The Fantastic, Horrific Spectacle of Courtney Love’s Hole 11.9.1994
“Whatever you say about Courtney, you can also say the opposite. She’s a walking Greek tragedy, and a comedy. She’s horrible and great, inspiring and frightening, strong and weak. She’s a role model – and everything you wouldn’t want your child to be.” – Melissa Rossi, author of Courtney Love: Queen of Noise
Sure enough Hole’s show at the Palladium was one of the greatest rock spectacles I ever saw and it was also one of the saddest. It has been a terrible, horrific year for Courtney Love. In April her husband killed himself and in June her bass player died of a heroin overdose. It was also the year all of Courtney Love’s dreams came true. Four days after Kurt Cobain blew his head off with a shotgun, Hole released Live Through This. It was and remains a rock masterpiece. For better or worse, it turned Courtney Love into the superstar she always said she was going to be.
The year had been a battle and at the Hollywood Palladium, Courtney proudly displayed her wounds. She had been through the grinder and she came out triumphant. She may be the consummate drama queen, but her emotions still resonate. She may animate her reality, but there’s a greater truth under the surface of the artifice: and when her blood spills, there’s no mistaking its potency. In 1994, in the wake of a suicide that took the life of her husband, one of his generation’s most poignant voices, Courtney Love had risen to the top of the mountain. Her confessional lyrics bled with an honesty that washed away all of the artifice. Some loved her and some wanted to see her fall into a fiery pit and never hear her name again.
I loved her. But I probably kind of hated her, too. While I don’t blame her for Kurt Cobain’s death, it would have been nice if she could have saved him. (That, of course, is asking too much of anyone). Courtney Love may have been the loaded gun in Kurt’s life, but he pulled the trigger by letting her in.
I loved her because the music of Live Through This justified all of Courtney’s bravado. It wears its heart on its sleeve. It tells uncomfortable truths. It brings the pain to the surface and it makes it go away. Listening to it over and over again provided a sort of catharsis to the death of her husband, but if Kurt Cobain had been alive upon the album’s release, it still would have been a classic.
That night at the Palladium was electric. It was an unsung memorial for Kurt; it was Courtney’s Hollywood coronation. The 1990s had barely just begun and its obituary was already being written. Kurt Cobain was dead and just the day before this show the Republicans took over Congress for the first time since 1954. Bill Clinton had promised change two years before and with his feet barely wet, it looked like we were headed right back to the ugliness of Reagan’s 1980s. Something, though, about this night promised a fresh start. The only question was how much the past would get in the way.
I was probably with my friend Jonathan. If the past was prologue, we lingered on the side, away from the mosh pit. Veruca Salt opened the show, a solid bill, but their power pop hooks couldn’t compete with the anticipation of the headliner. (Incidentally, while Hole is clearly an appropriate name for a band fronted by Courtney Love, Veruca Salt would have been even better. Just like the spoiled brat from Willy Wonka, Love wakes up each morning with no other goal than to be the girl with the most cake.)
I spent much of 1994 hungover from a particularly humbling break-up and I suspect that in addition to my grief over Kurt’s death, it was the emotional landscape of a broken heart that forged my affection for Hole’s music. It has not occurred to me until now, but my ex had a few things in common with Courtney. She was talented, self-destructive, whip-smart and probably bi-polar. She left me for an old-boyfriend. That happens, people are so often lured back to the traps of their past. But the ex she returned to was in jail at the time. And it wasn’t exactly for anything that could be misconstrued as glamorous.
He was essentially a homeless schizophrenic who has been caught sleeping on someone’s Beverly Hills porch. He was convicted of burglary. It was the last in a long line of the kind of brushes with the police that happen when you live on the streets. Naturally, being dumped for a prisoner didn’t exactly do my self-confidence any favors. To be replaced by someone who wasn’t even there was the greatest rejection of all. When Courtney wailed “Someday, you will ache like I ache” I’m sure I embraced that song as a comforting balm, hoping for the vindication that someday my ex would regret her decision to leave me. Someday, I hoped, she would see the errors of her ways and come back on her knees.
At one point Courtney brought her and Kurt’s daughter Frances Bean on the stage. She was two years old. Courtney said something along the lines of not caring if anyone thought she was exploiting her, Frances Bean was the most successful thing she’d ever done in her life. It was a painful, awkward moment, an acknowledgment of all that was lost with Kurt’s death, mixed with the optimism that he had left a part of himself behind – a part that would be alarmingly under the care of Courtney Love. The crowd cheered, but I felt sick. It was a cringe-inducing display. If not already obvious, it was quickly becoming apparent why Kurt Cobain suffered so much from intestinal pains.
After the show, in front of the venue on Sunset Boulevard I was buying a concert shirt and there was a commotion down the street. It turns out it was Courtney Love hot on the trail of a fleeing Mary Lou Lord, who according to Courtney “once gave Kurt a blowjob and has built her career on it.” Mary Lou had made the mistake of showing up to Hole’s after party, a bold move considering that in Courtney’s estimation, “There are five people in the world who if I run into I’ll fucking kill. And she’s definitely one of them.” That’s a lot of power for a rock star to give to a folksinger, but Courtney feeds off grudges like an athlete downs Gatorade.
The glimpse of Courtney running down the road barefoot in her torn slip, attacking a woman who’d had a long-ago dalliance with a her dead husband wasn’t exactly an endearing encore for a show that had at times been life affirming and triumphant. It was just sad. In the depths of her sorrow, Courtney was swinging wildly at ghosts. As much as Love wanted to rise above the angst and grab the golden ring of fame and fortune, she couldn’t get her feet out of the cement of the past.
It is the essential dichotomy that defines her today. Reportedly, Courtney now wants to trade in her kinder-whore dress for Coco Chanel, but without her crazy history, there is no context. While Courtney’s music is often about transforming, it always has its eyes on the rear view. That’s not a criticism so much as an observation of the corner that she has painted herself into. The tension of her dualities is always what kept Courtney Love standing, without them she falls down. Now, it seems, she’s just propped up by the corner itself – a misfit, broken doll from the past with nowhere to go.
Courtney Love hasn’t aged too well over the years. Hole’s Celebrity Skin had a few standout tracks, but was generally forgettable. She was amazing in The People vs. Larry Flynt, but hasn’t come anywhere close to landing such a roll since. The rest of her artistic output revolves around her playing the role of Courtney Love, an icon of sorts. Someday there will be an opera or a Broadway show. Unfortunately, in the meantime, it seems being Courtney Love has become a full time job that she couldn’t walk away from if she tried.
I don’t think about Hole much anymore. And I also don’t think about the woman who broke my heart during that turbulent time. Yes, she eventually came around. She saw the errors of her ways. The relationship with the prisoner lasted only about three weeks once he got released from jail. A few years later, she said she wanted to marry me, but by then my love had faded. I just wanted to be her friend. If I have any regrets it’s that I wasted two or three years wanting her back and during that time I blinded myself to all the other possibilities around me. I used to think that the only way I could live through this was to return to the past, but sometimes you just have to move on.
This is a great version of “Violet” from the MTV Video Music Awards 1995. Courtney is playing to her kind of crowd: one full of celebrities. Stay tuned to the very end when Courtney punctuates her performance with what seems like a rehearsed tantrum. The noisy feedback immediately segues into a cheesy instrumental as the announcer primes the audience at home for the next act: Bryan Adams! It’s a beautiful, painful illustration that even the most vivid, primal emotions are just grist for our endless need to be amused to death.