At the time Peter Green passed away, my drafts folder contained three reviews on albums featuring Peter Green: John Mayall’s A Hard Road, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Then Play On. I had finished the intros (always the hardest part for me), but in each case, I developed writer’s block and found myself unable to move forward.
I finally had to admit to myself that the problem was that I really didn’t give a shit about “the other stuff” on those albums. All I cared about were the Peter Green tracks.
I consider myself a John Mayall fan but I don’t think his work on A Hard Road reflects Mayall at his best; his vocals sound unusually strained and he was still working out the finer points when it came to integrating horns into the mix. As for the two Fleetwood Mac albums, I place the blame solely with Peter Green for insisting on a second guitarist so he wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of playing frontman. I’d rather listen to a full orchestra of fingernails on chalkboards than listen to Jeremy Spencer with his silly vocalizations and pedestrian slide playing, and though the Danny Kirwan of Then Play On shows promise, some of his contributions reek of early flower child music. On all three albums, Peter Green’s work is several cuts above the contributions of his colleagues.
When I heard the sad news, I realized that in the context of a completed life, commenting on a few flawed albums filled with irrelevant material would represent a great disservice to the memory of this unusually gifted artist, so I started thinking that a playlist of selected tracks might be a better approach. The challenge I faced was pithily expressed by one of my top commentators (Dean) who noted in response to a thread that arose from my review of Future Games, “The Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac (through 1970) discography is a mess.”
I found motivation enough to overcome those obstacles in what seems to be the norm in Peter Green bios, obits and retrospectives: briefly acknowledge his status as a great guitarist then capitalize on the human fascination with tragedy. When I revisited the documentary Man of the World, I found myself frequently shouting at the screen, frustrated with the comparatively little attention devoted to the music and the inordinate amount of time devoted to tabloid-quality amateur psychologizing (Noel Gallager is the next-to-last person I’d hire as a psychoanalyst, right after his brother). I resented the emphasis placed on “Oh, what could have been if he hadn’t fucked it all up by taking too much acid” rather than what the man actually accomplished—which was more than most musicians can only dream of achieving.
We’re talking about artistic achievement here, not commercial success. The most insightful comment Peter Green ever made about his approach to guitar was this: “I like to play slowly and feel every note. It comes from every part of my body.” I’ve always felt that the greatest musical artists are imbued with a reverence for musical sound, likely ignited in early in the learning curve when they plucked a note a certain way, stumbled across an unusual chord, or happened upon a pleasing combination of notes and tempo. The true musical artist is engaged in a constant search for those fleeting epiphanies in sound, beautiful timeless moments of pure wonder—and Peter Green was a true artist.
Some of the choices I made are obvious; others less so; and I’m sure some will complain about certain omissions. Let me clarify things: this is not a “best of” list but a selection of tracks revealing different facets of Peter Green’s artistry.
“The Stumble,” A Hard Road, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: This high-speed shuffle may seem a contradiction to the “play slowly and feel every note” mantra, but it demonstrates a few important aspects of Peter Green’s style and personality. Remember, Peter Green had the apparent misfortune of succeeding Eric Clapton in the role of Bluesbreakers’ lead guitarist at a time when juvenile delinquents were spraypainting “Clapton Is God” on Arvon Road. I’m not sure who was responsible for selecting this Freddie King number to demonstrate Green’s licks, but since Clapton had already demonstrated his mastery of the fretboard on Freddy’s “Hideaway,” this was a pretty ballsy decision.
If Green felt any pressure about going up against a god he sure doesn’t show it here. For the first couple of go-rounds he sticks pretty close to the patterns in Freddie’s original, but as the song progresses you begin to notice Peter filling his phrases with a few more notes than Freddie. The difference becomes quite noticeable when he travels to the upper reaches of the fretboard (where Freddie only made a few brief appearances). What strikes me most is his tonal clarity at high speed; instead of the usual unintelligible flurry used by turbo-charged guitar heroes to impress the masses, every single note is clean and distinct.
Some guitarists thunder, some rain, but with Peter Green, it’s like listening to a spring shower where you can hear sweet music in each and every drop.
“The Supernatural,” A Hard Road, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: Having proven he could match Clapton or anyone else in a high-speed competition, Green confirms his “each note” artistic manifesto in “The Supernatural.” It’s important to note that this isn’t simply a set-piece featuring guitar and a modest supporting cast but a layered composition melding multiple octaves within the limits of four-track recording capability, completely designed by Peter Green. Mostly famous for its masterfully controlled feedback followed by thrilling slides down the fretboard, “The Supernatural” was described as “haunting” by Mayall; I would add the word “mesmerizing” to complete the picture.
Though it may not be apparent at first, “The Supernatural” is a blues in D minor—a scale Green would continue to explore over the coming years in what I interpret as a quest for perfection . . . but more about that later.
“The Supernatural” also launched what seems to be an eternal question in the guitar community: “How can I create the Peter Green tone?” Well . . . you could start by picking up a ’59 Les Paul and setting the pickup switch to the middle (dual-pickup) position . . . but I’m afraid you still won’t get there, no matter how many pedals you try and amp settings you tinker with. For one, Peter Green’s ’59 wasn’t just any old Les Paul, but the result of a boo-boo at the Gibson factory.
Jol Dantzig wrote a piece on Premier Guitar describing how he had the opportunity to play Green’s ’59 back in 1984 courtesy of Gary Moore, who bought the guitar from Green—for exactly what Peter had paid for it back in the ’60s (Metallica’s Kirk Hammet bought it a few years back for $2M). Plugging into a ’68 Marshall Plexi, they each played some of Green’s works and managed to reproduce the tone. “Up to this point in time, I’d been the owner of a few original Sunbursts, and our shop had bought and sold plenty more. But none had the eerie tone that Green’s guitar demonstrated in the middle selector position with both pickups on.” Being the curious sort, Dantzig suggested to Moore that they disassemble the guitar to see if Green had messed with the innards. Their initial investigation revealed nothing but factory standard, but Dantzig was one determined investigator:
A pickup creates current through the use of a magnetic field coupled with coils of wire. Both the wiring and the orientation of the magnetic poles determine polarity. If you alter either of these, you change the phase of the pickup relative to another pickup. So, with the wiring intact, I decided to test the magnetic polarity with a compass. Bingo! The magnet was reversed on one pickup. Because the pickup internals looked undisturbed, I concluded that it must have been a mistake at the factory. With Gibson having made over ten thousand electric guitars that year, the odds of the mistake showing up in Green’s guitar seems incredible.
