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Liz Phair, ‘Guyville,’ and Happy, Hazy Memories of Early ’90s Chicago

Live, in Photos: Liz Phair and Blondshell at Ryman Auditorium

Liz Phair’s ‘Exile in Guyville’ Still Reigns, Reimagined, at the Moody Theater

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Somewhere toward the end of this period, Liz Phair seized the mantle of Chicago’s punk rock poet with “Exile in Guyville,” a critically acclaimed, unpolished, 18-song ode to this weirdly wonderful time of life. Now touring around the 30th anniversary of the album, which she played all the way through for us at the Ryman Auditorium, it’s clear Phair knows she tapped into something in 1993.

By John Carpenter
Empty Nest Quest | November 30, 2023

The shifting ground between youth and adulthood in my post-college years was an awesome time, at least as far as I can remember.

It was a while ago.

Life in my 20s was divided between a job I loved that was maybe starting to pay off, and the stumbling mating ritual of a Chicago social scene that swirled between after-work beers, play-for-the-table pool, cheap Thai food, and loud bands in small rooms.

Somewhere toward the end of this period, Liz Phair seized the mantle of Chicago’s punk rock poet with “Exile in Guyville,” a critically acclaimed, unpolished, 18-song ode to this weirdly wonderful time of life.

Now touring around the 30th anniversary of the album, which she played all the way through for us at the Ryman Auditorium, it’s clear Phair knows she tapped into something in 1993. “Guyville” is a collage of unfiltered vignettes from the life of a 20-something woman, when the world seemed to revolve around either the pursuit of, or the complicated ramifications from, sex.

“Never Said,” was the album’s biggest hit. It’s a hard rocking, slightly grinning, slyly accusatory declaration that the singer wasn’t the one who spilled the beans about a clandestine hook-up.

“Don’t know where you heard it,” Phair sings over a churning Stratocaster in the low-register, deadpan that made the album sound raw and honest.

“Don’t know who’s spreading it around
All I know is I’m clean as a whistle, baby
I didn’t utter a sound
I-I-I never said nothing.”

Phair has said that “Guyville” refers to a Chicago scene that was replete with carefully unkempt, flannel-shirted young men who were serious about their music and who rarely failed to point out that the Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main Street” was the greatest album ever made. She famously claimed that her album was a song-for-song response to the Stones’ “Exile,” a statement that was enough to get me to buy her album. (Wait. Are you suggesting that I was one of those guys? Are you kidding? Also, did you know that the Stones recorded that album in a basement of a mansion in France?!)

Back then I caught a show at Cabaret Metro it seemed like once a week, but somehow missed Phair’s debut there in September of 1993. It’s a show that quickly became the stuff of legend and the talk of the music scene when “the talk of” actually meant people talking to each other.

The early 90s in and around Wicker Park was an exciting time. Bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Material Issue and Veruca Salt were making a mark. And bars like the Empty Bottle and the Rainbo Club – both walking distance from my apartment at the time – were part of a real scene.

On any given day at the Rainbo Club, you might see Eleventh Dream Day setting up for an on-demand gig for record executives in from L.A., while conspicuously paint-splattered artists argued in the corner – over single-malt whiskeys – about the latest comrade to “sell-out.”

It was in a Rainbo Club photo booth that the “Exile in Guyville” cover photo was taken.

Although now a gentrified scattering of $2 million houses and couture fashion, the neighborhood was once a place artists and humble newspaper scribes could afford. I took over a $420-per-month, 3-bedroom apartment from two reporter friends who were able to buy their starter home on the same block for less than $200,000. If any reporters live in that neighborhood now, they’ve either been there for 30 years or have more gainfully employed spouses.

Back then you could still see remnants of Wicker Park’s heritage as the heart of Chicago’s Polish triangle. The ubiquitous “Old Style” signs over tavern doors that advertised “cold beer” elsewhere in the city, touted “Zimne Piwo” – Polish for cold beer – in the taprooms around Damen and Division.

The Busy Bee, my go-to breakfast place under the El tracks at Damen and Milwaukee, had a picture of Pope John Paul II over the coffee maker.

Once, when my parents came to visit, I hastily took note of the Mass schedule in front of the nearest Catholic Church and confidently suggested we “go to the 10:30,” which turned out to be the Polish-language Mass.

“I guess you don’t get to the 10:30 often,” my father said with a nudge and a smile.

I miss my father. And Chicago.

But I digress.

What made Liz Phair’s debut special was that it was so honest. Like many feminist writers before and after, she shocked sensibilities by actually speaking in plain terms about female desires and sexuality.

“You got up out of bed
You said you had a lot of work to do
But I heard the rest in your head
And almost immediately I felt sorry
Cause I didn’t think this would happen again
No matter what I could do or say
Just that I didn’t think this would happen again
With or without my best intentions
And I want a boyfriend
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas
Letters and sodas
I can feel it in my bones
I’m gonna spend another year alone
It’s fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen
Fuck and run, fuck and run”

There was no satellite radio or music streaming back then, so FCC rules meant you only heard this song if you bought the album. “Never Said,” on the other hand, was all over the more progressive airwaves.

“Exile in Guyville” sounds like an an excellent young writer’s first attempt at creating songs, propelled by an ear for pop music hooks and an electric guitar she was confidently learning to play.

It connected strongly with young women, establishing a bond still in evidence at our Ryman show. Phair’s encore was a smattering of other hits, including the catchy “Polyester Bride,” from “Whitchocolatespaceegg,” her third album.

“Do you want to be a polyester bride?
Or do you want to hang your head and die?
Do you want to find alligator cowboy boots they just put on sale?
Do you want to flap your wings and fly away from here?”

It’s a cool, breezy song that I recognized right away and enjoyed. But a few sections over from us in the Ryman balcony pews I saw a 50-something woman singing along. I recognized the pose from the Taylor Swift movie we just watched: head back, eyes closed, hands in the air, singing every word as if it was Absolutely. Positively. 100-percent. About ME.

“It’s kind of embarrassing,” Mary said later. But I thought it said something what music can mean to people. I’m glad to have songs I connect with like that.

It’s worth noting that the live show sounded better than the original album. Not only did Phair have a strong band featuring her guitar as well as two others, she seemed freer with her voice. Who knew that her trademark deadpan delivery masked a lovely and very capable natural style?

I’d read about some of Phair’s stage banter on this tour from a review of an earlier show. So I was ready with my voice recorder each time she started to talk about the days when she was chasing her dream.

“It’s a strange period where you work in uncertainty and darkness and rejection. And you go out every night and you do crazy shit looking for love,” she said. “You live and die by the social scene. And all you really have at that point is each other. And then you grow beyond that and you find that security and you find that acceptance. And you get there and you realize that that crazy fucked up time was actually a magical place. It was kind of liminal space between youth and adulthood, and some of the best times of your life.”

Seems about right.

Date: Nov. 27, 2023
Artist: Liz Phair
Venue: The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville
ENQ Mini-review: A strong show worthy of the original “Exile in Guyville.”

(Editor’s note about the variable quality of our pictures: We try to take decent photos at the events we attend. But we don’t want to be “those people” who are constantly holding up their phones at shows. We snap one or two, then put away the device so we can more fully enjoy the moment.)

Featured Image: Liz Phair at the Ryman Auditorium. (Photo: John Carpenter)

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