If you saw The Mona Lisa tomorrow, for the first time ever, and it was hanging on the wall of your uncle’s fishing cabin’s screened-in porch, between one of those paintings of dogs playing poker and a Bob Ross mountainscape, and if nobody told you it was the most famous painting ever, would you recognize it as a masterpiece?
Okay, in that context maybe you would. But if she wasn’t “the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world,” would you look at her and immediately decide, “this is so good, it HAS TO be the most famous painting in the world!”?
I thought of The Mona Lisa Fishing Cabin Conundrum (as it will now be known) because I’ve been having trouble coming up with the proper means to describe my impressions of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album, which I recently listened to in the car. Now, I’m sure many of you just cringed at my comparison of a 70s soft-rock album to a work of art by Leonardo DaVinci, but in terms of familiarity, I think the comparison is reasonable. Various websites list Rumours as having sold over 40 million copies worldwide, and it is the 5th highest best-selling non-greatest-hits rock record in the US. So clearly many people are aware of its existence. Ask a few friends to name 5 famous paintings and 5 famous rock records, and I think there’s a good chance The Mona Lisa and Rumours would both make most lists.
As would be the case in reviewing The Mona Lisa today, it is hard to appraise Rumours solely on its artistic merits without having your mind tell you “Hey, this is Rumours!” Unfortunately, the Men In Black mind eraser technology is not available to folks drawing a music-blogger-with-a-couple-of-readers salary.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite desserts that my mom would make was something called “No Bake Cheesecake,” by Jell-o. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that my mom wasn’t a great baker. She was, and remains, an excellent baker of cookies, cakes and those twin Pennsylvania Dutch delicacies Shoo-Fly Pie
and Whoopie Pies.
I loved it. Then again, I loved all of the pre-packaged, imitation foods of the day: Tang, Space Food Sticks, Spaghettios (with Franks!) and perhaps my favorite of all non-desserts: Mug O Lunch. (Weird fact about me to make your stomach turn: I’ve always kind of enjoyed institutional foods, like school cafeteria or hospital lunches. Maybe it’s because I ate so much of this stuff in the 70s.)
I never thought of “no-bake” cheesecake as anything other than simply cheesecake. It was the only cheesecake I knew. The texture of the filling was creamy, a little stiffer than pudding, but not as firm as, say, imitation butter in a tub, and this very sweet, yet slightly tangy mass was plopped and spread into the loving embrace of a margarine/graham cracker crust. “Cheesecake” was officially my favorite dessert.
When I got to college I started dating a woman, M., who, by probably any standard available, would have been described as “out of my league.” This was the mid-80s, and I was somehow able to accomplish it without the information that is readily available today to hip, young males on the prowl. [Although 70s TV
had provided me with lots of advice on a variety of topics.]) In addition to being more popular and more attractive than me, she was also far more worldly and came from a much wealthier family than me. We didn’t have much in common, but somehow we stayed together for about a year and a half. (If pressed, I’d attribute the tenacity of our relationship to mental illness, alcoholism, self-loathing, lack of communication skills, and an appreciation of a well-told joke; each distributed between us in relatively equal, though constantly varying, proportions.)
I went out to dinner with her and her family sometimes, typically near her parents home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and often at very nice restaurants. This fact alone attests to the differences between M. and myself, as “going out to dinner” in my family had always meant subs or pizza, McDonald’s or The Red Barn. We just weren’t a family that spent much money going out to restaurants.
At one of my first fancy restaurant dinners with M. and her family (and with my dining history, anything “All-Nite Diner” and up was considered fancy) I was excited to see listed on the dessert menu “New York Cheesecake.” I loved cheesecake, and even though it seemed pretty pricey (one slice probably cost as much as three of the No-Bake boxes of mix from which I guess I figured it was prepared), I knew her family was the type that wouldn’t object to me ordering a slice.
When it arrived, I tried to act nonchalant about the fact that I didn’t know what the fuck this tannish golden giant wedge of not-quite-set Quikrete was that had been placed in front of my face. But my hosts saw my look of distress, clearly, because someone asked, “Isn’t that what you wanted?” Although I hadn’t been completely domesticated by this time in my life, I did have enough couth to understand I needed to be tactful and polite. Thinking quickly, I remarked “No, it’s fine. I just haven’t had the New York style before.”
