Stevie Nicks is a legend of rock, but her energy and magnetism sparked new interest in this icon. At 68, she's one of the most glamorous creatures rock has known, and the rare woman who's a real rock ‘n' roller.
Gold Dust Woman gives "the gold standard of rock biographers" (The Boston Globe) his ideal topic: Nicks' work and life are equally sexy and interesting, and Davis delves deeply into each, unearthing fresh details from new, intimate interviews and interpreting them to present a rich new portrait of the star. Just as Nicks (and Lindsay Buckingham) gave Fleetwood Mac the "shot of adrenaline" they needed to become real rock starsaccording to Christine McVieGold Dust Woman is vibrant with stories and with a life lived large and hard:
How Nicks and Buckingham were asked to join Fleetwood Mac and how they turned the band into stars
The affairs that informed Nicks' greatest songs
Her relationships with the Eagles' Don Henley and Joe Walsh, and with Fleetwood himself
Why Nicks married her best friend's widower
Her dependency on cocaine, drinking and pot, but how it was a decade-long addiction to Klonopin that almost killed her
Nicks’ successful solo career that has her still performing in venues like Madison Square Garden
The cult of Nicks and its extension to chart-toppers like Taylor Swift and the Dixie Chicks
The frontier state of Arizona is the keystone of the American Southwest, wedged between California and New Mexico. The climate is arid and dry, the landscape monumental and gigantic. In the years after the Second World War when she was born, Arizona still had a Western frontier look. The people were the grandchildren of frontier families, solid and outgoing. The cactus was the state emblem. Native American tribes lived on their reservations, a world apart from "Anglo" society, as it was called. The bigger cities — Phoenix and Tucson — were expanding out into the desert, fueled by postwar migration to a promised land of opportunity and bright sunshine in the winter.
Into this western land was born Stephanie Lynn Nicks on May 28, 1948, at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix. Her mother, the former Barbara Alice Meeks, was just twenty, having married the previous year when she was nineteen. Her father, Aaron Jess Seth Nicks, Jr., was twenty-three. They met when both were working at The Arizona Republic newspaper. Barbara wrote in her diary that it was love at first sight, and they were married a month after they met. Jess Nicks was a confident, ambitious young man, beginning to pursue what would become a successful, if itinerant, career in business in the booming Southwestern corporate economy.
Barbara Nicks's pregnancy had been difficult. She was quite small, only just over five feet tall, and the child was very active in utero, a real dancer, the young parents joked. She was nauseous much of the time and existed mostly on Mexican food, enchiladas, and refried beans. But the birth went well, and the couple was delighted with their tiny, dark-eyed daughter.
Stephanie was the couple's first child, and as an especially pretty little girl she was doted on by her parents' families. Jess had two younger brothers, Bill and Gene, who married two sisters, Carmel and Mary Lou Ruffin. Jess and Barbara were closest to Bill and Carmel, whose son Johnathan was the cousin Stevie was closest to. They mostly lived near each other in Paradise Valley, near Phoenix.
Jess and Barbara started calling their daughter Stevie right away, but she couldn't say this until her teeth came in, so she called herself Teedie (which Barbara called her for the rest of her life). Barbara was a devout Catholic, always wearing a silver or gold cross on a chain, and a practical, frugal homemaker who kept her little girl very close, making most of her clothes from pattern books ordered by mail. Stevie was soon put on a pony like all the little Arizona cowgirls, and she learned to ride not long after she learned to walk.
Almost every summer the family would go to visit Barbara's mother, Alice, who lived in the town of Ajo, a long and dusty drive into Pima County, near the Mexican border. Alice Harwood was from an old copper mining family. She had been a good singer as a young woman and had two children while living in Bisbee, Arizona, with a man nobody would ever talk about. After she divorced him, Stevie's mother and her uncle Edward were adopted by Alice's second husband, a Mr. Meeks, who worked in the rich Bisbee copper mines; he was said to have been abusive, and later died of tuberculosis. "My mother had a hard life," Stevie would recall. "She was very poor, she was only nineteen when she married, and she had me at twenty."
