The Edge of Thirteen
by Jen Michalski
Welsh witch, gold dust woman, whatever you want to call her, when I first saw Stevie Nicks in the MTV video “Stand Back,” backlit and strutting toward a huge fan while on an elevated treadmill, her arms spread like a powerful chiffon bird, it was if she had swooped into our living room and stole my heart.
It was the summer of 1983, and my twin brother, Scott, was actually in love first. For our 11th birthday, he asked our parents for Stevie’s second album, The Wild Heart, along with the Ewok village from Stars Wars’ Return of the Jedi. I, wisely, made fun of Steve Nicks and my brother’s crush, biding my time. It was a mistake, I had learned as a twin, to covet the same things. We’d already shared an Atari with one good joystick and had an epic battle over the red crayon when we were four. So at 12, when he moved onto Fangoria magazine and the first Terminator movie, I inherited his Stevie album and moved in for the kill.
I should say overkill. There was not one piece of Stevie Nicks merchandise that I didn’t own–posters, concert videos and programs, magazines, photos, t-shirts, my own menagerie of shawls and lace (which, because I was a tomboy, I merely collected and did not wear). I took photos of the television when Stevie was on and eagerly awaited the flash-exposed, blurry pictures of her face sandwiched between vacation and birthday pictures in the packets my mother brought home from the photolab. I even wrote fan fiction of a dreamy, blond-haired rock star who dated a man who looked a lot like Tom Petty.
In my pre-pubescent wasteland, where I wasn’t pretty, wasn’t skinny, and ergo wasn’t popular, Stevie Nicks was my lifeline–a mysterious, elegant woman with folklore-ish origins who wrote lyrics that to me rivaled the Bronte sisters. She lounged over her white piano in her mansion like Godiva over a horse. Her sex appeal lay not in her low-cut unitard and perfectly blow-dried blond hair but the fact that she was a woman who wrote about dreams, witches, Beauty and the Beast, white-winged doves on the edge of seventeen (whatever the fuck that was about), and everything else you would find in a 13-year-old girl’s bedroom.
It never seemed strange to me that a then 30-year-old woman would write about things that were in my bedroom. To me, she was nobility, worthy of the same ceramic Avon statues of Prince Charles and Lady Diana that my mother showcased in a curio case above our television. I knew that even though I was a girl from a blue-collar background who looked more like Kristy McNicholl’s chubby cousin than Lisa Whelchel from Facts of Life, I too could become a dreamy, sophisticated lady like Stevie Nicks.
The warning signs that Stevie Nicks may not have been an ethereal, free-spirited gypsy from the velvet underground were there. I just chose not to see them. When you’re young, everyone in a position of authority seems kind, affirming of you, and, most importantly, wise. Until suddenly, they aren’t. Maybe they molest you or beat you or ignore you while they’re trying to find your next stepmother or stepfather. Maybe they tell you the benevolent God that they pray to every night for salvation is sending you, specifically, to hell because Pat Robertson told them so.
Or maybe they’re a drug addict. Stevie Nicks, to my horror, was the latter. I found out innocently enough while reading the People Magazine that my mother brought home from the grocery store every week. It was 1985; I was two years’ deep into Stevie-dom and for my birthday that year, my mother had saved up to buy me my first CD player and the first CD for my collection, Stevie’s new album, Rock a Little (and one of her last platinum sellers). There, in the section toward the front of the magazine that lists marriages, divorces, births, arrests, and other monumental events of celebrities great and small, a small paragraph reported that Stevie Nicks, at the close of her North American tour, had checked into the Betty Ford Clinic for cocaine addiction.
I knew addiction, and I knew the Betty Ford Clinic. My own father had checked into the Hazelden Betty Ford clinic in Baltimore the year before, in 1984, for alcoholism. It would not be his last rodeo with rehab, but I remember, when he went for his maiden voyage back on the wagon, asking my mother whether things would be finally be okay, whether Dad would stop drinking, go back to his job, and quit hitting her. I expected the sitcom answer, which, even in the era of Norman Lear television, was still mostly positive and affirmative. I expected to hear her say “yes,” for the credits to roll, and the studio audience to clap as we learned our important life lesson in the least-destructive, 30-minute way possible.
My mother said instead, “I don’t know.”
1984 had been a rough year for my family. After my father quit drinking, to escape the stigma at work, he applied for a job transfer. We moved from Baltimore to a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore almost three hours away. My brother and I left behind our friends and started middle school. I was lonely and angry and, after only six months in, our father was drinking heavily again and in danger of losing his job. Even though my father had pulled the rug out from under the Barbie Dream House of my family, to that point I still had Stevie to cling to, to live in her wild heart and walk vicariously in her platform boots. But if People Magazine was the gospel (and to my family, it was) and Stevie was as fallible as my father, more gold dust woman than white-winged dove, what did I have, really?
