By James Bone
The Times, London, England 1999
The “F-word” has been exceedingly kind to Liz Phair, and she knows it. Touring America with Alanis Morissette, the petite blonde rocker rouses an audience of undersexed college kids with the faux-naif guitar melodies and Lolita-esque lyrics of her earlier albums:
“He said he liked to do it backwards/I said that’s just fine with me” (Chopsticks).
Although most of the fans at Washington’s George Mason University are still too young to buy a six-pack of beer, Phair packs the gig with four-lettered phrases. Strumming furiously, she coos:
“I want to be your blow-job queen…” (Flower).
By the time she reaches her climax, the crowd is on its feet in rapture, chanting along with the chorus.
“Fuck and run; Fuck and run; Even when I was 17; Fuck and run; Fuck and run; Even when I was 12” (Fuck and Run).
There comes a time in every girl’s life, however when she outgrows the F-word. For the raunchy Chicagoan singer-songwriter, that moment has arrived. It is already six years since she exploded on to America’s indie music scene with Exile in Guyville, a track-by-track “female response” to the Rolling Stones’s 1972 hit Exile on Main Street. At 31, the former enfant terrible now has a husband and a two-year-old infant herself. On stage, she wears a stretchy red micro-dress and sneakers, but when I catch up with her in Washington’s Four Seasons hotel, she sports a blue silk blouse that make her look like a stylish management consultant. These days, the F-word most likely to roll off her lips is “family”.
The naughty-girl has turned nice, and the transformation is clear on her new CD, just out in Britain, called whitechocolatespaceegg. Statistically speaking, the 16 tracks make only one passing use of the F-word (a relatively innocuous, “Who the fuck am I to criticise him”). But the change is more profound. Eschewing the sexy post-adolescent iconoclasm of her two earlier albums, the lyrics reach for a poetry that can encompass the grown-up world of family and — another F-word — friendship.
“When I was younger, a lot of the relationships I had were with people I did not know very well,” she says with an arresting self-awareness that betrays her intellectual upbringing. “You would make up half the back story, because you did not know the full story. Now the relationships I have are with people who I know very well. My parents and me. My husband and me. My son and me. I am deeply in big relationships.” Tossing her hair blithely over her shoulder, she makes what must be a painful admission for a rock star who once aspired to be a female Mick Jagger: “American popular music has a lot to do with teenagers and what they are involved in. I do not feel particularly unhappy; I do not feel like I can’t get what I want — three important topics of popular music.”
Phair’s bourgeois background is, in fact, an indispensable ingredient of her allure. Raised in Ann Margaret’s hometown of Winnetka, Illinois, it is true when she sings in Chopsticks that, “I knew Julia Roberts when I was 12 at summer camp.” There had been foul-mouthed female performers before, to be sure, but none talked dirty like the girl-next-door.
One has to be careful, however, about Phair’s past. In a feat of youthful rebellion and smart-ass humour, she and her friends once made up large parts of her official biography, claiming, inter alia, that she was a descendant of Marie Antoinette and had eloped with an industrial-waste worker. Although she still uses the F-word ostentatiously in conversation, that is only because it is part of the street-smart idiom of the music world. She doesn’t seem to have the nerve — or any longer the need — to fool me face to face.
Her father, John, the head of infectious diseases at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, is, she says, “mildly famous” in his own right as an AIDS researcher. Her mother, Nancy, teaches at the Chicago Art Institute. As a child of seven, she spent a year in Britain when her father took a sabbatical at Sheffield University. While she acquired an English accent, “like the second day”, and admits to a pre-pubescent crush on Prince Edward, she still suffered culture shock.
“The first thing that freaked me out was that the was that the playground was all cement,” she says. “At gym class, they all started taking off their clothes and they all had these blue knickers on. And I had these little lacy panties.” Perhaps an early sign of what was to come.
Phair grew up intent on becoming an artist — but a visual artist. Fuelled by her mother’s love of painting and her father’s knowledge of pathology, she spent her teenage years scribbling large graphic charcoals of humans with disease. “My real thing was trying to evoke in the viewer an empathy with someone who had really become a monstrosity,” she says. But music intervened.
Her entry into the alternative music scene is by now the stuff of folklore. After losing her virginity and learning to play electric guitar at a rich-kids’ college in Ohio, she was catapulted to fame and critical acclaim by a demo tape she had recorded on a four-track in her bedroom. “I was just out of college and somebody was willing to give me cash to hang out in the studio and play music,” she says. “It was a chance to say ‘Fuck you!’ to all my boyfriends who had bands.”
Exile in Guyville, which took its name from a seedy Chicago neighbourhood mentioned in a number from the band Urge Overkill, sold 200,000 copies. Village Voice named it album of the year, and Rolling Stone magazine put her on the cover of its special edition on Women in Rock. She even received an offer to pose nude in Playboy. With Girl Power replacing grunge, Phair was annointed the Joni Mitchell of Generation X.
