Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love are the most controversial rock couple since Sid and Nancy. Critics of their relationship have cast Courtney as a scheming, parasitic bitch who’s ruthlessly exploited her feeble, unwitting husband, whose career she seems determined to f*** up. In this exclusive interview with EVERETT TRUE, the couple come out fighting in defence of their marriage and lay into their detractors with a vengeance.
“THIS IS THE HARDEST JOB I’ve ever had,” the reluctant star begins. “I can’t believe it…”
“I like it, though!” he exclaims. “I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. It’s just a lot more demanding than I expected.”
He pauses again.
“You know, she can fart as loud as I can…”
“Oh Kurt!” his wife interrupts, offended.
“And burp as loud as I can,” he finishes unabashed, smiling his mischievous little smile.
“Keep it down,” his wife scolds him. “It’s not feminine.”
But she’s a baby. Babies are allowed to fart.
“Oh, okay,” the protective mother says, mollified, looking proudly at the wide-eyed sproglet by her side.
Does having a baby make you see life in a different way?
“Definitely,” replies Courtney. “Yeah…”
She stops, distracted by the look in her husband’s eyes. He’s rolling ’em.
“Stop it! Why do you do this?” she shouts.
“Do what?” he asks, innocently, as Frances Bean reaches out for his hand.
“Switch off when the tape recorder switches on.”
“I’ve pretty much exhausted the baby opinions,” Kurt Cobain — America’s most successful “punk rock” star — says, defensively. “I just don’t have anything important to say. I mean, duh, it’s fun, it’s great, it’s the best thing in my life.”
Silence falls over the bedroom. We go back to watching the latest Ren And Stimpy cartoon, the new cult favourites of young America. Frances Bean Cobain’s nanny appears, ready to take the little ‘un — a bouncing, almost nauseatingly healthy, blue-eyed child (Kurt’s eyes, Courtney’s nose) — downstairs for her nap.
Silence. Courtney takes a sip of lukewarm strawberry tea, I take a gulp of vodka. Kurt belches.
We all have appearances to keep up.
Kurt and Courtney’s new apartment is prime LA: near the top of a hill overlooking West Hollywood, surrounded by palm trees and winding pathways lined with foliage and security fences. You need an elevator — with a private key — to reach it.
Inside, one room is set aside for Kurt’s paintings — strange, disturbing collages and images (he used to paint headless babies when his wife was pregnant, now he paints angels and dolls). There’s a large, old-fashioned kitchen with a mirror running along the length of its outside wall, sundry guestrooms up top. Upstairs, Courtney’s wardrobe is crammed with antique “baby doll” dresses. It’s larger than some flats I’ve lived in. (Well, almost.)
Pizza crusts and half-full doughnut containers litter the spacious main room. There’s a telescope, guitars, old rock books, clipped photos, baby things scattered everywhere — prime space is given over to a tasteful pink crib, bedecked in ribbons. A stereo in one corner blares out Mavis Staples. The place has an air of being only half-lived in, as do most LA residences.
As I arrive, the couple are lying on the double bed in the master bedroom with Frances Bean (“Frances! Say hello to your Uncle Everett!” — Courtney). She wearing a nightie. He: in pyjama bottoms and the ubiquitous scruffy cardigan and tee-shirt. On the TV screen, three huggy male rock musicians in dresses surreally smash instruments, regardless of the backing track. It’s the new Nirvana video for ‘In Bloom’.
Courtney’s sifting through a coloured box-load of Nirvana letters, sent to Kurt by just one girl. There are about 30 or 40 of them, all painstakingly hand-coloured, hand-lettered, with audio tape accompaniment.
“Look, Kurt!” Courtney picks on one particularly lurid specimen. “She’s spelt out your name over these envelopes… oh, here’s a picture of her (pause)… oh, she’s got a muscular wasting disease… we have to write back! We’ve got to! She’s an outsider, just like me!”
Kurt grunts affirmation. We pour over her scribblings with renewed interest, grateful that we’ve never been thus afflicted. Someone puts her name down on the Christmas Card list.
Kurt decides he wants to tell us about his high school days, but then dries up.
