Liz Phair: A Rock & Roll Star Is Born

She has what it takes to be rock's Woman of the Year: smarts, great songs and some very frank ideas about sex

October 6, 1994
Liz Phair
Liz Phair on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mad Vadukel

Liz Phair is doing her damnedest to get past the security guard. "Pleeeease?" she wheedles as a particularly simian man blocks her way. " What's the big deal, hmm?" she bats her eyes at him, giving him the full-on Phair charm, but the guard, meaty arms crossed over his barrel chest, is unmoved. "Sorry, Miss," he says a tad too happily. "The show's already started. Can't let you in."

The show that will not grant Phair entrance, let alone backstage privileges, is not Woodstock '94, nor is it Pavement, whose Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain Phair, 27, often jogs to. It's not even the Rolling Stones. No, it's slightly more alternative: It's Coral Reef Dreaming, the nature movie playing at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium. She strains to look past the guard's Refrigerator Perry-size shoulders and tries another let's-all-be-adults-about-this grin. The fact that Phair's normally crackerjack oratory powers are a bit dim doesn't help matters – earlier, she and her companion got baked, high-school style, in the parking lot. "All right then," she tells the guard haughtily as she spins on her heel. "We'll look at the fish."

We shamble over to the Animals of Warm Fresh Waters and commence two hours of pot-addled fish gazing. Scintillating dialogue ensues along the lines of "Look. Look at that one. It has a wart on its nose. Ha." And "Check this little guy out. See? He's smiling. See?" We lose steam near Animals of the Indo-Pacific and head back to the parking lot. She sees a look of doubt pass over her visitor's face as she reaches for the keys. "I'm fine," she says with a soothing tone in her voice. "Just get in the car."

Phair pulls out of the lot . . . and smack into six lanes of traffic barreling head-on toward her blue Toyota Corolla. Isn't it funny how life works out? I'm going to die here in this car with Liz Phair. She seems like a nice enough person. There are certainly worse ways to go. "Fuck! Fuck!" yells Phair as she throws the car in reverse and stomps on the gas. We shoot back into the parking lot and gulp a few deep breaths.

"Usually I'm a great driver." She grins shakily. "No, I'm serious."

For Elizabeth Clark Phair, the past year has been a similar rush of adrenalin. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere, the then 26-year-old bestowed Exile in Guyville – the demos for which were recorded on a four-track in her Chicago bedroom – upon a been-there-done-that world in 1993, which caused an instant furor, selling more than 200,000 copies, phenomenal for an indie-label debut. It's debatable as to what element of Guyville received the most attention. Was it the fact that it was one woman's 18-song answer to rock's Holy Grail, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street? Perhaps it was that the word guyville, lifted from a song by her pals Urge Overkill, was a retort to the sometimes stifling Chicago indie-music scene?

Could be. But likely it's that Phair's lyrics were, to put it mildly, not for the timid. Lyrics that gave new meaning to the question "Can I be frank for a moment?" Lyrics that brought forth a collective ooh-weee from a titillated rock press, which seized upon her generous use of the word fuck and phrases like "I'm a real cunt in spring/You can rent me by the hour" and the oft-repeated "I want to be your blow-job queen." Heady stuff for a girl hailing from a wealthy Chicago suburb.

Whatever the reason, indie-rock gurus buried her under a landslide of praise (New York's astute if overly analytical Village Voice named Exile Album of the Year for 1993, the first time a woman had captured that honor since Joni Mitchell reigned in 1974, when Ford was in the White House), which means that all eyes – no pressure here! – are eagerly cast upon Act 2, Whip-Smart. As it turns out, the new album is a stunner – and, dare we say, better than the first – a perfect progression from Guyville, carrying over all of the DIY feel of her first offering but with greater accessibility and tighter arrangements. "The first album is for Your People," says Phair. "The second is for the People; the third is for Everybody. Your People hate your second album because it isn't for them, but you have to attract the attention of the People, who will get a sound, get an idea, digest and spit it out. And the next time you can get revolted by that and go back to the original Your People mentality, which is more intimate."

