Thursday, February 20, 2014

Hole on MTV Unplugged

If you've cared at all about popular music in the past 20 years, you've probably had at least one argument about Courtney Love.

My favorite Courtney arguments are the ones about Live Through This, her best album by a landslide, which turns 20 this year. Fans and detractors, often the same people in her case, like to bicker over who wrote the songs, Courtney Love and Eric Erlandson or the late Kurt Cobain, whose voice can be heard on "Asking for It" and "Softer, Softest." Nirvana fetishists want to believe that Live Through This is another feather in Cobain's cap. Courtney haters (and yes, sexists) don't want to believe that she was capable of something this enduring without much of her husband's help. Realists note that songs like "Violet," "Jennifer's Body" and "Plump" sound eerily like Nevermind outtakes, and that the Hole records where everybody fights about the songwriting credits (Live Through This and Celebrity Skin) are far better than Pretty on the Inside.

Fun as it is to argue about Courtney, it doesn't really matter who wrote what on Live Through This. It's a terrific album by any measure, and it's a Courtney Love album, period. Profiles in Courage loses nothing if it turns out that Ted Sorensen wrote it for John F. Kennedy, and Live Through This would be one of the best albums of the 90s even if its performers didn't write a note of it.

By revisiting Hole's 1995 performance on MTV Unplugged, I was reminded that with Courtney Love it's about more than the songs. When she's having a good night (something that anyone who discovered her after 2000 might not think possible), she is a fantastic interpreter. Melissa Auf der Maur, new on bass here after the overdose of Kristen Pfaff, is clearly a better singer and musician, but Courtney is the rock star, born with that intangible quality that makes you want to watch her every move and sing along with her parts, even as she waltzes out of key.

Like a true punk rocker, something she doesn't get enough credit for being, Courtney spent much of her MTV Unplugged session playing songs that nobody was going to know, like the unreleased "Best Sunday Dress" and "Sugar Coma," or the b-side "Drown Soda." Shoving up a middle finger to everyone who claimed she couldn't write her own hits (or, just a likely, completely unaware that this was happening), Courtney performed two of her husband's unreleased songs, "You Know You're Right" and "Old Age," rewriting the lyrics and moods from the Nirvana versions that would eventually make it to CD stores. If she covered any of Cobain's songs this way on Live Through This, his versions are probably almost unrecognizable.

Hole also performs two 60s songs that I'd never previously liked, Donovan's "Season of the Witch" and the Crystals' "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)." The former is creepier than the original (which just sounds stoned), and the latter rips the Crystals out of Phil Spector's hands and destroys the song's ambiguous angle. "Nice feminist anthem," declares Love, from a time when she addressed issues that people wanted to ignore and hadn't yet become one.

Near the end, the band rips into "Hungry Like the Wolf," and it's as great as you can imagine it could be. Courtney doesn't change the gender in the lyrics. Nobody harmonizes with Courtney on the "do-do-dos," because they're afraid to or because they don't know how. Courtney loses her pick and abandons the song entirely. She makes up for it with "Doll Parts," wanting to be the girl with the most cake, faking it so real she is beyond fake. "Someday you will ache like I ache" is the line that American teenagers tattooed on themselves for the next 20 years, and as versatile and talented as Kurt Cobain was, I don't believe that he could have written it.

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