The long, strange jour­ney of the ‘Girly-sound’ cas­settes—the leg­endary 1991 record­ings that led to Liz Phair’s Gen X clas­sic Ex­ile in Guyville

Newsweek - - News - BY ZACH SCHONFELD @zzzza­aaac­c­c­chhh

Liz Phair’s Girlysound Tapes

tae won yu re­ceived a cas­sette tape in the mail. It was 1991, when bootlegs flowed freely through the postal ser­vice, like pollen in spring­time. Vanilla Ice had the top-sell­ing al­bum in Amer­ica, and Nir­vana was months away from break­ing through to the main­stream, but the un­der­ground scene was vi­brant. Yu, then the gui­tarist for a rock duo called Kicking Gi­ant, fre­quently re­ceived home­made tapes from mu­si­cians he knew in the in­die fanzine world: Brat­mo­bile. Bikini Kill. Daniel John­ston.

This par­tic­u­lar cas­sette was spe­cial. The songs— brac­ing and raw—had been recorded at home by Yu’s friend, an un­known 23-year-old song­writer named Liz Phair. “It was as­tound­ing and fully formed—both the sound and the ease of her lyri­cal dex­ter­ity,” says Yu. “I felt very lucky and also jeal­ous of my friend.”

For over 25 years, the tapes—recorded un­der the name Girly-sound—have cir­cu­lated among fans, first in ana­log form and then as dig­i­tal files, amass­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as the holy grail of al­ter­na­tive-era bootlegs. Now, af­ter decades of semi-le­git­i­mate cir­cu­la­tion and word-of-mouth mythol­ogy, the com­plete tapes are be­ing com­mer­cially re­leased for the first time, com­piled in Girly-sound to Guyville, a boxed set hon­or­ing the 25th an­niver­sary of Phair’s 1993 de­but and mas­ter­piece, Ex­ile in Guyville.

This is the story of how those home­spun cas­settes landed Phair a record deal (with some serendip­i­tous as­sis­tance from Yu). It’s also the story of how tal­ent could be spot­ted in ways both prim­i­tive and miraculous, long be­fore the ad­vent of Spo­tify playlists.


It all be­gan at Ober­lin Col­lege, where Phair stud­ied visual art dur­ing the late 1980s. “Every­one had a band,” she re­called in a 1994 pro­file. (Phair was not avail­able to be in­ter­viewed for this piece.) “There was a lot of rock ’n’ roll spirit, but it was an in­tense place.” It was here that she met a young mu­si­cian named Chris Brokaw, later of the bands Come and Codeine. “She was dat­ing some­one I knew,” Brokaw says now. “She was just my friend’s girl­friend.”

In 1989, dur­ing her ju­nior year, she spent some time in New York in­tern­ing for the artist and ac­tivist Nancy Spero. Two cru­cial things hap­pened: Phair wrote a ton of songs, and she be­friended Yu. “She was like a sis­ter or a best friend al­most im­me­di­ately,” he says. “I felt like I’d known her all my life.” They both lived in the East Vil­lage and shared an in­ter­est in mu­sic, though she re­mained se­cre­tive about her song­writ­ing.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Ober­lin, Phair de­camped to San Fran­cisco, and Brokaw hap­pened to be friends with her room­mate. When he spent a week crash­ing at their loft in late 1990, the two be­came closer. Phair had a gui­tar in her room, and he asked her to play him one of her songs. Brokaw was im­pressed: “I was like, ‘Man! Play me an­other one.’” She ended up play­ing a few, and he re­mem­bers each as shock­ingly good. Brokaw asked her to make him a tape, and a month later, af­ter mov­ing back into her par­ents’ sub­ur­ban Chicago home, she did.

The first Girly-sound cas­sette, recorded in her child­hood bed­room in late 1990 or early 1991, was cheek­ily ti­tled Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word to Ya Muthuh. It had 14 songs, and so did a se­cond tape, Girls! Girls! Girls!, recorded a month later. The tracks had an in­vig­o­rat­ing sense of emo­tional and sonic in­ti­macy, with vo­cals—dou­ble-tracked over a barely am­pli­fied gui­tar—that were low, wob­bly and un­trained. At times, Phair sang qui­etly, like a teenager who doesn’t want her par­ents to hear her from the next room.

Yet there was noth­ing timid about the lyrics, which con­fronted sex, re­jec­tion and de­sire with star­tling frank­ness. By 1993, Phair had an au­di­ence en­rap­tured by her abil­ity to speak plainly to the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and in­dig­ni­ties of be­ing a young, un­ful­filled woman. (The beloved ex­am­ple is “Fuck and Run,” whose fed-up nar­ra­tor swears off ca­sual sex and de­clares: “I want a boyfriend/i want all that stupid old shit, like let­ters and so­das.”) But in early 1991, Phair had no “au­di­ence”; she had friends.

