Stevie Nicks says she wrote the song in about five minutes. I can believe that. It’s a very simple song, one of those iconic rock ditties that are lightning rods for eisegesis. Primarily about her relationship with Lindsey Buckingham and their struggles making it in the music business, with elements of her relationship with her father in there as well, the song is still remembered today because a few months after it was written, Nicks and Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac. The song was included on the band’s eponymous 1975 album, but it would take a live version recorded in the 90’s as well as a couple prominent cover versions to cement it in pop culture. Today, it finds a place in the rock canon — like a whole bunch of rolling stones, you might say.
I love “Landslide” very much. To say that the five minutes it took to write were fruitful would be a gross understatement. Buckingham’s confident yet subdued guitar pulls the song forward, and the lyrics contain enough nuggets of genuine feeling that I can forgive the mixed metaphor of “changing ocean tides” and “snow-covered hills.” The “mirror in the sky” is such a potent and mysterious image — possibly meaningless, but fun to play with. Best of all is the ambivalence I hear in Nicks’ voice about the landslide itself. At first, it’s simply a crisis, causing her to question whether she can survive the changes it brings. But since it’s an agent of change, corresponding with “the seasons of life,” Nicks seems to resign herself by the end to accept it. When she says “the landslide will bring you down” after it’s already brought her down, it doesn’t sound like a warning to me, just a statement of fact.
The Dixie Chicks introduced me to the song in 2002. At the time, I was too young to worry about the potential for desecration inherent in a cover of a beloved song. Besides, I wasn’t familiar with Fleetwood Mac, so it wasn’t a beloved song to me yet. But soon it became one, and to this day I prefer the Chicks’ version. Adding the gentle twang of a mandolin and vocal harmonizing, as well as slowing the tempo down a bit, gives me more to savor than the original. Mostly, though, I love it more because it hit me at the right age. At my age now, my peers tend to complain that music isn’t what it used to be. They fail to recall that people ten years older than us were saying the same thing about the music we grew up with. If I’m trying to be objective, I have to say that the Glee version of this song is…decent. But also superfluous. It’s just an imitation of preexisting versions. Go with Fleetwood Mac, the Dixie Chicks, or the Smashing Pumpkins.
Why am I thinking about this song right now? Well, I find myself in a similar season of my life. I’m about the same age Nicks was when she wrote it, and I’m also living in Colorado (she was in Aspen, I’m in Loveland). At the time, she faced uncertainty whether making a career in music was going to work. Likewise, I’m at a point where I don’t know if a writing career is possible for me, or what kind of writing I should particularly focus on. I’ve felt the fear of change a number of times before, but right now that fear is pretty acute. Nicks climbed the mountain and turned around, but I feel like I haven’t even started climbing yet. Which of the two is more devastating: a landslide that only buries you where you are, or one that drags you down the mountain with it?
There’s something else, though, something bigger than me. For the last few days, I haven’t seen my reflection in the hills. Instead, there’s been smoke from the smallest of three major wildfires currently ravaging Colorado. The largest of these fires, near Colorado Springs, has already destroyed more homes than any fire in state history and it’s not done yet. It’s a heartbreaking time. Like an avalanche, a wildfire is a cataclysm. Everyone affected by it is forced to start anew. One of the things that mountain fires do is destroy natural protections against landslides, sometimes leading to devastation upon devastation.
I would imagine a simple love song is an inadequate response to that kind of pain, but who am I to say what can connect with people? The line “I’ve been afraid of changing because I’ve built my life around you” works as a response to damaged relationships, separation, even death. Reading our own lives into a song isn’t such a bad thing, because poetry is always made to transcend its origins and communicate in a more universal way. The music, meanwhile, bypasses language and strikes at the emotions themselves. This song can gently carry the listener to a place of sorrow or a place of peace. That’s how deeply felt it is. That’s why it endures, why it continues to speak to me personally, and why I thought of it again this week.