15 Years Later, Liz Phair Revisits 'Guyville' With her debut album, Exile In Guyville, Liz Phair created an instant classic. The record's frank talk about sex made it essential listening for a generation of women. Now, on its 15th anniversary, Phair looks back at Guyville and the young woman who created it.
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15 Years Later, Liz Phair Revisits 'Guyville'

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15 Years Later, Liz Phair Revisits 'Guyville'

15 Years Later, Liz Phair Revisits 'Guyville'

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When it was released, back - way back in 1993, the album "Exile in Guyville" by Liz Phair was almost immediately hailed as a classic. It landed at the top of the Village Voice's influential Pazz & Japp - Jopp Poll, and made Phair the darling of the indie set. Now she's reissuing that classic album to mark the 15th anniversary since its inception. She made a new documentary to include with the album. Let's listen to a clip where she revisits characters from that chapter of her life about what "Exile in Guyville" was all about.

(Soundbite of documentary "Guyville Redux")

Unidentified Man #1: With "Guyville," there were angles galore, and one of the great angles was, it's a song-by-song reply to "Exile on Main St.." Is that true?

Ms. LIZ PHAIR (Singer): I promise, I can go through it with you and explain...

Unidentified Man: OK, OK.

Ms. PHAIR: Like, it wouldn't make sense to anyone else. It really wouldn't.

Unidentified Man #2: I mean, when you came up with the idea, that was great. But you know, when people were saying, like, you know, she spent months, like, assembling this song for some response to the Rolling Stones.

Ms. PHAIR: I did.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, come on.

Ms. PHAIR: John, I did. I - cross my heart and hope to die. Why would I lie now?

Unidentified Man #: Even if it wasn't true, just to merely...

Ms. PHAIR State that.

Unidentified Man #1: Put those words on paper meant that they would be repeated over, and over, and over again, 'til this very day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Apart from its cultural allusions, the record got a lot of attention, for its sexual content and profanity. And as we found out, when she came by the BPP studios to talk about revisiting the record, she's lost none of her charm, or her affinity for four-letter words.

(Soundbite of reverse playback)

MARTIN: Walk us back in time. For people who didn't buy the album in 1993, who weren't around in Chicago at that time, describe what Guyville is - was, right?

Ms. LIZ PHAIR (Musician, "Exit in Guyville"): Guyville the concept?


Ms. PHAIR: What Guyville itself was?


Ms. PHAIR: Guyville was the sort of - I think it was coin - the phrase was coined by Blackie Onassis, from the band Urge Overkill, to describe the kind of "guys," as he would put it...


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PHAIR: In Chi - guys in Chicago at the time. Like, I could give you just a visual picture. They wore sort of pegged jeans, and they often had their wallet attached to their jeans by a chain, and they tended to wear black leather jackets that fit tightly, motorcycle jackets that they zipped all the way up.

But anyway, they felt to me like a mafia of music lovers, who were supposedly representing sort of alternative, but at the same time, I found them to be sort of oppressive. Like, you couldn't like certain bands if they were too pop, and if you didn't know, you know, which band had split up to reform the band that you were discussing, like, then you didn't have an opinion. You couldn't even, you know, throw out an opinion, because you just didn't have the background.


Sorry. I like their music. I didn't know the whole tree and history.

Ms. PHAIR: Green river mud, honey, (unintelligible), you know.

PESCA: I don't know, the songs sounded good to me. My mistake.

Ms. PHAIR: So Guyville was what I was sort of dating and laboring under, both, in that little small artsy village of Wicker Park in Chicago, and rebelling against with the record.

MARTIN: And what had to happen to you, to get to the point where you said, you know, I'm making this the thesis of my debut?

Ms. PHAIR: The big, like f(beep) you?


Ms. PHAIR: The big, like, finger up in the air that Guyville was, like, f(beep).

(Soundbite of song "Help Me Mary")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) As they egg me on and keep me mad They play me like a pit bull in a basement, and for that...

I lock my door at night I keep my mouth shut tight I practice all my moves...

Ms. PHAIR: It goes way beyond Wicker Park. It goes back in time to high school, that same sense of being a girl and not being listened to, and not being considered serious about music opinions if you didn't do your scholarly research. I'm, like, if you hadn't been buying vinyl since seventh grade, then you weren't really in the game.

MARTIN: Couldn't be in the club, yeah.

Ms. PHAIR: And I was like a diamond of pressurized anger at that point, you know? Like, by the time I made "Guyville," I was pissed, you know, I'd been the girlfriend of the friend of the guy in the band plenty of times.

