How to decode almost any POP song: Part IV: HOLE Malibu

Hole - Malibu - CD single coverIn Part I I made some general observations about overlapping songwriting conventions in four bands: Nirvana, Hole, Babes In Toyland, and Mudhoney. In Part II, I drew up a lexicon of symbols and what I think they mean. Now I will use some of those concepts, along with my understanding of the relationships between the songwriters, to analyze a song.

Malibu is a single from the 1998 album Celebrity Skin. The single’s B-side was a song called “Drag” which is thematically similar to Malibu (The main point being: “Drive away to Malibu”).

It seems like a lot of things happened in 1997 and 1998. Kurt & Courtney was filmed in 1997 and released in 1998. Kurt & Courtney was a mostly privately-funded movie in which Nick Broomfield, a U.K. based film maker, paid a bunch of people cash up front to dish dirt on Courtney Love. Many of the informants were known junkies. This of course, is a completely unethical way of making a documentary and makes the whole thing bunk. Still, it hurt people.

white roses painted redAnother thing that happened in 1998 is that Everett True flew in from England to become music editor at Seattle’s weekly The Stranger. According to True’s Wikipedia page, his tenure lasted one year. He then returned to England and wrote a book called Live Through This.

A third thing that happened in is that Portland songwriter Chris Newman (Napalm Beach) was arrested for heroin possession. While trying to escape prosecution, he lost his apartment. By 1998 Chris and his wife Valarie were living homeless on the streets of Portland.

Malibu: the back story

“Love wrote the lyrics to the song based on her late husband Kurt Cobain’s stay at a rehabilitation clinic in Malibu, California while receiving treatment for his heroin addiction prior to his suicide in 1994.”

why the back story is probably false

It is possible that Kurt Cobain stayed at a rehabilitation clinic in Malibu – but I can’t find any evidence of it. He did stay at a clinic in Marina Del Rey, 40 minutes away. So, maybe. Still, the words of the song don’t quite fit the scenario. In particular lyrics like “How’d you get so desperate? How’d you stay alive?” and “Get well soon – please don’t go any higher – how are you so burnt when you’re barely on fire?” – just don’t make sense in that particular context, especially considering this song came out a full four years after Kurt Cobain’s suicide.

That’s why I believe that Malibu is not so much for Kurt Cobain as for Chris Newman. The subject’s true identity is further confirmed by the line “come and part the sea in Malibu.” She’s not talking to Jesus, she’s talking to Moses.

That said – maybe a song for Chris Newman is, by proxy, a song for Kurt Cobain. I’m beginning to think that Kurt Cobain desperately needed Chris (or someone) to tell the truth. And I believe it was Bruce Pavitt who said, “Kurt would smash his last guitar to express himself.”

So here’s a truth that I can see. SMASH! Malibu is for Chris Newman.

Except I think one part – “and you knew love would tear you apart” – may have a multidimensional meaning, by which I mean, she may mean it in a couple different ways. The change in vocal tone suggests something different about it.

symbols in the song and video

If you accept the lexicon I wrote out in Part II, Chris Newman is represented by the sun. Here is how the sun appears in Malibu: “And the sun goes down / I watch you slip away / And the sun goes down / I walk into the waves.” Again, this album came out shortly after Chris became homeless.

Another clue is the song’s title and location. Chris had lived on the beach in Malibu when he was in his early 20s and trying to “make it” in music. This is something I learned about him very early on, so it is likely something that Courtney remembers about him, too. Chris also loves surf movies, and has made allusions to surfing in his music (“let’s go surfing on the lake of fire!”) His band’s name, Napalm Beach, was inspired in part by the movie Apocalypse Now. I believe that Courtney was trying to let him know that if he wanted to get anywhere in music, he would have had to get out of the Northwest.

Malibu video - flaming palm trees

Napalm Beach. The flaming palm trees should have caught Chris’ attention (had he seen the video before last week).

Another interesting symbol in the Malibu video is the painted backdrop and model city. At first it looks like you are seeing an aerial view of a nice cul-de-sac, but then the sense of perspective is shattered by the dried up palm leaf which points to the wheel of a car, and there is Courtney standing on the hood of the car. The cul-de-sac is a model, not a real neighborhood. The hood of the car under Courtney’s feet is painted with red and white stripes (maybe an allusion to divided/combined loyalties? rose white/rose red?) She’s playing her guitar and behind her is a painted backdrop of a city, similar to something you’d see in a theatrical production.

