Hole’s 'Celebrity Skin' Was a Polished, Perfect Love-Hate Letter to LA
Drowning, disaster and transformation: revisiting Hole’s follow up to ‘Live Through This’ with the band and their fans 20 years on.
All illustrations by Laura Backeberg
“Make me over / I’m all I wanna be / A walking study / in demonology”
With the opening promise of Celebrity Skin – the album and lead single of the same name – Courtney Love succinctly described her transformation from grubby ‘teenage whore’ to luminescent Hollywood star. Love genuinely had become all she’d dreamed of. The grunge star’s childhood diaries contain furious itemised lists of how to become famous and plans to secure a position as an coveted actress; the prior chapter of her career had her as the ruined pageant queen on the cover of Live Through This, using and subverting feminine ideals and embodying classic masculine rockstar traits. This was the After photo. She dazzled in her recent acting, social and romantic successes. She also knew exactly what she was: a demon.
In interviews and music, Love has always acknowledged and played with archetypes – a witch (vengeful and angry female, bog monster of a woman), Medusa or Siren (bewitching Yoko slut who drags men, especially deified grunge gods, to their doom), evil widow (Touring? Half-naked? Dating? Grieving in the ‘wrong’ ways) and Medea-level twisted mother (neglectful, addict bearer of child as referenced in “Plump” lyrics “ I don’t do the dishes / I throw them in the crib”). Moreover she knew people craved someone in pop culture to enact the roles. Non-fans went to Hole gigs in 1994 and 1995 to witness The Courtney Show, perversely intrigued by a distraught woman tossing herself into the crowd or starting diatribes about the husband she had just lost. In the eyes of the public and music press, who still packaged her as all of these symbols – for example, on this Celebrity Skin album cycle she made NME promise before speaking with them that they wouldn’t write whore, bitch, widow or murderer on the cover – she was a living, breathing, screaming, fucking study and Los Angeles, rather than Seattle, was now her stage.
When Celebrity Skin was released 20 years ago, everyone expected a grief album. Whether angry or sad, that would be an appropriate follow-up to Live Through This.
On release day in September 1998, superfan from Philadelphia, Sarah, now 37, bunked school thinking the lighter title track could be a one-off. “I listened to the album on the train home from the record store like ‘what is this?’ Fans anticipated something that would throw Live Through This out the water, although maybe not as heavy… but everything sounded like a radio pop hit.” Younger fan Tisha, 33, from Iowa was equally surprised by how pop and fun it was. “The fact that her next album was ‘life goes on’ impressed the hell out of me. Even her fans were waiting for the widow album. But you can’t help it when something like that happens.”
This was no widow’s album. This was a love-hate letter to Los Angeles, delivered by a Courtney Love now with beachy blonde curls, dressed in pastels with glittery eyes wide and minus the irony that had until this point characterised the 90s, particularly within rock. This pop-rock product was inseparable from Courtney: the woman and the concept. “I think a lot of us fans had a sense of relief when Celebrity Skin came out,” says Tisha, a fan and ex-addict, who, like others had been worried about losing her to drugs or suicide, given what she’d been through with Kurt and the media. “She was glamorous and pretty, no track marks. This was a Courtney no one could imagine.” This was a product of New Courtney.
On the inside of the CD, a dedication reads: “…To all the stolen water of Los Angeles and to anyone who ever drowned.” In 1994 Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff tragically overdosed and died in a bathtub. Guitarist Eric Erlandson’s father had died, according to Eric in a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone, almost “drowning in his own body, he couldn’t breathe”. New bassist Melissa Auf der Maur’s father died of lung cancer. During the writing of the album, Jeff Buckley, with whom Courtney had been friends, drowned in a river. Two months before Kristen’s death, Kurt had died, submerged in his own addiction and physical and inner torment. Drowning emerged as a clear metaphor for everyone they had lost. The connection to water ran deeper for a band whose members were mostly very into astrology. Both Courtney and Melissa Auf Der Maur are water signs – a double Cancer and Pisces, the latter had been Kurt’s sign too. All of which is to say they inhabit emotional and intuitive positions of the zodiac, and both Eric and drummer Patty Schemel, the other two band members have water in their charts too.
