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Playing Phair

Liz Phair: The Dilettante’s Art

Liz Phair: Woman Of The Year?

Dark Light

Two Wicker Park artists share their views on the pop star lifestyle, shopping, Chicago architecture, daytime TV, Madonna, and telling the truth

I first met Liz Phair a few years ago in Ed Paschke’s studio and thought she was pretty much of an artslut. An artslut is someone who works for other artists, preparing canvas, woodburning, basically doing the work that bores other artists. Next time I saw her was in the pages of this magazine, looking like the Joan of Arc of Wicker Park. The article sucked and annoyed the bejeezus out of me. But most interviews I read suck. We thought we’d try to do an interview that didn’t suck. We gave it a shot just before the release of Liz’s Whip-Smart. To tell you the truth, I wanted to keep my questions away from art and rock ‘n’ roll and bring out Liz Phair the person. And fuck it, that’s all there is to it.

Tom Billings

(Scene: Tom Billings’ studio in Wicker Park.)

T.B. Well, we’re doing this interview and I was talking with Liz before about the interview style and everything and I brought to her attention this book from the 70s or something about the New York scene and William S. Burroughs.

L.P. So what did he really say about interviews?

T.B. He was kind of pessimistic against interviews and how interviews are taken and how they’re transcribed and everything’s usually twisted from the writer’s point of view and warped and he dissed them more or less and said that the interview is this medium that’s become mutated ever since Mark Twain where it originated.

L.P. How did it originate in Mark Twain?

T.B. Well, he pointed to Mark Twain, The Jumping Frog in Calaveras County or whatever it was and he more or less went into that kind of writing sense and how the interview as a writing sense and a vocal sense took off and it took off on current and social issues at the time and that’s where he stems Mark Twain into it because he was a time piece writer and he wrote about things that were happening at the turn of the century, everything from racial issues…

L.P. Journalistic.

T.B. A journalistic approach.

L.P. Look at this… Psychic photo.

T.B. We’re going to be doing psychic photos of you with scars later.

L.P. We’re going to be doing psychic photos.

T.B. Speaking of scars, what do you think about the whole approach to…

L.P. Being a pop star?

T.B. Yeah.

L.P. Oh gee, right now I think it’s a really exciting and destructive process all rolled into one. I think there’s something about human nature that wants to believe that you can achieve a transcendent place in your generation just because it’s sort of like the old mythic hero crap. Any time you throw in a heroic story anywhere, most people find it compelling. Sort of you can identify and you can transcend and that sort of the thing. The myth behind the whole rock thing is it’s way for someone of any class like educational background, any anything…

T.B. It’s the growing process and what happens is it’s like the rise and fall of Liz Phair and the process of you and you’re responsible for it and no one else.

L.P. Well, that’s not true. It’s not totally all me. There’s no way. See, that’s a myth. That’s more of a myth than anything else because there are so many fucking people working on this and it’s all really like a political movement. To me, it’s a lot like electing someone to office. You have to get a lot of people who are willing to do just a little bit of nothing to further you and they’re voting. It’s like who do you want up there in the rock stratosphere? Who do you want to see next year in your photo magazines?

T.B. Yeah, the mass is greater than the whole.

L.P. Everybody just votes it.

T.B. So, you think that as a vehicle similar to art and music, once, you put it out, it becomes your own demon. You put it out and what that vehicle becomes after you put it out is a mutation of everything. It creates itself. It gives you the stance to make your own creation and the interactive response of everything around you, not just the music industry around you, but where you live, how you live, your morals, your ethics, the good life as we want to call it are all involved in one.

L.P. Everything that you are is now what you sell. Everything that you can bring to it. It’s one of the few jobs, I think, that never ends really. You don’t go home from it.

T.B. And, with the political tie-in, it’s like you’re an ambassador of what you do…

L.P. But then you’re also responsible for upholding the beliefs of the constituency. You’re also representative of the people that elected you. You have many bosses. Here’s a way to describe it: I was asking my boyfriend, when he goes out and sees friends, when I go out and see friends now, they tend to subtly tell me who to be without even knowing it. It’s just sort of inferences: “Man, you should totally do this. You should check this out. It would be totally cool if you did this. My friend has this thing…”

T.B. Great expectations.

L.P. Great expectations. Everywhere I go, I feel I’m being judged, not because of my record, not because of a lousy interview, but really about who I am and people feel that because I am seen widely in the media that they own me. It’s that ownership thing. They can bring their intimate input into my Saturday night out.

