Courtney wants to go mass market, but can pop's punk princess shelve her anger and raunch?
By Neal Karlen
It is an unlikely scenario by anyone's standards. "I might be blighted because of my marriage," she once admitted. "But I'm fucking talented." She was right on both counts. Then, when her husband, Kurt Cobain, killed himself, she was knocked even more for surviving him. Just a year before, she had been booed off the main stage when she tried to say hello. Now the fans were screaming with anticipation.
As I stood on a hill in the wings watching her ascend to the stage, I was amazed at how much she had changed. During the past few years, I, like other reporters, had fielded her sporadic phone calls and sat for hours at her house discussing her derisive brand of punk. Now she seemed to have gone Hollywood. She had handlers, and representatives from Geffen Records and the PMK publicity agency, and lawyers, and confidentiality agreements for her employees and friends.
While members of Sonic Youth and Pavement hung outside their trailers at times, Courtney was nowhere to be seen. Backstage VIPs, wearing laminated passes around their necks, cast sidelong glances at her closed door. Invisible, she was the undisputed trailer-park queen - no matter how good Drew Barrymore looked. When her set was called, she tentatively stepped out, like a little girl, onto the platform leading to the curtain. But all her wide-eyed hesitancy disappeared once Hole (Eric Erlandson on guitar, Melissa Auf der Maur on bass and Patty Schemel on drums) started playing. She stuck her left foot on the monitor and began to belt out her incendiary tales. The crowd leaped to its feet with a rabid roar more suited to a World Wrestling Federation bout. Fans in the mosh pit shook their fists and screamed her lyrics in unison. Her hair blown back by a wind machine, Courtney looked as if she were in an old Stevie Nicks video.
As usual, the moshers begged her to stage-dive into their arms. That move, too, seemed a thing of the past. There would be no chance to grope her body or rip her clothes. She neared the lip of the stage, glowered, then retreated.
"Live through this with me," she wailed, "and I swear that I will die for you." Then, from up front, somebody doused her with a Supersoaker. Courtney stepped forward, teeth bared in a deceptive grin. "Are you trying to electrocute me?" she asked.
"Hey guys," she said to the security team, "could you kick the shit out of the guy with the squirt gun?" She looked to the pit, her voice rising to a scream. "If you don't I will, because when I die it's not going to be in front of you. When I die, it's going to be in a nice quiet bed with a tube down my throat."
For the rest of the set, she was satisfied with stage-directing a hair-ripping bacchanal. "I told you from the start just how this would end," she sang on "Violet". "When I get what I want, I never want it again."
Courtney clearly wants "to be the girl with the most cake," as she sings in "Doll Parts" - to make movies, have fame, ink, international recognition. The question is whether her overt weirdness can translate into the crossover stardom she craves. She has the requisite cunning, smarts, drive, cunning, talent - did we mention cunning? - to go the distance. Unless she makes a fatal mistake, she may well make it across the great divide to mass acceptance, setting herself up for a second act of public life that seems certain to be as hideously watchable as the first.
Call it a blessing or a curse: Courtney Love is the living link to Nirvana's Cobain - the most lauded spokesman of his generation. It's a heavy cross to bear for such a volatile creature, particularly when her band's most recent album, 'Live Through This' (released the week after Cobain died), wowed critics who had previously branded her the most nettlesome, meddlesome, least talented rock wife since Yoko Ono. 'Rolling Stone', 'Spin' and 'The Village Voice' named Hole's record best of the year. While Hootie & the Blowfish may have sold ten times more records than her 1 million, it's Courtney the world wants to emulate, dissect, elevate and crush.
It is a remarkable metamorphosis for a woman who seemed destined to be found dead in a gutter, or, if she got lucky, in a hotel suite. Particularly for someone with a personality that 'Vanity Fair' reporter Lynn Hirschberg once described as a "train wreck."
"Back when we met in 1983 the big joke was how Courtney Love was saying she was going to be a rock star and sex symbol," says Melissa Rossi, an observer of the Seattle music scene who is writing a biography on Love. Some of Courtney's success as a crossover act comes from forces beyond her control. Our ideas of what's desirable, or even acceptable, in the mainstream have changed since the days of Nancy Reagan. But give Courtney credit for anticipating these changes.
