Live Through This
Lyric Essay by:
Live Through This
Raised from the dead only to
stall out in a rented Toyota halfway
to the meeting place. That’s how badly
I wanted to talk to you again. Forever
is as true a word as any for as long as it takes
to get it out of your pretty little leaf dry mouth
fresh from the seance with a whole new attitude.
We were raised on it, like processed meat
or the promise that you were either chosen
or not and you were not. And so I sealed
my fate with barretts and honey, my love
all in whispers. I was the candidate
and I hated it more than there is grace in
heaven and room in hell. We made it
out of tin foil and clay but we didn’t
get to keep it, the salvation we had hoped for.
O I’ll take flowers from someone
else’s grave and put them on yours
so I can start fights with your neighbors
even in death. I’ll paint my teeth and walk
the woods at night to scare or inspire
other people’s children. Everyone has to
live for something. Everyone has to serve
somebody’s feelings. For a long time I didn’t care
about freedom because I thought of it
only with men and war. Fine then,
I’ll be the wreck, as in ship, train, or woman
I’ll take the glory, I’ll call it love
and as such I’ll test it, carrying
mercury and fruit to my baby,
my sweet baby.
In 2004, Spin Magazine put out a special issue to mark the 10 year anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. I read it in the back of biology, a class made both easy and embarrassing by the tired desperation with which our teacher longed for the approval of all these suburban-desert teenagers ignoring him, with our Big Gulps and flip phones. I remember I was wearing a t-shirt I had made for the occasion, recreating a picture I’d seen somewhere from a fan’s memorial gathering outside Cobain’s Seattle home the decade prior, wreathed in flowers and candles and other impermanent things by tradition collected and displayed to represent both the life burned out, lost, and the eternal love, transmitted back and forth across the veil, or perhaps only echoing in one direction, either telephone or radio, who can say.
I remember one particularly macabre part of the issue was an imagined timeline: what would have happened had Kurt Cobain lived? It was a baffling and unnecessary experiment, I mean the kind of thing we all think about all the time, the fantasy of what you would do together if your beloved were still alive and with you. But this was mean-spirited and glib in that music journalist man way, always couching adoration and desire in feigned indifference, as the writer imagined the decline in Cobain’s songwriting and beauty, his death only temporarily deferred. But the worst part, to me, was that one of the events on the imaginary timeline was the revelation that Kurt Cobain really did write Hole’s 1994 masterpiece, Live Through This, this journalist man’s fantasy confirmation of a rumor that had circulated since the album was released a week after Cobain’s death, based of course on the underlying assumption that Courtney Love couldn’t possibly have made something so perfect, not even with the songwriting help of guitarist Eric Erlandson. It had to be this tragic male visionary, or else all fantasies of order around art-making and genius and inspiration would crumble like dry cake by a blowing fan. This apocryphal legend is all the more annoying when you think about the goddamn ocean of wives writing their husbands’ songs, books, movies, dissertations, emails, whatever.
I say I’m a feminist, and then I spend a considerable amount of energy every day trying not to seem crazy or difficult or challenging, trying to contain myself and my feelings, which are voluminous, complex, and often kinda fucked up, as I imagine are yours as well. I think it’s this fear of taking up too much space, when the idea that space is limited instead of expansive, that like a liquid we need to fit the container instead of either making the container grow or become uncontainable, is just another scam like money, gender, and linear time. The only truth is death, and honestly I have my doubts about that shit too. Anyway, I think this is part of why I love Courtney Love so much, who always feels truly enormous, raising hell, throwing shoes at Madonna.
