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Music

How Janis Joplin and Grace Slick inspired a classic Fleetwood Mac song

Gypsy‘ is one of Fleetwood Mac’s greatest songs. An atmospheric thing of ethereal beauty, the album it came from, 1982s Mirage, saw the band embrace the ’80s and build on the heights that had been established on Tusk and Rumours towards the end of the ’70s. Catchy and heartfelt, it touched on every key facet of a Fleetwood Mac composition. 

Aside from the compositional elements, the song is also noted for what influenced its creation. Inspired by the nostalgia for Nicks’ pre-Fleetwood Mac life, it turns out that it is also connected to two of the counterculture’s most important figures; Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane vocalist Grace Slick. 

During a 2009 interview with EW, Nicks discussed the story behind the song. Sick of fame and all its trappings by this point in the early ’80s, she was desperate to return to her younger years, before any of the heartache and emotional torment that being in such a massive band brought: “In the old days, before Fleetwood Mac, Lindsey (Buckingham) and I had no money, so we had a king-size mattress, but we just had it on the floor,” Nicks explained.

Adding: “I had old vintage coverlets on it, and even though we had no money it was still really pretty… Just that and a lamp on the floor, and that was it—there was a certain calmness about it.”

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Trying to recreate this simple time of her life, Nicks also revealed how she often tries to hark back to this point in her life today. She said: “To this day, when I’m feeling cluttered, I will take my mattress off of my beautiful bed, wherever that may be, and put it outside my bedroom, with a table and a little lamp”. 

Nicks then gave the big reveal. Taking us back to the cultural home of the counterculture, San Francisco during the 1960s, she discussed the heavy dose of nostalgia that underpins the song. She said that the lyrics mentioned a shop where Joplin and Slick frequented. “That’s the words: ‘So I’m back to the velvet underground’ — which is a clothing store in downtown San Francisco, where Janis Joplin got her clothes, and Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane, it was this little hole in the wall, amazing, beautiful stuff — ‘back to the floor that I love, to a room with some lace and paper flowers, back to the gypsy that I was'”.

Another point of the song that fed into its nostalgia arrives because it is intended as a tribute to her close school friend, Robin Synder Anderson, who died in October 1982 from leukaemia. As Snyder was dying, Nicks dedicated the song to her. Since its inception, Nicks has found it hard to perform the song in concert, given just how all-encompassing the emotions that drive it are.

A tribute to better times, at face value you’d never have thought that ‘Gypsy’ was such a dense song lyrically. Harking back to the heady days of the counterculture, invoking images of two pioneering women, Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, whilst also in honour of a lost best friend, this knowledge almost makes the song unlistenable.

The beauty of the music compounds the emotionally charged lyrics, making it one of Nicks and Fleetwood Mac’s best efforts by a long way.