In the nihilistic Hollywood of the Nineties, where the Viper Room is still hot and heroin ever more chic, Courtney's crash-and-burn shtick may help make her the biggest star of her generation. All she has to do is stay clean enough to shoot videos or cut her next record. At 30, she has done little to blunt her image as a woman on the slipperiest slope.
Sometimes, as on Lollapalooza '95, her pose has backfired. At the tour's first stop, in George, Washington, Courtney punched Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill in the face. At the Kansas show, she began by shrieking, "I'm going to abuse you, because you fucking deserve it, you shits!" Earlier in the year at a pre-Lollapalooza gig in Madison Square Garden, she tried to get her fans to chant "nigger." They reacted with stunned silence.
Her demands for special treatment, which she later downplayed in 'Spin' with a clever but self-serving diary of the tour, led Lollapalooza's organizers to allow her to pull up backstage in a limo, while other acts had to trudge long distances from their buses. It was an in-your-face move that further eroded her alternative credibility - but it also established her as a star who had left the punk galaxy.
Some say her antics are an act, that she is never as whacked out or drugged up as she sometimes appears. Onstage at Detroit's St. Andrew's Hall in October 1994, Love seemed too wasted to stand up. Backstage, after the show, she was as sober as Hillary Rodham Clinton. "She's very calculated," says another business associate who spoke off the record. "She always knows what she's doing. She knows that as long as you make a scene people will pay attention. It's not so much an act, it's just that she understands what works. She will always survive - she won't die unless she can go to her own funeral."
With the claims that she's merely putting on a Vegas gig come questions regarding her motivations for erratic behavior. There's the putative overdose of what were termed prescription drugs shortly before Lollapalooza began. Were they prescribed, and was it an accident? Or did she plant the story? Then there are the plastic surgeries: How far will she go to transform herself from the chunky Courtney who made the scene in Minneapolis? Most disturbing were the reports that the reason 'Live Through This' was such a great album was because her late husband crafted the song bridges.
Seattle, 1993: Eager for an interview with Courtney for my book _Babes in Toyland_, I arrived at the home she shared with Cobain and their daughter, Frances Bean. Courtney wasn't there; she had yet to return from her Narcotics Anonymous meeting. So Cobain, with his baby Frances snuggled next to him, and I watched "Beavis and Butt-head". It happened to be the first time Cobain would see the cartoon losers bang their heads to Nirvana's video "Smells Like Teen Spirit". "All right," he said, genuinely pleased, "they like us! I mean, I know Beavis and Butt-head. I grew up with people like that. I recognize them."
It was then that Courtney made her grand entrance. She did not share her husband's enthusiasm for MTV's hottest music critics. "Usually, women sell less than half of what men sell," she told me a few months later. "Because obviously you're not going to sell to Beavis and Butt-head. Maybe one day - but Beavis and Butt-head are not my target audience. I can get the girl with the glasses but you don't want to scare her because she's too busy listening to her fucking 10,000 Maniacs record."
Then, within moments of putting Frances to bed, Love began delivering her marathon monologs. Wearing one of her vintage kinderwhore dresses, she seemed as healthy and exuberant as a kid with a foolproof argument on the high school debate team. Chain-smoking, punctuating points with a wave of her cigarette, she put on a bravura performance that was bewitching and outrageous.
"If you fuck me over," she said shortly after I had met her in Minneapolis, "I'll hunt you down and kill you." I believed her. But swamped as I was by her pseudointimacy, it was hard not to take her side.
