This is an exclusive excerpt from Live Through This, Anwen Crawford’s examination of how Hole’s second album awoke a feminist consciousness in a generation of young listeners. Live Through This is part of the long-running 33⅓ series. Each short book focuses on an individual album; you can find out more about the series at 333sound.com.
I wanted the prize, and I might get the prize, and, if I don’t get the prize, I’ll be kind of sad, but I’ll have gone down as being some place in evolution—as a reference point for whoever does get the prize.
Mins McCauley was raised in Noosa, on Australia’s northeast coast. At the age of 18, she moved to Sydney, around the same time that Hole were forming as a band in Los Angeles, 12,000 kilometres away across the Pacific.
‘When I came down [to Sydney], I was the kind of person who’d listen to Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cure, I was a huge Smiths fan,’ she recalls. ‘My mother left our home quite early, so I was a girl who’d been raised by men and I didn’t care about female artists at all. I wasn’t interested. I was angry with women because my mum had run off.’
A regular at Red Eye Records, one of Sydney’s key independent record stores, McCauley first discovered Hole in the pages of the British music weeklies. (Shipped surface mail from London, each issue would arrive in Australia at least six weeks after publication. Yet how breathlessly new the old headlines sounded.) Around the time that Pretty on the Inside was released, McCauley spotted a photograph of Courtney Love in NME. ‘I was intrigued by this woman, this image. She was so “Fuck you”, but pretty at the same time.’
PULL QUOTE: ‘She was so “Fuck you”, but pretty at the same time.’
Though Hole had surfaced in the American press—most notably in the pages of Flipside—it was British music writers who were the first to really champion them.‘The only band in the world,’ wrote Everett True in Melody Maker of Hole’s performance at Hollywood’s Club Lingerie on June 8, 1991. ‘Teenage Whore’ reached No. 1 on the UK Indie Chart that September, but not everyone was impressed. ‘Their ability to depress in the name of entertainment is unrivalled,’ wrote Dele Fadele in NME, reviewing a Hole gig at London’s Camden Underworld.
In December 1991, Mins McCauley took a trip to the United Kingdom. ‘I bought Pretty on the Inside from Tower Records on cassette tape the second day I was there, and I just listened to it for the whole six weeks. It was the sound of what I was thinking, the way I was feeling,’ she says. ‘All that screaming, all that anger. [Courtney] obviously had a traumatic relationship with her mother and I could totally relate to that. It totally spoke to me. At that stage, the band were amorphous—I knew there was a dude there, but it was all about her.’ Early in 1992, McCauley returned to Australia, and, the day after landing, she drove to Canberra—the nation’s staid, manicured capital—to see Nirvana.
The fact that Nirvana ended up in Australia at the very height of Nevermind mania was serendipitous. The tour contract was little more than a verbal agreement between Kurt Cobain, Kris Novoselic and Sydney-based promoter Steve Pavlovic, who met Nirvana in Seattle when the band were still signed to Sub Pop. In 1990, Pavlovic had organised a successful Australian tour for Mudhoney, but Nirvana’s local following was smaller and they were booked into modest venues, with the expectation that they’d draw a few hundred people per gig. Then came Nevermind. As the album climbed the charts, Pavlovic kept expecting the band to cancel, but Nirvana stuck to their promise, declining offers from major tour promoters, and so it was that Mins McCauley found herself, on February 5, 1992, inside the student union bar of the Australian National University, while several thousand people pushed on the doors from outside, trying to gain entry. ‘It felt like the whole place was going to crash in,’ she remembers. ‘Inside, it was amazing. I’m sure I saw a glimpse of Courtney somewhere. She was there, she was sitting side of stage. You couldn’t really take your eyes off what was happening onstage, and Kurt was in a really bad way,he was having a bad time of it …but I couldn’t take my eyes off her, because she was transfixed on him. It was such a romantic, fucked up, rock ’n’ roll thing.’
For McCauley, Hole sparked a new interest in female-led bands. She bought records by Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill. ‘I’d read a lot of books about bands and I was into what was happening behind the scenes, I was obsessed with that stuff,’ she says. ‘You never really heard about women except as an adjunct to a man, so to hear about this whole underground scene that was happening, and what was going on with Courtney—because she was creating all the excitement and tension, the competition in a way—it was a really different point of view to hear about.’ She wondered what Hole would do after Pretty on the Inside. ‘I’ve seen Nirvana, I’ve seen Courtney side of stage. I’m waiting for whatever happens next.’
For a thousand pounds, the upscale department store Harrods of London will transform your little girl into a princess. It’s the Disney Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, the total cartoon experience. Gown, tiara, crystal Cinderella slipper; nail polish and makeup and hair styling. Each princess is assigned a fairy godmother (employed on minimum wage?) and pledges her fealty to those noted aristocratic values of kindness, gentleness and trustworthiness. A photo op and a Disney gift bag later, and she’s off her throne. The next child awaits her metamorphosis.
