Being punk nowadays isn't so hard. Stumble on down to the loud-and-fast store, pick up a tongue-stud-and-tattoo punk kit, stumble back to mom and dad's and try to come up with a killer riff, or at least figure out your fuzz pedal, and then start making the rounds of huge multinational record companies till you find one that's daring enough to take a shot on your unique brand of rebellion and outrage. Simple, really. Ask ... I don't know, Good Charlotte, maybe.
It wasn't always this way. In the beginning, punk was a ferocious jolt. The Ramones used to go onstage at CBGB and plow through a dozen songs in 20 minutes — pow! pow! pow! — leaving those fans who'd subwayed in from the band's ancestral borough of Queens wondering why it'd taken them twice as long to get to the gig as it'd taken the Ramones to play it.
But there was more to punk than just velocity. Back in the early '70s, when sensitive dweebs like James Taylor were having hits, Iggy Pop was rolling around in broken glass onstage and flopping out his famously weighty appendage d'amour and ... have you ever heard Metallic KO? Metallic KO is an album, made from an ultra-cruddy tape, that documents the last concert by Iggy and the Stooges, in 1974. A bunch of bikers from a Detroit gang called the Scorpions showed up, looking to pound Iggy's face into the floor over some earlier affront. Iggy, irrepressible as always, and wasted, of course, taunted them from the stage. The bikers responded by hurling bottles at him — you can hear them whizzing past the mike and shattering on the boards. The Metallic KO cover photo shows the Ig prostrate, unconscious, looking kinda dead. Now that's punk.
It would be insufficient to say that Iggy had attitude. He was attitude, a walking weird worldview, and genuinely unstable. You never knew what he might do next, but you knew you wanted to see him do it.
This — if I may get to the point — puts me in mind of Courtney Love. A lot of people — I like to think of them as the progeny of aging James Taylor fans — find Courtney Love repulsive: the drugs, the drink, the serial rehabs; the talk-show phone rants, the airborne meltdowns, all those out-of-control tabloid antics. The surgery, of course. And the dismal, ongoing drama with her 11-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, of whom, at the moment, Courtney — facing drug-possession charges in Los Angeles — doesn't have custody.
Quite a lot of rock people seem to have had it with Courtney, too. They may have thrilled to Pretty on the Inside, Hole's noise-bomb debut album, back in 1991. And they may have marveled at the raw torment of Live Through This three years later. But bored legions of them started jumping ship after the 1998 release of Celebrity Skin (a Bangles album without the tunes, I thought). And now, six years later, virtually all of her onetime fans appear to have deserted her: America's Sweetheart, Courtney's first solo album — part one of a big-bucks, three-album deal with Virgin Records — limped onto the Billboard chart for four short weeks, and then dropped off, a bomb.
This was unfortunate; unfair, really. America's Sweetheart isn't a great album, but there are some great, slam-bang punk tracks on it, and I don't think they're just part of a pose. Nor do the pained and sometimes hopeless lyrics seem like a cynical manipulation. They're too pained and hopeless. In one song, "Almost Golden," she sings, "Cover me in burns/ Everyone take a turn." And in "Mono," more ominously: "You burn so hard, but you won't burn long."
In any discussion of Courtney these days, the words "train wreck"
inevitably occur, and they were in the air on Thursday when she played a
sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York with her new, all-girl band. Just about everybody enjoys a good train wreck, I guess, and connoisseurs of chaos weren't disappointed by this gig: It was state-of-the-art chaotic (see "Courtney Love At NY Show: 'I'm Not Having A Nervous Breakdown' ").
For openers, Courtney was nearly two hours late showing up. Great. Then, when she finally did appear, she blew out her throat on the first song. (A lot of people contend that Courtney can't sing. But Steve Van Zandt, the Springsteen guitarist and "Sopranos" star, who was in the house Thursday night, thinks she's one of the greatest rock-and-roll singers now going.) Reduced to a gargling croak, she told the crowd, "I'm about to lose my voice. I'm just letting you know. Jail will do that." (The night before, during an impromptu appearance at a downtown club called Plaid, she had allegedly tossed a mike stand into the audience and clocked some guy on the head. Police came and arrested her for third-degree assault, and she spent the rest of the night in jail [see "Courtney Love Arrested After Allegedly Striking Fan With Mic Stand".])
