Courtney Love released her definitive artistic statement four days after her husband Kurt Cobain shot himself in the head, and she called the album Live Through This. In terms of morbidly cosmic coincidences, that’s up there with Biggie Smalls naming his second album Life After Death and then dying before its release, or the Ultimate Warrior showing up on Monday Night Raw to make a speech about how he’ll live forever because the fans are his storytellers and then suddenly dropping dead less than 24 hours later. It’s the sort of thing where you want to read hidden messages into the album’s title, and into the album itself, turning it into a document of a famous widow’s grief even if she recorded it before she knew what to grieve. And parts of the album are certainly about Cobain, who was alive when Love’s band Hole recorded it — he sang backup on a couple of songs — but who was not exactly living the healthiest of lives. “They really want you, but I do too,” Love sang on “Doll Parts,” in what has to be the best evocation of what it was like to be in Cobain’s life at that time. But truthfully, Live Through This isn’t about Cobain, and it isn’t about grief or drugs or suicide or depression, either. It’s an album about defiance and survival, about the challenge of operating with a functional bullshit detector, about identifying the ideas and people that aren’t working for you and sneeringly jettisoning them from your life. It’s about, as SPIN put it at the time, using rock stardom as revenge against the entire world. It’s a masterful piece of work, and 20 years after its release, it still sounds like an emotional smoking crater.
If Love was a difficult human being to be around when she made Live Through This — and, by plenty of accounts, she was — then it’s not hard to figure out why, when you start looking at her life. Love did not have an easy life: Fed acid as a kid, lived on a commune, allegedly diagnosed with autism, spent time in foster care, worked as a stripper, fell into a Pacific Northwest underground rock scene just as heroin was beginning to take it over, married a brilliant but self-destructive and fatally depressed rock star. She had a lot of reasons to be angry and vindictive and guarded and quick to reject, and those qualities are all over Live Through This. Certain lyrics purportedly take shots at her peers — Billy Corgan, Kim Gordon, the entire riot grrrl universe — and even when you don’t recognize her targets, or even when her target is herself, Love’s voice drips with ire. And she uses that voice as a messy scrawl, cooing sweetly one moment and then lurching into moan-rasp-scream territory the next. But that raw and husky voice, like that of her husband, had a way of sounding larger than one person, of absorbing and channeling the shitty feelings of anyone who heard it. She sounded like a mess, but she did it in a way that reminded you that you, too, were a mess. That voice resonated. It’s the reason most of the girls I knew in high school regarded Love as something of a religious figure. And that voice is at its most arresting and transcendent and expressive on Live Through This.
Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine if Live Through This had come to define the poppy, accessible wing of grunge rock, if turgid imitators like Bush and Silverchair had never swooped in and begun paving the Road To Creed. Because Live Through This is, in a lot of ways, a melodically sharper and more inviting album than anything Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Soundgarden were doing at the time. Love’s husband and his peers had always regarded big, popular ’80s rock bands with naked, unapologetic suspicion, but Love understood those bands, knew how they worked. (Asked to name her 10 favorite albums in 1995, Love put Echo And The Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here at the top of the list, one spot ahead of Nevermind.) Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson could crank out grandly fuzzed-out riffs with the best of them, but he could also jangle and chime and twinkle. (Bassist Kristen Pfaff, who succumbed to an overdose a couple of months after Live Through This came out, churned beautifully, too.) And Live Through This is full of moments of tense, majestic beauty: The ahh-ahh backing vocals on “Softer, Softest,” the Lost Boys-esque intro of the band’s cover of Young Marble Giants’ “Credit In The Straight World,” the acoustic-guitar swirl on “Asking For It.” These widescreen melodic touches were new to Hole — Pretty On The Inside, Live Through This‘s 1991 predecessor, had been all about fired-up blurt — but they gave the album a sense of dimension that was rare at the time. Hole did charged gothic atmosphere better than any of their male peers at the time, and if more bands had picked up on that, we might’ve not had to deal with American Idol contestants attempting grunge yarls a decade later. Instead, Live Through This was a great and popular album that was still absolutely overshadowed by its tragic context.
Still, the Courtney Love of Live Through This was a star, and a transcendent one. Love has made things tough on her loyalists in recent years; those stories about custody disputes and dead cats and money-chasing Hole non-reunions and petty rock-star beefs pile up like Lindsay Lohan headlines. (Last night’s onstage reconciliation with her husband’s bandmates would’ve made for a nice story if the asshole crowd didn’t boo her.) But Love was a titanic figure in kids’ minds in the mid-’90s, and she had that status for reasons that went way beyond her husband. She commanded vast crowds — and I mean that literally, not figuratively. At the 1995 HFStival — a vast radio-station show in a Washington, D.C. football stadium — Love was an unannounced guest, stepping onstage with a guitar and no band in the middle of the day. I’d been trying to get a good spot for Primus (shut up, I liked them), and when Love appeared, the entire back half of the audience pushed its way toward the front, and I spent maybe 10 minutes convinced I was about to die, that the crowd-crush was just going to squeeze all air from my lungs. She played two songs — “Doll Parts” and “Softer, Softest,” if memory serves — and then dove into the crowd, had her dress half-ripped off of her, cussed out the crowd, and bounced. For years, I saw footage of that stage-dive every time VH1 would air a special about the ’90s or whatever. After that, Les Claypool’s bass gymnastics seemed a little less consequential. (The show’s other surprise guest was Tony Bennett. The ’90s were weird.)
In the year or two after Live Through This, Love left wreckage like that in her wake everywhere she went. She called Cobain “such an asshole” at his own memorial service. She toured with Nine Inch Nails, briefly dated Trent Reznor, and then messily broke up with him. She publicly feuded with every other band that was touring on the 1995 Lollapalooza lineup, with the possible exceptions of Cypress Hill and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. She starred in The People Vs. Larry Flynt, stole the movie away from Woody Harrelson, was nominated for a Golden Globe, should’ve been nominated for an Oscar. She tried to start a fight with Madonna at the VMAs. She invented the art of celebrity online oversharing. She was an agent of chaos, and she was also a genius. We don’t have anyone like her anymore, and we’re worse off for it.