As for the first half of the CD’s dedication: to embezzled water itself. A major inspiration for the album was Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The 1974 film fictionalised the California Water Wars – a period during which water stolen from Owens Valley irrigated LA. Quickly the movie community would use all the water, until more and more was needed, while the city looked more like paradise but was a depleted husk underneath. Even LA's famous palm trees are not native to the land. They are now over 100 years old, decaying or entirely dead. But they look magnificent, right? This is the Los Angeles of Love’s Celebrity Skin. This is a land that glitters, made on a dessert that’s inhabitable, where even the water is sin.
It was appropriate then that the bulk of the album was written over a three-year period during which Hole stayed in LA: Patty and Melissa in the Silverlake Hills, Eric in the Laurel Canyon area and Courtney in Beverly Hills. Patty remembers taking a drive with Courtney to Malibu. “We went down these roads that led to the house of this guy she used to date. He was a special guy to her. I think she got out the car and knocked on the door. He didn’t come out. On the drive back we talked about the record having a California vibe, inspired by the late 70s.” Courtney wanted it to be pop, to deconstruct that Cali sound of The Byrds, The Doors.
“At the time I thought I was the worst drummer ever and it just broke me.” – Patty Schemel
“We were in fantasy land,” says Melissa, looking back. “I was having the time of my life in Los Angeles in my twenties, seeing every band I wanted to see and going to every party I ever wanted to go to, while working my ass off when I was required to go to work.”
Everything about the album’s creation was serious business. “There have been few people in the history of rock music who have more to prove than this person with this record,” Mark Kates, an A&R exec who worked with Hole at Geffen told Spin of Courtney at the time. There was the cynical idea that Live Through This was a fluke. Nick Broomfield’s slanderous film Kurt and Courtney fed the fire for conspiracy theorists who blamed her for Kurt’s addiction and even death. People certainly didn’t like that she was trying to evolve. Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times that it was “sad to see her swanning around Hollywood as if she couldn’t wait to become superficial.” Contextually, the mid to late 90s was still a period in which it wasn’t accepted to have actresses or models sing and vice versa; to do so was crude and a little pathetic. So imagine being Courtney Love doing it, attempting to rise above your station.
Then there was the money. “There were major label expectations like nothing Hole had experienced before,” says Melissa. “This was the 90s, there was unlimited budget and time based on the fact that it had to be the big follow up hit to this critically acclaimed work. It was the most labour-intensive record, the hardest I’ve ever worked on anything – even now.” They all had voice and music lessons, rewrote songs, continually improving and doing new takes.
Jordon Zadorozny, only 23 at the time, was brought in as a co-writer, having been friends and previous bandmates with Melissa. “Courtney had a busy schedule,” he says. “It was her Hollywood phase, so she’d be chain-smoking Marlboro lights and then going to the beach at 7AM with a personal trainer and auditioning. She’d just done Larry Flynt and we all went to the premiere for it.” Of the balancing act Courtney was playing with her commitments: “It was a very sensitive situation”.
Production had to be perfect so Michael Beinhorn (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marilyn Manson, Soundgarden, Ozzy Osbourne) was picked for producer. “When you listen to the record it sounds like a computer from that analogue time in terms of perfection,” says Melissa. “They worked our tracks on early versions of what would now be ProTools." Beinhorn had a reputation for replacing drummers and in the transformation of Hole from punk rock to shiny pop, someone would be left behind. “The first week [of recording] was brutal,” Patty remembers. “I’d sit down and he’d go into the microphone ‘do it again’, like a baseball player on a pitching plot. I guess usually he wears drummers down but I wouldn’t. He didn’t tell me, Courtney and Eric did. I remember Courtney saying, ‘Look Pats, he’s got a guy. It’s just business, okay?’ I lost my mind. At the time I thought I was the worst drummer ever and it just broke me.” She was removed, a Beinhorn-approved drummer brought in to record and Patty sunk into an old heroin addiction (one she details at length in last year’s memoir Hit So Hard) as the rest of the band continued to clean up.
