Beat JENeration #010: Liz Phair

I love Liz Phair. That has always been true, but last Monday, I was reminded, again, how much.

Currently, Liz Phair’s in the middle of her Amps on the Lawn tour and let me tell you, she looks great. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performer look so happy on stage ever. She sounded better than I remember too. Earlier shows — I’m thinking primarily her Whitechocolatespaceegg tour stop at SDSU’s Montezuma Hall (the internet tells me it was 1998) — was a little uncomfortable. Well, she seemed uncomfortable and I remember feeling bad about it.

But I still loved her. 

My favorite time seeing her was in 1994 or 95 in Chicago at Bub City (the old location on Weed St) while she was eating BBQ with her parents. Two tables over, I was too dumbfounded by breathing her same air to speak. I would later see her at Lounge Ax and Delilah’s just being a civilian and I never once even attempted to make eye contact. Aside from being raised near enough to LA to never bother celebrities, I’m also a firm believer that we mere mortals should never speak to deities. She’s a goddess. 

In 1993 when Exile in Guyville was released I was 21 years old. My boyfriend who was living in Chicago gave me the CD that summer. I was instantly smitten (with both him and the CD). I can’t exactly remember what else I was listening to at that time, but I bet I was still obsessive over 10,000 Maniacs, Sugar, and Tori Amos. I do know that it was the same year that Belly and The Breeders released seminal college girl albums. My music tastes have always leaned toward the strong and girly, but Liz Phair was different because there wasn’t a ribbon of sentimentality tied around the anger.  And it wasn’t political, it was personal and hella messy. For me in my early 20’s, these songs were like holding a mirror up to my complicated emotional state that undulated like hot wax in a lava lamp between great strength and crippling vulnerability. 

Exile in Guyville seemed to tell my story where the others told stories I could only kinda-sorta relate to. I wasn’t that poetic girl. I wasn’t a romantic. Not a fan of intimacy, tbh. And definitely not the kick-ass feminist the riot grrrl bands wanted me to be. I was a realist. Imperfect. A bitch, but not a hard bitch — I just talked shit about other girls sometimes. I was too upper middle class suburban to be real bohemian artist type, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t have a filthy mouth and shocking thoughts…and sometimes feel really shitty my bad girl actions. 

Between the DIY lo-fi vibe and lyrics that could have been stolen from any of my journals, the cassette copy of the CD rarely left car’s tape deck for then next two years making the album the only soundtrack I can recall for that part of my life. (The CD itself, lived permanently in my 3 CD disc changer until that eventually died somewhere in the early 2000’s).

One does a lot of driving in Southern California, so I spent a lot of time with Liz on back and forth home on the 5, late-night taco shop runs, hitting four or five clubs in one evening, circling the SDSU parking lots, etc. I flew into Chicago about 6 times a year and every time, she sang me through it. By the time Whip Smart came out in Fall of 1994, Liz and I were already imaginary best friends. But also by that time, I had grown into a different person, thanks to her. I was more sure of myself. I was confident in owning who I was. I believed readily that my peers had  similar stories to tell. I had turned this corner into being an insecure college girl who quietly curated her music taste in the privacy of her room to a girl who was going to shows alone and finding her spot in the local scene.

When I hear something from Guyville or Girlysounds feelings of who I was in my early 20’s are stirred. But then there has been other parts of life added on with additional musical offerings.  I think about singing “Polyester Bride” with my daughters. About the more poppy Phair on her self-titled album — which I loved, but almost as if it were a different artist. Hearing all these songs live, at the neighborhood bar in the where I consider my real hometown, I was filled with the powerful emotion of a life that wasn’t pretty, but definitely well-lived.

I went to the Belly-Up with one of my best friends for 20+ years. A person with whom I would ride around in my Mazda throughout the streets of San Diego with Liz Phair as our background track.  The difference is now, our chitchat is unfortunately peppered with serious convos about legal issues, aging parents, and funeral costs.  Once at the show, we ran into another old friend in town visiting a sick parent in the hospital. These are sadly the conversations of Gen X now and that weighed heavy when we weren’t dancing around and excitedly grabbing one another as each of our favorites were played.

But I don’t think I’d ever want to be 21 again. This Liz Phair show reminded me of the upside of my 40’s. I can afford better drinks (I had a lovely $17 glass of Rosé) and I am more forgiving. I have a feeling that even if Liz Phair sucked (which she didn’t), I still would have loved every minute of it.  And I don’t think in my 20’s I would have turned back to my friend and a group of strangers to say, “She looks fucking fantastic!” and meant every word. I didn’t just celebrate Liz up on the stage, I was celebrating every one of the mostly women of a certain age crowd — who I think Liz Phair had a hand in helping us come into our own.

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