This essay was written in response to Truman Capote's "A Beautiful Child."
An hour ago, I read an honest and moving piece by Truman Capote, an essay and interview with Marilyn Monroe entitled "A Beautiful Child." The piece opens at the funeral of a Mrs. Collier, acting coach to two Hepburns (Audrey and Katharine), Vivien Leigh, and Marilyn Monroe, all taken on after the firefly of stardom had alighted upon them. Collier recognized a gift in Monroe, and so did Greta Garbo, who speculated about casting her in a remake of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, with the title role to be played by Garbo herself.
The first page of Capote's article, in evoking Garbo, Wilde, and "Beautiful Child" within the space of 500 words, inevitably put me in mind of Stevie Nicks. The rest of the article brought me Marilyn, about whom I know very little. I've seen Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. At least, I think it's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It's the one where Monroe sings "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" on a red staircase, surrounded by men in tuxedoes, and penguins. Penguins? Perhaps I'm mixing it up with something I saw on the Muppet Show. Yes, I believe the image of Marilyn on the stairs is melding pell-mell with Miss Piggy and Michelle Pfeiffer on similar stairs, singing the same song. Or perhaps it was Miss Piggy and Whoopi Goldberg. Something along those lines. Anyway, the point is that that film represents my entire experience of the Marilyn Monroe movie oeuvre, and when I saw it on a grainy TV in a guest house in Edinburgh, my MTV-trained brain could only skip immediately to Madonna on similar red stairs, singing "Material Girl" to remarkably similar penguins. Er, men.
It may be some kind of statement about my generation to note that I know far more about Madonna and the Muppets than I do about Marilyn Monroe. Outside of that film, all I'm familiar with are the famous stills (the skirt/grating shot, the... well, I guess I'm really only readily familiar with one still), the words to Elton John's "Candle In The Wind" (strains of which sang incessantly through my mind as I read Capote's article), and the still-strong-as-ever obsession with her as an icon of sexuality, manifesting itself from posters to postage. The obsession always struck me as a bit ghoulish, an exaltation of a dead woman into a spot she never wanted to occupy even when she was alive. Or, at least, so Elton John seems to suggest.
Bernie Taupin wrote those lyrics as his own version of Capote's "Beautiful Child." The song is certainly, in its way, as moving as the Capote article, though the article touches on Monroe's humanity from the inside in a way that Taupin, a silver screen and a world-weight of iconization away from her, never could. Stevie Nicks also wrote about a beautiful child, and she was that beautiful child, too. She was a sex symbol for her time, a Monroe of rock, and when she was written about at all, it was in articles laced with adjectives like "gauzy", "spacey", "dreamy", "naive"... you get the idea.
But in several important ways, Nicks was no Monroe. First and foremost, she had a voice. I don't mean the ragged, passionate wail, the "whiskey-and-cigarettes" vibrato that propels all her work. I mean a poetic voice. She had words, she wrote. She spoke for herself in a way that never seems to have been available to Marilyn. As much as the press dismisses Nicks' crystal visions of ghosts, demons, dreams, and haunting voices, those poetic visions define her public persona and give her a depth beyond that of a sex symbol. She couldn't control her sexualization in the popular media, but she could control the images of herself released to the public, because she was not under the onus of a film director, framing and shaping and surrounding her with dripping elegance and drooling males. She put herself out there not just with pictures, but with words, and those words display a poet whose wild-heart sexuality is just one component of her overall self. Nicks brought herself to be more than just the beautiful child, because she was the one doing the writing, not some Dutch-uncle Truman Capote or wistful, starry-eyed Bernie Taupin.
Stevie Nicks didn't just speak, though. She also survived. Capote's article vividly and tenderly portrays Monroe as scared, hopeful, full of life, and already several steps down a self-destructive path whose terminus would fulfill acting coach Collier's prophecy that Marilyn would "never make old bones." I can see Stevie Nicks' ballet slipper footprints on that same path -- cocaine, heartbreak, desperate love affairs with larger-than-life heroes of the page and the stage. And I'll never know what grounding forces in her life allowed her to escape Marilyn's fate. She's chalked it up, variously, to her friends in Fleetwood Mac, her desire to survive, her parents, her grim assessment of her inability to do it all. Probably all of these are true, some more intensely than others, in combination with each other and dozens of other factors which I don't know, and I'll never know. I stand as far from Stevie Nicks as Taupin stood from Marilyn Monroe, and I can only celebrate alone my joy that this candle in the wind flickered but did not expire, and now burns stronger than ever, eleven years after I saw her in what she believed then might be one of her last performances.
Street Angel was not particularly well-received, and it didn't sell particularly well. In fact, rumours abound that Nicks herself was displeased with the album, and wants mostly to put it behind her and concentrate on her current and future projects. But the Street Angel era will always have a luminosity in my mind, an enchantment. It was in this era that I saw her walk on stage with a smile that was bright and wise. She seemed, on that tour, to remember why she wanted to become a singer, and to really enjoy performing. The passion was still there, and the sadness and pain were still genuine, but they no longer dominated. The Stevie Nicks of the Street Angel era, who I saw on television, on stage in Colorado, and (briefly) in person, was jubilant. She was no longer the "heartbroken, unspoken" dancer of someone else's dreams. She was a queen, a noble and judicious and joyful singer, who loved to get on stage and give her words and music to the audience, to the people who she loves and who love her, ardently, in return.
Nicks has always been a person who took on some of the characteristics of the women about whom she wrote. In "Rhiannon," she aligned herself with the Welsh horse-goddess of music and song, becoming that woman who rings like a bell through the night. In "Beautiful Child," she both sang to the beauty and became it. In "The Highwayman", she was that highwaywoman who keeps up with the dashing thieves of rock, the ruffians of the road who live a noble existence in the face of the establishment, at least in her eyes. On Street Angel, though, she stepped into these roles more than ever. She partook of Garbo, and wondered "where would the kings go" if she ever decided to turn on her heel and leave the world of the stage behind. She sang out to Jane Goodall, the tender of and savior to the "children of the world, the forgotten chimpanzee" while at the same time emerging into that mentor, wise-woman role for rising stars like Sarah McLachlan. She also took explicit stake in Dylan's "Just Like A Woman," pieces of which emerge in her own songs such as "No Questions Asked" and "Kick It."
Dylan's subject, the one who does everything just like a woman, but breaks just like a little girl, brings us back to Marilyn Monroe. She still stares out at us from envelopes and memorabilia shops, the voluptuous and womanly image which we all know hides the little girl, the little girl who finally broke for good. Stevie Nicks is this woman/girl, too, but one who managed to repair the breaks, turn her crises into bridges, and walk across those bridges to be with us today as more than just a beautiful child. She is wise woman, mentor, and mature artist in a way that Monroe might have achieved, had she lived. Stevie Nicks today reminds us that the world is hard for beautiful children, but that with luck, help, courage, and time, those children get older, and stronger, too.More than a Beautiful Child / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised June 97 Return to my home page