She can keep you waiting nearly an hour, offering an unapologetic apology when she arrives. She can forget the words to her songs and tell you to shut up while she tries to remember them. She can ramble on and on, hopscotching through a dozen different attitudes — from pandering to verbal abuse to pandering, insufferable braggadocio to sincere gratitude. She can scream herself so ragged that the idea of “hitting” notes — never a priority, really — becomes more of an vague, bucket-list aspiration than an expectation for the show at hand.
Courtney Love can and did do all these things last night at the Fonda Theater’s Music Box. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) that behavior, there remains something ineffably appealing about the Hole front-woman. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but somehow, a decade beyond a heyday when the lonely, fang-less “Doll Parts” was a biting anthem for girls everywhere instead of the collective result of Love’s years of plastic surgeries, her endearingly obnoxious demeanor wears down your irritation.
When Courtney Love first announced that she was resuscitating her volatile, beloved band Hole, the news arrived with two very different possibilities as to how it might play out.
The immediate question was whether Love was in creative shape for this. For younger listeners who missed her first turn as the frost-eyed fulfillment of Riot Grrl rage, Love had become something of a Miss Havisham of the blogosphere. Known for creatively punctuated missives against all the celebrities who crossed her (Lily Allen, John Mayer and Billy Corgan to start), Love saw her music become eclipsed by her role as a one-woman gossip maelstrom for much of the late ’00s.
Thursday night at the Music Box Love cleared that creative shape bar easily. Her feral wail — always seemingly on the edge between an earth-detonating argument and delirious makeup sex — has settled into a sly, been-there pugnacity. Songs from Hole’s forthcoming “Nobody’s Daughter” split a nifty difference between the bottled fury of “Live Through This” and the sunnier melodicism of Celebrity Skin.
The bigger issue going into these shows, though, was what this reunion meant for the idea of Hole. Like Liz Phair, Love has been embroiled in a career-long battle with her biggest fans — the young women who decried and articulated the thousand patronizing cuts of the male imagination through songs like “Doll Parts.” Her songs, and her vision of female potential, were incredibly influential, but she hasn’t been that woman in years.
So when Love, looking as healthy and tack-sharp as ever, pulled back the Fonda curtain to reveal this new, all-male incarnation of Hole with her as the sole original member, it felt like a warning shot to anyone hoping to validate their late-teen angst. If there was any question as to how she sees the band, Hole is about Love and her songs, not you and your feminist anxiety (see SPIN magazine’s 1997 Hole cover).
And for 95 gloriously messy minutes she reminded her remaining devotees — who sold out and packed the venue like it was the mid-to-late-nineties all over again — why they got on board in the first place.
There were the deliciously abrasive rants of “Violet” the humor and pathos of “Celebrity Skin,” the hard candy bite of “Awful.” All of it was tied together with honesty, stunning self-awareness, and what seemed like a real search for salvation through music and communion.
The new songs effortlessly held their own. “Samantha” had a teen-noir quality that allowed its bleak tale of emotional consumption to go down easy. “Skinny Little Bitch” is most akin to the early Hole favorites, and it felt like a rebuttal to the beach-dream underground rock of today’s twenty-somethings. The tune hit like a tossed-off, self-deprecating joke at a party but hinted at a deep well of darkness underneath.
All the while, Love was in constant motion, singing, playing, and expressing everything from her love of L.A. and our love of her ‘oldies’ to her sexual desires (she’s cougaring with a member of her band) to the inside scoop on her lyrics (“I keep writing songs about Malibu, and I don’t know why, none of them want me there,” she shared at the end of the jangle-poppy “Pacific Coast Highway”). Peppering in a couple covers throughout the set – a dusky Marianne Faithful-take on Leonard Cohen’s “Take this Longing” and a torch song rendering of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” – Love ended the night with a couple encores, closing with Celebrity Skin’s criminally underappreciated “Northern Star”.
In a world of over-processed pop tarts and jarringly false “reality,” perhaps what is most refreshing about Love is the utter truth in her presentation. She may not be perfect, she may even be a walking, talking train-wreck, but she’s never phoned it in and she’s not about to start now.