All well and good, but even if you could pry the original from Kirk’s grubby mitts, the truth is Peter Green used multiple pickup settings within the same song and used a Strat as often as a Paul. So, you might be able to get Peter Green’s tone on this song but unable to reproduce it on that song.
The harder truth is stating the obvious: you’re not Peter Green.
“Greeny,” A Hard Road, 2003 Expanded Edition, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: In the intro I expressed some disappointment with A Hard Road, but a lot of that disappointment vanishes when I listen to the expanded edition. Not only does the grander version give us more Peter Green, but Mayall sounds like he’s having more fun.
In addition to tone, Peter Green is also renowned for his vibrato, an effect most often created by bending the strings. Nearly every lead guitarist on the planet uses some vibrato, most obviously in those moments when they bend strings in an attempt to replicate the cry of pain and anguish in a blues or blues-influenced number. What’s remarkable about his work on “Greeny” is how Green applies vibrato in tiny bursts—like on the second note on the simple four-note core motif, turning a rather pedestrian theme into something that gives me the chills every time I hear it. Though Peter Green could do the guitar hero schtick as well as the best of them, his best work is found in the slower stuff or in songs with a nice, easy tempo like this one.
“I Loved Another Woman (all takes),” Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, 1999 re-release: This expanded edition is quite educational because of its inclusion of multiple takes, giving insight into the nature of Peter Green’s quest for perfection.
- Take 1: Peter’s guitar sounds fabulous, but his voice could have used a bit more of a warm-up. He stops the take a minute into the song, claiming “Sorry, I forgot the words,” but his subsequent feedback to Mick Fleetwood (“you came in a faction late”) tells us that Fleetwood’s tardiness in syncopation is probably what threw him off. This happens a lot in recording—you hear something that sounds a teeny bit off but you’re not entirely sure, so you shoulder on for a while, but that damned little fuck-up is still on your mind and will eventually destroy your concentration.
- Take 2: Peter’s voice is still a bit strained but not enough to spoil the mix; a sharp critic would likely write it off to a stylistic choice—the exhaustion of losing his best gal. McVie and Fleetwood seem to play with a bit more conviction, and Peter’s hard-picked solo is gorgeous and damned sexy. If I had been in the booth, I might have given it a thumbs-up, but the engineer’s “Come and have a listen to it,” communicates some doubt. Try again.
- Take 3: Peter stops after the first phrase and indicates someone (Fleetwood?) “didn’t come in straight away.” Another fractional error.
- Take 4: The engineer cuts it off midway; we have no idea why. He just shouts out “No” and that’s that.
- Take 5: A very promising start with another beautiful solo collapses into ghoulish laughter near the end of Peter’s wordless, falsetto recitation of the melody. Right before the cut I hear a noise like paper shuffling or shoes scuffing, so that may have been a distraction. What’s nice is that Peter ends it with laughter, helping to relieve any pressure in the studio.
- Take 6: Peter says, “Hang on to my tit,” which could mean that whatever caused the distraction in Take 5 might have been attached (no, his voice doesn’t convey the pain of nipple clamps) or in a shirt pocket. Before he begins this take he asks for more fractional improvement from the band; in response to a request from a band member (sounds like Fleetwood), he agrees to play the intro a bit slower. On this take, Peter has more command of his voice; his voice-cracking sounds more intentional as opposed to a problem with the pipes. For reasons unknown, he cuts things off mid-take.
- Final Version: The clarity of instrumental separation clearly shows the effect of mastering; McVie’s bass is more prominent and Peter’s tone is . . . well, it’s frigging beautiful, with just the right amount of reverb to thicken his vibrato. He absolutely nails the vocal, burnishing his credentials as one of the most underrated blues singers of all-time. I also like the way the song fades on his wordless vocalizations (ooh-ooh’s), giving the listener the feeling that the pain of losing his baby is going to stay with him for a long time.
This is the second in a series of three Peter Green D minor blues numbers; the third is the much more famous “Black Magic Woman.” I chose not to include the Fleetwood Mac version largely because I think Santana’s version realizes the song’s full potential by expanding on the song’s innate Latin feel. I’ll explain more when I review Abraxas later this year; for the present, give Peter Green due credit for writing one of the greatest minor blues songs in music history. Mission accomplished.
“Albatross,” English Rose, Fleetwood Mac: Fleetwood Mac’s first #1 hit in the UK provides further proof that though they share a common language (well, sort of), British and American cultural tastes do not sync as often as PBS viewers would have you believe. The song didn’t even chart in the U. S. unless you count #4 on The Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100 as “charting.”
The most obvious choice for the source is Santo and Johnny’s 1959 hit “Sleep Walk” from that marvelous era when instrumentals were as likely to chart as vocal performances, with Chuck Berry’s “Deep Feeling” a close second. According to the songwriter, neither answer (if stated in the form of a question) would earn you a cent on Jeopardy. “I heard John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’ cover of Jimmy Rodgers’ The Last Meal – that’s the blues singer, not the country and western one. I thought I would take it and develop it. I called it that because of that reference to the back of a giant albatross mentioned in the Traffic record ‘Hole in My Shoe.’”
What sounds like a steel pedal guitar is actually Green playing his Strat on his lap. Recent addition Danny Kirwan helped Green complete the composition and supplied the harmonic guitar support that Jeremy Spencer was never able to pull off. You can tell that Green is savoring each note in this exceptionally slow (67 bpm), meditative number, and kudos to Fleetwood for using timpani mallets to create the shimmer.
“Stop Messin’ Around,” Mr. Wonderful, Fleetwood Mac: Mr. Wonderful was one of those experiments that didn’t quite pan out. In an attempt to duplicate their live sound, the album was recorded through a P. A. system. Even producer Mike Vernon, who embraced the idea, had to admit its limitations: ” . . . we never actually really captured the live performance in a studio – with the exception of “Stop Messin’ Around” from the Mr. Wonderful album.”
