Fleetwood Mac's Mad Hatter

Credit: Photograph by Danny Clinch

The Hawaiian chants a blessing and then the Scottish bagpiper welcomes everyone with a jig and a reel. The great Chandu – a familiar-looking, once-bankrupt, 6-foot-5 drummer – slips backstage and dons a fez and a cape. At a prime table, a 97-year-old groupie known as Mum sits in a wheelchair, wearing a red cardie despite the 80-degree heat. She keeps time with the warm-up band's music and squints at the setting Maui sun.

"Mick thinks he was the first to come to Hawaii, but he wasn't," says Bridget Fleetwood, her rheumy eyes reflecting the blue Pacific, just a few yards away. "I came here when I was 19, snuck over on a steamer ship and worked in the kitchen for a rich family." She nods firmly. "I was here first."

"Chandu the Genie Giant" – the local stage name for Mick Fleetwood – pops over to check on his drums. He takes in the end of Mum's tale and shakes his head.

"That isn't true," says Fleetwood with a chuckle. He moved Mum out seven years ago, from England to Maui, where he spends most of his downtime. "We lived in Egypt and Norway for real, but this is the story that she's got stuck in her head. Bless her."

A little later, Chandu takes the stage. Fleetwood plays a small cocktail kit in his normal bug-eyed animal style behind his longtime guitarist friend Rick Vito, who is billed as "King Paris," a vaguely Persian Lothario. There are maybe a hundred people here, but Mick's antics are supersize, like he's playing to the dude in the last row at Madison Square Garden. The band rips through originals and classics in an ersatz Arabic style, with two belly dancers providing eye candy. It is half cheesy, half excellent, but the sunburned set at Fleetwood's on Front Street loves it, so much so that one couple boogies their way onto the stage. Fleetwood takes some questions from the crowd and tells a story about a recurring dream: Charlie Watts is sick and Fleetwood is asked to sit in with the Stones. In dreamland, he kills it every time.

The snowy-haired Fleetwood glad-hands with the patrons after the show. Mick is very good at this; he made an extra million on the last Fleetwood Mac tour by hosting a preshow meet and greet near his drum kit. Tonight he patiently poses for pictures until the last customer is sated – this is the third restaurant of his financially baffling life and he swears this one is gonna work.


Fleetwood on tour in Ghana, in 1981. (Richard E. Aaron / Redferns / Getty Images)

He then pushes Mum outside to a waiting car. Out on Front Street, tourists gawk at the man who has kept Fleetwood Mac together through acid freak-outs, cocaine whiteouts, guitarists joining cults, and multiple rounds of intramural philandering. Mick is thinking about Mum's story. "You know, I love hotels and the road and telling stories, and I get a lot of that from Mum and Dad," says Fleetwood in a British accent that echoes Peter Sellers. He wrinkles his brow under his Kangol cap. "The more I think about it, Mum's story is truer than some stories that are true. Does that make sense?"

It does. Well, as much as any part of the life of a 67-year-old dyslexic can make sense when the fact that George Harrison was his brother-in-law ranks somewhere around 48th on the list of the most spectacular/horrifying/bizarre things about Michael John Kells Fleetwood. Fortunes and wives have been lost. Millions in coke have been snorted. Hawaiian estates and posh cars have been surrendered, then recaptured. Meanwhile, the Big Machine, as bandmate Lindsey Buckingham warily calls Fleetwood Mac, is getting back together and hitting the road. Again.

Yes, the great Chandu can tell you stories. Some will astound, some will amaze, and some will make you sad. Most of them will be true, if not in fact then in spirit. Mum has taught him well.

There's a caricature of Mick Fleetwood as the comedy relief in Fleetwood Mac, as a towering dandy in gold chains, wooden balls click-clacking, and foppish scarves. But it's an affectionate caricature for the women in Fleetwood Mac. Stevie Nicks remembers when she met him in the mid-1970s, and he was like no one she'd ever seen. "He was 6-foot-5, 125 pounds, in these perfect jeans with the jacket, the vest, and the really yellow gold fob watch. I thought he was the greatest thing."

Nicks describes Fleetwood as the peacemaker and mediator of the band. She is equally excited that Christine McVie, "the buffer," is back in the group, to balance the still occasionally tempestuous relationship between Nicks and former boyfriend Buckingham. McVie, returning after a 17-year exile, talks of Fleetwood like an old roommate, which they were back in the early 1970s. "He is basically the same guy I've known for 40 years," says McVie, with a laugh. "I'll say that he has lost a bit of his pomposity. Not to say that he's not pompous – he is."

