Hole, Reading festival 1994: grieving widow expels the pain

The band’s appearance, months after the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Kristen Pfaff, was freighted with expectation. Courtney Love didn’t disappoint

Hole’s Reading festival debut came shrouded in a certain level of morbid anticipation. Female-fronted acts on the festival’s main stage are a rare sight today, but were rarer still in 1994. Hole’s mid-afternoon billing was testament to the critical success of their second album Live Through This, a record that focused some of their melodic energy and wrestled against its restraints in others. It was also the first time Courtney Love had appeared in public in five months – five months since the death of husband Kurt Cobain, and only two since Hole’s bassist, Kristen Pfaff, died of a heroin overdose.

A mixture of genuine fans and trauma-porn rubberneckers in Cobain T-shirts gathered in the weak afternoon sun, waiting to see the exact type of grieving widow that Love would be. She had indeed been living through it – was she really ready to do so on a stage synonymous with her late husband’s 1992 performance with Nirvana? “Oh yeah, I’m so goddamn brave,” she eye-rolls by way of introduction, her ragged gold dress and heavy fringe intimating business as usual. “Yeah, sure. Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen. Let’s just pretend. Is that what you’re doing, pretending it didn’t happen? Great. Well, I’m not.”

The heckling is audible even on the shoddiest of live recordings, but whether Love couldn’t hear it or simply didn’t care, she ploughed on relentless. Opener Plump is sloppy but just about clings to the rails, the driving guitar momentum propping up her struggling voice. She falters for a few songs, but by Miss World, the doom-laden lyricism seems to offer some catharsis as Love ad-libs a not-so-subtle rewriting of the final line: “I’m the one who should have died.” A beat passes before the cheers rise – it’s not exactly a sentiment that invites comfortable applause. But Love has already moved on to Jennifer’s Body, growing louder with each chorus.

‘Damned either way’ ... Courtney Love.
‘Damned either way’ ... Courtney Love. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Given how society frames grief and female agency in terms of “acceptability”, Hole’s appearance at Reading felt damned either way. Show nothing as a female artist, and you’re a cold industry plant; show everything, and you’re a hot mess waiting to implode. Love was at once too emotional and not emotional enough for the Kurt conspiracists; visibly intoxicated and unsteady, she still made it through the set without falling to her knees in anguish. In 1992, Cobain poked fun at speculation about his own mental health by turning up in a hospital gown and wheelchair. In contrast, John Peel wrote in his Guardian review of Hole’s set that Love “would have drawn whistles of astonishment in Bedlam”, despite applauding the band’s ability to “teeter on the edge of chaos, generating a tension which I cannot remember having felt before from any stage”.

Melody Maker’s Cathi Unsworth was notably more empathetic: “This is both brave and upsetting … it leaves her in that most unenviable of positions: everybody wants to know about her, but few would really want to know her.” Unsworth’s shrewd assessment gets to the heart of why Hole’s set still feels so vital. Music is meant to allow for the expression of every kind of emotion, but the kind of rawness they displayed remains rare: a sprawling, chaotic expulsion of pain laid out for real-time judgment. In Hole’s 50-minute set, you can see despair, self-rallying determination and yes, momentary escape, play out in Love’s ragged vocal. For every shambolic Softer, Softest, with its on-the-nose refrain of “burn the witch”, there is a punchy Gutless or incisive Violet to reward those who give Love space to work her feelings through. In the latter, Love implores whoever is listening to “Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to.” She likely means it.

Reading was the start of a period in Hole’s history that would get a lot worse before it got better. The four-continent tour that followed had a similarly chaotic tone, charting a path of legal complications, death threats and Rohypnol self-dosing that did nothing to shift Love’s troublemaking status. But Hole came out of it mostly intact, and Reading had them back a year later, subbing Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins with a set that included their very own cover of Nirvana’s Pennyroyal Tea and previewed the early makings of their mainstream breakthrough, Celebrity Skin. Hole had made it clear that they were a band capable of vivid performance – no apologies necessary.


Jenessa Williams

The GuardianTramp

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