Tuesday, March 10, 2009

23 Greatest Albums: Liz Phair - 'Anything But Exile In Guyville Just To Piss Off Those Who Only Like Exile In Guyville'

Living in Los Angeles affords you all sorts of strange golden opportunities. For example, this weekend? My girlfriend and I somehow wound up with free tickets to see Joan Rivers in her autobiographical play at the Geffen. One minute you are wondering what you are going to do with your Saturday, and the next Joan Rivers is blaming the Malibu fires on Suzanne Somers's vagina.

One of these fluke nights out came pretty early on in my new life in LA, so it was probably 2004. My cousin called me up and asked what I was doing that night. Whenever he asks me that, I pretty much give over to the fact that SOMETHING is going to go down and I'm going to be a part of it.

Turns out a last minute benefit concert was happening at The Knitting Factory. I don't remember what they were raising money for (breast cancer, perhaps) but a whole crew of us descended on the club.

I had been to The Knitting Factory in New York many times. My impression of the NY club was mixed...there was a too-cool-for-school vibe to the whole place that I found vaguely oppressive. I found myself wishing I'd worn a leather wristband with big metal snaps; or a Kangol hat cocked at an angle. This caused a knee jerk reaction in me to become MORE mainstream. I found myself bringing up how much I liked Guns 'n Roses Use Your Illusion or singing Cheap Trick just to undercut the overly hip underground voodoo bullshit.

But the Los Angeles version felt very different to me. I'd been lucky enough to actually play a gig at the club directly upon my arrival...covering The Replacements' 'Here Comes A Regular' with a great band called The Broken Remotes. They were called Wiley back then. I took pictures of the band and the crowd while I was on stage. It was a great way to debut on the West Coast.

Part of the appeal of The Knitting Factory for me is its location. It isn't tucked away on some dingy lower Manhattan side street that adds credibility to outsider status. Nope. The LA K.F. is in a mall right near Mann's Chinese Theater. You walk the pavement to get to it and you meet up with Spiderman, Darth Vader, various hobbits and goblins, and Marilyn Monroe. Tourists meander, families bicker...it is NOT cool.

For me, this has the unexpected effect of upping the cool factor for everything that goes on inside the club. It feels like an oasis, not a snide one-upmanship factory. The benefit benefited from this atmosphere...philanthropy, altruism, rock and roll, in a mall??? That's America, baby.

This would be my first time in the club as a spectator and I was in for a treat. Liz Phair was going to perform. She'd been catching flak for months because her latest album was too mainstream. I find the vitriol aimed at Liz Phair to be something akin to the feminist version of the crowd booing Bob Dylan when he went electric at Newport. Bitter people who don't want to expand their perception to include whatever the artist has in mind.

I had always liked Liz Phair, bought all of her albums, followed her career. But it wasn't until the night of this benefit concert that it truly dawned on me...I HAD A CRUSH ON LIZ PHAIR. I am not one to take appreciation of work as romantic interest. I don't lust after actresses. When I was 13 I cut out a picture of Katarina Witt from Sports Illustrated and hung it on my wall, but that is as close as I ever came to that kind of idolatry.

Imagine my surprise when I started getting nervous as her slot on the bill approached. I felt like I was on a date and wanted to impress. I checked my teeth for spinach. I chewed a piece of gum. I patted my hair into place. I tucked and untucked my shirt countless times. What the hell was wrong with me? Turns out it was lucky I primped.

Whoosh, there she was. It is not a large club so I was quite close. She wore a microscopic pink skirt with some sort of vest over a t-shirt, high heels, no tights. She had a guitarist, bassist, and drummer to accompany her. They did a set that drew liberally from her albums, but focused a good deal on her latest, the one maligned in music circles as being somehow a sell out.

One of these songs is about her little boy and how he has dealt with the divorce of his parents and the new man in her life. I'd heard it on the album and liked it, but hearing her play it live truly drove it home in a new way. Perhaps it was because I was separated from my son at the time, he being in Maine starting first grade. Perhaps it was due to some sort of psychic unbalance because of my new surroundings, my new life. But the weight of my own divorce and ongoing separation anxiety combined with Liz Phair's voice and words to pack a devastating punch for me.

So now, in addition to the schoolboy crush thing that had been happening, she had just helped me deal with my own broken heart. I wept discreetly, eyes welled to overflow throughout the entire song.

Then as they readied for the next one, she got a bit turned around with her guitar and chord. She turned her back on the audience to confer with her band mates and the chord rose slightly, carrying her already teeny skirt with it. A flash of white greeted the crowd. If they were anything like me, they were mesmerized by this inadvertent exhibitionism. No catcalls, no 'hey, Liz, your skirt is hiked up'. Nope. She casually shook the chord, freeing her skirt to drop back to its intended place.

Soon she left the stage to thunderous applause.

As I socialized and sipped my beer, I found myself rehashing her performance with everyone I spoke with. It had just the right mix of ease and effort. We were all blown away.

I made my way towards the back of the club to pick up another beer. Suddenly and before I knew it I was walking right towards her. She seemed to be 3 feet tall, impossibly delicate. She glowed with energy from the show. She thought she recognized me and held her arms out to hug me.

I said, "You don't know me..." But she hugged me anyway. Her scent engulfed and disoriented me. She laughed that she didn't know me but had thought she did. Still holding her, I told her how she had affected me with her song 'Little Digger'. She thanked me in a way that said she appreciated my situation as a single parent.

I continued on my way to the back of the club but I never did get that beer. I was already drunk on Phair.


Jeff said...

My favorite album of hers is "Liz Phair" from 2003, which people always seem to find SO offensive.

Brendan O'Malley said...

I agree! I think she just gets better and better!

Sheila O'Malley said...


And yes, I love Liz Phair (the album) as well. I'll follow her anywhere she feels like going!!