Liz Phair

at the Vic, October 25

By Warren Sentence

In The Last Rock Star Book or: Liz Phair, a Rant, the new first novel by New York guerrilla rock critic Camden Joy, the protagonist (also called Camden Joy) is hired to write a quickie biography of Liz Phair. The novel is set in the four-year gap between the release of Phair’s second album, Whip-Smart, and her recently released third, Whitechocolatespaceegg, and Joy the protagonist has been commissioned long-distance by a sleazy raconteur named Gabriel Snell to dictate the where-is-she-now story into a microcassette recorder. Snell doesn’t really care what the book says because it’s his belief that people will buy it for the photographs.

The novel is a mess, albeit a likable mess–a meandering narrative dosed with entertaining anecdotes of middle-American teenage shit-stirring and suitably seminal rock references. (For instance, the protagonist Joy discovers that his girlfriend is the illegitimate daughter of Brian Jones, conceived the night before the Rolling Stones guitarist drowned in his heated swimming pool.) As if to poke fun at Snell’s insistence that a picture is worth a thousand words, Joy the author has illustrated the novel with crude line drawings that depict, among other things, Liz Phair–with guitar–in her mother’s womb and “The Contents of Liz Phair’s Brain,” which include “What to Wear,” “Lyrics,” “Melodies,” “Verses,” “Choruses,” and “How to Tune the Guitar.”

But if Phair’s show at the Vic on Sunday was any indication, Snell is on the money: in lieu of an opening act, the packed house was treated to a 35-minute slide show (which a genius typo in Jim DeRogatis’s overnight review in the Sun-Times made into a “side show”) of photographs of Phair in various states of undress with various vintage Wicker Park fixtures, including producer Brad Wood, Tortoise drummer John Herndon, comics artist and guitarist Archer Prewitt, Rainbo Club manager Jim Garbe, Jesus Lizard front man David Yow, and engineer Casey Rice and his dog, Piggy. The slides were accompanied by what might have been some of Phair’s favorite tunes from her own middle-American teenage shit-stirring years, among them Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” the Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off,” and Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.”

In my experience, most people fall into one of two categories: those best remembered as photographs and those best remembered as movies. Some people are most beautiful when posed–the isolated moment can truly capture their appeal. Others reveal their gifts with the unfolding of time, coming alive through their movements–the way they walk, the way they laugh, the way they spin to respond to a greeting from behind. Liz Phair looks best in freeze-frame and she knows it. She has used still photography to great effect throughout her career. All three of her album covers feature her image, and her 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, even includes a soft-core photonarrative. (The woman in the interior Polaroids isn’t actually her, but the point is she could be.) Phair herself has posed provocatively in a variety of music and entertainment magazines. Sure, her not-so-little slide show was breathtakingly vain, but you had to admit that in the pictures Phair exuded confidence, sex appeal, brattiness, even a certain rock-star swagger–all components missing from her live peformance.

When she hit the stage in the flesh on Sunday, the fresh-faced Phair announced how good it was to be home. She wasn’t wearing ruby slippers, but she could have, perhaps should have, pointed out members of the audience and exclaimed, “You were there…and you were there. And you. And you!” Because, truth is, a great many of us were there five years ago, when Phair set off to see the Wizard. DeRogatis as the Cowardly Lion and the Reader’s own Peter Margasak as the heartless Tin Man were both there in 1993, kicking down the yellow brick road behind her, and both were there on Sunday night. I was there in ’93 too, tugging desperately on that infernal curtain in my fanzine. We all recall with VCR accuracy her onstage stiffness, her rudimentary flubs, her deer-in-the-headlights appearances on Letterman and Leno. And we have all been pleasantly surprised, probably more so than critics in the cities where she did not start out, to see this year’s looser and more comfortable version of Liz Phair in motion.

That’s not to say that compared to other performers at her level of fame Liz Phair is either loose or comfortable onstage. On Sunday, even with Lilith Fair under her belt, she held her guitar as if it were a snake that would fang her the minute she let down her guard. When she set it aside to take the mike in hand, she was as hard to watch as she ever was in her early days. She didn’t know what to do with her body, often resorting to illustrating her lyrics with gestures. During “Dance of the Seven Veils,” from Exile, she accompanied the line “Toss you up and pump you full of lead” by forming a pistol with her right hand and firing three imaginary rounds into the balcony. If she’d been fronting the Shangri-Las, I suppose this could have been effective, but she wasn’t and it looked gawky and contrived–as if some offstage coach were urging her to “work it” against her better judgment.

Of the 21 songs Phair and her crack backing band (which included Velvet Crush drummer Ric Menck) played on Sunday night, more were from Exile than from Whitechocolatespaceegg. Considering the new album’s obvious play for mainstream pop acceptance, this came as a surprise. All over Whitechocolatespaceegg I hear the echo of a voice whispering that old adage in Phair’s ear: “Don’t bore us, give us the chorus.” It might be the voice of somebody at Capitol, the major label that co-released (with Matador) her new album; or it might be Phair’s own inner voice, telling her she can be the pop star she looks like in those photos; or it might be the voice of her much-ballyhooed baby boy, demanding a car at 16 and an Ivy League education not long after. But on Exile she showed an astounding disregard for all the other voices, making a double album with the verses at the wheel and, with the exception of the single “Never Said,” the choruses in the backseat.

So was Sunday’s set a nod to a loyal hometown constituency? An attempt to show the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion and all the munchkins in Guyville that she could too sing those songs live? Or was it an implicit admission that her first album is and probably always will be her strongest work? The naivete required to fire off a salvo like Exile can’t be manufactured or recaptured, and those of us who’ve been hoping for another such round from Phair will have to content ourselves with imaginary shots aimed into the crowd.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by David V. Kamba.