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Love Conquers All

[whitespace] Courtney Love
Dan Pulcrano

Malibu No More: Courtney Love spurned her critics at Not So Silent Night.

Courtney holds court in San Jose at Not So Silent Night concert

By Michelle Goldberg

Courtney Love stood haughtily and triumphantly over the surging crowd at the San Jose Events Center last Thursday night (Dec. 10). Cigarette in hand, wearing a strappy black dress that her breasts kept spilling out of, and sporting sparkles on her tights and in her wild blonde hair, she admonished the photographers below to stop taking pictures of her crotch.

Suddenly this concert--a spectacular show that included sets by Garbage, the Offspring, Cake, Soul Coughing, Everlast and, later, Rancid--wasn't ticking along quite so predictably anymore. Sure, the other bands were great--Garbage was far more electrifying than any of its albums had prepared me for, and the Offspring had even the most jaded and blasé in the crowd pogoing exuberantly.

But when Hole strutted onstage, Not So Silent Night lost the corporate clockwork feel from which such megashows often suffer. It stopped being a smoothly run pageant of MTV culture and became a punk-pop psychodrama.

Unlike Garbage's slick, flawless performance, Courtney's unstable act teetered between sneering, glammed-up sarcasm, sexual teasing and girlish preening. "I want to go get some plastic surgery and go to a movie premiere," she jeered, opening her riveting performance by mocking all the critics who've written her off as "Malibu Courtney."

The little girls who mobbed the front rows--girls who weren't even teenagers when a certain grunge god blew his brains out--were bursting with breathless, worshipful admiration as Love launched into her Live Through This classic "Miss World."

Screams of "I love you, Courtney!" and "You rock!" ricocheted through the front rows. Someone was so overcome that they tossed a baggie of white powder on stage, but Courtney was unimpressed. "This is so pathetic," she said. "Don't do this shit--look what it did to my face." And with that, she emptied it on the stage.

Skin Game

Hole's newest album, Celebrity Skin, has been widely panned by the rock-critic boys' club, but as the Yoko Ono of grunge, Love is so despised that the Cobain acolytes would probably have reviled the album whatever it sounded like. The record is surely more polished and pop than Live Through This--grunge is, after all, dead--but when Love stopped acting and started singing, she infused both new and old songs with passion and pathos.

Crooning "Northern Star" with just Eric Erlandson's guitar for accompaniment, she wrapped her sultry, tobacco-roughened voice around desolate, autobiographical lyrics like "I cried 'cause you were doomed, praying to the wound that swallows all that's cold and cruel."

She extended "Malibu" by repeated its most affecting hook--"I'm gonna rescue you, I'm gonna set you free tonight"--over and over until I could feel it in my spine. But when the song was over, she dismissed it with an ironic quip: "That was the closest we could go to a Jewel song."

That kind of self-consciousness pervaded her act. Love seemed to be trying to preempt all the criticism that Celebrity Skin is too pop. But it was a different kind of irony than the smart-ass antics of bands like Cake and the Offspring.

Cake
Matt Ipcar

Taking the Cake

Musically, Cake was great--its trumpet player gave the group a whimsical jazziness usually lacking in white-boy rock, but everything in Cake's act told the crowd not to take it seriously. Cake's slowed-down, funked-up version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" had a yummy groove, but it played like a joke, prompting claques of frat boys to bust out with faux-John Travolta moves as if disco was the funniest thing they had ever heard of.

Other songs were met with annoying shouts of "Let's smoke some weed!" and obnoxious high-fiving. The band presented its last song, "Never There," by deadpanning, "Thank you very much for your patronage. We realize you have your choice of bands, and we thank you for spending these minutes with Cake."

This tired brand of wink-nudge humor--the same kind that every other TV commercial uses to make couch potatoes feel like media insiders--also dominated the Offspring's set. After all, the Offspring is a band whose current hit on suburban alternative radio, "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)," makes fun of the kind of guys who listen to suburban alternative radio.

Gimmicks like this were amusing once (say, when the Dead Milkman released "Instant Club Hit" in 1987), but such shtick is more than played out now. The band even punctuated its set with a silly intermission during which it played "Tea for Two" and showered the crowd with confetti. Everyone was jumping up and down while the Offspring played, including me, but I doubt anyone really felt anything.

Garbage Time

Besides Hole's act, Garbage's set was the most compelling. Dressed in narrow black pants and a sleeveless red fur-lined shirt that she ripped off to reveal a little black top, singer Shirley Manson owned the stage, strutting back and forth like she was on a catwalk, dancing, writhing and looking like a vampire vixen.

She even jumped into the crowd. Sounding like a cross between Deborah Harry and Pat Benatar, her voice was far richer and more powerful than it is on Garbage's recordings. A bombastic techno bass combined with surging guitars to create floor-shaking anthems, and the crowd gleefully took up the choruses.

Still, even Manson's airbrushed Goth glamour was dwarfed by the voluptuous horror of Courtney Love. Only Love created real onstage drama instead of a choreographed dose of prepackaged cool. Since the whole show was being broadcast live on the radio, she goaded the crowd to scream "fuck" in unison, taunting the FCC--an adolescent gesture, but also one that was refreshingly rebellious.

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Revealing photos of Courtney on stage.

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Hole ended its set with their most wrenching song, "Violet," from Live Through This, with its scathing chorus, "Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to." When it was over, Love smilingly tossed her turquoise guitar into the audience. But when a boy grabbed it, she stopped everything, screaming, "Give it to a girl! A girl better get that guitar!"

Threatened with a beating, the boy gave it up. And though Rancid was still to come, more than half the crowd left, knowing Hole was the concert's high point. Kurt and Courtney director Nick Broomfield, Spin Magazine, even her own mad-dog father have all taken their best shots at Love, but the bitch goddess is still standing. And somewhere tonight, someone is learning to play her blue-green guitar and feeling like the girl with the most cake.

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Web extra to the December 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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