Mirror in the Sky: The Life and Music of Stevie Nicks by Simon Morrison

Conjure a mental image of Stevie Nicks—conjure being the right word—and you likely see a slight woman in a flowing vintage dress or skirt, draped with scarves, shawls, feathers, and lace, her Goldilocks hair crowned with a top hat or maybe a claret-colored beret.

It’s a look that’s not so much layered as strewn, but whatever you might call it—haute fortune teller? Laurel Canyon sorceress?—it’s crafted. “A long time ago I decided I was going to have a kind of mystical presence,” she once told Interview magazine, “so I made my clothes, my boots, my hair, and my whole being go with that.”

Mystical, ethereal, whatever. When she gets in front of a microphone, Nicks is clearly of this earth. Witchy, kitschy lyrics aside, her songs are mostly defiant, with often muscular melodies sung in a voice that can veer between girlish and grainy, even husky—sometimes within a single measure. The overall effect? A little bit Tinkerbell, a little bit Elvira, a lot Janis and Dusty.

It’s fitting that Nicks would inspire a new book as cluttered and, sometimes, distracting as one imagines her walk-in closets are, but one that also pays her the perhaps overdue compliment of taking her seriously.

Mirror in the Sky: The Life and Music of Stevie Nicks is the work of Simon Morrison, a specialist in Russian music and dance, who teaches music history at Princeton. He sees his book as a corrective to the general run of Nicks literature, which, given her knotty romantic life, leans toward the lurid. “There’s so much gossip and tattle out there, but nothing that explores her creativity and immense power as a performer,” the author notes in a press-release Q&A.

Thus, he has attempted not a straightforward biography—“The artist’s life is but the scaffold for my discussion of her music,” he promises, eyes and nose turned nobly away from the sewer. But Mirror in the Sky is not really a critical biography, either; the term is too formal and confining for a book that reads less like a well-argued appreciation than a subreddit run by an obsessive-compulsive super-fan, albeit a smart, insightful one.

Fleetwood Mac in 1977. From left, Mick Fleetwood, Nicks, John McVie, Christine McVie, and Lindsey Buckingham.

For example, in his mostly cogent and informative account of Nicks’s childhood and early musical influences—including a grandpa who dragged her along to dive bars, where he sang country and western—Morrison devotes several pages to Nicks’s first group. That would be Fritz, the Bay Area band founded by Lindsey Buckingham, her eventual lover, musical partner, and notorious ex, when he was still in high school; Nicks joined a couple of years later, while in college.

Fritz was an important way station for both musicians, a vehicle for their early songwriting efforts, which Morrison illuminates skillfully. Perhaps less relevant is the fact that the band was named “mockingly in ‘honor’ of a German exchange student” at Buckingham’s high school. A long paragraph then covers the future career of Fritz’s manager, a Stanford student who went on to work for Bill Graham and David Geffen and eventually became an “adult-films ‘super agent’ in Hollywood.” Who knew?

But wait, there’s more: while accounting for seemingly every performance that Fritz ever put on tape, Morrison notes that one was recorded live at Aragon High School, in San Mateo, in 1970, “when Fritz opened for the Youngbloods, the crowd doubtless gathering to hear that band’s evergreen anthem, ‘Get Together,’ itself a cover of an earlier Kingston Trio release, as well as ‘Product of the Times,’ a song by Love, which involves protospeed metal picking.” I, for one, am glad to have learned all this—I’m always up for a deep dive into 60s and 70s pop, plus my cousins went to Aragon—but fair warning: it typifies Morrison’s flair for the digressive.

Don’t worry: he eventually gets to Fleetwood Mac and to Nicks’s sometimes under-appreciated solo career. Morrison recounts—but, as promised, doesn’t dwell on—the breakups, romantic and musical; they’re here mainly as they provide fuel for Nicks’s songwriting. As well, her substance-abuse problems make their presence felt, but only to the extent of their interfering with her record-making.

When it comes to the music itself, Morrison can be enlightening, if arid, as in his take on “Landslide,” one of Nicks’s greatest songs (recorded for her and Buckingham’s first album with Fleetwood Mac): “The narrator looks at the mountain … and imagines climbing it only to fall with the snow. The music sinks as the text dictates, with falling intervals for the word ‘down’ narrating her emotional tumble. Fear of change comes with harmonic change…. G minor is dropped into the texture, then G minor 7—that seventh an added complication … ”

I’ll admit I started to get lost here, but Morrison’s conclusion, that the song evokes “the beautiful tragedy of becoming history,” is lovely, capturing the song’s ineffable poignancy as well as anyone could.

When not going down rabbit holes, or tallying sevenths, Morrison writes at times with a vicarious chip on his shoulder, rushing to defend Nicks against perceived slights from the boorish rock patriarchy. And there is a boorish rock patriarchy, but perhaps not always where the author spies it.

Regarding her belief in witches, fairies, and such, he huffs that “Nicks’s attraction to the fantastic has been portrayed as somehow adolescent or guileless. Yet when Led Zeppelin, Blue Öyster Cult, or any number of heavy metal bands delve into the mythic, their fantasies are indulged, even revered.” Revered? By 14-year-old boys in the 1970s … maybe. (I’m old enough to remember the derisive guffaws that greeted the indulgent gothic-fantasy sequences in Zeppelin’s 1976 concert film, The Song Remains the Same.)

“A long time ago I decided I was going to have a kind of mystical presence.”

Morrison deigns to mention a one-night stand Nicks had in 1984 with Dave Stewart, of the Eurythmics, who would later produce two of her solo albums. Nicks, on the rebound after a breakup with the Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, initiated the encounter, then kicked Stewart out of her house the next morning when Walsh turned up.

The anecdote was recounted in a memoir Stewart wrote a few years ago, to which Morrison takes baffling exception: “Stewart’s parting thoughts on his time with her—‘I really liked Stevie, and she seemed vulnerable and fragile when I left that morning’—are contemptible.” I’m not sure I see contempt there, but maybe I’m a closet cad?

Anyway, the context for the story is the collaboration between Nicks, Stewart, and Tom Petty on the song “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” originally intended for Nicks but which ended up on one of Petty’s albums. The initial spark for the song supposedly came when Stewart, slinking out of Nicks’s home that fateful morning, overheard her telling Walsh to get lost.

Because of that backstory, Morrison interprets the song’s famous video, a trippy riff on Alice in Wonderland, as “a rude send-up of Nicks’s private life and drug habits.” Again, I can’t follow his logic; he’s almost too ardent a champion. At risk of the sin myself, I’ll note that he can be mansplainy, as well. For example: “Contemporary feminists reject the bad-good distinction imposed on women by men and so can celebrate all sides of Nicks.” Contemporary feminists will be happy to know that.

But my incessant quibbling aside, I enjoyed reading Mirror in the Sky—quibbles are a sign of engagement, after all. Most important, Morrison sent me back to Nicks’s catalogue, including gems I’d overlooked or missed. (Don’t start here, but if you only know her contributions to Fleetwood Mac and Bella Donna, her first solo record, give a listen to the 2011 album In Your Dreams.)

Let’s return to the subject of wardrobe. Morrison quotes a 2019 Rolling Stone interview with Nicks in which she confessed, “I have my shawl vault. They’re all in temperature-controlled storage…. If I ever write my life story, maybe that should be the name of my book: There’s Enough Shawls to Go Around.” Here’s hoping she gets around to it. In the meantime, Mirror in the Sky does her good and sturdy, sometimes inspired service.

Bruce Handy is a journalist and the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult