This week I’ve been thinking about the bands who triumphed in the grunge wave. Essentially it was Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Hole who made it through before the door closed but the latter three bands have all had to deal in some way with the primacy and power of the first. It was only Hole, however, who deliberately and/or naively bonded their own efforts to that of Nirvana, the other two carved their own path and were unwillingly subjugated to the storyline of Nirvana as the uber-grunge band and the unwilling mainstream rockers.
The issue with Hole was always the same; Hole were whatever the underground zeitgeist said they should be but never at the right time. Their early recordings positioned them in the lineage of avant-rock/noise-rock bands with prominent female members (think Lydia Lunch, think Kim Gordon), but their high point, Live Through This, moved them into the alternative rock domain shared by their lead singer’s husband’s band, while their post-grunge album sidled ever closer to straight ahead shiny hard rock. The real flaw, however, was that they were permanently poor at hitting that zeitgeist at its peak potential. In their first incarnation they were too late for the Eighties noise-rock scene, the next wave of bands on the up were more closely embracing hard rock and the mainstream; Hole learnt and shifted focus but their 1994 identity (and the genuinely near perfect album they released in that guise) only hit at the moment when the grunge balloon was deflating; then in 1998 they went to the trouble of enlisting Smashing Pumpkins style rock just at the point where the Smashing Pumpkins were about to fall off into irrelevance – Hole were always one step too late.
Leaving aside questions around how much a role Nirvana/Kurt Cobain played in getting Hole signed to DGC, the more crucial component for this week’s discussion is that by becoming such a visible (and vocal) presence alongside Kurt Cobain, there was no way of separating from his achievements, from comparison to him and from a constant sharing of whatever limelight strayed their way. It’s another fair point of comparison that in the case of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, involvement with John totally obscured the fact that Yoko was a long established and significant presence in her own right within the avant garde art and music scenes. In the case of Courtney Love, she had paid her dues in various bands, learnt well, formed a quality band…And couldn’t ever speak of it without talk of ‘him.’
The merging of Kurt/Courtney/Hole was certainly something encouraged at the time; Courtney’s presence at Nirvana’s October 1992 Word of Mouth sessions, the partial-Hole presence at the January 1993 Brazil sessions, Courtney’s brief appearance at Pachyderm Studios in February 1993, Kurt joining Hole during their October 1993 recording sessions for Live Through This, Courtney’s presence at the MTV Unplugged show…They may have shared stages on only a few occasions but in terms of recording and making music it was Hole/Courtney all the way. Media appearances too changed, the Kurt/Courtney pairing was, from 1992, just as likely to appear in interview as any other combination of Nirvana (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2012/11/22/killing-nirvana-part-2/). It was this piece, speaking as a couple to those who broadcast and decide on the story, that turned Kurt and Courtney into a clichéd phrase and bonded them irrevocably in the public eye.
The years since the initial collapse of Hole have helped to reinforce this because Courtney’s musical inactivity led to her being known simply for being Courtney Love – the name always coming with the prefix/suffix “widow of Kurt Cobain/former wife of Kurt Cobain”. She’s lived her life since her late twenties as an appendage to a dead rock star. Just as Nirvana was, at its core, Kurt Cobain’s vehicle, Hole was Courtney’s and therefore, when she linked herself personally to him, it was impossible not to irrevocably tie the band to him too. It’s visible in the way the front cover of Hit So Hard, a documentary about Hole’s drummer, has a front cover where ‘Hole’ at the top and ‘Kurt Cobain’ at the bottom top and tail the list of key participants and where his name takes the most visible bottom-right corner position in huge letters.
While the bonding with Nirvana brought benefits – a lot of publicity and visibility that undoubtedly did play a role in influencing the bidding wars and high advances for Hole to join a major label – it meant ceding a degree of independence and it is that loss of freedom that is the ongoing fate of Hole; they’ll never be appreciated without reference to Nirvana, they’ll never be examined or remembered without a mention of Kurt Cobain, there’s no legacy of the band or place they’ve earned in rock history in which they’re not part of someone else’s story. That’s independent of having released three excellent albums one after the other.
It was remarkably indicative of the tight bond between Hole’s status circa 1994 and Kurt Cobain that Live Through This, an album that really did deserve its platinum sales and should be remembered as a triumph, came out on April 12, 1994. It therefore remains smudged in an indelible pall of crematoria smoke and psychic discomfort arising from his absent body. It’s how it should be, the band was bound to the fate of Kurt Cobain so the album by necessity should be stamped with his presence/absence. But for a band wanting to be recognised on its own merits this is the danger that results from riding the dominant storyline of an era; when it falls, so do you. Hole had sacrificed their own momentum to get a ride on the rocket to the top and it crashed down into the dirt before they had a chance to climb off and find their own way to stay aloft.