When Courtney Love burst onto the Ventura Theater stage at 9:05 last Tuesday, more than a few people were surprised; given her drug-addled diva reputation and infamous on and off stage exploits, no one expected her to be on time. Yet there she was: svelte, smiling, screeching and fashionably accessorized with a Rickenbacker guitar to complement her classy rocker-chick ensemble.
Her audience — a fairly balanced male/female ratio — also came dressed for the occasion in throwback grunge attire: flannel, denim, lingerie, with tiaras poking up from the crowd like sailboats on a choppy sea.
With her able and nattily-dressed band providing a sonic safety net, she opened with “Plump” from 1994’s Live Through This, followed by the first of many coarse outbursts: “Motherfuckers, motherfuckers! Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” She continued with “Miss World” from the same album before peeling off her sheer blouse, exposing her oft-photographed tattoo that reads “Let it Bleed” in reference to the Rolling Stones song. Love coyly introduced the audience to her newest tune, “Miss Narcissist” a (hopefully) confessional number that was released the day before the concert. “This is new, you’re gonna like it,” she gushed.
“Don’t do drugs. They’re really baaaaad,” she schooled her fans, who were thrilled with all the chatter. Amid her lanky awkwardness and borderline obnoxious banter, there’s a vulnerability about Love on stage. Offsetting her utter lack of musical ability with girlish flirtation, one gets the sense that she knows how bad she is, but she needs you to like her anyway — and there’s something uncomfortably endearing about that.
That’s not to say Courtney Love has no talent, she’s just not a musician. A communicator, a wordnik, a clever songwriter, even — abilities that would be well-served in performance art — but not as a musician. On the other hand, punk rock was never about technical ability and she does claim to be rooted in it. But for all her shortcomings, she’s also a true fan, something that comes across throughout the performance, during her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman,” and most poignantly during her first encore, Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Longing.”
“This is a Leonard Cohen song; if you don’t know it, you should. Shame on you!” she scolds her fans, most of whom probably aren’t familiar with the song. And while her vocal ability simply can’t accommodate an acoustic ballad, her affection for it and the fact that she attempted to perform it, betray a depth and dimension that is otherwise smothered by the ferocity of her original material.
When she returned to the stage to perform the Cohen song and the plaintive “Doll Parts,” having changed into what looked like a flowy nightgown to end the 50-minute show, she seemed genuinely touched by the audience’s demand for more. “That was very kind, I almost fainted.”
She thanked her fans, tossing them individual long-stemmed red roses before they filed out of the theater sweaty, satisfied and grinning from ear to ear — seemingly awed. I couldn’t help but wonder if these young women who seemed so fulfilled by Love’s performance had ever seen Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde or Exene Cervenka. I also had the distinct impression that Courtney’s music career is really one long and slightly desperate plea for love — her adoring if naive audience providing unconditional acceptance of her good-little-bad-girl persona. Then again, maybe she just needs a spanking.