Live Through This, as you know, opens with “Violet,” a song Hole had been playing on tour since at least 1991, and the second track, first single, is “Miss World.” There was a certain amount of resentment and dismissal from fans of Hole’s, Kim Gordon-produced and noisier first album, Pretty On The Inside, but for my part, my pleasure is only ever heightened by the addition of a little pop melody. But I get it. Both songs and their music videos ask questions, or perhaps are questions about, women on display, spectacle and performance, authenticity and suffering and alienation. It’s all very 90s and also very eternal. Love sings, “Might last a day, mine is forever,” and she could be talking about trauma or haunting, both being haunted and doing the haunting, vengeful, merciless. The address of her lyrics is constantly shifting as the letters in the words shift slightly to change their meaning, as if we are all caught in a storm, here to rearrange. “I’ve made my bed, I’ll lie in it, I’ve made my bed, I’ll cry in it, I’ve made my bed, I’ll die in it,” she sings like some kind of psychic of the near future who knows what to expect, be it tears or death, and what does she do? She sings to you about it.
Anyway, I meet a man,
we fall in love,
we spend our lives together in bliss,
breakfast in the morning, vacation
in the summer, songs at night,
tangerines, lace curtains, coronas,
I don’t know, pottery for sugar.
When I die he stands over my body
and finally removes the ribbon
I wore around my neck all these years,
and as my beautiful head rolls away he laughs.
Good morning, everything is forsaken
or nothing is. How can I enjoy the fruits
of my labor when my labor’s never over?
When she was never really here? Annie what
are you afraid of? But of course she won’t
tell me, porch statue from the road
to our love’s apocalyptic conclusion,
windchimes of another life, postcard,
derelict, how I’ve been living these days.
Then she called me when the party
was over and told me what she had
to say. If you love me diagnose me
with the vapors and let me go.
Hélène Cixous says all writers want to die, they feel like dying, but this feeling is forbidden. She doesn’t mean something like suicide, she means instead something like getting to the unsayable thing that only the dead can say, the truth that can only be achieved in the final moment, like living as we have never lived before, completely consumed in the fire. So in writing we practice dying, we learn how to, like learning how to kiss at a sleepover, learning how to levitate at a sleepover, learning how to steal beer from the garage or liquor from the pantry at a sleepover, learning how to hide your fear at a sleepover.
I think about Lauryn Hill singing, “Killing Me Softly,” a classic in one of my favorite subgenres of songs about listening to songs and feeling desperation. I think the response elicited in the storyteller in “Killing Me Softly,” by the guitarist has to do with Cixous’s argument, following Kafka, that art should “be an axe for the frozen sea inside us,” should ruin our happiness, strike us like a blow, annihilate our world. The dying and killing in this song is from pleasure, sure, little death, strumming my pain, whatever, but also from recognition, from feeling recognized and so exposed to this unknown crowd, vulnerable the way bodies and identities are in fact always vulnerable to all manner of harm or even death, but now so aware of it, so heightened in its sensation. Killing me softly with his words, when she was just trying to have a nice night. I can imagine her, Lauryn, or the narrator of the story, or the songwriter, dumbstruck in the audience, trying so hard to hold it together, out there in public feeling like your whole body is one giant tongue, one enormous eye with an eyelash caught in it forever. That’s one way to feel alive. I mean, that’s one way to live.
The other great pillar, for me, of the subgenre is “Superstar” by The Carpenters, a song more beautiful than melted hard candy about bad love, or good love gone bad, or good love for bad men, men who may or may not be the devil, who may or may not be the better option sometimes, I am extremely not here to judge. The man in “Superstar,” just seems like a regular liar, so let’s not dwell on him here. Let’s dwell on the devil instead, a true demon lover, like the one in the traditional Scottish ballad “Daemon Lover” aka “The House Carpenter” aka “James Harris.” In this song, the Devil returns to a former lover who has moved on and is a married woman and mother now, but the Devil has ships full of treasure and she has a taste for the good life, so goes with him. The voyage is not long begun, when her regret for her lost child finds her, and perhaps in his jealousy or perhaps this was his plan all along. The Devil rips the ship in half, and as they are swirling in the watery abyss, she turns her eyes to the bright hill of heaven in the distance and another darker hill growing closer and the Devil says, “O that is the hill of hell, Where you and I shall be.” It’s like The Awakening all over again, the message being that any attempt at liberation, wild and poorly planned or the result of years of quiet fantasizing, only leads a woman to her punishing death. This is not so for the eponymous Delta Dawn of the song “Delta Dawn,” another, in my reading of the song, lover of the devil, but unapologetic, unrepentant, wandering the streets for him like a drunk apostle. Sure everyone in Brownsville may call her crazy, but she’ll be spitting on them from the devil’s sky mansion before this day is over. Like Courtney Love she inspires me.
