Thursday, October 16, 2008

1994 revistited

"I jump when you circle the cherry/I sing like a good canary/I come when called/I come, that's all."
~ "Canary," by Liz Phair, from the album Exile in Guyville.

Those words--especially those (defiant, sassy) last two have been ringing in my head ever since Saturday, the 4th. It won't let me escape. I keep seeing it and hearing it--how Liz Phair made me feel all inspired and nostalgic for my youth (but also totally accepting of the present and the future...whew.)

I am now 27 years old, about the same age Liz was when she released Exile. I realized that as I was tripping on remembering my 13-year-old self listening to this... I was dismissive the first time I heard Liz Phair. My friend Anna played her for me. It was her brother's CD--he went to fucking Harvard. (I think I had a prejudice against "College Rock," even though I was simultaneously getting into Beck at the time.) But I digress. I read Spin and Rolling Stone, so I knew who she was, but had never heard her. SO, Anna plays this record I had read all this buzz and I underwhelmed. Her voice was...bad. It was ... boring. Then, Anna skipped to track number 14 and played me "Flower." It talked about a crush (I could relate, was in 7th grade, man) and it talked about blow jobs and fucking (on that, I couldn't relate--I could only imagine).
I was floored. I borrowed Exile. I couldn't get over the cover and the photos on the sleeve. I mean, you could see her nipple on the cover! It was very, very exciting for me--it was so different from all the rock I'd been listening to my whole life--all that...guy rock. (I still love it, though, and still feel like a 14-year-old guy sometimes.)

At 13, those super brave, smart and funny lyrics made a major impact on what I thought was possible in life (and sex and love and career, even). It did what no one thing or person could do: Liz Phair was living it and singing about it and I just ate it up. It made me want to be even stronger and less apologetic about being smart, tough and different. It made me realize that you can be sexy and intensely verbal about it. I loved that no one else we went to school with knew about it. It was a secret. I could listen to it and relate it to my own life and it could be totally mine, and mine alone. You weren't gonna hear Liz Phair singing about coming and fucking on KDWB, dude. (Well, at least not in 1994. heh.)

I was just reading in Vanity Fair an except from a book by Tony Curtis (which is lol-hilarious, in a really cool, throw-back way). The bit is about Curtis and his brief affair with Marilyn Monroe, way back in 1948 (!) when MM was looking to snag a contract. He describes her when he first met her: she was a redhead then, and she spoke in a perfectly "normal" voice. That is, this was pre-affectation MM. That comment made me think of Phair's voice and why it resonates with me so deeply. Her authenticity.

When I got into Exile, I realized what made her voice so great, and that was its lack of pretense and its utter accessibility. She is the one and only voice I have ever heard that I can *fully relate to.* That is, I can comfortably sing along with every word and it's totally in my range. It fits me. It's deep and smooth and a bit wry. Her words are ones that I use, or wish I could come up with, anyway... It's a bit of that "everyman/woman" thing that Paul Westerberg always had (has) going for him...And, I know he's got Phair issues, but I still can't help place Ike Reilly and Liz together in that same lyrical arena. Both write those witty verbose narratives and have a great, playful way with tired old phrases and cliches. Phair, too, laces her observations and opinions with humor and irreverence. She always sounded like someone who was at the party, flirting, getting what she set out for, but also remaining fully cognizant--making mental notes about the ridiculous social behavior she witnessed and participated in, too.

Later, when I discovered bootlegs and acquired the Holy Grail (the original Girly Sound recordings that she taped in her bedroom in her parents' Chicago home) I heard even more raw, basic versions of the songs knew and loved and I discovered great ones that never got released. One of those songs is a fast little ditty called "Can't Get Out of What I'm Into." Oh yeah. There's a great, tough song called "Beg Me," where she asks (commands?) her lover to "make like a woman and beg me," and the last punch of a line, "I don't see what difference it makes/if I'm a man or a woman," says it so simply, but it's what the whole damn Madonna (that is, being in control of your own life, music, destiny and sexuality) thing is all about. On those recordings, she subtly (through raunch and sass, of course) points out the hypocrisies and silly expectations we all have regarding gender and sex. She comes off a little angry about the bullshit, a little bemused, and very sure of herself. It's all that, and it's fucking *catchy* and even downright, fucking funny. And the sad realization I had at the show the other night, was --I can't think of ANY other female artists who have made that kind of impact (the keeping the sex and losing the sexism kind) on culture, for that matter...since Liz Phair. Thank gawd she's still going.

I feel so lucky she came here! Check the Exile revisited mini-tour:
8/27 in Philadelphia at the Theater of the Living Arts
8/28 in Washington, DC at the 9:30 Club
8/29 in Boston at The Paradise
8/30 in Boston at The Paradise
10/4 in Minneapolis at First Ave
10/5 in LA at Troubadour
10/7 in Seattle at Showbox

Damn, it was sweet to hear each and every one of those important songs. The first ALBUM as a whole I was ever head-over-heels in love with. Phair looked like she was loving it too. She was so smiley and affable and confident and sexy and crowd-loving. In her own way, she makes us all feel like we've known her for years.

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