Her life story is a forever-changing fairy tale of trust funds, strip joints in Alaska and encounters with the rich and famous. She could say, "Then I ran away to Guam," without a trace of irony or acknowledgment of how ridiculous it sounded. She used gossip to cement her babble, slagging seemingly every person she'd ever met. She grilled them all, from her father to her onetime best friend, Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland. Then, when the vitriol became too much, she dropped in a dose of sympathy and talked about her admiration of, say, Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner. She was determined to make the most of her connections and her familiarity with the music scene. In one sitting, she managed to name-drop all of the following: the Sea Hags, the Cocteau Twins, 69 Ways, "my own suck-ass sellout band," Debbie Harry, the Bastards, Pussy Galore, the Replacements, Joe Strummer, Bob Dylan's son Jesse, the Butthole Surfers, Rifle Sport, producer Steve Albini ("He is one of th most sexist, misogynist fools that ever walked the earth - if you only knew what a human douche bag he was. Every woman is a whore except PJ Harvey"), Eddie Vedder, Tony Visconti, White Zombie, Black Flag, Husker Du, the Meat Puppets, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Julian Cope, Echo and the Bunnymen. To sit and to listen was a lesson in endurance.
Her life is built around her obsessions. For a full year, she was preoccupied with the 'Vanity Fair' article by Lynn Hirschberg that charged she had injected heroin while pregnant with Frances Bean. "No man could have done to me what Lynn did to me," she said. With little provocation, she would pull out the offending piece and go over it line by line, compulsively tracing over sentences for loopholes like a manic attorney appealing a death-penalty sentence. (Courtney admitted to Jim DeRogatis in the _Chicago Sun-Times_ in May 1995 that she did take heroin when she was pregnant, "in the very beginning of my pregnancy. Otherwise I could have sued the hell out of them.") Next up was Susan Faludi's _Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women_. Out would come the book for much of 1993, with highlighted references to how strong women - her favorite example, of course, was herself - are always written off as evil freaks. "Women are total failures at unifying," she said. "I think women tend to unload on other women. Jealousy among women is hard to define, admit or discuss. I grew up with hippies and feminists and 30-something people. I thought that 'Ms.' had killed all the sexism in the world and I could be the president. If I didn't have that upbringing I wouldn't be strong."
Her father is Hank Harrison, author of _The Dead: A Social History of the Haight-Ashbury Experience_. Love has rarely minced words about him: "He makes his living as a parasite off the Grateful Dead," she said. "He scams all these Deadheads who worship him because they think he is close to the Dead." In fact, the Dead's Phil Lesh is her godfather. Linda Carroll, her mother, earned some renown as the psychologist of Katherine Anne Power, a member of the Weather Underground who resurfaced in 1993 to face old murder charges.
Courtney's parents broke up when she was a little girl. She and her mom moved to New Zealand. Her mom lived in a commune and Courtney was sent to a boarding school. Another boarding school in England followed and by the time she was 12 she was sent back to Eugene, Oregon, to live with her mother's therapist. Her teenage years were even more scrambled, with stints in juvenile care facilities - she had been busted for shoplifting - and foster homes. Living off a $1000-a-month trust fund, she popped up in Liverpool in the entourage of Julian Cope's Teardrop Explodes. (After Love had taken up with Cobain, Cope took out an ad in the British press saying: "Free us from Nancy Spungen-fixated heroin A-holes who cling to our greatest rock groups and suck out their brains." Love claims not to understand what motivated Cope to publish such vitriol.) Back in Oregon at the age of 18, she met Kat Bjelland.
Kat would serve alternately as Courtney's best friend, prime adversary, artistic inspiration and competitor. As the leader of Babes in Toyland, Kat helped germinate the entire girl grunge scene, which includes bands such as L7, the Breeders, Bratmobile and 7 Year Bitch.
"Kat was a hot high school babe," Courtney said. "The fair-haired girl, head cheerleader, editor-of-the-yearbook type." Both had fantasized about a virtually unattainable female dream: to be in a rock band.
As soon as they were able, they bolted to the cavernous punk clubs of San Francisco. Together with their pal Jennifer Finch (later of L7), they soaked up the experience. "We were all known as groupies, notorious scenesters before we ever had bands," Courtney said. A transcendent moment came when the threesome went to see an all-girl punk band. The band came on and was immediately heckled by a group of men in the audience shouting, "You're too ugly to be in a rock band!"
Jennifer, Courtney and Kat were appalled. The only answer, they decided, was to start their own punk band. They called it Sugar Baby Doll, but Courtney and Kat had a temporary feud. "Kat kicked me out of the band," says Love. "It was the first of three bands she kicked me out of."