She mailed copies of the first tape, then the se­cond, to Brokaw and Yu, fol­lowed by a third, Sooty, fea­tur­ing an early ver­sion of the glo­ri­ously pro­fane

“Flower,” in which Phair in­verts the male gaze and fan­ta­sizes about hav­ing her way with a shy male crush.

“The lyrics had an ur­gency and a di­rect­ness that you find in lit­er­a­ture and films, but it was rare to find it in rock mu­sic,” says Brokaw. “It was cer­tainly rare to hear it in a fe­male voice.”

The tapes re­vealed Phair’s blunt sen­si­bil­ity—and her hu­mor: She ex­per­i­ments with goofy voices on “Elvis Song” and car­toon­ish ac­cents on the spo­ken-word gem “Cal­i­for­nia.”

Brokaw made copies for his then-man­ager and his sis­ter. Yu went fur­ther: He made dozens of copies—“i dare­say over a hun­dred,” he estimates. “He thought she was a ge­nius,” says Brokaw, “and I don’t know what pos­sessed him, but he sent those tapes ev­ery­where.”

There was no aim to profit. It’s im­por­tant, Yu says, to un­der­stand the anti-cor­po­rate cas­sette-shar­ing ethos that flour­ished back then. “A very en­gaged com­mu­nity of peo­ple com­mu­ni­cated through mix­tapes and tapes,” he says. “We were rejecting the idea of wait­ing for a la­bel or cor­po­rate back­ing to be ‘le­git­i­mate.’ ‘Have you heard this amaz­ing thing?’ was the sub­text be­hind much of our cor­re­spon­dence.”

Yu was in reg­u­lar cor­re­spon­dence with un­der­ground artists and DIY punks around the coun­try. They ex­changed post­cards, tapes, zines— the non­cor­po­rate mu­sic press that flour­ished be­fore blogs—and he in­tro­duced all of them to Phair’s mu­sic. “I sent it be­yond my cir­cle of friends, to Calvin John­son [of the band Beat Hap­pen­ing and founder of K Records] and Mark Robin­son [founder of Teen­beat Records].”

An­other re­cip­i­ent: Yu’s pen pal, Al­li­son Wolfe, the lead singer of Brat­mo­bile, part of the pioneer­ing fem­i­nist punk move­ment riot gr­rrl. When she heard Girly-sound, she was en­thralled. “Her lyrics were so ex­plicit,” says Wolfe. “She was singing about al­ter­na­tive guys and say­ing how they’re the same old sex­ist jerks as any­where else.”

Wolfe brought the cas­settes to the West Coast when she went to Ev­er­green State Col­lege and put the song “Open Sea­son” on mix­tapes. Her punk friends were unim­pressed. But one day, as she was buy­ing food at a col­lec­tively run café, a stu­dent worker ap­proached her. “I heard you have these Liz Phair tapes,” she said. “Can I please dub them?”

That stu­dent was Mi­rah Yom Tov Zeit­lyn, an 18-year-old mu­si­cian who would achieve in­die fame un­der the name Mi­rah. “I loved every song and every sound,” Mi­rah re­calls in an email. “That tape is what made me de­ter­mined to train my lit­tle hands to play barre chords, and it im­pacted my song­writ­ing too.”

Phair’s tapes zigged and zagged through the un­der­ground, be­com­ing pop­u­lar in the zine uni­verse. At some point, Yu wrote an ef­fu­sive re­view of Girly-sound for the fanzine Chem­i­cal Im­bal­ance. (The re­view in­cluded Phair’s ad­dress and im­plored read­ers to “send her some cash for a tape.”) “I re­ally wanted the world to know about this bril­liant tal­ent,” he says.

By Phair’s own ac­count, this was an aim­less pe­riod for her. She had stage fright, rarely, if ever, per­form­ing live. “I was liv­ing this com­pletely post-col­lege, flat-broke, only-cared-about-go­ing-out-at-night ex­is­tence,” she said in a 2013 Spin in­ter­view.

Through a friend, she met Brad Wood, who would be­come a trusted col­lab­o­ra­tor and pro­duce her even­tual al­bum. Wood told Phair, “You need a la­bel.” On a whim, she di­aled up Mata­dor Records in New York. Her tim­ing was miraculous: “I get a lot of silly, au­da­cious calls,” Mata­dor co-owner Ger­ard Cosloy told The New York Times in 1994. “But the day be­fore, I’d read a re­view of a Girlysound cas­sette in Chem­i­cal Im­bal­ance.” It was, of course, Yu’s re­view. The la­bel was in­trigued.


If you’ve read this far, you know what hap­pens next: Mata­dor signed Phair in 1992. Ex­ile in Guyville (much of it adapted from the Girly-sound tapes) was in­stantly rev­e­la­tory and widely ac­claimed. She got fa­mous. She got

“We were rejecting the idea of wait­ing for a la­bel or cor­po­rate back­ing to be ‘le­git­i­mate.’”

widely im­i­tated and de­bated.