Visuals would follow the album concept: to capture what longtime friend and art director Joe-Mama Nitzberg calls “this big fake paradise in the desert”. Joe remembers the desire to push the boundaries of what was in the rock/pop vernacular at the time – a label/management priority then was to sell CDs from the racks with a strong genre identity, for example, a “classic rock” album, a “pop” record – instead following a creative vision that he and Courtney workshopped around themes of the album. Inside the CD booklet there’s a picture of the Modesto Arch that has the words “Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health” printed across it in its early twentieth century twee capitalist enthusiasm and another of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. What was important to the entire group, he remembers, was that the band as a whole must be on the cover, not just Courtney. The black-and-white image of the four of them in front of burning palm trees that ended up on the cover was just a polaroid intended as a test shot for the ‘real’ photos. “Those are real palm trees on fire. It became windy and one blew over. The shoot was fraught for all of us, mainly because I was really close with Patty and didn’t know how to help her.”
At the time Patty was drowning in addiction, but she was brought back for the album photography and videography. “I showed up in the middle of the desert weighing 80 pounds and everyone knew I was absolutely a mess. I know what’s behind my eyes in those photos and it’s really dark,” she says. Subsequently there would be deals with management over rehab, the making and breaking of promises, until eventually Patty was out of the band in a more official sense. When Celebrity Skin was released Patty was disconnected entirely. “Unless someone told me about Hole – like my brother going ‘hey, there’s a giant billboard on Sunset with your picture on it – I had no clue and didn’t care."
On the back cover of the album is Paul Steck’s painting “Ophelia Drowning”. In his depiction of the classic tale, the heartbroken young woman is completely submerged and upright in green water. Instead of struggling in what would realistically be a terrifying and gruesome scene, she’s peaceful and stoically holding pink and purple flowers to her heart, her red hair swirling upwards towards the light. Denying any pain, she’s fetishisticly trapped in beauty. Who cares if you’re rotten but captured as beautiful forever?
Like waves hitting the beach, the album opens with a layered instrumental crash. Instantly recognisable by the catchy and corny Billy Corgan riff (he co-wrote some tracks), “Celebrity Skin” is a Shakespearean entry point to an LA album, the narrator welcoming you “with your pound of flesh” for a tour of Hollywood. “It’s all so sugarless / Hooker, waitress / Model, actress / Oh, just go nameless” are your options; see the stars fading in relative obscurity, see the desperate and the desiccated. The key single was pompous and ideal for blaring in every rock bar and for driving down the Sunset Strip. To NME, Courtney said at the time: “What I said to (Michael) Beinhorn, our producer, was, ‘I don’t care if the hook comes from the janitor, I want hooks and hooks and hooks’, because we’ve ignored them.” If previous albums were edgy or inaccessible, this was supposed to be a cohesive narrative of highs and lows in the city, makings of and ruinous ends, something radio-friendly for everyone to cash in on.
The anger of Courtney’s vocals are carved away, smoothed and mixed with Melissa’s ethereal voice, one following the other, to give that canned Beach Boys nostalgic feel. It’s obvious that Fleetwood Mac were a huge influence around that time; lyrics very slightly sarcastic, music Elysian, refreshing, sparkling and mixing acoustic and electric. The other two singles are chimy singalong melodies. “Awful” is something of a nod to both “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry”, about how being a shiny and perfect product of a woman will make it easier in a land where people-places-things are disposable. In a similar vein, “Malibu” is about an addict in recovery – it was thought to be about Kurt (he went to a rehab facility called "Malibu") but Courtney has since said it's about her ex, Jeff, who she lived with as a teenager. Either way, it feels like a love song: one about lust and real feeling mixed with the lies, desperation and seduction of the city, witnessing the “oceans of angels” where people’s fates will crash and burn and heartbreakers walk into the waves of the Pacific.