Grandma Alice — "Crazy Alice" to the family — lived alone near Ajo (which means garlic in Spanish). Beginning when Stevie was about four, she spent part of every summer in Ajo with her grandmother — and loved it. Alice liked to sing old lullabies to little Stevie. Alice read books to her and told her the first fairy tales Stevie ever heard.
When Stevie was five, her grandfather started her singing career. This was her father's father, Aaron Jess Nicks, a local country singer (born, like Stevie, on May 28, in 1892 in Phoenix) known as "A.J." He and his wife, Effie, had split up — she'd gone to California — and by then he was living in a collection of shacks and trailers up in the hills above Phoenix. A.J. made something of a living playing billiards and singing in taverns and saloons, doing songs by Jimmy Rogers, Hank Williams, and Red Sovine; playing guitar, fiddle, and harmonica, sometimes alone, sometimes with a little band — whatever he could scrabble together. He was sometimes heard on local radio, singing jingles for commercials. A smart, sharp, and wiry man, he frequented poolrooms and had spent time during the Great Depression hopping freight trains, riding the rods, living that life. He may have met Woody Guthrie in the hobo camps and rail yards of the sprawling Southwest. He drank.
Starting in 1952, when Teedie was four, A.J. started coming by the house and singing with her. He taught her harmony by having her sing "Darling Clementine" while he took the higher harmony. Then he reversed it, and she picked up the harmonic immediately, by ear. It was complicated for a child, but she could do it. He could tell Stevie was a gifted harmony singer. They sang "Are You Mine" by Red Sovine and other songs. Stevie couldn't even read yet, but she had the natural singer's innate ability to repeat the words of a song after hearing them only a few times.
A.J. Nicks started taking his tiny granddaughter along to parties (with her parents), where they sang for friends. The reaction was always sheer delight, and Stevie seemed to love the attention. When she was five, she started singing in local saloons with her grandfather. They had a little act. A.J. would sing a few songs, and then Jess would lift Stevie onto the bar in her cute cowgirl outfit her mother had made. The drinkers loved the harmony singing, and the raucous applause at the end of their act was the best response A.J. had ever gotten in his mostly futile career. For a brief while, A.J., who had been trying his entire life to make it in the country music business, got the idea that little Stevie could be the real deal. Maybe their singing act — an old coot and his granddaughter — could be A.J.'s winning ticket to the Grand Ole Opry. He started paying her fifty cents a week to sing with him.
Her parents stopped it. No, they told him when he asked to take Stevie along to bookings outside the Phoenix Valley. Out of state? Out of the question. A.J. pleaded with them, but Barbara Nicks was adamant. She told A.J. that her five-year-old daughter, who hadn't even started school yet, was not going on the road with a sixty-year-old man, and that was the end of it. A.J. left the house, angry. He retreated to his lair in the hills, and the family didn't see him for more than two years. Stevie always had a great fondness for her grandfather, and she would dedicate her first recording to him. But she was also firm in her feeling that "he was a real good singer, but he wasn't a great musician."
Right around then, the Nicks family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Barbara Nicks kept Stevie close to home once she began school. She didn't exactly discourage friendships for Stevie, but she didn't seek them out, either, because she knew the family would be moving all over the Southwest over the next fifteen years as her husband moved from post to post, almost like a military family, as he climbed the corporate ladders of big companies: Armour & Company meat packers, the Greyhound Bus Company, and Lucky Lager Brewing. She knew her children would be changing schools a lot, and that some of these lost friendships could be sad. Instead, she signed Stevie up for various lessons: piano, drawing, ballet, and tap. Barbara had an inkling that adorable Stevie could be an actress or even a movie star and kept pushing acting lessons, although Stevie, who was naturally shy, told her mother not to. It was Barbara, an expert, who taught Stevie how to twirl a baton. Barbara also realized that Stevie was nearsighted, and she got her first pair of glasses in the first grade.