I was staunchly straight edge as a teen, which made Stevie’s addiction all the more painful. I’d seen the first-hand the effects of alcoholism. Although I didn’t understand the mechanism of disease, I knew that it made my father do selfish and dangerous things. He drove drunk all the time, even colliding with a telephone pole half a mile from our house on his way home (thankfully, he was the only passenger and walked away with a few scrapes). Once, he tried to hide a fifth of whiskey in the engine block of our car as we were about to leave for a trip. Another time, he accosted my brother and I in the garage when we got home from school, my brother’s BB rifle aimed at us. We laughed at him and went inside the house, but we locked the door to the garage. And we locked ourselves in our bedrooms until our mom came home.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing was not his scary break from sobriety but that fact that he was completely unreliable. When I got home late on a Saturday night from a band function, no one waited in the parking lot to pick me up, and I had to walk an hour home. Once, under the premise of “teaching me to drive,” he pulled over (he had taken me to the drugstore to pick up a teen magazine) and let me drive home. I was thirteen, and I, proud of his trust, promised to not tell. It wasn’t until later that I realized he’d probably been too drunk to drive us.
I didn’t understand addiction, but I understood disappointment. At first, I cried when I found out Stevie Nicks was an addict. It was as if she had died. I remember shaking the People Magazine at my mother, as if it were her fault–the same way it was her fault she hadn’t kicked my father out, even though he technically was still employed and receiving a paycheck, a paycheck we needed. And then, not wanting to understand anything except my own pain and self-righteousness, I went cold turkey from Stevie.
It wasn’t Stevie’s fault, really. It could have easily been Pat Benatar or Chrissie Hyde or Joan Jett that I had held up to impossibly high standards. (Although, to Stevie’s credit, she always seemed to float just outside the hard jewel aura of other female rockers, radiating something purer, more inscrutable.) But when saw her on MTV on that fateful day in 1983, I had been clinging to the last threads of the safety of my childhood, still sleeping with my stuffed animals, reading 16 Magazine, not ready to give my Barbie dolls to Goodwill (even though I didn’t play with them anymore, in a prelude to my life as a writer, I wrote short stories about them and their lives).
And that next year, after we moved to the Eastern Shore, I’d begun to question a lot of things. Whether my father loved my mother and, by extension us, and what that meant regarding my own understanding of love. Whether, despite my Catholic upbringing, God existed at all, leading to a fight with my mother about my impending confirmation. Whether I would ever be happy again, or whether, like toys and Santa Claus, happiness was something you grew out of. A spiritual and emotional apocalypse had definitely come, but maybe Stevie Nicks wasn’t instigator as I thought. Maybe she was merely collateral damage.
I never had another idol after Stevie. I flirted with Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux my junior and senior years of high school, but I never got too close. I was too old for crushes, for fandom. I was too cool, too mature, to care. I was once bitten, twice shy.
And that is a good thing, I’ve come to realize. Although I dove wholeheartedly into attitude, existentialism, and alternative music after my breakup with Stevie Nicks, replacing her posters with ones of Depeche Mode and The Smiths, it took decades for me to forgive my father his failings, to see him not as a dad who screwed me over but as simply a hurt, scared, misguided man deserving of my humanity and sympathy. I don’t remember the exact impetus; I think it was just a function of growing older myself, realizing that I was still a scared kid in a thirty-year-old body (and then forty-year-old one). No one was really wise and above approach; we were all, I realized, just making it up as we went along. Me, my twin brother, my mother and father. And Stevie Nicks.
I didn’t really do Al-Anon, but I’m familiar with the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program my father attempted several times before his death from alcoholism in 1992 (at 42, he was younger than I am now). Step Nine is to “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” So Stevie, if you’re reading, I’m sorry. I don’t know who or what was dragging your heart around back then, but I hope you’ve figured it out, and I’m sorry I judged you. You were not my spiritual advisor, my mother, my lover, or my therapist. You shared your gift of music with me and millions of other fans, and that was your only obligation to us. In fact, our rift made me a better person. It made me aware that people are flawed, and sometimes terribly so. But the only way to muddle through it all is to keep loving them, keep loving their best selves, their wild hearts. Love brings all the good things about people alive again, like the time my father taught me geometry when I was 11 or drove us for hours through all the neighborhoods in Baltimore to look at Christmas lights or took us to baseball games on school nights.
Speaking of wild hearts, I no longer follow Stevie’s career (she battled another addiction, to Klonopin, in the late eighties and early nineties, in case you were wondering, but I hear she’s now clean). However, I still listen to The Wild Heart sometimes. It’s a safe, solid, follow-up record with a couple of hit singles that mostly recreated the formula of Bella Donna, Stevie’s 1981 hugely successful first album. It’s not an album for your stranded-on-a-desert-island list, but for reasons completely unrelated to its artistry, it still remains monumental in the soundtrack of my life, along with Stevie herself, the imperfect, lace-clad Charon who ferried me as gently as she could across the prepubescent sea to the shores of innocence lost. And for that, she will always have a place in my wild heart.
Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and two collections of fiction. Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers. She edits the weekly online lit journal, jmww, and is host of a fiction reading series in Baltimore, called Starts Here!