In San Francisco, Courtney sang for a while in a band that would become Faith No More. She then had brief gig with Social Distortion. At one point, she tried acting, and landed in a small role as Nancy Spungen's best friend in Alex Cox's classic _Sid and Nancy_. "Now I see those four little scenes and I say, 'What a cute me,'" she told me. She also got the lead in Cox' 1987 film _Straight to Hell_. The film bombed and went straight to video.
In 1988 Kat and Courtney moved to Minneapolis, where the underground scene had already produced such bands as the Replacements, Husker Du and Soul Asylum. The two began to mirror each other. Their role model was Edie Sedgwick, the Andy Warhol party-girl superstar. They bleached their hair and began wearing baby-doll dresses found at Minneapolis rummage sales. For Courtney, it was the latest in a new series of obsessions with such women as Carroll Baker's kiddie sexpot in _Baby Doll_.
They were determined to try a band again. Kat lined up Lori Barbero to play drums in the neonatal Babes in Toyland. Courtney assumed she'd be involved somehow. However, Bjelland decided she didn't want her best friend in the band. "Courtney practiced with Babes in Toyland only once, and it sucked," Bjelland said. "After that, it was like 'Bye, Courtney.'"
Love's version has her chastising Bjelland about not showing up for rehearsals. "I was willing to give up my individual pursuits for a band. I thought a unified feminine force could be more powerful than me. And I was willing to take a backseat - to play bass and do backup vocals - when Kat decided I was an asshole." In recent years, their relationship has deteriorated; Kat will no longer talk about Courtney.
Courtney was not having any luck in her personal life, either. Briefly, she was married. She also had an abortion. "I did a really bad girl thing. I told somebody that I knew wasn't the father that he was, and hit up the poor son of a bitch for cash."
According to Courtney's time line, she made a brief stop in Alaska to strip because, she said, "I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to work then. And the only stripping jobs I could get weren't good ones because I was fat." Then it was on to Los Agneles and another stripping job, where she asked herself the questions, "'Why was I always the one who sat in on other people's rehearsals? Why was I not allowed to play guitar?' I decided I would not covet what boys have, I'd create it myself."
In late 1989 she formed Hole. She lost weight, had her nose cropped and worked on her guitar playing. By 1991, when she ran into Kurt Cobain at Los Angeles' Palladium, she was ready. The two had met in Portland in 1989 ("I thought she looked like Nancy Spungen," Kurt told author Michael Azerrad in _Come As You Are_). Now, they began their courtship when Courtney punched Kurt in the stomach (and Kurt punched her back). Ironically, for people who later claimed Courtney clung to Kurt as her meal ticket, her band's first album, 'Pretty on the Inside', was outselling his ('Bleach') two to one at the time they started dating. The two were married in February 1992 in Hawaii, with Courtney wearing a dress that Frances Farmer once wore. By the time Love and Cobain married, Nirvana had become a huge, if unanticipated, success.
As the two battled their way around the world, rumors of their heroin use continued. Courtney had no illusions about the drug. "I realized that I can't do a constructive thing with my life on any level if I'm fucked up on heroin," she told me.
"I could never find solace in alcohol," she said. "I drink like the most advanced alcoholic, five drinks just like that so I can go onstage. Other than that, I never drink."
She said Cobain was sick from heroin withdrawal in an adjoining hospital room when Frances was born. In March 1994, he apparently tried to commit suicide with tranquilizers and champagne in a Rome hotel. A month later he succeeded with a shotgun, in his Seattle home, alone.
Courtney's record came out the Tuesday after Cobain's death and sold out in at least one Seattle record store. She gave away Cobain's T-shirts in a Seattle park. At a vigil held for Cobain, a tape of Love's voice was played on which Love demanded that the crowd call her late husband "an asshole." On the same tape Courtney is heard reciting parts of Cobain's suicide note while dramatically interjecting her responses to what he'd written. And she felt up to talking with Tabitha Soren on MTV the day after Cobain's suicide, and chatted about his death. Indeed, Courtney courted media attention for herself and her record unhesitatingly after the news of Cobain's demise broke. One of her initial public responses to her husband's death was to mention that she had a new album coming out that week called 'Live Through This'. "How's that for sick?" she asked. To some, her actions appeared crass or self-serving; others admired her for her resilience.