T.B. Did you get that response after the David Letterman show?

L.P. I think by that time I wasn’t going out. My band got a lot of stuff.

T.B. But you’ve seen it to that level and now you’ve actually stepped back and you can see a side of Liz Phair that you know and what you’ve created.

L.P. I think I’m really clear as to what’s me and what’s the production right now. I would say that right now I’m pretty sober about it. There’s times I’m not, but right now…

T.B. Is Liz Phair happy?

L.P. Not right now.

T.B. I know that as an artist people always look at my medium and whatever voice I have to say on canvas and they’re like, “Are you happy? Are you unhappy?” Not right now.

L.P. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been more or less unhappy than I am right now. I think that why I’m an artist is because I have the ability to take my ups and downs and project them and that doesn’t mean I’m happy or unhappy. I didn’t make art because I was so much less happy than other people that I needed to let off steam. It was more like it always was venting innocently and it just became something that I could sell. I’m totally pissed off right now if you want to know how I feel right now, but I’m not sure that that’s such a deep connection to my art.

T.B. But doesn’t it have an effect here or there?

L.P. Okay, I write songs when I’m depressed. I write songs when I’m thwarted or I write songs when I have something to say that no one’s letting me say or maybe I write songs because I want to say something that I don’t want people to hear directly.

T.B. How about for your own personal self when you write these things and you work in any medium? Is your work therapeutic for yourself? Do you find answers to the things you ask yourself?

L.P. I used to. This is what’s pissing me off right now is that was what I did and I could sort of sit back confidently for a while and ride on that and, bit by bit, with the promotional process, that intuitive connection to my subconscious has been blunted by the myriad of opinions that I receive from everyone, opinions about this, opinions about that, so that I no longer trust my own process. It’s so filled with superego and approval/disapproval issues: This would be good for me to do, what is this saying when I do this? What does this mean when I do that? I just feel like I’ve got a flock of seagulls in my brain and I just want to fucking clear them off the beach.

T.B. White noise everywhere? Is that what it’s become? An overload?

L.P. It’s so much more complicated than that. There’s the day-to-day level. There’s phone call aggravation. There’s the larger issues of public perception. There’s job expectations, which are legitimate, you know, the day to day need to fulfill your obligations well and what it takes to fulfill my obligations well calls for a lot of psychic cooperation. I have to actually pull together a good bit of what I consider my private life to perform publicly, not just musically, but like in interviews I have to say something that isn’t total bullshit, to kind of give myself all these different ways. Maybe there’s just one or two channels.

T.B. Have you found that? Have you found that channel?

L.P. No, I’m trying to. I’m trying to make it like videos. I’m trying to limit the ways in which people can interact with me as “Liz Phair the object”, so there’s a period of life around Elizabeth Clark Phair. I want some delineation in terms of what my job is supposed to be, narrow that down a little bit, because I think that first popularity push…

T.B. …Almost makes you schizophrenic. They have you literally eating your fingernails to the bone.

L.P. Totally.

T.B. And they have these great expectations that we talked about. What are you going to do for yourself is the most important part. It’s not what everyone does for you; it’s what you do for yourself. That’s what people pay attention to, but when they pay attention to you, it’s no longer what you’re doing for yourself. It’s “what are you going to do for me? Can I hear your new songs? Can we talk about rock ‘n’ roll? Let’s talk about the Rainbo Club.” It’s like they’re trying to pin you down and don’t you feel you’re having something stripped away from you?

L.P. Absolutely.

T.B. I want to mention that the first time I met you, you were a painting apprentice.

L.P. On my knees. On the floor. Ed Paschke’s studio with a woodburner and a baseball hat.

T.B. Sweating your rocks off.

L.P. Sweating my rocks off. It was actually pretty easy. It was like stick the little woodburner into the little designs. He like drew the tattoos all over the thing and we’d just sit and bullshit.

T.B. You’d follow the lines.

L.P. Exactly.

T.B. How long did you work for Ed Paschke?

L.P. I worked for him for like three months. Maybe more. I was out of school and I wrote him because he was one of my favorite artists. I’d worked for a couple of other artists in New York and I liked that job, being an assistant to somebody who, you know, you respect their work. It’s not like I was going there for apprenticeship. I was going there to get in touch with people who I would consider role models for me.