Malibu video image - the backdrop is on fire

As Hole sings “don’t lay down and die” a hole begins to burn in the fake backdrop. By the time the chorus begins, the hole has opened up wide and the backdrop has fallen. As Courtney sings “drive away FROM Malibu” the little fake village is destroyed by a wrecking ball (sans Miley). For (him) to stay alive, the backdrop (myth) has to be destroyed, and vice versa.

When the chorus comes around again, the words change to “drive away TO Malibu… oceans of angels… oceans of stars” and we see a phalanx of blonde beauties clad in fire-red 1980’s style french cut bathing suits. They stand at attention, facing the setting sun. In addition to the french cuts showing “a blanket of ass,” the red suits suggest the television show Baywatch. According to the Wikipedia article on Baywatch, “Saving people from drowning tended to be one of the most typical situations used in the (Baywatch) shows.”

malibu video scene: beach beauties face the setting sunI believe that the imagery here suggests a few different things. First, there is more red and white imagery. Courtney is in white. Second, the bay watch babes suggest an ocean of angels sent to save Chris from drowning forever. Third, they cradle the baby dolls under their breasts, almost maternally, suggesting nourishment and protection. The baby-as-Small Clone allusion is in there too. And perhaps also the idea from Kurt Cobain’s song, Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle: “come down like fire – burn all the liars – leave a blanket of ash (ass) on the ground.” The “blanket of ash” imagery also suggests Mount Saint Helen’s which erupted in Oregon in 1980, coating the northwest in ash, making streets look like a beach. Napalm Beach.

Car buried in Mt St Helens ash

Also, in this part of the video, there are flashes of Hole band members making “scary faces.” I think this is meaningful because you also see these scary faces in other places. For example, at the end of the original version of the “Heart Shaped Box” video. Dave Grohl is making scary faces, pulling down the skin on the bottom of his eyes. On the insert of the In Utero CD, there is a photo of Kurt Cobain making a similar face. I think these scary faces have something to do with Chris and Napalm Beach. (Update May 2014: yes, it’s the left-eye of Horus)

Here is what you may be wondering: Why on earth would a bunch of famous rock stars be so obsessed with a completely “unknown” musician? And/or, as Chris himself asked me, “are you out of your mind?”

I would consider how fast Nirvana went from being “one of us” to becoming the biggest rock band on the planet. Kurt Cobain was a musical and literary genius, and he became very famous, and he was one of us. If it is true (and it is) that “grunge” is a game in which an older genius, Chris Newman, is considered untouchable, isn’t that likely to cause Chris to also become an object of fascination? Like a monster? (One of Chris’ better known songs is called “Monster” – it appeared on a 1987 Seattle compilation called Bands That Will Make Money.) Isn’t the forbidden fruit the sweetest? You know, “don’t think about pink elephants!”

Meanwhile, both Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love had a connection to Chris which they were not able to express, apparently, except covertly through their art. So everything is in the lyrics. Hidden in plain sight. No doubt Kurt and Courtney’s pure punk rock natures (they were and are punk rock) made them want to subvert the grunge paradigm, especially considering how divisive that paradigm has been.

The end of Malibu is beautiful. “I can’t be near you, the light just radiates.”

When I first understood this song/lullaby/prayer was for Chris, it made me cry. Chris and his wife Valarie went through hell during the six years they were homeless, but miraculously survived and even more miraculously, recovered. I had already sensed that Chris is surrounded by guardian angels. When I saw this video, I understood how much it all matters.

Alice and the two queensI feel like Kurt Cobain’s description of Courtney in his suicide note as “a goddess of a wife who sweats ambition and empathy” is apt. I see this song, Malibu, and the associated video as a beautiful gesture among many that have been made. I also understand that these gestures – messages seemingly sent into a void, and which may have gone unrecognized forever – may have had serious consequences for those who made them.

All of it matters.

I began to understand how the false back story to Malibu would have backfired on Courtney, especially in the Kurt & Courtney era. Because Love claimed the song was about her deceased husband, listeners may have believed that the words “I knew love would tear you apart” were directed to Kurt, as if it were some kind of admission of guilt. No, no, NO. That’s a misreading forced by The Grunge Myth.

Malibu is a beautiful song infused with love, hope, and courage.

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