With support from Christine Perfect (later McVie) on the 88’s and the saxophone duo of Steve Gregory and Johnny Almond, Green finds his guitar and vocal grooves right from the get-go. Like Sinatra and Billie Holiday in many of their vocals, Peter’s guitar phrasing defies the fixed rhythm, falling slightly behind on occasion and anticipating the beat on others. Though he only devotes two verses to vocals, he sounds positively joyful as he calls out his baby’s bullshit. And I love his high-end bends on that last go-round—as sexy as sexy gets.
“Last Night,” Blues Jam at Chess, Fleetwood Mac, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Shakey Horton, J. T. Brown, Buddy Guy, Honey Boy Edwards, S. P. Leary: Peter Green was very hard on himself when he didn’t measure up to his own lofty expectations, and in the documentary Man of the World, he waves off his contributions on Blues Jam at Chess (or Fleetwood Mac in Chicago, whatever) as feeling out of his element in the presence of some great black blues musicians. White guilt aside, his discomfort is actually clearer in the rougher vocals than his guitar work. I picked this piece because his vocal is in sync with the song’s essential feeling and his guitar is generally limited to economical support in the form of brief fills and light support for Shakey Horton’s harmonica solo. His solo comes in at around the 3:20 mark, an equally economical performance featuring his scintillating vibrato with just the right amount of notes and not one note more. I imagine a report card somewhere that reads, “Peter plays well with others.”
“Man of the World,” The Best of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac: Part of the motivation in bringing Danny Kirwan into the fold was to give Green a true guitar partner; the other part involved Peter Green’s desire to expand the band’s playing field beyond blues-based rock without losing the essence of the blues. “To my mind,” Green told journalist Ian Middleton, “a blues doesn’t have to be a 12-bar progression. It can cover any musical chord sequence. To me, the blues is an emotional thing. If a song has the right emotion then I accept it as a blues.” Music is largely an emotional experience, and Peter Green was a master at expressing and evoking emotion.
With its baroque-style chords having more in common with the songs on Odessey and Oracle, “Man of the World” bears little resemblance to the music on the first two Fleetwood Mac albums. And though the structure is a long way from 12-bar blues, the song expresses sentiments associated with the blues through a combination of lyrics and Peter Green’s vocal abilities.
By this time, Peter Green was becoming deeply disillusioned about the life of a rock star and its essential disconnection from reality. Over a soft background of electric guitar and bass, in musical phrases marked by frequent appearances of minor chords and variants thereof, he sings gently and self-deprecatingly about his “dream life” in the music business . . . then suddenly raises his voice in anguish to deliver a thoroughly shocking sentiment:
Shall I tell you about my life
They say I’m a man of the world
I’ve flown across every tide
And I’ve seen lots of pretty girls
I guess I’ve got everything I need
I wouldn’t ask for more
And there’s no one I’d rather be
But I just wish that I’d never been born
While some tend to interpret that line (and much of the “The Green Manalishi”) through the lens of Green’s future bout with mental illness, I would remind people that such sentiments are part of the stock in trade when it comes to the blues. What’s shocking is hearing them in what sounds like a perfectly lovely ballad. Green softens the blow by attaching his anguish to the absence of true love, but you can’t help but notice the not-so-hidden message that his desperation is aggravated by a feeling that the life he’s living is something of a fraud:
I could tell you about my life
And keep you amused I’m sure
About all the times I’ve cried
And how I don’t want to be sad anymore
And how I wish I was in love
“Man of the World” may or may not sound the alarm in terms of Peter Green’s mental state, but it is certainly a signal that Peter was searching for a way out of a dilemma. It’s also a terribly beautiful piece of music.
“Oh Well, Pts 1 and 2,” Then Play On (Rhino Records Deluxe Edition), Fleetwood Mac: I will be forever astonished that Peter Green considered Part 1 “just the packaging” to get to Part 2. He felt that Part 1 an irrelevant piece based on a “throwaway riff” and should have been surgically removed from future compilation albums. To my ears, both parts are essential, forming a holistic composition concerning the modern manifestation of yin and yang: the aggressive, competitive, extraverted world of the daily grind where image has more value than substance versus the introverted, reflective world where we recover from the general toxicity to ponder our thoughts and emotions.
To my ears, Part 1 is three minutes and twenty-four seconds of some of the fiercest rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded. The joint guitar crescendo is tremendously exciting, forming a sort of musical question that is answered with a stunning moment of near silence broken only by Mick Fleetwood on cowbell before Peter enters with his stop-time, no-more-bullshit, proto-rap lyrics:
I can’t help about the shape I’m in
I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin
But don’t ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to
The self-deprecation is typical Green; the refusal to continue to play Mr. Nice Guy is the emerging Green, sick and tired of playing the game. In the segment covering “Oh Well” in Man of the World, Peter identifies the guitar as a “Michigan” he bought from some fellow in the North Country (most likely a branded Harmony guitar) and used only on this one song to get a different sound—the rawer, less-embellished sound we’d eventually associate with garage rock. Part 1 ends with a bass pushing the recording limits of the era (Green indicated he played a six-string bass on the piece) fading into the strum of a Spanish guitar that marks the beginning of Part 2.
Mick Fleetwood commented in Man of the World that at this time Peter was beginning to play more of a Brian Wilson role in the band, imagining and creating sound collages combining traditional rock instruments with other sounds and textures. In Part 2 he uses the contrasting timbres of Spanish and electric guitar to build a minor key soundscape contrasting hope and despair, light and dark; later he uses the deep melancholy of a cello (played by himself) in contrast to the wistful yet earthy sound of a wood recorder played by one Sandra Elsdon (a much better textural choice than a metal flute). Employing Jeremy Spencer on piano, he mixes the various elements to form an intermediary crescendo, following the peak with an extended cello-Spanish guitar duet that I’d say was the loveliest musical passage he ever recorded. After another brief moment of silence, the piece turns into sort of a dirge with Fleetwood providing the boom for a few measures before we return to blessed quiet, the recorder now a faint, fading sound in deep background over Peter’s gentle strumming. In a brilliant move, he ends this largely sorrowful segment on a major chord, closing with a bit of hope for our tension-filled world. Of the thousands of what-ifs that haunt the story of Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, “Oh Well” is the one that brings up my deepest feelings of regret: the combination of power and compositional promise of Fleetwood Mac at that moment of time was beyond exceptional.