Yes, Fleetwood is a man-giant who loves posing in drag, used to end parties with naked horse rides through Malibu, and once blew a small fortune in a poorly conceived Russian oil venture involving the KGB. He declared bankruptcy in the 1980s after multiple botched real estate deals and a fleet of luxury automobiles left him penniless. He has clawed his way back from sleeping in a friend's damp basement to real wealth, and he now owns – wait for it – a ton of real estate and a fleet of luxury automobiles. He is equal parts genius and fool, the cutup and the man McVie refers to as the Godfather.

The dichotomy doesn't offend him. Rather, it's Fleetwood who likes to project himself as the barking-mad Englishman banging the skins, and he plays the role well. But Machiavelli lurks inside the Mad Hatter. The other Mick Fleetwood is the functioning dysfunctional patriarch of a nearly 47-year-old musical family that has grossed a half-billion dollars while surviving multiple casualties.

The profit and the pain are never far away. Fleetwood owns four properties on Maui, and today he's at his bachelor pad, a sprawling cottage in the grassy hills above Kula. (He's in the process of his third divorce.) In the guest bathroom are shots of the 40-million-selling Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac taken by Annie Leibovitz. The living room contains a full drum kit, while a $200,000 BMW Alpina sits in the drive. "He's loved dumb old cars that he doesn't fit in since I met him," says Nicks, laughing. "He's one of those spirits who came in Mick Fleetwood and is going to leave Mick Fleetwood."

There are other, darker artifacts. Lying on a chair in the dining room is a framed picture of a beautiful young man – Danny Kirwan, a guitarist from the band's early blues days, 1968 to 1972. "Danny was wonderful, but he couldn't handle the life," says Fleetwood quietly.

It's true. Kirwan stopped eating, drank only beer, and one night refused to take the stage, silently mocking the band from the back of the house as they floundered without him. Fleetwood fired him, and Kirwan drifted, becoming mentally ill and homeless for decades. He is not to be confused with guitarist Jeremy Spencer, who went out for cigarettes in San Francisco and joined a cult, or, most tragically, founder and guitar legend Peter Green, who freaked out after dropping acid in Germany, left the band, and grew out his fingernails so he couldn't play anymore. Green worked for a time pumping gas and now lives with a court-appointed caretaker. It still breaks Fleetwood's heart to see Green when the band swings through England.


The band circa 1975 (John McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood)
(Fin Costello / Redferns / Getty Images)

"I've gotten used to knowing I just don't know him anymore, which is huge for me," says Fleetwood. He sits at his kitchen table, dressed in a blue shirt, pinstripepants, a purple vest, and a flash scarf, a jester in search of a king. He pauses and his blue eyes well up with tears. "I'm OK with it now. For many, many, many years I was not OK with it. I always wished, somehow, that he were back. He was hugely close to me."

Fleetwood stands up and walks around the room. "There's nothing I can do about it."

He settles his legs back into his chair.

"Certain people were not equipped, emotionally, for all of this," says Fleetwood with a sigh. "I believe I was brought up really well, with the idea that no matter what happens, 'You're OK inside yourself, Mick.' A lot of people around me weren't so lucky. They found a way out of their lives by being consumed with talent. But they didn't have any perspective at all, and they actually started believing the bullshit – missing the humor of the trappings, the trimmings. They lost the plot."

Mind you, the collateral damage Fleetwood is talking about was just a prelude to the melodrama that is the popular version of Fleetwood Mac. John married Christine. Lindsey slept with Stevie. Mick slept with Stevie. Christine divorced John and slept with the lighting director and then with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. John stayed drunk for decades. Stevie hit cocaine and Klonopin. Christine retreated to an English country farm. Mick went broke. Lindsey threw misunderstood-genius tantrums that ended with his slapping Stevie and leaving the band for nine years. (The last fact is recorded in Mick's 1991 memoir, which he admits was compiled while "I was out of my body." He has another on the way.)

The one constant has been Fleetwood, both enabler and protector. He used to make sure that when his zonked-up guests left his weeklong parties in the 1970s, they had on their seat belts, and he would set an alarm clock to wake himself during binges because he didn't want to die like John Belushi. Back then, Fleetwood categorized the three phases of drug use: ascending, transcending, and disintegration. Ascending was the first days of a binge; transcending was the crest, when you felt like you might no longer have a body. Disintegration was the crash. When that happened, Fleetwood exiled you.

