Saturday, December 7, 2013

Courtney Love

Several weeks ago, I happened to hear on the radio a tribute to the "women of rock". Now, as it turns out, it was nothing more than a block of classic rock songs with women's names in the title. A fun enough theme, but it got me to thinking about actual women who rock - the rock goddesses, women who sing or play rock n roll music. And I even got to the point where I considered doing another installment of Zharth's Music Log celebrating women who rock. But what stumped me was the very unfortunate fact that the rock n roll landscape is dominated by men.

But despite stereotypes about testosterone and aggression, this is not because women can't rock, nor even that women don't rock, as the few prominent counterexamples will attest to. Truth is, there is undoubtedly a large amount of social pressure, fueled by the usual gender stereotypes, that serves as a significant barrier for women attempting to "make it" in rock n roll - probably even more so in the decades going back to the sixties and seventies (the heyday of "classic rock") than today.

Now, there's no question that women have made their mark in other genres of music, and rock can come in the form of many guises (punk, metal, country, even pop, and more), but it's rare to find a female musician who truly embodies the rock n roll attitude, in all its raw and anarchic splendor, and actually plays rock music. There are a few I consider within my purview of experience, like Suzi Quatro, and the girls of The Runaways that she helped to inspire, including the very popular Joan Jett. And there's Janis Joplin, who, even with her soul influences, had a true rock spirit. The Wilson sisters, in their band Heart, who were big fans of titan rock band Led Zeppelin, could lay one down from time to time as well.

But then you get to other names. I'm very familiar with the band Fleetwood Mac, and I like Stevie Nicks. And truth be told, she could rock when she wanted to. But I don't know that I'd really call her a rock star; and the other girl in the band, Christine McVie, I never liked as much. And there's Grace Slick, the very popular singer in the psych rock band Jefferson Airplane, but can you really call her a rock star? She seems more into head trips than power trips. And then there are names like Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde (of the band The Pretenders), and Patti Smith, but these are artists I only barely know a few songs by, and have never made it into my pantheon of favorites.

So in my attempt to get to know some new rock goddesses, I procured some recordings by two different female musicians, for trial purposes. One of them was Lita Ford, whom I knew from the band The Runaways. She was fairly popular in the '80s, to the point of recording a duet with Ozzy Osbourne. She also has the prominent distinction of being one of the very few female musicians I know who can play lead guitar. (You can imagine my disappointment, as a guitarist, when I discovered that Nancy Wilson plays rhythm guitar, and that the lead guitarist in the band Heart is just another man). Unfortunately, though, Lita Ford's music, while competent, fails to impress, falling within the category of bland '80s hair metal.

The other rock goddess I endeavored to experience was none other than the infamous Courtney Love. Based on her reputation, and listening to a few of her more popular songs on youtube, I thought that maybe here was a woman who could truly rock. It was quite a departure for me, as it is not often that I venture into the realm of '90s music. I grew up in the '90s, yeah, but I was always very strongly anti-conformist, and so I associate the popular music of the '90s with the kids I grew up alongside who liked that music - and they were people I had no desire to emulate.

But, I think I've grown up a little over the years, and I'm not as reticent as I used to be. Still, I find it ironic that between the choice of a lead guitarist who played hair metal, and a singer with ties to Nirvana and its grunge/alt rock scene, I ended up liking the latter a whole lot more. But Courtney Love's music is so raw and energetic, it's exhilarating. I find myself mesmerized by it, listening to songs over and over and over again, which is something I only do with music that really resonates with me.

I keep reading comments that, compared to her later, more pop-friendly arrangements, Courtney Love's earliest recordings are "abrasive" and "unlistenable". Abrasive, absolutely. The anger and excitement in Love's voice is matched only by the frenetic and anarchic noise produced by the band she plays in. But unlistenable? To most, I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case. But I can't stop listening to it! The noise is very Neil Young Arc or Dead Man-like, at least the louder portions - very rock n roll, loose and unpredictable, but heavy. Some of the transitions from gentle, whispering parts to outright screaming even recalls for me one of my favorite elements of post-rock music. And the energy of it all is infectious. I'm in love with it.

Hole's first album, Pretty on the Inside, and other early tracks recorded by the band - like Retard Girl, Dicknail, Drown Soda; I'm also fond of the track Violet from the band's second album Live Through This - most perfectly embody the abrasive, "unlistenable" approach I've come to appreciate so much. It is the most hauntingly affecting debut album I've heard since Bob Dylan's, who was trying to conjure the cursed pathos of Robert Johnson's recordings. If I thought that Bob Dylan's rough ruminations on death were even more compelling than Johnson's folk blues, Courtney Love's blaring outbursts with her no-holds-barred rock band Hole, covering such lurid topics as rape, abuse, abortion, prostitution, humiliation, abandonment...all with a confident if tortured attitude that screams "fuck you", is positively harrowing. It's my new musical obsession.


  1. Wow, well you'll have to teach me a thing or two about Courtney's music over Christmas... Having been familiar with her toxic personality (she's become brutally unhinged in more recent years, she even disowned poor Francis, her & Kurt's daughter), I was turned off from venturing too far into her catalog. But you certainly make it sound amazing, and I do recall finding her new album (the one with Skinny Little Bitch, might not be the newest anymore) extremely solid, especially for an aging grunge band. And someone's personality should never turn someone off from great music, after all I listen to Burzum.

    And once you've thoroughly explored Courtney, there's plenty for you to explore among her Riot Grrrl contemporaries. L7 was always my favorite (because they basically out-grunged the grunge bands. Donita Sparks threw her bloody tampon into the crowd at Lollapalooza.) But Bikini Kill was very abrasive, especially on their first albums, totally awesome band. And then there's Babes in Toyland, what an amazing band name, took it from an old movie.

    As a kid I loved the grunge but as an adult I definitely find more intriguing about the riot grrrl bands and the other female artists of the time (like Ani). The grunge artists caught on really quick that if they play nice melodies they can make millions, but the female artists had a social agenda so they held on a lot longer to their confrontational, uninhibited sound. Not to mention they just plain rocked harder.

  2. Yeah, Hole's album from 2010, Nobody's Daughter, is a very decent mix of the heavy rock and the more pop-friendly melodies. Courtney Love's solo album from 2004, America's Sweetheart, is pretty good too (though I don't appreciate the sentiment of "Zeplin Song"). But Pretty On The Inside is another thing entirely. It exists in a league of its own. Live Through This is okay, but definitely moving in more of a listener-friendly direction. And, even though I actually really like the single Celebrity Skin, that album is the dullest, being the most poppy and radio-friendly. I don't care especially much for the MTV Unplugged album, either, but that could be as much my own disinterest in acoustic music as having anything to do with the quality of the music.