“The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown),” Then Play On (Rhino Records Deluxe Edition), Fleetwood Mac: Even more so than “Man of the World,” people classify “The Green Manalishi” as a descent into darkness that clearly reveals the onset of mental disease.
That’s one way to look at it. Peter described it as a song about a bad dream he had. Hey, wait a minute! I’ve had bad dreams! I need meds! Gimme my meds! Lots of meds!
I find this kind of Monday morning psychologizing by non-experts both insulting and unfair to Peter Green’s memory. At this point in his life, he had been moved by the catastrophic famine in Biafra and wanted to do something about it. As his thinking about the situation progressed, he looked at his own life and figured out he was making more money than anyone deserved to make, given the existence of millions of people simply trying to survive another day. Naïve idealist that he was, he tried to get his fellow bandmates to give all their money away and invest it in charitable causes, a proposition that didn’t go over too well with the boys.
Peter Green was always very clear that “The Green Manalishi” was about money and the old adage that money is the root of all evil. Yes, he was taking acid at the time, but given the hundreds of musicians who also partook in the psychedelic experience, his usage was hardly unique and not necessarily problematic in relation to this composition. Yes, the song is on the dark side, but right around this time, Black Sabbath was inventing an entire genre of dark sounds that we now refer to as heavy metal and is considered so socially acceptable that you can win a Grammy for conjuring up such harsh sonic imagery. The opening is somewhat reminiscent of Eric Burdon’s “When I Was Young,” and as far as I know, no one suggested that Eric or any of his bandmates should have been committed to a mental institution. What I hear is a compelling, bitter attack on the power of money and its corrosive power; it sounds more immediate and possibly more ominous because Peter really feels it. The soundscape (enhanced enormously by the line “The night is so black, the darkness cooks”) is appropriately creepy, marked by tightly coordinated guitar duets and sharp cuts, with Peter’s eerie falsetto completing the ghoulish painting of a world gone mad due to unrelenting greed.
“Timeless Time,” The End of the Game, Peter Green: Shortly after Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac, he released his first solo album to universal scorn. The End of the Game isn’t really as bad as the critics make it out to be, biased as they were by their insistence that Peter should stick close to the blues-rock formula that made Fleetwood Mac the darlings of the late ’60s.
There are problems with the record, most involving the method of construction: Peter engaged his band of brothers in a series of jams, then cut and spliced what he thought were the best parts. It’s obvious that his perfectionist streak had dimmed somewhat, particularly in relation to Alex Dmochowski’s bass, which frequently overpowers the mix. Still, there are some good musical ideas on the album, especially those that lean towards modern jazz.
I chose “Timeless Time” for this essay because of something I learned watching Man of the World. Peter’s introduction to the guitar came via his brother Lenny, who had purchased a guitar only to find out he was tone-deaf. He gave it to his ten-year-old kid brother Peter and showed him three chords: E, A and B7, the classic blues combination. According to Lenny, “after about six to eight months, Peter was doing really well.”
When I listen to “Timeless Time,” where Peter’s guitar is extraordinarily quiet and limited to a single channel, it calls up images of a kid in a room with the door closed, cradling his guitar, playing wherever his fingers lead him, repeating a few riffs that charmed him, experiencing the wonder of musical expression by playing slowly and feeling every note.
“Twenty-five years ago, Liz Phair came up with an interesting concept for her debut album: She would record a song-by-song reply to the Rolling Stones’ classic 1972 double LP Exile on Main St. Eighteen songs later, she had the cheekily titled Exile in Guyville, a brash, candid and swaggering album that became a key addition to the alternative-rock canon.”
That quote came from a Rolling Stone article plugging the 2018 release of the 25th-anniversary Exile in Guyville box set that followed the 15th-anniversary re-release of Exile in Guyville in 2008, complete with bonus tracks and a DVD depicting the album’s creation. Prior to that release, Exile in Guyville had gone out of print and there were no digital versions available. Quite a fall for an album that Pitchfork rated the 5th best . . . check that . . . list revised four years later . . . 30th best album of the ’90s.
Allow me to put all that information in perspective:
- Like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone is and has always been a shill for the music industry. One should approach their material with caution and due skepticism.
- Exile in Guyville is not exactly a song-by-song reply to Exile on Main St. Liz Phair wrote some of the songs before the concept was born, so there was some after-the-concept jimmying involved. In the article quoted above (titled “Liz Phair Breaks Down ‘Exile in Guyville,’ Track by Track), she only mentions the corresponding Exile on Main St. songs twice. It’s more accurate to say that Exile on Main St. served as a project plan template that helped Liz focus her songwriting efforts and organize previously-written material; it also served as an occasional guide to production. Feel free to waste your time trying to connect this song to that one, but methinks the alleged connections are more distraction than elucidation. The only people who could have possibly given a shit about a “reply” to a 21-year old album were Baby Boomers who believe that all double albums released during their salad years automatically qualify as classics.
- What is truly relevant about the creation of Exile in Guyville is what Liz wrote in the introduction to her autobiographical collection of essays, Horror Stories:
It’s hard to tell the truth about ourselves. It opens us up to being judged and rejected. We’re afraid we will be defined by our worst decisions instead of our best. Our impulse is always to hide the evidence, blame someone else, put the things we feel guilty about or that were traumatizing behind us and act like everything is fine. But that robs us of the opportunity to really know and care about one another. It closes a door that could lead to someone else’s heart. Our flaws and our failures make us relatable, not unlovable.
I learned this when I released my debut album, Exile in Guyville, back in 1993. I wrote those songs during one of the hardest periods of my life. I had no money, and I was lonely, confused about the future and angry about the past. The lyrics reflected my reality in an unflinching, unapologetic, and sometimes explicit way that people deeply connected with. 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. They heard themselves in the music, not me.
