Guitarist Eric Erlandson says he was just fiddling around, idly strumming a piece of music “that had been in my head for months.” He was in the Los Angeles studio where Hole – Erlandson, bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, drummer Patty Schemel, and singer, guitarist and agit-celebrity queen Courtney Love – were recording their new album, Celebrity Skin.
Love was nearby, talking on a phone. “Somebody was telling her that her darkness wasn’t real: ‘You’re not dark enough,'” Erlandson recalls with a dry chuckle. “She heard me playing this thing and all of a sudden put the phone down: ‘What was that?'”
“I was sort of in this thing with this very dark [movie] director,” Love says, picking up the story with an annoyed, nasally snap in her voice. “I was really pissed off at him. I didn’t get to do [the part] and I was going, ‘You’re not even fucking dark, you’re a poseur.’ Where’s my darkness? It’s in here somewhere.”
Love and Erlandson – the founding members of Hole, making only their third album in eight years – promptly wrote and cut a soft, bleak ballad called “Northern Star” in just twenty-four hours. For the album, the song was later draped with melodrama: strings, celesta, kettledrums. But Love’s vocal was a first take, a practice run creased with nervous strain. And her lyrics were largely improvised, a run-on sentence about being lost, lonely and left behind – with an unmistakable allusion to her late husband, Kurt Cobain (“It’s black in here, blot out the sun/And run to the pines” – a nod to Nirvana’s cover of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines,” a.k.a. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”).
“Don’t tell! Shut up!” Love yells in mock terror. “It just came out and I didn’t want to stop. That song was one of those things where it takes five years to write it in one hour.”
But, she insists, referring to Neil Young’s 1994 Cobain-eulogy album, “this is not Sleeps With Angels, OK? I was very conscious of that as I was writing these songs – parts about Kurt, feelings about God or a crush I got on some spoiled, petulant pop star for five seconds. I don’t have a narrative grip on these things in the way that, I imagine, Leonard Cohen does. They just come out and I try and tame them and discipline them.”
It is weird to hear Love say the word discipline without a trace of irony. Her earliest records with Hole – the singles “Retard Girl” and “Dicknail,” the 1991 album Pretty on the Inside – are marvels of euphoric guitar crudity and napalm feminism. Onstage and on record, in interviews and movies, in her private and public life, Love seems to lurch repeatedly, impulsively, between triumph and shit storm: indie-rock notoriety; substance abuse; punk-superstar marriage and motherhood; widowhood. On Hole’s 1994-95 tour, she veered from blinding magnificence to howling chaos from night to night. A year later she was a Golden Globe nominee for her portrayal of Althea Flynt in Milos Forman’s film The People vs. Larry Flynt.
But Celebrity Skin is nothing if not focused – meticulously conceived and scrubbed over four years, including seven months of recording with producer Michael Beinhorn and a collaborative-writing spell with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. The songs “Hit So Hard,” “Malibu,” “Heaven Tonight” and “Boys on the Radio” are all tight, crisp and utterly pop. Even rough stuff like “Celebrity Skin,” “Awful” and “Playing Your Song” – as close as the new album gets to the terse ferocity of 1994’s Live Through This – has a sweet California-car-radio gleam, as if punk rock had been born of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours instead of in opposition to it.
At times during the recording of Celebrity Skin, Auf der Maur – who joined Hole following the fatal overdose of bassist Kristen Pfaff, in June 1994 – says she couldn’t help thinking, “God, this is going to be so polished, so anal.” She says that “Boys on the Radio” was originally titled “Sugar Coma” and took four years to perfect: “The root of it was written at the first rehearsal I had with the band.” Live Through This, on the other hand, was done in five weeks. Pretty on the Inside was cut in four days.
Love makes no apologies for Celebrity Skin‘s hard-candy character or its total repudiation of what she coolly derides as “the whole Marxist, male rite of passage that was punk rock in America.” She delights in talking about her wordplay and self-image games – “Love hangs herself/With the bedsheets in her cell” (“Reasons to Be Beautiful”); “I’m all I wanna be/A walking study/In demonology” (“Celebrity Skin”) – and the rock-history references (the Standells, Joy Division, Pavement) encoded in the songs.
“I built it as a monument,” she says of the album, then describes the kind of permanence she had in mind: “That important record where art and commerce are meeting, where discipline and restraint are meeting total organic truth. Like Nevermind. Like Appetite for Destruction. Like The Wall. Like Rumours. Big, huge records with something to say.”
Love remembers a particularly vexing review of Pretty on the Inside in the British music press. “The guy said that we were spiritually void. And I was so angry!” she exclaims. “All that shit you could print about my personal life – I’ll get mad and call people names, but ultimately I don’t care. It’s not what I’m going to be remembered by. But how could this guy have gotten that so wrong? Because there was a spirituality. It was a lunacy, but it wasn’t spiritually bankrupt.
