To clear a misconception – Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville is not a feminist response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St. Let’s not assign gender politics to our music & art. Guyville is more organic, artistically valid in its own right. Besides, Main St is not some big macho statement – its opening anthem is about impotence and masturbation (“I can’t seem to stay in step but she cums every time that she pirouettes from me…I only get my rocks off when I’m dreaming”). That said, the Stones were a boys club where women were either groupies, model girlfriends, or backup singers. So Ms Phair’s voice is essential, all the more so because she meets the Stones on their own terms, musically and otherwise.
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I still remember when I first heard Exile On Main St, pulling out of a strip mall in Freehold NJ where I just bought the tape. As soon as it started I knew instinctively – on a cellular level – that this album would connect with my drunken vampire Jersey Shore spirit. “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.” Absolutely goddamn right. Yes, the album is very drug and drunk friendly, a perfect blast when yr blasted. But it’s more than that – a companion for reading, writing, running, cleaning the house, happy or sad, sober or wet, in love or brokenhearted, getting laid, getting wasted, or just laying back getting nothing done at all. Etc etc etc.
Exile on Main St, briefly: Side One is boogie blues business, bookended by “Rocks Off” and “Tumbling Dice.” Both classics, though my favorite of the side is “Casino Boogie” with its gonzo outlaw absurdities: “One last cycle/thrill freak Uncle Sam/open for business? no!/you understand?” This is a true outlaw album, made by a gang of drugged up rock star pirates. Side Two opens with the acoustic gospel “Sweet Virginia,” which I imagine sung out by a raucous chorus under a big cross in a church in Alabama – “got to scrape the shit right off your shoes!” Amen. It ends with “Loving Cup,” a ballad with distinctive little details (“Yes I’m fumbling and I know my car don’t start/I’m stumbling and I know I play bad guitar”) I could always relate to. But the key track is “Torn And Frayed” – the single song that encapsulates the Exile ethos. It’s a song about devotion to music, about the connection between the band and the fans. The lyrics recall Mick’s rundown of the boys on “Jigsaw Puzzle” from Beggar’s Banquet – “the guitar players look damaged.” This time: “his coat is torn and frayed.” But we’re all damaged, that’s why we’re here. That’s why we relate so much to this album from 40+ years ago. Musicians, writers, artists, fans – this is our thing. La cosa nostra.
Side Three is the weirdest, starting with Keith’s taking-candy-from-strangers anthem “Happy.” We get hot summer basement funk (“Ventilator Blues”) into eerie junkie gospel (“I Just Want To See His Face”). Side Four is a summation, with the biggest ballad (“Shine A Light”), the grimiest blues cover (“Stop Breakin’ Down”), and the don’t-give-a-fuck-that-the-guitar-is-out-of-tune classic (“All Down The Line”). But only a song like the pirate ship epic “Soul Survivor” could end the album properly. Funny – I was just listening to Nas & Mobb Deep’s “It’s Mine” from ’99 and it struck me how it seemed to brag of a victory over fallen comrades Tupac and Biggie. (How else are we to take a chorus like “Thug life is mine”? We also get one of Nas’s goofiest verses, with Halle Berry blowing him a kiss at a Barbara Streisand concert. Huh?) Anyway, I get the same vibe from “Soul Survivor,” which brags a victory over Jim, Jimi, Janus et al. And why not? Save the eulogies for the award shows, this is rock&roll. The ship sails off with its big tattered flag of the Stones lips logo, Mick up there preening and rooster strutting on the bow, pirate Keef playing with ciggy in mouth, Charlie Watts classy as ever keeping woozy time.
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So if music & art are about being bigger than life, or more accurately sharing some piece of your damaged soul with likeminded spirits, then the first song on Exile In Guyville nails it – “I’m left standing six feet one, instead of five feet two.” Modest ambitions perhaps. But Guyville is a more humble, reflective, grounded work than the Stones Travelling Party. Mick Jagger stylizes heartbreak, as on “Wild Horses” with its “sweeping exits and offstage lines.” Liz Phair’s songs are more intimate, personal. The tune that stood out right away when I first heard the album – and still does – is “Divorce Song.” You can almost imagine the narrator as the girlfriend of Mick’s fumbling guitar player persona: “And it’s true that I stole your lighter/and it’s also true that I lost the map.” But then she adds the kicker: “But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to/I had to take your word on that.”
Exile In Guyville is full of little chilling moments like that, hurt tossed off like a spent cigarette. In “Fuck And Run” she wakes up with the same guy who’ll never meet her emotional needs nor truly respect her. Fine – she’s not crying about it. “Because I take full advantage of every guy I meet,” she says in “Girls! Girls! Girls!” Is she just saying that to make herself feel better? Yes, I think so, and that’s the kind of psychology woven into these songs. Guyville takes some time to process, it’s not instant gratification music.
Musically the album is unlike the insular and quite frankly nerdy indie rock of its era. It rocks. It’s sexy. Playing guitar is an attitude and I hear a lot of Keef’s “Soul Survivor” type riffing in songs like “Stratford-On-Guy.” “Mesmerizing” reminds me more of mid 60s Aftermath Stones with its conga percussion arrangement. Note that “Never Said” is in the “Tumbling Dice” spot, and it sounds every bit as good blasting out of a jukebox at a bar. But Liz Phair has a style of her own, eschewing the Stones’ riffy blues for spare free flowing melodies. Her tunes veer off to strange places but still make sense – “Dance of the Seven Veils” is probably the best example, though that song is itself a precursor to my favorite all time Liz Phair song “Dogs of LA” from Whip-smart. “Dogs of LA” is a song to memorize and sing like a hymn – it is a hymn.
So Exile On Main St is not the whole story – it never was. “All you women is low down gamblers, cheatin but I don’t know how,” Mick sings on “Tumbling Dice.” Okay, but then we have Liz’s groupie girl on “Help Me Mary”: “They wonder just how wild I would be/As they egg me on and keep me mad.” Or “Flower” which is more sexually explicit than anything the Stones came up with: “I’ll fuck you til your dick is blue.” Liz is calling Mick’s bluff.
These two albums are part of the same world. Putting on masks, playing roles, fucking and running. They belong together, both Exiles. We get the big drugged up party of Main St and then the girl in her room upstairs on Guyville. But she’s no groupie, no victim. She’s an outlaw too.