By Paul Stelter
Express (The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.), August 28, 2008
“It was hard times when I was making that,” explains Liz Phair of her 1993 lo-fi indie opus Exile in Guyville. “It wasn’t a fun period in my life.”
That’s an understatement, as even a casual listen to Phair’s hate letters to herself and the boys in the Chicago music scene reveals.
Phair is a veritable textbook case on indie-to-mainstream success in the pre-Web era. She recorded a few tapes on a four-track machine in her parents’ house under the moniker Girly Sound and garnered some local success before sending one to indie powerhouse Matador Records, which quickly signed her and had her re-record the songs along with some new material.
Among her influences at that time: the new Washington (state and D.C.) riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, which were “definitely the first inklings I had that women were gonna get in on this. And I felt like a part of it.”
A shockingly composed and revelatory work for such an insecure person, Guyville made Phair the reigning indie queen, and the graphic sexual content of songs like “Flower” and “Fuck and Run” insured mainstream attention. For the 15th anniversary (and probably to promote her upcoming album), Dave Matthews’ ATO Records has re-released Guyville, and Phair performs the whole album on Thursday night in D.C.
The bonus DVD, Guyville Redux, is more for Phair’s benefit than ours, as she returns to Chicago to mend fences with the old gang, though it’s fun to see the Rashomon-esque perspectives on how the album was made. One surreal highlight: Phair and pal John Cusack — whose High Fidelity character could easily be one of her Guyville exes — compare notes on where they used to buy drugs.
Guyville itself has aged well; Cusack’s comment that “a man could listen to you revile him for hours” is dead-on. The swaggering guitar on “6’1″” lends credence to Phair’s claim that Guyville was a response to The Stones’ Exile on Main Street. “Fuck and Run” is a sing-along indiepop gem even as it details a self-loathing one-night-stand lifestyle.
“I’ve always felt very free to make [stuff] up,” Phair notes. “But I’ve been in plenty of scrapes — emotionally, sexually, physically. I’ve done everything that’s on Guyville; it just may not be exactly accurate as to when, how and why.”
Its theme of a woman not really knowing what to do with her newfound sexual power is definitely autobiographical. “When you’re young like that, you can have sex with people and you don’t know them that well. You think you do, but you find yourself in this lonely place sometimes, imitating relationships that grown-ups have but not being a grown-up.”
It used to be that “when I listened to Guyville, I got angry — it reminded me of things I’d done I wished I hadn’t or the person I was I wish I hadn’t been. Much the same way a drunk in recovery faces up to the person that they’ve been.” And now? “Part of what the re-release does is allow me to celebrate it along with everyone else. And to reclaim it, to some extent.”
So, no problems playing it live, or with her past stage-fright issues? “Oh, I’m sure I’ll get nervous again, I always get nervous,” she says with amused annoyance. “And then I get out there and we’ll perform and I’ll be distracted and the little wheels will turn. I think it’ll be OK.”
There may even be unreleased tapes still in a box somewhere, although Phair acknowledges that she’s not sure. “What’s driving me nuts right now is I want to go to my parents’ house. … I’m so tired of people not believing that I actually did a song-by-song response to Exile on Main Street. And I know that stack of papers is in there!”
Phair doesn’t see the real Guyville much these days. “I don’t have to deal with it. Because I’m a mom, I’m always seeing friends with kids. We’re grown-ups! About six months ago, I went downtown into a couple of bars, and it was so freaky. All these dudes who’ve been drinking all night look at you like an animal.”
Surely they did that 15 years ago, though. “But I didn’t know it!” she pleads. “There was a beautiful girl at the bar, and she just looked at us and sighed. She was so used to being devoured by these people, and I thought, ‘God, I can’t believe I survived this!’ And I wanted to say, ‘No, this isn’t what life’s gonna be like! You can go so much farther and do so much more.'”