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The Hole Story

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Courtney Love reinvents herself into a shell of a rock star on 'Celebrity Skin'

By Gina Arnold

THERE'S A TELLING SCENE in Nick Broomfield's documentary Kurt and Courtney, in which a singer for a San Francisco punk band is talking about his former girlfriend and manager, Courtney Love. Apparently, back when he knew her, circa 1984, she made a list of things to do in order to become a rock star. Heading the list was the command "Make friends with [R.E.M. singer] Michael Stipe."

Ten years later, Love was indeed friends with Stipe--and had fulfilled many of the other conditions on her list as well. Thanks to her marriage to a bona fide superstar, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain--as well as to a career of her own as the leader of a much-touted "angry woman" rock band--Love was, by 1994, as famous as most people could ever wish to be.

She was also a widow and a sometime junkie, and she was reviled by many people who blamed her for her husband's suicide. But hey, Love's comment about that would probably be "That's the price you pay," and she'd probably be right.

Indeed, in many ways, Love's history has been as archetypally American as that of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson and, of course, Jay--"the Great"--Gatsby. All were self-invented icons who transformed themselves from ordinary people into symbols of wealth and fame. All refused to be bounded by reality. And all have stories that can only be called tragic.

But as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "American lives have no second acts." Love's first act was fast, furious and utterly compelling--a '90s update on the story of the ambitious blonde bombshell who sleeps her way to the top. (In twisted fashion, Love herself has often characterized this classic sequence of events as "feminist," and it's a tribute to her powers of persuasion that some have even believed her.)

Love's second act--in which she transforms herself into a respected actress and fashion model--is now unfolding before us. But judging by Celebrity Skin (Geffen), the just-released record by her resuscitated band, Hole, this act is neither as watchable, as listenable nor as intriguing as the first one. Act One was admittedly a car wreck. But Act Two, alas, is a yawn.

This phenomenon is particularly odd because the one thing no one has ever accused Love of is being a bore. Originally, she was a punk-rock scenester in San Francisco, L.A. and Minneapolis (oddly, Seattle wasn't her stomping ground until she married into its maw). The child of rich hippies, she was somewhat notorious even before she hooked up with Cobain.

In 1987, she starred in an Alex Cox movie called Straight to Hell, playing an obnoxious character that Cox later said was based on her own persona. She met--or possibly remet--Cobain in October 1991, directly after Nevermind came out, and by February was pregnant with his child.

AT THE TIME, Love already had a band of her own called Hole. It had released, in the spring of 1991, one album, Pretty on the Inside, a murky, plodding, two-chord rant that took its inspiration from Mudhoney and Lydia Lunch.

Hole's next release, Live Through This, was three years in the making (Love had to replace two members of the original band, as well as get married and have a kid in the interim) and was released the week that her husband killed himself. A few weeks later, Hole's bassist, Kristen Pfaff, was found dead of an accidental heroin overdose.

Even before those two high-profile events catapulted Hole into the news, Love had already created a huge media presence for herself that had little to do with music. A 1992 interview in Vanity Fair in which Love admitted to shooting heroin while pregnant created a furor, as did numerous other incidents. She appeared on the cover of SPIN magazine holding baby Frances Bean, and she was often in the news, mostly over fistfights, lawsuits and disputes she got into with certain brave journalists who took exception to her bullying ways.

In short, even without a record of her own to promote, Love had great value as a celebrity. With one, she was ubiquitous. Buoyed by the kind of publicity you can't buy at any price--as well as the same kind of abiding, posthumous love of her husband that resulted in Yoko Ono's rehabilitation after the death of John Lennon--the album was an enormous critical, if not a commercial, success. Hole then toured with Lollapalooza, and Love obligingly did a grieving-widow act every night, lurching all over the stage, screeching epithets at the audience and hurling herself into the mosh pit.

Three years have passed since then, and Love has transformed herself into an entirely new character. She's swiftly gone from apparently drug-addled grunge queen to smooth, slick Versace model. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The People vs. Larry Flynt and starred in a 10-page underwear spread in various fashion magazines.

