He Said, She Said: How Liz Phair Took the Rolling Stones to 'Guyville'

As Jagger and Co. celebrate 'Exile on Main Street,' Phair revisits her 1993 response record

May 21, 2010 2:26 PM ET

Liz Phair was apartment-sitting in Chicago, thumbing through a box of cassettes, when the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street caught her eye. "I remember telling my boyfriend I wanted to write a record but I didn't know how," she says. "I was a visual arts major and I concocted the idea that I needed a template — learn from the greats." She started asking questions: Was it an important album? Did it sell a lot of copies? "He was like, yeah, it was a huge record for them, but it's a double record, Liz." Then he hit a nerve. "I can remember him sort of joking, 'You should totally do that,' but being sarcastic, as if I couldn't possibly," Phair tells Rolling Stone. "And I remember in that moment being like really."

Phair was pissed off, stoned, obsessive-compulsive, crushing on an unattainable rocker, and underemployed: a perfectly warped creative storm. "I had tons of dream time," she says, and began an intense relationship with Exile on Main Street. "I would really pretend that all the answers to all my questions were in Mick's lyrics and this record, and I would dream I was having this conversation." In 1993, her own 18-song disc Exile in Guyville arrived, touted as a "track-by-track response" to the Stones' double LP. But how did she do it? And what did the Stones think? As Mick Jagger and Co. celebrate the arrival of their Exile on Main Street reissue, Rolling Stone asked Phair to dive back into Guyville to set the record straight.

You assembled Guyville like a puzzle: you were imagining the questions, and Mick Jagger was answering them?
Exactly, and I was like, oh that's what you were doing last night. It fit so perfectly our neighborhood and the age we were. We were living kind of outside of society, me especially. I would write down the song from Exile and I had a code — there were stars, squares, circles, spiral lines, at least eight symbols that each meant something. Let's say a square meant it was a big song on the record in terms of fully arranged, and a wavy line would mean they used a lot of reverb and it was watery and atmospheric. Then I would go through my songs and do the same thing.

So "6'1" " equates to "Rocks Off."
In his lyrics he's coming back from a night out, he's doing the walk of shame. It's early morning, and he runs into someone who he's obviously had a relationship with. She's up in the morning because she's up in the morning like a normal person, and he's coming home, probably still drugged and delirious — this is what I glean from the lyrics — and she's giving him the uh huh, you're obviously sleeping with someone and it isn't me look, and he's like, look man, I can't even get into it because I'm kind of tripping out, I only get the rocks off in the morning — that's how far gone he is. So I play the part of the woman he runs into on the street, and I'm going like, "Oh yeah, and I hated you, I bet you've fallen..." On other songs I would be in agreement instead of arguing with Mick, where I'd be like, yes, I too have seen a rock & roll hero who's sort of a bum and I think he's really tragic and beautiful — "Glory."

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