Sorry, we were talking about Hole. They wrote their own great and awful murder ballad, “Jennifer’s Body,” Courtney Love and Patty Schemel having come up with the idea on a trip to San Francisco in 1992. The song is so scary it’s hard to listen to, telling the story about a girl, Jennifer, just barely alive and then dead before the song is over, the limbs of her tortured body scattered across an unspecified location. In it, Love sings the damning line, “Kill the family, save the son,” which could be about how each member of a family, thinking of family both in terms of a financial arrangement made between adults and their children and also as a broader community, is disposable for the benefit of the “son,” “king,” “hero,” “cop,” whatever, just as each part of a woman’s body is disposable to his anger, pleasure, insecurity. Whatever.
Love’s lyric composition here, as elsewhere, shifts perspectives restlessly, narrator, murderer, perhaps Jennifer, and the person who finds her far too late to save her. This happens in other murder ballads, voices overflowing into one another, from one singer’s version to another’s, or all in the space of one performance or recording. I really like when, between versions of a song, certain narrative changes may occur, but the pronouns aren’t changed according to the singer to transmit a more heteronormative story, instead conveying how gender and desire and identity can all shift depending on the story you are currently telling yourself and your listening friends. Like, think about how Joan Baez sings “Banks of the Ohio,” a song about a man who asks his love to walk with him by the river, and then during this walk kills her because she refuses to be his bride. In the song, the speaker stabs her in the breast as she begs him, “my love, don't you murder me, I'm not prepared for eternity,” which is, in part, so effective because of the ambiguity around which eternity she fears, marriage or the grave, or both as they are now inseparable for her. Olivia Newton John also has a cover of the song, but of course she does change the pronouns, there’s this live performance of it on one of those 1970s music shows with a live audience of rhythmless, and also maybe soulless, white people swaying and mumbling as she sings, “I've killed the only man I love / He would not take me for his bride.” It’s truly so unsettling, this flat death, this feeling of no feeling, too empty to even echo or cast a shadow on the river.
Oscar Wilde has that line in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” “Each man kills the thing he loves, yet each man does not die.” He doesn’t really mean some people are immortal, although of course the argument could be made about art’s immortality, he means some murders are not punished by the state, it all depends on who you are and who you love and who you kill.
The rumor more fucked than that Kurt Cobain wrote Live Through This, is that Courtney Love murdered him, according to some conspiratorial assholes because their relationship was ending, according to others because she thought it would boost her record sales. I mean I understand the feeling that death would be easier than to leave someone. And I understand not being able to accept that someone you believed in couldn’t live, needing to find a way out of that truth. I do. I’m ashamed to admit that the Laura who was reading Spin Magazine in biology indeed harbored these suspicions, could list out all the reasons why Cobain couldn’t have killed himself (the amount of heroin in his blood, the size of the gun), looking at that stupid picture of his dead foot through the doorframe, you know the one. It’s like believing Elvis isn’t dead. Some things at some times are too much to bear, and so we look for a way out, but there is no way out.
Anyway, there I was, howling
through the Midwestern night,
death at my heels for the honest
world to see, my trunk full
of money, my empire crumbling
as it swelled around me like an
overwrought bridge. I killed
my baby and drank his blood
like wine. In service of what, I ask,
but I actually don’t give a fuck.
My message a useless warning,
forever delayed, arriving after
the event. Anyway, I plunged
into the darkness, I sent back
letters from hell, they read
like wind in a cave, assuming
anyone read them. What is it
good for if it’s no good for you?