Apparently, Courtney thinks her opinion alone is not influential enough. Since his death she has unabashedly invoked Cobain's name in public. If she wants the public to like someone she likes, she tells us they have Kurt's imprimatur. And if she behaves rudely toward a person, that's OK because it would have made Kurt happy.
She also speaks often about Cobain's problems, some of which he probably would have preferred remain private.
Two months after her husband's death, Love strolled across the lobby of West Hollywood's Mondrian Hotel. Barefoot, wearing a yellow dress, she was perhaps the most reviled woman in rock and roll, the interloper blamed for Kurt Cobain's early exit in April. Edging her way toward the door, she was greeted by the stares of music industry insiders assembled for the MTV Movie Awards. The strain of her husband's death was on her face and in her voice. She no longer possessed the optimism of a punk rock Doris Day. "I'm a survivor," she said disconsolately. "At least that's what everybody tells me."
Baring bruised legs and wearing smeared makeup, she sat on a cab that was to take her a block up the street to the Chateau Marmont. Rumors persisted in the few months after Cobain's suicide that she was on hard drugs; it didn't help when Hole's bassist Kristen Pfaff died in June 1994 of an apparent heroin overdose.
Courtney examined her knee, which was outlined in stitches. For years she'd reveled in the venality of music business gossip, sharing her latest tidbits of hearsay and innuendo about other rockers with the passion of a yenta. Now she had no doubts as to what was being said about her. She explained, "I fell down is all." Then, tilting her head in the direction of the record people in the lobby: "But we know what they'd say about it."
The charge against her was brutal: She had turned Cobain against his band Nirvana, enmeshed him deeper in drugs and driven him further from his friends. Everybody was willing to believe it was all her fault. "I wish that I'd been as much of a slut as I've been told I am or once was," she had informed me earlier.
For a woman who had always managed to surround herself with theatrical personalities, Courtney seemed utterly alone. When she spoke of returning to the hotel where Frances and her nanny waited, she seemed more tender and fragile than I had ever heard her. Courtney's deathwatch would continue for months.
But with the commercial success of 'Live Through This' at the end of 1994, the Courtney of old resurfaced. The widow got involved with unseeming haste with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (though Reznor denies it). After they had a falling out, she said Reznor's band should be renamed Three Inch Nails. A tabloid also pictured Love in a bed, kissing the Lemonheads' Evan Dando (whom Cobain had repeatedly dissed during Nirvana's final European tour).
In November, she was seen running barefoot down Sunset Boulevard, chasing indie singer Mary Lou Lord, who was once linked romantically with Cobain. Rumors along the New York junkie grapevine had it that she was back on hard drugs. Then, in January, she was threatened with arrest on a Qantas airplane in Australia for placing her feet on the wall of the cabin. Courtney responded, "Go the fuck ahead and arrest me." They did.
Then things changed. For its June 1995 issue 'Vanity Fair' made good for sullying her reputation with a cover shot that showed her adorned with angel wings. The generous 'VF' article characterized her as a caring, if
unconventional, mom. Her breakout from punk terror was almost complete; acting roles were in the offing and she was all over the people page of most major dailies. Lollapalooza, which started for her as a triumph of publicity, ended as a victory for her music. There were signs in her magnificent stage performances that she might finally have control of her demons.
Still, the critics' knives will be out for Hole's next album. Without Cobain around to serve as Courtney's mentor, goes the scuttlebutt, her next effort can only suffer. It doesnt' have a release date, but Courtney said it is tentatively titled 'Celebrity Skin', named after the magazine that publishes any nude shots of celebrities it can find. It was an apt name, she told an interviewer, because "I've touched so much of it."