Phair, Liz (2106-02-06T22:28:15). Horror Stories (Kindle Locations 106-107). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
It’s a pretty solid bet that most of those fans were young women. The songs on Exile in Guyville view life in the patriarchy through the eyes of a heterosexual young woman with a subversive streak who, in addition to experiencing the endless communication problems that afflict many intimate relationships, happens to find herself mixed up in the male-dominated indie scene in early ’90s Chicago (referred to as “Guyville” in a song by Urge Overkill), and by extension, the male-dominated music industry. Because all industries are male-dominated**, from tech to fashion to construction to porn, the experiences described and feelings expressed in Exile in Guyville are pretty much universal. You don’t have to be a rock star, a backup singer or even a groupie to understand where Liz Phair is coming from.
And you certainly don’t have to be a woman to appreciate the album. My sense is women appreciate the album because it’s validating: there isn’t much that Liz has to say that we all haven’t thought before (though she says it a lot better). The simple act of a woman giving voice to those thoughts in a public forum encouraged women to have more confidence in their perceptions of reality and talk openly about those perceptions. The album works for men because it’s an opportunity for enlightenment. This isn’t the stuff that a woman says to be nice in order to avoid placing a dent in your oversized ego—this is what a woman really thinks and feels while you’ve got your head up your ass thinking about what a helluva stud you are.
Gender and iconic rock stars aside, Exile in Guyville is an enjoyable album on many levels. First and foremost, Liz Phair was seriously on her songwriting game when she developed this material; the language is fresh and full of clever twists. Despite (or because of) the pain she was experiencing, there is a healthy amount of black humor in the lyrics to help lighten the mood. Liz’s guitar style is more strummer than picker; she sounds like a rocker who did a lot of acoustic solo gigs at small bars and coffee shops and tried to compensate for the absence of a full band by emphasizing rhythm and bottom-string bass. When that style is transferred to a full band environment, it creates some interesting contrasts and textures that give the music a down-to-earth quality. While her voice has limited range and relatively little belt-out power, she overcomes those limitations with wry deadpan and conversational phrasing. The production is excellent, largely because Liz and Brad Wood (who played several instruments on the album) were on the same page.
I will now break down each track on Exile in Guyville while restricting my references to The Rolling Stones and their shitty album to the bare minimum.
“6’1″”: The album opens with a snappy little rocker featuring assertive strumming from Liz and a marvelous bass counterpoint from Brad Wood. Liz delivers the song in a flat voice that wanders on and off-key, giving this tale of schadenfreude an appropriately sour tone. The story features Liz bumping into one of her exes on her way to work, a guy quite reminiscent of Jarvis Cocker in “Bar Italia” navigating his way through the effects of another all-nighter. Liz is not particularly happy to see him but does take a certain pleasure in his continuing decline:
I bet you fall in bed too easily
With the beautiful girls who are shyly brave
And you sell yourself as a man to save
But all the money in the world is not enough . . .
And I kept standing six-feet-one
Instead of five-feet-two
And I loved my life
And I hated you
I always laugh when I hear Liz deadpan, “And I hated you,” reveling in the guilty pleasure of cutting an asshole down to size.
“Help Me Mary”: This is the track with the most obvious connection to Exile on Main St, so let me clarify my stance on that album.
I loathe Exile on Main St. I think it was one of the worst things The Stones ever did. They recorded it at a mansion about fifteen minutes away from my current abode and I’m afraid to drive by the place out of fear I might catch whatever The Stones had when they made that pile of crap.
Exile on Main St. is a guys album. “The lyrics are pretty much rock cliché with occasional roads that lead nowhere and a few naughty words thrown in to titillate the mindless. ‘Moronic Party Album’ pretty much sums up Exile on Main St,” I wrote in my review. It’s the sound of supposedly mature men reverting back to adolescence under the influence of heroin (and whatever else was available) and recording their drug-fueled debauchery in the mansion’s basement. Listening to that album reminds me of all the creepy teenage guys who tried to force themselves on me at various parents-are-away parties: slurry, sloppy, slobby, stupid pricks who deserved the blue balls I gave them with my patented knee-to-nuts move.
“Help Me Mary” is the reply to “Rip This Joint,” a song that Liz described as “all about sort of the attitude of these rock guys that would just kind of roll into town, create trouble, sleep with other people’s girlfriends and leave a big mess behind.” Bingo! “Rip This Joint” is a paean to male musician entitlement, a celebration of the inalienable right of rock stars to trash hotel rooms, fuck ’em and leave ’em.
True story: I have a friend who used to work at one of the more exclusive hotels in Seattle. About ten or so years ago, this posh establishment had the pleasure of hosting a world-famous rock star in town on a one-night tour stop. This is a guy whose net worth exceeds what you or I will earn in a dozen lifetimes. During his thankfully brief stay, he not only inflicted serious damage to his suite but stole one of the paintings from the room! This is a guy who probably carries a monogrammed, diamond-studded paddle to the auctions at Christie’s! Why on earth would he steal an obvious reproduction? Because he could.
The experience Liz describes only involves male musicians from the Chicago indie scene, but give a guy a guitar and a loyal following of twenty or more and he thinks he’s Mick Fucking Jagger:
Help me, Mary, please
I’ve lost my home to thieves
They bully the stereo and drink
They leave suspicious stains in the sink
They make rude remarks about me
They wonder just how wild I would be
As they egg me on and keep me mad
They play me like a pit bull in a basement, and for that
I lock my door at night
I keep my mouth shut tight
I practice all my moves
I memorize their stupid rules
I make myself their friend
I’ll show them just how far I can bend
When faced with toxic, drunken masculinity, Liz adopts an attitude of “safety first,” a wise but ultimately frustrating decision. When she sings the second go-round of that exceptionally vivid line, “They play me like a pit bull in a basement,” you hear the depth of that frustration in the way she spits out the word “basement.” Liz closes the song making two requests of Mother Mary. One is the old turn-the-other-cheek stand-by (“Temper my hatred with peace”); the second is sweet revenge (“Weave my disgust into fame/And watch how fast they run to the flame”). As things turned out, the success of Exile in Guyville earned a hostile response from indie purists, so I guess the virgin wasn’t of much help either way.
Compared to The Stones’ boisterous, slipshod performance on “Rip This Joint,” I’ll take the assertive drive of “Help Me Mary” anytime. Liz is seriously hot on dual rhythm guitar, propelling the song forward with clean, syncopated chords that meld strong attack with delightfully bright overtones. I also love her vocal overlays over the “egg me on” line (and wish there had been more of them).
