I was in the back of an Uber in Los Angeles, on my way to an orchestral performance of Hole's Pretty on the Inside, when I realized that I don’t know much about Courtney Love. I didn’t even discover Nirvana until college — I was too busy fucking around with 1980s art punk — much less get familiar with the music made by their late frontman’s wife. I was dimly aware of her reputation as rock’s most sensational Hot Mess, the one who may or may not have slapped Kathleen Hanna backstage and embarrassed herself at the 1995 VMAs with Madonna. The Courtney Love I heard so much about was some strange, tragic hybrid of the Grieving Widow and the Crazy Ex — in other words, someone I never wanted to be.
I should have been paying more attention to albums like her band’s acclaimed 1991 debut, produced by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. Pretty on the Inside, released in September of that year, is a touchstone of early-’90s sounds: swirling guitars, guttural screams, weighty melodies buried under oppressive layers of noise. And yet Love’s perspective offers something new: “There is no power like my pretty power,” she chants on the record’s title track, an abrasive clash of beauty and ugliness. These words didn’t fully resonate with me until I’d heard them in the right setting: weirdly enough, in a downtown Los Angeles theater performed by a choir and 20-piece orchestra.
On Wednesday, October 6, Hole guitarist and founding member Eric Erlandson presented “Pretty Looking Back: An Orchestral Interpretation Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Hole’s First Album,” a project conceived by him and arranged and conducted by Steve Gregoropoulos. Prior to the performance, Erlandson explained why he’d wanted to mark the album’s anniversary without considering a reunion. “The right way is to honor it without rehashing it,” he said. “It’s never going to be as good as it was back in the day … I tried to think of what I could do, and I imagined a choir singing ‘Teenage Whore.’”
To imagine it is one thing, but to bring it to life is another. “We live in an era where Nirvana is easy listening,” Erlandson said with a laugh. “This record is never going to hit the mainstream.” It’s clear that with “Pretty Looking Back,” Erlandson meant to take serious ownership of his band and its legacy. And although I’d joke-tweeted about wearing black velvet to the rock opera, from the moment the stage lit up with “Teenage Whore,” I felt a sweeping sincerity course through me. While some moments were just plain funny — members of the choir cracked smiles while harmonizing the word “shit!” on “Mrs. Jones” — the interpretation provided genuine weight and meaning for a record that previously held little or none for me.
As the performance drifted from track to track, buzzing strings softened jagged guitar melodies, as moments of quiet accented the record’s eeriness and pounding percussion magnified its loudness to epic proportions. Even when performed in such a prim, elegant context, Hole’s themes of self-image, self-hatred, and violence were no less intense. And yet, stripped of the original music’s harsh, noisy context, there was plenty of beauty left over. I liked being able to thoroughly hear Love’s words and relate to her pain in a way I’d never imagined. Before this experience, the only Hole record I’d ever listened to fully was 1994’s Live Through This, released at a time when sadness and fame had been clawing at Love until there was almost nothing left. On Pretty on the Inside, though, there’s no tragic ending in sight — not yet, at least. Just the beginning of something raw, scary, and very real.
For Erlandson, looking back on those early years is understandably emotional. “Courtney and I were best friends,” he said. “That’s the weird part.” In a press release for the performance, Erlandson described Pretty on the Inside as his and Love’s “baby.” While the duo’s romantic relationship had ended well before the album’s release, Hole’s story was just getting started. Looking back a quarter-century later, it’s one well worth following.