“That’s because you’re a stoned retard,” Courtney teases him. (It’s well-known that Kurt spent a fair few hours at school partaking of the demon weed.)
“Go on!” Courtney urges her husband. “I always talk! I’m sick of it.”
Another pause. Frances gurgles slightly, a happy thought obviously striking the Bean. There’s no sign of the “Diet Grrrl” graffiti her father had wickedly drawn on her stomach earlier. Kurt sighs.
Kurt’n’Courtney (or “Kurtney”, as they’re collectively known) have only ever given two joint interviews before this — both to American publications. They wanted to speak to The Maker to clear up certain matters — mostly arising from a profile of Courtney which appeared in the September issue of Vanity Fair, an up-market fashion magazine.
Clearly, we’ll have to tread carefully.
Courtney mumbles something from where she’s sitting, behind the bed by the ghetto-blaster. Sorry?
“You were wrong,” she says. “I should have been sullen and demure.”
“When I asked you that question a couple of years ago,” she explains. “In a bar. In LA.”
You can’t hide your personality — well, maybe you can.
“I wouldn’t have minded,” she whimpers. “I used to be sullen and demure.”
She’s referring to when she first met me, last year, when she asked me how she should behave in relation to the press.
“I used to be really loud and obnoxious,” Kurt interrupts. “And then I stopped hanging out with people.”
The singer shifts from where he’s lying, sprawled out on the mattress. Courtney moves to switch the TV off.
“Because I was tired of pretending that I was someone else just to get along with people, just for the sake of having friendships,” he replies. “I was tired of wearing flannel shirts and chewing tobacco, and so I became a monk in my room for years. And I forgot what it was like to socialise.”
But didn’t you drink?
“Yeah, I drank,” he agrees. “And I was obnoxious when I drank too much. Then there was a period during the last two years of high school when I didn’t have any friends, and I didn’t drink or do any drugs at all, and I sat in my room and played guitar.”
Then, when you formed Nirvana, you started drinking and hanging out with people, and you were back to where you were a few years before…
“Not really,” responds Kurt, stretching. “I still have the same best friends I had a few years ago. The scale of social activity that I have is so f***ing minimal — nothing, my entire life — so the little bit of socialising I did at parties when I was loud wasn’t much more than when I started socialising again in Seattle.
“I starred hanging round with people like Mudhoney,” he continues. “Mainly they were just other people in bands. I wasn’t really part of a thriving Seattle social scene. Both Chris and I thought of ourselves as outsiders — we wrote that song, ‘School’, about the crazy Seattle scene, how it reminded us of high school.”
“It hasn’t got any different. I just…”
He pauses, choosing his words carefully.
“I guess living in LA makes me more reclusive,” he says, “because I don’t like LA at all. I can’t find anything to do here. It’s pointless going out and trying to make friends, because I don’t have these tattoos and I don’t like death rock.”
“Axl wants to be your friend,” Courtney reminds him, sitting back down again. “Axl thinks that if I wasn’t around, you and him could be backstage at arena rock shows f***ing self-hating little girls.”
“Well, that was always my goal,” replies Kurt, sarcastically. “To come down to Hollywood and ride motorcycles with Axl on the Strip — and then you came along and ruined it all.”
“That’s what Axl says,” Courtney explains. “Did you hear about that show where he got on stage and started saying something like, ‘Nirvana’s too good to play with us. Kurt would rather be home with his ugly bitch…’?”
Well, it’s true, isn’t it? (Not the “ugly” part.) Kurt would rather be home with you, bathing Frances Bean, wandering around in your nightie, than out bonding with Axl and the boys. Why should he act any differently? It’s weird how some famous people seem to want to hang out with other famous people, just cos they’re all famous.
Do you like it here in Hollywood, Courtney, or are you fed up with running? From what I know of your past life — as much as anyone can know — it seems to me you’ve been running for a very long time.
“I just always ended up back here,” she muses. “Jennifer (L7) lives here, and she’s always been a pretty good friend. I’d call her and say, ‘This town didn’t workout!’ and she’d go, ‘Oh, come back to LA!’. It’s so big, it can just absorb you. People here are so…”
She pauses, struggling to find the right words.
