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A Love Letter To Hole’s Celebrity Skin

20 years on from its release, K! writer Mischa Pearlman remembers his first encounter with this iconic record.

I haven’t thought about Sam for years. We knew each other a little at school, but in 1998, when we were about 17, we went on a school trip to Belgium and ended up sitting together on the coach journey there because we’d been assigned a room to share. So we started talking and became good friends for a short period of time – it was one of those teenage friendships where you’re inseparable for a few weeks and then you gradually fade out of each other’s lives and you end up never speaking again. That school trip was only a week long, during which time we were best friends, and although we hung out at school for a little while afterwards, we were doomed – we were in different classes studying different subjects and that bond just disappeared. I think maybe we’ve seen each other once since we left school, and that was longer ago than I care to think about.

Back then, though, Sam had recently bought the new Hole album on CD and asked if I wanted to listen to it on the five or so hour bus journey to Belgium. I said sure, so we took one earphone each. I hadn’t heard the album, but he was already obsessed with it, and one song in particular – Northern Star. So instead of playing the album from beginning to end, he started with track eight. I can still feel the shivers that slid down my spine as this beautiful, doom-laden, sparse but dramatic track full of sorrow and anguish and pain and fragility and despair that I couldn’t even begin to imagine consumed the very core of my being. It’s a song as big as the universe, as quiet as death, as haunting as love you never know – and even today it hits me just as hard – the gentle acoustic guitar, Courtney Love’s ravaged, heart-torn vocals, the dramatic timpani that crashes like a million hearts breaking, the tense build-up of the string-laden crescendo and then, just like our friendship, that abrupt fade to emptiness that ends it.

After it finished, we played it again. And then again and again and again. And then again. I don’t know how many times Sam pressed the back button on his Discman, but for a while, there was not just no other song on that album, but no other song in the world. Northern Star was all that mattered. Eventually, though, we got around to listening to the album as a whole, front to back, no interruptions, as it should be played. And what a glorious, beautiful revelation it was – and still remains, two decades later.

From the crunching riffs and snarling attitude of the title track and opening song through to the dark-cloud summer dirge of last track Petals, Celebrity Skin is an album full of broken beauty, one that’s both hopeless and hopeful, that reaches for the light – or at least the stars – while drowning beneath the weight of tragedy. Lugubrious and effervescent at the same time, it’s an album that thrives on conflict – between light and dark, warmth and cold, loneliness and love, youth and age, the bleak, infinite gaze of the universe at night and the album’s more immediate surroundings of sunny, shiny LA.

The glitz and glamour of that city is far removed from Seattle – which, of course, helped give birth to the grunge scene a few years before, and where Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain had made a home for themselves – and its influence runs throughout this record. Whether in the up-tempo charge of Awful, the sun-bleached, carefree jangle of Malibu, the glossy but wistful longing of Boys On The Radio or even in the spiteful snarl of Playing Your Song, there aren’t even smeared lipstick traces of the raw grunge that defined Live Through This, Hole’s 1994 album released exactly a week after Kurt Cobain’s death. Even the slowest, most obviously wretched track, Dying – a song, as its name suggests, wrapped in death and decay – offers some kind of solace somehow, some kind of hope for a future, even if that future doesn’t actually exist.

As such, these are fallen pop songs sung by an angel as it plummets towards Hell, tunes that celebrate life even as they describe it withering away in front of you. Celebrity Skin could so easily have been a direct response to the trauma and tragedy of Kurt’s death – but even though that’s undoubtedly present to some extent, it wasn’t. It was and is much more than that. Rather, Celebrity Skin is a record that’s steeped with a sense of higher purpose and higher power, an otherworldliness that’s just as powerful and moving and immediate 20 years after it was released as it was the first time I heard it on that coach journey with Sam. He probably has no idea much of an impact playing that CD had on me, but I hope he still loves this record as much as he did. As much as we did. As much as I still do. Because to quote a line from Northern Star, it’s a ghost that haunts you with its sorrow. It never went away and I hope it never does.

Mischa Pearlman

Posted on September 8th 2018, 12:01pm
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