Photos by Jane Briggs
To grasp what Courtney Love’s performance was like this past Sunday at the 930 Club, let me frame it with a brief story. My first boyfriend was a race car driver. While I never developed the same enthusiasm for stock car racing that he brought with him to work, on our third date he did introduce me to the thrill of racing’s most delicious dirty pleasure – the demolition derby.
In a demolition derby, nobody cares what your facade looks like, or how smoothly you operate your instruments. The point is to survive the night, to slam your colleagues, to entertain the crowd despite (if not because of) your crumpled and tattered state, and to ensure that your audience leaves the arena with wild, unbelievable tales. Courtney Love, perhaps, remains mainstream rock’s last remaining demolition derby – as she aptly demonstrated by wrecking herself onto the stage of the 9:30 Club on Sunday night.
By the time Courtney Love and Hole took the stage nearly an hour late on Sunday, the audience had long taken to booing the canned prelude music. “Sorry. I have a friend who is a senator and can’t really be photographed with me, so we were hanging out and I’m late,” Love drunkenly explained to her fans. “What? I’m allowed to have friends!”
To say that the band Hole took the stage is a bit of a historical stretch. Love is the band’s only remaining member, with her new ensemble largely brought on as hired hands. It showed. When Love would reference an obscure, demo song from Hole‘s past, her band would shrug their shoulders in ignorance, leaving the lead singer to reminisce by singing to her audience acapella. Throughout the night, Love would converse with fans, her tour manager, her bandmates, photographers, voices inside her head, anyone really in order to determine which song to play next. While the set list was not solid, the performances by Hole‘s members largely were. And despite her inebriated state, Love applied a constant talent to her guitar (“This isn’t just some big, wooden necklace,” she said of her instrument and of the talent to which it was strapped).
Love’s inebriation actually seemed to put her audience at ease. Prior to Hole‘s set, a rumor had spread through the audience that Love would appear clear and sober. Fortunately, that was not the case.
It’s important to pause and to note (perhaps by hyperbole) that no one who pays to see Hole pays to see Courtney Love sober. Just as no one who pays $45 to see Hole should expect to see a polished performance. That would be missing the point by a wide mark. Any critic who expects the same should reexamine their angle of critique (Of course, Love twice telling the Washington Post from stage to go fuck itself probably didn’t help dissuade the paper from trashing the band’s performance it its review).
Casual fans expecting a pop-punk performance may have found regret, but Courtney love never promised them a dancefloor and her life has long validated that she will do whatever-the-fuck she wants, whether onstage or off. If you don’t expect to encounter that dynamic, then perhaps a Hole show isn’t for you. Just as many current suburban teenagers would consider themselves fans of the Notorious B.I.G. by being quick to scream “Biggie! Biggie! Biggie!” on the dancefloor, most would be shocked – or downright frightened – to encounter the edge of potential violence at an actual B.I.G. performance back in his day. Just as Biggie was street, Love is punk. There is no apology needed for being the same person she has always sold herself, and her art, as. Love can be critiqued for the professional nature of her set, but that standard wouldn’t be a fair assessment.
It would be a mistake dismiss Love’s performance as merely a minstrel show of addiction. To be fair, Love propagated her share of bad moments. She questioned the allegiance of one fan due to the color of her skin. “Are you really into rock? Because, I mean, you’re African American. It would kind of be like me being at Lil Wayne.” Love later apologized for her “momentary lapse in prejudice,” and asked the fan to sing with her on stage. Other fans were chosen by Love to sit near her on stage for random reasons, including requesting that one fan know the lyrics to her demo songs and that another know who J.D. Salinger was. “You, dude you’re cool,” Love said pointing at me. “We’re gonna Springsteen it.” Shocked, I was pulled up on stage to sit behind love on the floor of the stage for an hour-long encore. She would whisper things to me between songs, questioning “Did we play that song already?” But, I couldn’t understand most of what she said.
While some were oft-put, most of Love’s audience (let’s stop pretending this show was about Hole) didn’t see Love’s state as a freak show. Rather than morphing into an object to be gawked at, Love’s fucked-up state connected her with her audience. Indeed, it was the bridge that allowed Love to share her complexity, insecurity, manic thrills and private fears.
In introducing Hole‘s new single “Skinny Little Bitch,” Love asked audience members to respond if they had ever struggled with anorexia or bulimia. While a few applauded, Love continued to goad the rest by asking “None of you ever threw up after a meal? Never felt fat or complained to a friend that you felt fat? Never criticized yourself for it?” More hands went up – including from numerous men. Love then launched into the song, having given her audience a broader context for the meaning of both “Skinny Little Bitch” and of eating disorders in general.
The show was messy, but this is punk (whether labeled alternative, noise rock, grunge-punk, whatever…the ethos of Hole is still punk) after all. Don’t like the mess? Hole’s 1998 Celebrity Skin album is easily accessible to fans wanting a slick, studio-produced pop album…and what a dazzling pop-punk album it is. Or, they could turn to RCA’s pre-fabricated and carefully orchestrated faux mess that is Ke$ha, the poor man’s Courtney Love. Punk as an artform isn’t about polished performances. You won’t see it at Wolf Trap. Some of the greatest punk sets are performed in the same inebriated state of mess that Love demonstrated on Sunday night. That adds – not detracts – from the genre. Love played a set at the 930 Club consistent with what many talented punk bands would be proud to play in a squat house show.
Love flashed a clarity at times that ultimately soared her uneven technical performance despite its flutters of confusion, ripped-up songs, and forgotten chords . She trashed family members and friends, and shared insights into her writing and career (such as noting that she wrote both Malibu and Pacific Coast Highway for Stevie Nicks before “snatching them back,” or that the worst song she ever wrote was a song that she wrote with Lil’ Kim – it was given to the band aNy giVen suNday, who quickly shelved it away to never record it because of what Love labeled terrible lyrics like “All good girls are born bad, born bad”).
Love’s brightest point came early in the band’s set. Without mentioning Trent Reznor’s name, Love warned her audience that she was about to do a cover of a song by a former tourmate who would “lose his shit” once he found out about the performance. What followed was mesmerizing. Love spliced a hauntingly slow ballad cover of Closer with an equally somber cover of Judy Garland’s The Man that Got Away from the 1954 musical A Star is Born. Unexpected, and with a voice briefly reminiscent of Eartha Kitt, Love turned the two songs into a single ode to passionate longing and regret. The audience went eerily silent upon it’s conclusion, before enthusiastically erupting into applause. It was personal, painfully poignant, and brilliant.
Of course, Love’s spats of brilliancy came wrapped in what could pass for bat-shit crazy. That itself isn’t a critique, as the whole experience blended together into a somewhat beautiful mess. Towards 1:00am, Love simply announced that she was concluding the show to go have sex with a groupie. “Guys, I’ve left him waiting for three hours!” she said before walking off stage.
The music industry has once again found itself employing an age of carefully crafted career images. It’s a nescesity. With such small profit margins, there isn’t much room left for labels to allow their artists off leash. Yet, for lovers of the history of modern rock, it’s almost comforting to know that – in that tightly controlled environment – people like Courtney Love still exist to wreck hotel rooms and to trash their sets with abandon.
Post note: Other critics have noted an annoyance with an assistant who filmed Love onstage with an iPhone throughout the night. Love told her audience up-front that this would occur and to not “give her any shit.” Since, the audience replied with an enthusiastic response prior to the set, this review chose not to mention that.