“We thought it might be easy to live here because people are trained to deal with fame,” she says. ‘The thing is, however, it’s not really like that. They don’t stare, but they know who you are and the second you leave the store, they’re on the phone to their friends…”
She pauses again.
“It’s not even that,” she corrects herself. “I wouldn’t have got nearly as much trouble if I hadn’t chosen to live here. I just thought it would be interesting to go into the mainstream and f*** things up because people always say they’re going to, but no one ever does — and I didn’t have any choice, really. It’s weird here: nurses calling Cowboy Capers (a Hollywood delivery firm) for their valium subscriptions. It’s scary, because everybody wants the fame. They all want fame.”
“Fame is more of a reality here,” her husband agrees.
“See, here’s where it started, too,” she adds, “before I became the poisoner of my husband, before I occupied this position I’m now in. But until we started going out, I never realised that’s how the people in LA really are.”
Do you feel poisoned by Courtney, Kurt?
“By Courtney, or by Courtney’s stigma?” he replies. “Poisoned by… the whole f***ed-up misconception of our relationship. Everyone seems to think that we couldn’t possibly love each other, because we’re thought of as cartoon characters, because we’re public domain. So the feelings that we have for each other are thought of as superficial.”
“It’s not everybody who thinks that, though,” Courtney adds. “It’s a couple of has-been, pontificating, male rock stars and, mostly, women who work in the American music industry. I think that’s because, in the early Eighties, if you were a woman and you wanted to play music, there was a real slim chance you would succeed. So a lot of women who wanted to empower themselves within rock without being self-loathing joined the music industry — and these are some of the most vicious women I know.
“I’ve heard industry women talking about how horrible L7 are, I’ve heard industry women talking about how unattractive PJ Harvey is, which is ridiculous… I just think these powerful women have this real competitive, jealous nature which manifests itself like this. And when I married Kurt, they went into overload.
“It’s insane, this real complex issue… It’s an attempt to create something out of nothing — the whole superstar thing. They at least try to take away my intellect, and take away my ethics, and create…”
She pauses again, jumbled.
The thoughts are pouring out too fast for coherent speech now. Spend even five minutes in Courtney’s company, and you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer torrent of words and ideas that pour from her. Courtney is rumoured to spend up to 12 hours a day on the phone. To her, to think is to be.
You must find it annoying, Kurt, that people perceive you to be this stupid hen-pecked husband, because that’s implied in the whole image of Courtney Love’s devious and evil nature.
“Yeah, there’ve been quite a few articles like that,” he growls. “I don’t know how to explain what happens to me when I do an interview, because I usually shut myself off. It’s really hard to explain. I just don’t like to get intimate. I don’twant anyone to know what I feel and what I think, and if they can’t get some kind of idea of what sort of person I am through my music, then that’s too bad.
“I don’t see how people can get the idea I’m stupid,” he continues, “because I know my music’s semi-intelligent. I know it takes a bit of creativity to write the kind of music I do, it’s not just a wall of noise. I know there’s a formula to it, and I’ve worked really hard at it.
“I’ve always been the kind of person that if I think someone thinks of me a certain way like I’m stupid — then I’ll act stupid in front of them. I’ve never felt the need to prove myself. If someone already has a misconception about me, then fine, let them have it all the more. I’ll be happy to massage that.”
Jackie, Frances Bean’s nanny, shouts from downstairs that Kurt is wanted on the phone. Kurt tells her to tell whoever it is to call back later. I take another gulp of vodka and continue.
Here’s a question that’s been bothering me for a while. How subversive are Nirvana? For a number of reasons, not least the which is her sassiness and the way she gets up the establishment’s noses, Courtney is subversive.
“We aren’t,” replies Kurt, tartly. “It’s impossible to be subversive in the commercial world because they’ll crucify you for it. You can’t get away with it. We’ve tried, and we’ve been almost ruined by it.”
“There have been things that have happened to us that are so…” Courtney trails off, momentarily wordless.
