Marty Balin weighed on my mind as I entered Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre the night of Oct. 26 to see the latest stop of 69-year-old Lindsey Buckingham’s 2018 solo tour.
The Jefferson Airplane/Starship legend died a month ago just minutes away in Tampa. Balin’s former bandmate Jorma Kaukonen, one of the few living guitarists whose abilities rival Buckingham’s, said in a blog post following Balin’s death that, “Marty and I were young together in a time that defined our lives. Had it not been for him, my life would have taken an alternate path I cannot imagine. He and Paul Kantner came together and like plutonium halves in a reactor started a chain reaction that still affects many of us today. It was a moment of powerful synchronicity . . . Marty always reached for the stars and he took us along with him.”
I couldn’t decide if it helped or hurt to see a poster on the Capitol Theatre walls promoting Kaukonen’s upcoming acoustic Hot Tuna show in January with brilliant bassist Jack Casady. Yes, the pioneers who invented what now is referred to as the “Rock Era”–there is no more emphatic a sign of an artistic movement’s demise than its banishment to the remainder bin of “eras”–still are hitting the road, taking the stage and, particularly in Kaukonen and Casady’s cases, taking no prisoners with their electrifying talent. Still, it hurts to realize the likes of Kaukonen and Casady–and, for that matter, Lindsey Buckingham–are among the last living specimens of the long-gone cultural moment that enabled their ascendancy.
As Balin weighed on me, I too thought about Kantner. How nearly three years already have passed since Kantner, one of the purest badasses rock ‘n roll produced, left this world on Jan. 28, 2016, following a heart attack. Balin had watched Kanter push himself to the brink of oblivion as he paired what Kantner’s bandmade Jude Gold described as a “love affair” with vodka with a demanding tour schedule that spanned the globe. “He was a hard-headed German,” Balin said. Balin knew as well as anyone that the history of rock ‘n roll is a tale of many hard heads and harder stories.
More often than not of late, the stories have been hard. Tom Petty had been dead for more than a year as I headed into Clearwater to see Buckingham, who had contributed vocals to “Walls,” the achingly gorgeous opening track of Petty & The Heartbreakers’ 1996 soundtrack for the Ed Burns film, “She’s The One.” Petty was just 66 years old the day he died. Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen. They’re all leaving us. The curtain is falling. The stage is darkening. Time is rushing past the memories their music made in our lives.
It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with that music to see Grace Slick, every bit the hard-headed personality that Kanter was as the two combined their genius to bring to the world Airplane anthems like “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” still kicking life in the ass at age 78. In a September 2017 interview with Variety, she advised that, when you do acid, “You’ve got to have somebody who is not high to make sure you don’t decide you’re a raven and fly off the roof.” Fair enough. Deciding you’re a raven is bad. But something else Slick told Variety in that interview underscores the vulnerability Buckingham is embracing as he tours the country with performances far more fiery than most 69-year-olds could muster.
Slick often says that 70-year-olds on a rock ‘n roll stage are like 25-year-olds in kindergarten. She said it again in the Variety interview: “There are just things you do when you’re 25 you don’t do when you’re 70 because you look silly.” She has been saying that for decades. Variety’s interviewer, Steve Baltin, had done enough homework to know that. So he fired away with a question in which he asked Slick if, despite her aversion to aging rock stars, she had seen a stage show recently that she liked. Slick said Madonna had been putting on some laudable performances. Then she said this: “I also saw a program with Fleetwood Mac. They sounded good, but I couldn’t look at it because there’s all these old people singing.” (Madonna’s no spring chicken; she turned 60 in August.)
That’s the challenge for rockers Buckingham’s age. How does the architect of the sound that launched Fleetwood Mac into the rock era’s stratosphere put on a show in the absolute twilight of his career that approximates the glory days? How does someone in Buckingham’s shoes do at age 69 what he has been doing since age 19, and do it as compellingly as he did in his youth? As patently unreasonable an expectation as those questions impose upon the man, one thing was clear by the time he and his band left the stage that night: Lindsey Buckingham is not your average 69-year-old man.