PHYSICALLY, Love now barely resembles the shock-haired, big-lipped, sad-eyed woman who fronted the Hole of old. Her hair is now calmly coiffed and her cheekbones prominent. She looks much neater, but much less distinctive, and the music on Celebrity Skin, Hole's third album in eight years, follows suit.

Live Through This sounded remarkably like Nirvana. Celebrity Skin doesn't. What it sounds like instead is any number of hard-rock, girl-led bands. Joan Jett is the most obvious source, especially on the opening track, but other bands that pop to mind are Superjesus, Ednaswap, Letters to Cleo, Red Five, the Muffs and Veruca Salt.

Musically, the album is well-crafted though overproduced, a series of power-chord changes punctuated with softer passages and lots of orchestral strings. (This is a tactic often found on Smashing Pumpkins albums--not surprising, since leader Billy Corgan co-wrote five songs and helped, with Michael Beinhorn, produce Celebrity Skin.)

The best track by far is the title cut, a powerfully engaging number that sounds something like Urge Overkill's "Sister Havana." The song is a telling comment on the Hollywood celebrity process that Love has willingly undergone. "I'm glad I came here with your pound of flesh," she sings, "you better watch out what you wish for ... it better be worth it, so much to die for." Besides being extremely catchy, the song has a harsh core of honesty, but the sentiments it expresses aren't exactly uplifting or admirable.

Elsewhere, the album's text seems vague and uninspired, full of allusions to angels, love, fire, heaven, hearts, moons, stars and clover. Love isn't a great lyric writer, but she's a good sloganeer. On "Reasons to Be Beautiful," she proclaims, "It's better to rise than to fade away," a pointed comment on her husband's suicide note, which quoted Neil Young's famous line "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Love's lyric trumps that one, but it's still hard to hear in light of the facts.

The rest of the album, however, is a bit less memorable. Vocally, Love has shed much of her harsh, dissonant but distinctive personality. On many tracks here, her voice has been processed away, leaving a hollow shell of a person singing. "Boys on the Radio," for example, could just as easily have been sung by Mariah Carey, Shania Twain or Ginger Spice.

So too could "Awful," "Heaven Tonight" or "Malibu," which sounds much like the Go-Go's or even a Belinda Carlisle solo record, complete with overdubs and tinkly keyboards. The whole record reminds me of a line in a Pearl Jam song: "Time to erase me from the blackboard." Love has erased the Banshee/bad-girl image by tidying up her hair, and she's now busy erasing what little unique character her music possessed. The album isn't bad, but it doesn't really sound like her heart was in it.

Moreover, because she's not particularly musical, Love has always had to rely on reflecting the Zeitgeist, and the fact is there's nothing worth borrowing from in this era. Besides being the name of a greasy porn mag, the album's title comes from a band of the same name that was around in L.A. when Courtney was just getting started. And the cover is extremely close to that of a Gun Club record.

That type of borrowing is typical of today's rock scene (Marilyn Manson, for example, is currently one big riff on Iggy Pop), but it inevitably detracts from the amount that a listener can care about the artist. That's why the concept of provenance really matters. An original Picasso is worth more than a forgery, despite the fact that the forgery looks just like it. Live Through This was like an unsigned copy of Nirvana, but Celebrity Skin is just a mass-produced print that you could buy over the counter in any store.

In one way, however, that may be a fitting tribute to the power of her self-conception, since "Courtney Love" was always more of a persona than a person. Unfortunately, compared to certain other prefab artists, her methods always were a bit crude. She never quite got us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, and without that suspension of disbelief, one can hardly take this kind of rock music seriously. Love once assured me that she would win the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll. Aware of the paucity of her talents, I didn't believe her. But I should have, because she did, boosted into that position of supposed objective merit by sheer willpower.

The truth is, I learned a lot from Courtney Love. I learned that, in pop music, intellectual property is up for the highest bidder. That looks really matter. And finally, I learned to never underestimate the venality and baseness of those members of my profession who swallowed her posturing whole.

Love has personally helped strip away layers of bullshit, leaving in her wake a world full of Matchbox 20s and celebrity skins. And by now, Love's career has become a blatant exposé of the music-business' machinations--and as such, it shouldn't be viewed by any but the most jaded and cynical eyes.

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From the September 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro.

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