(1–4) Gina Arnold, Exile in Guyville (Bloomsbury/33 1/3); Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (Matador, 1993); Pussy Galore, Exile on Main Street (Shove, 1986); Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones, 1972). Arnold is a wonderful writer: fearless, precise, full of doubt, never taking anything for granted. She’s one of the few people left on the planet who uses presently correctly, which can create its own thrill. Going back to Liz Phair’s once notorious, now often forgotten, absurdly in-your-face ambitious first album—“a story about a girl and a time and a place,” the indie-rock world of Wicker Park, in Chicago, in the early 1990s, but in Phair’s hands a story told with such heart that you need no such details to catch every shade of meaning and emotion—Arnold has written a book about the past (“when dinosaurs, as personified by Dinosaur Jr., ruled the earth”), its follies and crimes (“Every past is worth condemning,” Arnold quotes Nietzsche, and then puts the words to work), and the idea of an imagined community that the past leaves behind (“Often I think I am a better informed citizen of Middlemarch, Bartsetshire,” Arnold says, “than I am of San Francisco”). And it’s about what it means for a young woman to simultaneously take on both everyone in her town and take down the album that sums up everything that everyone in her town would like to sound like, look like, act like, be—to take down a whole way of being in the world. “At one point we had felt like misfits or we had felt like ‘others,’” Carrie Brownstein recently said of the time she shared with Phair—in her case, in her own indie-rock community, in Olympia, Washington. “It was supposed to be come one, come all, you know? Freaks gather round and we’ll provide you with shelter. And you get in these scenes and you realize, no, I’ve gone from one set of rules and regulations and codifications of how you should dress and what you should know to another… What should have been inclusive felt very exclusive… there were times when I felt very flummoxed by the rules, very alienated, and I was trying way too hard to figure out not just what band to like, but am I liking the right album from that band. And then, am I liking the right band member in that band? Am I liking the right song on the right record? Have I picked the right year to stop liking the band?”
Phair wasn’t the first person in the post-punk community to take on the Rolling Stones’ MobyDick. Fourteen years after the release of Exile on Main Street, the hilariously obscene Pussy Galore covered the whole double album, all eighteen songs, in what sounded like a single all-nighter, hammering out the tunes until they lost all definition, people shouting back and forth at each other in impatience, frustration, and pure fed-upness, putting the thing out in the most obscure format possible, a five-hundred-copy grimy cassette (though today you can find it all online). It works; you’re drawn in by a band’s epic refusal to quit. But Phair did something much harder. Writing her own eighteen songs—Arnold, in her own way of playing, or singing, Exile in Guyville, makes a case for the pairing of each track of each album—Phair came up with just under an hour of music that today sounds as personal, unique, and yet socially necessary as it did more than twenty years ago. It was a dare: someone no one’s ever heard of can say as much, can say more, than someone everyone’s heard of, whom everyone listens to, and in her own voice. Such a story is always new, and it’s new now.
Because it never received enough airplay to be overexposed, because it carried no obvious influences and did not, musically, obviously influence anyone—the spiritual influence of the album, the way it inspired others to take the kind of dare Phair took, was enormous—the music on Exile in Guyville has not become dated in any way. “Fuck and Run” is if anything more painful, more defenseless, than it was when it was first heard, because the pain is not only a matter of, in Arnold’s words about everything on the album, “what it was like to feel voiceless and powerless in a nightclub, on a road trip, or during sexual intercourse,” but it is in the melody, in the way the melody pulls back on itself, and in the rhythmic drive Phair’s guitar puts into the story, the sense of inevitability, so that you don’t even need the singer to tell you “I can feel it in my bones, / I’m gonna spend my whole life alone.”
Arnold is betting on the right horse. Liz Phair’s album today sounds completely fresh. It feels completely fresh in the way that it feels completely worn-out, because, when the album ends, you feel as if the person you’ve been listening to has been through a hard day. That fatigue, that sense of being too tired to care but too blasted not to, gives what Phair did an odd realism that, in her place and time, no one else seemed to know was there, or to want to know
The obvious thing to say now is that the realism of Liz Phair’s version of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street— her translation—makes the real thing sound phony, fake, contrived, every gesture postured, not lived, makes it sound not real at all. But if anything, Phair lets you hear how unlikely, how desperate, what a long, long night the Rolling Stones’ album really was. Pussy Galore bash their heads off, but the Rolling Stones sound more primitive. The songs are dribs, drabs, fragments, pasted together with spit (the words to “Ventilator Blues,” Arnold says, “sound like the Moldavian entry in the Eurovision Song Contest”), and yet, as if they’re betting against themselves, they take shape, burrow under the ground, change shape, and come into the light as if they were just getting out of bed. You don’t hear production, money, skill, or even intent. You feel as if you’ve stumbled onto the scene of an accident where, for some reason, people pitched a tent.
