Rock and Roll Book Club: Liz Phair's 'Horror Stories'

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Liz Phair's 'Horror Stories.'
Liz Phair's 'Horror Stories.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Liz Phair could have died a dozen times.

She could have died of terror, when she was climbing a tree as a child and came upon a nest of spiders that were each the size of her hand.

She could have died of despair, seeing a father on a beach mistreat his child and feeling powerless to stop him.

She could have died of rage, when she was giving birth and a superfan anaesthesiologist asked her to sign his Exile in Guyville CD when her child was only halfway out of her body.

She could have died of blunt trauma, when a friend was playfully swinging a meat tenderizer and the mallet head came off, flying straight into her face.

She survived that last incident without even losing an eye, although her nose was broken and she didn't go to the hospital soon enough, meaning her doctor had to hold her down re-break it.

We're only 150 words into this review, and already you're probably convinced that the revered singer-songwriter chose the right title for her memoir Horror Stories. Each of the 17 chapters is in fact a horror story, and some of them are much more chilling than anything I've referenced above. Even the story that starts with Phair getting a crush on a Trader Joe's clerk turns somber, though only after a jaw-dropping series of twists and turns.

It's an unconventional way to structure a memoir, particularly since the chapters aren't in chronological order, but Phair tells us it's going to be revealing — "I am trusting you with my deepest self," she writes in a prologue — and she's not wrong. Some music memoirs feel like the answers to ideal interview questions, but no interviewer would have asked Phair to tell these 17 stories. In many cases that's because no one but the author and her friends would have known about them, while in other cases you'd hesitate to ask her to open up about such painful subjects.

That's particularly true of a chapter that feels like the book's centerpiece, an essay that's an absolutely essential read. It begins with Phair learning that a male star who'd collaborated with her on an as-yet-unreleased album had been very publicly and credibly accused of abusing and exploiting women, including an ex-wife and an underage girl. It's no secret that she's writing about Ryan Adams, but in interviews about the book she's suggested that she didn't just leave him unnamed to avoid legal trouble. "It does need to be talked about," she told Vulture, "but so do the larger issues."

That chapter lists numerous assaults, insults, and indignities Phair's experienced — both in her music career and otherwise — as a woman going about her business in a patriarchal society. She seems skeptical of cancel culture, not so much because she thinks boycotts are a bad idea but because extravagantly shaming specific offenders can serve to distract us from examining our own roles in perpetuating a culture where every single woman can honestly say, "me too."

There's much more in this fascinating book, though: Phair opens up about some of her regrets, about poor decisions and scary moments. "Our flaws and our failures make us relatable, not unlovable," she writes. After her landmark 1993 debut album, she remembers, "fans came up to me at my concerts expressing gratitude and admiration for my bravery in telling the truth, because it made them feel a little less isolated and overwhelmed by their own difficulties."

Although this isn't the place to learn how Phair wrote and recorded Exile in Guyville, or made any of her other records, it certainly is a place to learn more about the triumphs and travails in the life of a musician.

What do you do when you're having a great photoshoot and the photographer suggests you try a provocative bondage pose? (If she's a woman, you trust her...and end up with one of the most iconic images of your career.) What happens when you and your touring guitarist start feeling electricity that has nothing to do with your backline? (You make a bad decision.) What do you do when you just played a show in Brooklyn but you're staying in Manhattan and there's a massive snowstorm? (You take a scary subway ride and almost get lost, but you survive.) What do you do when you're playing China and accidentally open your car door on a moped rider? (You negotiate.)

In a chapter that makes very timely reading just before the Macy's Thankgiving Day parade, Phair relates an experience when she was slated to sing "Winter Wonderland" on live TV for the Rockefeller Center tree-lighting ceremony. She was sick, she had laryngitis, but...

In my business, you don't cancel gigs unless you are a multimillionaire or a drug addict and pretty much already on a downward spiral. If you're anywhere between those two extremes and have a hit song to play, they will dig up your grave, roll your dead body onstage in a wheelbarrow, and make your jaw move with their hands if they have to.

So she went on, and the engineer faded her backing track in two bars late. She hit the wrong cue, got lost, got flustered, and maybe now you have a little more sympathy for Mariah Carey.

Not all of these Horror Stories are about music, though. Phair also writes about being a wife and a mother and a daughter, and connects the dots across the various spheres of her life. In general when a musician says they're taking an unusual approach to their memoir, you get nervous...but every once in a while, the result is a book that's as original and compelling as an artist's music, and that's very much the case here.

These Horror Stories are enlightening, they're moving, and they're often really funny. They're also genuinely creepy, sometimes outright scary. In one heart-stopping chapter, Phair describes an experience in college when she awoke to hear the sounds of hostile intruders deliberately smashing up her living room, making their way back towards her bedroom. She escapes, and later learns the invaders were other students who were mad at one of her male roommates.

Boldly confronting the intruder, she doesn't get a check for the damage, but she does get an apology. "I'm not sure what currency he just paid me in, but I think he offered me respect," she writes. "And I can live with that."

The Current's Horror Stories giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Horror Stories giveaway between 7:45 a.m. Central on Wednesday, November 27, 2019 and 11:59 p.m. Central on Tuesday, December 3, 2019.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of the book Horror Stories by Liz Phair. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $28

Winners will be notified via e-mail on Wednesday, December 4, 2019. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. Central on Thursday, December 5, 2019.

This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2019 Official Giveaway Rules.

You must be 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media. The personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared, or used for purposes other than to communicate with you about American Public Media programs. See Minnesota Public Radio Terms of Use and Privacy policy.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Dec. 4: Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day by Joel Selvin

Dec. 11: Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues by David Dann

Dec. 18: Best music books of 2019

Dec. 25: No feature due to holiday programming

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