In the Coen brothers film The Man Who Wasn’t There, there is a scene whereby a pretentious French piano instructor dismissively explains, in roundabout terms, ‘I don’t know what it is, but she hasn’t got it’. On the surface, this mystic je ne sais quoi of artistry may well seem like the sort of elitist tripe that has allowed trashcans to sell for millions at the Museum of Modern Art, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t more than a grain of truth to it.
In this stunning acoustic rendition of ‘Gypsy’, Stevie Nicks transfigures a few simple, sparse chords and a hushed raspy vocal into a track stopping performance, brimming with that a hatful of that certain je ne sais quoi we often call soul. And there was good reason for so much expression to be poured into the wispy piece of music too.
The song, written by Nicks, was originally intended to feature on her solo debut Bella Donna in 1980, however, given the limited space that records allowed back then, it fell shy of making the cut. A tragedy would later ensure that the song saw the light of day with Fleetwood Mac following the sad death of Nicks’ best friend Robin Anderson, as Nicks viewed the tale of a trailblazing woman baring her inner fearlessness as a fitting tribute.
As Nicks told US Magazine in 1990: “Robin was one of the few women who ever got leukaemia and then got pregnant. And they had to take the baby [named Matthew] at six-and-a-half months, and then she died two days later. And when she died, I went crazy. I just went insane. And so did her husband. And we were the only two that could really understand the depth of the grief that we were going through.”
Unable to reconcile their grief, Nicks and her late friend’s husband, Kim Anderson, would later marry. As Nicks explains: “I was determined to take care of that baby, so I said to Kim, ‘I don’t know, I guess we should just get married.’ And so we got married three months after she died, and it was a terrible, terrible mistake. We didn’t get married because we were in love, we got married because we were grieving and it was the only way that we could feel like we were doing anything. And we got divorced three months later.”
Nicks then heartbreakingly concluded: “I haven’t seen Kim, nor have I seen Matthew, since that day. I suppose that Matthew will find me when he’s ready. I mean, I am, really, next to Robin, his mommy.” Motherhood is something that Nicks has continually reflected on over her career, often poignantly admitting she chose music over parenting.
This makes it all the more profound that Mick Fleetwood described the track as one of his favourites, adding: “It really crystallizes that whole period of the early 1980s, when we were in our mid-30s and beginning to look back at our lost youth.”
This whole welter of emotion and circumstance seems to be wrought out in this humble session performance. The bravura of the full band incarnation is distilled down to a solemn hymn for this stripped-back take, and it bristles with the sort of depth that never once yearns for something bigger. Nicks can rattle the rafters like a hurricane, but when something more silken is called for, she’s as ethereal as they come.