LOS ANGELES -- This is an odd bit of paradise for Lindsey Buckingham. He's ensconced in a plush Hollywood recording studio, eyes closed, his bare feet tapping the hardwood floor as he listens to a playback of ``Bleed to Love Her,'' another forceful blend of acoustic guitar and tortured romance from the singer-guitarist. His hands beat silently against imaginary drums. Maestro Buckingham looks like one happy man.
He could hardly have foreseen it. But coming from the speakers is confirmation that Buckingham has reunited with Fleetwood Mac for the first time since quitting the fraying superstar act in 1987.
``If you'd asked me six or eight months ago if I'd be doing this, I would have said no,'' Buckingham says gravely. He had his reasons for leaving Fleetwood Mac, even as it was enjoying a surge in popularity. Various forms of excess had taken their toll.
There were also lingering resentments between him and singer Stevie Nicks after their romantic breakup in 1977. And the band had taken a disturbingly commercial direction in the 1980s and could no longer fullfill Buckingham's artistic goals.
``The priorities had gotten a little screwed up,'' he says. ``A lot of people were having personal problems, and it wasn't a nurturing atmosphere creatively. It was very unfocused. Now that a lot of it doesn't exist, I don't know, I have to say I'm enjoying just sharing the situation with these people.''
There's a slight hesitation to his voice, as if he were still trying to convince himself that he should even be here. But the good vibes seem real among Nicks, 40; singer-pianist Christine McVie, 54; bassist John McVie, 51; and drummer Mick Fleetwood, 50, who almost inadvertently reunited this year during the making of a still-unfinished Buckingham solo album.
``Nobody's [ ticked ] off anymore,'' says Nicks.
The public was primed for a reunion, that much is obvious: The group's The Dance -- 13 hits plus four new tracks culled from an MTV special of the same name -- debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart last month. But the ultimate test of compatibility is Fleetwood Mac's two-month U.S. tour, which will deliver the band to roughly 40 venues, including Camden's Waterfront Entertainment Centre for a sold-out show on Friday. On this summer afternoon, however, the reception that awaits The Dance is unknown. During a break from mixing The Dance, Buckingham, 49, takes a call from Reprise Records president Howie Klein, and you can feel the steam rising at the other end of the line as Buckingham describes which tunes won't be on the live album. ``Everything is about that far from the fan,'' Buckingham says afterward, laughing.
The hair at his temples and chest a subtle gray, he slouches comfortably on a porch just outside the control room. The studio overlooks a jungle paradise of green, right in the midst of urban L.A., and is where the band -- except for the laissez-faire John McVie -- makes almost daily visits. Christine McVie prepares to leave for the day, but before stepping into her car, the singer stops to kiss Buckingham on the cheek.
``Goodbye, Lindsey,'' she says. ``Don't stress yourself out too much.''
The truth is, Fleetwood Mac has thrived on turmoil. Rumours, the 1977 hit that has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide -- and holds the record as the third-best-selling album of all time -- was inspired by the group members' shattered relationships. That year saw the breakups of Buckingham and Nicks, the McVies, and Fleetwood's marriage. The result was music energized by bitterness (Buckingham and Nicks) and romantic faith (Christine McVie). Songs were, at times, accusatory, loving and mystical, with a dark undercurrent borne by the ominous brooding of the Fleetwood-John McVie rhythm section. For all the tales of bad love on Rumours, it was pure escapism and connected deeply with the masses.
``We kind of captured the imagination of people back then: the idea . . . of a heavy-duty alcohol-drug band with broken relationships, all kind of singing to one other,'' says Christine McVie.
``People related greatly to the content of the songs, and the chemistry between us was awe-inspiring. People used to meet us and feel intimidated when there was more than three of us in a room.''
If Rumours was the band's perfect pop document, it took Tusk, in 1979, to suggest real artistic ambition. Tusk was an album that eased into focus, via gentle strumming and the warm longing of Christine McVie. What followed was a rich fabric of sounds and ideas: Buckingham's subtly twisted rhythms and twangy guitar, the off-kilter piano that opens Nicks' ``Sara,'' the perverse recruiting of the USC Marching Band for a horn-and-drum section on the title track. And throughout, there was the blissful sense of freedom in Buckingham's voice.
``That was probably my favorite time in the band,'' says Buckingham now, ``because I felt the most empowered and the most spontaneous in terms of understanding what I was doing and why I was doing it.''
Buckingham's frustration within Fleetwood Mac originated not because Tusk underperformed commercially (if two top-10 singles and sales exceeding four million can be called disappointing), but because of an internal dispute over whether experimentation endangered continued riches.
In 1987, Fleetwood Mac was met with renewed popularity and critical acclaim for Tango in the Night, an album of real pop craftsmanship, but its emotions sounded manufactured. No longer the setting where Buckingham bared his tortured soul, the band had become a factory for smooth, safe records that leaned heavily on tested formulas.