“Glory”: Liz isn’t quite done with her analysis of the behavior of egomaniacal rockers. In “Glory” she describes a local player whose schtick involves a combination of cold intimidation and evocative displays of a very large tongue. The guy may have absconded the tongue idea from The Stones or Gene Simmons; then again, he might just be advertising his prowess in the art of cunnilingus—Liz doesn’t really say. What’s most interesting here is the music, featuring Liz on acoustic guitar and a low-tone organ remarkably free of reediness. This time she adds vocal overlays formed by echoing “you are” to punctuate the line “You are shining some glory,” a tongue-in-cheek line par excellence. After two solid rockers, it’s nice to hear well-executed haunting acoustic music.
“Dance of the Seven Veils”: Regarding this song, Liz told Rolling Stone, “He (Johnny) was the roommate who was basically – and rightfully so – convinced that I had bitten off more than I could chew and this was going to be a disaster.” Taking her word for it, the song is a rather gruesome revenge fantasy where Johnny’s going to buy it via either a) a gangland-style hit or b.) decapitation and his head on a platter a la Salome. Other than the memorable line, “I ask because I’m a real cunt in the spring,” the song doesn’t work for me.
“Never Said”: I can understand why “Never Said” turned out to be the album’s hit, given its formulaic adherence to repeating the hook ad infinitum, but I consider it one of the least interesting songs on the album. “[This was] just kind of like about the music scene and how catty it was. People were always getting upset about something that someone had said about their band or whatever the latest gossip was,” said Liz to Rolling Stone. I suppose the experience is transferable to other catty environments (like high school), but I never played those games and have a hard time relating to the lyrics. There isn’t anything wrong with the performances; the song just doesn’t grab me. I’m embedding the video because I like Liz’s smile and the way she wields a guitar.
“Soap Star Joe”: Things get much more interesting the second you hear Liz flying on heavily reverbed guitar and even more interesting when John Casey enters the fray with a wickedly hot harmonica. The subject matter here is dating older guys, a subject in which I have a great deal of experience. It’s a weird dynamic—most of the older men I dated were basically nice guys but so pathetically insecure:
He’s just a hero
In a long line of heroes
Looking for something attractive to save
They say he rode in
On the back of a pickup
And he won’t leave town
‘Til you remember his name
She later describes Soap Star Joe as “looking for some lonely billboard to grace,” a brilliant line that tells me Liz probably dated some agents, either in real estate or insurance. Deep inside they know they’re just one of a million other agents and try to compensate by working hard to “be someone.” They want to be heroes because America values heroes. Lacking access to Erymanthian Boars, Lernean Hydras or any of the other labors of Hercules, they turn their midlife crisis into a heroic quest in search of young babes to make them appear “heroic” (kind of like the Vikings did by plundering all the good-looking blondes and taking them home instead of engaging in garden-variety raping and pillaging). Joe’s “heroism” involves finding “something attractive to save” because all women need saving and it’s nice to save your most cherished possessions so you can show them to the boys and tell them to go mix some drinks.
In a stirring rebuke to the concept of American exceptionalism, Liz ends the song by holding up the mirror, and the image we see is not the sculpted, ripped, loaded-with steroids-body depicted in those dreadful action films or the suave ladies man reading his lines off cue cards in the afternoon soaps:
Check out the thinning hair
Check out the aftershave
Check out America
You’re looking at it babe
The thing is, you can never get through to these guys because peeling back the layers would hurt too much. I think Liz realized that, capturing the pathos of it all instead of just poking fun.
“Explain It to Me”: “I love the songwriting. I think of that as a perfect little jewel song,” quoth the artist about “Explain It to Me.” Well, I’ve cautioned readers about taking the word of the songwriter when it comes to song meaning or quality, but in this case, I have to agree with Liz. It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon kind of song, one that sounds like she created it while messing around at the upper reaches of the fretboard and stumbled onto something magical. You can hold that magic in your very own hands by checking out the tablature on Ultimate Guitar (note the 1st fret capo instruction that enables you to play in Bb major). Even without the special effects and the looming bass, you’ll find the pattern perfectly delightful.
Liz claims that the song is about a fallen rock star, but while there’s enough evidence in the song to support that view, I think “Explain It to Me” is best appreciated as a lesson in the success-failure dynamic that governs every profession in humankind: musicians, athletes, professors, playwrights, the works. All success comes with the pressure to keep going, do better the next time, show them that you’ve still got it and let them know that it’s too early to classify you as a has-been:
Tell him to jump higher
Tell him to run farther
Make him measure up
Ten times longer than you ever should
Sigh. Human beings have a hard time grasping the concept of “enough is enough.”
“Canary”: We’re almost at the halfway point in the album and haven’t once mentioned that naughty word, “feminism.” Way back in 1994, Liz Phair told Jon Pareles of the New York Times (half-seriously) that “she worries about becoming ‘the next feminist spokesmodel.'” Twenty-four years later, Jessica Bennett of the Times asked her about that statement:
Bennett: When “Guyville” first came out, you told The Times that you didn’t want to become “the next feminist spokesmodel.” Did you?
Phair: I’m sort of a feminist spokesmodel for, I guess, putting your voice out there, believing you have something to say and maybe sex-positivity or something. I have been placed there because there was a sense that I was the girl next door who just picked up a guitar and went onstage and said what everyone was thinking. And it felt empowering to me and it felt empowering to the people that heard it, especially the women. So, the accidental feminist spokesperson. I do get uncomfortable with the label because I feel like there are people that could be far more eloquent about it, historically so.
Liz Phair was not Bikini Kill trying to spark a revolution, and I think it would have been a mistake for her to consciously push a feminist agenda on Exile in Guyville. What worked for Kathleen Hanna wouldn’t have worked for Liz Phair. Her strength as a songwriter is the ability to make the personal universal.
