Courtney Love lights up Winnipeg

In which a wayfaring scribe innocently stumbles into a Hole concert, where a congregation of lager louts gets a quick, harsh lesson in timing.

Published July 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's the tail end of a daylong outdoor music festival in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and as I arrive, the security fence is coming down. So I walk right in. Nervous? A little. But it's not the rent-a-goons I'm afraid of. The source of my nervousness is the woman patrolling the stage I'm walking toward. The performance I'm shoplifting happens to be the closing act: Courtney Love and Hole. Tiny crowd figurine though I am, I have no doubt that if Love notices my missing hand stamp she will launch herself into the mob like a winged harpy and personally tear me a new asshole. Keeping my hands in my pockets, I slouch in closer.

Hole is in the middle of a summer swing through Canada that tonight finds the band in this prairie city of half a million grain-fed and hop-fueled Canucks, about an hour north of the North Dakota-Minnesota border. My own presence is unscheduled -- I am catching a lift to my hometown two hours away, but first my benefactor has to wait for a 16-year-old daughter to finish moshing at the festival. We arrive in the parking lot as Love and Co. arrive onstage, so I decide to walk over and have a look -- just in time to wave a cheery goodbye to the gatekeepers. Moments later I am weaving through the standing crowd, feeling very objective. Having laid out no cash, I will be neither obliged to work up a frenzy of enthusiasm to convince myself I didn't get robbed nor blinded by rage if the performance falls short.

My preexisting opinion of Courtney Love is not deeply held -- a channel-surfing impression of a loudmouthed self-promoter who, if 30 percent of the rumors are true, ought to be getting her mail at the zoo. But the music sounds pretty good, sometimes downright powerful. And even without paying much attention, I've been aware that the woman standing above me wearing a black evening dress and a guitar is arguably the most compelling figure in contemporary rock 'n' roll.

Love scrapes against nerves untouched by the Pokimon people clogging today's CD racks. There have always been packaged performers around to shit out smooth little pop pellets, but marketing science now seems to be advancing at a pace cancer research can only envy, and the results have been predictably depressing. Latin polyrhythm becomes Ricky Martin; normal teen development becomes the allegedly engineered tits of Britney Spears. Even the return of the Boss and the E Street Band evokes a fairly straightforward emotional reaction -- either you buy into Springsteen's iconic status or you don't.

Compare that to the Love-hate cults surrounding Kurt Cobain's widow. She may have taken legal action against the veiled accusations of spousal murder in Nick Broomfield's documentary "Kurt and Courtney," but I suspect she didn't really mind a bit. You can't buy that kind of epic mystique. The general attempt to paint her as another Yoko has foundered on the hard evidence that, whatever else she may be -- ex-stripper, celebrity brawler, junkie reclamation project -- Love is no musical dilettante. Yoko Ono never stood in the middle of a raised, floodlit mosquito kennel in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and tried to play "Free Bird."

That is just one of Hole's Winnipeg, er, highlights, and like much of the concert it is tough to tell whether it's simply a bit of fun or a sly attempt to find out if these Northern yokels know when they're being mocked. At times, the bandleader's scorn for the setting is naked. "I feel like I'm playing the county fair," she grouses. Then Love displays her helpful side, offering the farm stock milling in front of the stage a ticket to greener pastures: "Hey, Winnipeg," she says, "three chords and you're in California."

The locals are used to that brand of condescension and generally take it in stride. Besides, it beats the hell out of "We love you-um-Winnie-peg." And besides, Love seems to be in good spirits, although it's difficult to tell sometimes. Like trembling submissives watching every twitch on the face of a fearfully beloved dominatrix, the crowd waits under the always-looming threat that good-natured barbs could give way to screams of abuse and an early exit. Love, though, saves her raspy howls for choruses like the one on the song "Violet": "Go on take everything, I want you to." Between songs she reminds the mob that they are lucky to be in her presence. "I don't know, people," she admonishes, "we passed up a lot of money when we turned down Lilith Fair. We could've been eating crackers with the girls right now."

Lilith Fair is much on Love's mind -- she even launches into a refrain of Sheryl Crow's "Every Day Is a Winding Road." Like "Free Bird," it may or may not be a sincere tribute. Poor Courtney is probably only trying to be nice, but remember, girls, once you get a reputation, that's it.

If it's true Hole was offered a spot in Sarah McLachlan's traveling hen house, it seems a genuine shame Love didn't accept the chance to play the fox. As it is, she is left to play the fox for a congregation of lager louts on the Canadian prairies who, displaying the level of invention common to their kind, dutifully scream, "Show us your tits!"

That drunken rallying cry is a concert indignity that even the likes of Joni Mitchell have to put up with, but few female rockers bring to the situation the advantage of Love's stage risumi. As a former pole dancer in West Coast strip clubs, clearly Love does not have to ask herself, "What would Jewel do?" What Love does is a joy to see, although not the particular joy her male fans have in mind.

"Listen," Love explains, "the audiences who get to see my fabulous breasts are the ones who know how to use their lighters. At the right time they hold up their lighters, and in gratitude I take off my clothes." With the predictability of a Kennedy tragedy, the crowd is in flames -- lighters, matchbooks, hastily grabbed trash, arm-scarring molten plastic, neighboring scalps -- all burning for the queen's approval. From the stage, Love surveys the sea of fire and, like an experienced lover reining in an overeager virgin, she shakes her head. "Oh no," she says sadly, "this is not the right time." At this point anything I have ever heard about Courtney Love falls away. I am a fan.

A generous encore and then it's over, as the crowd leaves with Love's parting benediction: "Sorry we couldn't play 'Free Bird.' We suck, but that's what's great about us, you little FUCKERS!"

She meant "fuckers" in a good way. I think.

By Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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