“Like, after the baby was born,” she continues, “a social worker walked into my room with a picture from Vanity Fair, trying to take our baby away. Having to get lawyers just to the hospital, just having crazy, crazy shit. Having friends’ mothers horrified, because one person lied! It’s okay to say that I’m obnoxious, because I am…”
Her anger overcomes her.
“It’s amazing what damage that one article has done!” Kurt snarls. It certainly painted Courtney in a very bad light, as the “bad girl” of American rock — a gold-digging parasite, a mother who took drugs while she was pregnant, a “Yoko” who tried to break up Nirvana, a malcontent who argued bitterly with her “best friend”, Kat Bjelland, a fraud, an obsessive, a heroin addict. It conveniently overlooked the fact that she used to be — and presumably will continue to be in the future — a highly respected artist in her own right. Especially if the new single is anything to go by.
“Kurt didn’t want to play the (MTV) video awards, for instance,” his wife continues. “Never mind that if he didn’t play the video awards, they’d never show clips of his or my band again. That wasn’t it…”
“Also,” says Kurt, “they wouldn’t have played any Gold Mountain (Kurtney’s management company) acts, like Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys…”
Yeah, I heard about that from Thurston. They threatened your management with a boycott of all their acts if Nirvana didn’t toe the line. You can be as subversive and radical as you like, but they only really bother with you once you’re big enough to be a threat.
“So all the political nastiness that I’ve heard of for years from independent record people is true,” Kurt snarls. “A lot of people, especially people like Bruce Pavitt and Calvin Johnson — people who have been pretty successful throughout the years with introducing underground, independent music and creating a community feel within their environment and just exercising the whole DIY ethic — have known a lot of people who have experienced the major label f***-overs…”
Calvin Johnson runs Olympia’s fiercely partisan, independent K records. (Olympia being where Kurt moved to after leaving Aberdeen and forming Nirvana.) Calvin used to help Bruce (Sub Pop) Pavitt run a fanzine in the early Eighties.
Olympia is a small liberal college town an hour’s drive away from Seattle, which, in 1991, hosted the International Pop Underground Convention, thus providing the initial impetus for Riot Grrrl. Nirvana even contributed a track to the convention’s Kill Rock Stars compilation LP, before being (apparently) ostracised for signing to a major label.
Kurt continues with his rant.
“I know that some of these people I used to look up to — people who have put out magazines or who’ve had a record label for years — these people have had the real inside dirt on what a major label is like, but they never told me…”
He sounds oddly betrayed.
“I never paid any attention to mainstream press, either,” Kurt continues. “I never understood the mechanics of it, how it works. I never read a major label rock’n’roll interview, except when I was a kid in Creem magazine and that was always so tongue-in-cheek. I’ve never read a Rolling Stone article that I can think of — just skimmed through a couple of the political ones.”
From below, we can hear the sound of Frances Bean crying. Kurt half-rises to go downstairs, but changes his mind. “Now that it’s happened, I still can’t help laughing at it,” he adds. “But it went overboard. It went just a little bit too far to take in good humour…”
“A little bit?” Courtney interrupts him, angrier than ever. “Social workers coming to take your baby because of something you didn’t do and you didn’t say is not judicial, and it’s not justice…
“That article,” she spits. “The whole drug thing…”
She’s floundering because she’s so riled.
“We did drugs and it was really fun, and now it’s over. Anybody who knows me knows I’m way too paranoid to get wasted all the time…”
She pauses again, searching for the right words.
“It’s just so insane,” she cries, “what it’s done and who it’s hurt because of one woman’s vendetta. When you look at it, Everett, I think the end of rock is pretty near when Madonna is trying to buy Pavement for a million dollars and put out Xerox fanzines. When Madonna thinks that I am the cutting edge — that’s how you can judge how out of it she is.”
The Vanity Fair also dwelt shortly and harshly on Courtney’s claims that Madonna was vampiric, ready to take from Courtney what she wanted and leave the rest of her for dead.
“Who,” Madonna was quoted as saying, “is Courtney Love?” She should know. It was Madonna who asked her manager to sign Courtney’s band to her label last year. It was Madonna herself who phoned Courtney to arrange a meeting. Wanna know why I’m so sure? I spoke to Courtney immediately after the call — and nobody makes shit like that up.
