When Liz Phair emerged from the Chicago indie-rock boys club with her seismic debut, 1993’s “Exile in Guyville,” she laid the foundation for her career with piercing honesty. She was profane or poetic, often both. For women especially, Phair’s name became synonymous with lucidity, wit, self awareness, strength and a particularly feminine sense of agency, an act of retaliation in a male-created world.
After three albums on the influential New York indie label Matador Records, Phair reached for mass appeal with a poppier sound. She had a radio hit with 2003’s sleek “Why Can’t I?” and shared airspace with the likes of the Black Eyed Peas and Hootie and the Blowfish. Today, Phair holds a uniquely modern place in the culture as both an indie-rock icon and a karaoke staple, as the borders between the two evaporate. She got her due with last year’s release of “Girly-Sound to Guyville,” celebrating the 25th anniversary of her groundbreaking debut as well as her ever-increasing relevance.
Joining the post-“Just Kids” surge in much-needed tales from female musicians, Phair’s new book, “Horror Stories,” is an unconventional memoir.
The chapters find Phair reflecting, not chronologically, on traumas of various calibers: the process of childbirth, a home invasion, her own infidelity, the New York City blackout of ’03, getting caught in a snowstorm, her pursuit of a crush on a Trader Joe’s cashier, a “car crash” performance of “Winter Wonderland” on national television. These memories, at times disjointed, seem to stumble forward, playing out like life.
Phair calls the book “a look at how we really become who we are,” through “small indignities.” At its best, “Horror Stories” is an excavation of what lies in the subconscious as you float through the world. It shows how buried hurts will crop up randomly, at will. In that sense, “Horror Stories” reflects reality with a blunt irreverence, like many great Phair songs.
But discussion of Phair’s music is puzzlingly limited. It’s up to the reader to determine where Phair was at in her discography during any particular saga. In one moment, as the memories tumble — Phair is describing how she became estranged from a longtime friend after he accidentally swung a meat hammer at her face, breaking her nose — she suddenly delivers a disarming observation about her most classic track. “Everybody thinks my song ‘F— and Run’ is about sex, and on one level it is,” Phair writes. “But it’s also about these moments when real connection and feeling is abandoned in favor of self-preservation.” When Phair later describes herself and her friend as “just two billiard balls that got knocked to opposite sides of the table,” expressing no bitterness toward him, it could be a salty-sweet line to one of her songs.
Such illumination is catnip for fans. But “Horror Stories” offers only a handful of these music-oriented reflections. Phair focuses instead on the greater fabric of her idiosyncratic life that produced the songs —a life often “too straight to be deeply enmeshed with the artists’ communities [she] knew,” and still “too bent to settle down with the mainstream suburban crowd.” The result was loneliness.
In an explosive chapter of “Horror Stories,” Phair describes an unnamed producer with whom she had worked on never-finished material who suddenly had “a big #MeToo problem on his hands.” Phair reflects on the day the news broke that the producer had been accused of sexual and psychological abuse by multiple women (she believes them). She burst into tears: “I have spent decades shielding myself from thoughts of what has happened to me in my life,” she writes, “and now that the box is open, I feel like I have no control.”
“I asserted myself more than he liked in the studio,” Phair continues. “He told me that I should get in touch with being inexperienced and on the verge of losing control.”
When others accused her producer, Ryan Adams, of sexual misconduct earlier this year, Phair wrote on Twitter “My experience was nowhere near as personally involving, but yes the record ended and the similarities are upsetting.”
In the book, she writes: “We are trapped in a culture of silence.”
Breaking her own, Phair reflects on several disturbing instances of sexual harassment and abuse from her teenage years, situations where men took advantage of her, propositioned her or groped her at work. She describes being objectified, screamed at, stalked and worse by men in the music industry. “There‘s no doubt this history has shaped my psyche and informed my art,” she writes of “the treacherous waters of the male appetite.”
Phair says she faced ”predatory male behavior” from a young age. “If you think I invited that kind of interest after I published sexually frank lyrics, you’d have gotten the cause and effect flipped,” she writes of her Guyville song, “Flower.” “They can’t make you an object, I reasoned, if you are adamantly and vociferously the subject of your own sexuality.”
These are the most profound moments of “Horror Stories.” I wish Phair wrote specifically about how her experiences shaped the lyrics to more of her songs, like “Polyester Bride,” “Divorce Song” or “Dogs of L.A,” in lieu of some of the many pages, some gripping, some clumsy, she spends airing details of failed relationships, bad vacations and first-class flights. I get the sense this would be another story entirely. Perhaps, for the time being, it’s better voiced by the music.
Random House: 272 pages, $28
Pelly is a contributing editor at Pitchfork and author of “The Raincoats.”