I hurtled towards you my whole life
and then acted so casual about it
like if you want me I guess just
take all of me then, smiling like
an owl that flew to the moon once
and never told anyone about it.
If you carry all your secrets
to your grave you’ll be a tomb
inside a tomb, but hey if that’s
your plan don’t let me stop you.
Simone Weil says love for the dead is a perfect love, because you can want nothing from them in the imagined fantasy future that ruins all chance for grace, you just want for them to have existed and they have. I wish my love were so pure, but I’m afraid I want a lot from the dead. First and most, I want them to tell me how the fuck to live. I want them to tell me why we do any of this. Cixous says that only at the moment of death can we really tell the truth, can we drop the artifice of the lies that made living possible, for love and cowardice. I mean it sounds awful but that’s the point.
In “Asking For It,” a brilliant song rejecting the argument that any behavior invites or gives permission to abuse, Love sings, “If you live through this with me I swear I would die for you.” The magic of the vow, what happens when you swear to something, turning words into action, into a spell for eternity, that’s one of my favorite parts of the language game we build our world with. But this particular vow, to die for another, is fundamentally different, a beginning and ending, a door we might knock on forever. What kind of love is that? Prince sang about it too, he said flat out he’s not your lover and he’s not your friend, but if you want him to he would die for you. It’s so casual, a strange tenderness, distant and intimate, an acknowledgement of the limitations, that you will never know me, and yet you will be a part of me, as I am for you. You will be part of how I think and act and everything I do. This willingness to die for another if they so desire it, to become a deeper alterity, something incomprehensible, an animal but not just any animal, a dove, what does it mean about how living is valued? Would I die for you? Of course, if you want me to, but is that such a sacrifice? Can a sacrifice be something you want to do? And now Prince really is dead, but Courtney Love survives, and we’re still here.
The other half of the line, which is also the name of the album, “live through this with me,” is so smart too, pointing as it does to the way living and dying don’t necessarily happen in that order, but are always more or less simultaneous, sometimes it feels like you’re living and other times it feels you’re dying, but really you are always doing both. I wake up in the morning and I know that today is another day where I just want to feel alive, which I do best in proximity to you, and to the dead, and to the impossible unknown of what awaits us, to the airplanes passing overhead at night, hot breath on a mirror, stolen time, brief freedom, and the music you loved as a teenager and only later realize you will love your whole life.
I suggest we run away together, but I mean drive,
and also maybe I mean separately. I felt chased
both in nightmares and dreams, with my sister
I ate candy and talked about failure, with the devil
I went to the river, and then under the river, where
I found nothing and saw the wisdom. Everything
I had I gave it away, which was the easy part. I only
want what’s so mine it can never be taken
from me without there being none of me left
and also to either talk to you on the phone or
be in your town again. Lucinda, I think
looking for what we lost will be the best part.
Every time you cross my mind you become
more a part of me, buried deeper in this garden
or grave. We made the world together.
You, me, and this complex system of belief
rife with contradictions we don’t really mind,
we just live in it. Perhaps others will find it
this way after us, but in general we just let
the future be. Does the night really belong
to lovers? What do lovers want with property?
I mean I guess if lovers must own something,
let it be the night and not each other. Or maybe
it’s belonging as in home, as in an earthly and
timebound heaven. Or was it that lovers belong
to the night? That would be cool, let the night
have whatever it wants, let it be endless,
a hotel pool we never have to get out of,
a song the perfect length for every car ride,
a dream come true, the Ohio I imagine but
will never see, a heart that only breaks
and breaks and breaks.
Laura Henriksen is the author of October Poems (Gloss, 2019), Canadian Girlfriends (THERETHEN, 2019), Agata (Imp, 2017), and Fluid Arrangements (Planthouse Gallery, 2018) with Beka Goedde. Her writing can be found in The Brooklyn Rail, LitHub, P-Queue, Foundry, High Noon, and other places.