superlatives

Lindsey Buckingham on the Most Fulfilling and Dysfunctional of His Career

“In order to know whether you really did your job properly, it takes the equation of time and to see what holds up and to see what has really taken hold into the fabric of the culture.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images

It’s long been theorized that it takes two other guitarists to cover one Lindsey Buckingham, which was proved back in 2018 when the fingerpicking deity was unceremoniously fired from Fleetwood Mac and had to be replaced with a duo of rock elders for the band’s ensuing tour. (You thought playing “Never Going Back Again” night after night would be easy?) Unsurprisingly, there was the requisite gossipy domino effect of headlines for the next few years. But after bringing a lawsuit against the rest of the band, the subsequent settlement, his emergency triple bypass surgery, various reconciliations, and a maybe/maybe not divorce from his wife — phew — Buckingham now finds himself in a fulfilled state of mind, enjoying the September release of his newest solo album, Lindsey Buckingham. During a break in his touring schedule, Buckingham spoke from his California home about the highest highs and lowest lows of his career. Oh yeah, and about Stevie Nicks.

Most underappreciated Fleetwood Mac song

It wasn’t so much about the song than it was the whole album Tusk and the fact that everyone was expecting Rumours II. We gave them something totally different. When Tusk came out with the song and the album, people either got why we did it and appreciated the departure we’d made, or it alienated them. You might make the case for saying that Rumours as an album was overrated, and it wasn’t. It was just the success detached from the music, and it became about the success at some point. You lose maybe a certain faction of people when you move that far to the left.

I always joke that I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall when Warner Bros. first sat down in their boardroom and put the whole album on and played it collectively. And they were probably going, What the hell is this? Because they didn’t really know what they were getting. I think that that was probably part of the reaction from part of the audience too — it was alienating in a certain way, which ultimately turned out to be constructive. I think Tusk has stood the test of time and it’s one that resonates with fellow artists more in a lot of ways. It also has become understood in terms of why it was done and is appreciated for that. But in the moment, it definitely divided up the room.

Guitar solo that makes your fingers hurt the most

The stage version of “Big Love.” [Laughs.] It was the first single from Tango in the Night, but it was an ensemble piece at the time. That was one of the things that began to evolve after I left the band — I realized I wanted to try to address that finger style in a more complete way. “Big Love” evolved from what it had been as an ensemble to a single guitar-and-voice piece onstage and became the template idea for quite a few other songs to follow, in terms of making the statement both onstage and on recordings. Like, basically having one guitar do the work of a whole track, and wanting to include that as one approach in the making of an album. I don’t think it ever got more rigorous than “Big Love” with the actual demands of the part required. It’s a finger-hurter, for sure.

I don’t really do any finger exercises, by the way. I have no discipline whatsoever other than to remain calm and centered and just trust that my impulses are going to be correct. All around me in Fleetwood Mac, you could hear through the walls of the dressing rooms, people going, La, la, la, la, la, la, stuff like that. I was never interested in vocal exercises. I would hear Mick Fleetwood trying to play the guitar to keep himself calm so that he wouldn’t be too nervous. I was blessed with never having been nervous going onstage. I think by virtue of that, I never felt like I needed to prepare on a nightly basis in any way, whether it was vocally or exercises for the guitar. I just go out there, plug it in, and hopefully become psychically plugged in as well.

Most fulfilling album

I would go back to Tusk. It was fulfilling because we were poised at that point — after that huge, huge success from Rumours — to be in this position of suddenly being influenced and manipulated by external forces and expectations. Everything we’d done to that point had come from within. It had come from the center of our beings, and it had been completely spontaneous and nothing was done out of any sort of expectations other than what we wanted to accomplish. So when you have that kind of success, you’re potentially put in a position to suddenly start to forget who you are as an artist. It was my intention all along to try to remain an artist who kept growing and evolving in the long term. In order to do that, you’ve got to continue to push the envelope and work outside of your comfort zone and take risks. Tusk was a line in the sand that I was able to accomplish that really defined my whole psychological outlook to creativity, and to having a career that defined me in many ways from that point on. So that was one.

In terms of solo work, I might have to choose Out of the Cradle. The reason for that is because during the time in Fleetwood Mac up until 1987, I had only had the opportunity to make two solo albums. The demands of Fleetwood Mac had been pretty all-encompassing and I hadn’t even been able to tour besides that. In 1987, after getting through producing and releasing Tango in the Night … which was a wonderful album, but was fraught with a lot of chaos during the process, because everyone was sort of hitting the wall at that point in terms of their substance abuse. Or “use” is perhaps a better word. I just didn’t want to be around that on the road, so I left the band after doing the album but before they began touring. That left me in a position of freedom that I hadn’t ever had before. I took a couple of years to prepare and let the dust settle. I worked on what I wanted to do and thought about it a lot before I even got started. The resulting album a few years later was Out of the Cradle. It was a pivotal moment for me in terms of defining myself very strongly as an artist who was going to continue to grow mostly through his solo work.

