When held up against the monumental public art installation that is Courtney Love, Hole’s records seem like measly artifacts. No other modern musician has bumrushed stardom with as vehement or desperate a sense of personal destiny. Against reason and the odds, La Love has managed to make her group the sine qua non of rising-up-angry female alternarock, in the process forcing Live Through This to become a vital necessity in the well-versed ’90s culture sack.
Pretty on the Inside, a surly milkshake of broken rock shards, calculated shock lyrics and highly personalized punk animus, introduces an LA quartet consisting of Love (screeching vocals/roaring guitar), Eric Erlandson (sloppy noise guitar), drummer Caroline Rue and bassist Jill Emery (ex-Super Heroines). Harsh on the ears but actually no rougher than a lot of other groups aiming rusty knives at unsuspecting sonic poke holes around the same time, the album was produced with craggy abandon by a hip-world tag team of Don Fleming and Kim Gordon; their obvious attempt to make a Sonic Youth record doesn’t quash the original impulses Love and Erlandson brought to the studio. Against the relentless barrage of grungy rock noise, Love screams her vicious disease-and-sex lyrics (see “Teenage Whore,” “Babydoll,” “Mrs. Jones” and “Pretty on the Inside” for the primary liturgy of rottendeathsmacksuckvirusfleshscars) as if she were a demented Joan Jett fan counting on being heard in another galaxy. Impressive in its need to outrage, the ferocious (except for “Starbelly,” which consists of a wordless “Cinnamon Girl” plus a phone message and a Fleetwood Mac extract) Pretty on the Inside has aged well, and now sounds like a very modern and decisive statement of purpose.
Released several years later sporting a grisly slit-wrists cover photo, the scantily valuable Ask for It displays the post-debut Hole from several angles: live in early ’92 (rubbishing the Velvets’ “Pale Blue Eyes” like a careening bar band), in the studio around the same time (covering the Wipers’ “Over the Edge” without any evidence of Pretty on the Inside‘s brutality) and, for the BBC in late ’91, previewing the second album’s “Doll Parts” (acoustic and off-key) and “Violet” (pretty much as it wound up), plus the otherwise unreleased “Drown Soda” and a Germs/Beat Happening medley.
Live Through This, which presents the full flowering of Hole-ness (and a new rhythm section: drummer Patty Schemel, formerly of Seattle’s Kill Sybil, and bassist Kristen Pfaff, whose subsequent drug OD brought Montreal’s Melissa Auf der Maur into the lineup), has, like the debut, proven to be far more consequential — for its own merits, not the attendant hubbub — than it might have initially seemed. Released in a tragic bad-timing coincidence a week after the suicide of Love’s husband, Kurt Cobain, the death-obsessed album is harrowingly prescient and loaded with regrettable lyrical allusions that, ironically, gave her career valuable emotional momentum.
What seemed like the lurid imaginings of a provocative showoff crying for attention on the first album here become a stirring cry of freedom and individuality from an unstoppable life force with the guts to bare herself and face the consequences. “Live Through This,” written and recorded well before she had a proper tragedy to fix on, includes lines like “Someday you will ache like I ache.” The most unfortunate couplet in “Jennifer’s Body” offers “With a bullet, number one / Kill the family, save the son.” Germane in a similarly convoluted sense is the oath in “Asking for It” that promises to no one in particular, “If you live through this with me / I swear that I will die for you.” But Love’s vow in “Miss World” — “I made my bed I’ll lie in it / I made my bed I’ll die in it” — sends as profound a message of taking responsibility in the age of victimhood as any of her extra-musical actions.
Making a fetish of the loud/soft dialectic borrowed from Nirvana, Love (buttressed by “additional vocals” by Dana Kletter of Dish) switches between a sturdy quiet voice that sounds like Holly Beth Vincent and a harridan holler (something Nina Hagen pioneered a decade earlier); capably guided by Fort Apache producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie (but partly mixed by J Mascis and Scott Litt), the band handles the abrupt shifts from peppy acoustics to smoothed-out full-blare raunch with poise. Hole remains Love’s vehicle top to bottom, but even while making the first true post-Nirvana album — thanks to timing, it’s virtually the sound of the spirit leaving Cobain’s corpse — Live Through This has the strength of character to make that a respectable designation.
The import EP of Live Through This‘ “Softer, Softest” appends four non-LP tracks: a flat acoustic rendition of “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss),” the Crystals’ appalling Goffin/King-penned ode to physical abuse, done strictly for effect (witness Love’s introduction) at Hole’s MTV Unplugged taping, plus three ragingly electric concert items (“Miss World,” “Teenage Whore” and a bear-like cover of Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf”) recorded in Melbourne in January 1995.
