“When do they issue those arm patches to authors?” Liz Phair wondered aloud on the opening night of a residency at L.A.’s Largo, designed to promote her new memoir. “Is that the second book? I can wait.”
There is, in fact, a second book coming, or at least promised; hers is intended as a two-part autobiography, it’s useful to know (divided by theme, not chronology, so no worries about cliffhangers). But for now, Phair has given her fans “Horror Stories,” an excellent recap of a life only semi-horrifically lived. It’s exceptionally well written, which, given the strength of her songwriting catalog, probably counts as the biggest “duh” since that Billie Eilish song. Its prose, self-lacerating and cockily defiant in about equal measure — well, okay, leaning slightly more toward the empowered side (this is Liz Phair!)— takes you methodically and mercilessly into just about every aspect of her life… except her actual musical creativity and output. Not to be perverse, with that exclusion; that’s what the sequel is for.
But how to do a book tour, as a rocker, without getting so far into a woman-of-letters persona that it really does seem like there should be the proverbial arm patches on that mini-dress? Bookstore and lecture appearances by guitar slingers inevitably feel like a bit of a cheat: Yes, we know what you really want to do is direct, literarily speaking, but couldn’t you whip out a guitar for just one number before they fold up the folding chairs?
Phair is very phorward thinking, in that regard. She’s set up shop at Largo for four successive Monday nights for a combination book tour/concert series. And you definitely get a feel for how experimental this approach is, in the details of how it’s been set up, the fine print of which is more complicated than the side-effects coda on a meds commercial. You can come for either the reading/Q&A/book giveaway/signing-photo hour, or the hour of rocking out, or both; the house will be cleared in-between, and either part is $49, with $69 getting you in for the whole evening. Got that? The idea of shuffling people in and out feels a little unwieldy, but offering fans choices in this crowdsourcing era does go down well with people.
How’d it work in practicality? On the first night, the house was about half to two-thirds full for the book portion, then filled out later for the concert segment, with all the additional arrivees who prefer staying in “Eff literature, let’s dance” mode. (Dancing being a figurative thing in the very sit-down Largo space.) But it’d be highly surprising if more than the barest handful of people bought a ticket just for part one. You want to hear Phair read and get a photo and then pass up spending an extra 20 bucks to hear her and a band perform the condensed greatest-hits set of your dreams? Not likely — this is not an audience that’s going to just fangirl-and-run, as it were.
The whole experiment worked without hitches to speak of Monday, except for one: As it turns out, you can’t read a book chapter, do a satisfying audience Q&A, and then sign books, exchange pleasantries and pose for photos with more than a hundred people in an hour timeslot; that’s a 90-minute business, minimum. By next week, presumably, the live set will have been pushed back a half-hour, because the alternatives, like cutting the Q&A, would be a buzzkill. This is a hybrid that, with a little breathing room, works: She really ought to take it on the road, although right now it’s just traditional book events scheduled for other cities. (Tip to Angelenos still considering the remaining three nights: you’re getting a bargain.)
“This book is called ‘Horror Stories,’ and that’s partly tongue in cheek,” she said by way of introduction, “because of the horror entertainment industry. But it is about those moments… that sometimes just happen to you randomly and yet stay with you for a very long time.” It may have been deep into her reading of a chapter called “Below” — about hanging out at lakeside sand dunes in her native Michigan that, it eventually turned out, were capable of swallowing kids alive — that some of those in the audience who hadn’t yet keyed into the book’s m.o. realized that this was going to be the opposite of, say, Elton John’s “Me.” “Exile in Guyville” has been exiled to afterthought? What?
But among those who spoke up from the crowd, there was congratulation for straying so far from the tropes of a music memoir. And some of that s— is coming, anyway, she promised amid the felicitations. “I will be writing about the music business more. I will,” she said. “It’s just most of my experiences in music itself are very positive and didn’t belong in ‘Horror Stories.’ Some of the industry stuff is in there, though.” (If you’re wondering if her experience making an uncompleted album and being occasionally come on to by Ryan Adams is horrific enough to be included, the answer is yes, although she shares some positive things about him, too, and it sounds like he was just about the least of her #MeToo experiences.)
