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Media darling Liz Phair reluctantly takes her show on the road

Michael Roberts

Liz Phair, who married film editor Jim Staskauskas on March 11, has just returned from an extended honeymoon in the Bahamas — and she’s not happy about it.

“It’s so depressing to come back here at this time of the year,” the 27-year-old says from her comfortable Chicago home. “It’s so gray, and everyone is so beaten down by winter — and the Bahamas were so nice and so colorful. When I was down there, I was thinking, ‘Why don’t I just move here and raise chickens?’ Just me and Jim, chasing chickens in the Bahamas.”

That’s hardly the kind of comment you’d expect from an alternative-music performer. Then again, Phair isn’t the type to wave her underground credentials in anyone’s face — perhaps because she doesn’t have many. For example, she didn’t have to struggle through years of shitty, soul-ripping gigs before she finally received recognition for her work. In fact, she seldom played live anywhere until the release of her debut album, 1993’s promising but not fully realized Exile in Guyville. And she hasn’t been easy to catch in concert since then, either.

Catching Phair in print has been far easier. Virtually every reviewer capable of putting together a sentence championed Guyville, and nearly as many were thrilled by Whip-Smart, a promising but not fully realized followup released last year (the CD was partially recorded in — surprise — the Bahamas). If Phair were cooperative, most industry observers felt, global fame of a Madonna-like nature would be hers for the asking.

Instead, she remains a cult figure — and she knows just who to blame. “I think I’ve participated as fully as anyone in preventing myself from getting that big,” Phair says. “After Whip-Smart came out, I canceled my tour. I canceled all press. And I wouldn’t talk to anybody about business. I decided it was more important to get back to living my life.”

Hence the wedding to Staskauskas, a mostly traditional affair held in a converted mansion that’s associated with a tony club to which Phair’s mother belongs. “The weather that day was really great — warm and beautiful,” she elaborates. “And we had a fabulous florist. The flowers were just gorgeous.”

To an outsider, the rest of Phair’s world seems just as wonderful — the kind of place most of us would try like hell to never leave. So why is Phair, who has been quite open about her own stage fright, venturing from her cocoon to conduct a solo tour that will have her hopscotching around the country over the next several weeks? At times, Phair doesn’t sound quite certain herself. A damned articulate person on most topics, she can muster only the simplest response when quizzed about this one. “I guess,” she surmises, “it must be because of the way I was raised.”

The adopted daughter of a doctor and an art historian, Phair grew up in Winnetka, a Chicago suburb for the monied classes where grimy rockers are rarer than dodo birds. As her college years loomed, she pictured herself as a budding visual artist and enrolled at Ohio’s Oberlin College. She emerged from the school with a degree in art history that won her jobs assisting a handful of New York City artists. But she soon tired of that routine and returned to Chicago, where she started making bedroom tapes that she dubbed Girly Sound. The provocative sexuality of her ditties made them favorites of several influential scenesters, who began passing around copies like members of a previous generation circulated pornographic novels with all the good parts underlined.

Shortly after one of her cassettes reached New York’s Matador Records, Phair found herself with a recording contract — and no clear idea of what to do with it. Luckily, she had a copy of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, a 1972 double album that’s widely (and accurately) regarded as one of the best packages in rock history. Phair impulsively decided to make her debut a song-by-song response to the Stones’ manifesto, a concept that was as ambitious as it was appealing to music journalists. Critics (especially those of the male variety) were equally excited to discover that Phair’s Guyville songs were filled with bright, sassy lyrics, many of which sported profanities that were loads of fun to quote. And quote them they did: Lines from cuts such as “Fuck and Run” and “Flower”, a paean to oral sex, appeared in rock publications with striking frequency. The album’s brittle, schematic melodies and passable crooning were not nearly as audacious as the lines that accompanied them, but that hardly mattered — after all, prose is a lot easier to write about than music, anyway. As a result, Guyville became a cause celebre, and Phair found herself the subject of gushing praise delivered by wordsmiths seemingly captivated by both her tunes and their own erections.

Today, Phair shrugs off the heavy-breathing quality of many of the raves she’s received. “I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing,” she allows. “As I get nearer to thirty, it’s not so offensive to me. And I like to think of myself as sort of sexy. The only ones that bother me are the mindless ones where they just quote an insipid line or two that deals with sex, like that’s what the whole thing’s about and that’s why you should buy it” — she whispers — “because she says dirty words.

“I got a couple of bad reviews early on that made me feel really terrible — like my lameness had been exposed. For the most part, I’ve been lucky, but I stopped reading most of my press about a year ago, anyway, because it occurred to me that I was wasting so much time worrying about whether I was doing something well or the right way or pleasing this person or that person that I wasn’t getting anything done. It messes with your head — it’s paralyzing. It’s like you’re in school and you have sixty different teachers focusing intensely on you and giving you advice, and you’re trying to write a thesis that will please all of them. And if you don’t, they tell the whole world how you failed. They map your daily progress. Your every step is analyzed.”