With the spotlight firmly fixed upon her, Love tore through stardom like the proverbial school of piranhas through a drowning cow. She became a tabloid fixture, dating a gossip column’s worth of high-profile bachelors, including Trent Reznor, actor Edward Norton and the shameless Cobain wanna-be Gavin Rossdale, while engaging in such shenanigans as crashing Madonna interviews on MTV and chasing one-time Cobain flame Mary Lou Lord down the street, apparently intent on inflicting bodily harm. She branched into acting and writing comics and proved surprisingly good at both, earning critical raves for her work in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon and her manga series, Princess Ai. She became a familiar face in the courtrooms of America for such trespasses as drug abuse and whacking a concertgoer in the skull with a microphone stand. Her press ubiquity worked against her (as did the intractable American dislike of nakedly ambitious women suspected of being stronger than their husbands: c.f., Yoko Ono and Hillary Clinton), turning her into a public celebrity famous mainly for being famous. It was an unfair assessment in Love’s case, as she actually had accomplished quite a bit of value, but at the same time it was clear that bad judgment had taken her over the line where, if she never did another thing for the rest of her life, she’d stay in the headlines on the E! channel.
Meanwhile, her Hole-mates were able to bask in the reflected light of Love’s wayward star. Erlandson landed Drew Barrymore as girlfriend for a while, while Melissa Auf der Maur became a minor celebrity in her own right. A willowy looker with a smart fashion sense (and connections to everyone in the music biz, it seemed), she brought an elegant visual counterpoint to Love’s thrift-store trailer trash chic and became an alt-rock It Girl. Auf der Maur’s arrival nudged Hole closer to glamour than grunge, and was arguably one of the factors leading to the direction the band subsequently pursued on Celebrity Skin.
There was no way Hole would ever match the power of Live Through This (even discounting Cobain’s reputed role in that album), and they deserve a certain amount of credit for being wise enough to realize it. Rather than go toe-to-toe with themselves, they picked up and moved to another coliseum, figuratively fleeing gloomy Seattle for sunny California. Where Live Through This was a jagged howl of pain and anger, Celebrity Skin is a shiny power-pop riff on fame and stardom. With Michael Bienhorn (producer) and Billy Corgan (great and powerful Oz) to sand off the band’s rough edges, the album sounds great, but for the most part the songs are merely okay. The title track and “Malibu” (both co-written by longtime Love and Auf der Maur chum Corgan, as were three others) are the only great tracks here, with “Awful,” “Boys on the Radio” and “Heaven Tonight” weighing in at pretty good. Beyond that, Hole is all dolled up with nowhere to go.
Following a disappointing commercial reception to Celebrity Skin, Love went back to whatever else it that she does, and Hole quietly ceased to be. With a surprising absence of drama — no bitchy accusations and finger-pointing, not even a generic explanation of artistic differences — the band just evaporated. Love announced the formation of a new outfit called Bastard featuring herself and Veruca Salt’s Louis Post, but nothing ever came of it. Instead, she kept a large contingent of tabloid reporters well-fed with her seemingly endless capacity to shoot her mouth off and get herself into various sorts of trouble.
Another six years passed before Love remembered that she was supposed to be a recording artist and that she was contractually obligated to deliver a CD every now and again. With a large contingent of hired hands (including Linda Perry and Bernie Taupin — so much for self-conscious cred-stressing), Love delivered a solo album, America’s Sweetheart, which — like Celebrity Skin — is so-so, but more forgettable than its predecessor. It’s worth owning, though, if only for “But Julian, I’m a Little Bit Older Than You,” the smokingest adrenaline rush of a song Love has ever recorded. Apparently a “this is how you do it, kids” lesson to the Strokes, it’s a scorcher that is sadly unmatched by anything else here. As the opening gambit in a supposed solo career by someone of Love’s notoriety and demonstrated ability, America’s Sweetheart ain’t woman enough.
After Love pulled the plug on Hole, Corgan cast Auf der Maur in the recurring role of The Enigmatically Beautiful Bassist in his musical troupe, the Smashing Pumpkins, replacing D’Arcy Wretzky. She filled the part admirably in the touring production of the Pumpkins’ final drama, Machina, but then lost the role in Corgan’s sequel, Zwan, to A Perfect Circle’s Paz Lenchantin. Undeterred, Auf der Maur forged ahead, briefly serving as lead singer for the Black Sabbath cover band (!) Hand of Doom before forming her own eponymous combo. Auf der Maur is a slightly above-average slab of punk-metal, but the lack of any truly memorable songs ultimately sinks it. Auf der Maur (the woman) is an adequate vocalist and an inadequate lyricist, but the biggest problem is she doesn’t have a clear idea of what her persona is. As a Love-style hellion, she fares about as well as Audrey Hepburn in a roller derby movie. Auf der Maur is certainly better than many other projects by sidepeople stepping into the spotlight, but it’s not remarkable in any way.