"When disintegration was looming, you had to leave," remembers Fleetwood of his cocaine-fueled L.A. years. "I had this large house, about 13 bedrooms. They were all like cells. Like a hospital ward. And if they didn't realize that they were too far gone, I would pull rank and go, 'Disintegration. You're done. Into the room you go.' "

The scary thing is that Fleetwood was the band's manager during his many snow days. That was a long time ago, but the gigster lifestyle remains, minus the powders. (He still likes a little wine.) Fleetwood is here in Maui theoretically resting because it all starts up again in October with a North American tour. This is both a heartwarming tale of a prodigal daughter coming home and a fiscal bonanza personified by the tour title, "On with the Show." The slogan is Fleetwood's mantra for both his life and Fleetwood Mac.


Fleetwood performing in Paris in 2013. (David Wolff-Patrick / Redferns / Getty Images)

Nicks once told Rolling Stone that what made the band work was their differences as they walked onstage: "Christine is dressed in her trip, and John is wearing cutoffs and a penguin T-shirt with knickers and vest, looking like Ichabod Crane, and Lindsey's in a suit, and I'm dripping in chiffon. It's weird. All these people look like they're going to a different place."

But Mick was always at the band's core. "When we'd be arguing, he'd go, 'Oh, come on. Let's go get a bite to eat,' " says Nicks. "He'd say, 'It's all good. We're so lucky. We make a lot of money. We have good jobs.' "

Even in the darkest days of the 1990s, when Fleetwood and John McVie toured with a revolving cast of ringers, he never seriously thought of ending his band. When I ask how he's kept Fleetwood Mac Enterprises afloat, Mick first describes himself as a weasel and then corrects himself.

"I'm more a ferret," says Fleetwood as he eats a zucchini muffin prepared by his personal chef and trainer. "I'll ferret things out. I'm juggling tours and placating situations – that's what I do. It's like a dyslexic sort of criminal mind put to work."

That approach – with a benevolent twist – was crucial in bringing McVie back into the band. "He had tears in his eyes when I told him I wanted to come back," says McVie, who had a long, deathly fear of flying that left her stranded in England for nearly two decades. But she started attending therapy to get over her phobia. Sitting next to her on her first flight from London to Maui was Fleetwood.

"I used to look at Chris and go, 'How sad that no one's gonna hear that voice,' " says Fleetwood. "She used to paint and sculpt, and I would say, 'How about setting up an art room,' and she was like, 'Oh, maybe.' She was almost in some ways like Peter Green, when he turned off that artistic conduit for whatever reason. I think for her it became, 'Is this it?' and then it all unfolded, and bit by bit she came back into the world and asked, 'Why am I closed down?' And I said, 'You need to be creative. You've squashed something, and that has ended up crucifying you.' "

Of course, there's a financial boon to McVie's return. A tour with the "classic five" is expected to gross in the low seven figures per night. Fleetwood, who can sometimes sound like a VH1 special, insists this isn't about the money; it's about the songs.

"If I had given up a long time ago, a lot of great music would never have been made; that's just a fact," says Fleetwood, looking out through a Hawaiian mist. "Those are my songs now. I never used to know what it was I really did. I don't write. Now I go, 'You know what, Mick? You, for a reasonably measurable amount – not the amount but measurably – you kept this band together.' "

He pauses, perhaps realizing the truth and grandiosity of what he has just said. But the sometime clown doesn't back down.

"And that's not hyperbole. And I don't mind saying it. And that's my song."

There's a way to understand Mick Fleetwood, and it's through "Lettuce Leaf." Fleetwood was a 20-something penniless musician playing blues with John Mayall when he saw a 1933 Austin Seven four-seater on a London street. He left the owner a note proclaiming, "I'm in love with your car, if it ever needs a good home, please call me."

He bought the car two years later, just as Fleetwood Mac was forming, and he nicknamed it Lettuce Leaf for its green color. He drove Lettuce Leaf to his 1970 wedding to Jenny Boyd, the younger sister of Pattie Boyd, then married to George Harrison.

