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Liz Phair: A Rock & Roll Star Is Born

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Phair's universe was fertile territory for a bright, inquisitive child. She was adopted at birth by a physician father (he's chief of infectious diseases at Northwestern Hospital) and an art-instructor mother (she teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago). Phair will not be embarking on a quest for her birth parents. "The only thing the adoption did was make me feel a little more liberated from my background than most people," she says shrugging. "I can invent my own legacy, because I don't really have one."

Phair was raised in the upper-middle-class suburb of Winnetka, Ill. (Lest a visual picture need be painted: Remember the house where Ferris Bueller took his day off? That was in Winnetka.) It was a galaxy far, far away from the angst-ridden upbringing of your stereotypical rock star. Phair's parents were nurturing and supportive. "They loved me to death," she reports. "Maybe because I'm adopted, they didn't want to mold me. They encouraged me, they were interested in me. I always had a weird net of safety around me."

Phair is seated at a picnic table outside the Lincoln Park Zoo. It's late afternoon, and a balmy, animal-scented breeze lifts her hair. Pressed for dirty laundry, she says, "They've got a little bit of WASP, appearance-oriented, academic prejudices, stuff like that. In a way, it's not a normal cross section of a family." She has an older brother, also adopted. She went to summer camp with Julia Roberts (cited in Whip-Smart's "Chopsticks") when she was 13. "She was tall and bossy and fun. I always had tall, bossy friends." Alas, the friendship waned. "We stopped speaking because she was always calling me collect, and it pissed me off. I'm like 'What are you fucking calling me collect for? Your parents are rich enough.' She only did it a few times, but she was enough of a power player. Tall, bossy friends get you in the best kind of trouble, though."

In high school, Phair endured an awkward stage, but it passed. "I got my glasses and braces off and got my hair cut. Suddenly I was like 'Hell, yeah! I can do this!' " Transformation intrigues Phair – it's a subject that also touches on a strong fear of disfigurement that began in her early years. "Because my father's a doctor, I've always known about the foibles of the body," she says. "I had access to those medical textbooks." Two images in particular terrified Phair – before-and-after shots of a boy with leprosy. "In one picture he looked cute in a teen-age way, standing there, bored. Next to him was a picture of him a year and a half later, and he was a monster, a freakish thing. You could see his eyes in the first portrait, and to think those same eyes were there in the second portrait – it freaked me out." Throughout college, Phair's art projects consisted of charcoal drawings of diseased faces.

Phair's original calling, in fact, was art. At Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio, however, she walked into a thriving band scene. Bands from there that went on to greatness (and near greatness) include Codeine, Bitch Magnet, Seam and Come. "Everyone had a band," says Phair. "It was exactly like Chicago – in fact, a lot of them moved there. There was a lot of rock & roll spirit, but it was an intense place. Neurotic overachievers who want to be hip." It was there that she began writing songs.

Chris Brokaw, Come's guitarist, first met Phair at Oberlin but grew close to her on a jaunt to San Francisco, where Phair had drifted after college. "I was visiting a woman she was rooming with," Brokaw says, "but I ended up mostly sitting around playing guitars with Liz. I had been sort of unaware that she played or wrote songs. Then she plays me these amazing tracks. I think one was called 'Fuck or Die,' and one was 'Johnny Sunshine,' which ended up on Exile in Guyville."

When Phair decided to head back to Chicago, Brokaw urged her to make him a tape. "A couple months later she sent me this tape of 14 songs that she had done on four track, then a month later, she sent me 14 more equally amazing songs." The tapes, dubbed Girly Sound by Phair, began circulating on the East Coast underground tape scene. "I started telling people, 'I've got this friend named Liz from Chicago, and she's like the great new American songwriter,"' says Brokaw. "Everyone was like 'Yeah, yeah.' "

Phair, who has been making up songs "since I was little," will not release the tapes anytime soon. "I go in there and rip stuff off – it's like a library," she says. "There's about 50 songs. A lot of it is juvenile cleverness. There's verses, there's choruses, there's subchoruses. It just goes on and on. There's a certain naive sound, more breathy. It's more me." Nonetheless, the collection proved enough of a treasure trove to pique Matador Records' interest, which nabbed her in the summer of 1992. Exile in Guyville was soon under way.