Most romantic song

There are many songs that I wrote that aren’t necessarily “romantic” in the literal sense, so I’ll pick one that’s romantic in its take on life. That would be “Soul Drifter” from Out of the Cradle. It’s very much an Americana kind of feel song, very much a pop song. That makes it romantic in terms of style and form, but it also addresses the world in quite a romantic way — someone who wants to come in and help contribute, yet realizes that everything is transient, so is willing to look at life that way and move on when it’s time to move on and see the beauty in all of that.

Song that reminds you most of Stevie Nicks

There are so many. Let’s see, probably “Dreams.” There are a lot of reasons for that. Obviously it was written about me. So there is that. [Laughs.] We were all writing about each other on Rumours, but that song also represents a sort of a quintessential marriage of what Stevie brought to the table and what I brought to the table for her. I brought it to the table for Christine McVie too, and for myself, but Stevie in particular needed it more. That was the architecture around the song. “Dreams” is just such a … if you break it down to its core elements, it’s brilliant in terms of its lyrics and the placement of its melody and the sense of rhythm, but it’s only two chords and very repetitive. If you take all the architecture that sets the sections off away, it’s really diminished greatly. So, that reminds me of her, but it also reminds me of us as a musical force together. It speaks to the quintessential essence of what we could be together, in terms of her and me coming together and adding our own things to make something greater than the sum of its parts.

I think the other reason “Dreams” reminds me of Stevie is because it was still fairly much at the beginning of things. When we recorded that, it was 1976, and she and I were kind of broken up but were still … I was watching her move away from me and that song is also the embodiment of that whole thing I had to deal with in the aftermath, which was to choose to do the right thing for her on a professional and human level. And yet, still having to deal with the pain of the loss of our relationship and not necessarily having the luxury to have closure by having distance from her because I had to see her every day. So all of that comes to mind when I think of “Dreams.”

Nerdiest song for guitarists

I would probably go back to “Big Love” again, but there are a couple of others that are more obscure. There’s a song called “Shut Us Down,” which is a solo song that I frequently perform live. There’s another one Fleetwood Mac used to do from Say You Will called “Red Rover,” but as far as songs that are slightly more visible, “Big Love” is the one that most people seem to want to get nerdy with in that way. Like, How do you do that? How did you make all that sound? I’ve had young kids who’ve figured it out and will show me that they know how to play it perfectly, which is great, and then there are other people who just don’t seem to know how to get inside it. You have to start with the basics and get the grips of a fingerpicking style, which is having some facility with a folk pick or Travis folk pattern and then building it into something more classical from there.

Most dysfunctional album

That would be Tango in the Night. We recorded that album entirely at my house, in my home studio. On one level, it was sort of empowering, because everyone else was in party mode 24/7. I wasn’t so much, or at least comparatively I wasn’t. So we got things done. In many ways, I was able to apply back a lot of what I’d learned to my solo albums. Go Insane, which was my second album, had a lot more keyboard and synth-y and drum-machine kind of stuff going on. I was able to reapply a lot of the learning I’d done during the making of that album back to Tango in the Night. So it was almost empowering in a way, because as the guy who was producing the album, I was a little bit more left to my own devices because everyone wasn’t paying attention as much and wasn’t contributing as much — at least with clarity on a creative level. I mean, they were to some degree, but it was through a certain lens, shall we say?

Getting to the end of Tango in the Night was a bit of a triumph. We actually made it through! Because that album probably took about a year to record. During that time, I swear to God, we probably saw Stevie for only a few weeks. Maybe three at most. I don’t even know how we got the stuff out of her. Mick didn’t want to drive home at night. Basically for months, he was living in a trailer in my front yard. So the whole thing was a bit less than ideal on that level. It was sort of a harbinger of dysfunction. Obviously, the whole subculture of rock and roll was living that life to some degree or another. Many people were beginning to hit the wall and realizing they had to come out the other side and pivot away from that. That was just about to happen with Mick and Stevie in particular, and to a lesser degree, Christine. But it didn’t happen yet. So they were really sort of hitting a critical mass.

That certainly made the album challenging at times, but in some ways more simplified, because people were just happy with whatever got done. It did lead me to depart the band before the tour, because I didn’t want to really live through that on the road. I realized that they were going to have to … if there was ever a time they were going to reconvene, they were going to have to work out some of their own stuff in the interim, which they happily did. Tango in the Night helped me define myself and cement my clarity as an artist in a lot of ways. The time I had away from Fleetwood Mac was nothing but constructive.

Song you wish you never recorded

To be honest, I don’t think I have any. As a musician, you’ve got to look at every group of songs that you offer and end up on an album at a certain point in time — they all made it to a point of visibility for some reason or another. Sure, you might possibly wish you’d done something different about some of them, but I’m also not one who tends to look back very much about what I’ve done once it’s been committed. I’m far more interested in looking forward. It’s interesting to think about, because a couple of years ago, right before I had my bypass, I put out a “best of” anthology album of my solo work. I had complete confidence that the body of work was something I was proud of, and that it had and would continue to accomplish what I was hoping it would accomplish in terms of my ability to sustain being an artist. But I hadn’t really gone back and listened and listened to everything.

