Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 20, 2013

Liz Phair’s Guyville, 20 Years Later


Above: “Never Said” : Liz Phair with Paul Schaeffer’s great Late Night/Letterman band in 1994.

I was not– as public radio guru Ira Glass says in a 2008 “making of” documentary– the intended audience for Liz Phair’s audacious debut album Exile in Guyville (Matador, 1993).

But I did, like Ira and many other guys, sit up and take notice.

This album, which peaked at just #196 on the Billboard charts, was nevertheless an early, anthemic, slightly punk-influenced “screw-you” by a girl, for other girls– as if Liz (and her pack of pre-Riot Grrl friends) was mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore from the boys who mistreated them.

Cover of "Exile in Guyville"

Cover of Exile in Guyville

I believe Guyville, for the record, primarily referred to the then up-and-coming Wicker Park neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. It was a working class, neighborhood guy kind of hang-out place, an alternative to pricey Lincoln Park or other “dressed up” areas. Phair’s acquaintances, the Chicago indie stalwarts Urge Overkill, had  previously used the term in one of their own songs. (Help me out, music geeks… in what UO song? I ain’t got time to look it up….)

In another sense, though, Guyville was a reference to the young males in the Chicago rock music scene, or young males in general, who had a bit of a brotherhood amongst themselves, but would not dream of turning the stereo controls or car radio dial over to their girlfriends.

I’m sure that I first heard some of the Phair tracks on WXRT, which has typically been the  main radio station to help “break” new Chicago artists since I was a teen in this town. Probably I first heard Never Said on radio. Then heard Help Me, Mary. And Stratford-on-Guy. All great songs, with Phair’s unique vocal delivery and stripped-down neo-garage aesthetic.

However, I didn’t hear the not-ready-for-radio Flower (complete with “blowjob queen” reference), because I didn’t buy the LP at the time (a double-album, very rare and even cocky for a debut album). But I did enjoy Phair’s mix of toughness and sensitivity in what I did hear. I think I made a bootleg cassette of the album later, from a public library LP or CD, well after the original release. But the buzz about her raw sexual language among the 1993 teen or young adult crowd never did quite reach me… I was either too old or too removed from the alternative rock scene when the buzz was at its height.

In the years after, some of Phair’s reputation around Chicago as self-centered, sold-out, or worse began to grow– among the musicians’ community and even somewhat within her fan base. She eventually left town, got married, had a child, divorced soon after, and signed to “big time” Capitol Records. I remember looking at the blatant “sex sells” packaging of her fourth self-titled Capitol records release in 2003, and I assumed her period of creative relevance was now officially over.

[ Note: For my next trick, I will now pad Liz’s ongoing rep of  lying or “packaging” herself  —>   In the entertaining and honest “Guyville Redux” documentary that went with the 15th anniversary re-release of Guyville on Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, there is a quick shot of Phair’s old Illinois I.D. In that shot, her D.O.B. is listed as 4-17-63. But at Wikipedia, her D.O.B. is listed as 4-17-67! So which is it, Lizzie? Spin-control messaging to seem four years younger and hipper now? Or fake I.D. from way back when, with a false birthdate to make you seem older and get you into clubs? No great sin either way… but this is Liz: complicated, odd, bohemian, a little “broken”, the kind of spoiled North Shore girl I both wanted to date and also hated when I was running around those same streets in the late Eighties and early Nineties. ]

Speaking of Chicago in the 90s: Wicker Park/Guyville was also the setting, more or less, of John Cusack’s music/relationship movie High Fidelity (2000). [One of my top ten fave flicks, btw.] Phair and Cusack have been friends since their teen years in Chicago’s northern suburbs, … so the relationship between her record and his movie, while indirect, can be clearly seen.

Plus I just discovered by watching the Redux documentary that Dance of the Seven Veils, one of the Guyville songs, is likely about Cusack, at least in part.

Here is a partial lyric:

Johnny, my love, get out of the business
It makes me want to rough you up so badly
Makes me want to roll you up in plastic
Toss you up and pump you full of lead
Johnny, my love, get out of the business
The odds are getting fatter by the minute
That I have got a bright and shiny platter
And I am gonna get your heavy head
then, later:
Entertainers bring May flowers.
And here’s the item I wrote up at explaining my theory and/or research:
  • Johnny is both John the Baptist AND actor John Cusack. The actor is a friend of hers from her teen years, and Phair was/is also friends with a Cusack ex-girlfriend (4+ years) — a woman who years later is likely referring to Cusack in the documentary. She refers to a “John’s” movie career taking off, all while he was living too fast and getting eaten up by the entertainment industry. So Phair’s friend says she listened to a certain song on the album and was relieved someone else saw how “John” was a mess, or in danger, or similar. The Bible stuff is poetic license, like maybe Salome is the beautiful “Hollywood life”, seducing men only to destroy them. And maybe random drug-addled additions that are neither about Cusack or Salome, but Phair herself. She has said most of the songs on the record are not biographical, but about others she knew… so I think it’s mostly her girlfriend’s song for Cusack.

Cusack himself appears in the Redux doc, and at one point compliments Liz by saying “I can listen to you revile me all day.” So he may know that the song– or several on the album (which menions a “John” in at least three songs) — is referring to him.

Interestingly, one of the more significant interviews conducted by Phair in 2008 for Redux was with producer/musician Steve Albini, he of Nirvana and Big Black fame.

Albini has always been politically and artistically unafraid, and agressively “colorful”, to the point of being an a**hole at times — though one I respect. I was on the jazz radio staff at Northwestern University’s college radio station in the late 80s with Albini (who was on the heavier-hitting rock staff… obviously). Though I barely knew him personally, I saw and heard enough of him to get a sense of the “fire in the belly” that drives him, and that keeps him fiercely independent and sometimes caustic even to this day. In early 1994, Albini had publicly disavowed Phair as being not truly “underground”, and “more talked about than heard”, in the increasing hype of her early career. So that feud got a little ugly. But to her credit, Liz chose to go to Steve years later in 2008 to talk about her record and the Chicago scene at the time. Albini still wasn’t glowing in his praise of Phair or the record, but he did admit it was influential on several levels.

Even since 2008, Phair has gone back to “the well” yet again, by including versions of ten of her self-produced Girly Sound songs with the CD version of her self-released Funstyle (2010). Girly Sound was/is a legendary “cassette-only” collection of demos, traded copies of which generated her early public attention, and some of which led directly to Exile in Guyville songs.

Phair is still out there kicking in 2013. She’s done some television music fairly recently, plus a bit of public performance on occasion. She’s apparently unsigned to a major record label presently… but that’s nothing new in the digital age, especially for a borderline-popular artist over 40.

I suppose the above is not so much a review (why review a five-year-old re-release and DVD?), as it is a reflection. I was just listening back to the album, and it strikes up a variety of memories. It inspired me to find out more about Liz Phair. Maybe Exile in Guyville inspires you, too. Maybe you hate it, hate her, hate how she hates on a dog of a man, or on conservative middle-class conventionality.

Either way, she don’t mind. It’s just Liz being Liz again… probably still glad somebody’s talking about her.


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