1. The car I drove when I was 20 smelled like rain. When it stormed, the passenger side floor filled with a puddle so deep I’d have to bail it out with a folded floor mat. When I drove faster than 60, it shuddered. None of this bothered me. What drove me crazy was the temperamental stereo that only accepted certain CDs and even then only sometimes, and only after an arbitrary number of increasingly violent punches with the heel of my hand. One of the few that worked, usually, was Celebrity Skin, by Hole.
2. The roads I drove on then cut narrow, wandering, stream-like paths through the hilly woods of small town Massachusetts—Old Dunstable, Chicopee Row, Sand Hill, Martin’s Pond, Reedy Meadow. On summer evenings the roads turned into tunnels of green. When the fickle stereo worked and a song I loved came on, the motion of the car–of gliding the dark curves I knew by heart–was like being inside the song.
It was Martin’s Pond Road where I’d been in the car crash years earlier. Thanksgiving, the end of high school. I was in the passenger seat of my friend Evan’s car, the radio on too loud to think, the familiar feeling of righteous swooping, but then, in a breath, a whirling grit of sand, a drift, and our connection to the road was clipped. The state of being inside a song evaporated and we became only our essential lonely selves, only physics: mass and velocity and angle.
3. In high school I often drove down those wooded roads from home to Newbury Comics, the record store on the edge of the parking lot of the Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, New Hampshire, to buy, or more often just to look at, music. In the CD era, music still lived in discrete objects; it was possible to physically possess something at once unbelievably powerful and ephemeral. The names of the bands I loved were for me loaded with mystical weight, words in a prayer, a curse: Helium. Spent. Bedhead. Lotion. Low.
4. Growing up, I was mostly drawn to earnestly obscure emotions and direct beauty in music: R.E.M., Merge and Matador, slowcore. Of the early ’90s grunge wave, even Nirvana seemed to me pointlessly caustic. I wasn’t immediately drawn to Hole. Actually I was sure I never would be. I had no idea what to make of the gowns and smeared lipstick, the posing and raging, the way Courtney Love’s voice, heartbroken or viciously angry, always sneered. It all seemed staged, and therefore inferior.
Yet, even then, something was forcing its way through my arrogant adolescent judgment. There was so much circling motion within Celebrity Skin that I accidentally found myself absorbed within tracks “Live Through This,” “Doll Parts” and especially, “Violet.” That song contained something focused to the point of obsession, something at once confident and pained.
5. Courtney Love exists in a cloud of our culture’s arguments about the big ideas she is associated with: punk rock and grunge, feminism, California and fame, drugs and suicide. This cloud obscures rather than enhances her songs in a way that it does not for Kurt Cobain. We talk about the story of her songs, not the songs.
6. The video for Celebrity Skin’s “Malibu” is laughable in many ways. Its imagery is a catalog of California clichés—surfing, beaches, palm trees, wildfires, rock stars—tweaked occasionally by criticism of California celebrity culture that is itself cliché—palm trees exploding, a troop of Baywatch-blonde lifeguards holding plastic babies. Courtney Love overacts outrageously—she performs the act of lounging in the doorway of a trailer with flailing impressions of lounging in a doorway that could be seen from space.
It’s easy enough to dismiss the whole thing as lazy, obvious—a celebrity offering cheap celebrity satire, having her cake and eating it, too. But there is the song itself: a lovely, if straightforward, piece of guitar pop. And the lyrics themselves are not about being a rock star, not about a cynical celebrity worldview—they are about horrible, irrevocable loss. The relationship between the wild grief of the lyrics, the conventional loveliness of the music and the vivid, clichéd imagery of the video is unsettling, and challenging.
7. Celebrity Skin has strange surfaces and strange depths. Overall it sounds more desperately chiming than grungy or punky. And, even taking into account the title song’s familiar winking sneer, the record’s emotional tone as a whole is, simply, sad. Reasons to be Beautiful, the best song on the album, is a punishing, looping screech that opens out to a bare bones, strummed coda with Love singing directly to the lost love, sighing about stars and eyes and rain. The album sounds and feels by turns haunted and sparkling, and sometimes both at once. For one summer I was helpless to resist it, driving along those dark narrow wooded roads; before long I was driving past my house just to listen to the album again.
8. Celebrity Skin opened up for me then, and now, the mysteries of the power of music and the power of art. Popular music is a cultural product and medium for cultural display, but it is also energy and time, an arrangement of physical vibrations that can slice through conscious and unconscious assumptions to communicate directly with our essential selves. The division that once seemed so clear between irony and sincerity became a lie.
Seconds before the crash I closed my eyes and breathed, as the moment expanded endlessly. It felt like everything I was and would ever be was within that breath. Afterward, wandering dazed and whole among the trees in the weird blue light from the wrecked car, the backs of my hands buzzed with the perfect cold and my blood in my hands, I could not hold a thought in my head, my brain only my heartbeat and breathing.
The tree we smashed into still bears a wound. Years later I drove past it many times in the total dark, in that tiny car that smelled of rain, still smashing the radio over and over with heel of my hand, desperate for that first rushing chord to scream the silence full.