It is four years since Kurt Cobain’s suicide, but it is what people remember about Courtney Love. Yet she has her band, her Hollywood career and Frances Bean
THE THING about talking to Courtney Love — indie pop star turned Hollywood actress — is you don’t. Talk much, that is. Instead, she delivers a series of dark comedy monologues, allowing occasional questions from the floor. For example: “Some of the Hollywood people are cool. But mostly it’s just full of the regular, boring, beautiful people who were popular at high school — it’s still prom for a lot of them.”
Not that I’m complaining. I would have been disappointed if Love had not let rip. In the past couple of years, her interviews have been stilted affairs, with minders present, acting as buffers between Love and the media’s more personal questions. Consequently, there’s been little from her about her late husband Kurt Cobain, Nirvana singer and grunge icon; their daughter Frances Bean; her former drug of choice, heroin; or Nick Broomfield’s recent documentary Kurt and Courtney (which featured claims that Love was in some way responsible for Cobain’s death).
This time, there’s no minder in the room at the Metropolitan hotel in London, though she does bring along guitarist Eric Erlandson and bassist Melissa Auf der Maur from her band Hole. Which is understandable given that the interview is designed to promote Hole’s new album, Celebrity Skin. (So-called, says Love, “because I’ve touched so much of it”.) To paraphrase the legendary Blondie campaign: “Hole are a band, not a person”, even if the world has little interest in the band’s supporting players.
I’ve already been presented with the by-now infamous contract, barring me from mentioning any of the “taboo” subjects (Cobain, heroin etc) unless Love decides to bring them up herself. “Oh great,” I thought as I signed, “I’m going to meet a very interesting woman, and have a very dull conversation with her.” But as it transpired, there was nothing remotely dull about Love.
She’s clever, funny and engaged. Yet also noisy, hungry and relentless. She wears no make-up, and is dressed all in black, her wild yellow hair dragged back into a band, her huge green eyes glinting. She looks like a cross between a young, gothy Bette Midler and a box-fresh china doll.
Hole might be striving for a lighter, more accessible sound these days — “We need to access the internal AM radio that’s inside everybody,” says Love. “We need a voice, or we’ll always just be this college band for 25- to 35-year-old women” — but this does not seem to have affected the singer’s big dirty rock mouth. Industry awards ceremonies? “That sort of thing reduces you, and reducing kills you. After the MTV awards, I felt like eating seven pieces of fried chicken, and making out with someone in a goth band.”
Camille Paglia? “The woman is rockless! A total boomer. She doesn’t know the first thing about music, and I would never do her the favour of sitting her down and explaining it to her because she’s so up her ass about it, it’s insane!”
And what does she now think of that infamous Vanity Fair cover shot which pictured her heavily pregnant, with the cigarette in her hand air-brushed out? “My daughter has the biggest fucking lungs you’ve ever seen! To hell with that ‘pregnancy-as-sacred-ritual’ Bridget Jones mentality.”
Before long, we’re on to the perils inherent in mega-stardom. “You know how you can spot an isolated celebrity?” asks Love, in her signature rasping, booming drawl. “Malapropisms. When Madonna says ‘The Prodigys’, and nobody dares to correct her about a band she’s had on her label for a year-and-a-half. ‘It’s The Prodigy, dear.’ ‘It is?’ ‘Yeah, you signed them’.” Love breaks off, with a huge, filthy guffaw. “Malapropisms are a dead giveaway to celebrity isolation.”
In between these outbursts, Love pauses every so often to take a slug of water, and acknowledge the reaction of her audience. Sometimes, disconcertingly, you look up from laughing to catch her sitting very still and staring straight at you with big, wary, unblinking eyes. It’s as if she’s trying to gauge whether you really like her, or you’re just pretending to, for your own wicked media ends. Most of the time though, Love appears to be in her element. You can’t help feeling that Hollywood is too soft a target for her deceptively light, savage wit. The actress Minnie Driver is, she says, “the Amanda de Cadenet who made it!” She adds, sweetly: “I kind of love her for that, though.”
Love lights another cigarette, then curls up on the sofa. Despite the fag, I’m struck by the healthiness she exudes. When she first clambered into those Versace dresses and tiaras and started appearing at film premieres (her role in Milos Forman’s The People Versus Larry Flynt suddenly elevated her from cult rock widow into Hollywood player), her complexion seemed to change apace with her career. I tell her this at one point, and she laughs and raises her eyes to heaven: “Thank you! Everyone thinks since Larry Flynt I’ve had all this plastic surgery. But I didn’t, I just started taking better care of myself. I mean, excuse me: heroin? Not exactly a complexion-enhancing drug!”
