Christine McVie’s music is not easy listening. Her sound, yes, is often gentle. A classic McVie jam carries you across each beat of a steady 4/4 with a moody, shimmering synth and the consoling voice of an angel. “Over and Over,” from Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 album, Tusk, was the only thing that calmed me down at night at the height of the pandemic lockdown — not because the song was such a lullaby, but because its desperate repetitiveness felt true. True consolation is always hard won. If a Christine McVie song is open hearted, it’s in the way that feels wet and beating and quivering.
McVie died this week at age 79. She was born Christine Perfect — of course she was. She was a blues artist before marrying Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie, and after joining the band she became one of their core members as a singer, songwriter, and keyboardist. Their divorce, along with the on-again-off-again drama of bandmates Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, was the background for Fleetwood Mac’s infamous 1977 album, the twenty-times Platinum Rumours. McVie was the steady heartbeat throughout that tumultuous heyday, as she wrote song after song that professed a belief in the possibility of love.
And yet, McVie has never been regarded as one of the flashier members of the band, nor has she received the same adulation as the glittering Nicks. She was never in Vh1 Divas and never inspired a character in a Ryan Murphy witchcraft show. She didn't write about freedom or revenge, didn't take on the persona of a gypsy or a wild heart or a Welsh witch. In a Q+A with the Guardian, McVie conceded that she was never seen as the legend she should have been: “Not too many women have said, ‘Thanks for groundbreaking,’ to be honest. I’m sure I was appreciated, but it wasn’t hero worship or anything like that. Can you tell them to start [laughs]?”
I’ll start: If Nicks was brave enough to write about being alone, then McVie had the courage to write about believing in love. Her music was plaintive but never pathetic, desperate but never disconsolate. She could never be scorned or bitter. Even in her most agonized songs, there is the hope that in risking to sing about her heart, just on the brink of breaking, her deepest wants might still be realized.
McVie wrote ballads for the Down Bad, for those of us more likely to swear “if you use me again it’ll be the end of me” than to “blame it on my wild heart.” Her songs were pleas for love to not simply be returned, but recognized. In "Say You Love Me," she begs her lover for the kindness to acknowledge that what they share is real; in "Everywhere," she admits, without shame, that the limit to how much she could desire her lover's presence does not exist. Neither is there a limit to that “IIIIIIIII” which reaches across the chorus with all that synthy yearning. While the live version from The Dance is a little jauntier (it’s one of my karaoke go-tos), the Tango in the Night original aches so good. She made desperation sound reasonable.
But perhaps her most unheralded accomplishment is how she sang about being in love — and being happy. For me, there is no higher romantic aspiration than being able to relate to "You Make Loving Fun,” which was, admittedly, born out of an affair. (She told her husband it was about the dog.) When she stretches out that “believe” in “I never did belieeeeveee in miracles, but I’ve a feeling it’s time to try,” she gives me the courage to think that sometimes, things might actually be as good as they feel.
She made desperation sound reasonable.
And then there’s “Songbird,” the last track of side one on Rumours. Flip the record and you get “The Chain,” the song in which the whole band laid bare their agonies. If you listen to Rumours all the way through, it’s a jarring transition. “Songbird” is all sweetness, the kind of earnest well wishing that only someone who can say “I love you, I love you, I love you” could offer without a hint of cringe.
McVie called “Songbird” her “strange little baby.” Like Keith Richards coming up with the “Satisfaction” riff, she woke in the night and the tune came to her: “I got out of bed, played it on the little piano I have in my room, and sang it with no tape recorder. I sang it from beginning to end: everything. I can't tell you quite how I felt; it was as if I'd been visited — it was a very spiritual thing.” She then stayed up all night so she wouldn’t forget it, and then “called a producer first thing the next day and said, 'I've got to put this song down right now.' I played it nervously, but I remembered it. Everyone just sat there and stared at me. I think they were all smoking opium or something in the control room. I've never had that happen to me since. Just the one visitation. It's weird.” Oh to smoke opium while hearing Christine McVie play “Songbird” for the first time! She then recorded the song with a bouquet of roses on her piano, a spotlight illuminating the flowers.
It’s important to understand that McVie and Nicks were both geniuses in different ways.. It’s even more important to understand that they were friends. Nicks joined the band only after McVie said yes — after they went for margaritas. McVie’s mother, a psychic and energy healer, told her daughter that they would “find their miracle in a sunny California orange grove.” (As it turned out, Nicks lived on Orange Grove Avenue.)
Nicks would later tell an interviewer at the Guardian: "We felt like, together, we were a force of nature," she says. "And we made a pact, probably in our first rehearsal, that we would never accept being treated as second-class citizens in the music business. That when we walked into a room we would be so fantastic and so strong and so smart that none of the uber-rockstar group of men would look through us. And they never did."
There is a now-famous video from Fleetwood Mac’s 1997 tour where Nicks performs “Silver Springs,” her heartbroken ballad left off Rumours that later turned into break-up hex on Lindsey Buckingham, and the ex-lovers maintain eye contact as she promises that he will never get away from the sound of the woman who loved him. (“Time cast a spell on you that you won’t forget me,” she sings, but we all know who really did the casting, even if she swears she’s not a witch.) It’s an iconic moment of intensity, of neither forgiveness nor forgetting. But what you don’t see is what happens next: When she finishes, Nicks says, “Christine waits for me and takes my hand. We walk off and we never let go of each other until we get to our tent.”
This may not be witchcraft but it is certainly magic — the everyday kind you can build with a friend you love over years of struggle and triumph. It’s how I will remember Christine McVie: taking her friend’s hand and making it fun.
Natalie Adler is a writer and an editor at Lux Magazine. She is working on a novel.