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Farewell, Christine McVie, the Songbird Who Knew the Score

Rolling Stone
Rolling Stone
 2022-12-01
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Christine McVie always came on like the grown-up in the room, which admittedly might not be hard to do when the room is Fleetwood Mac . But McVie was the emotional glue in a band that has spent the past 50 years breaking up over and over, the most stable, sensible, down-to-earth member of rock’s most unstable, senseless, lost-in-space circus. The universally beloved piano woman who wrote great song after great song, the one all the others got along with. Christine kept singing like the songbird who knew the score, and that’s because she always did.

That’s why the world is in shock and grief at the news of McVie’s death on Wednesday , which comes out of the blue. As she told Rolling Stone’ s Andy Greene earlier this year, “I was supposedly like the Mother Teresa who would hang out with everybody or just try and [keep] everything nice and cool and relaxed.” Yet she admitted, “Even though I am quite a peaceful person, I did enjoy that storm. Although it’s said that we fought a lot, we actually did spend a lot of our time laughing.”

That spirit came out in her songs — peaceful and stormy at the same time. She wrote so many of the Mac’s classics, focused on her husky, intimate voice and piano. “Say You Love Me,” “Over My Head,” “Oh Daddy,” “Little Lies,” “Why” — she sang in the voice of a world-weary adult romantic, a woman who’s gotten burned and knows better, except she can’t talk herself out of falling, falling, falling again. These were always shocking songs to hear on the radio, but they’ve just grown over the years.

Her solo demo of the 1979 Tusk piano ballad “Never Make Me Cry” is one of her mightiest heartbreakers, and it’s the first song that this fan played at the terrible news of her death. “Go on and do what you want,” she tells her fickle lover, even as she vows, “You’ll never make me cry.” The first time she sings that line, her refusal to cry sounds defiant and victorious. But by the end, she makes it feel like the saddest part of the story.

McVie was part of the Mac drama, especially in the Rumours era. She left her husband John McVie , who happened to be the bassist. She moved in with the lighting director, shifting her wedding ring to a different finger. Not only did she write her hit “You Make Lovin’ Fun” about how awesome it was having sex with the new guy, she made her ex play bass on it for the next 45 years — now that’s a true boss move. (And to his credit, he played it brilliantly — another boss move.) In the funniest line, she sings, “ Yooo-hoo-hoo , you make lovin’ fun/And I don’t have to tell you, but you’re the only one!” Of course, Christine — fidelity, true love, sure, that goes without saying. As John wearily put it years later, “About the only two people in the band who haven’t had an affair are me and Lindsey.”

Some of the best moments in Fleetwood Mac’s final tours, reuniting all five of the classic lineup, came during the Stevie Nicks / Lindsey Buckingham solo showcases. Every night, Christine would sit next to John on the piano bench, out of sight from most of the audience, just the two of them whispering and giggling together. They always huddled like two old friends, just sharing a private laugh. It was such a touching sight — so sweet and civilized, in the middle of all that emotional sturm und drang. She brought that warmth out in people. Even these people.

Christine and Stevie had a unique chemistry — two singer-songwriters, two frontwomen, in the extremely male world of Seventies L.A. rock. Stevie always gave McVie the credit for making it possible. As she told me in 2019 , “Christine and I made a pact the day I joined Fleetwood Mac. She and I said, ‘We will never be treated like second-class citizens. We will never be not allowed to hang out in a room full of intelligent, crazy rock & roll stars, because we’re just as crazy and just as intelligent as they are.’ We just made that promise to each other that we would do everything we could do for women, that we would fight for everything that we wanted and get it. That our songs and our music would be equally as good as all the men surrounding us. And it was.”

They always had a big sister/little sister rapport, with Christine as the world-weary elder smiling indulgently on her more impulsive, flighty sidekick — the Jane Russell to Stevie’s Marilyn Monroe. That sisterhood set the Mac apart from their Hotel California peers. “If I had been the only girl in Fleetwood Mac, it would have been very different,” Nicks said . “So I’m really glad I joined a band that happened to have another woman in it. At the beginning, people said, ‘Does Christine want another girl in the band?’ And I said, ‘I hope she does. When she meets me, I hope she likes me.’ She did really like me — we got Mexican food and we laughed and looked at each other and went, ‘This is going to be great.’”

