Lindsey Buckingham is an artist. He peppers his conversation with references to Picasso and Pollock. He speaks of sounds as "colors." And like the stereotypical artiste, the Fleetwood Mac guitarist has been characterized as enigmatic, remote, even flaky. But on an early-October morning in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, just across the street from New York's Central Park, Lindsey Buckingham is a rock legend who just happens to be four days into a tour supporting Under the Skin, his fourth solo album and his first in fourteen years.
"I am the Terrence Malick of rock," says Buckingham with a chuckle.
Yes, dilatory musicians know their dilatory film auteurs. And right here, right now, it's nice to know that this man, repeatedly rendered as deliberate and resolute, has a sense of humor.
Blame Buckingham's public perception on Tusk, Fleetwood Mac's critically acclaimed, commercially disappointing 1979 double album. Tusk, of course, followed Rumours, which has sold more than nineteen million copies. Rumours was the second LP by the Mac reconfiguration that included Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie and McVie's keyboardist wife, Christine. And during its creation, relationships within the band broke down Buckingham split from Nicks, McVie from McVie leaving the follow-up, Tusk, as a bizarre and fractious assemblage held together only by Buckingham's much-documented, Brian Wilson-like obsession. What remains is Fleetwood Mac's White Album, the beginning of their ongoing end, a shotgun blast of musical spray.
And, without question, the ballsiest venture in rock history.
"You know," says Buckingham, "we had this ridiculous success with Rumours. And at some point, at least in my perception, the success of that detached from the music, and it was more about the phenomenon.
"We were poised to do another album, and I guess because the axiom 'If it works, run it into the ground' was prevalent then, we were probably poised to do Rumours II. I don't know how you do that, but somehow my light bulb that went off was, 'Let's just not do that. Let's very pointedly not do that.'"
This, then, was Buckingham's crossroads: to follow his heart (a.k.a. the sounds in his head) or his wallet, knowing that he would bring rock's most commercially viable act along with him. His decision to take the road less traveled, a path he still walks, is the most telling moment in his long career.
"Tusk," he says, "is the most important thing, on some level, that I ever was involved with for the music, but also because it was a line I drew in the sand."
Buckingham's first solo effort, Law and Order, was a near-direct response to the withdrawal of his bandmates' support following the relative commercial disappointment of Tusk.
"When it came out and didn't sell 60 million albums," Buckingham says, "there was a backlash politically within the band. And we had a meeting, which went something like, 'Well, Lindsey, we still want you to produce, but we're not going to do that process anymore. And I'm going, 'OK...'
"It made it very difficult. Obviously, you couldn't backtrack to Rumours that was a point in time. And it made it real difficult for me, as someone who had found a whole new set of sensibilities and a whole new process, to know what to do. And I was kind of treading water.
"You know, for some odd reason I was listening to Pet Sounds. I was like, 'No, no. I'm done with Pet Sounds,' but I put it on, and then I couldn't stop listening to it. There's that one song, 'I Just Wasn't Made for These Times,' where he's talking about every time he has a new idea he's excited about pushing, he can't find anyone, at least within the people that were around him, to help him with that. Why? Because it threatens the status quo. And I certainly experienced my share of that.
"We made a couple of more albums," Buckingham says, "but there was nowhere to go with the stuff that tended to be on the left, and that was the only reason I started making solo albums."
Cue Fleetwood Mac's "Big Love" not the original version from Tango in the Night, but the live version from The Dance. Because "Big Love," like Tusk before it, is a turning point that informs every Lindsey Buckingham moment in its wake.
The song, in its original incarnation, served as the first single from the last Fleetwood Mac album for ten years that would include Buckingham. The guitar is wirily electric; Mick Fleetwood's percussion is, at times, briskly electronic. And the breathy moans swapped by Buckingham and Nicks at the track's coda sound as if they've been captured from a bad porno shoot.
But then came the Mac's 1997 live album, The Dance, on which all five members who created the Fleetwood Mac/Rumours/Tusk trifecta reunited until midway through the set, when Buckingham, alone with his acoustic guitar, transformed "Big Love" into one of the most invigorating flurries of fingerwork ever captured on disc. And fans, much like those on Buckingham's current tour, sprang from their seats as if propelled by an ejector button.
"Yeah," he deadpans. "It works."
And then some.
"You know," Buckingham says, "when I think about 'Big Love' now, I don't think about the recorded version. I think of it as the way I play it onstage, which is as one of the few songs that transformed itself from an ensemble piece to a single guitar, which is what got me thinking about doing what I'm doing on Under the Skin."
Recorded on a sixteen-track portable in hotel rooms during the Mac's last tour, Under the Skin is undeniably softer, more acoustic, than Buckingham's previous solo work, lined with a guardrail of barely there percussion and his trademark unified layers. Though slower in pace, tunes like "Show You How," "It Was You" and "Someone's Gotta Change Your Mind" recall the whispery, textured antiphons first summoned on the Tusk hidden gem "I Know I'm Not Wrong"; the feel is something akin to Gregorian chants recorded in Willy Wonka's factory.
Yet "Big Love," says Buckingham, is "the springboard for the whole psychology that led to the kind of thinking that was going on when I was making Under the Skin. It's weird. This whole line that goes all the way back to leaving the band and the very long-term effect, I guess.
"There's something there that needs to get out," he says of Skin. "There's something unfinished. Whether that's abnormal for someone my age, I don't know. It would be a lot easier to define myself as something simpler as a father, as a husband and to not make the time sacrifices that I'm making to do this. But you know, it's just something that's been a long time coming."
So this morning, Lindsey Buckingham sits in a chair in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in New York. Behind him is a much-celebrated legacy of recorded music. In front of him is another five weeks of playing to crowds smaller than Fleetwood Mac's most intimate gatherings. But Lindsey Buckingham seems happy, if not quite content. Which for, you know, an artist may be as good as it gets.