She came from a dying Rust Belt town in southeast Ohio, and I came from a famously dying Rust Belt town an hour north of Detroit. We were both oldest children, with the same letter leading our first and last name. Our birthdays were one day apart. And, we both loved Fleetwood Mac.
By Connor Coyne
In August 1998, my life was a hot mess and the Midwest was a big place.
I was nineteen, back home from college in Chicago, and working in Flint while living with my parents in the suburbs. I’d easily fallen back into the intimacy and intensity of work at Flint Youth Theatre, and the tangled friendships and relationships with people I’d known for years. Also, I was pining, for romance, for a relationship, or even a concrete idea of love, and so one night I hooked up with one of the several Katies I knew. It was a phenomenally bad idea. I’ll spare you the cringey details.
The summer’s one saving grace was that I’d been invited to house sit for several of the staff at Flint Youth Theatre, as they went on their vacations. That’s how, a week after my twentieth birthday, I found myself sharing a car with Walter, an actor, director, and mentor, as he drove me down to Bloomfield Township, to watch over a beautiful colonial saltbox house with a full library of Laurie Anderson cassette tapes and a balcony looking out over a forest.
Walter was also lending me his Geo Prism, and had given me permission to drive it as far as Detroit or Saginaw. Chicago notwithstanding, these were still large distances to me – a great measure of freedom – and as I thought about this, I watched the farms of Genesee County genuflect beneath the gentle hills of northern Oakland, and wondered about the millions of people living throughout southeast Michigan. They had jobs. They had houses. Did they feel as heartsick as I did?
Walter put on a CD as we drove. He asked if I knew Fleetwood Mac. I only knew the band’s name from the Smashing Pumpkins cover of “Landslide,” but the music registered at once. “Rhiannon.” “Don’t Stop.” “Go Your Own Way,” the very sentiment keeping me up each night with worry. Of course I knew Fleetwood Mac. As a kid, I’d heard all these songs a hundred times on the radio. Back then they had been boring, grown up music; music about relationships and attachments and lovers talking all the time and their stupid worries. The music hit harder that day.
I heard Christine McVie singing to the lighting director that he “made loving fun.” She’d allegedly told her then husband, John, the bassist, that she’d written the song about a beloved dog. If you’ve ever heard that song, this is not a good example of a convincing lie. But the song that really hit me that day was “Little Lies.”
The lyrics themselves seemed trite to me; I’d already heard this business from the Cardigans – this was the 1990s – but something about Christine’s delivery struck me as more authentic. The first quavering synths validated and amplified what I’d been feeling all summer: wounded uncertainty, desire, doubt, and confusion about the world and my place in it. A few moments later, with John McVie’s bass thumping along like an urgent plea, Christine chanted: “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies!” and her words sounded more like a command than a plea. I wanted someone to tell me lies. I wanted something worth lying about. I felt these upheavals as the music played and Walter drove.
He drove carefully. I think he had cruise control set to a responsible speed. I had time to see these hills and subdivisions unfolding with song, layered against emotion, real and imagined stories, and so through motion and music I felt like I was meeting Oakland County for the first time.
* * * * *
I bought the CD before heading back to Chicago. The cover art is minimal; bland even: a stylized flower (evidently it also appears on antique ukuleles?) against a background of green and brown-gray, like the dried grass that gets stuck up inside a lawnmower. I recognized and enjoyed every song. I especially loved Christine’s and Stevie’s singing. Stevie helped me soar when I was sick of so much gravity and the amount of time I spent waiting for the 55 bus when it was six degrees outside. But Christine’s singing was better for moments of homesickness; for remembering the friends and family I’d left behind, and wondering what role they’d play in my future. The Midwest was still big, and I was all alone in a city of three million people.
That quarter I was determined to make the most of every class, every activity, every dollar I’d borrowed with interest, and I utterly wrung myself out. In December, when it was all finished – my final paper turned in at nine in the morning after pulling two consecutive all-nighters – my mom picked me up to take me back to Michigan. I was coming down with a cold, too tired to sleep, and I slouched down in the passenger seat as snow spat against the windshield. Chicago slipped into the forests and wetlands of northern Indiana. I asked if I could put on Fleetwood Mac; my mom agreed. I guess she was probably thankful that I wasn’t subjecting her to Pearl Jam or the Goodie Mob.
This time, “Dreams” was the song that hit.
I had already heard it a hundred times. My main takeaway had always been, “thunder often happens when it’s not raining.” Even though I now called myself a Fleetwood Mac fan, I’d always thought that lyric was stupid. It took a four-hour drive, sickness, and utter exhaustion to teach me my own foolishness. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of volume swell and congas. Maybe it was Christine’s vocals sliding into Stevie’s words during the chorus. It could have been the fragmenting relationships throughout the band as they sang and played their hearts out. This wasn’t a song about meteorological phenomena. For me, then and forever, it was about watching flying snow and wondering if true communion with another human was even possible. Wondering what price we might be willing to pay for a sense of completion. Viewed that way, thunder only happens when it’s raining.
I studied the anonymous, starched fields of blasted soy and stricken cherry orchards, and for the first time felt like I could knew the land we travelled across. The march of the music had made them each distinct, and the Midwest got a little smaller.
* * * * *
Another year passed. I didn’t listen to Fleetwood Mac very often. I discovered Madonna’s Ray of Light and it jealously guarded my attention for a whole year. Nine Inch Nails dropped The Fragile. I even found time for the Lords of Acid.
One night, in the chill of a Chicago March, I accidentally got locked in a building with the props designer of a play I directed. We talked while trying to find a way to get out. I didn’t know her well. Her name was Jessica and she had an unpronounceable Polish last name. We had a few things in common. Our fathers both worked in factories; an atypical background at our prestigious university. She came from a dying Rust Belt town in southeast Ohio, and I came from a famously dying Rust Belt town an hour north of Detroit. We were both oldest children, with the same letter leading our first and last name. Our birthdays were one day apart. And, we both loved Fleetwood Mac.
As I got to know Jessica, I initially saw Fleetwood Mac as a means to an end: a way to connect with a human I desperately wanted to know and keep near me. And I exploited every trick John and Lindsey and Mick and Stevie and Christine gave me: “Tusk” and “Sara” and “Everywhere” and “Say You Love Me.” It wasn’t until much later that I realized that a band who had devoted their entire existence to the study of relationships – even the ugly, treacherous, duplicitous aspects of love and desire – had helped expand my capacity to understand and talk about these things. Or that the many road trips I had taken in their company, with people I loved and trusted – my mom and my mentor – had shown me that the distance between Michigan and Ohio and Illinois really wasn’t all that great. That connection might be possible after all.
John and Christine McVie got divorced. So did Mick Fleetwood. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks didn’t last, either. But Jessica and I played their music at our wedding in 2005, and seventeen years later, we’re still together.
Fleetwood Mac helped make the Midwest smaller.
Connor Coyne (he/him) is a writer living and working in Flint, Michigan. Connor has published several novels and a short story collection, and his work has been featured in Vox.com, Belt Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the director of the Flint-based Gothic Funk Press and is facilitator for the Flint Public Library‘s writing workshops. Connor is a graduate of the University of Chicago and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School. Today, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Flint’s College Cultural Neighborhood (aka the East Village), less than a mile from the house where he grew up.