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A Best Friend's Betrayal, the Loss of an Unborn Child, or the Pain of a Doomed Love Affair? The Tragic Story Behind Stevie Nicks' 1979 Masterpiece, 'Sara'

From an impossibly tangled personal life, Nicks found inspiration for a song that still resonates 45 years later.

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'Sara' is intimately rooted in Stevie Nicks' complicated relationships.

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When Fleetwood Mac recorded Tusk, their twelfth studio album and the first since 1977’s all-conquering Rumours, they were arguably the biggest, and the most dysfunctional, band in the world.

Rumours had propelled Fleetwood Mac into megastardom, selling 10 million copies within a month of its release, and topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The seemingly effortless beauty of its songs, the harmonic interplay between singers Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingam and the tightness of the band’s folksy take on the blues were a hit with critics and fans alike – and belied the personal chaos behind its inception.

Unravelling the tangle of personal relationships, messy affairs, betrayals and addiction behind any of Fleetwood Mac’s late-70s output is a challenging task… but while songs like Rumours’ “Go Your Own Way” and “Dreams” are explicitly about the romantic breakdowns between the band’s songwriters, the inspiration behind Tusk’s tracks are a little more complicated to fathom.

And of all the songs on Tusk, it is the album’s longest and most famous track that is also its most mysterious – and most heartbreaking.

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“Sara” was written by Stevie Nicks, originally as a poem, and then recorded as a 16-minute demo on piano, which she first played for Don Henley of the Eagles, with whom she was in a relationship. Encouraged by his response, she recorded a more polished demo with longtime Fleetwood Mac producer Ken Caillat, and took the song to the band. The final album version was an edited six minutes 22 seconds, the single an even tighter four minutes 37.

Even by Fleetwood Mac’s nakedly confessional standards, “Sara” immediately stands out as intensely, almost uncomfortably personal, simultaneously terribly beautiful and terribly sad. The sparse, intimate production and Nicks’ impassioned vocals – even in the four-and-a-half minute cut – continues to send shivers down the spine, 45 years after its release.

Such was its emotional impact that speculation immediately surrounded its lyrics. “Drowning in the sea of love,” Nicks sang, “Where everyone would love to drown… but now it’s gone”. And then, “Sara, you’re the poet in my heart. Never change, and don’t you ever stop.”

Almost from the moment the album was released, fans and critics alike wanted to know: who was Sara? And what did she mean to Stevie Nicks?

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'It was doomed. It was a doomed thing, caused a lot of pain for everybody, led to nothing.'

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In a 1994 interview on BBC radio’s The Tommy Vance Show, she attempted an explanation: “I remember the night I wrote it. I sat up with a very good friend of mine whose name is Sara,” she revealed. “She likes to think it’s completely about her, but it’s really not completely about her. It’s about me, about her, about Mick, about Fleetwood Mac. It’s about all of us at that point.

“There’s little bits about each one of us in that song and when it had all the other verses, it really covered a vast bunch of people. ‘Sara’ was the kind of song you could fall in love with because I fell in love with it.”

Over four decades later, the truth still remains elusive. “Sara” was either this real person, Nicks’ “very good friend” Sara Recor – who was with her when she recorded the original 16-minute demo – or, as later became apparent, something else entirely: a wished-for child, a muse, or a metaphor for love, for loss, for betrayal.

Either way, “Sara” – and Sara – remains indelibly and inextricably a part of Stevie Nicks’ painfully tangled personal life at that time.

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'There’s little bits about each one of us in that song. It was the kind of song you could fall in love with because I fell in love with it.'

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The Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac had essentially been the coming together of two couples: John and Christine McVie, and Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, with Mick Fleetwood a grounding presence on drums. By 1976 both those romantic relationships had ended in a cocaine-fueled jumble of groupies, affairs and recriminations. Stevie Nicks moved on from Buckingham to Eagles frontman Don Henley, but while seeing him also began an affair with Mick Fleetwood – who, just to add to the tangle, was married at the time, to Jenny Boyd, younger sister of Pattie Boyd, wife of George Harrison. (Boyd herself had previously cheated on Fleetwood with former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Weston.)

