February 22, 2005

Buckingham, McVie gave us Rumours worth spreading

I moved west this past year. Not very far west, but west enough to get me thinking West. Ever hear of Frederick Jackson Turner? In 1893, he delivered a speech out here on the Midway during the World's Columbian Exhibition on "The Significance of the Frontier in Amerikan [sic] History." His thesis on the role of the frontier, the Amerikan's unrelenting drive toward the West, structured much academic and popular thought on Amerikan consciousness in the century just past. As songwriter Phil Ochs put it: "The world began in Eden and ended in Los Angeles." He should have said Hanoi.

Some ears listen to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and all they hear is cocaine and divorce. Placed at the end of Turner's frontier narrative, I hear the sound of 20th-century history imploding. And cocaine. And divorce. Along the Tet Offensive event horizon of "Gold Dust Woman," I hear Amerikan culture's solipsistic reflection of its eminence frozen cryogenically in commodity form and its reification. Never Mind the Bollocks was only eight months away. John Lydon's last stand at Winterland, 10.

Of course, this is only one way of listening to this album, and one way of looking at history. It's probably bad historiography at that, but it's a fun game for me to play with Rumours. Rumours needs playing with, because there's clearly something special about an album this gray from front to back spinning so much gold. Why did this album, as dark as the blackest vinyl, sell more of said vinyl than any album prior, and why does it occupy so many record collections only to be disavowed?

Perhaps the answer is that Rumours is by turns rock's most optimistic and most cynical album, and, in that role, it is perhaps too perfect. Consider "Don't Stop" and "Go Your Own Way," a chimera that constitutes an inscrutable magnum of "love music," even more shocking given the phantasmagoric commercial heights to which it ascended. Although most people don't believe it until they hear the Mac's follow-up album, Tusk, Lindsay Buckingham was the only true heir to the Brian Wilson/Phil Spector crown of studio perfection in the 1970s. Yet his sunshine pop was like aftershave through a Brita filter, and you realize there was Syd Barrett in it all along while Brian Wilson was heroin-catatonic in the pool house.

On my favorite track, "You Make Loving Fun," Buckingham teamed with Christine McVie—my vote for most underrated songwriter of the '70s—to produce a post-Vietnam track hermetically sealed against Irony. It's the last bastion of electric piano, windchimes, and girl-boy harmonies before the fall. I hear the frontier in this track as I do in all of Rumours, and it is the frontier of '60s sunshine ambushed by the cocaine-savage enemy within.

Rumours's greatness lies in the fact that, in spite of this struggle, it still ends up somewhere in the middle of the cultural field. Nevertheless, hipsters ignore it, because they dwell in an aesthetic realm that really only cares for the fringes. Rumours embodies rock's final frontier and if one truly hopes to find Truth in Beauty on her sojourn from Napalm Death to Chingy, she must stop and listen to the sticky sweet background radiation—the Bacharachs, Carpenters, and Fleetwood Macs—that hold a musical universe of such diversity together. Paired with the Pistols, Fleetwood Mac constitutes the Brahmic essence of popular music and thus the money system itself. Your parents own it; why shouldn't you?