To begin her silver-anniversary celebration of Exile in Guyville at a sold-out Turf Club last night, Liz Phair sang about AIDS.
“Fuck or Die” leads with a partial rewrite of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” and as Phair sang “I keep a close watch on this twat of mine,” two electric guitars (hers, plus a second belonging to her sole accompanist, Connor Sullivan) galloped and shambled far more loosely than the Tennessee Three’s original stoic chug. “You're gonna sleep with me even if it kills you,” the singer commanded, suggesting that a one night stand could be an even greater commitment than Cash’s vow of lifetime fidelity. “You're gonna sleep with me even if we die.”
HIV has hardly been eradicated in 2018, but the United States has outlived the initial age of AIDS terror, that grim late 20th-century moment when a generation’s sexual awakening (Phair’s, mine, maybe yours) and a burgeoning reactionary political climate (still no sign of abating) coincided with the rise of a mysterious cellular death sentence. Phair later explained that AIDS was on her mind in the early ’90s because her father, a doctor, had been researching the disease. (“It warped me,” she half-joked.) But AIDS was on everyone’s mind at that time, as one of the many complications that the hard-won freedom to fuck outside of marriage had brought, and that Phair’s earliest songs negotiated with unmatched wit, honesty, and profanity.
“It’s still better to love than to fear” is how Phair summarized the message of “Fuck or Die” last night, but it’s also about summoning bravado to mask your vulnerability. After all, Exile in Guyville is the secret diary of a swaggering introvert, a collection of songs for everyone baffled by how smart and funny and sexy they could be at home alone, yet how instantaneously those qualities evaporated upon contact with the world outside. As Laura Sinagra once wrote about them in City Pages, these “fantasies sprung from the precise pen of the passive observer … weren't about thinking on your feet, or slinging zingers... they were about crafting retorts later in your bedroom and living off their power.” So to sing lines like “I take full advantage/Of every man I meet” out loud in a room full of people who also memorized them alone in their bedrooms will forever feel like a minor triumph.
But “Fuck or Die” never made it to Guyville. For 25 years it had been locked away on the “Girly-Sound” tapes, the three cassettes Phair recorded in a post-collegiate retreat to her parents’ Winnetka home that was every bit as mythic in its day as Justin Vernon’s similar holing up in his storied Wisconsin cabin. The release of this material as part of a Guyville box set, along with Phair’s decision to perform a few of its songs live on this tour, has been a canny way of leavening the nostalgia surrounding her breakthrough debut. Rather than recreating a classic album, embalmed in history, Phair is revisiting a former way station on a long journey, and defamiliarizing it in the process.
One reason these songs remain fresh is because they embody the act of reimagining yourself in real time. Guyville’s opening track, ‘6’ 1”,” requires Phair to start from zero every time she sings it, approaching the wobbly vowel in ”I be-e-e-e-e-e-e-t,” with a decided ambivalence, a tentative refusal to commit. And whenever she reaches the song’s climax and belts out “It’s co-o-o-o-old out there/And rou-u-u-u-ugh” in full voice, each vowel is a distinct jab at the men she’ll go on to desire, envy, loathe, and pity for the remainder of the album. This is a superhero’s origin story disguised as a rock song.
The sound of Guyville was as essential to defining Phair’s image as its lyrics. To indulge in the acoustic strum of the coffeehouse hippie or the brash distortion of the black-leather rock and roller would have confined her to a familiar music-chick role. Instead, reverb and chorus effects dissolved Phair’s guitar into something liquid and shimmery, like an oil slick on a puddle. On this tour, the lack of a rhythm section subtracts the snap that propelled Guyville, leaving only the guitars, and there’s a slightly reversed evolution, as though the songs were edging back toward the bedroom demos they sprang from, suggesting that songs we all knew by heart are actually still in the process of being finished.
Casual in a baggy, white Pink Floyd t-shirt, sleeves rolled up to the shoulders as the night got sweatier, and jeans with, as she pointed out, “a rainbow on my ass,” Phair was friendly but not too revealing at the Turf. This was not really a “here’s where this song came from” kind of night, because Phair’s not an onstage storyteller. She joked about old age (she wants to live to be 200 years old) and going back to recording demos one day: “I’ll be in the bedroom at the old folks’ home, like, ‘check this out.’” She boasted, “I’m a Midwestern girl” and she snapped back at a dumb (male) comment with “Come back in the fall, jackass.” (She’ll be at First Ave with a full band in September.)
As Phair mixed in eight Girly Sound demos (three of which she’d later re-record for proper albums) with ten Guyville songs (several of which had also begun as much-different demos), I was retroactively struck by how forward-looking a young songwriter she’d been. It’s easy to be caught up in the present moment in your twenties, but these songs focus sharply on what comes next. On “Whip Smart,” a sing-song fairy-tale about whimsically raising a son, or “Polyester Bride,” which wonders whether a bohemian thrift-shop lifestyle can be reconciled with traditional adulthood, Phair was calculating how much of her youthful self she’d be able to hold on to.
And how do those songs sound a quarter century later, in adulthood? Every person in that room (including the woman onstage) could certainly answer that differently. I will say that it’s a lot harder for a semi-honest guy like myself to pretend he’s not one of the jerky men being sung about as when he was 25 years younger and dumber. (If anything, men get off way too easy on the Guyville songs.)
Phair closed with two of her twentysomething self’s most fully constructed looks forward at the life that might await her. “Fuck and Run” anticipates a series of meaningless, random hookups with a crisp sense of scene-setting and a tone torn between bitter and wistful. Hearing that song again last night, I was struck by her use of “almost” to create emotional ambiguity. “Almost immediately I felt sorry,” she says of waking up next to someone she’ll likely never see again, leaving unspecified what she felt for that split-second before regret set in. And as she sizes up the guy who’s trying to wriggle out of the situation, she notes, “You almost felt bad,” describing a feeling we really don’t have a word for.
If "Fuck and Run" held up, Phair’s final song, “Divorce Song,” seems to have only grown sturdier with age. After a disastrous road trip, Phair tells someone she might not love anymore, “You’ve never been a waste of my time.” It’s a testament to the imagination of a young Liz Phair that she’d able to look forward to a life full of romantic disappointment but not regret. In fact, at any age, that’s something to strive for.
Fuck or Die
Explain It to Me
It’s Not That Easy
Soap Star Joe
Ant in Alaska
Girls! Girls! Girls!
Help Me Mary
Stratford on Guy
Fuck and Run
More from Music