Poor Erlandson and Auf der Maur: friendly, but slightly reserved, and probably resigned to the fact that they could come up with a cure for cancer mid-interview and still no one would take any notice while Love was around. Hole’s new drummer isn’t here. Rumour has it that the old one, Patty Schemel, was sacked because she had a heroin habit. “Yeah, she found herself another niche,” says Love archly, adding in world-weary tones: “She had to go… I can’t be around that stuff, you know.” Her voice cracks. She looks absolutely exhausted for a moment. “I just… can’t.”
In one form or another, Courtney Love seems to have been around bad stuff all her life. She was born Michelle Courtney Love Harrison in 1965, or thereabouts. (In her cuttings, her age is all over the place.) Mum is Linda Carroll, the hippy Jewish liberal heiress to an optical instrument fortune, latterly turned therapist, who hit the headlines herself in 1993 when she persuaded the radical fugitive Katharine Ann Power to give herself up. Dad, or “Biodad”, as Love prefers to call him, is Hank Harrison, onetime occasional gofer for the rock band the Grateful Dead. He is reputed to have given Love her first acid tab at the age of two. More recently, he appeared in the Broomfield documentary bragging about how he used to discipline Love with pit bulls, and hawking his book Who Killed Kurt Cobain?, a tome alleged to lay the blame for Cobain’s death directly at Love’s door.
When I ask about Harrison, Love’s eyes turn very hard, as she briefly and bluntiy dismisses him as “an abject sociopathic failure”. Love grew up hating her estranged father so much that, at the very first moment she could, she got rid of the nose she inherited from him. “Of course,” she shrugs. “My old nose, my real father’s nose, was horrible, believe me. You would not be speaking to me now if I still had that nose. And anyway, why should I have the genes of someone I don’t even respect on my face?”
Overall, Love seems distinctly unimpressed by her history. “I wish sometimes that I had gone to the New York Performing Arts School, then on to Brown or Yale, and become an actress or something,” she says. “And I think if I had had parents who had provided a more stable, loving environment then that could have happened. But, oh, you know…” Love abruptly snaps out of her reverie. “It obviously wasn’t in my destiny.”
Instead, Love swiftly became delinquent, spending time in Juvenile Hall for shoplifting, and developing an early interest in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. After she left school, she spent a short period stripping in Alaska, Japan and along the West Coast. She has said of this period: “I didn’t want to be a prostitute, I didn’t want to sell drugs, so I stripped.” In the early 1980s, she ended up first in Dublin, then in Liverpool, where she befriended Julian Cope of the Teardrop Explodes, and took small parts in those best-forgotten Alex Cox movies Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell.
When she returned to America, Love flitted around, singing for a few bands here and there — among them Faith No More, and Babes in Toyland — until finally getting Hole together, with Eric Erlandson, whom she briefly dated. Hole soon gained a reputation, owing to Love’s controversial self-titled “kinder-whore” look — which actually more resembled Whatever Happened to Baby Jane with a dash of Valley of the Dolls thrown in. Then there was her aggressive, cathartic lyrical style (early songs were called things like ‘DickNail’, ‘Retard Girl’, and ‘Teenage Whore’), and her habit of stage-diving into the crowd clad in tatty charity-shop dresses and no knickers.
In those days, a lot of people categorised her as a kind of underground Madonna: La Ciccone for the disenfranchised. But Love isn’t having that. “Don’t throw all that at me because I’m sexual, or I’m mouthy, or I’m controversial, or whatever,” she groans. “I love Madonna, she’s done so much as an archetype. And I call her for advice about certain things certainly, but to say that I walk in her shadow, either musically, or culturally, is a massive mistake.”
It’s great when Love name-drops. When she does it, she has this air about her — “magisterial”, she would call it, but I think it’s just plain cheeky — which makes everyone she mentions seem like her lady-in-waiting or her butler. (“I call her for advice about certain things” indeed!) I also like the brazen way Love name-drops all the time. Drew Barrymore. Jim Carrey. Sporty Spice. Cameron Diaz. George Clooney…
This is the woman, remember, who before she made it, would make lists of how to become successful, with “Make friends with Michael Stipe” at the top. Isn’t that just so human and sweet? At least it seems so until you consider that Love actually did become best friends with Michael Stipe. She set her cap at him, and got her man. You’ve got to admire that, even if you do shiver a little at the way her mind works sometimes.
Indeed, Love openly relishes her celebrity. “Why not?” she says. “It can be great fun.” Love also seems to be one of fame’s natural cross-pollinators, perfectly at home in both the music and the movie worlds. She enjoys Hollywood and is to star opposite Jim Carrey (whom she’s currently reported to be dating) in the forthcoming film The Man in the Moon. “He spent 18 years doing stand up in shit clubs before he made it, which is lucky because now he can be grounded about the fact that everyone laughs at his jokes all of the time,” she says, hooting. “Movie stars get their asses kissed like nothing you’ve ever seen.”