That talent is beautifully displayed on “Canary,” a piano song that Liz said was “about the loss of innocence and facing the pressures of being a young woman in the world and what men want from you while you’re still kind of on the cusp of your childhood.” She presents the song in the form of the internal dialogue that runs through her head, delivering the lyrics in a voice that sounds like she’s sleepwalking. The tension in the song comes primarily from the piano, particularly towards the end of the song when her keyboard strokes become louder and more insistent—and it’s there that she verbally expresses the pressure that accompanies repression:
I clean the house
I put all your books in an order
I make up a colorful border
I clean my mouth
‘Cause froth comes out
That froth is never very far from the surface if you’re a woman in Guyville.
“Mesmerizing”: I don’t know of any other songs that have used the egg toss as a metaphor for boy-girl relationships, but it works on many levels: trust, connection, staying connected during periods of physical separation, the anxiety attached to growing distance. The song has a laid-back feel accentuated by background conversation, playful guitar interaction and the sound of a growling dog in the fade. Nothing monumental here, just a pleasant diversion from the heavier stuff.
“Fuck and Run”: Liz and the band get right down to business in “Fuck and Run,” with guitar-drums-bass quickly and tightly establishing the beat for two short measures before Liz jumps in with her modern tale of woe. While I celebrate the freedom presented to women by The Pill (and I’ve been celebrating it most every day for about twenty-five years), the manufacturers failed to include any instructions on how to communicate effectively when engaging in sexual relations with serial partners. I hate to repeat my personal “mama done told me” advice, but maman was very explicit about the importance of communicating my needs and expectations before the act and insisting that my potential partner do the same. “Look. I think it might be nice to fuck you but I’m only interested in one fuck at the moment and I can’t promise anything beyond that. I’m not interested in going steady or planning a wedding. I like doggy-style, me on top and missionary; I love sucking dicks and you’re more than welcome to taste my pussy. How do you feel about that?” I have to admit that most of the responses fell into the category of “um, er, well, I, uh,” but eventually we’d come to an understanding and proceed with the naughtiness. It wasn’t foolproof, largely because so many people are out of touch with their feelings, especially feelings about sex.
In “Fuck and Run,” Liz finds herself exhausted by the expectation that all roads lead to sex, the superficiality of casual fucking and all the bullshit that comes with it:
You got up out of bed
You said you had a lot of work to do
But I heard the rest in your head
And almost immediately I felt sorry
‘Cause I didn’t think this would happen again
No matter what I could do or say
Just that I didn’t think this would happen again
With or without my best intentions
“But I heard the rest in your head” is not simply “women’s intuition.” Combined with the following line, “And almost immediately I felt sorry,” it’s an admission that she was locked in the same cycle of dishonest communication. She also realizes that physical connection doesn’t always scratch the loneliness itch (“I can feel it in my bones/I’m gonna spend another year/my whole life alone.”) Man, this shit is getting old:
It’s fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen
Fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was twelve
Twelve is a pretty early age to start (I waited until I was fourteen), and there’s no way an experience at that age can be anything but fuck-and-run because you just heard dad’s car coming up the driveway and you need to shove the guy into the nearest closet. Liz finally figures out what she wants—a relationship, tender moments, hanging out, playing Scrabble—a real honest-to-goodness boyfriend!
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who tries to win you over?
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it?
And I want a boyfriend
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas
Letters and sodas
“Fuck and Run” vanishes as quickly as it appeared, a suitable ending for a no-nonsense rocker with a message of crystalline clarity.
“Girls! Girls! Girls!”: After telling you that Liz is more of a strummer than a picker, she launches into a song featuring her energetic picking on those fat bottom strings. The sound of frantic low-note plucking creates a sort of eeriness suitable for an exposé of the dark side of the feminine character. “You can manipulate the system to your advantage, as well, which as women, we do both,” Liz explained, and she’s 100% right. When direct paths are closed to you and you want or need something really badly, you can either quietly wimp out and send a donation to NOW or you can undo the button right above your cleavage and get the fucking job. As much as I’d love to convince myself that I got a Director’s job because of my intelligence, superior skill and bilingualism, I know that the guys who made the decision saw me as eye candy and a possible squeeze on a business trip. You may think that the men were evil farts who view women as nothing more than pieces of ass, but I shared in the evil by manipulating the vulnerability emanating from their hungry penises.
Because I take full advantage
Of every man I meet
I get away almost every day
With what the girls call
What the girls call
What the girls call,
The girls call murder
Yes, we do feel guilty about our manipulative ways, but if the men in power weren’t so frigging obtuse, we wouldn’t have to play these stupid games.
“Divorce Song”: This is one of the songs Liz wrote pre-concept, a slice-of-life tale about a couple on the cusp between friends and friends-with-benefits bickering on a road trip. The cause of the bickering is pretty obvious: both parties engage in indirect, incomplete, contaminated communication and neither considers how their words may land on the other. Although hardly an original storyline, Liz lays it out in a way that heightens the tension in the car, a milieu where neither party can engage in face-to-face communication. Picture both of them with their eyes fixed on the road ahead, seething with hurt and anger, taking potshots at each other without having to make eye contact. The key line in the story is “But if I’d/you’d known how that would sound to you/me,” marking the essential problem and the missed opportunity. The song ends without resolution, the micro-aggressions unaddressed, remaining true-to-life right through to the end. Following the lead from the thematic influence, Brad Wood mimicked a classic Charlie Watts rhythmic arrangement that provided the steady beat in support of Liz’s offbeat syncopations.
“Shatter”: At this point in the album, we encounter a series of experimental works that deviate from standard pop/folk/rock song format and give Liz the opportunity to stretch her wings and (hopefully) keep the listener engaged. “Shatter” opens with an extended meditation where Brad Wood melds Liz’s guitar with controlled feedback, creating an almost orchestral feel in the process. In this case, the lyrics aren’t half as interesting as the music, and my gut tells me it would have been better to just let Liz meditate on guitar and leave it at that. “Shatter” is one of the more successful experiments.
“Flower”: And then there are experiments that should have never made it out of the lab. As longtime readers of this blog know, I have no problem with sexually explicit language. When Liz delivers lines like “I want to fuck you like a dog,” “I want to be your blow job queen,” and “I want your fresh young jimmy/Jamming, slamming, ramming in me,” and “I’ll fuck you ’til your dick turns blue,” I’m thrilled by the display of female aggressiveness.