The crowd’s reaction when Buckingham came out with his crackling unit of a band–keyboardists Brett Tuggle and Michael Kianka, energetic Bassist Federico Pol, and wildly impressive drummer Jimmy Paxson–was curious. I sat in the mezzanine surrounded by gray-haired witnesses of the era Buckingham helped define, overlooking the sea of similarly gray-haired fans jammed into the floor seats below. What I saw more than silvered heads of hair as the band took the stage were pumping fists. What I heard were hollers so full-throated this might as well have been a Lindsey Buckingham solidarity rally rather than a Lindsey Buckingham concert.
There was a trace of defiance in the crowd’s fist pumps, in the applause hard enough to keep their palms stinging for minutes after they quieted down and took their seats. Their ebullience seemed to be about something more than Lindsey Buckingham. Maybe it also was about seeing this living embodiment of an “era,” this 69-year-old who plays like a disciple of those lines in Neil Young’s 1986 track “Hippie Dream” when Young sings, “Just because it’s over for you / don’t mean it’s over for me / It’s a victory / for the heart / every time / the music starts / so please / don’t kill the machine.” Everything about his performance in Clearwater made clear that it is not over for Lindsey Buckingham.
Like Young, Buckingham has been fond of the word “machine” as a descriptor for the cannon of music he has amassed over the past half-century. Throughout a career in which he has alternated between larger-than-life arena tours with Fleetwood Mac and the more eccentric fare of the solo shows he has played in between, Buckingham often has referred to Fleetwood as “The Big Machine” and his solo work as “The Small Machine.” The title of his 2011 live album, after all, was “Songs from the Small Machine.” Even in Clearwater on Oct. 26, when he finally got around to introducing his band during an encore offering of “Turn it On,” the sublime ballad “Down on the Rodeo,” and the rather calculated closer “Treason” (more on what makes that choice “calculated” in a moment), he referred to himself and his touring band as a “mechanism” that wouldn’t be possible without the supporting cast sharing the stage with him.
The backdrop of tragedies weighing on my mind hardly could have been lost on the fellow Buckingham fans surrounding me at the Capitol Theatre. No one needed to tell any of them of them about Balin or Petty or Kantner or Prince or Bowie or Cohen. The most celebrated pioneers of that music may be dying away, but here for a couple hours in Clearwater, the music was starting again. The crowd’s raucous response to Buckingham’s entrance established that this night, particularly in the face of so much time gone by and the losses its passage has brought about, would be a victory for the heart indeed. This may be the music of an “era” now, but for these two hours it very much would be present with all of us in attendance. It was particularly present with Buckingham, as he proved with a blistering and beautiful set of unrelenting energy. (On my way out of the concert when it was done, I overheard someone say, “I wish I had that much energy!”)
Buckingham literally hopped in response to each high note he plucked amid a menacing guitar solo on “I’m So Afraid” that spanned about four minutes. As his solo soared, he largely kept his eyes shut, seeming almost prayerful or meditative, entirely in his own world. Buckingham delivered an onslaught of such solos throughout the night–none quite as long as the one on “I’m So Afraid,” but each rivaling the fierceness of the last. He circled the stage as he sent “Go Your Own Way” into a fiery denouement, running off toward Paxson to point his way as his guitar sirened the song home, then jaunting off to Tuggle to do the same. Then he circled the stage some more as his guitar raged, returned to the front-most fringe of the stage, lifted his guitar over his head with both arms, and swung it back down again to finish off a rollicking take on arguably the greatest moment of his career with Fleetwood Mac.
It bears repeating: This is a man who turned 69 years old on Oct. 3.