“Mick and I would never have had an affair had we not had a party and all been completely drunk and messed up and coked out, and, you know, ended up being the last two people at the party,” Nicks later told Oprah’s Master Class. “So guess what? It’s not hard to figure out what happened – and what happened wasn’t a good thing. It was doomed. It was a doomed thing, caused a lot of pain for everybody, led to nothing.”

The lyrics of “Sara” contain what many think is an explicit (in every sense) reference to her relationship with Fleetwood. “And he was just like a great dark wing within the wings of a storm,” she sang. “I think I had met my match. He was singing, and undoing, and undoing… oh the laces, undoing the laces.”

She later confirmed as much to MTV Fanatic in 1998.

“Sara was pretty much about Mick. So, he was the ‘great dark wing,’” she said. “And, ah, it was about everything that was going on at that particular time, too, but he was the, the reason for the, you know, the beginning of it.”

Mick Fleetwood himself wrote in his book Play On: “I fell in love with [Nicks] and it was chaotic, it was on the road, and it was a crazy love affair that went on longer than any of us really remember — probably several years by the end of it.”

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Mick Fleetwood and Jenny Boyd - she cheated on him, he cheated on her, everyone was cheating on everyone.

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By 1979, however, the tangled web of love and lies had become complicated still further when Fleetwood began yet another affair… with Nicks’ best friend Sara Recor. The couple would later marry – but at the time, the sense of betrayal was profound. Not just Fleetwood’s betrayal, but more cuttingly, Recor’s.

“I had a very dear friend whose name was Sara [Recor] who just went after Mick,” she told the Independent in 2011. “And they fell in love, and the next thing, Sara’s husband is calling me to say ‘Sara moved in with Mick this morning. And I just thought you might wanna know.’ That was three months into a 13-month album. So I lost Mick, which honestly wasn’t that big of a deal because that was a rocky relationship. But losing my friend Sara? That was a huge blow. Sara was banished from the studio by the rest of the band... No one was speaking, and I wouldn’t even look directly at Mick. That went on for months.”

Typically for Fleetwood Mac, misery proved to be a muse. “It was great fodder for writing!” she continued. “The songs poured out of us.”

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fleetwood mac sara
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For late '70s Fleetwood Mac, misery was the muse.

The story of “Sara” has another twist, however. Nicks had begun her affair with Fleetwood while still seeing Don Henley – and in a 1991 interview with GQ he dropped a bombshell.

“I believe to the best of my knowledge [Nicks] became pregnant by me,” Henley revealed. “And she named the kid Sara, and she had an abortion and then wrote the song of the same name to the spirit of the aborted baby. I was building my house at the time, and there’s a line in the song that says, ‘And when you build your house, call me.’”

If Henley’s revelation was born out of the bitterness of her betrayal of their relationship, Nicks was furious that he had spoken so openly about such a personal trauma.

“He blew it on the fact that I had an abortion,” she said in 1994. “He told a big magazine, let the whole cat out of the bag… There are things that I could write about, but I never would have told that. I would never have told the world that.”

Twenty years later, she relented a little, telling Billboard, “Had I married Don and had that baby, and had she been a girl, I would have named her Sara.”

In that context, the final verse is a heartbreaker. As Nicks’ voice fades with the music, she sings, “There’s a heartbeat and it never really died. Sara, it never really died…”

At the song’s final seconds, barely audibly, she cries with real anguish: “All I ever wanted!”

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A best friend’s betrayal, the loss of an unborn child, or the pain of a doomed love affair – the genius of Stevie Nicks’ masterpiece of love and loss is that it may be about any of these things… or about all of them at once.

And there is a final coda. Seven years after writing the song, Stevie Nicks checked into the Betty Ford Center to receive treatment for her rampant cocaine addiction. The pseudonym she used? “Sara.”


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