're mentioning, that we never gave up. And I will take the brunt of being that creature, I'll take the responsibility of the guy who's prepared to wait, prepared to wait. And also to let people go. When Bob Welch left, when Peter Green left, some people were devastated. But you have to look at how this happened and then you can say -- which is not a hedge -- that people came and went quite freely. It's very apparent. It's part of the history of this band.

So why was it so essential to you to hold the name and the band together?

What you're really saying is, "Why did you hang around?" And I'll answer that. There was always two or three of us in place; we'd all worked really hard at what we were doing, and only one time did it get out of balance, when me and John were left as the only original members, when Dave Mason and Bekka Bramlett and Billy Burnette were in the band. That's a great band with the wrong name.

"Bob, I'm devastated, why are you leaving?" "Well, I have to leave and I want to make a solo album, and I had a son," and boom, he was gone. Peter Green, God knows we wanted him to stay. God knows we wanted Lindsey not to go, but they went. So it's actually been somewhat astoundingly, when, look at what has happened just so recently. This wonderful lady, Christine, has returned, and unbelievably, to her musical home. That home was still here when Lindsey left, it was still there to come back to. And I'm happy about that.

Just as a listener and a fan, a favorite song -- or any song -- can immediately have the power to take you back to a time and a place and an emotion. And that can be an overwhelming emotion sometimes, and sometimes you avoid certain songs because of the memories that are attached. But this is a band that has to go out and play songs written about relationships with each other, about affairs, about cheating on each other, about falling in and out of love. Does the passion and electricity and emotion of the times ever go away when you play these? Or is it impossible to keep them that charged? After 35 years, are they ever just songs? Do they trigger something within you all still?

Well, you know, obviously the singers of songs and the writers of songs should be really answering that question.

Not so fast, Mr. Fleetwood! You were no innocent in this. Say, "Sara"?

(Laughs) I would say that Lindsey recently was asked that, and although he had a visible tongue-in-cheek, really, I mean his answer was: You better believe I don't want to go into that pain, so I totally approach it from a different viewpoint. It becomes a piece of work that I am re-presenting. Now, I would venture to say that Christine would be somewhat the same. Stevie, I would be less prone to say that. Stevie has a sense of belonging emotionally in the same way that, if I was a songwriter, I think I would feel -- a certain bluesy, gut-wrenching approach to anything that I do or would have done. I see that in Stevie's makeup.

Lindsey quite simply doesn't want to go through that pain. "Who'd want to go through that again?" That's what his answer is. But I do know that Lindsey, for instance, his real payoff would be playing songs that he produced with the band and with Christine, say a song like "Everywhere," which is full of all his lovely guitar work and a labor of love for his relationship and his dedication to his work. That's what he's getting off on, on stage. Christine is just loving playing again. John, we're having a ball. That's my read. I'm happy just to be playing. And I'm exactly the same creature. So there's all these different dynamics.

I know we're running out of time. A couple of quick ones. I was struck in the book that in the middle of touring "Rumours," you're one of the biggest bands in the world, No. 1 for weeks, selling million of copies, touring the world with these insane hotel riders where rooms had to be repainted and grand pianos present -- and yet punk rock and new wave starts happening, and the band gets nervous. You mention this two or three times in the book -- that even topping the charts, you were afraid the band would suddenly no longer be relevant and that it would all be taken away. You were really freaked out by the Talking Heads or Sex Pistols?

Right! Well, I would instantly go, this is where that artistic lean comes in. As we would say in England, the bent of that would be total kudos -- and majorly, in retrospect -- to Lindsey Buckingham.

For insisting on "Tusk"?

He was determined. This is his read. This is him, and he spread those worries, those interests, into the band. I don't think that anyone else would have been sitting around unduly concerned about any of that if it hadn't been Lindsey saying, "We need to be relevant." And he always waved that flag. And he knows increasingly within the ranks of Fleetwood Mac -- none of it was mean-spirited or anything like that, but for a long time Lindsey, I feel and I know, felt that he had been passed over and not recognized for the amount of work that he put in.

Do you have your drum style if you do not have dyslexia as a child? Are they linked?

No. No, I wouldn't. I think it's all a huge mistake that somehow pans out. I know that I can play drums, that I am not going to go down in flames. But the real truth of it -- and people say, You're kidding me, you're full of shit, you know exactly what you're doing all the time -- and I really, really don't.

I go through sometimes awful, crippling performance anxiety that I almost feel at any one given moment I could crash and burn and make some awful mistake. It keeps you on your toes. Stevie has some of this in her. She's vulnerable. And that's the balance of this band. Lindsey turns around and gives me an, "Are you OK?" look, because he knows I'm not kidding. I need to look at him. And he'll come back and, "You doing good?" "I'm doing fine." Or, "Hold me. Hold me for a second."

Lindsey is out there doing his thing, and five minutes before going on stage, he's doing a crossword puzzle. I'm on the verge of partly shitting myself. [Laughs] But once I'm in the zone and on the drums, I very rarely don't have a great time. And I'm so happy to be doing it, and when I walk off stage, I'll go like, "Yeah! I did it! I did it!"

So for better or for worse, huge chunks of who I am as a musician has got this weird, what's-he-gonna-do-next thing. It's very much a style that's been augmented and put up with by John McVie. John knows how to play around the fact that he's never gonna get a uniform drum part that's the same every night. Now, fundamentally, they sound the same... it's the same rhythm, God knows I hope we keep really good time, and it swings, and all of that stuff that we know we're going for.

Is the great regret of this book not having been more direct and a better communicator with Stevie when the two of you were involved? You write about being very surprised that the relationship meant as much to her as it did to you, and that usually suggests some wistfulness, or an if only…

Yeah, very interesting question. I will never really know, and me and Stevie just accept the fact that we had a moment in time when there was no doubt that we were in love. It was never to be that it could grow and be allowed to breathe in the open -- from our own choices. And then we both walked away from it, and were very lucky -- after a period when it was unhappy -- but relatively soon we knew that we could co-exist as real friends, which we most certainly are to this day.

I'll never really know, and it's like that age-old thing, and those types of things you can carry on for those moments. And they become pregnant for a moment, but you are reflective, and there's been, obviously by the nature of creating a document like this, those moments, they loom. But you have to move on from them. And you have to be quietly objective, and hopefully have some sense that there's some joy and humor to be found.

Most certainly, me and Stevie are able to talk about it, and she's addressed it in some of the things she's doing with her solo album that she has out. And you know, I didn't know that she was going to basically put a song on there that was... well, I remember when she wrote "Watch Chain." And it never came out. I was there when she wrote it, and was in her apartment, and I am the dude with the 24-karat gold, that she never knew what 24-karat gold was before she met me. I don't know why. So, go figure. And she's the mother -- she's, rather, the godmother of my two beautiful twin daughters, Ruby and Tessa. So we're fine, but, yes...

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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