I can’t say I’m as lucky as the friend who claims he was the only other person in the store when Courtney Love was shopping for lingerie at Agent Provocateur this one time – but I have seen the former Hole frontwoman in an intimate setting before. Namely, at a surprise show at Plaid in 2004, when she ended up getting arrested for heaving a microphone into the crowd.
Even if I definitely wasn’t going to see her do “Malibu” this time, I was still psyched to be in close quarters with Ms. Cobain again – this time as she made her theatrical debut at the 84-seat HERE Arts Center. Kansas City Choir Boy, written and directed by Todd Almond (who also stars) has been billed as an “experimental opera,” which might make you wonder whether this is Love’s entree into operotica.
Not exactly. She does however strip down to her bra pretty early in the game, and there is a sort of makeout scene: after all, this is the story of a young musician (played by Almond) and his love Athena, who sets off for great things in New York and ends up murdered in Central Park.
Actually, I shouldn’t say it’s the story. A melange of musical numbers that evoke romance, nostalgia, and mourning, the production doesn’t have an immediately graspable narrative. It’s not clear what’s happening IRL, what are flashbacks, and what’s imagined. But the opening scene makes the inciting incident clear: Almond’s character is composing beats on his laptop when he’s stopped in his tracks by a local news report of a Kansas City woman has been found dead in a New York City park. It’s Athena’s face that flashes on the screen.
As explained in Almond’s artist statement, the moment is based on an actual incident, when he was composing music in a Kansas City hotel room and he saw a local news report about a missing woman. “The image of the girl instantly took me back in time to a moment a few years earlier when a young woman I had known, an actress named Sarah Fox, went missing; it wasn’t until Sarah’s face popped up on New York 1 news that day that any of us who knew her learned what had happened to her: she was murdered in Inwood Park by a still-unidentified strangler.” Almond writes that he ended up crafting those hotel-room songs into Kansas City Choir Boy, also incorporating bits from The Odyssey (he composed the music to Fox’s production of the play in Juilliard).
If you’re still reading this, you’re probably thinking: that’s all well and good, but what about Courtney?
Was she fucked up?
Did she fuck up?
Well, first things first: she wasn’t greeted with boos, as she was when she helped induct Nirvana into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s probably because the Prototype Festival – of which Kansas City Choir Bar is a part – attracts a fairly respectful crowd. But also, Courtney isn’t at all in rock-star mode when she first appears: on the theater’s slightly sunken stage, she comes off smaller and more fragile than you’d ever imagine she could, and her loosely fitting, frayed jeans and flannel shirt complete the image of an awkward Midwestern teenager. (Though she does, at one point, slip into a Zac Posen number).
Also conveying wide-eyed youth is, well, Love’s wide eyes (the rest of her face, however, leaves us wondering how a 16-year-old could afford plastic surgery). During the opening number she gazes sweetly and admiringly as Almond croons, “We’re 16 and you’re laughing; I’m thinking of you at 16 and me, I’m driving.” Almond switches seamlessly from piano to electronic beats to guitar. During a rave scene augmented by smoke machines and a trippy LED display, he veers into sexy electro territory as he gets up close and personal with the Sirens who, throughout the production, dance down the theater’s aisles and sing from each of its corners to create a sort of quadrophonic experience. (Cellists and violinists are also positioned amidst the audience.)
As for Love’s singing, well, it’s about what you’d expect: she doesn’t hit every single note as she sings/slurs lines like the following, over Almond’s lofty piano chords: “I decided to finally, finally get a tattoo… of a bruise … right here… black and blue… a bruise in the shape of your mouth.” But there were plenty of points where her vocals soared enough to make you remember what you liked about Hole (which, indeed, I blasted on the walk home).
During one number, in which Athena recalls watching fireworks on Memorial Day, Love deploys a sort of snarly Patti Smith rasp as she sings lyrics that (whether intentionally or not) recall the most famous line of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note: “When I say I want to fade away, I think you misunderstand…”
But back to tattoos for a moment: seeing the “Let It Bleed” tat on Love’s arm reminds me that, during her recent Howard Stern appearance, she told him about getting the tat: “It was like the middle of the night, the East Village – I got a tattoo the way you’re supposed to.” Which, she said, is thusly: “It should be in the East Village, it should be a sailor who doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing and then you get it cleaned up by one of those trendy guys later.”
But I digress.
What more do you need to know about Kansas City Choir Boy? Probably not much, since there are only three shows left (one tonight and two tomorrow) and they’re all sold out.
Suffice it to say, Courtney was not fucked up, and she did not fuck up.