In the song “Stratford-on-Guy” toward the end of Liz Phair’s era-defining 1993 album “Exile in Guyville,” the speaker is having a flash of transcendence on a plane 30,000 feet over Chicago, the city of her inspiration and her angst. The chorus – “It took an hour, maybe a day / But once I really listened the noise just fell away” – captures her small but critical epiphany about judgment, perspective, and the power of cool distance.
Phair’s beautifully written new book, a memoir called “Horror Stories,” is a collection of similarly small but critical epiphanies, a number of them, like “Stratford-on-Guy,” triggered by planes and hotels and the tsuris and flimflam of being a rock star.
Obviously, “Horror Stories” is a book and not an album, but it plays out like a batch of interrelated Phair songs, each chapter a separate and specific story, all together accumulating into an intimate self-portrait.
Leave it to Phair, who doesn’t tend to conform to expectations – of gender, of rock ‘n’ roll, of sexuality, of truthfulness – to build a narrative on her own terms, as a series of seemingly random vignettes from early childhood (a brush with a spider’s nest) to adulthood (a crush on a Trader Joe’s guy) that double as painfully honest emotional revelations. There is no chronology, as the chapters jump among her assortment of bookmarked memories, incidents of fear and desire (the horror stories of the title) that led to clarity.
Phair slips in the objective facts of her life — that she and her brother were adopted, that her marriage broke up after she had an affair — only as they relate to the tale at hand, in service of the greater points she’s making. She also changes the names of her exes. She’s mapping out her psychic grid, not the specific neighborhood of her childhood or the roots of her family or the particulars of her love life.
Also, don’t expect a ton of alternative rock dish and tour partying deets, past or present, outside of Phair’s own confessions about “being your own product” and the difficult trust involved when you submit to a photo shoot. There is a chapter about Ryan Adams, who is never named, written after he faced #MeToo allegations in the New York Times. Adams had been producing an album for Phair, a response to the Beatles’ White Album in the way “Exile” was a response to “Exile on Main St.,” but the project fell apart, partly because they weren’t compatible in the studio, and partly, Phair conjectures, because she never agreed to sleep with him.
The true gist of the chapter, though, isn’t Adams gossip; it’s the mindset of the woman who is famous for writing sex-positive songs about refusing to be cowed by men. She recalls being pawed at by older bosses as a teen, being “hunted” by boys in college, learning, as she puts it, “that my body was not my own sovereign territory.” “If you think I invited that kind of interest after I published sexually frank lyrics,” she writes, “you’d have gotten the cause and effect flipped. ...By the time I recorded ‘Exile in Guyville’ I had been fending off disturbing and unwanted attention for almost two decades already.”
Horror stories often involve monsters, and those predatory men are among the ugliest in the book. There’s a boyfriend named Rory who, not long after lobbying her to have a baby with him, explains that an ex whom he still sees sometimes had their baby two months earlier. He “forgot” to tell her. Phair dumps on him just a bit as she mines the experience for survival skills. And there are the nameless, judgy ones who could never understand her loneliness; “You don’t get to sing about sex and call men out and still be part of a happy, committed relationship,” she describes them thinking.
But one of the lovely things about “Horror Stories” is Phair’s inclination to own her own mistakes and naivete. Self-aware lines such as, “The trappings of celebrity amount to a defensive wall behind which I can hide,” are a refrain throughout the book, along with her regularly busting of herself for her own vanity. She is focused on her own weaknesses, not those of others, hoping to turn them into strength. She looks back on the dissolution of her marriage after son Nick is born, but, like on her 1998 album “whitechocolatespaceegg,” she does so mostly with compassion for herself and her husband.
One of the most powerful chapters, called “Labor of Love,” finds Phair preparing to give birth to Nick. It becomes an opportunity for her to reflect on being adopted. “I never know how much importance to give it,” she writes. “Is it a minor detail in my biography, or does it define me?”
Using some of the book’s typically choice language, she recalls seeing the original copy of her birth certificate: “It was also a snapshot of a fleeting moment of wholeness, before I carried in my heart this broken piece of glass, which I’ve been careful not to disturb lest it cut me.” Childbirth also gives Phair an opportunity to think — both amusingly and poignantly — about her vagina, and the awkwardness of baring it to a room of medical personnel.
You might expect that kind of explicit material from Phair, whose self-titled 2003 album features a song (“H.W.C.”) about ejaculate. She’s famous for it. But you might not expect the way Phair delivers sex and the rest of her world to us this time out, with equal parts elegance, humor, and authenticity.
By Liz Phair
Random House, 263 pp. $28Matthew Gilbert can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.