I like to think that I am the only fan of certain artists. I like to think that I am among Liz Phair’s biggest fans and cosmically deserving of a ticket to one of a handful of intimate performances. Last night, I prayed that the indifferent universe would repay 25 years of allegiance with a digital ticket. I wrote this essay, set my intentions, and had a dream about the show: I brought my mother, she was dressed like a hipster in a stonewashed denim jacket and red knit cap. She bought me a Girlysound/Exile in Guyville dream box set from the dream merch table. There was a white dog somewhere, doing something. This morning, in the real world, a hawk landed in front of me as I climbed the stairwell to the building where I teach a 9am class on Friday mornings. I took this as a sign that I’d get a ticket at noon. The girl behind me said, “Be careful, they’re aggressive.”
There aren’t many musicians who shaped my formidable years in such a way that I not only remained a loyal listener well into my adult life, but I currently do things like set alarms so that when 12pm rolls around, and concert tickets go on sale, I am reminded to excuse myself from the class I teach in order to stand in a basement corner, punching credit card numbers into my phone. “I need this ticket,” I say. I’ve been listening to Liz Phair so often, and for so long, that I am convinced I have seen her perform live on multiple occasions. After careful research, I can conclude that I saw her once, in 1998, at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island. I think I cried but I’m not positive.
Liz Phair is a heterosexual woman whose music liberated me from the confines of a straight, suburban closet. Not liberated in a sense that I joined the Gay Straight Alliance (it was the '90s) and started dating women — I was a late bloomer with a fake boyfriend, and then an alcoholic who refused to be a gay alcoholic (“the double whammy”) — but Liz Phair introduced me to the freedom of possibility.
My mother remembers where she was when John Lennon was shot, and how she danced with my biological father to the Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin” at her senior prom. I remember where I was and what I was doing the first time I listened to Exile in Guyville in its entirety: In the back of a Dodge minivan, in the seat closest to the trunk, passenger side, to the right of my younger sister, and boxed in by my toddler siblings who still used car seats. They sat in the middle seat as a safety precaution, but the situation was a traveling fire hazard. We were on our way to Martha’s Vineyard during one of our “let’s pretend we have money because we live in the suburbs now” vacations. I didn’t want to go. I am moody. When I was 15, I was even moodier.
“Fuck and run, fuck and run
even when I was 17
Fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was 12”
I distinctly remember my jaw dropping and struggling to compose myself as I scrambled to lower the volume on my Sony Discman, fearing that my sister would hear the lyrics through the impenetrable barrier of headphone foam. I did not like sharing treasure with my sister.
It didn’t matter to me who Liz Phair fucked, or whether or not she had fucked and run at 17 or 12, but it mattered very much that she had the audacity to say it. I queered the shit out of those lyrics, not knowing what I was doing, and the sentiment was so universal that I didn’t feel like I was doing anything other than identifying. “And you put in my hand a loaded gun and then told me not to fire it/ When you did the things you said were up to me, and then accused me of trying to fuck it up.” Liz Phair gave me permission to speak the unspeakable and to expose truths that were often shameful or embarrassing to admit. Especially as a woman. It even mattered to me that she felt liberated enough to pose topless on the album cover. It mattered that there was visible “partial nip.” Had I been blessed with breasts at that age, I would have taken my top off in solidarity.
At 16, I started a band (Thriftshop Apocalypse — yup) with a few high school friends, and we were determined to be taken seriously by our peers, all of whom were male. We played as loud as we could and invested in distortion pedals and a professional recording. Despite our best efforts to fit in, we were ridiculed for our musicianship, songwriting, and the bands we listened to and promoted on our carefully curated collection of t-shirts. At the same time, I recorded my own songs, in my bedroom, on a digital eight-track recorder. One of the first songs I ever wrote was called “Liz Phair, Marry Me.” I kept those casette tapes in shoe boxes in my closet. I discovered Liz Phair’s Girlysound demos after Exile in Guyville once my family had acquired AOL dial-up internet, which helped facilitate my obsessive detective work. She wasn’t afraid to release her recordings into the wild. By the time I was 20, I wasn’t either.
My coming-of-age occurred during the grunge movement, and I am forever grateful to have existed at a time when brazen, lipstick-smeared feminists were icons and spokespeople of a generation. Screaming, yelling, demanding space and respect were feminine characteristics and traits to aspire to. But Liz Phair did something different, something that ultimately expanded upon what would inevitably become the confines of aggression (thanks media) — she sang intelligibly, without distorted guitars, and when I heard her, I heard her clearly which made everything that came before seem slightly postured, or constructed in accordance with the male rock gods of the time. Liz Phair wasn’t competing. She was reacting. She was speaking her truth in lo fidelity. She was vulnerable and aware of it. She was, however, in complete control of how she exposed that vulnerability.
Four years ago, I conducted an interview with Nina and Louise of the band Veruca Salt. Like Liz Phair, they hail from Chicago, and so Liz's rise to critical and commercial success was as much a part of their story as it is Liz Phair's. The interview took place in Brad Wood's studio. Brad Wood produced Exile in Guyville and Whip Smart. He was working on Veruca Salt's new album, a few feet away from where we were interviewing. He had headphones on, but every now and then Nina was forced to politely tap Brad Wood on the shoulder and ask him to mute the audio. "Keep it down, Brad Wood," I laughed. When the interview was over, I used the studio restroom, and there, next to the toilet was Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville gold record. "This has to be a sign," I thought, mid-stream. "Wow."
And now, I’m 36 years old. I'm a historian and a graduate student. I’m publishing a book. I interview musicians, but I have yet to interview the elusive Liz Phair. I excused myself from a class I’m paid to teach in order to secure a ticket to a Liz Phair concert. The details have changed — the process itself has been made simpler (though this is arguable) thanks to the advent of the internet, but I still felt like I was preparing to stand in line at Strawberries Record Store for hours. At exactly 12 noon, cell phone in hand, laptop cocked and loaded, I was pummeled with digital notifications stating, “SOLD OUT,” followed by an irrational, emotional barrage of unrivaled rage and palpable depression. I am selfish and often feel deserving of things for absolutely no reason. I still feel like Liz Phair is my secret discovery, my soul sister, my “blowjob queen” guardian angel. The world is my backseat of a minivan and her music is my treasure. Through high school, college, alcoholism, drug addiction, rehab, sobriety, failed romances, more college, friendships, plane rides — I must to be the only person who makes it a point to play “Stratford-On-Guy” whenever I fly into Chicago (“I was flying into Chicago at night watching the lake turn the sky into blue green smoke…”). Liz Phair has been the soundtrack to most of my life.
She has been the longest and most beneficial relationship I’ve ever had. I’d like to think I’m the only one, but I’m certain that I’m not, as illustrated by my lack of concert tickets. This knowledge, however soul-crushing, gives me hope that she has been a beneficial relationship for other people, too.
top photo: Liz Phair in 1994, via Facebook/Liz Phair
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Tanya Pearson is a Public Historian and Director of the Women of Rock Oral History Project, a collection of digital interviews and written transcripts documenting the lives and careers of rock musicians. She is a proponent of lesbiansim, aging, vegetarianism, senior dog adoption, and Joan Didion. When she's not working she enjoys rock climbing, playing in bands, and watching The Golden Girls with her dog, Andrew. Folow Women Of Rock Oral History Project on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.