Let me guess, you hate Courtney Love. Unlike Yoko Ono (who, admittedly, hasn’t appeared drunk and disorderly on camera lately – but it was the ’60s when she got involved with Lennon), Love has never really been forgiven for her association with Kurt Cobain and the eventual demise of his band. Whether Cobain’s suicide had anything to do with Love remains mostly conjecture. By most accounts, he really loved her and all the unfortunate scrapping about that’s happened since his suicide should be viewed separately from what was happening at the time. But perhaps even more interestingly, in the process of turning Love into the female Public Enemy Number One, the music-buying public of the nineties forgot about that band she was in that was actually really freaking good. Not a band I followed in my youth, I was exposed to Hole more when I heard their songs being appropriated for TV pilots throughout the early ’00s. But I’m having a bit of a renaissance of sorts with this band lately, particularly their third record, Celebrity Skin, which came out in 1998. It’s the one I’m most likely to have heard as it went platinum in this country at the end of that year, not to mention ‘Malibu’, which would end up being nominated for a Grammy.
When grunge, nay, when alternative rock is done well, it’s the most amazing thing to listen to. That’s something that was brought back into focus recently as bands like Yuck and Cloud Nothings took the formula of bands a decade earlier than them and fed them through new prisms. Properly executed and recorded, radio-ready grunge, of the kind that only Kurt, Courtney and a few of their co-conspirators could craft, moved emotional mountains with only a few chords. The reason ‘Malibu’ had such a lasting effect was twofold; firstly, it sits squarely in the alt-rock template as the movement was reaching its peak (nu-metal already chomping at its heels) and it was written by not one, but two lions of the scene. Celebrity Skin marked the first time Love had brought in a co-writer, and she made sure that she picked a damn good one – Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan.
Between them and guitarist Eric Erlandson, Love and Corgan penned what would be her group’s most endearing song; a love letter to the beach side town where she’d tried to dry her late husband out from drugs. Pain and regret, common touchstones for ’90s rock, were Love’s bread and butter, and she exploited them well. It’s convenient that she was backed by some of the most polished production and radio-ready riffs of Hole’s career. Clean semi-acoustic summery chords backed by that reined in wah bass of Melissa Auf De Mar (or Corgan, depending on who you ask) with Love pulling out some seriously aching, memorable melodies. As usual, its flanked by a million distorted guitars come chorus time, but despite threatening to overwhelm her, they crest as Love rides the wave in her lower octave. That she sounds almost-stoned the entire time she’s singing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, helping ram the message of the song home (“Oh come on be alive again/Don’t lay down and die..”) as it discretely coasts along in SoCal shining bliss. It’s a world away from the engine-screeching sound of the band’s breakout, ‘Violet’, but thanks to the pedigree, you know it’s no less real. Next time you want to hate on Love, give this a spin. It’s the beautiful, sad hit the world shouldn’t have forgotten.
Hole – ‘Malibu’