NEW YORK — Once upon a time, Courtney Love wasn't considered a total disaster.
Sure, she was a mess, but she was a charismatic mess, as daring as she was disruptive, a punk rock diva party-crasher who made just as many fans as enemies with her antics. But instead of making a comeback, Love is on a losing streak, with her record sales plummeting as her arrest record grows, and almost everything she does lately being viewed as proof of her unraveling.
Yes, her show Thursday night at the Bowery Ballroom started an hour and a half late. And yes, she stripped down to her underwear. And yes, she was hoarse. Yet losing her voice may have helped her win back a few fans — not because it shut her up (it didn't), but because it lent her a moving emotional eloquence.
Squeezing out a rasp instead of a shriek, Love imbued her 12-song set with a vulnerability that was better suited not just to her lyrics, but also to her situation. Most of her solo material on America's Sweetheart, like the tracks in Hole's catalogue, come across as defiant, even though the lyrics are actually more reflective.
This time, those contradictions broke apart, and Love herself appeared to break down ... in a good way. She lost herself in the words, grasping fans' hands from the crowd for strength as she sang "your light just radiates" from "Malibu," and, with her voice faltering, appearing to genuinely want someone to "Hold on to Me." Her shaky reading of "Asking for It" suggested she wasn't, and was closer to a plea for sympathy. And at a few points, she even seemed to wipe away tears.
Those gentler moments, however, were overshadowed by her standard antics: taking off her top, then her skirt, then swapping shirts with members of the audience (including one that read "Eat My F---").
Was all of this standard punk showmanship — or was it simple narcissism? Does she really just have an emotional hole inside of her that no amount of attention could ever fill?
At this show, she let herself be consumed by the audience, as she sat among them, stood before them and surfed across their upraised arms — at one point, all the way to the far end of the room and back. The fans huddled around her onstage, they shared her mic for guest vocals as she wrangled with the offstage soundman, begging for more volume.
Her new all-female backing band, the Chelsea — which includes former Hole member Samantha Maloney on drums, Lisa Leveridge and Radio Sloan on guitar, Dvin Kirakosian on bass and Emilie Autumn on violin — also picked up where Love left off, actually carrying the main melody lines when their singer couldn't reach high enough.
"I'm not having a nervous breakdown, I'm having no vocal," Love explained. "I've got no voice, I'm in deep trouble, I'm going to get crucified for this show, so let's just have fun, OK?"
Love concentrated on the more recent of her rambunctious songs, like "Mono" and "But Julian, I’m a Little Older Than You," and amply dipped into Hole's catalogue for the more emotionally complex "Miss World" and "Asking for It."
She even lightened the set for a brief interval with a cheerful cover of 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry." And despite having trouble singing, Love let her voice carry — a lot — especially about her most recent arrest (see "Courtney Love Arrested After Allegedly Striking Fan With Mic Stand"), peppering her stage banter with jokes about jail and arguments that she's being singled out because she's female. (For more of Love's thoughts on these and other subjects, check out her interview with Kurt Loder, which will run on Monday on "TRL" as well as here on MTVNews.com).
Before the band took the stage, she told the crowd, which included Ethan Hawke, Debbie Harry, Norman Reedus and Little Steven, "If anyone is planning on getting injured, go outside and get yourself arrested," since a bevy of cop cars were already on the scene (their attention was focused not on Love, but on an unidentified woman who had been handcuffed, restrained, then taken away via ambulance).
Love asked the roadies if they had been in central booking, complimented the NYPD ("not as bad as the LAPD"), asked for a mic stand as "that thing I kill people with," and blamed her arrest for the state of her scratchy pipes: "I'm losing my voice. Jail does that to you."
"In the history of rock music, ever," Love said during one such rant, "no one has ever been arrested ever, for someone being hurt at a show. ... So if you all go out there and tell the police that I hurt you and raped you, I will go to jail. So, please, send me to central booking, it will be fun. My daughter will be so proud, really."