Time passed, and the money and cars started coming in. Fleetwood stashed Lettuce Leaf at his friend Eric Clapton's British estate when he moved to L.A. in the 1970s and forgot about her for 14 years. His band sold millions of records; he got divorced, remarried, and got divorced again from Jenny. And then he got a call from Clapton's manager, asking him if he remembered the Austin. Fleetwood found Lettuce Leaf in an apple orchard, with birds and squirrels making it their home. He had the car restored and shipped to Maui. Now he squires Mum to lunch in Lettuce Leaf every Sunday.


Fleetwood' 97-year-old mother lives in one of his homes; they eat lunch together every Sunday.
(Photograph by Danny Clinch)

Fleetwood's tendency is never to let go of anything, whether it's Lettuce Leaf, his band, or the stubborn delusion there's money to be made in celebrity restaurants. This has been a blessing with the band, less so in his personal and financial life. He bought a farm outside Sydney in 1980, and when his accountant flew out to tell him he couldn't afford it anymore, Fleetwood simply departed for Singapore in the middle of the night, leaving his accountant behind and sending a note reading:

"Oh Brian, Brian, we've something to say./We stopped in Singapore the other day./To a hotel we went, the best in town./Amusements we sought, amusements we found."

Fleetwood eventually lost the farm and everything else. But he claims he doesn't give a damn about the past. We're now driving too fast in the Alpina up a hairpin road to the top of the 10,000-foot Haleakala Volcano, the highest point on the island. He gained his love for speed from his father, an RAF fighter pilot, and it was his peripatetic career that ingrained a love of the road in his only son. Mick spent his toddler years in Egypt, where the family lived out of cardboard boxes arranged into a hut because there was no other housing available for junior officers. Despite raising children in the dreary 1950s era of postwar-austerity Britain, John Fleetwood taught Mick and his two sisters they didn't have to go for a typically British quiet life. Part of it was John's own frustrated creativity; he was a writer but sublimated his ambition to his country and his family. Mick recorded his father reading his own stories and played the tapes obsessively. (John Fleetwood died in 1990.)

"When I used to get stoned, I would play them for Peter Green," says Fleetwood. "I wanted to share my father. Green would be, 'There goes Mick again, bringing out his father's tapes – we'd better get ready for a 10-hour 'you're gonna listen' session."

But there was a downside to Fleetwood's anything-is-possible childhood. He never learned when to consolidate his gains or take a breath; it was always on to the next gig, the next car, and the next Australian farm.

"It's apparent I don't have huge amounts of regard about money," says Fleetwood as we approach the gates of Haleakala National Park. He flips open his wallet and multiple Costco cards fly out. He digs for his national park senior-citizen pass. The park ranger asks for a picture ID, which makes Fleetwood roar and gives him the idea that if he goes broke again, he can make pocket money by running tourists up to the volcano on his senior pass.

When the big crash came, Fleetwood was photographed sitting in an empty pool with a Tiffany lamp. "I think my Achilles' heel is I do believe I know who I am – that one minute you're sleeping on a mattress in someone's back room, and the next minute you've bought a mansion that you maybe can't afford, because deep down you go, 'Well, this could be great.' "

We get out of the car and walk around. It's 40 degrees cooler than at the house, but Mick is prepared, pulling windbreakers from the trunk. The site is a mixture of dream and nightmare. There's a prickly white plant called the Haleakala silversword that is found only here, but across the valley is a disturbing set of military-type buildings that house some of the world's largest telescopes for tracking stars and the occasional Chinese satellite. Fleetwood stretches out his arms.

"I have had moments here," he says with a giant smile. "They've been very dramatic, actually."

It's not clear if Fleetwood is talking about his life or the volcano.

We start the long drive home. Maybe it's because he's tired, but Fleetwood loses confidence in his importance to the Big Machine. He regrets that he never took songwriting seriously and confesses to occasionally sending songs to Buckingham, but admits Lindsey often can't figure out his eccentric tuning. He holds the band's creative leader in awe and exasperation.

"One of his solo records took fucking seven years," says Fleetwood. "I think he overcooked the veal. I go, 'You're running this into the ground.' Well, he's insecure, and I mean that nicely. I think the whole band is insecure. Then you go, 'Sweetheart, you kidding me? You're one of the greatest guitar players in the fucking world,'  and he has no fucking idea! He's a child."

There's a fascination that fans have for a band whose classic lineup hasn't recorded a new album since before Taylor Swift was born. I ask him about the appeal.

"There's connective tissue with these people," says Fleetwood. "We're not just five individuals. We are people that have cried, slept, had affairs, cheated on each other, made amends, written songs about each other, relapsed into love affairs again – that's why it works."