In late 1954 the Nicks family moved to El Paso, the bustling Texas border city. A year later Barbara had her second and last child, Christopher Aaron Nicks, born December 18, 1955. Now seven-year-old Teedie had a brother. She hated him, she later said. She'd been the focus of the family's attention, and now this. She says she's still telling Chris how sorry she is for being such a bad sister when they were kids. She's frank about it. "I hated Chris," she told an interviewer.
Stevie started the third grade at a Catholic girls' school called Loretto, but she didn't like it: it was too hard for her, she said later, and she didn't do well. Also, Stevie proved to be left-handed, and the nuns tried to get her to write with her right hand, which was like being tortured. So she started fourth grade in 1957 at nearby Crockett public school and fit in better. This was really where she learned to sing with other kids. She was a star singer in the school chorus, and even allowed her mother to talk her into being in the class play. "It was called The Alamo, Stevie remembered later, "or something like that. There were only two girls in the play and I was one of them because I could sing. When it was time to say my lines I totally froze. I couldn't remember. It was the worst moment of my life. When I got home I told my mother, 'I am not an actress. Don't ever sign me up for any more plays ever again.'"
Stevie may not have been an actress, but she was a performer. Primal rocker Buddy Holly was from nearby Lubbock, and in the fourth grade Stevie and her best friend, Colleen, brought the house down when they did a tap dance to a record of Holly's "Everyday." "I wore a black top hat," Stevie recalled, "and a black vest, a black skirt, a white blouse, black tights, and black tap shoes with little heels. I had a definite knowledge of how I should look — even then."
Holidays were a big deal in the Nicks household, and Stevie's mother particularly liked Halloween. But Barbara could never understand why Stevie always wanted to go out trick-or-treating as a witch. "I always had a great love for Halloween," she recalled, "and for being a witchy character from when I was six years old. My mom and I argued about it every single year, and she was very tired of making witch costumes." When Stevie was in fourth grade Barbara made a yellow Martha Washington costume and then finally gave up when Stevie dyed it black.
In 1958, Pappy A.J. showed up in El Paso. Barbara told close friends that Stevie had been kept away from him, but now there was a reconciliation, and once again the family was singing together around the table. A.J. brought Stevie a lot of records, 45-rpm singles, songs that he thought she might want to learn. There were a lot of Everly Brothers and other country-influenced rock & rollers. Come along and be my party doll. A.J. taught Stevie to duet with him on "It's Late" by Dorsey Burnette. "Once again A.J. picked up that I could do this. He'd say to me, 'You're a harmony singer, honey.'" But Stevie's grandfather wasn't doing well. He may have borrowed some money from Jess. Stevie later remembered her father's upset with A.J., his anguish as he "watched A.J. going down the tubes, trying to make it" in the music world.
In 1959, Jess Nicks was transferred to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Stevie would start the sixth grade. Stevie had made some good friends in El Paso and she was very upset at having to start all over again. Barbara sat her down and told her that all she had to do is to open herself up and make some new friends. Her mother told her, "You will go to school, and you will be independent, and you will never be dependent upon a man. And you'll have a really good education, and you'll be able to stand in a room with a bunch of very smart men and keep up with them, and never feel like a second- class citizen."
1.2 The New Girl in School
Stevie's family spent the next three years — the late 1950s — in Salt Lake City, one of the most conservative in the United States. But her two years there — eighth and ninth grade at Wasatch Junior High — were spent immersed in the music that was changing America. The Nicks family loved music, especially country and western, as country music was then known. Jess had a good hi-fi record changer in the living room, and Barbara had the radio on for most of the day. (Stevie's mother liked working and had enjoyed many part-time jobs, but her husband's business success in old-fashioned Salt Lake City now put social pressure on her to stay home with the children, like all the other wives of Jess's colleagues.) So Stephanie Lynn spent these crucial years between twelve and fourteen glued to the radio. She had spent her childhood listening to the early fifties hit parade: the doggy in the window, "The Tennessee Waltz," "Sixteen Tons." Of the early rockers, she liked Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers the best, especially their heavenly harmonies on "All I Have to Do Is Dream" and "Wake Up Little Susie." She learned to dance the Lindy, down and up, the prevailing dance of the day. Chubby Checker's "The Twist" came late to Utah and when it did arrive, it was banned at school dances and country club socials as immoral. The Mormons who dominated the town didn't think white teenagers should be gyrating like savages. They wouldn't even let them play the record at the hops. Salt Lake fans could only see the twist on Dick Clark's American Bandstand TV program, broadcast Monday through Friday from far-away Philadelphia.
