On a hot summer night in '99 Hole, the punk rock band lead by film star and Kurt Cobain widow Courtney Love touched down in the Brixton Academy.
The Academy is a rock'n'roll barn holding 5,000 people, a great place to catch a punk rock band or to mosh, pivotal to the emergence of a new music which has a spirit of change at its core. The sound of Brixton is the low end rumble of cultures in collision, and the Academy is at the core of that rumble.
Once a cinema, it's a perfect gladiatorial moshing arena because, within the hall, an old-fashioned cinema-style decline leads remorselessly down to the stage and mosh pit. Almost despite yourself, you pick up speed as you approach the pit with a feeling that nothing can stop you now. You're walking through a venerable old pleasure palace with the sense that, like Mad Max, you're leaving polite society far behind you as you approach the post-apocalypse.
The cinema decline encourages a deeply significant aspect of moshing. The younger, fitter, braver crowd go on down the front, compressed in on top of one another, while up behind them the cautious, older, and more spread-out crowd can see everything - the band onstage and the mosh pit erupting. For every brave soul down the front there are two fence-sitters taking it all in from a safe distance. The attraction is mutual. A bizarre spectator sport exists for those too old to rock'n'roll but too young to die while the kids have an audience for their audacious, weird, extremist behavior. Kids are seldom terribly weird or extreme without an audience.
Not too long ago a Baptist congregation almost bought the Academy with a view to converting it into a church. The loss of a venue of this exact size and elegance - with a progressive booking policy - would have been a body blow for the emergent hardcore punk and nu-metal scenes. The holy deal fell through, Thank God. Saved from God, the Academy is now firmly back in the hands of Satan, never more so than on the night of the Hole gig.
Hole did a soulful gig in front of 5,000 people who wanted to take home a little bit of Courtney Love, according to herself a walking study in demonology. She brought a lot of agenda and baggage with her. Dowager Empress of Rock'n'Roll, authentic sex symbol, queen bitch, film star. The ultimate punk rock girl right up there with Debbie Harry and Anita Pallenberg. For her young audience she was a heady mix. A platinum selling husband who'd shot himself through the head. Touched a hundred times by the hand of heroin. Many fine influential albums under her belt, the latest being Celebrity Skin, a controversially radio-friendly dolly mixture. Above all, in this context, an icon for smart young middle class girls who are probably giving their nice parents loads to worry about.
Love was extreme, way out there on a psychic limb. Her skin tight skirt stopped just south of her knickers and the slightest move of her leg, the merest low slung guitar pose, deliberately revealed those knickers. She was everything an icon should be, a flaming beacon of art and sex. The people who saw her that night will always remember her feisty sexuality and the band's phenomenal music. But those near the stage will have other memories.
She stood right at the very edge of the stage inviting the entire audience to join her onstage. She sang of aching personal loss, all too explicitly mourning the loss of Cobain with tunes about boys on the radio who crash and burn but who fade so slow. Hole in Brixton developed into the most dangerous mosh pit I've ever been in.
Love is famous for her stage diving, pit baiting, and crowd surfing. R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe once said of her that she liked to dip into the population. She came to the discipline relatively late in life. In '91 she saw Mudhoney's Mark Arm stage dive almost every night on tour, casting his tall thin body into the welcoming arms of fans. At London's Astoria she decided to take the plunge herself. Hundreds of hands reached out to grab her but, while they were welcoming, it was not terribly friendly. They groped her, tore off her clothes, and shoved their fingers up her various orifices.
When she finally got back onto the stage she was virtually naked and crying. She delivered a torrent of abuse at the crowd and then, crazed by her experience, smashed her guitar. "It broke into a million pieces," she subsequently told Siren magazine. "Like, the full rock thing. I destroyed it. I wasn't thinking. I can be primal. I can do it and not intellectualise breaking my guitar in front of sixteen hundred people - fuck you! So many things went wrong, and I was just so mad. I probably did about five thousand dollars worth of damage that night."
The experience haunted her for the longest time and, years later, she posted a recollection of her feelings: "I was returned to the stage basically naked, dirty hands had been all over me... etc... WHAT IS ETC? well it just was etc. I saw a photo of that moment, I was smiling, pretending everything was OK, I guess, it started to dawn on me that this had been my own fault - for bleaching and makeupping and wearing a 'little' dress."