That was probably the last moment in Fleetwood Mac’s history that anyone said those words. The band was a constant hurricane of heartbreak, betrayal, and rock excess. “There was blood floating around in the alcohol,” McVie recalled later . “The studio contract rider for refreshments was like a telephone directory. Exotic food delivered to the studio, crates of champagne. And it had to be the best, with no thought of what it cost. Stupid. Really stupid. Somebody once said that with the money we spent on champagne on one night, they could have made an entire album. And it’s probably true.”

She started out in the Sixties as Christine Perfect, a rare female instrumentalist in the macho English blues scene. She found her voice playing piano in the band Chicken Shack with tunes like “When the Train Comes Back,” from their 1968 debut. She married McVie in 1970, taking over as Fleetwood Mac’s dominant songwriter, with unsung classics like her Mystery to Me ballad “Why?”

She became a full-on superstar after Mick Fleetwood recruited a new guitar dude named Lindsey Buckingham, who insisted they also hire his girlfriend. For their first rehearsal together, she brought in “Say You Love Me.” “I heard this incredible sound — our three voices — and said to myself, ‘Is this me singing?’” McVie recalled. “I couldn’t believe how great this three-voice harmony was. My skin turned to goose flesh.”

In the Tusk era, she got engaged to the Beach Boys’ drummer, Dennis Wilson, who brought a whole new level of chaos into her world. He moved into her mansion within days of meeting her, spending her money and drinking her vodka. He soon married (and abandoned) a 19-year-old girl, who happened to be Mike Love’s daughter. McVie mourned him with “Wish You Were Here,” the finale of Mirage, the year before he drowned drunk and was buried at sea. As she told Rolling Stone this year , “Dennis was a bit of a madman.”

Yet she turned the sexual and narcotic wreckage into classic songs. “Think About Me” is her hardest-rocking hit, from the end of the Seventies. She sneers the chorus, sounding soulful yet cynically hardheaded about romance in the Me Decade: “I don’t hold you down/Maybe that’s why you’re around.” But she made it sound romantic. She made a modest solo record in 1984 — you can hear the highlights on last year’s Songbird (A Solo Collection). But she really shone on the Mac’s last gasp in 1987, Tango in the Night. “Everywhere” was a modest hit at the time, but it had a resurgence in later years as the album became a millennial fan fave. In “Little Lies,” her craftiest Mac hit ever, she’s typically resigned to getting cheated on, lied to, treated like dirt. But it has that soaring chorus showcasing each of the band’s lead singers, top-notch fan service, where her pleading vocals clash with Lindsey’s bitter “Tell me, tell me liiiies!”

She burned out on the rock-star life. As Nicks told Rolling Stone , “We reformed with The Dance in 1997, but that only lasted a year before Christine flipped out and said, ‘I just can’t do this any more — I’m having panic attacks.’ She sold her house and car and piano and moved back to England, never really to be heard from again.” McVie had developed a terror of flying — understandable, considering how much time she’d spent on planes chartered by Mick Fleetwood. “The nomad thing had got a bit stale on me, really,” she told Rolling Stone in 2014 . “I had some deluded idea that I wanted to live the ‘Country Lady’ life — basically hang out with my Range Rover and my dogs and bake cookies or something. I don’t know what I was thinking, really. I just wanted to live a normal, domestic life with roots.”

But she made a triumphant return for the 2015 tour. In 2017, she and Lindsey released their very strange collabo album Buckingham McVie , featuring four-fifths of the Mac. It was supposed to be a studio reunion blockbuster, but Nicks bailed. So it ended with “On With the Show,” a theme song for the band’s On With the Show reunion tour — two years after it ended. A typical Mac moment of self-sabotage. The band kicked out Buckingham in a spectacularly messy fit, yet McVie sounded great as ever on the 2019 summer stadium tour, her last.

Characteristically, McVie was discreet and private about her final illness. Speaking to Rolling Stone this year, she casually revealed the band members weren’t in touch anymore, and had essentially split up yet again. “I don’t feel physically up for it,” she says. “I’m in quite bad health. I’ve got a chronic back problem which debilitates me.” When asked about her goals, she replied, “Stay alive, hopefully. Well, I’ll be 80 next year. So, I’m just hoping for a few more years, and we’ll see what happens.” We didn’t get those extra years of Christine McVie. But she scattered so many great songs across so many albums — some classic hits, others obscure cult faves — that you can spend years catching up with her greatness. These are songs that people will always sing to themselves on those lonely late-night bluesy moments that Christine McVie always knew how to capture.

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