When Tango was finished, after a year of sessions in his garage studio, Buckingham -- whose vision had for many years defined the band -- announced that he could not be part of a scheduled tour and essentially quit the band.
The quintet's only high-profile performance came during the 1992 presidential election, when Bill Clinton adopted the band's ``Don't Stop'' as his campaign song. When he was elected, Clinton requested that the late-'70s lineup of Fleetwood Mac reunite for his inaugural celebration. Only Buckingham was hesitant.
``I thought it was touching that for the first time you had a president who was openly professing his alliance to rock and roll,'' says Buckingham, whom Nicks finally persuaded to participate. ``That gave off a sense of possibility that maybe didn't really pan out.''
``It was a one-off thing, and I don't think anyone thought much beyond that show,'' says Christine McVie. ``At the airport as we left to come back to L.A., it was pretty much, `Well, see you around.' ''
In fact, the performance did lead to a change in the band, though not the one Fleetwood Mac's fans may have hoped for. Soon afterward, Nicks quit the group.
``At the inauguration, I just realized I wanted it to be back the way it was, or I didn't want to be in it anymore,'' says Nicks. ``I couldn't continue to be in a Fleetwood Mac that didn't have Lindsey in it.''
Fleetwood Mac, of course, continued, as it always had. The band was formed in 1967 by London guitarist Peter Green, an alumnus of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. It was a different kind of outfit then, a quintet of dedicated blues fanatics.
The Fleetwood-McVie rhythm section formed the spine of an ever-changing lineup after Green's departure in 1970. ``I'm not a singer-songwriter,'' says drummer Fleetwood, his beard and ponytail now streaked with gray. ``I need a band. John and I are a couple of gigsters.''
By 1975, Fleetwood heard a little-noticed album by an American duo called Buckingham-Nicks. The singer-songwriters were struggling just to pay the bills, as Nicks worked as a waitress in coffee shops and restaurants, and Buckingham toured as a sideman to a fading Phil Everly.
When Fleetwood called, the couple spent their last few dollars on old Fleetwood Mac albums in search of something with which they could identify.
``I had to say to Lindsey, `Well, I'm very tired of being a waitress,' '' Nicks remembers. `` `So I definitely think we should join this band.' ''
Nicks had wanted to be Joni Mitchell, but instead ended up as a singer with a strange, raspy vibrato. Critics weren't immediately won over -- she remembers one reviewer comparing her voice to a bleating goat -- but her sound was as distinctive as any in '70s pop music, as much an acquired taste as Robert Plant's and Johnny Rotten's.
The revamped Fleetwood Mac lineup was immediately successful. The group's 1975 self-titled debut sold four million copies, and was followed by Rumours.
``It made us all a mess,'' says Nicks. ``We did a lot of drugs. We're all lucky to be alive, we had a great time. There was no getting around it. Anybody tells you any different, they're lying. It was incredible.''
That excess sent her to the Betty Ford Clinic a decade ago, and the bloated, dazed black magic woman who appeared on at least one solo tour bore little resemblance to the fresh-faced California girl Buckingham met in 1968. But today she's slimmed down and garbed in her usual black chiffon. ``It's hard to be famous,'' she shrugs, ``but it's hard to be really poor and not famous.''
Buckingham adds: ``She's such a different person than she was in 1987. It's sort of like being around the person I used to live with. There's something very touching about it.
``She's singing great. And I think we're all playing better now than we've ever played, because we are a lot more focused and maybe a little more relaxed. Or a lot more.''
Fleetwood Mac was for one moment the biggest band in the universe, seemingly oblivious to the movements of punk and disco then swirling around them. Awash in limousines and private jets and Grammy Awards, they became easy targets for what some viewed as appalling rock-star excess.
Even today Buckingham sounds bitter about the attacks, and he finds it ironic that contemporary punk-based acts such as the Smashing Pumpkins and Hole refer to Fleetwood Mac as an inspiration.
``We were their age when we started, and we're still doing it today,'' says Nicks, who has close relationships with Hole's Courtney Love and the Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. ``Maybe we give them hope.''
Like the Sex Pistols last year, Fleetwood Mac's return to the concert stage will signify nothing more than nostalgia unless it leads the quintet back into the studio, where their work always mattered most. The Dance is not exactly a revelation, but the band injects some contemporary fire into the old songs. And the new tracks, including the torrid ``Bleed to Love Her,'' suggest the band has a future if its members choose to make it.
``I'm sure we'll meet with some cynicism at times, and probably already have, about doing this,'' Buckingham says of the reunion and tour. ``But you can sense when five people are feeling a renewed honeymoon period, and a sense of completion, something that transcends the formula of what we're doing. And it really does feel that way.''
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