I ate the cheesecake and pretended to enjoy it, my mouth yearning for the sugary, creamy pudding of the Jell-o brand while it tried to work its way through the lightly-sweetened density of what I now know to be a well-made, tasty cheesecake. I told everyone I liked it (one of many of a variety of lies that M. and I shared) but I vowed to never order cheesecake in a restaurant again. It wasn’t what I remembered it to be, and even if that old, boxed No-Bake dessert wasn’t authentic cheesecake, that’s the version that was familiar and delicious to me.
(I’m happy to report that I now enjoy many kinds of cheesecakes. And if I were to eat a No-Bake Cheesecake, I believe I would still enjoy it, as well.)
I recently listened to Rumours, and it was hard for me to discern if the album was good cheesecake or No-Bake. There are so many songs on it that have played so frequently throughout the years since its 1977 release that the album has almost become part of the ambient world: the birds chirp, cars drive by, “You Make Loving Fun” plays, someone coughs, the sprinklers turn on …
The songs are so familiar that when I find myself singing along I don’t know whether it’s because I actually like the music or because, well … it’s just what you do when “Go Your Own Way” comes on.
Try this test: I will name a song and then give you a line and see if you can sing, or hum, at least 75% of the entire song in your head. (Bonus points if one or more of the songs plays in your head the rest of the day!)
“Dreams” – Thunder only happens when it’s raining.
“The Chain” – And if you don’t love me now/ you will never love me again.
“Go Your Own Way” – Loving you/Isn’t the right thing to do.
“Don’t Stop” – Don’t stop/Thinkin’ about tomorrow.
“You Make Loving Fun” – Sweet, wonderful you/ You make me happy with the things you do.
“Second Hand News” – Won’t you lay me down in the tall grass/ And let me do my stuff.
“Never Going Back Again” – Been down one time/ Been down two times.
“Gold Dust Woman” – Well did she make you cry/ Make you break down/ And shatter your illusions of love.
These are songs of my life. Some of which (“You Make Loving Fun,” “Don’t Stop,” “Dreams”) even WLBR, AM-1270, played in the 70s – songs that my sisters and I now refer to as “pool songs,” because when we’d go to the town pool each day in the summers, these were the songs blaring from the loudspeakers. When my musical tastes “graduated” from 70s pop to Album-Oriented Rock
in the 80s, these pool songs remained part of the playlist, and others from the album (“The Chain,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Second Hand News”) were added. And within the past decade, when I found out – to my horror – that the “cool radio station” I found was not cool at all, but just a gussied up oldies station described by a format called “Adult Alternative,” some other songs (“Never Going Back Again,” “Gold Dust Woman”) made their way into the radio mix as well.
Even though the songs are so familiar, I do enjoy many of them. And there are other songs on the album (“Songbird,” “I Don’t Want To Know”) that I think are good as well. The remaining song, “Oh Daddy,” is rubbish.
A part of me would like to be hip enough to say, truthfully, that I don’t really like Rumours, that it’s too sappy, too overproduced, not rockin’ enough, too voyeuristic into the love lives of the group’s members… But the truth is that I do like it. Just like I like No-Bake Cheesecake. It doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of “New York Style” cheesecake, like Elvis Costello or R.E.M.
One of the reasons I like the album is that I enjoy Lindsay Buckingham’s guitar playing immensely. Even in soft rock, over-produced songs like “You Make Loving Fun,” he has some great guitar work going on in the background. True, he probably didn’t need to put 12 tracks-worth of guitar on it, but hey – it was the 70s. Anything unnecessary was IN! For example, onesies for men:
[Side note – one of the reasons I like Lindsay Buckingham is because of his two major contributions to American Comedy – 1) the theme song to the classic film National Lampoon’s Vacation,
and 2) the cover to his 1981 album Law and Order.
Then again, he always seemed to have a penchant for sultry, shirtless album covers
which fortunately has not been maintained now that he’s 63.]
Anyway, I enjoyed the album. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s been so ubiquitous in my life, or if it’s because I think the songs are good.
And I don’t know if the No-Bake Cheesecake analogy really holds. It may be that Rumours is more like toothpaste – it’s hard to tell whether it’s good or it’s bad, it’s just … toothpaste. Sure, I like the taste of it, and I’m glad I have it, but I don’t really think about it much. It’s just part of my life, and I like it. As Stevie Nicks sang on the album, “I don’t want to know the reasons why …”