(Soundbite of song "Help Me Mary")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I'm asking you, Mary, please, Temper my hatred with peace, Weave my disgust into fame, And watch how fast they run to the flame...

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about how that need to kind of bust through that clique jived with what you had defined as another counter-thesis, which was the whole relationship of that album with the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main St.." How did that album inspire you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PHAIR: You know, I can sum it up for you. I think I've become something of a stalker, and I had - like, I had this huge crush on this guy in the scene, and he and I had like a couple interactions, but nothing really serious. And I invented, in my crazy-ass mind, the idea of, like - on the record, "Exile on Main St.," Mick's character...

(Soundbite of song "Rocks Off")

Ms. PHAIR: Was this guy, and so whenever I listened to "Exile on Main St.," I felt like I was listening to what...

MARTIN: This guy.

Ms. PHAIR: This guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Who shall remain nameless.

Ms. PHAIR: Except if you buy the DVD. And then...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PHAIR: Like, what he was saying, like, it was totally a picture of his life. It was a perfect portrait of this guy's life.

(Soundbite of song "Rocks Off")

Mr. MICK JAGGER: (Singing) What's the matter with the boy? He don't come around no more...

Ms. PHAIR: So I...

MARTIN: So you superimposed the Stones on your, kind of - on your life.

Ms. PHAIR: On my crush, and then I sort of wrote back to him. Like, either I was, like, because you think about the first song on "Exile on Main St.," he's coming home from this one-night stand. He runs into some girl he knows, who's sort of, like, where have you been? And he's, like, look, man, I just can't deal with you right now, and walks off. So I put myself in the shoes of that girl he meets on the street, and that's how I write "6'1".

(Soundbite of "6'1")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I bet you fall in bed too easily With the beautiful girls who are shyly brave. And you sell yourself as a man to save, But all the money in the world...

Ms. PHAIR: And I kind of listen to the two songs, and I put dynamic in there, so if that was an upbeat song, I made it an upbeat rocker, and maybe I'd look where the solo was, and I'd do it like that. But it was, like, my answer to this guy, vis-a-vis the Stones.

PESCA: Was he like Mick Jagger in any way?

Ms. PHAIR: Yeah.

PESCA: Did he look like him?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PHAIR: He didn't look like him, but he sure as hell acted like him.

PESCA: Did he strut around like a chicken?

Ms. PHAIR: Yes, 100 percent!

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: In that record there are - there's this whole range of emotions and characteristics, personal traits. It's ambition, a young woman's really kind of raw ambition. It's her disappointment. It's her lust. It's her joy.

Ms. PHAIR: Don't forget sadness, because...


Ms. PHAIR: When I go back and listen to that record, there's some really moving, telling songs. Like, "Canary" is a really good one.

(Soundbite of song "Canary")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I jump when you circle the cherry. I sing like a good canary. I come when called. I come, that's all.

Send it up on fire, Death before dawn...

Ms. PHAIR: As a female, I don't think you're supposed to say the kind of things I wanted to say. I - or at least I had gotten myself into a position, where I didn't feel comfortable saying to people's faces a lot of stuff I said on that record.

MARTIN: Trying to figure out how to make this statement, how to break through this world, did you sit down and make a conscious decision that it had to be not just about gender, but it had to really be about sex, explicit talk about sex?

Ms. PHAIR: I think I felt like I had been listening for ten years to records where guys talked explicitly about sex, and then all the women that came out with music, barring a few, like Patti Smith, and Chrissie Hynde, and other people, women were sort of shunted to the area of emotion. But I've always been pissed off, frankly, that that whole myth that women aren't interested in sex.

If you had 30,000 years of really bad consequences for being interested in sex, you might hide it, too. Like, you might, you know - so, women sort of sing, like...

(Singing) I was thinking of you...

You know? And I wanted to be, like, I want to f(beep) you, I want to f(beep) you hard, I want to f(beep) you bad, like, now. You know what I mean? Like, I wanted to take that back and say, I can do it, too.

MARTIN: There is also, though, a recognition in that album that sex is a tool, and you had figured out that, oh, I don't have to be this, I don't have to be this, I can use it when I want to, to my advantage. And is that...?

Ms. PHAIR: And detriment.

MARTIN: How so?

Ms. PHAIR: Well, I'll just get really honest with you right now, but I was pretty good in bed, at that point, from the point of view of what the guys wanted, but pretty bad in bed in terms of my own enjoinment, and yes, that made me angry, but it was my own fault, in some sense.

