Liz Phair Still Doesn’t Care What We Think
By Liz Phair
“It’s hard to tell the truth about ourselves,” Liz Phair writes in the prologue to her memoir, “Horror Stories.” “We’re afraid,” she continues, “we will be defined by our worst decisions instead of our best.” This is a surprising statement from the woman who wrote and recorded the raw indie-rock classic “Exile in Guyville,” released in 1993. That record, originally a few tracks on cassette tapes that Phair recorded while living in her parents’ house in her 20s, was a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ cocky, much revered, double-album paean to bad boys, “Exile on Main St.” The complicated truth of being smart, young, female and heterosexual was what “Guyville” dived deep to get at with unbound candor. The sound was lo-fi; the lyrics were about desire, rejection, humiliation, rage, ambivalence and the rocky seas of sex; the concept was meta. In a recent interview with The Independent, Phair summed it up as, “It was like seeing the girl next door go nuclear.”
“Guyville” made Phair a star and an indie darling. Along with boundary-busting female musicians of those years like PJ Harvey, the Breeders, Hole, Salt-N-Pepa and Björk, among others, Phair was, to quote Joni Mitchell, “a woman of heart and mind” and genitals, too; nothing that was human was alien to Phair’s expression or her image.
What Phair means by the “horror” in her title isn’t the horror show that we now call the daily news. She isn’t recounting the blows she took as a woman in a male-dominated industry, or a woman in the world, full stop. Her horrors are, by and large, what she calls “the callous gestures that we make toward one another … brief interactions that are as cumulatively powerful as the splashy heart-stoppers, because that’s where we live most of our lives.”
More often than not in this uniquely thoughtful, self-aware memoir, the horrors she describes are mistakes she made, ethical challenges she failed, and moments of anxiety, bewilderment and being lost, often literally and sometimes because of her own flawed decisions. “We can be monsters, we human beings,” she writes, and she is including herself in that company. She makes no bones about her privilege — she’s white, upper-middle-class, suburban, Oberlin-educated. Being in the textual presence of a grown-up who, in midlife, is going over the gaps, the failures and the cruelties for which she is accountable is as bracing and refreshing as it was to hear that much younger Phair express her ambition to, how shall we say, take her lover “like a dog” and continue “everything I’ll do to you” until a crucial part of him “is blue.” From then until now, Phair insists on her right to be seen as, and takes the considerable risk to be seen as, a messy, complete, appetitive, responsible human being. Would that many could do the same.
To this end, Phair relates a number of incidents, touching down at different points in time, of what she calls “weaker moments.” For instance, as a college student, she doesn’t help the young woman passed out on a bathroom floor; elsewhere, she doesn’t help an abused dog; she doesn’t intervene when a child is being beaten; she cheats on her husband; she acts like a pouty rock star, a self-pitying “captive to my celebrity in need of velvet ropes and special treatment.” More ambiguously, she has mixed feelings about a music producer whose abusive behavior toward women is all over the media and who was, yes, creepy with her, but that wasn’t all of it. More hilariously, following a particularly painful breakup, she finds herself dressing up to flirt with a Trader Joe’s employee who looks like her ex and is not, as it turns out, interested in the same way. More existentially, she relates incidents of being stranded in a blizzard and in the Northeast blackout of 2003; and of the grueling 30-hour labor to deliver her son.
[ Read Liz Phair’s review of “Life,” the autobiography of Keith Richards. ]
In these moments, Phair writes with great detail about what it is to be rudderless, frightened, confused, and yet willing to keep going without being able to see very far ahead. All of these “horrors” are small-scale, but they act as metaphors for larger questions about how to be in the world, much as song lyrics act as metaphors for larger questions about what you do next when you can’t get what you want, how much blood you leave on the tracks, and whether or not you’re going to get in formation.
If the clichéd rock star story is a fever chart of rise, fall, rehab and redemption à la “Rocketman” or “Her Smell,” “Horror Stories” is more an archipelago of intense episodes of unknowing with the implicit understanding that life is a wayward, unresolvable business. These days, Phair wonders “how to be Liz Phair again.” The one topic, however, that Phair doesn’t broach in this rigorously open exploration of negative capability is her musical life. “Horror Stories” is an account of a life in the music industry, certainly, with managers who come and go and those vertiginous times of going from “partying in a mansion” to being “parked in a urine-soaked alley,” but Phair’s musical imagination, process, influences, stylistic changes and the sounds she hears in her head are conspicuously absent. Like the telling elision in the otherwise vérité documentary about Madonna, “Truth or Dare,” when the camera is invited everywhere and anywhere except her business meeting, Phair keeps the door closed on her creative life. She is willing to describe in some detail the way her labia looked to her when she was nine months pregnant (let’s just say, unfamiliar), but there is barely a line in the entire book about songwriting or playing the guitar, the talents for which she became famous and which, in fact, have been her life’s work and support.
I am firmly of the belief that performers owe us nothing but authentic performance, which can be among the most astonishing acts of intimacy possible. Perhaps Phair felt that her musicianship is what’s been most visible and she was more engaged by unpacking the less visible parts of her life. Perhaps it’s another big story that needs its own separate narrative, as the years went on and her style changed more than once, to mixed receptions. Perhaps she feels it’s none of our business. O.K. One interesting effect of this decision, however, is the impression it gives that her creative life is a zone of absolute privacy. We can know much about how she feels as a woman, as a person, and much of what she feels is almost defiantly ordinary. At the same time, as a working artist she is not ordinary. Her relationship to music seems to have been the longest and maybe the most demanding love of her life, the one for which she has been willing to get lost, to fail, and to try again over and over for decades. Call me a selfish fan, but I have to say that’s one story in all its horror and passion I would love to hear.
Stacey D’Erasmo’s most recent novel is “Wonderland.”
By Liz Phair
Illustrated. 260 pp. Random House. $28.
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