That said, after her award-winning performance in Larry Flynt, she felt confident enough to turn down the lead in the oft-mooted Janis Joplin bio-pic. “They offered me $8 million, but why would I want to die of drugs in a movie? I already did that!” Besides, Love seems to prefer music and music people. “I like doing movies,” she says, “but I enjoy my day job the most. Rock is evangelising. Music defines me in the soul.”
It was around 1991, at the time of Hole’s first album release Pretty on the Inside, that Love met Kurt Cobain. It’s alleged that it wasn’t long before they started taking heroin together. The Cobains were married in 1992, and had Frances Bean the same year. Vanity Fair ran its notorious article around this time, alleging that Love had taken heroin while carrying the baby. Love, in turn, denied it, claiming that she stopped the moment she knew she was pregnant. Nevertheless, the impact of the allegations was disastrous. The Cobains even had Frances Bean taken away from them for a while by the local authorities.
It was also about this time that rumours started spreading that Cobain was writingHole’s material — specifically, those songs that would later turn into their second album Live Through This. (But by then Cobain was a jaded megastar, and a heroin addict. He probably had enough on his plate coping with his own work rate.) There was also the small matter of Love and Erlandson having written one album before Love knew Cobain, and one album since his death. Somehow, though, Cobain’s supposed authorship of Live Through This has evolved into a staple music industry rumour. A situation that incenses Love and Erlandson, neither of whom have commented on the subject until now.
“All this time I have never addressed this,” says Love, seething. “I’ve just had this stiff upper lip. I felt I had to take it. I’ve never said a word. But here I am finally saying for the very first time that Kurt did not [write] Live Through This… I mean, for fuck’s sake, his skills were much better than mine at the time — the songs would have been much better. That’s the first thing.”
Love’s major gripe seems to be with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, the other members of Nirvana. She thinks that if they’d wanted to, they could have nipped the whole thing quietly in the bud. “I was like: ‘Why don’t you stick up for me? I don’t want to have to deal with these insults.’ And they’re like” — Love puts on a dopey voice — “‘We never get asked.’ And I’m like: ‘You know what? I’m going to start assigning people to ask you! Anyway! Why don’t you offer the fucking information?'”
Could she have done with some support at the time? Love glares at me incredulously: “I could do with some now! I just read, in the Face, ‘Kurt Cobain — the genius behind Live Through This.’ Fuck you! My monsterfication I can deal with, but when it comes to my writing and his writing — no, the answer is no! Kurt did not write Live Through This.” Love stops and groans. “I never wanted to comment on this. I never wanted to, but it gets on my tits, it really does. They’re just trying to take my power away from me. It’s just so gross and nonsensical.”
At the time the rumours started, the world at large seemed out to get Courtney Love; yet while all this was going on, Cobain was rarely criticised. Kurt and Courtney were rock’s very own good cop/bad cop duo. No matter how appallingly both behaved, only Love caught the flak. “Yeah, well,” she sighs. “The cottage industry surrounding my taste in men came from a Tina Brown mentality I just didn’t understand.” She shrugs. “But, you know, sometimes when there’s a new golden boy on the scene, we don’t want them to have a threatening new girlfriend. I understand that now, but at the time I didn’t because I thought I was so fucking fabulous.” Love shakes her head in exasperation. “And maybe these people could tell me how I’m supposed to explain all this to my daughter? It would be like: ‘Well, your father was really cute, and people got mad because I was with him.’ That’s like saying that women like me are really lucky to get smart cute boys, and I don’t want to tell her that. We were all so happy together, you know, until… Anyway.” At this point, Love’s face clouds over, and she waves her hand, distancing me. What she’s referring to is the fact that by April 1994, Kurt Cobain was dead, having shot himself through the head in their Seattle home.
The interview is clearly terminated. Hole, as if on cue, leap to their feel and start preparing to leave. “We have to go, we really do have to go,” says Auf der Maur apologetically. They are required at the rehearsal for the BBC’s Later with Jools Holland. “Why don’t you come along?” says Love, out of the blue. “You can bug me. I’ve got four hours to kill.”
In the end, not a lot of bugging goes on at the studio. I watch Hole rehearse their three songs from Celebrity Skin — the title track, ‘Malibu’, and ‘Reasons to be Beautiful’. For some reason, Love is wearing a completely see-through black top and no bra, which causes consternation at the time (what on earth is she playing at?) and, indeed, later on, when she suspects that one of the camera crew might have been secretly filming her impromptu flashing routine. It’s all too Spinal Tap for words. Courtney, you think, why do you get into these situations, why don’t you just put a bra on in the first place?
The actual recording goes well and, just as I am about to leave, I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Love, looking flushed, pleased and glittery. There are spangles all over her hair. “Do you want to talk some more?” she asks. We make our way down the corridor to her dressing room. It is then that the most bizarre thing happens.