It became a legend, and other people made the tent into a temple and insisted that everyone live in it. Liz Phair was one of those who lived in it. In Gina Arnold’s telling, she didn’t cast out the money changers; they’re still there. Again, she did something more difficult. She walked out, pitched her own tent down the road, and then left that behind, too.
(5) La Sera, Hour of the Dawn (Hardly Art). The spirit here is of people rushing through city streets so fast you can feel the wind they make, but their minds are just as quick: from song to song there’s a hint of Eleanor Friedberger’s relentless questioning of every moment as it passes. “You go on and on about the things you believe,” Katy Goodman says in “Running Wild”—the person she’s talking to might be chasing the singer, but she’s already turned the corner. With endless invention and flair, the guitarist Todd Wisenbaker gives the former member of the always overrated Vivian Girls space, purpose, and most of all pace.
(6) Umberto Tozzi, “Gloria,” in Gloria, written and directed by Sebastián Lelio (Roadside Attractions). At the end of the picture, in present-day Santiago, Chile, in a nightclub for people in their fifties, a woman dances alone to what, inevitably, is her song: she’s named Gloria, too. Laura Branigan had the huge English-language hit; the Italian original is only slightly less cheesy. Yet something begins to happen. Played by Paulina García, Gloria has just perpetrated a spectacular breakup with a man who always disappears on her. There’s the vaguest suggestion that his dishonesty is of a piece with the likelihood that he once perpetrated disappearances under the Pinochet dictatorship. No one Gloria’s age could have missed the hint dropped in the script, but she doesn’t seem to care—we don’t know what she was doing then, and what she wants is not justice but sex and affection. But she doesn’t get much of either, and now, in the nightclub, going back and forth to the beat, the staircase in the rhythm of the song begins to assemble itself, and she climbs it. You can feel her body lift with each step. No, she doesn’t get anywhere. There’s no deliverance. Her life doesn’t change. The affair is just one more thing to put in the past. But the song has given her far more than the man ever did.
(7) Season 2, Episode 4, House of Cards, Netflix. After a CNN interview exposing a newly promoted general as a man who raped her in college, Claire Underwood is at home with Vice President Francis Underwood. There are hints he used to be a folkie: “‘Dark Was the Night,’” he says at one point, “gets me every time.” Now they’re smoking a cigarette they’ve forbidden each other. “Sing me something,” she says. “What do you want to hear?” “Anything.” “Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, let me tell you my mind. / My mind is to marry, and never to part. My mind is to marry, and never to part,” he sings, in a deeper voice than the song usually carries. “Before we get married, some pleasure to see, before we get married some pleasure to see”—and as banjo and dobro come up behind him on the soundtrack, the camera pans right, right out of the shot and into black. You don’t hear him sing the rest of the song—where he kills her.
(8) Dex Romweber Duo, Images 13 (Bloodshot). A rock ’n’ roll equivalent of lounge music. Very dumb and very fun.
(9) David Kinney, The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob (Simon and Schuster). This could have been a condescending, for that matter sneering, portrait of cultists, monastics, gnostics, and fools: people who can not only name every song on Empire Burlesque but also tell you their secret meanings. Instead it’s warm, open, discerning. You encounter people who’d be death bending your ear at a bar, but others whom you might want to meet.
(10) Stephen Colbert, “Happy Birthday,” on The Colbert Report, Comedy Central (March 6). Stephen Colbert had a news report about the ninetieth anniversary of the publication of the song that probably tops “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the first verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “Guantanamera” on the Everybody Knows It chart. The difference is that thanks to a revolution—or really a counterrevolution—in intellectual property law, “Happy Birthday” is still under copyright, and if you don’t protect a copyright, it dissolves into the common square of public domain, so Warner Music does everything it can to make sure that if “Happy Birthday” is sung in any public place or forum—in a movie, on the radio or TV, but also to celebrate the birthday of a cast member at the end of a Broadway show or a Cabinet member at a Cabinet meeting, in a YouTube video, even in a restaurant—you’re supposed to pay.
Sure. Like you’re going to take your grandmother to Geno’s for her ninetieth and when the whole family starts up the proprietor’s going to run over and tell you to stop or Warner Bros. is going to shut him down. “Don’t believe these people are protective of their intellectual property?” Colbert said. “Marilyn Monroe sang it to President Kennedy, and in one year they were both dead.