On a recent Saturday, I spent several hours getting reacquainted with Courtney Love, from a safe distance, via several recent bits of Courtneyphernalia. First: VH1's freshlyassembled Behind the Music: Courtney Love, a properly engrossing chronicle of a life lived in pursuit of material for a kick-ass Behind the Music episode. All the well-known bits were addressed—the mind-fucky childhood, the grungy love story with the tragic end, the artistic triumph of a driven widow, the messy past decade—with an authority and intimacy that makes the show feel like an invaluable addition to the Courtney canon, alongside Live Through This, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and that MTV footage of Courtney falling forward off a chair and landing on her back.
Of course, the majority of the episode's intimacy and authority comes directly from Courtney, who cooperated in full, telling her story from the inside in a series of talking-head interviews that find her looking beautiful and sober, and displaying reassuring levels of self-criticism and remorse. Courtney's cooperation is rewarded with countless proclamations of her brilliance and heroic strength, and a happy ending that doubles as a commercial for her new album: "Now Courtney is getting back to what she does best," intones our adamantly hopeful narrator. "In the spring of 2010, she hit the road for Hole's first album in 12 years, Nobody's Daughter, her take on greed, vengeance, and motherhood." The takeaway message: Courtney's back, clean, and ready to make art like no one else.
It took only minutes for this fairy tale to shatter. Immediately following Behind the Music, I watched Courtney's more recent interview with Toure on Fuse TV, a shocking stretch of footage that found Courtney looking profoundly bedraggled and displaying more natural craziness than ever before. (I'm talking itchy-lady-talking-to-herself-at-the-bus-stop crazy, not drug-induced crazy.) Slurring her words through a puffy Botox mask of a face, then exploding with startling prickliness, Courtney seemed unhinged in a whole new way. Whether she's suffering from drug addiction or exhaustion or both or neither, it's clear that Courtney still has no idea how to take care of herself on a day-to-day basis, which makes Hole's ongoing world tour—scheduled to hit Bumbershoot on September 5 and continuing through 2011—an event of considerable drama.
Early reports from Hole's "reunion" show (what's a reunion with only one original member?) at this year's South by Southwest were near-rapturous, praising Courtney's raw power and capability. (This sounds demeaning, but we're discussing Courtney Love, a woman who not long ago was a crackhead breast-feeding strangers outside Dunkin' Donuts.) But once the official tour started, things got messy—most famously at a June show in Washington, D.C., that started an hour late, ran three hours long, featured numerous 10-minute-plus stage rambles and disastrous musicianship, and drove three-quarters of the audience out before the end. "Astonishingly awful," wrote the Washington Post's David Malitz, who, in all fairness, griped about some things that sound like classic Courtney. (Fans love her stage rambles, which in D.C. included asking the crowd to name the lamest Hole song and berating them for getting it wrong, and begging a bra off an audience member and putting it on.)
Still, Courtney's rambling tangents are best served between slamming renditions of her songs, and I'm happy to report that the type of disaster that went down in D.C. is but one of Hole's show options. Other cities report witnessing Courtney burn the house down with awesomeness; still others report seeing some Courtney-shaped Botox robot lead the new Hole through sets that were proficient but lifeless. Nearly all cities lamented the lack of chemistry between Courtney and her backing band, a brave group of guys (for once, Courtney is the only woman onstage) who deserve medals for trying.
At every stop, the show's set list has been a carefully constructed provocation, opening with a spooky medley (one-third of "Pretty on the Inside," two-thirds of "Sympathy for the Devil," then the whole of the new "Skinny Little Bitch"), giving equal time to 1990s Hole and Nobody's Daughter (a run of "Miss World," "Violet," and "Plump" is regularly cited as a highlight), and incorporating an array of portentous covers (the Rolling Stones' "Play with Fire" and aforementioned "Devil," Judy Garland's "The Man That Got Away"). The whole thing ends with "Never Go Hungry," the final track and one of the best songs on the perfectly okay Nobody's Daughter, built around a simple acoustic strum and one of those simultaneously self-lacerating and critic-quashing couplets that made the Live Through This lyric sheet so powerful: "I don't care what I have to pretend/I will never go hungry again."
Blessed with a proficient band and a canny set list, 2010 Hole shows are ultimately whatever Courtney wants them to be, which means they're subject to the endorphin rushes, narcotic crashes, and shifting winds of the universe that influence Courtney's musical abilities and decision-making skills. Is getting your butt to Seattle Center and weathering humongous lines to see Hole at Bumbershoot worth the risk?
Mathematically speaking, yes. Having perused several pages of Google search results for "Hole 2010 concert review," I can surmise that there are three basic flavors of Courtney-Love-on-tour-in-2010:
1. Inexhaustible Psycho Mess Courtney
Characterizations: Endless monologues, nonexistent musicianship, three-hour shows that go nowhere.
Pros: Something to see, and perhaps tell your grandkids about.
Cons: Life is short; gawking at crazies is less fun as you get older.
Sample dialogue: "Do you really like rock music? That would be like me being into Lil Wayne!" [spoken to African-American audience member]; various quizzings of audience members on their credit scores.
2. Boring Botox Robot Courtney
Characterizations: Dead eyes, passionless proficiency.
Pros: Shorter sets.
Cons: Horribly depressing; the complete opposite of everything Courtney ever promised.
Sample dialogue: "This next song is 'Nobody's Daughter' from the album Nobody's Daughter."
3. Crazy Lightning-Rod of Brilliance Courtney
Characterizations: Primal ferocity, aggressive musical proficiency, hilarious crazy rants.
Pros: Everything a Hole fan could dream of.
Cons: Like counting on a lottery win.
Sample dialogue: A hurricane of pop-culture references, feminist critique, and celebrity name-dropping; "I fake it so real I am beyond fake."
As I see it, only one of these options—number 2—is unacceptable. Robot Courtney is only something I want to see when there's an actual robot Courtney for sale in SkyMall. But both psycho Courtney and crazy-brilliant Courtney are things I'll happily line up to see. As noted oddsmaker Meat Loaf put it, two out of three ain't bad. See you there.