Previously explored themes, like male on female abusive relationships, lost innocence and desiring pain from a loved one, are done so in way that looks further at complexities. Romantic and soft “Hit So Hard” is about being a victim of abuse, referencing the famous song by The Crystals (“He hit so hard / I saw stars”). Courtney’s lyrics play further with her own mythology on “Reasons To Be Beautiful” with barely concealed puns: “Love hangs herself / With the bedsheets in her cell”. She prepares herself for reincarnation, because if you want to be new you have to murder parts of yourself off. It’s the closest you get to her older, more gravelly vocals, howling with mouthfuls of vowels.
In the middle of the album, any foreboding breaks through to the surface. “Dying” is a suicide note (the lyric “I am so dumb” sounds like a Kurt reference even if it’s not) and quiet-loud drugs song “Use Once and Destroy” is a call to save a loved one from drowning. “I went down to rescue you / I went all the way down / I went down for the remains / Sort through all your blurs and stains” could feasibly be a read of anyone from the Seattle/grunge scene, or simply about being submerged in something you can’t escape from. “Northern Star” is an accomplished follow-up, an acoustic and grand orchestral number about death, grief, and a haunting and boundless misery.
Joyous relief comes from the bright guitars and dreamy, sea-fresh vocals on “Boys On The Radio”. The song narrates a girl sitting alone in her room imagining her boyband idols singing sweeping promises at her: “When the water is too deep / I will ease your suffering”. Offered with that tableau is a comment on the ways in which bands are elevated and spat out by the music industry (possibly Nirvana included). Just as the previous track has the sugary elation of an early crush, innocent excitement continues on “Heaven Tonight,” which fans have thought could be a song for Frances Bean because she loves horses.
The closing two tracks are a return to darkness – the twisted and almost inevitable fate of those dancing in the current. “Playing Your Song” sounds like a message on life after burn-out and perhaps an eye-roll at Dave Grohl’s move to Foo Fighters and accusations of Love hungry for royalties (“Get so fat on it, it’s a tragedy”). And then there’s the closing song, “Petals”, which is like a game of he loves me, he loves me not, delivered with a minor key. Down fall Shakespeare’s “darling buds of May”: Love sings about tearing the petals off flowers, while all she really wants is the truth.
Are these Courtney’s thoughts on the false growth of celebrity skin, hers and others? Everything her detractors could have said about her, but said first? Maybe, as she joked on Later… with Jools Holland, it’s just called that “’cause [she] touched a lot of it”. Flirting with all the above by way of poetic lyrics that could mean almost anything, the 12 tracks are revenge with a teeth-whitened grin on everyone who didn’t think she could do it.
Celebrity Skin is a classic rock-pop album – Grammy nominated, commercially successful, the title track their most popular single – but many forget it exists, particularly when thinking of Hole, the band. “It’s a crazy, sonic mainstream masterpiece in terms of classical production and perfection,” says Melissa today. “That wasn’t something I was striving for but it was something Courtney and the label were. At the time I was like, ‘why are you making this so fancy?’ but she had a whole vision for her art. To have such a controversial woman as herself as the cherry on top of a pop masterpiece is pretty fucking amazing.”
For Patty looking back, it’s obviously more complicated. “It’s bittersweet. It’s a piece of my history, an audio piece. I can listen to it and say, ‘that’s not my drum part.’ I can’t say that I’m proud of it, it just is there.” She adds though that it’s a strong album: “ Celebrity Skin is that Sunday afternoon Hole.” For co-writer Jordon too, “ Live Through This is the album that everyone talks about 20 years later, but Celebrity Skin is the one I’ll throw on.” It’s considered similarly within Hole fandom – easy listening, one for all shades of mood, ideally a drive along a motorway with windows down. It’s comfortable but clever enough to make you return.
It’s reasonable to say Hole walked into the water itself after Celebrity Skin. They went on tour with Marilyn Manson in 1999, but quit after being booed offstage by his fans. There was a label fall out, where Universal sued Courtney for failing to deliver five albums, while she countersued for lack of promotion. Courtney used the 'Hole' moniker later for a band without all the members, and crucially her longtime creative partner Eric; Patty had to recover from the professional trauma that led to her relapse. Reunions have been teased at and then denied, members instead working on their own projects. But what an exit: like Steck’s Ophelia, it met a beautiful death, violets around its neck and a knowing smile on its face.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.