First Take: Stevie Nicks Revisits “The Dealer”

Mention Stevie Nicks and the image of a waifish, witchy singer twirling on stage is sure to come to mind.  However, beyond the crepe shawls, Nicks has always been a distinctive songwriter, whose songs display a weathered wisdom and a unique sense of melody that have made her an enduring favorite.  That isn’t to say that Nicks is a perfect songwriter.  At times, her repeated invocation of dreams, chains, angels, and her other personal talismans can be too self-referential.  Similarly, some of her songs can be so specifically autobiographical that it is hard for the listener to identify with the larger themes that shine through in her best work.

That said, there is no doubt that Nicks made good use of her tumultuous 20s and 30s.  For her upcoming album, 24 Karat Gold, Nicks has mined her considerable archives to officially record some of the leaked demo tapes that have been circulating among her fans for over 20 years.  The first single from 24 Karat Gold is “The Dealer,” a song that appeared first as a demo from the 1978 Fleetwood Mac Tusk Sessions, but was subsequently re-recorded for possible inclusion on her first solo album, Bella Donna, but didn’t make the final cut either time.

It speaks to the quality and quantity of Nicks’ songwriting output during the late 70s and early 80s in particular, that a song as powerful as “The Dealer” could be passed over not once, but at least twice.  The song is catchy, with the familiar patterns of static, repeated melody lines that appear in many of her songs.  Lyrically, it effectively uses the allegory of a card dealer to symbolize Nicks’ loss of control of a situation or game she could have controlled.  Given the vintage of the song, and the well-known cocaine use by Fleetwood Mac during the late 70s, it’s hard to imagine that Nicks might not have also been thinking about the drug dealers who supplied the band, and how her drug use was causing her to lose control over aspects of her life.

Then, as often happens in her songs, Nicks sings directly to a departed lover, saying “I’ll be the dancer, you’ll be the player, I’ll just almost hold you, and you’ll just almost stay here.”  In her most successful song, “Dreams,” from Fleetwood Mac’s blockbuster Rumours album, Nicks invoked players in her cutting line, “players only love you while they’re playing,” a not-so-subtle dig at ex Lindsey Buckingham, the band’s guitarist.  That isn’t to say that this song is necessarily about Buckingham — Nicks has written songs about exes Don Henley, Joe Walsh, and Mick Fleetwood, among others, and has often said that her songs represent an amalgamation of feelings she had that may include lines about different people.  In any event, at this point, nearly 40 years after the release of Rumours, the endless speculation about Nicks and her long-ago exes adds an unnecessary tabloidy edge that detracts from the intrinsic quality of her work (just ask Taylor Swift!).

It’s not often that we, as listeners, get to hear the evolution of a song, and certainly not the evolution of a song over a 25 year period.  The first available version, from the Tusk sessions, is much sparer than the new release, with Mick Fleetwood showing restraint on the drum part, and the absence of backing vocals.

In addition to showing the songwriting and production process, these demos also allow us to peel back the layers on Nicks’ evolving voice.  In her earliest work, from the 1973 Buckingham Nicks album to Rumours, her voice had a diaphanous quality — a delicate soprano with a nasal vibrato that fit her flower child image (and blended perfectly with Lindsey Buckingham).  By the time the Tusk sessions rolled around, Nicks’ voice — no doubt shredded after extensive touring — began to develop a husky, slightly frayed quality.  This change gave her songs an added depth, and a world-weariness that matched her precocious lyrics.  Like “Storms” or “Beautiful Child” from Tusk, this version of “The Dealer” combines love with regret, as Nicks often does so well, and could have easily accompanied them on the sprawling Tusk double album.

By the time the Bella Donna sessions occurred, prior to the album’s release in 1981, Nicks was chomping at the bit to release songs from her considerable backlog that were passed over by Fleetwood Mac, as the album space had to be divided among three songwriters (and their egos).  Recording most of the album with members of the Heartbreakers (their leader, Tom Petty dueted with her on the smash “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”), Nicks’ songs from Bella Donna were filled with the band’s twangy guitars, anthemic pianos, and strong backing vocals, as she sought to add a rock edge to her solo work.  Her voice, too, has a harder edge, as she belts more of the song, rather than the floaty vocals that characterized her Fleetwood Mac work until then.  The version of “The Dealer” that emerged from those sessions is more rock anthem than rueful lament:

This month’s official release of “The Dealer” is closer to the Bella Donna version to the Tusk version, as Nicks and producer Dave Stewart, have also relied on more prominent electric guitar parts than the typically sparse Lindsey Buckingham parts (presumably) on the Tusk demo.  Nicks’ voice, now lower, adds a heaviness that fits the regret of the lyric.

Which version one prefers is largely a matter of taste.  Famed producer Jon Brion has said that he does not believe in using demo tapes, because the rawest performance of a song is often in the demo, and cannot be effectively reproduced later.  Having listened to these three (and other takes from these periods), I have to begrudgingly agree.  I’ve always been partial to Nicks’ Tusk-era vocals, and am much less fond of her current vocal stylings and production, which can make even her songs seem generic.  Even so, it’s about time that this gem saw the light of day, and it’s a tantalizing introduction to the rest of Nicks’ mystical castoffs that will be released on 24 Karat Gold.

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