Of course, in order to curate that album, I had to do just that. It was the one time I can think of where I really went back with a fine-tooth comb and examined the entirety of my solo body of work. It was so cathartic to me. The intellectual confidence that I’d done a good job was superseded by a visceral wave of warmth that I actually accomplished something that I should be proud of. That’s not something that I do or tend to want to do. I tend to want to look ahead. But in that context, I would say anything that I might characterize as being on the bottom of the list of songs, I’m still happy enough that I put them out.

Weirdest place you’ve heard Rumours

That TikTok video. I mean, it was so random. The whole context of somebody drinking cranberry juice on a skateboard is pretty funny. But what it does do is … this is something that I used to get reinforcement for feeling all the time in the last ten years. You come to terms with the fact that people are not necessarily coming to your shows to hear anything new. They might be coming to my solo shows to hear new things, and that’s a whole different audience. It’s a much smaller audience who’s drawn to something more esoteric and who appreciates the choices that I’ve made to end up being who I am. But in a Fleetwood Mac situation, I’ve come to terms with the fact that people are there to hear that body of work of what I’ve already accomplished. That becomes more and more appropriate over time. One of the things that does make it completely appropriate is that at some point, Fleetwood Mac started to see three generations of people in the audience. That’s an incredible accomplishment.

In order to know whether you really did your job properly, it takes the equation of time and to see what holds up and to see what has really taken hold into the fabric of the culture. So in the same way, seeing just such a random thing — some guy on a skateboard in Idaho with “Dreams” — it just reinforces that sense of we did something right.

I had responded to the video only because of my daughter. She rides horses and we were out at the stables. She didn’t even tell me what she had in mind. She goes, “Dad, can you go pick up some cranberry juice?” I said, “Sure, okay.” I thought she was thirsty and just wanted some cranberry juice. So I went to a 7-Eleven and came back. And then she was like, “Now will you take that and get on this horse?” I was already vaguely aware of the original TikTok at that point. I had heard about it, but I didn’t put two and two together. Suddenly she gets out her phone and starts filming me, riding. And I went, Oh, okay. I get it now.

Legacy of being part of SNL’s long-running “What Up With That?” sketch

I don’t recall how long they’d been doing those sketches until I was aware of it. My initial reaction was, Wow, that seems so random, why me? But I was extremely complimented that they would come up with something that could be seen as somewhat obscure in terms of a persona, that they would go on to stay with me for so long. What I cherish most about that was being able to go and be a part of the sketch for one show. Bill Hader was brilliant at doing me. Just this whole premise of me — the repeating theme of Diondre Cole never letting me talk.

It wasn’t like it didn’t resonate with my situation in real life, because I was doing my best getting heard as an artist in Fleetwood Mac, and it wasn’t always that easy to cut through the politics. You know? So there was an element that rang true to me in terms of my own life.

I thought Bill was the perfect guy to just sit there and squint his eyes and be slightly kind of overly dry and ironic, which I guess I am. It was such a lovingly thought-out sketch to begin with and the fact that they kept it on for so long is amazing to think about. When I think about the number of great people that were on the show — not that there aren’t great people on the show now, but it’s a slightly broader range of people — Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig, wow. There’s so many people in that cast and I was very happy to be around them for a couple of days. And Lorne Michaels, I mean, I don’t know how he’s done it all these years. It’s just an amazing thing.

The other thing that I came away with after being a part of rehearsals and seeing how the show comes together is the rigor it takes to do it on a weekly basis. They’re done at one in the morning on Saturday, they go party, and then they’ve got Sunday to sleep it off. And then they got to be back on Monday to construct a new show. It’s not for the faint of heart, I got to tell you. I have nothing but respect for them and was thrilled to have been thought of and included for so long as part of the legacy of SNL. I never got an answer as to why they thought of me for the sketch, but I never even asked those questions. I didn’t think it was necessarily something that should come up. I was trying to have a “when in Rome” mentality when I was there. I never found out about that. It always seems somewhat random, but a huge compliment.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Buckingham’s third solo album, which was released in 1992. Buckingham left Fleetwood Mac in the summer of 1987. The next time he reunited with the band was in 1993, at the first inauguration ceremony of Bill Clinton. Buckingham underwent emergency heart surgery in February 2019. His vocal cords were damaged during the procedure, although his voice has since bounced back. Solo Anthology: The Best of Lindsey Buckingham, which was released in 2018. In October 2020, Nathan Apodaca became a viral sensation after posting a TikTok video of himself peacefully skateboarding and lip-syncing “Dreams.” If you haven’t watched it, stop what you’re doing and do so now. Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood also posted amusing video responses. Mick’s was more creative! There have been 12 total “What Up With That?” sketches, which featured real-life guests such as Paul Rudd, Paul Simon, Ernest Borgnine, and Samuel L. Jackson.
Lindsey Buckingham on Fleetwood Mac, Stevie, and His Career