Live Versions Appear on Enchanted (1998), VH1 Storytellers (1999), and Crystal Visions (2007)
Stevie writes in the liner notes of TimeSpace that "[her producer] Jimmy [Iovine] had told me many times about his incredible friendship with John Lennon...Then one grey day...Jimmy's friend was dead...I went home to Phoenix...and went to visit my uncle (who was very sick)...and I sat on his bedside, while [his son] John sat on the floor beside him, and we stayed there...I sat there and held his hand, and sometime right about sunset, he slightly turned his head to John, and then to me, and his hand slowly let go of mine. I did run into the hallway, but no one was there...and the white winged dove took flight...Goodbye to you both, I said...There was nothing else left to say."
This song uses a lot of imagery to talk about death, the most prominent being the "white-winged dove" with almost seems to be a kind of Grim Reaper-bird here....without the grim. The bird says "Come away" - come away into Heaven. The verses relating to going to visit someone and running to the hall she explains above.
However, one thing that is not obvious is the bridge: "the clouds never expect it when it rains, but the sea changes colours, but the sea does not change. So with the slow, graceful flow of age..." I think this means that time is unstoppable and, while events affect your life, the fundamental nature of things remains unchanged. There will always be life and death and joy and despair, and while you won't find an answer to it all, you still have to find a way to deal with it.
The whole thing about the youth of the person in question "on the edge of seventeen" derives from a misunderstanding - Stevie asked Tom Petty's wife when she met him, and she answered "at the age of seventeen" - and Stevie thought she said "at the edge of seventeen." She liked the sound of it and fit it to the song.
This song is very personal to me...for a lot of reasons. When I hear it, it's almost as though I cannot escape the sense of death - even though the energy of the song is SO upbeat. Although there are numerous stories in this song - Tom Petty and his wife's story - the story of John Lennon..."with the words of a poet and the voice of a choir...." - I'm sure there are some lines about Lindsey in there too - but I think alot of this song has to do with death. The death of John Lennon, the death of her uncle, the death of her relationship with Lindsey, the death of Jane and Tom's "single" status when they fell in love......I read once about a Hopi indian legend regarding the white dove and the nightbird. The white dove represented life and love and happiness, and is opposed by the nightbird - death and darkness and the end of things. "Just like the white winged dove sings a song, it sounds like she's singing...." Is the nightbird calling to Stevie, death all around? Robin was very sick at this time - she was dying too. But life was good - the money was rolling in - Fleetwood Mac was at its most bloated...Stevie was recording her first solo LP, she was in and out of romances with numerous men and spending money like she grew it on a tree... So maybe what sounds like the white winged dove is really the nightbird. Despite all of these good things, she "hears the call" of the nightbird.
When something ends, or someone dies, there is always an impact. Life changes, we change, and sometimes we don't even know it. Sometimes you are marked forever. And the clouds never expect it when it rains, but the sea changes color, but the sea does not change. Despite her fear, she goes to her dying uncle's side in the hospital, she accepts the slow, graceful flow of age and bravely, as though young and on "the edge of seventeen", faces the trials of the world.
Listen carefully to the live version found on the Enchanted box set. Crank up the volume. It may just be me, but Stevie sounds terribly anguished throughout the entire song. I remember reading once that this was taken from the closing show of the Bella Donna tour, and that the tour was cut short due to Robin's illness, that she had either died that day - or was going to die that night. Once more, the nightbird is calling. Towards the end (around 6:04) she says, almost under her breath,
I hear the call of the nightbird
All my life
All my life
I STILL hear the call of the nightbird
That's my take on the whole thing.
I remember the first time I heard this song as a child, I cried. There was so much emotion in it. I was instantly a fan. I heard Rhiannon for the first time and Stevie Nicks became my favorite singer ( I have followed the Goddess since my childhood). The Enchanted version of the song is my favorite.. It is so intense and sorrowed.
The Birds of Rhiannon appear as three ravens, or when someone dies as three birds, one white, one gold, one green... They come to the soul and sing "Come Away" to the Summerland (Heaven)... I think that is why the phrase appears in the song. It reminds me of her later song Nightbird... I remember tears came to my eyes the first time I heard that song, too. There is so much grief, it seems. I think that she sees the souls of her departed loved ones as the white dove, leaving for the Summerland.