Phair Play

Phair Play

Written by Wayne Robins

Liz Phair: Soberish (Chrysalis)

Liz Phair: Horror Stories (memoir 2018)

A few weeks ago a new Liz Phair song, “Hey Lou,” came on the radio, and I was smitten. It’s an imagined, one-way conversation between the former royal couple of New York’s downtown: artist Laurie Anderson, and Lou Reed, for whom no descriptor seems adequate, or necessary.

The popular view, never contradicted by Anderson, as far as I know, was that they were a happy couple, late-life soul mates, married from 2008 until Reed’s death from liver failure in 2013. But “Hey Lou” imagines Anderson scolding Reed, drugged and drunk, an antagonistic creep, a boorish man of undeniable talent. That was Reed: on the one hand, a great and groundbreaking musician; on the other, a tormentor to those, like me, who have spent hours in his company trying to interview him amid a fog of bad vibes.

The music has some of Sonic Youth’s breakaway energy, with Phair’s imagined Anderson addressing a phantom Reed who is in a state of offensive semi-consciousness:

Hey Lou, are you on the junk again?
Your eyes look dead
But your mouth keeps moving on and on
We’re losing all of our friends

It takes courage and a little cruelty to attempt to pierce the veil behind Anderson and Reed’s romance. (Both Phair and Anderson are from affluent Chicago suburbs, if that means anything.)


Reed was the Picasso of New York’s rock and roll demimonde, and as Jonathan Richman wrote in his song about the illustrious painter: “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole. Not in New York.” But Phair does, through an appropriation of Anderson’s performance-artist voice:

No-one knows what to think
When you’re acting like an asshole
Spilling all the drinks
Talking sh*t about Warhol

The true Picasso of American songwriting, Guy Clark, once wrote a song called “Picasso’s Mandolin,” about the painter nailing one of his masterpieces. Clark wrote of Picasso: “I like to mix the paint with nerve.” In this song, Liz Phair stirs her paint with so much nerve, but it’s also Mean Girls mean kind of nerve. The puppets that represent Reed and Anderson in the video are adorable.

Since her 1993 instant-star debut, Exile in Guyville, Phair has represented the lusty, gutsy, but gorgeous woman rocker for legions of fans. She was part of that women-in-rock renaissance of the 1990s – Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Joan Osborne, Janet Jackson, Courtney Love, Juliana Hatfield, Shirley Manson, Gwen Stefani – where women could perform and tell their truths to festival-size audiences of all genders, with messages that especially resonated with women.

Exile in Guyville was an attempt to take a funhouse mirror to the Rolling Stones’ messy but magisterial 1972 Exile on Main Street. I didn’t get it, entirely, but if its aim was to reveal that a woman could express sexual candor and appetite as well as those British bad boys, the Rolling Stones, then point taken. To be fair to Phair, many women knew this, but none had come out with a song called “F*ck and Run.” In 2018, she told Elle magazine about the song: “I’m trying to fight for women to have authorship in their sexuality and fighting to be a sex subject, not a sex object. That was just totally lost by the jump in audience size.”

Soberish often sounds great, thanks to producer Brad Wood, who also produced the more lo-fi Guyville and who provides fresh settings for each song, distinctive settings that hold together, as pleasurable sound, more than previous Phair albums I’ve heard.

Liz Phair Soberish album cover.

In Soberish she sings about sex, with ardor, ambivalence and regret, about the way relationships turn out for her. Yes, she might miscalculate and leap into the sack for a one night stand, or at least obsess about it. But what she really wants, at age 54, is a boyfriend.

This is where fame has become a trap for her, if I understand both the album and her 2018 memoir, Horror Stories, at all. While the parties in any relationship may complain about wanting more space, in a new song, “The Game,” she wants the opposite: “If you would give me your protection instead of so much space…” The song is beautiful, with harmonies that aim for the complicity of Crosby, Stills and Nash, a throwback to an era when even rock star women would be deferential to their “old man.”

