Review: Salon

Mocking the Mayflower
May 18, 1999, by Charles Taylor

There was plenty of antagonism in the air at the start of Hole’s Boston show Sunday night. But Courtney Love wouldn’t have it any other way.

The tone of a Hole show is entirely dependent upon Courtney Love’s mood, and from moment to moment it’s anybody’s guess what that is. In a flash, Love goes from needy rock star baring all to gossip dishing on whoever’s strayed into her radar to withering, acid-tongued hipster berating you for some infraction you had no knowledge of committing. She plays the punk rock diva to invite adulation, and then scorns it as soon as it’s offered up. She provokes the hostility of the crowd to use it as an excuse for turning on them. Hole has performed some of the most compelling and memorable rock ‘n’ roll shows I’ve ever seen, and I wouldn’t describe any of them as fun. Love is the only performer capable of tying up my guts in knots in sheer queasy anticipation of what she might do next.

There was plenty of antagonism in the air before Hole took the stage of the Boston Orpheum Theater Sunday night. The audience was delayed getting into the hall while security performed searches and metal scans on everyone entering. (Love received death threats before a show she played here in the fall of 1994.) The band then made the crowd wait 70 minutes after the opening act, Imperial Teen, had finished its set. It wasn’t a friendly tone that was set by the opener, a lacerating “Credit in the Straight World.” And Love, who seems to have an antagonistic relationship with Boston, didn’t waste any time before going on a rap about Harvard students/WASPs/Mayflower descendants.

Musically, the show was remarkable. The last Hole shows I’d seen were both in the fall of 1994, in the tumultuous and awful months after Kurt Cobain’s death and the release of “Live Through This.” At those performances, the music blended into everything else — Love’s monologues, her alternately furious and distracted presence — to create the impression of rock show as confessional or as psychotherapy. The songs would knot up into rages of sound only to peter out in a few strummed chords.

On Sunday, Love, guitarist Eric Erlandson, bassist Melissa Auf der Mar and new drummer Samantha Maloney gave the numbers from the underrated “Celebrity Skin” a punch that both kept the songs’ radio-friendly sheen and added a few new incisors. Even the digressions into other songs — the “Malibu” that segued into snatches of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Maggie’s Farm,” the surprise cover of “Get Ready” on which Auf der Mar shared lead vocals — had a tightness that was very different from the sloppiness the band was prone to five years ago. For many of the numbers, Love was content to leave guitar duties to Erlandson, who kept to his own upstage space. Using a cordless mike, Love roamed the stage, flirted with Auf der Mar, jumped out into the crowd, even, in one nerve-racking moment, shinnied up a bank of speakers to precariously walk the edges of the theater’s private boxes and sing “Malibu” to the audience members sitting there.

As always with Love, just when you thought you had a handle on the mood, she changed it. Seemingly ready to engage the audience with “Celebrity Skin’s” “Awful,” she veered into a bruising “Pretty on the Inside.” And that set the tone for the rest of the night, with the mood of the show alternately celebratory and accusatory. On “Reasons to Be Beautiful” she delivered the pointed rejection of survivor’s guilt (and of Neil Young’s famous maxim), “It’s better to rise than fade away,” with a dismissive gesture directed at the audience, a gesture that seemed to indicate impatience at anyone still buying the romance of rock ‘n’ roll burnout. The banter took suddenly nasty turns. Taking off a diaphanous wrap she was wearing over a blue loincloth miniskirt, Love offered it to someone in the crowd only to tear them down with “I found it in the trash” after they accepted it. And she didn’t hesitate to open old wounds, addressing the rumors about her various Svengalis by announcing at one point, “As you know, we’re a cover band, and we don’t write anything we play.” Given moments like that, it was hard to get swept away by the music; you were too wary of how the whole show could turn on you.

All of which made the last half-hour nearly impossible to read. Less than an hour into the set, the band began playing “Boys on the Radio.” Once again, Love jumped into the crowd, only this time returning to the stage with 20 or so young girls. Expecting to be able to dance, the girls were instead ordered by security to sit in front of the drum riser, and then left there as the band finished the number and apparently the set. But the night wasn’t over. After nearly 10 minutes, Hole returned and Love asked, “Does anybody else want to sit up here?” What followed was as close to pandemonium as anything I’ve ever witnessed at a rock show. Girls (the crowd was perhaps 65 percent female) and a few boys (“No big jocks!” Love had warned) jumped up on the stage or were pulled up by Love until there were probably in excess of 100 fans swamping the stage and the band. From where I was standing, in the balcony, it was impossible to tell where the stage left off and the front rows began. At first, it was impossible to escape the feeling that these kids (and most of them were kids) were being used as props, present for Love’s pleasure, chosen to pay court. Especially when a few tried to stand up and she commanded, “Sit!” (“Is she gathering them for a human sacrifice?” my wife asked me.) But Love knew that she was walking a fine line and that if she didn’t establish some control at the start, the whole thing could have turned ugly (as it did for one enthusiastic boy who leapt down onstage from a side box and was immediately grabbed by security and manhandled into the wings).

Amazingly, as the stage became more and more crowded, the whole crazy spectacle became sweeter. Love picked one girl to share lead vocals on “I Think That I Would Die,” allowed kids to wrap their arms around her behind (even if she did throw them off after a minute), even gave away her guitar to someone who couldn’t make it up onstage. (At the back of the stage, drummer Maloney was spraying the sweaty crowd with water and passing out drumsticks.) “This is funner than a show,” Love smirked mischievously at one point in a way that told you she was relishing the nightmare she was causing for security. Even her admonitions to the crowd to behave itself (“If you aren’t good, I’m gonna expel you from rock ‘n’ roll high school”) took on the tone of someone making a joke about her own bossiness. By the time confetti was falling, the whole thing had taken on the feel of a crazed prom. After it was all over and kids were making their way off the stage, a friend said to me, “The high schools are gonna be buzzing tomorrow.” You could already hear it on the way out of the theater (“I touched her!” enthused one kid, who was immediately corrected by her friend: “No she touched you”). “It’s your party … let’s start a riot,” Love sang on “Awful.” The nerve-racking exhilaration of this show came close to giving us both.