Music News

PHAIR PLAYS

Liz Phair, who married film editor Jim Staskauskas on March 11, has just returned from an extended honeymoon in the Bahamas--and she's not happy about it.

"It's so depressing to come back here at this time of the year," the 27-year-old says from her comfortable Chicago home. "It's so gray, and everyone is so beaten down by winter--and the Bahamas were so nice and so colorful. When I was down there, I was thinking, `Why don't I just move here and raise chickens?' Just me and Jim, chasing chickens in the Bahamas."

That's hardly the kind of comment you'd expect from an alternative-music performer. Then again, Phair isn't the type to wave her underground credentials in anyone's face--perhaps because she doesn't have many. For example, she didn't have to struggle through years of shitty, soul-ripping gigs before she finally received recognition for her work. In fact, she seldom played live anywhere until the release of her debut album, 1993's promising but not fully realized Exile in Guyville. And she hasn't been easy to catch in concert since then, either.

Catching Phair in print has been far easier. Virtually every reviewer capable of putting together a sentence championed Guyville, and nearly as many were thrilled by Whip-Smart, a promising but not fully realized followup released last year (the CD was partially recorded in--surprise--the Bahamas). If Phair were cooperative, most industry observers felt, global fame of a Madonna-like nature would be hers for the asking.

Instead, she remains a cult figure--and she knows just who to blame. "I think I've participated as fully as anyone in preventing myself from getting that big," Phair says. "After Whip-Smart came out, I canceled my tour. I canceled all press. And I wouldn't talk to anybody about business. I decided it was more important to get back to living my life."

Hence the wedding to Staskauskas, a mostly traditional affair held in a converted mansion that's associated with a tony club to which Phair's mother belongs. "The weather that day was really great--warm and beautiful," she elaborates. "And we had a fabulous florist. The flowers were just gorgeous."

To an outsider, the rest of Phair's world seems just as wonderful--the kind of place most of us would try like hell to never leave. So why is Phair, who has been quite open about her own stage fright, venturing from her cocoon to conduct a solo tour that will have her hopscotching around the country over the next several weeks? At times, Phair doesn't sound quite certain herself. A damned articulate person on most topics, she can muster only the simplest response when quizzed about this one. "I guess," she surmises, "it must be because of the way I was raised."

The adopted daughter of a doctor and an art historian, Phair grew up in Winnetka, a Chicago suburb for the monied classes where grimy rockers are rarer than dodo birds. As her college years loomed, she pictured herself as a budding visual artist and enrolled at Ohio's Oberlin College. She emerged from the school with a degree in art history that won her jobs assisting a handful of New York City artists. But she soon tired of that routine and returned to Chicago, where she started making bedroom tapes that she dubbed Girly Sound. The provocative sexuality of her ditties made them favorites of several influential scenesters, who began passing around copies like members of a previous generation circulated pornographic novels with all the good parts underlined.

Shortly after one of her cassettes reached New York's Matador Records, Phair found herself with a recording contract--and no clear idea of what to do with it. Luckily, she had a copy of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, a 1972 double album that's widely (and accurately) regarded as one of the best packages in rock history. Phair impulsively decided to make her debut a song-by-song response to the Stones' manifesto, a concept that was as ambitious as it was appealing to music journalists. Critics (especially those of the male variety) were equally excited to discover that Phair's Guyville songs were filled with bright, sassy lyrics, many of which sported profanities that were loads of fun to quote. And quote them they did: Lines from cuts such as "Fuck and Run" and "Flower," a paean to oral sex, appeared in rock publications with striking frequency. The album's brittle, schematic melodies and passable crooning were not nearly as audacious as the lines that accompanied them, but that hardly mattered--after all, prose is a lot easier to write about than music, anyway. As a result, Guyville became a cause celebre, and Phair found herself the subject of gushing praise delivered by wordsmiths seemingly captivated by both her tunes and their own erections.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts