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Meaning Behind “Edge Of Seventeen” By Stevie Nicks

Fleetwood Mac member and solo artist Stevie Nicks had many hits during her long career, but one of the biggest was Edge of Seventeen. Released in 1981 as part of her solo debut album Bella Donnait has come to be known as a rock and roll classic and is called one of the greatest songs of all time. However, Nicks wrote the song during a period of great personal tragedy and turmoil. 

Background

While still a member of Fleetwood Mac, Nicks simultaneously embarked on a solo career and released her album Bella Donna in 1981. The album featured the single Edge of Seventeen (Just Like The White Winged Dove)

The inspiration for the title came to Nicks in the late 1970s during a conversation with Tom Petty’s then-wife Jane. The two were discussing how the couple first met, and she asked Jane to tell her their story.

Jane Petty told Nicks that she met her husband at “the age of seventeen.” Nicks misheard the phrase due to her thick accent (Jane Petty hails from Gainesville, Florida) and thought she said “edge,” not “age.” The phrase stuck in her mind.

She told Jane in the same conversation that she would write a song using it, giving her credit for inspiring it. True to her word, when she released Edge of Seventeen several years later, she included the name Jane Petty on the album credits. 

Finding Meaning in Loss

Nicks initially wanted to write a song about the Pettys. These intentions were redirected when John Lennon was murdered the same week her uncle Jonathan died. Suddenly, Nicks had another source of inspiration vying for its place. So she combined the two. Where she had originally begun writing about Tom and Jane at age 17, making up a story for them, she began writing about Lennon and her uncle.

Nicks was in Australia when John Lennon was shot. She hadn’t known him, but Jimmy Iovine, Nicks’ producer and lover had been a longtime friend of Lennon’s. They had worked together on projects throughout the 1970s. Nicks described them as best friends and said Iovine often recounted stories about Lennon. She struggled to help him find comfort after Lennon’s murder. When Lennon’s death was announced, Nicks said a hush fell over the whole house. She found that little she did or said could help ease the shock and pain.

She soon flew back to Phoenix, Arizona, to see her uncle before he died. He had been sick with cancer and was succumbing to the advance of the disease. Her uncle died the same day she arrived, while Nicks held his hand. She and a younger cousin, John Nicks, sat with him in his final moments.

The experience of holding his hand as he died deeply impacted Nicks. She felt “terribly sad” and thought she could feel the loss of his spirit. While in Phoenix, she began to write Edge of Seventeen

She recounted the feeling of running down the hallways looking for anyone to comfort her and, in particular, wondering why no one else had been present with her uncle during his death. To cope with the grief of loss, Nicks returned home and immediately sat down at the piano to continue working on her song.

Doves & Cacti

In 2020, Nicks revealed that she had never heard a dove’s call before she wrote the song and had only first heard one recently. She was inspired to write the lyrics about a dove’s call from a menu at a Phoenix restaurant. In 1980, she read as she was dining, “The white wing dove sings a song that sounds like she’s singing, ooh, ooh, ooh. She makes her home here in the great Saguaro cactus that provides shelter and protection for her.” Nicks felt that these words applied to her uncle’s spirit.

According to Nicks, the line about days going by “like a strand in the wind” refers to how fast those few days felt to her. She remarked that her uncle’s illness was so upsetting to her that the days rushed by. When she sings that she “went today” and might go again tomorrow, she refers to seeing him the day before he died.

Nicks visited her uncle and aunt at their home, where soft music was playing. She said she believed it was a perfect place for someone’s spirit to leave their body—symbolized in her song by the white-winged dove. The lyrics reflect her grief of losing “both Johns.” The nightbird calls for the dove to “come away” with it, summoning it into the dark unknown.

Nicks recounted later that the song became “about violent death.” The experience scared her because she had never lost any family members before. The white-winged dove came to symbolize peace for John Lennon, and the dove of the saguaro cactus for her uncle. She saw the dove as a tragic and dramatic symbol of those two months of her life.

Composition

Edge of Seventeen has a distinctive 16th note guitar riff throughout, played by Waddy Wachtel

Like most of Nicks’ songs, Edge of Seventeen is dominated by symbolic lyrics. She felt that the song’s intense energy led to it taking two full nights of constant practice to record. Nicks reported she even cried in the middle of the bridge while singing about the sea, never expecting the rain, changing color but never changing. Nicks and the band put their whole hearts into the recording. She later said that it’s exactly what her uncle would have wanted: for her “to go straight to the piano.”

Release & Performance

Edge of Seventeen reached No. 11 on the US Billboard Hot 100, remaining there for two weeks. In Canada, it also reached No. 11 on the RPM Top 100 Singles chart. The B-side’s live version peaked at No. 26 on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart in 1982. The song’s album version had already made the top five of the Mainstream Rock chart the year before, reaching No. 4. 

In 1982, Edge of Seventeen was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.

The song has charted other times after its release. When Edge of Seventeen was covered by Amanda Ayala and Shelby Brown on season nine of The Voice, the cover broke the iTunes rock chart top 100. And after it was used in a 2021 John Lewis commercial, it entered the UK charts for the first time.

Covers

Edge of Seventeen has been covered by other artists. In 2012, Nicks had a guest appearance on NBC’s sitcom Up All Night. The episode included an excerpt from Nicks’ 1981 track Sleeping Angel. It incorporated brand new duets with Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph from Edge of Seventeen and Whenever I Call You Friend

The Corrs’ Dreams, as well as Courtney Love’s band Hole’s Gold Dust Woman, are prominently successful covers. Destiny’s Child’s 2001 number one single Bootylicious includes a sample of Edge of Seventeen, and Nicks appeared in the music video. She also appeared in the MTV episode of Making the Video featuring Bootylicious, stating her admiration for the song and performers. It was also famously covered by Lindsay Lohan on her album A Little More Personal (Raw), released in 2005.

In 2018, Audiomachine released a cover on the album Trailerized: Covers and Originals. Miley Cyrus released a single, Midnight Sky, in 2020 that interpolated Edge of Seventeen. She later released a mashup version that she remixed with Nicks called Edge of Midnight.

The Legacy Of “Edge Of Seventeen”

Edge of Seventeen (Just Like The White Winged Dove) has become one of Nicks’ most legendary works with both fans and critics alike. It is considered an essential part of her discography, depicting the lyrical poetry that would define her solo career. 

Its popularity is partly due to the song’s distinctive sound, which both sets it apart and makes it immediately recognizable as Nicks’ work. Musically, it displays many signature aspects of Nicks’ discography, such as a simple chord structure and drum beat with a 16th-note guitar riff.

More important than its industry acclaim was its effect on both Nicks’ solo career and her time with Fleetwood Mac. The success of Bella Donna, fueled by Edge of Seventeen, proved to both music producers and fans that Nicks could hold her own apart from the group that had made her famous. 

In the wake of Bella Donna and the massive success of Edge of Seventeen, Nicks felt that her confidence had returned. She continued to develop her work as a solo performer and made efforts to rekindle Fleetwood Mac, which had struggled with lingering tensions between Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham as well as Christine and John McVie. After a 12-day tour for the album, she returned to assume work on Mirage with Fleetwood Mac.

Today, Edge of Seventeen remains a staple of Nicks’ live solo performances, usually as the final set of the night. The singer has said that every time she performs it, she returns to the period of her life where she was mourning for her uncle. It has become a tradition that fans shower her with gifts during the set, especially flowers and stuffed animals, which Nicks passes on to local children’s hospitals. 

Though the song was borne from grief, Nicks has said that it has taken on new meaning with time. No longer just a song of sorrow, it has become a song of peace, love, and remembrance.

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