As Buckingham seized upon the invitation he says he got from Warner Bros. to put out an anthology culled from his handful of sporadic solo records, he clearly fell in love with his audacious 1984 album, “Go Insane.” He and his tight band pounded through a pulsing take on that album’s title track and ripped up a rendition of “Slow Dancing” that had the throbbing pace of a sweat-drenched spin class. His band kept the tone Buckingham had set from the start with the bouncing opener, “Don’t Look Down,” from 1992′s radiant “Out of the Cradle” album. It came off as the perfect selection for whipping his band into shape for the two hours of ferocity he would demand of them. As the show passed its halfway point, Buckingham glistened with sweat under the spotlight that pursued him from one end of the stage to the other.
For all that vigor, two of the night’s quieter moments also proved two of its most pointed and powerful. Buckingham obliquely alluded to the circumstances of his banishment from Fleetwood Mac earlier this year when he joked that he was touring “for a couple of reasons,” then proceeded only to detail one of them directly–the Warner Bros. invitation to release a solo anthology–and let the crowd make what they would of the elephant in the room. More recent reporting on the situation put the lie to the band’s initial explanation that Buckingham wanted to forestall their present tour a few months to first support his anthology with a brief solo tour. Buckingham’s Feb. 28 email to Mick Fleetwood, which became public along with Buckingham’s lawsuit against his former bandmates, made clear the man had every intention of setting aside his solo project for a lucrative tour with “The Big Machine.”
Both the email and comments Buckingham has made since demonstrate that his ouster from the band absolutely devastated and blindsided him. Perhaps the most heartbreaking admission came in the form of a passing remark during a brief set he performed in May at a fundraiser for Mike Levin, a democratic candidate for Congress in California. He said that he largely had lost the calluses on the fingertips of his left hand, suggesting that he had spent possibly a month or more not even touching a guitar following the call he received from manager Irv Azoff saying Stevie Nicks never wanted to share a stage with him again.
None of this backstory was lost on the crowd, either; when Buckingham curled his nose and snarled out the last line of “I’m Never Going Back Again,” growling like a man crazed with conviction, it elicited almost as riotous a reaction from the crowd as his entrance had when the night began. These were people who knew the new meaning the song had acquired this year, people who showed up as much to be entertained as to demonstrate their allegiance with the band’s newly ostracized genius.
As Youtube’s “Real Music Observer” David Spuria has said in one of his many illuminating videos about the Fleetwood Mac crisis, an instructive glimpse of the long-festering tension that ultimately culminated with Buckingham’s ouster can be found in the absorbingly fascinating 2003 documentary, “Destiny Rules,” about the making of 2003′s “Say You Will.” There, you see Nicks bristling at Buckingham’s admonishment over her switching between past and present tense in one of the songs she was contributing to the album. (“You wouldn’t say that to Bob Dylan,” she told him.) You see Buckingham imploring the group, much to Mick Fleetwood’s frustration, to make “Say You Will” a double album. That took some chutzpah from Buckingham, who knows better than anyone just how negatively the band reacted to the grand experiment that became 1979′s “Tusk,” the double album which sold “only” four million copies after Rumors had sold 16 million. While not the commercial success “Rumors” was, “Tusk” is, in retrospect, probably the finest album in the Fleetwood Mac cannon.
No, it was not an unwillingness by Buckingham to tour with The Big Machine that led to his ouster, as Nicks tried to claim. Nor was it, as more recently was reported, Buckingham’s smirk as Nicks gave an overlong speech at this year’s MusiCares event. A smirk is enough to end a dynasty only when there is too much water under the bridge to begin with. Watch “Destiny Rules” and you get a good idea of just how much water this band had been treading together for decades. In light of all this, Buckingham is closing out his shows with the bluntly titled “Treason,” a breezier, more acoustic-oriented track from his brilliant 2008 solo record, “Gift of Screws.” Buckingham himself has said on Twitter that lines like “We will rise from this treason” take on a decidedly new meaning now, after all that water has washed away the bridge completely.
Perhaps the intensity of Buckingham’s performance in Clearwater derived from a defiant refusal to let Fleetwood Mac or anyone else kill the machine. When Buckingham signed off after “Treason” by telling the crowd that he would “be back next year with a new album,” the comment came off as the last line in a two-hour-long closing argument. The argument? This machine isn’t dead yet. Not even close.