You know, it was culturally - there's the expectation that you kind of have to fulfill this thing, and guys will like you, and then it's great. But, you know, my music mellowed out a lot...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PHAIR: When I started to understand my own body and how to enjoy myself, and you know, I think that using sex as a tool was very much on my mind at that point, because I felt like that's what I was doing. I didn't know why I was doing that. I knew that it had - it conferred benefits, but it also - it hurt me. I was, like, hurting myself by doing that.

(Soundbite of song "Mesmerizing")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) Wild and unwise, I wanna be mesmerizing, too

MARTIN: We are talking to Liz Phair. We're talking about the rerelease of her 1993 album, "Exile in Guyville." When you listen to this now, what do you hear?

Ms. PHAIR: I hear how - I've got to say it, I kind of hear how unhappy I was. Like, I hear - it makes my heart go out to the person that I was, in a lot of ways, and as much as I'm taking a tough stance and acting tough, it's so clear to me now, in retrospect, how unsure I was, and how vulnerable I really was, and as tough as I come across trying to be on the record, that's really the beauty of "Guyville," is that it's really such a portrait of a vulnerable young woman trying to establish some kind of power for herself.

PESCA: Did you find that exhausting?

Ms. PHAIR: Yeah, yeah, I did! You know, I really did. I sure as hell don't miss it, do you know what I mean? Like, and, you know, it - yeah, it was exhausting and all I could do really was kind of take that hard stand, kind of lash out sometimes, and also, I think I'm honest on Guyville. I think there are songs that show the devastating part of it, like "F(beep) and Run" is a great example of that. Like, having a one night stand and walking away, and really wishing it had been something entirely different, but you're to blame as much as the guy.

(Soundbite of "F*** and Run")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I woke up alarmed. I didn't know where I was at first, Just that I woke up in your arms, And almost immediately I felt sorry, 'Cause I didn't think this would happen again. No matter what I could do or say, Just that I didn't think this would happen again, With or without my best intentions. And whatever happened to a boyfriend...

MARTIN: When this album came out, all of a sudden it jettisoned you into a totally different stratosphere. I imagine it would be a little bit freaky to think, wow, I really hit it big, like this was a success. I hit one out of the park. How in the world do I match other people's expectations for what I'm supposed to be?

Ms. PHAIR: I just wanted to make it through the day. I wanted to make it through the photo shoot, or whatever performance I had to do. I took a lot of support from my friends. They'd drive me to the show, and I'd be like, I don't want to do this, you know? I'd freak out two weeks before I had to play, and wake up in the middle of the night with sweats.

And a lot of those performances really were bad, but I think people were there also to see the vulnerability, and I covered that up in the last couple of years. I became good at what I did, and I think I missed the boat on knowing that part of what they came to see was to see that vulnerability. Now I'm starting to try to open that up again, so that I can put that forth.

MARTIN: Well, the album, in case you haven't figured it out yet, is called "Exile in Guyville." It was made in 1993. It's been 15 years. It's being rereleased. Liz Phair, we're so happy you came by. Thank you.

PESCA: It was great being with you.

Ms. PHAIR: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Fun conversation, and good luck with everything this year.

Ms. PHAIR: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "Never Said")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I never said nothing. I never said nothing. I never said nothing. I never said nothing.

I don't know where you heard it...

MARTIN: No secret, we enjoyed our conversation with Liz Phair.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: It took many twists and turns. She divulged all kinds of secret - well, maybe not secrets, but all kinds of stuff I didn't know about her.

PESCA: For 20 minutes, we talked about the Democratic race, when we taped it. There was a - an actual race.

MARTIN: There was a race and she's a vocal supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton. She's not afraid to say it.

PESCA: So, I guess, that and "Guyville" worked out in different ways for her.

MARTIN: In different ways. She also talked about her fear of "The Star Spangled Banner" a little bit.

PESCA: Yeah. She was maybe overwhelmed by that at a White Sox game...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: And she has a new album coming out that she worked on. That is one of my - that and the Army dentist were my two all-time favorite interviews in the history of the BPP, our history.

MARTIN: We enjoyed that one and so...

PESCA: Yeah. Well, you know what? I'm going to put the Army dentist second.

MARTIN: I know! We had a good time with her.

PESCA: We listened to (unintelligible) after awhile.

MARTIN: Look for her new album. Liz Phair's new album will be coming out later this year. In the meantime, "Exile in Guyville," being rereleased 15 years after its inception. That's it for this hour of the BPP. We're online all the time. This is Rachel Martin.

PESCA: I'm Mike Pesca.

(Soundbite of song "Never Said")

Ms. PHAIR: (Singing) I didn't let the cat out...

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