“My mother was mortified, mor-ti-fied,” Phair says. “She doesn’t see her little girl talking about sex. Mother is not an overtly sexual creature. She is very warm and beautiful and has probably enjoyed sex, but she did not talk about sex. It was not until the critical acclaim came that it was a piece of art that it was OK with my parents. Then they could hide behind the art part and be proud.”
The adolescent angst of Exile in Guyville moved her mother to tears. Fuck and Run, for instance, contains a haunting refrain — “I want a boyfriend, I want a boyfriend” — familiar to many teenage girls. “She cried because she said she had no idea I was so unhappy,” Phair says. “I did not know what she meant. Now I listen to it and I think I was so unhappy, but I was also having some of the best times of my life — the tail end of puberty. I was definitely a late bloomer.”
To her fans, deep in hormonal crisis, Phair became an emblem of their sexual desperation. At times, it got unpleasant. She remembers a gig in Manchester with Oasis where she was confronted by a gang of jeering male groupies backstage who asked: “Is that how you pay your band? Do you fuck them?” It would be quite wrong, however, to see Phair as a sexual rebel. The most repeated line from the album — the notorious “I want to be your blow-job queen” — was actually inspired by a failed scheme to pick up a boy at college. “When I used to write about sex, I was not having much sex,” she now concedes. Phair’s follow-up album, Whip-Smart, used the same four-letter vocabulary but lacked the anomie. She had already met her future husband, video editor Jim Staskausas, and seemed a happier woman. In Supernova, for instance, she sang of her perfect lover: “I have looked all over the place/But you have got my favourite face”. Her chronic stage fright meant she did not tour with the album and its sales were disappointing.
Phair has now reached the point in her career where she can play with the best female singer-songwriters around, whether Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant, as she did last summer, or Morissette, as now. “I felt growing up that it was always men singing and I always had to pretend I was their girlfriend,” she says. “Now I can pretend it’s me. I really enjoy the female music that is being made in America now. It’s not because I am toeing the party line. I am part of it now. I have to remind myself, ‘You are getting to touch the thing in popular culture you like the most.’ I have got the best seats in the house.” Her favourite song at the moment: Jewel’s My Hair.
Phair still has unabashed admiration for Jagger, particularly his ability to encapsulate the world in natural lyrics. Before writing Exile in Guyville, she studied the Stones’s Exile on Main Street like a thesis, and she remains so much in awe that she once tried unsuccessfully to use her celebrity to get her backstage at a Stones gig in Chicago just so she could meet Rubber Lips. “I completely relate to where the Rolling Stones are coming from, and the subject matter, and the angle,” she says. “Even to this day in the new stuff, I completely get it.”
But don’t care to equate what is sometimes called Phair’s “post-feminism” with Girl Power à la Spice Girls. “I am the lone visionary singing through the loneliness of the world like a troubadour,” she says. “They are the cheerleader squad. I do not even like their clothes. They are just too old to be hopping around like that. They are like clowns.”
Whitechocolatespaceegg, appearing after a four-year break, sounds as though it took its title from the arrival of Phair’s little bald baby, Nick. In fact, the mysterious name derives from a mysterious dream in which she imagined herself greeting fans from inside a white cocoon. The album is populated by characters from Phair’s world: There is Henry, the “bartender I am lucky to know”, who acts as a fount of wisdom in the track Polyester Bride; her “best friend” Tiffany Jones, one of five sisters with names beginning with “T”, in Girls’ Room; her mother in Only Son; and a composite relative in Uncle Alvarez. At times the music has an angry edge, but the mood is more meditative.
Phair, who left Nick with his father and a nanny while on tour, says it can be strange to go suddenly from watching children’s TV to appearing on stage as a femme fatale.
“It’s easy to talk about sex,” she says. “What is more difficult is doing your job on stage after being a mother, to turn around and come straight from The Discovery Zone to the sound check, and he is going, “Mama, mama, mama’.” Occasionally, she and her young-mother friends dispair of ever going out at night again “to smoke a joint”.
Nevertheless, she feels that motherhood has secured her place in the world, and she doesn’t lament the loss of her earlier notoriety. “I feel very much part of the long line of life as a parent,” she says. “When you are young it’s easy to see things as ‘us’ and ‘them’, to be very caught in your own little world. Once I had a child, I grew up a little. Now I don’t feel my little personal whatever is that important. You really can’t fake it. You have to change what you write about as your life changes. I would rather be less popular and write songs that are really meaningful to me, than recapture something that isn’t going on in my life any more.”
Only one song on the new album grapples head on with motherhood: the poignant Go on Ahead in which a forlorn wife tells her husband, “You go on ahead, honey”. The song still makes her blush because it is so personal. Nothing she can say better expresses the maelstrom of emotions than the final verse:
“It goes around in circles; one night is lovely, the next is brutal/And you and I are in way over our heads with this one, it’s hard/To admit it, but you hold me and I can’t feel you/We hurt but we smile/I promise I’ll make it back when the summer has warmed me awhile.”