In the studio with her drummer and co-producer Wood, Phair let drop the idea of a female answer to Exile on Main Street. "When she first brought it up, I was like 'Oh, really? You mean you can't get into that album like I do?' " says Wood. "Because it is a real guy thing. Her logic started to make sense." The result wasn't so much a song-by-song response to the Glimmer Twins' he-man posturing – it was more in the songs' sequencing and thematic content. Phair and Wood's low-fi production was entirely on purpose. "We didn't want it to sound like a retro record, and we didn't want it to sound real '90s," says Wood. "I wanted it to sound really personal, trademarked like the Stones record sounded, so that as soon as you heard a note off it, you said, "That's the Rolling Stones.'"

Wood and Phair succeeded, aided, of course, by Phair's remarkable lyrics – an intimate, conversational meld of longing, sex, strength, power struggles, asshole guys and humor – sung in a voice that isn't entirely different from Everywoman's.

Beverly Sills she's not, but that's OK. Phair does nothing the conventional way – she deliberately didn't fall within her given range, didn't bother with traditional song structures (she has a legendary aversion to verse chorus verse) and didn't even attempt to play traditional guitar chords. "She just comes up with goofy chords because she makes them up herself," says Wood.

"People never talk about her guitar playing," says Bach. "But she's brilliant on guitar. The work that she puts into this shit is not discussed like someone else's work method might be discussed. She does a lot of normal things that famous guy musicians do, but that's not part of the Liz Phair conception."

The conception started forming in mid-1993 when Guyville was released. Critics were beside themselves (picture the Chimp Gone Wild scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey and you'll get the idea), heaping her with accolades and comparisons to Polly Harvey, Chrissie Hynde and Madonna. Rock scribes were less kind when Phair faced an audience, something she had never done in her life. At early shows, she suffered from debilitating stage fright, which made her voice crack like a 13-year-old boy's. It didn't help matters when famous faces started dotting the audience at her shows. ("God, I was so tongue-tied when Winona Ryder and Rosanna Arquette came to one show," moans Phair. "I was a complete dweeb.") Although she used to claim that she would never attend one of her own shows, she seems, lately, to be conquering her fears. "I actually enjoy myself onstage now," she says, although she hasn't yet seen her tour schedule out of "total avoidance."

What calmed Phair were the adoring faces, especially those of women, in the audience. "It's weird, though, when 12-year-old, cute, happening girls want to be introduced to me, because talking to me would be a coup," she says as she walks toward her car. "The objectification of your person is very bizarre. You become the same thing as the right pair of shoes." Still, droves of other women are die-hard fans, quaveringly asking for hugs backstage, whispering that she has saved their lives, mouthing every word to songs like "Fuck and Run" ("Whatever happened to a boyfriend/The kind of guy who tries to win you over?") and "Flower," with lyrics that would make Rick James blush. ("Every time I see your face/I get all wet between my legs.")

A word here, if we may, about the flurry of attention Phair has received due to her strident focus on her naughty bits. She rightly maintains that her songs are directly reflective of conversations that most young women are having across this great land right now and that those chats are as frank, casual and often clinical as those of men. "It scares guys," she says cheerfully. "I've had more male friends freak out."

Phair has been accused of being a shockmeister, using sexual bluntness as an attention-getting device both in her lyrics and in her conversation. She's certainly not shy. "Women dissect," she says. "About giving blow jobs, for example – you talked to your friends like 'What are you supposed to do? Where? How do you know if he's going to come?' Then women will have really sexual names like 'old purple dick' or something."

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