Courtney started out looking good: wearing a power-red dress, she dominated the stage effortlessly. The dress didn't stay on for long, naturally. Soon she peeled down to her underwear; then she donned a pair of what looked like giant bloomers, and then a T-shirt emblazoned with the sort of rude words that drive TV cameramen (of whom there were some on hand) nuts. And so forth.
There was ongoing consultation with the five members of her group (it was only their fourth performance together). They had considerable difficulty settling on songs that would accommodate the leader's frogged-out vocal cords. She ranted ("Howard Stern, I love you, even though you're an a--hole!") and she raved ("I know we are the best rock stars, no need to tell us that!"), and she spent a large part of the show surfing around on the clamoring, upstretched hands of a crowd that could only be called adoring: These people clearly still loved her. "I'm gonna get f---in' crucified for this show," she announced at one point (quite accurately, as it turned out), "so let's just have fun."
A train wreck, yes. And yet the unhinged spontaneity of it was wonderful. How much uncalculated behavior do you see in rock concerts anymore? And how many genuinely unhinged performances? It was very punk; kind of inspiring, actually. Especially for a 39-year-old woman who's constantly berated for being ... very punk.
After the show, there was a little meet-and-greet down in the
bar, mostly for the fans, who were still buzzing. I asked one girl what she thought Courtney had been doing that made her almost two hours late for the gig, and the girl, not missing a beat, said, "Oxycontin." Then Courtney walked into the room. She didn't seem to be drunk or high or anything, but she was, of course, very Courtney. "This is Lisa," she said, introducing one of her guitarists, Lisa Leveridge. "We used to be teenage prostitutes together." Lisa appeared to have heard this before, possibly many times.
I repaired with Courtney to a banquette to talk. And talk and talk. I mostly listened and listened. Her mode of communication, famously by now, is one long, looping skein of free-associations, a careening monologue that makes you lean back in wonder. Out of nowhere, she said that as a little girl she used to take Beatles albums and prettify their covers with lipstick and makeup. "I always wanted to be in a band," she said. "But I always wound up being the damn John, when I wanted to be the Paul.
"I cannot exist as a solo artist," she said, "it's a joke. Did you see the faux Playboy cover [on America's Sweetheart]? That didn't work."
She didn't seem terminally bummed about the album's failure, or at least she wasn't letting on. Since she and the band will be launching a full-on tour around June, starting in Europe, there may still be hope for it. As for the just-ended concert, while it had been calamitous by any traditional measure, it had also been mesmerizing: You had no idea what she might do next, but you definitely wanted to see her do it.
Because I really did want to know, I asked her what she'd been doing during the time between when she was supposed to go onstage and the much later time when she actually did. Her smile evaporated. "Crying," she said. "I was scared. I wasn't gonna play." Being put in jail the night before had been a rare, sobering experience, apparently. "It was really f---in' scary," she said. Then she started to ... cry, I think. Her face got all scrunched up, anyway.
The girls in the band drifted over. Half of them were dressed kind of like the New York Dolls circa 1972; the other half were dressed like Black Sabbath roadies circa any period you care to choose. Much better-looking, of course, and all very sweet, although I'm pretty sure they wouldn't want you to say that. They wisecracked with Courtney for a while, then drifted off again. I suddenly realized that Courtney was now talking about Cameron Crowe, the director. "Cameron Crowe is my best friend," she said. (Courtney has many "best friends.") "He'll vouch for my integrity." I pointed out that I hadn't questioned her integrity, but she was already on to something else: her late husband, Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide almost exactly 10 years ago.
"They say it takes two years to get over something like that," she said, leaning in close. "Then it gets better, you can move on. But then, eight years later, it all starts coming back, all over again."
Now she really was crying. The endless monologue had been abruptly put on hold, and this time she wasn't snapping right back, lurching off onto some other subject. I believe I said that everything was going to be all right, or something equally inane, and that I hoped to see her again the next time she came to town. If there is a next time.
I mean, really, who knows? Courtney Love's life is such a high-wire act, you can't help feeling that any show, any interview, any drug wallow could be her last. She's an original in a time when personal eccentricity and what-the-hell bravado aren't highly valued; and if you care at all, you may actually worry about her. Maybe she'll live through all this, but some of her new songs, like "Sunset Strip," aren't encouraging:
Rock star, pop star, everybody dies
All tomorrow's parties
They have happened tonight
And I know that I won't see tomorrow.