Outside, in less exclusive playgrounds, you’ll find other princesses aspirant, clumsy but imperious; striving, as they seesaw and slippery-dip, to keep their miniature frocks uncreased and their plastic tiaras straight. Little girls in clothing all candy-coloured and diaphanous, and, for the benefit of onlookers, quite likely stamped with the word ‘PRINCESS’. Performing their role as an object of slavish devotion—and quite aware that they’re performing it, too.
PULL QUOTE: It’s notable how few girls choose to imagine themselves as queens.
It’s notable how few girls choose to imagine themselves as queens. Even at three or four years old, a girl will sense, from her bedtime fairy tales, that a queen stands in a princess’s way. A queen holds power—legal, familial—through her marriage to a king. Often a stepmother, she is jealously competitive with her female stepchild. She envies the latter’s youth and beauty, while the princess, invariably, is modest, selfless, quiet; mute as a fish, if need be. The happy fate of the princess is to marry and usurp the queen, and it is a fantasy of marriage (the boy’s attention, the world’s attention), which rewards her beauty but does not undermine her autonomy, that young, make-believe princesses are attracted to. The girl with the most cake.
A fairy tale always ends at the wedding feast. The rest is covered with a blithe ‘happily ever after’. We don’t see what comes next: a girl’s realisation that the only reward for beauty is to be worshipped as an object, that the only power in marriage is the power of motherhood. The princess, in her turn, becomes the wicked and sadistic queen; ‘her daughter is the privileged object opposite whom she attempts to affirm herself as a sovereign subject,’ writes de Beauvoir. Far better to remain a princess, asleep for a hundred years, than awake to full knowledge of one’s powerlessness. Be ripe, be ready, be patient: a prince will cut his way through a forest of thorns to claim you. Just don’t turn bitter, don’t get old, don’t lose your looks, don’t be despised. Be a Miss World, not a Mrs.
In early 1994, Courtney Love posed for the cover of SPIN wearing a silver tiara studded with plastic jewels and a short black dress ornamented with neat white buttons and a white Peter Pan collar. Her huge blue-green eyes stare straight past us. She looks, it must be said, like an oversized doll, but this cover folds out, and no inanimate nursery toy would ever pose as Courtney does under the flap: dress slumped around her ankles, black briefs and the back of her creamy thighs on full display as she pushes toward, yet pivots away from, the camera. The ambiguity of her facial expression—pained? petulant? anxious?—is mirrored in the curious, unfinished gesture of her left hand, which curls upward. (Her right arm is held across her body, keeping her bra partly on and her breasts hidden.) Is she beckoning us closer, or is she just about to give us the finger? Either way, her wedding ring is clearly visible.
PULL QUOTE: At this moment in history, Courtney Love is playing princess on a grand scale.
At this moment in history, Courtney Love is playing princess on a grand scale. She has the wealth, she has the jewels (one suspects the wedding ring wasn’t plastic) and she has the man. Oh, does she ever have the man. The world’s most famous, most unlikely, most volatile rock star: Mr. Kurt Cobain.
The Love-Cobains are reigning couple over that perpetually adolescent fiefdom, rock ’n’ roll, with a global teenage audience in its millions. They dress like children— a twin-headed, blonde, raggedy orphan-doll thing—and yet. When Courtney Love opens her mouth to sing, the voice that issues forth has all the belligerence of womanhood inside of it, and the calamity. Her tone is full and deep; she doesn’t whine, she doesn’t mewl—she roars. Her husband, on the other hand, possesses a throat-shredding scream that is simultaneously infantile and ancient. Kurt’s voice is full of rage—but this risks implying that such an anger belongs inherently to the male voice, and is produced by the male body. For Courtney, too, has her reasons to be angry.
In 1985, Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade were cofounders of Boston’s Fort Apache Studios. Just about all the city’s key underground rock bands recorded there: Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Buffalo Tom, Blake Babies, The Lemonheads and Volcano Suns. A&R person Mark Kates, who worked at Geffen Records, was also from Boston, and both Kolderie and Slade credit him with helping them land the producers’ chair for Live Through This.
‘When Geffen signed Sonic Youth and then Nirvana,’ says Kolderie,‘they needed somebody who came from that world, who people like Kurt would trust, to work with them. It’s that typical thing with the generations. Geffen was a West Coast label and they were kind of Hollywood. They were pretty sure that Kurt didn’t trust them, which is probably true. Mark was, I think, put in charge of finding a producer for Courtney’s record, and he knew us.’
PULL QUOTE: For Courtney, too, has her reasons to be angry.