Stevie was a baton twirler at school events. Her mother signed her up for dancing classes and guitar lessons. She started writing song lyrics in a little notebook in her looping, left-handed script. She was the most popular girl in the school.
In 1960 the family was enthralled by the presidential election. At the end of the fifties, America was up for grabs between the Republican vice president Richard Nixon and the charismatic young Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Jack Kennedy. Kennedy was a handsome war hero with a stunning wife, some new ideas, a charming Boston accent, and a plea for renewed American vigor (pronounced "vigah"). Stevie's father, an Arizona frontier Republican, supported Nixon. But Stevie's Catholic mother adored Kennedy and his beautiful young wife, Jacqueline, and so did Stevie. When Kennedy was elected in November 1960, Stevie at age twelve could identify with the newly branded national notion of the Kennedy family's ascendancy as a rebirth of Camelot, evoking the legendary Knights of the Round Table, a lost world of romantic legend and myth.
Stevie failed math in the ninth grade, so her parents enrolled her at Judge Memorial Catholic High School for tenth grade. She hated being away from her junior high friends, but this only lasted about a month as Jess Nicks accepted another job. So in 1962 the family relocated again, this time to Arcadia, California. Stevie remembers crying over this news with her best Salt Lake friend, Karen Thornhill, on her front steps: "Well, we moved — a lot. So I was always the new girl. I knew I wasn't going to have much time to make friends, so I made friends quickly and I adjusted really well, and when I'd say, 'I'm gonna miss my room,' my mom would always say, 'There's always a better house.'"
Arcadia is one of the wealthier towns in Los Angeles County, at the foot of the majestic San Gabriel Mountains, where Stevie was enrolled in tenth grade at Arcadia High School. The AHS football team was the Apaches, but it doesn't seem that Stephanie Nicks (as she now called herself) joined the Apache Princesses, the baton-twirling marching team. "[It] was a very hoity-toity school," she remembered, "very cliquey, and a lot of rich people went there." But she did join the school's elite A Capella Choir, where she met a beautiful classmate named Robin Snyder. A great singer, graceful dancer, and one of the most popular girls in the school, she would become much more than a best friend; gorgeous Robin Snyder was more like the twin sister that Stevie never had.
At home Stephanie spent a lot of time in her new bedroom with the door closed, listening to KHJ on the radio, especially loving the girl groups that ruled early sixties airwaves: the Chiffons, the Shirelles, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas. She liked the sound of the Shangri-Las singing "Remember (Walking in the Sand)." She was starting to notice how songs were put together, with verses and choruses and instrumental hooks. She remembered, "Moving from Utah made me take all the guitar lessons and stuff I'd written on the side and get serious about my music. I was depressed and hurting, and that's usually the best time for a writer."
One time Stephanie was in the backseat of the family car when a song came on the radio and her mother began to speak to her. "Hush!" Stevie shouted. "I'm concentrating on this." This was when her somewhat bewildered parents began to realize that music might mean more to their daughter than just a hobby.
Excerpted from "Gold Dust Woman"
Copyright © 2017 Stephen Davis.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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"A captivating portrait of the singer whose songwriting and stage presence gave the faltering British blues band a boost in the mid-1970s...Davis’s candid, energetic book reveals the life of the woman who’s arguably one of rock’s greatest singer-songwriters." - Publisher's Weekly, starred review
“An entertaining rock biography.” Kirkus Reviews
"Davis is astute and respectful...adept in his literary analysis." The New York Times Book Review