T.B. But that’s important and it’s really great that you can go and contact someone. It’s not really an apprenticeship. You learn more about yourself being with someone you admire and what you admire them for teaches you qualities in your own self.

L.P. Right. I just knew I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to meet those people that were the people I respected and admired.

T.B. What do you feel you got out of life from working with Ed Paschke?

L.P. I figured out how to handle studio visits. I figured out how to host the masses, how to handle a visit to an artist’s studio.

T.B. How to handle a visit to Liz Phair.

L.P. Yeah, exactly. It’s really funny. Now I have to host photo shoots. One day I just decided to bag out on it.

T.B. Photo shoots?

L.P. Yeah.

T.B. And don’t you have professional photographers come in and totally change and warp and distort everything that was originally intended?

L.P. No, they just ask me to act usually. It’s like an acting job or a modeling job.

T.B. I didn’t know you were in theater.

L.P. I didn’t know I was in theater either! It totally depends on the artist. They’re gonna walk in and it’s gonna be like some kind of performance. Sometimes they let me do my own. Sometimes they have very specific ideas. I fucking wanted to get paid. What I finally came to was I wouldn’t be so pissed off if I was paid $300 dollars a shot, like if I was paid the way a model would be for a job…

T.B. Yeah, if you’re going to act like a model, you ought to be paid like one.

L.P. I wanted whatever the general person was going to be paid. I wanted my cut because I was fucking mooing and cowing and walking around trying to be their little doll and I just got ill with it. It made me literally ill.

T.B. So you wanted a day rate.

L.P. Right. I wanted a day rate… I think it’s interesting talking to you because I, in my moments of grave, I don’t know, when I’m thinking that I’m totally up the wrong tree and I better get back down and be an artist, be a visual artist and now, ironically, we’re doing this interview and I’m thinking about you and you just had Around The Coyote, which is everyone traipsing into your thing and you’re like on show for three days and I was thinking, “Fuck it. The arts are like this.”

T.B. Art and music. It’s all contained in one mass outlook.

L.P. Jim and I were reading about the highest paid entertainers today…

T.B. Oprah. Barney was right under Oprah. Oprah 335 million, Barney like 84 million. Oh God.

L.P. Well that was so surreal. We counted the women. There were like some big heavy hitters.

T.B. You ever watch the Oprah show?

L.P. Oh yeah. Tons of times.

T.B. I watch it too.

L.P. Daytime TV rules.

T.B. It does.

L.P. It’s a staple of the arts.

T.B. Probably with both of our schedules with having to work nights…

L.P. Oh yeah, daytime TV.

T.B. You turn it on when you’re at home and you’re trying to chill out while watching Geraldo talking to skinhead Nazis.

L.P. I got HBO though. I watch movies.

T.B. Cable.

L.P. I watched The Wind. That was totally inspiring. I thought maybe I should go and run the World Cup.

T.B. You ever see yourself on MTV?

L.P. Mmm-mm.

T.B. You haven’t seen yourself on MTV?

L.P. No, not yet. I don’t think they play me very much.

T.B. Really?

L.P. No, I’ve not mastered the MTV problem yet. I’m working on that. That’s my main interest right now, trying to like conquer that castle, ’cause it’s not being user-friendly to me.

T.B. You think you’ll always struggle being user-friendly with whatever medium you work with?

L.P. Yeah. Don’t you?

T.B. What do you think about Wicker Park?

L.P. I don’t know. I live here. I mean obviously I like it, but I hate it.

T.B. It’s a love/hate thing.

L.P. I mean it’s good, and it sucks so bad. I wanna move, but I’ve wanted to move for a long time. I’ll believe it when we actually do.

T.B. I sometimes think I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve had enough of this crap. I’ve gotta go and it seems like, in the past, wherever I went, I’d be set up again with the same dilemmas after a matter of time.

L.P. Except for we don’t have any landscape. Look at it that way. This is what pisses me off. There aren’t mountains, you know what I mean? Naturally beauty is kind of lacking.

T.B. You’ve got an el train.

L.P. Yeah, you’ve got an el train and I was ever for the industrial aesthetic.

T.B. So you’re feeling almost like you’re out of your element in this area?

L.P. I don’t feel any more tied in here than I do other places. I don’t feel any more comfortable here. I can’t say I feel less comfortable here, but I think it’s pretty much everywhere you go. It depends on who you know. It depends on what you’re doing there. You know what I mean? And I would just prefer to be in a better climate.