Yet it may not even matter if the album bombs. Her latest obsession is Hollywood, where her thirst for attention has left her old rock friends shaking their heads. Her husband's former bandmate Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters refuses to talk about Courtney. However, he told 'Rolling Stone' that seeing her acting like a rock star is "the moment I've been dreading." Not naming names, on Foo Fighter's debut album Grohl sings, "How could it be/I'm the only one who sees your rehearsed insanity?" Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth bad-mouthed her constantly online. "Everyone is disgusted and totally grossed out," he wrote after she punched Hanna. And he was equally turned off by her "useless rock star bullshit" during Lollapalooza. In her 'Spin' apologia, however, Courtney would have us believe that Moore was exaggerating and that she and Sonic Youth get on swimmingly.
Courtney now lives in the world of international celebrity, her life propelled by limousines and gossip. She follows up each new friendship with a confidentiality agreement. She pals around with Danny DeVito and cavorts at Oscar parties in Los Angeles with her new bad-girl best friend, actress Amanda de Cadenet. Shortly after her appearance at the Oscars, she entered into negotiations to do an interview with Barbara Walters.
Reports on her progress will arrive this year with the release of _Feeling Minnesota_, in which she plays a waitress opposite Keanu Reeves. Though on-set rumors had her falling asleep suspiciously at the most inopportune times, she has remained on the wish lists of various Hollywood directors, including Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone. Recently, she edged out Patricia Arquette and Mira Sorvino in screen tests for an upcoming movie on 'Hustler' publisher Larry Flynt. (She seems to be a lock for the part of Flynt's wife Althea.) "She's going to act, and she wants to blend with mainstream America," says a friend. "That's why she's now hanging out with people acceptable to mainstream America, like Brad Pitt. She wants to be accepted by all sectors of American society."
The aura of craziness still hovers around her. Among the weirdest developments has been the continuing investigation of Cobain's death by Tom Grant, a Los Angeles private detective. Grant had originally been hired by Courtney to find Kurt in the days before he died. He continued poking around after the reported suicide and eventually came up with the theory that Cobain was murdered and Courtney was involved. Despite warnings from her lawyers that the media outlets who present his story will be sued, stories about Grant's murder theory made the covers of the British magazine 'Vox' and the low-circulation U.S. publication 'Insight'.
While Grant's notions of retirement speeches misread as suicide notes and Courtney-inspired hanky-panky sound dubious, his messages have found willing audiences of Courtney-haters on the radio, on the Internet and in zines. "I found Courtney to be extremely intelligent," writes Grant. "She's also a psychopath, a pathological liar and an opportunist who will use anyone and any situation to self-promote her ambitious goals of fame and fortune."
Grant's assessment is not a particularly novel character study. Those who have known her for years have always bridled at her ability to climb past, weave tales around and blow smoke through anybody who dared stop her progress. Hitting the pinnacle that only she ever thought she would achieve, she's turned old friends (and even her late husband, whom she had cremated) into ashes and new pals into springboards.
Still, she seems willing to try for the right side. In September, she pleaded guilty in a Washington State courtroom to assaulting Kathleen Hanna, and her sentence of one year in jail was suspended. In return, Love agreed to take lessons in controlling her rage. Courtney Love without her rage? Perhaps now she won't even need it.
"Whatever you say about Courtney, you can also say the opposite," says Melissa Rossi. "She's a walking Greek tragedy, and a comedy. She's horrible and great, inspiring and frightening, strong and weak. She's a role model - and everything you wouldn't want your child to be."
Billy Corgan, leader of the Smashing Pumpkins, told 'Alternative Press' that Courtney had a profound effect on his music. "If she had her act together," Corgan (a onetime lover) said, "she could obscure someone like Patti Smith - she has that much raw talent. In terms of intelligence, she's almost a genius in an insane kind of way."
Courtney isn't as insane as she can seem. Indeed, Kurt's mom, Wendy O'Connor, can vouch for that. She told an 'Entertainment Weekly' reporter, "One of the tabloids has her insane, sleeping with Kurt's ashes and her new man. Courtney is far from insane." But she knows when to play it up. "If someone thinks I'm insane," Courtney says, "I'll just fucking pour a beer on their head. I have guns and I punch. They would still think I was insane, but they would think I was violent and insane." In her pre-Lollapalooza days, Courtney used to gripe that rock was dominated by guys. Now that she's trying to go mass market, she seems to have had a change of heart. The griping has stopped. She's ready for her close-up.
- Transcribed by Twilight