The rock star hits midlife

Times Staff Writer

Lindsey Buckingham, the sonic architect of Fleetwood Mac, has been through a lot: megastardom during the decadent 1970s; a split with bandmate and girlfriend Stevie Nicks that defined the rock 'n' roll breakup; 20 years of balancing pop stardom with an irrepressible avant-garde urge; the only band reunion by presidential request (for Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration); first-time parenthood at 48. But he never expected to live in Brentwood.

"I was living in this Neutra-style house way up in the hills in Bel-Air," Buckingham said, chatting in his comfortable den just west of the San Diego Freeway. "I'd had that property for 30 years -- it was my bachelor pad. Fleetwood Mac cut 'Tango in the Night' there in 1987, and Mick [Fleetwood] lived in a Winnebago in the front yard.

"When my wife and I started having children, I decided to knock it down," continued the 57-year-old father of three. "We built a Spanish. But it's not a great area for kids, you can't really go outside the gates or you'll fall down the hill. So we decided to get into a more 'Father Knows Best' environment."

Soon the Buckingham clan will inhabit a freshly built fairy tale home -- complete with turret -- a few blocks away from this rental. The children will have space to run circles around their dad. But Daddy will certainly also claim a room with a locking door, where he can protect his other progeny: his well-nurtured songs.

Today, Buckingham releases "Under the Skin," his first solo album in 14 years. Recorded mostly in hotel rooms during Fleetwood Mac's reunion tour in 2003, using little more than a guitar delay pedal and an acoustic guitar, it includes material dating 10 years or more. Two songs were recorded in the studio with Mac drummer Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, and one features Memphis-style horns arranged by Beck's father, David Campbell. Otherwise, it's all Buckingham, chasing that part of himself that life's responsibilities often steal away.

"I spent a long time focusing on something very narrow, probably in reaction to being part of such a large machine," he said of these songs. "With Fleetwood Mac, I walled up a lot of things. Part of the process is taking down those walls to see if there's anything left inside."

"Under the Skin" is a locket portrait of the pop star at midlife, trying to honor but also escape a weighty reputation. "Cast Away Dreams" and "Not Too Late" confront the conflict between domesticity and the artist's way. "Hearts will break with the choices we must make," Buckingham sings, sadly noting the rift that often arises in a family (including that other kind of family, the band) and the individualism that inspires enduring art.

On this quiet, intense album, Buckingham's guitar lines form delicate knots around incantatory melodies, and the echo of heavy delay helps his quavering tenor capture the full-court press of time. Buckingham finds the cadence of one of life's most difficult passages -- the journey into unequivocal adulthood.

Artists have a particularly hard time with that transition; Buckingham's personality, friends say, is quintessentially artistic. That may be why his music so vividly captures the tension between imagination and real life. "His driven sensibility -- it's almost childlike," Fleetwood said in a separate interview. "Lindsey protects his own innocence. You think he realizes something, and then you see he really doesn't. He's in his studio, focused, and that's that."

Having children blew open Buckingham's well-guarded self-absorption. "As a parent, there is a push-pull," he said. "When I was trying to finish, and one of my kids would say, 'Dad, you wanna

Buckingham has been tormented by conflicting loyalties before. After the record-breaking success of Mac's 1977 album "Rumours," he felt coerced into generating hits. "Tusk," the double album that came next, was Buckingham's act of resistance. It's a benchmark of experimental rock.

" 'Tusk' was an impulse," he said. "Over time, everyone in the band got drawn in. And then, because it didn't sell 16 million albums -- it sold four or five -- there was a backlash. There was a meeting. The band said, 'Lindsey, we're not going to do that anymore.' That's the only reason I started making solo records."

Buckingham made three fantastically odd solo albums. He also stayed in Fleetwood Mac for one more decade, then left the band, returned and repeated the cycle. It was a Fleetwood Mac song, "Big Love," that set the template for "Under the Skin." It became his spotlight number during Mac shows, a whorl of guitar picking and swooning vocals.

He began exploring other artists' songbooks in search of similarly powerful guitar vehicles; two, the Rolling Stones' "I Am Waiting" and Donovan's "Try for the Sun," appear on the new disc. His own material began to coalesce. But the machine asserted itself again, when Buckingham found himself at odds with his label, Warner Bros., over the album's focused sound.

"They didn't want me to put it out," he said, quickly adding that he's on good terms with the company now. "They wished me to put some rock material on, to make a hybrid, normal album. It might have been easier for them to market. But for 14 years I'd been trying to get something out from my heart, and I'm sorry, this is it."

The final version of "Under the Skin" is an innocent thing, more in sync with the experiments of younger artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Joseph Arthur than with typical rock-legend side projects. He hopes new fans will find him on tour. "I don't know who my audience is," he admits.

He does know where to find the old machine, and the fans who keep it well-oiled. Fleetwood Mac will tour again, and Buckingham is planning an electric record, maybe with a producer, probably with input from Fleetwood and McVie. The world may not have to wait a teenager's lifetime for his next release.

"After Christmas, we'll start, in theory," he said, not letting this project peep too far out of the cocoon yet. "I think it's going to rock. I don't know what it's doing yet."


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