Fleetwood long ago bridged the gap with Nicks, with whom he had a brief affair while both were coked out of their minds and Fleetwood was married to his second wife. "There were years when we were not answering the phone," he says. There was a hiccup when Fleetwood grumbled in an interview three years ago that Nicks was the reason the band wasn't touring and suggested her reluctance might bring the band to an end. "There was a point where I was like, 'Luke, let it go,' " says Fleetwood in an Obi-Wan Kenobi voice. " 'Let the band go.' But Stevie made me aware that leaving the band was the last thing she wanted to do."

Nicks is godmother to Fleetwood's two youngest daughters, Ruby and Tessa, who live in Los Angeles with their mother. He saw her recently at one of their plays, a musical.

"She is the fairy godmother," says Fleetwood. "And she was so un-dolled-up and relaxed. She's not worried about anyone taking pics. I love seeing her in that mode."

Then there's John McVie, their friendship still solid after 50 years of providing the backbeat for divas and visionaries. "John has the first penny he earned," says Fleetwood. "I joke, or not joke, that I'm going to end up as his driver in Honolulu, where he lives."

We're almost back to the Kula house, and Mick's thoughts are bouncing around like a Chinese satellite falling out of orbit. He talks of his wine business and his regrets about not spending more time with Amy and Lucy, his older daughters – Lucy now lives on the Kula property. There's sadness that his two youngest daughters are in California and he doesn't see them every day like before the divorce. Talking about his band members has brought back the old feeling that he doesn't measure up to the others – the polar opposite of his proclamations back at the house.

"What's sitting next to you is someone who desperately wanted to express himself and sort of didn't have any specificity for whatever transpired and became Chauncey Gardiner," says Fleetwood in a soft voice.


(Photograph by Danny Clinch)

In Being There, Peter Sellers plays Chauncey, a dull-witted gardener whose simple sayings are mistaken for profound musings by a U.S. president. I ask Fleetwood if he's somehow saying he's no smarter than Chauncey. Fleetwood perks up.

"I just love that whole premise of Chauncey's line '?There will be growth in the spring.' "

He says that statement reflects his hopeless optimism. "In some ways, that could translate to my approach to life: 'Well, if you do this and do that, why wouldn't it all happen for you?' "

We pull into the driveway and he brings the Alpina to a stop. A giant childish smile spreads across his face.

"God, I love this car."

A few days later, Mick Fleetwood sits next to his mum at her Maui house, a modest place that was once owned by John McVie. Mick looks at a bag of pills with intense concentration. He pulls one out, and his assistant yells at him to stop.

"Mick, you already took your vitamins. Those are tomorrow's."

Fleetwood grins. "I thought there was another quota. See? I'm very obedient."

It's time for lunch, and Mick cracks a Heineken for Mum. She's feisty in a purple striped sweater. Her caregiver says goodbye in a loud voice that annoys her. Mum waits until she's out of earshot.

"They think I'm deaf so they shout!"

Mick nods and puts his hand on hers.

"I know. That was a shouting match."

Mick talks about the old days and Mum sits mostly quiet, until the name of Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson, Mick's old friend and Christine McVie's ex, comes up. She sits up straight.

"He was totally crazy. Yes?"

Her son agrees. "He basically killed himself by being crazy. Dennis Wilson was that person where he became a cartoon of himself."

"Very sad."

"You're right, Mum. I've been close to that a few times. Very sad."

Mick tries to take the conversation to lighter memories, a moment when Dad laughed at a flaccid inflatable penguin, long a Fleetwood Mac logo, that wouldn't inflate on stage. He's not sure how much she takes in.

"People come over she knows all her life and she doesn't remember them, but things like Dennis she remembers," says Fleetwood. "It's hard for me."

But there's one thing that brings her back, Mick and his music. He pulls out a ukulele, sits down next to her, and picks out a tune that meshes with the sound of swaying palm trees and chiming birds. Mum sways and waves her napkin. Mick starts singing.

They'd have a laugh for sure,

If they only knew the stories we could tell,

But Mum's the word.

You'll just have to use your imagination,

Mum's the word.

Hey, hey, could have been a Beatle, but we're just fine knowing Mum's the word.

Before you know it, we'll be out of here without a care.

Mum's the word.

Mick Fleetwood puts down the ukulele. His mum claps. And then the boy kisses his mother on the cheek.