Butch Vig, who produced Nevermind, was approached first and turned the job down. ‘What I was told is that Butch turned them down because he had just finished the Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream record, and he was kind of burnt from that and wanted to do his own thing, which became Garbage,’ says Kolderie, who thinks that he and Sean Slade were suggested for the job at a meeting between Courtney Love, Mark Kates and Butch Vig’s manager, Shannon O’Shea. Kates, who knew both men, sent them demos.
Both were struck by the songs, particularly ‘Doll Parts’. ‘I react very strongly when I hear a certain combination of lyrics and melody,’ says Kolderie. ‘It’s hard to describe, but it’s sort of a sixth sense. It’s happened a few times, when you hear a song and go, “Whoa”. When I realised what the lyrics [to “Doll Parts”] were, and what was happening in the song, that was the one that made me go, “Alright, I’m in.” I knew that, if we did that right and if Courtney pulled it off, people would like it.’
Sean Slade, too, describes the ‘Doll Parts’ demo as ‘memorable, and I think the “Violet” demo was also very well put together. There were some [songs] that were almost just electric guitar chords—it was Eric and Courtney singing, without drums or bass. These were just as intriguing. I definitely had the feeling that she had made a huge leap forward as a songwriter.’
The demos had been made in various locations around the world, and one of these places was Rio de Janeiro, where an early version of ‘Miss World’ was recorded on January 21, 1993, at the studio Ariola Ltda BMG. It is reasonably close in structure and melody to the finished version that would appear on Live Through This, though Courtney’s vocal is noticeably hesitant, and she begins by singing, I am the one you know, I lie and lie and lie/No matter where you go I try and try and try. Lyric changes were made along the way, including the addition of the I made my bed/I’ll lie in it chant that eventually became the song’s chorus. Paul Kolderie remembers that Courtney ‘had a book of lyrics and ideas and images, and she would get it out and say, “We gotta finish this one.” They worked on lyrics right there in the studio.’
Kurt Cobain plays bass on this demo version of ‘Miss World’, with Patty Schemel on drums and Courtney on guitar. Nirvana had just played an enormous stadium show in Sao Paolo (‘both the band and crew recalled it as their single worst performance,’ writes Cobain biographer Charles Cross) and were booked into Ariola for three days before a further live appearance in Rio de Janeiro. Officially, this was a preproduction session for Nirvana’s album In Utero, but at least four Hole songs are in circulation from this session, erroneously referred to as the ‘Argentina demos’ (Rio de Janeiro is in Brazil). Craig Montgomery, who worked with Nirvana many times, produced. ‘Miss World’ was later released on the Hole rarities compilation My Body, The Hand Grenade—the other extant recordings are ‘She Walks On Me’, ‘I Think That I Would Die’ and ‘Pee Girl’, later to become ‘Softer, Softest’.
A final recording, ‘Closing Time,’ was sent by Courtney Love to John Peel sometime after Cobain’s death, and broadcast on his BBC Radio 1 program in 1995. The song’s alternative title, ‘Drunk in Rio,’ sums up the spirit of proceedings. It’s barely a song at all, but bootleg versions, possibly taped from Peel’s broadcast, circulate through the outer reaches of Nirvana message boards (and YouTube). Very few recordings of Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain singing together have ever surfaced, and this is one of them.
‘Miss World’ was the first single from Live Through This, released on March 28, 1994. Besides ‘Doll Parts’, it is the album’s best-known track, and the film clip, directed by Sophie Muller, formed for many listeners an introduction to the woman whose reputation well and truly preceded her. The song is about this: reputation, notoriety, fame, and the hair trigger between iconolatry and iconoclasm. I’m Miss World, Courtney drawls. Somebody kill me.
PULL QUOTE: Courtney put herself in a position where she had to compete: for press attention, record sales, critical acclaim.
‘Figure out how the idea of competition fits into your intimate relationships,’ reads an early riot grrrl manifesto. This was not Courtney Love’s style. Unlike the riot grrrls, who aimed to halt the insecurity borne out of competitiveness between women, Courtney put herself in a position where she had to compete: for press attention, record sales, critical acclaim. Above all, she was competing with her husband. ‘I made them pull out Nirvana’s contract, and, everything on there, I wanted more,’ said Courtney of Hole’s deal with DGC Records. ‘I’m up to half a million for my publishing rights and I’m still walking. If those sexist assholes want to think that me and Kurt write songs together, they can come forward with a little more.’
Courtney’s audacity on this point cannot be understated. Kurt Cobain was, by 1992, a global superstar; Courtney wanted to be more famous and more important.What’s largely forgotten now—and was routinely overlooked at the time—is that her husband stood by her ambitions. ‘He was psyched,’ says Paul Kolderie, recalling Kurt’s brief visit to the studio. ‘You could tell that he really wanted her record to be great.’
Anwen Crawford is an Australian writer. She is the music critic for The Monthly magazine, and her essays have appeared in publications including Frieze, Overland and Loops: Writing Music.