Author, Liz Phair
Review by Roy Peak
"All we have in common is the horror in our lives." Alan Moore, writer.
"It’s hard to tell the truth about ourselves. It opens us up to being judged and rejected. We’re afraid we will be defined by our worst decisions instead of our best. Our impulse is always to hide the evidence, blame someone else, put the things we feel guilty about or that were traumatizing behind us and act like everything is fine. But that robs us of the opportunity to really know and care about one another. It closes a door that could lead to someone else’s heart. Our flaws and our failures make us relatable, not unlovable." Liz Phair, from her book Horror Stories.
In the early 1990s Liz Phair was on the cover of magazines, several of my friends had her poster on their bedroom walls, there were countless magazine articles about her. So, in my world, this meant that I wasn't interested in the least. Anything famous, getting press, that was the talk of the town, I ignored completely. So, a few years later when I finally heard Phair's debut album Exile in Guyville, I was floored. This was really, really good rock 'n' roll. Not to mention fearless lyrics; great, stripped down, lo-fi-in-a-good-way production; and quite a bit of raw sexiness. Guyville was a game changer. A lot of people were changed by nineties bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I was changed by Liz Phair. And definitely for the better.
Having read many rock star memoirs over the years I'm always a little worried when I get started on a new one. Just because I like someone's music doesn't mean I'm going to like or appreciate their writing style, or the stories they decide to tell. (Keith Richards' book was overblown and pretentious, Juliana Hatfield missed the mark on her memoirs by overshooting her target, Pete Townshend's left out the parts we really wanted to read about, Kim Gordon's was written too soon, she should give it some time and then try again.) Color me impressed when I discovered that Phair is a wonderful prose writer with great stories to tell in an engaging, thoughtful, and rather unique way. Phair's book scans extremely well, and is very well thought out, without losing any of its emotional momentum. She's not just telling us about her life, how she became who she is, she's also telling us a lot about ourselves, how we became who we are.
Whereas most pop culture autobiographies start with a history of the writer's family, Phair begins hers with a guilt-ridden account of seeing a girl passed out in a bathroom stall while everyone else, including Phair, did nothing to help her. This is called Horror Stories, after all, and Phair aims to hit that mark. This "memoir" is mostly slices from Phair's life focusing on the fears, trials, pain, and—yes, the horror—that is a human being's life in these turbulent times we all live in.
Usually I devour a book like this rather quickly, so wrapped up in the story I am, but this one was heady, thick with impact. I had to take a breather between chapters just to get my bearings before diving into the next vignette.
The chapter "Red Bird Hollow" is a charming childhood memoir. "New York City Blackout" makes you think it's about to go in one direction, yet Phair manages to expertly pull the story into another area altogether. "Hold This For Me" is a rather funny and ironic tale about celebrityhood. "The Devil's Mistress" goes where few so-called tell-alls dare. Phair has no fear of showing herself in a bad light, nor of revealing what would usually be considered an all-too personal anecdote coming from anyone else. "Hashtag" is where the heart of the book bleeds, you feel Phair's pain and confusion but can't stop reading as the horrors keep adding up, the story familiar and troubling and unending.
As a musician I would have liked a few more music-based tales. Her thought process on recording the Girly Sound Tapes herself at home, working with Brad Wood in the studio, her work writing music for television shows. But as a writer, I'm thrilled with what we she gave us. Phair's music has always seemed soaked in her persona, but never has she seemed so real as in the pages of this book. What's also striking to me here is how these true tales from Ms. Phair's life read like great fiction. I don't mean that she's making it all up, I mean that they read like the best short stories by Denis Johnson or Arthur Bradford or even a bit of Kelly Link. Phair finds the wonder in the world, the mysteries, and the magic that make up even the most turbulent of times, the most painful of episodes. These are interesting stories made even more intriguing by Phair's particular eye for the all-important details and a deft sense of honesty, originality, and fun. She should try her hand at writing fiction, she could definitely pull it off and I would definitely want to read it.
Roy Peak has played electric bass in more bands than he cares to remember for more years than he can remember. He wrote the theme song for the Utica, New York radio show "Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn" on WPNR-FM. His solo debut album, All Is Well, has been called "Loud, cacophonous, and beautiful by a truly unique artist." His short fiction has been published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He writes music reviews for The Rocking Magpie in the UK and King Tut Vintage Album Museum of Jacksonville.