But those lyrics should have been attached to a searingly hot rock arrangement, one that demands that you grind your hips and shake the fuck out of your fanny . . . you know, LIKE MANY A ROLLING STONES SONG. Instead, we get a weirdly robotic arrangement reminiscent of the limp soundtrack attached to early video games before the technology matured to allow orchestral arrangements. When I listen to “Flower” today, I don’t think of hot, heavy, sweaty sex, but those newfangled sex robots that are now a “hot” item thanks to Covid-19. Yuck.
“Johnny Sunshine”: Now, if Liz and Brad had taken the pounding rhythm of the first half of “Johnny Sunshine” and applied it to the lyrics for “Flower,” they might have had something. Alas, that terribly exciting tempo is wasted on an exaggerated tale about a guy leaving a broad after stealing her car and her horse, then killing her cat by burning it in antifreeze. Later, the song suddenly shifts to a sort of round, à la “Frère Jacques,” a move that makes no sense, either narratively or musically. Strong pass on this one.
“Gunshy”: And I’ll have to pass on “Gunshy” as well. The detuned guitar sound is interesting, but the story is a bit thin and the tempo/musical shift in the chorus is both awkward and disruptive.
“Stratford-On-Guy”: This reminds me of the comment Thom Yorke made after seeing Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet: “I couldn’t understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away.” I’ve always found it puzzling when people choose to remain in no-win situations or stay in places that suck WHEN THEY CAN JUST GET UP AND LEAVE. A change in perspective can work wonders and help you realize you’re not the center of the universe.
“Stratford-On Guy” (the title is a pun calling out the pretentiousness of the Guyville scene) finds Liz flying the friendly skies high above Guyville, realizing how small and insignificant it is from that vantage point. What I love about the song is the poetry—having done more than my fair share of air travel in this lifetime, I’ve rarely read any description of the passenger experience as accurate as the one Liz draws for us:
I was flying into Chicago at night
Watching the lake turn the sky into blue-green smoke
The sun was setting to the left of the plane
And the cabin was filled with an unearthly glow
In 27-D, I was behind the wing
Watching landscape roll out like credits on a screen
The earth looked like it was lit from within
Like a poorly assembled electrical ball
As we moved out of the farmlands into the grid
The plan of a city was all that you saw
And all of these people sitting totally still
As the ground raced beneath them, thirty-thousand feet down
I also like how she points out that decompression from the stressful situation you’re escaping (work, Guyville, lousy relationship) and the emergence of a new perspective take time to manifest: “It took an hour, maybe a day/But once I really listened the noise just fell away.” Too bad it’s unlikely that we’re ever going to view air travel as a healing experience in our immediate future . . . we could all use some perspective right now.
“Strange Loop”: We close with the bright guitar (Liz attributes the sound to an old Peavey amp) of “Strange Loop,” a song that about relational reconciliation—not the superficial kiss-and-make-up bullshit but the mutual acceptance of the truth that while strong personalities can ignite conflict by simply being in the same room at the same time, the real conflict is the inability to accept the other person for who they are instead of wishing they were someone else:
The fire you like so much in me
Is the mark of someone adamantly free
But you can’t stop yourself from wanting worse
‘Cause nothing feeds a hunger like a thirst
The narrator backs off from the blame game because fighting is both exhausting and fruitless, admitting her own contribution to the difficulties: “I always wanted you/I only wanted more than I knew.” Interestingly, the song ends with an extended jam that sounds more like falling apart than coming together, but guess what? Relationships require constant care and feeding, and they’re going to get noisy and sloppy because human beings are noisy and sloppy.
Exile in Guyville was the victim of Shiny New Thing Syndrome, a debilitating condition that also distorted the reaction to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill (as we’ll see in our next episode). This happens when a budding artist releases something that appears to be groundbreaking and music critics desperate to maintain their relevance exaggerate its virtues and ignore its flaws in case it turns out to be The Next Big Thing. When the artist fails to meet inflated expectations on the next release, critics attempt to rewrite history (like Pitchfork with their ever-changing best-of lists) and reappraise the work that got them so excited. It should have been pretty obvious from the experimental stuff that Liz Phair was going to expand her horizons; unfortunately, her audience wanted Exile in Guyville: The Sequel.
My take is this: Exile in Guyville is clearly a superior debut album that broke new ground by presenting a woman’s perspective on life in the patriarchy using language that defied cultural expectations of how women should behave, think and feel. Liz Phair said the unsayable and shared her thoughts about the unthinkable, influencing listeners and other women artists to do the same. The music is generally solid, marked most of all by Liz Phair’s unique approach to guitar and rhythm and her ability to tell great, true-to-life stories.
I’ll close with another excerpt from her interview with Jessica Bennett, who gave Liz the opportunity to comment on current events involving women:
Bennett: In almost every interview I do now it feels like we reach the point where I have to ask about #MeToo. There’s almost no instance where the person, if female, hasn’t faced some type of harassment or mistreatment. What has been your experience?
Phair: Well, of course not. Everybody went through it. Every single woman went through it. It’s the way our entire society is structured. Everything is structured around men. We still don’t pay the first lady! That blows my mind.
Bennett: What do you make of this moment?
Phair: I’ll tell you where I’m at with it. I’m at the point where I don’t feel like I have to do anything differently. I think it’s all on men now. Like, they’re just going to have to deal with it. They’re going to have to do their therapy, do their thinking, do whatever they need to do — cry together, whatever the fuck it takes. I just don’t feel that I need to help. And I’m not in any way antagonistic toward men, that’s the weird part. This is old, old news for me. And it just is a matter of, this isn’t ours to explain to you anymore. It’s common sense. Like, let them deal with it. They’re the ones with the problem.
It’s old news for me, too, Liz . . . it’s old news for all of us.
p. s.: I hear Liz is opening for Alanis Morissette on her 25th Anniversary of Jagged Little Pill tour, an arrangement I find deeply . . . ironic.
**Note: Some may object to the statement, “all industries are male-dominated.” If you google “female-dominated industries,” you’ll find a whole lot of jibber-jabber about “female-dominated professions” like nursing, teaching, retail and HR as if greater numbers amount to “industry domination.” People in those jobs don’t dominate anything beyond their own bailiwicks. More importantly, the system in which they work was set up by men based on masculine values. Not even the limited number of female CEOs can change that reality.