STEVIE NICKS BELLA DONNA, 1981, Modern Records
For much of my twenties, whenever I pondered my own personal recipe for the “perfect woman,” the base ingredients would always include 1 part Stevie Nicks. I’ve had a fascination with her ever since childhood Saturday evenings running in from the yard at dusk to watch Solid Gold. Of course, it all starts with the voice. The voice is everything: dusky, dissolute, seductive, knowing, weary, vulnerable, powerful, clear, like a loud alluring cigarette-fumed whisper. Hers was the voice of Minerva, wisdom and war, and she was a goddess to me.
All these qualities in her voice come through spectacularly in her 1981 solo debut, Bella Donna. Though she stayed with Fleetwood Mac for another twelve years, Bella Donna established her as a rock luminary in her own right and left no doubt of her exceeding talent and craft. She wrote all but one of the songs herself. It remains an exquisite listen, full of an impressive variety of musical styles and lyrical perspectives that coalesce into a complete, organic statement of a strong, complex and free thinking woman’s times, argurments and feelings. It’s a delicate and carefully conceived expression that feels very honest and moving. Never sounding like a pastiche, we feel as if we’ve been invited into the private chambers of a beguiling chanteuse, where she offers us a seat, pours a cup of wine and unburdens her heart, all the time working her magic with finesse, style and skill, drawing back the veils, untying her silks and satins. Closing the door. And all you can do is stare at the wetness of her lips as she sings to you. It is one of those rare instances where an incredible instrument (her voice) blends with charismatic beauty and high intelligence to produce a stunning, smoldering, and accomplished first album. It still sounds fresh and loveable, nearly twenty-five years later.
“Bella Donna,” the title track, opens the album with a mystical flourish, in keeping with the moon-witch persona she cultivated during this period. It’s about a woman coming to terms with her disappointments in order to keep believing in her dreams. With its talk of “stars are a part of us” and “the lady’s feeling like the moon that she loved,” the song suggests everyday magic that infuses our routine daily lives, if we only notice it. Ultimately, the song is about self-realization, of loving and rekindling one’s own inner light, as expressed in the chorus, “Bella Donna/Come out of the darkness…” The song is keyed by Waddy Wachtel’s seductive lead guitar playing (fine throughout the album), most notably when he bends the string to suggest a gate swinging on its post as a figure walks through it towards the new, hopeful threshold.
“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” is the well-known duet with Tom Petty. It was a smash hit and still rocks with lip and swagger, as Stevie plays the role of the woman the wayward, troublesome man has returned to as a consolation prize. She lets him know she knows the score perfectly and is sick of it. My favorite line is when she says, with ultimate disdain, “This doesn’t have to be the big get even. This doesn’t have to be anything at all…”
“Think About It” is addressed to Christine, and you can only assume it's written to Christine McVie, her Fleetwood Mac co-songstress. The song is written to a girl who’s been heartbroken, who wants to go with the singer and someone unnamed, but can’t. Whose “fortune is your life’s love.” Is it about the affair she had with McVie’s lover, Mick Fleetwood, and her apology? As it is, it’s not much of an apology; the singer isn’t remorseful for her actions. It’s just life and she knows the other woman will “go on forever/ 'cause you’re that good.” It’s about seeing the truth and accepting and moving forward. Regardless its inspiration, it’s a very personal, intriguing and bittersweet plea to a close friend.
“After the Glitter Fades” is a melancholy, heartfelt ballad that sounds, along with “The Highwayman” like an old plaintive, country song. Her singing is full and sincere, but the lyrics are fused with an amusing sarcastic acceptance, “Even though the living is sometimes laced with lies, the feeling remains even after the glitter fades.”
“How Still My Love” and “Outside the Rain” are both incandescent, low-wattage love songs, infused with a gloriously sultry air of smoke and neon. They feel like walking out of a dark, rainy city street into a nearly-empty cafe where someone waits for you holding a rose, and you begin the dance. These two songs are joined by “Leather and Lace” which has been one of my favorite songs since I was about seven, and which to this day is, in my opinion, the hands down best karaoke duet selection of all time. If you ever date someone who can sing “Leather and Lace” with you, marry ‘em. It’s meant to be.
But all of these spectacular songs are just tune-ups for the album’s killer, unforgettable track, “Edge of Seventeen,” surely the rawest, dirtiest song to ever celebrate an older woman’s single-minded, emphatic deflowering of a young boy. Depending on how you interpret the title, he could be as young as 16 or as old as 18. Whatever the age, it’s clear the singer puts a whammy on him before he puts one, invariably, on her. The femme fatale story is nothing new, but now we hear it from the woman’s perspective, as she is left on the brink of madness after the boy’s departure. “Edge of Seventeen” tells a mysterious story of sexual obsession and raw female desire with the grim force of a Teutonic thunder goddess leather-clad for battle. Its relentless fury and power are unnerving and mesmerizing, blowing through your speakers like a screaming eagle, picking you up in golden talons. You can’t not listen to this song all the way through. Stevie’s is a lethal weapon, attacking you like a sonic whip, making you bleed, bending you to your knees in submission, ‘til you rise, looking up at her standing over you like a dominatrix, and you know you are her slave.
The liner sleeve has a decadent picture of Stevie with her backup singers in what appears to be the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, kindling that old school Hollywood rock and roll glamorous mystique and of the 70s. The cover is a solo shot of Stevie against a black backdrop. She stands in impossible boot heels with glammy velvet leggings and a diaphanous wispy white dress. She holds a white parrot aloft in her hand with a trio of white roses, a Lucite tambourine and a crystal ball placed beside her. Stevie Nicks is a true original, and she remains the best definition of a Rock and Roll Goddess.