You can’t always get what you want. In the video for “The Game,” there are quick cuts of costume changes, but what stands out is the white jacket and proper-length white skirt, suitable for the ladies who lunch at the country club in Winnetka. (And for whom she expresses contempt in the book.) But the jacket opens to reveal, calibrated down to the centimeter, Phair in a scanty bra. Not too much, not too little. Peek-a-boo.


And in these new songs, it’s hard to figure out what Phair wants, which may be why Soberish may be an apt title. The way I understand this recently coined word, it is about a desire to drink less, but not stop completely. To take a timeout from drinking for those who find too much succor in too much wine, and know that needing that glass or three every day is becoming a problem. I’m all for it. But the word reeks of ambivalence, an inability to set boundaries, to make a commitment, whether to one’s relationship with alcohol or with people.

In the title song, Phair, or her character, has a date in a hotel bar, and didn’t plan to drink. But: “I did a shot because I’m terrified,” she sings, in a song in which she insists, “I’m not gonna make the same mistakes over and over.” But that’s what people who are trying to stop drinking often say and for them, the drink is the mistake, in the way that the inability to say the right thing in the relationship is a mistake. If she “meant to be sober, but the bar’s so inviting,” why not arrange the date at a really cool coffee shop?

This thread continues in the next song, “Dosage,” in which she sagely notes, “dosage is everything.” Here she’s at the bar with a friend, and says: “Thanks for the drink, but I think you’re over-served/I’d rather roll you a joint with the weed the bartender sold me.” It’s been my experience that if one is too drunk to have another drink, smoking a joint is the last thing you need: you can spin out, blackout, puke.


But Phair, from her own descriptions in Horror Stories, is not always the wisest friend, to others and herself. It’s a collection of essays about her experiences, from a kid climbing trees at her grandparents’ Ohio farm to getting lost taking the subway alone from Brooklyn to Manhattan after a gig in a blinding blizzard. The historic 2010 New York blizzard. She had been warned that the city was shutting down totally, but Phair can’t fathom it snowing on her. She also can’t remember the name of her hotel.

She also had the misfortune of being in New York during the 2003 blackout of the entire Northeast. She’s with one of her bandmates in a 15th floor hotel room. She can’t stop thinking about sex with this guy even though he lives with a girlfriend and it would alter the band chemistry. “If we’re facing Armageddon, I need to be paired up,” she writes. And: “I want to be the girl, I want to be saved.”

The lights go out and they go downstairs, where they and their group meet the band the Dandy Warhols on the street. Phair manufactures a little competition for attention between bandmate and the Dandy Warhols singer. Her guys take notice: the chemistry of her band gets altered anyway.

Liz Phair Horror Stories book cover.

In other stories, marriages break up, hers and those of the men she has affairs with. “I’m calling Ethan to tell him about what’s happening in my day instead of my husband…I’m addicted to the attention.”

With one California beach hunk, the sex is fantastic, but when he leaves her far out in the waves where she has swum too far, she suspects his adoration for her has its limits. And when she finds out he has had a baby with another woman while they have been together, she takes a timeout from the relationship, and goes on a drive with a girlfriend. Then, coming back, she confronts him to tell him it’s over, but not before they have sex again one last time.

She is aware that her self-centeredness is sometimes a problem. In the introduction to the song “Good Side,” she says, “There are so many ways to f*ck up a life/I try to be original.” For once, she wants a breakup to be clean and kind, but motive is important, and you question whether Phair is doing it because she’s trying to do the right thing for another person, or so she can feel better about herself.

Her struggle permeates the songs, and the book. She says that she feels like a victim, “a captive to my celebrity in need of velvet ropes and special treatment.”

And: “My persona is so fragile it tears like tissue paper in the rain.”

And, finally: “Maybe all I need to do is stop thinking about myself for five minutes.”

She may be onto something here. She would be a wonderful bad girl friend for Michael Douglas in a fourth season of The Kominsky Method, in which Liz Phair could play Sandy Kominsky’s rock star girlfriend, Liz Phair. If only she didn’t take herself so seriously.


 Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Raph_PH.

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