It was in this atmosphere that Phair had to create Guyville‘s successor, which she knew would be her first project to be distributed by a major label, thanks to a new deal between Matador and Atlantic. In short order, the pressure started getting to her. “I wrote a lot of songs, but they didn’t sound natural,” she concedes. “They sounded contrived, overly thought out. Honestly, they weren’t stupid enough. My favorite songs are the ones that are both really intelligent and really dumb right at the same time — they have something about them that reminds you of every song you can think of, but they’re also totally different and fresh. Those are the ones that I like, but I can only write them when they come out easily. And when I was making Whip-Smart, nothing came out easily.”

For all that, Whip-Smart is clearly no catastrophe. Produced by Brad Wood, who also oversaw Guyville, the offering is somewhat more musically intriguing than its predecessor: “Supernova,” its first — and best — single, is more confident and hooky than anything Phair had previously managed, while the title cut, “X-Ray Man”, “Jealousy” and “Cinco de Mayo” are catchy enough to get by. The thin sameness of the other material begs for more production than it gets, but at least the disc is jammed from top to bottom with Phair’s wit and wisdom. She provides enough boinking references to keep the boys happy, as well as clever couplets of the sort that were lost in Guyville‘s delicatessen of sexual delights.

Unfortunately, Whip-Smart‘s modest virtues turned out to be no match for the monstrous hype that accompanied the platter’s arrival. The publicity blitz was led by an effusive Rolling Stone story that landed Phair on the cover looking tousled and postcoital in a loose-fitting slip. Rolling Stone has a well-deserved reputation for putting women up front only if they agree to pose in various stages of undress (e.g., Demi Moore, Janet Jackson), and she didn’t mind capitulating on this score: As proven by the lacy-black-underthings snapshots that decorate the inside of Guyville‘s sleeve, Phair is not exactly shy. She acknowledges that it would have been more subversive to appear clad in, say, a deep-sea-diving suit — “That would have been genius,” she enthuses — but she doubts she could have pulled it off. “There’s no way they’ll let a woman with a decent figure get on there without showing something,” she predicts. “There’s so much analysis and market research into what people buy that it’ll never happen. I can imagine a lot different, but I don’t expect it.”

Neither does she admit to being wounded by the backlash from grousers who complain that she doesn’t meet their alternative standards. The spokesman for these naysayers is Chicago-based producer Steve Albini, who very publicly dismissed Phair as the Ricki Lee Jones of her generation. She laughs at the mention of his name. “He reminds me of those old men who live on corners, and when kids come up and tease him, he comes running out waving his cane and yelling, ‘Get away, you dumb kids,'” she says. “He’s always been like that — he’s like a cartoon. And his formula is so obviously mathematical. It’s like, ‘No one shall rise but me.’ He even turns on the people he supports; at some point, he’s always screaming about some huge betrayal. In a weird way, it’s a compliment to be pinpointed for his venom. But then again, he does it to everybody.”

As for the substance of Albini’s critique, Phair remarks, “I’ve realized that when you read what people say about you, you’re not really reading about you — you’re reading about people reacting to you. It’s like dipping into the universal mind and hearing all of their opinions about you, and that makes doing things really difficult. The challenge should be to do something musically that’s beyond what you thought you could, not to impress Steve Albini.”

To that end, Phair is penning reams of new compositions that she claims are coming out in a much less self-conscious manner than the batch that made up Whip-Smart. And be warned: Sex is rearing its engorged head again. “I think I didn’t write about it that much on Whip-Smart because — Jim would hate this if he heard me say it — I was involved with someone and I didn’t want to jeopardize it,” she concedes. “But now I’m back to writing in my old voice. Now that I’m married, I don’t feel so much like I have to hold myself back.”

Still, there remains the matter of the tour, about which Phair can muster little enthusiasm. “I would love — really love — never to tour again,” she says. “That would be a gas. But right now I feel that if I don’t, I’ll be letting down the people I work with. They have to do a lot of things they hate — I know they do, because they tell me about them — so I feel that I have to give it a little effort. It’s like, oh yeah, it sucks, but I really ought to be out there and give it half a chance.”

“Actually, though, this may be the last tour. I mean, I knew I didn’t like performing in front of people when I did piano recitals in fifth grade. I’m going to try my best to get some enjoyment out of it this time around — playing solo is a different formula, and maybe it will help. But if I don’t, I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe go back to the Bahamas.”

By Michael Roberts
Westwood, April 5, 1995

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