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Liz Phair: A Rock & Roll Star Is Born

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I have to warn you, I have a rat," Phair says calmly as she rounds a corner on two wheels car. So call an exterminator, her companion suggests helpfully. "It's a pet," she says. "It's actually cute. Honestly. Yes, its teeth look like staple removers, but it's in a cage. His name is Willard." We're on our way to her house after breakfast. She blithely heads (honest to God) the wrong way down yet another one-way street. A vast collection of McDonald's cups in the back seat shifts with the direction of the car.

As she bursts into the kitchen, the phone is already ringing. Aidan is home, but he is sleeping, teen style, at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. She checks in on Willard, who is also asleep, in what appears to be a three-level rat condo. The apartment is not particularly rock & roll – except for the bathroom reading: The Encyclopedia of the Occult. Instead, it's a cozy domestic nest for Liz, Jim, Aidan and Willard. Phair settles into a couch. "Life got a lot more open-ended for me lately," she says. "I thought that once you hit adulthood, you settled into your mold. It's not really true. It's almost a reincarnation. It makes me believe in reincarnation, because if you can shift as much as you can in a lifetime, I don't see why you can't shift as naturally after a lifetime."

Phair says her lyrics in the new album's title track are "kind of like the values that I recently reaccepted into my life. Whip smart is something that I respect in people. It implies education through trial, an attitude I like. Exile in Guyville was a more sexual album. This is the opposite, an emotionally based album that ended up being more sexual."

To the point where Phair appropriated Staskauskas' role by the end of the album. "I made a rock fairy tale," she says. "A little myth journey – from meeting the guy, falling for him, getting him and not getting him, going through the disillusionment period, saying, 'Fuck it,' and leaving, coming back to it." There is a real entrance and exit to the album, with each song rolling on to the next one. To wit: "Crater Lake" illustrates when "you think [the relationship is] done, but it isn't really done." The following song, "Alice Springs," "is saying, 'I guess it will never work'"; the subsequent song, "May Queen," "says, 'Work? Who wants it?' Like, I got over and out. It's a real encapsulated thing. It's almost more representational, like 'Here are the songs that mark my journey,' instead of 'These are the songs I sang on my journey,' which is more Guyville. So in a sense, it's more removed."

With this album thrusting her further into the public eye, Phair has been reflecting a lot on fame. "It's been on my mind a lot, I must say," she sighs, distractedly flipping through a pile of mail. "There's nothing special or magic about the pop star anymore. Everybody knows how it happens, everybody knows what toll it takes. The magic isn't in the rise, the magic is in the disintegration, like Kurt Cobain. We know how they got there, let's see how they fuck up. This is my most harried subject, because I'm constantly changing my mind about it."

She considers her contemporaries to be women such as Polly Harvey, the Breeders, Juliana Hatfield – women who have surpassed the conventional roles women are handed in rock. "Juliana's a great song maker," Phair says. "I think the personality she presents is what bugs people. I have the same problems. When all these women suddenly show up in the media, and we're having to grapple with the whole of women's personalities instead of the half of objectification, and we're actually taking that whole humanity and looking at the pretty face, the weird words, the unsettling activities – people come down way too hard. They judge harshly. And so do I. But I totally respect her."

The phone rings yet again. It's a magazine, and Phair fires off a quick phone interview. "We should get out of here," she says, eyeing the phone. "I'll drive you back." Heading downtown, she is goaded into listing men's fashion crimes. "Overalls on guys, man," she groans, spotting an Oshkosh-clad schlub wolfing down a hot dog. "It would be like fucking the Pillsbury Doughboy." We tool around another corner and spot another victim of a sartorial crime. "Colored socks," she says, shaking her head. "It's such a nasty mess." We pass a man unfortunate enough to be wearing a business suit at this particular moment. "Ugh. Shiny business shoes. Hate that." We head downtown, where she gets the eye from a slick-looking male on the street. "I loathe coiffed hair on men," she says, rolling her eyes. She pulls up in front of her inquisitor's hotel. "Don't you put in there that I'm a bad driver," she calls over her shoulder as she takes off, singing to the radio. There is a moment of tension when she hits a crossroad. Then her car disappears down the street, traveling in the right direction.

This story is from the October 6th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.

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

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