“I wish I’d never come in her eye-line,” Courtney cries. “Isn’t there any punk rock value in the fact I turned her down and she then sent one of her toadies to execute me? The Vanity Fair piece would never had happened if I hadn’t turned her down.”
“It’s twice as bad for Courtney,” explains Kurt, “because she hasn’t even had the chance to prove herself like I did. It’s one thing for me to be subversive at this point, because I can afford to be. I can pretty much get away with ripping up a picture of The Pope on television and it wouldn’t create so much of a stink as someone commercial like Sinead — or Courtney, who doesn’t have the security of having sold lots of records…”
The baby cries. Courtney interrupts her husband, excited.
“How did it go so fast,” she asks, sounding genuinely bewildered, “from having a record of the year in Village Voice and being perceived as an artist, to being Nancy Spungen in three months?”
There’s something I’d like to get down on tape now. I’d forgotten that Hole were one of the initial inspirations for Riot Grrrl. When Cathi of Bikini Kill saw Hole, it was pretty much what inspired her to form a band.
“Cathi wrote me a letter saying she wanted to start a band and what should she do,” recalls Courtney. “And I wrote her back and said she should find the biggest slut-bitches in her town that everybody hates. I thought if there were three people who were like the town bitch in one band, that would be f***ing amazing. I don’t know if that really happened, but it turned out to be…” (Cathi actually recounted this event in her fanzine, Bikini Kill, about the formation of her band, adding that, when she saw Courtney, it was like, “the guitar went into flames — almost a religious experience.”)
“I’m very supportive of them, on a personal level,” she adds. She then moves on to talking about Julian Cope, stung by the adverts for his tour which were then running in the music press, where he — among other stupid and provocative statements — wrote, “Free us (the rock’n ‘roll fans) from Nancy Spungen-fixated heroin a-holes who cling to our greatest rock groups and suck out their brains… “
“He’s one of these people who actually knows me,” she says, hurt. “Not well, but he does know me, and who was somebody — for all his horns and back-up singers — when I was younger, really affected me and charmed me and made me feel, Wow, for an English person he’s pretty original and cool’.
“And for him to be slagging me off in his poem in his ad, it’s like…”
She pauses, struck by another thought. “Wait, where do people get this f***ing Nancy Spungen thing from?” she demands. “I’m sorry I dyed my hair. Is it that superficial? Is it just because I’m blonde?”
Well, it’s partly because you joked about it in a couple of interviews.
“It’s this Nirvana/Sex Pistols thing, too,” she corrects me.
But Your Jo(e) Average Person On The Street never seems to realise that people in power can joke about what are perceived to be serious matters. Perhaps they aren’t allowed to. Maybe it’s just because Your Jo(e) Average Punter is obtuse, but I doubt if it’s even that. It’s probably more that it’s always been the case that people take whatever they want from what they read.
“Right,” Courtney agrees. “But the fact of this, too, is how women, unless they totally desexualise themselves, have no intellect subscribed to them…”
“That’s totally true,” murmurs Kurt.
“If I were subscribed intellect, nobody would ever think that I was Nancy Spungen, because Nancy Spungen is not intellectual,” she finishes. “It’s because I’ve chosen to negotiate the world on the world’s terms — I’ve said, ‘Okay, I’m going to have this experiment’, after having spent most of my life being plain and un-decorative. So I decided to lose some weight and wear some lipstick and see what f***ing happens — be a little dangerous, more subversive.”
“It’s a lot f***ing easier,” her husband says.
“It was for me,” she agrees, “but, at the same time, now what’s happened is that we are married and these people are trying to take away my livelihood and they’re trying to take away the thing that matters the most to me, other than my family. And now they’re even trying to take away my family.
“So me and Kurt get married and we’re peers — his band were always ahead, but they started before us — then, suddenly, his band get real successful and we’re not peers anymore. He’s involved in free trade in America and I’m not making much of a dent. It’s just really amazing to see.”
She pauses. (And so for the moment, do we).
© Everett True, Melody Maker, 19 December 1992