“All I can do is try and elevate the form,” she explains, nothing that the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was all over the radio at one point while Hole were in the studio. “There’s a line in it that almost made me cry: ‘But the airwaves are clean/And there’s nobody singing to me now.’ I’m going, ‘Wait for me! Don’t jump! I’m comin’! I want to fuck shit up!'”
First, Love had to get her own business straight. Live Through This arrived in stores less than a week after Cobain took his life on April 8th, 1994. By the fall, Love was on the road with Hole, a tour that ran through the summer of 1995.Then Hole immediately went to New Orleans to start a new record. The band was anything but ready.
“It was very emotionally damaging,” Erlandson says of that tour. “We never recovered from the tragedies that happened just before we started” – meaning the deaths of Pfaff and Cobain. And Erlandson had to cope with his own loss. Shortly before going onstage in Salt Lake City, he was told that his father had died.
“I come from a big family, seven kids,” Erlandson says, “and I was the only kid not there [when he died]. I had to play a show. I turned my face to the amps the whole time.” Ironically, Auf der Maur’s father, a prominent Canadian journalist, battled cancer during the making of the new album; he died early this year.
Love admits now that she, too, was in no shape to work: “I hadn’t paused to deal with, you know, my stuff – my husband dying, drug addiction. I went on tour. Some of it was cathartic. But I didn’t have any kind of value system. I had to deal with my stuff. And I dealt with it – in spurts and fits and starts.”
(The bad mojo continues. Schemel is on leave from Hole for what are officially called “personal reasons” and might not tour with the band in 1999.)
Billy Corgan claims that early on, he wondered whether Love, an old flame and friend, might ever make another Hole record. “She was probably a little apprehensive,” he says. “She was getting acceptance in the movie world, and the rock world is brutal, as we all know.” In early 1997, it was announced that Corgan, who has the same managers as Love, would be executive producer of the Hole album. He went to Los Angeles to work with the band, mostly Love and Erlandson. Corgan was there for twelve days. He ended up with five co-writing credits: “Celebrity Skin,” “Hit So Hard,” “Dying,” “Malibu” and “Petals.”
“I was asked, coming in, not to write anything,” Corgan explains. “They felt uncomfortable with the notion that I was going to be involved in the creative process. But it went so well that we started writing. It was a very pure moment. It was like being in the basement with your friends when you’re fifteen.”But Corgan had his own Pumpkins record to worry about; he abdicated as executive producer, and Hole recruited Beinhorn, who had worked on Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union and Soundgarden’s Superunknown.
“There is a mystical part to it that he doesn’t talk about,” Love says of Corgan’s abbreviated role. “There’s a deep, spiritual, important part about why he helped me get up off my ass. And had he not helped me, I would have been lost.”
Celebrity Skin still remained a long way from completion. “Mellow” is the way Beinhorn describes the first tape of songs he heard. “There wasn’t enough power or excitement,” he says. “I had a suspicion that although they seemed comfortable with some of it, they wanted to be closer to something harder.” He ran the band through six weeks of pre-production and even gave Auf der Maur some remedial-listening homework: Black Uhuru, Motown, the Led Zeppelin catalog, what Auf der Maur gratefully calls “a crash course in Be a Great Bass Player, Not a Fucked-up Art Bass Player.”
Love nailed a lot of her singing in first takes. Yet she was keen to take the craft thing even further by spending a day with Diane Warren, who has written Number One hits for Celine Dion and Toni Braxton, and wrote Aerosmith’s smash from the Armageddon soundtrack, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
“Nobody would let me,” Love grumbles. “I went to Eric, Michael and Melissa, and they were all like, ‘Fuck you.’ They were really cramping my style. I was like, ‘Oh, ye of little faith.’ I want to know what she does. I’m not gonna destroy all my taste and break it down. I’m gonna come back with the correct nugget.”
But Love knows she’ll never really shake all the suspicions – about her abilities and motives, about whether she ever really cared about that better-living-through-anarchy stuff in the first place. She sighs when questioned again about familiar charges: that she didn’t do all her own singing on Live Through This, that she stomped all over the First Amendment by denying music-publishing licenses for Nick Broomfield’s highly speculative documentary about Cobain’s death, Kurt and Courtney.
Regarding the former, she replies that Dana Kletter did backup vocals on that album, “because Kristen couldn’t sing. But she didn’t sweeten me.” As for Broomfield, Love is unapologetic: “I should let him fuck me for free? If I hadn’t sent a message that I was not into that, it would have been shown eight times at Sundance and all the distributors would have gone, ‘Oh, she doesn’t mind.’ And I do mind. Very much.
“The skepticism that surrounds everything – this is my karma,” Love concedes wearily. But she claims that with Celebrity Skin, “I’ve accomplished something: to go where I’ve gone and walk right back. Fall down, pick up. Fall down, pick up, over and over and over again.” She pauses. “It’s almost habit.”