Two girls, just kids really, spring out at us, waving a camera and a furry mic. “Have you seen Nick Broomfield’s movie?” they ask Love. She glares imperiously at them, and quickens her pace. As I follow her, and they follow us, I am struck by the irony: two girls with a hand-held camera chasing a woman down a corridor to ask if she’s seen a movie made about her by a man with a hand-held camera. Even Love, the victim in all this, would probably see the funny side.
Or maybe not. “There are so many things I like about this country,” she sighs, safe in her dressing room. “But that Nick Broomfield film could not have come from America. That is a Fleet Street private-school product, and that’s a big bugbear with me. I’ll take the American Internet guy with the fucking militia mindset any day over that reductive Fleet Street mentality.”
Broomfield ended up interviewing conspiracy theorists, her loathed father among them. Most seemed to believe Love, supposedly frightened that her marriage was over and that she was about to be written out of her husband’s will, was behind Kurt’s death. Was that what drained Love? “Nick Broomfield’s film didn’t drain me at all!” glowers Love, flinging off her sweaty stage gear and marching about, looking for fresh clothes in the chaos. You wish Broomfield could see his sinister media manipulator now — wandering around completely naked, save for a pair of black knickers, in front of a journalist holding a tape recorder.
Love pulls a sweater over her head. “I couldn’t give a shit, to be honest. I can’t believe you guys give it so much attention. I certainly haven’t seen his film, but from what I understand… It was sad for him, really. Who could he get to talk to him — a bunch of junkies, for money? And it was all so enfeebling. Him having this fantasy, this very homosexual fantasy actually, of Kurt as this enfeebled, emasculated person. This man who wasn’t even a man yet, who actually died a boy.”
I put it to Love that maybe she should have spoken to Broomfield, had her say over the matter. The pre-Hollywood Courtney might have done. Love disagrees: “I could have done, but I’m glad I didn’t. Why should I? What, take that kind of punishment? React to something like that? With that kind of proposition over somebody who was like my best friend and the father of my child? Oh no, no way!
“And the old me wouldn’t have done it either. Not even at my worst. It’s just so tasteless.” She looks at me despairingly. “You know, I can’t allow this sort of thing to go on all the time… I just can’t.”
It turns out that in a way the conspiracy theorist nuts are getting to Courtney Love; or, more specifically, she’s afraid that they will get to Frances Bean, her six-year-old daughter. The pair have already moved from Seattle to LA to escape the people who used to scare Frances by staring up at the house all day. “Frances will not be fetishised, over my dead body. I’m going to be her parent every way I can. I’m her dad more than I’m her mom. I mean, I’m both… Oh, I don’t know. I’ll move to Montana if I have to, not to be the martyr mother, but if it came to it, I’d give it all up.
“Frances is not going to be Lisa Marie Presley. She’s not going to be Sean Lennon. She’s not going to look me in the eye, like the sweet lovely boy who was well raised, and say: ‘The government killed my father’. Sean Lennon looked me in the eye and said that!” She shakes her head. “I’m not going to let that happen to my daughter.”
We talk for a while about the press Love received after, and even before, Cobain’s death. Even her staunchest supporters would have to concede that Love is an acquired taste. She is the celebrity as inkblot test, if you like. You could easily imagine 10 different people looking at her and seeing 10 totally different things. But still: Whore. Junkie. Killer. Witch. Bitch. All those ugly words, which as Love points out are invariably used in the headline of any article about her. “By naming these words, you create them,” she cries, exasperated. “But then you take no responsibility for them.”
It seems inevitable: finally, we are going to talk about the time of her husband’s death. Love’s voice drops almost to a whisper. “Kurt had a lot of rage at himself, at his mother, at his fame. And he died. He did what he did. It had a huge personal impact on me, obviously. But it’s weird, I’m only just starting to realise what it means in cultural terms that my husband committed suicide. I don’t know, maybe I’m just stupid.” There’s a big, weary sigh. “Or maybe I’m too optimistic. Maybe I just think that people are like me — they just… keep going.
“And you know,” she continues, “maybe I do feel strong in a way. It’s like I say to myself: “Why don’t I have to go to 12-step? Why don’t I have a big drug problem? Why am I excused these cruelties other people have to experience? Why haven’t I died?”
Had Kurt lived, what would Love have to say to him?
She ponders this for a moment.
“I don’t know what he’d be like now if he’d lived. If he was still on heroin, I wouldn’t be having anything to do with him. I can’t be around that stuff. My daughter can’t be around that stuff. My life is great,” cries Love, her voice rising raggedly. “I don’t need to be around it. And you know… I’m sorry if my name is linked with heroin. And I’m especially sorry if anybody ever did it because of me. It was like some weird caving in. Because I was pretty cool before I did heroin and…” Love turns and flashes a grins at me, “I’m pretty cool again now.”
© Barbara Ellen, The Observer, 15 November 1998