But even as Phair grad­u­ated to pro­fes­sional sta­tus, she kept re­turn­ing to Girly-sound. In 1994, when her se­cond al­bum, Whip-smart, came out, Phair ap­peared on the cover of Rolling Stone. “I go in there and rip stuff off,” she said of the tapes. “It’s like a li­brary.”

Nine Girly-sound songs wound up on Guyville with fuller ar­range­ments and, in some in­stances, new ti­tles; five more ap­peared on Whip-smart, and two more on1998’ s white choco­late space egg. Only in the new mil­len­nium, when Phair tried to re­make her­self as a glossy pop singer on a po­lar­iz­ing, self-ti­tled al­bum in 2003, did she seem to leave the cas­settes fully be­hind.

The 1994 Rolling Stone piece re­ported that Phair would “not re­lease the tapes any­time soon.” Back then, she seemed a lit­tle em­bar­rassed by their un­pol­ished na­ture. But her un­will­ing­ness to of­fi­cially re­lease the record­ings only con­trib­uted to their mys­tique. (“You had to know some­one who had it to get it,” Mi­rah says.) Much as Guyville was se­quenced as a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’ Ex­ile on Main St., the Girlysound tapes could also be slot­ted into a clas­sic-rock tra­di­tion: the sought-af­ter boot­leg. For boomers, it was Bob Dy­lan’s Great White Won­der or the Beach Boys’ aborted SMILE. Gen Xers had Girly-sound.

“If al­bums are the sign­posts of rock his­tory, bootlegs are a por­tal to rock’s shadow his­tory,” Steven Hy­den writes in his new book, Twi­light of the Gods: A Jour­ney to the End of Clas­sic Rock. “The only mu­sic greater than the mu­sic that moves you is the mu­sic you’ve been told over and over would move you if only you could hear it.”

Thank­fully, plenty of peo­ple did hear Phair’s cas­settes. As her pro­file rose, the tapes spread far be­yond Yu’s un­der­ground net­work of col­lec­tors. “You can imag­ine the con­trast be­tween Liz as she ex­isted in the early ’90s, on the cover of Rolling Stone, ver­sus this very quiet voice singing in­cred­i­bly heart­felt songs into a recorder,” Yu says. “The idea of these in­cred­i­bly preg­nant songs ex­ist­ing,

un­known, with­out a la­bel—it was like an unexploded bomb.”

By 2006, the tapes were 15 years old, and boot­leg cul­ture had shifted from Cd-trad­ing to file-shar­ing. Ken Lee, a self-de­scribed Liz Phair ar­chiv­ist who had founded the Phair fan site Mes­mer­iz­ing, man­aged to ob­tain low-gen­er­a­tion dubs of the first two tapes—which he made dig­i­tally avail­able to fans on—but he couldn’t find copies of Sooty. Lee urged fans to aid in the search. “They gotta be out there some­where, do­ing time as squeegees, as drink coast­ers .... So PLEASE (with fuck­ing candy sprin­kles on top) LOOK for them!”

By this point, Phair’s views on re­leas­ing the tapes seem to have evolved, and in 2008 she reis­sued Guyville for its 15th an­niver­sary. In an in­ter­view with Pitch­fork’s Stephen Deusner, she mused about pass­ing out the tapes for free, “just like they were orig­i­nally.” When Lee hand-de­liv­ered the singer CD copies of his dubs, “she was OK with it,” he says now. “She asked if I made any money off of them. I never did, as it was a la­bor of love for me.”

Sub­se­quently, Phair in­cluded 10 Girly-sound songs as a bonus disc with her 2010 al­bum, Fun­style. In re­cent years, they have in­flu­enced an en­tire new gen­er­a­tion of song­writ­ers, some not yet born when they were recorded. “I would say those tapes are why I write mu­sic,” Lindsey Jor­dan, the 18-year-old mu­si­cian who records un­der the name Snail Mail, re­cently told Phair. “They’re so hon­est.”

In 2017, Mata­dor asked Yu to dig out the orig­i­nal tapes, in prepa­ra­tion for re­lease. Yu still has a boom box, and he lis­tened to them for the first time in years. “The fresh­ness still hits me,” he says. “They’re in­cred­i­ble.”

GIRL! GIRL! GIRL! 1992 Po­laroids of Phair record­ing at Id­ful Mu­sic in Chicago. Cen­ter: with Ex­ile in Guyville gui­tarist and en­gi­neer Casey Rice and pro­ducer Brad Wood.

FAT CHANCE Weight watch­ers get mil­i­tant in AMC’S adap­ta­tion of Dietland» P.46

AXE TO GRIND Phair play­ing Lounge Ax in Chicago’s Lin­coln Park in 1993. an early Ex­ile in Guyville show.

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