“I don’t write my songs as a rock star,” she elaborated. “I write them as a human being. And I think when I approached writing prose, I felt the same sense of anchoring. I know people expect memoirs to be sort of a traditional ‘what happened, what year, who was there, and what famous names crossed your path.’ But I’m not particularly that interested in that stuff. Although I love Keith Richards’ ‘Life.’ That was awesome. But if you’re going to do that, you ought to be Keith Richards.” (Phair actually reviewed his book for the New York Times when it came out, so going into hers, she knew what she was doing… or not doing.) “I have more, much more, to say about being human than I do, I think, about being famous or well known. I think that’s kind of almost like the common cold: Anyone can catch it, and the pathology is the same: It will start in your nose, then go to your throat… I think like what I’m most proud of doing is reaching another human being and having this kind of resonate with the recognition that we are so much more alike than we realize” — all being ordinary average everyday sane psycho supergoddesses, maybe, to borrow a thought.
The next book, she said — the one about the pleasures of the music itself, and not so much her iffy industry experiences — will be called “Fairy Tales.” Why “Horror Stories” first, an audience member asked? “Wouldn’t you rather have the bad news before the good news?” Phair answered. “You know, Trump’s in office, so like rip it off now. Let’s have all our shittiness now while we’re marinating in it.”
The crowd Q&A led to stories that aren’t in the book, some of which she said would be in the sequel, but at least one of which could have qualified for “Horror Stories.” Asked what her hardest song was to write and/or release, she picked “Little Digger,” which was about the time her very young son walked in on her and her new boyfriend in bed during her marital estrangement, and the guilt that came from that. On the lighter side, asked whether self-awareness was crippling or beneficial, Phair talked about the time she went on a family trip to England at age 8 and was so afraid of standing out that she adopted an English accent for the trip — and then kept it up for a year, which is definitely a way to stand out in America.
“I’m highly self-aware, and it’s excruciating in a weird way to be on stage,” she said, “and yet at the same time, you know how that adrenaline spikes and then you kind of like it, and then you’re like, okay, I need another hit that big? I think it actually works in my favor that I’m terrified a lot of the time, because it makes life so much more exciting, for everything, even like the smallest things… I don’t think it’s an affliction at all. I think it is like a superpower… I think a lot of artists are the same way: We make art because we cannot process the amount of information and how it affects us emotionally. So we have to kind of put it into a shape we can control, make it smaller, look at it, figure it out, turn it into something we can recognize and put it on a shelf, and then we can go on about our day. …. I know at least a third of you out there are artists. But it’s like being without a skin, in a funny way. I think the trick (is) trying to make it less easy for myself to wall up behind a persona. I think that is the task that I like to set out for myself — to stay permeable, to feel things, to take a moment and stay in the awkwardness of it long enough to actually sense what’s happening between human beings.”
Then came the half-hour break, then Liz Phair: The Persona, in performance. But persona and person are close enough for comfort. The closest she came to acknowledging any distance between the two during her live set was to half-apologetically introduce “F— and Run”: “Here’s one of the first songs I ever wrote as an adult, which I don’t know what that says, but I know you guys love it.” We do, but mostly because it was even more real than it was provocative… and it was pretty provocative, 26 years ago. Phair’s 14-song set provided a reminder that hers has been a career that could be boiled down to: Come for the “she said what?,” stay for one of the most original songwriting voices we’ve had in rock ‘n’ roll’s last gasps of greatness.
Her hour-long show a perfect cut gem of what anyone who’s not too obsessed with deep cuts could want out of a Liz Phair show, with a slamming band and a set list comprised mostly of fan favorites from the first three albums that most would consider canonical, along with “Extraordinary” and “Why Can’t I” from the controversial self-titled Capitol album, for which a case could be made that it’s actually her second-best record, but let’s save historical revisionism for another time.
Phair apparently isn’t far into writing “Fairy Tales,” but she did say after the show that she might like to put it out in a year and a half — in the spring, she said, as a seasonal counterbalance to fall for the current one. But there’s the issue of new music, maybe first, with one fan calling out that he needs a new album: “You and me both,” she replied. (The book makes it clear that the double-album she was deep into making with Adams was scotched. She’s started afresh with O.G. Brad Wood.) The Largo opening night offered a live band premiere of a single she put out last month, “Good Side,” which is classic Phair frank-poetic-pragmatism in its most crystallized form, about love and leaving and regretlessness.
“There’s so many ways to f— up a life,” she sings in the new single’s opening line; “I try to be original.” That lyrical couplet could almost serve as all the dust jacket copy her memoir needs. It doesn’t cover everything, given that her life has hardly been completely f—ed up, just like “F— and Run” didn’t cover everything, but it’s a pretty good tease.
Phair’s remaining two-fer nights at Largo take place Nov. 11, 18 and 25. More information here.