T.B. Great.

L.P. ‘Cause we were talking about, the whole Wicker Park, gentrification, Around The Coyote thing. Who cares?

T.B. Yeah, who cares?

L.P. I mean where the fuck are the Indians they kicked off Milwaukee Avenue?

T.B. I mean, we were doing this shit before it was ever a concern in being an artist or musician living in the neighborhood and all of a sudden, it becomes something where now that you’re living in the neighborhood, you’re responsible for the situation. It’s like, “Spare me,” you know?

L.P. That’s right. Spare me.

T.B. It’s a pain in the ass. I hate the whole issue of it. I’m a working artist; you’re a working musician. You take care of yourself and do it every day and I don’t think it would make any difference if it was in Wicker Park or Greenwich Village or Monterey or LA.

L.P. You said Monterey. That’s cool. I was thinking about Monterey.

T.B. Yeah, Monterey’s a cool place. The Badlands. You’ve got to get to the Badlands.

L.P. What is it with the Badlands? Why is everybody so freaked out abut the Badlands?

T.B. My God, it’s a lunar landscape. It’s bizarre. The Sierra Madre wind comes blowing in. It’s like a 100 degree wind blowing in. It’s like a fan blowing on you.

L.P. Okay, the government owns the Badlands, right?

T.B. The Indians supposedly do, but in reality the government does, yes.

L.P. Very treacherous kind of place, right?

T.B. You don’t even have to go on hallucinogenics. My brother and I did so we could enhance it that one extra time before going to Mount Rushmore and were appalled at how they just desecrated this mountain with our founding fathers and more appalled at these people as much as the sculpture itself, but the Badlands is untouched.

L.P. What people?

T.B. The tourists that come to see it, you know, and the park rangers and everything. We literally almost went through a strip search to get through and see Mount Rushmore.

L.P. That’s weird.

T.B. While we’re tripping, so we were freaking out, you know, I think that it’s cool out in this area, but there is no landscape.

L.P. You’ve got this skyline. It’s really man, human-centered around here. Like all there was was a prairie and now all there is…

T.B. You get on the outskirts less than ten miles. In New York, you go 30, 40 miles before…

L.P. And so much of the city is this sprawl. It’s like LA.

T.B. Yeah, the land of the thousand shopping malls. Everywhere you go, a goddamn strip mall. Even in Chicago now, they’re being built everywhere.

L.P. Everywhere.

T.B. They’re kind of cool.

L.P. Strip malls?

T.B. They’re bizarre. Even the discount malls like in Gurnee or all those. Go through there and go high as a kite. You’ll totally flip out and get the hell out of there…

L.P. (Laughs)

T.B. You like shopping?

L.P. No.

T.B. Neither do I.

L.P. I’m not a good shopper. I can shop really fast really well.

T.B. I’m into second-hand stuff.

L.P. I hate second-hand clothes. People will give me second-hand clothes which is great because people have already collected them for you so you don’t have to go. I hate the dust. I hate the, like, just huge amounts of clothing. I think it’s a really creepy thing to do. It freaks me out, but I like the things that I get from friends.

T.B. Well, let’s go to the roof and finish this thing off. (Pause.)

Scene: The roof of the Flat Iron Building at the intersection of Milwaukee, Damen and North Avenues.

T.B. Enough talking about rock ‘n’ roll. (Tokes.)

L.P. I don’t want to get high, do you?

T.B. Great building. The Flat Iron Building on the corner of Milwaukee and Damen. Unbelievable. It’s like there’s aisles and holes punched through cement. It becomes like a labyrinth. Let’s walk to the end of the corner and look at the corners of the street. We’re not supposed to be on the roof right now.

L.P. It’s beautiful up here. Oh my God. Look at this whole view.

T.B. Incredible. Say hi.

L.P. Hi.

T.B. And that tower building is like a monolith or something. It’s like that antenna was supposedly made so blimps could land there like in the 30s and 20s and that was a think for a blimp to anchor up to.

L.P. Are you kidding?

T.B. No, that’s what the last owner of the building was telling me, that those buildings were built to house blimps.

L.P. That’s so freaked out. Okay, so Tom, like I’ll tell you something illegal I did if you tell me something illegal you did.

T.B. Something illegal?

L.P. Or we could fashion critique. Who’s this person?

T.B. I don’t see any tattoos on him. I don’t know.