On Whip-Smart, Phair once again unflinchingly examines the rocky terrain of romantic relationships, but on this go-round, a notable thread snakes throughout the lyrics: gender reversal, a subject that has been on Phair's mind as a result of being in a serious relationship for more than a year. As for the album's sound, Phair's guitarist, Casey Rice, says it's "more rocking. It sounds more like a band record than a studio record." Bass player LeRoy Bach agrees. "The new album is a lot better than the first. Better songs, less what would be rambling, introspective, self-indulgent things."

And again, Phair has complete control of the project, from cover art ("It's a Russian constructivist propaganda poster") to production (assisted by her drummer, Brad Wood) to the video for the frothy guitar pop of the album's first single, "Super Nova," a jubilant salute to a lover's prowess. Phair will be sitting in the director's chair.

Which brings us, on this sun-dappled day, to the Bank, home of Urge Overkill's Blackie Onassis and general headquarters of the band. The Bank, a gutted structure in the slightly seedy Chicago neighborhood of Humboldt Park, is a decadent, cavernous place – very Vincent Price. It's a custom-made setting for the video shoot, which is about Phair's current obsession, the supernatural.

A propman lugs in a stuffed owl, which blends in seamlessly with the surroundings. The director is simultaneously applying makeup to herself and issuing directions. "The lamp needs to flutter more," she tells a techie. "LeRoy," she tells her bassist and video star, "as it flutters, you look at it like 'What the fuck?' " Phair, clearly in her element, is enjoying herself immensely.

"I'm just nuts about ghost stories right now," Phair says on a break. "Maybe because entering the rock world kind of bashed a lot of pop-culture illusions I had. It was the last bastion of mystique for me as a kid." Up close, Phair is petite – your grandmother would call her a slip of a girl – with enormous blue-green eyes and clean, tawny skin. Contrary to her lyrics (and her shiny pink dress), her sexual presence doesn't reach out and grab you by the lapels; instead, she radiates a low-grade sexuality (or is it confidence? or both?). She laughs easily and often and punctuates her speech with improbable phrases like "You retardo!" She talks swiftly, purposefully and articulately, with an easiness suggesting that this is a woman who views conversation as an art form.She is genuinely interested in what she has to say and is stimulated by the things that come out of her mouth.

Phair is also hyperobservant, prone to near-obsessive analysis. "I grew up in dialogue," she says. "My family table always had discussions that ended up in verbal wars. Whenever the extended family came over, it was sort of a verbal power play. I remember being a young girl at these tables with my dad and my male cousins and my uncle, who was very loud. I didn't know anything, but I wanted to talk really loudly." It's easy to picture her theorizing at a coffeehouse, arguing late night at a bar about politics, the male-female dynamic, art vs. commerce. Hell, about Astroturf vs. grass. "Let's talk about Cher," she announces at one point before launching into a discourse that is as damned stimulating as it could possibly get about a woman who shills for Lori Davis Hair Care Products.

Phair's analysis, however, extends to her own work. There is a calculated veneer to her dissection of her own albums – so much so that at times they seem more like a college thesis than like music. Phair has denied that she manipulates the media, but her keen awareness of the music machine and her deconstructive tendencies point to a different conclusion: She is all too aware of her role. "You're there to be a salesperson, a model spokesperson," she says about the music biz. "It's consumerism."

Phair has thrown herself into all things occult for this video. "Oh, man, I went to graveyards, haunted houses, I quizzed everyone I knew," she says. "I'm really into it, because the phenomenon itself is never any less interesting for the mind to play with than things like astrology or birth and death or mythology." She says these interests are decidedly female. "I'm always reawakening and realizing I'm not a guy. What I really like are things like intuition, freaky experiences, coincidences, fatalism.

"I believe in ghosts," Phair says. "I used to think I was a witch when I was little. I had a lot of magic in my life when I was a kid. And I refuse to lose it, because it isn't something that was just a game. It was how I knew my place in the universe."

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“You Oughta Know”

Alanis Morissette | 1995

This blunt, bitter breakup song -- famous for its line "Would she go down on you in a theater?" -- was long rumored to be about Alanis Morissette getting dumped by Full House actor Dave Coulier. But while she never confirmed it was about him (Coulier himself says it is, however), she insisted the song wasn't all about scorn. "By no means is this record just a sexual, angry record," she told Rolling Stone. "The song wasn't written for the sake of revenge. It was written for the sake of release. I'm actually a pretty rational, calm person."

More Song Stories entries »