L.P. My God you’re right. The telltale sign.

T.B. Not from this neighborhood. He doesn’t have tattoos.

L.P. Oh my God.

T.B. She has a nice little summer dress there. Don’t really like puke beige there. She’s got orange socks on. Look at her orange socks. His socks look like he washed them with his red shirt; they’re almost pink.

L.P. They are almost pink. Oh my God.

T.B. He probably washes his whites with his reds.

L.P. And he pulls them all the way up. What’s with that?

T.B. What other beautiful people do you see walking around this neighborhood?

L.P. I only saw like the equivalent of the Wicker Park J Crew model. I’m always finding those. Hey, that looks like Eden almost. Doesn’t it?

T.B. EDEN!!!

L.P. No it’s not. He’s older. I just meant he looked like him.

T.B. It’s not Eden.

L.P. You ever go into Triple XXX?

T.B. Yeah, Triple XXX is cool. But a lot of it’s that rave look and everything. They did the Anti-Coyote t-shirt this year. It was pretty great.

L.P. That’s pretty cool. You know, you need like a little BB Gun action up here.

T.B. God yeah. We used to do that when we were kids. Me and my brother, we would shoot at kids coming home from school. You have any brothers and sisters?

L.P. Yeah, an older brother.

T.B. Used to shoot each other with BB Guns?

L.P. Not me.

T.B. This would be the place to be if you were a sniper. Maybe we should just throw the tape recorder over the edge of the building if we don’t like this interview.

L.P. The other alternative is to lie. We could always totally insert lies.

T.B. I know. Everyone wants dishonesty out of you and it like sucks. Andy Warhol said the best thing to do when asked anything is to make it up. He said if anybody asks anything about your past, you make it up. He was another person whose interviews I liked to read. The Norman Mailer interview with Madonna, I was really excited about it and when I read it I really loved it, but then I read it a lot of times and I thought that he was too easy on her. He over stressed the fact of her being an artist.

L.P. No, you had to read between the lines. It was an intelligent interview. He would let you know what he really thought. That article. It was potential contour of Madonna’s. I don’t know, role in our lives.

T.B. Not her role, but her impact on our lives and how she impacted on us.

L.P. Exactly. Why do I demean Madonna but I need her to be there? There’s something about what she fulfills in society that allows me to continue to do what I want to do.

T.B. Some friends of mine were in Katmandu and all these old women, like 70 years old, weaving rugs were all singing “Like A Virgin” and he flipped out.

L.P. Oh. Wow.

T.B. Of all places, he sees these women sewing a rug, singing. “Like A Virgin”. And that’s what it is. It’s about making your culture and what you do and your voice relatable to everyone, not just a certain person or a certain group or the government or the church…

L.P. Propaganda, Tom.

T.B. It’s for yourself. It is propaganda. If you’re an artist, don’t you feel you have a responsibility to put out a statement and a voice and that’s your role in life?

L.P. That’s the power. If you If you don’t buy into that, you don’t have any power. if you don’t believe in your own stuff, you have no power because that’s what your whole platform is standing upon. But what you choose to do with that power, who you want it to help, who you want it to hurt, who you want it to reach, what you want it to attain depends on that chameleon or direct approach.

T.B. The ability to adapt…

L.P. No, I think it can be either one. There’s more than one other option.

T.B. Yeah, I don’t think there’s any one option given.

L.P. See, I got into the art form of the interview.

T.B. I know and we wanted to get away from that. I’m trying to get away from rock ‘n’ roll as it is.

L.P. But interviews apply to everyone. I could interview a physicist and find it fascinating.

T.B. Okay, here’s my lie. I’m the one responsible for the anti-gentrification in the neighborhood. I’m the one smashing windows, leaving beer bottles all around, I’m the one urinating in the street, I’m the one with the green hair, I’m the one busting windows, I’m the one that’s like trying to scare all the Yuppies and preserve the neighborhood for myself and my only motivation for doing it is I’m so fucking crazy. And if you don’t think so, I’ll burn your garage down.

L.P. Wait, here’s mine. I’m pregnant.

T.B. You read that here first. Liz Phair is pregnant. Goodbye.

Polaroid Photos by Liz Phair and Tom Billings. Photographic treatments by Liz Phair.

By Tom Billings and Liz Phair
Chicago’s Subnation, Volume 2, Issue 12, December 1994 / January 1995

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