Is Courtney Love Guilty of Copying Her Late Husband's Song?

Whose Song Is It, Anyway?
by Kathleen Wilson

©1998, The Stranger

Several weeks after the European release of Hole's import retrospective CD My Body, the Hand Grenade (released on German label City Slang), an anonymous source delivered a boom-box cassette recording made by the members of Nirvana in March of 1991 to The Stranger. The tape was originally recorded for producer Butch Vig, who would produce Nirvana's breakthrough album, Nevermind, later that year. On the tape is a song strikingly similar to Hole's "Old Age," which appears on My Body, the Hand Grenade. In addition to sharing the same name, they sound virtually identical. The lyrics on the cassette are indecipherable and incomplete, but the arrangement is unmistakably the same. Throughout the tape the voices of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic can be heard between songs, addressing both Vig and each other. The tape also features an alternative version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," as well as rough cuts of "Territorial Pissings," "Come as You Are," "Something in the Way," and other songs that ended up on Nevermind.

"Old Age" made its debut as a Hole song in April of 1993, as the b-side of "Beautiful Son," a 12-inch import disc which also featured the track "20 Years at the Dakota." Anyone who has seen this disc knows its distinctive sleeve graphics - a grade-school photo of the young, smiling Kurt Cobain. In July of '95, an updated version of "Old Age," credited to Hole, was released, again as a b-side, this time to the "Violet" 7-inch. As with "Beautiful Son," "Violet" was an import pressed by City Slang. Tacked on to the beginning is a new intro - done in a snaky, pseudo-Eastern style - which echoes a passage from Cobain's suicide note speaking of his disinterest in life and music. Love warbles, "You cripple, you take away my time, my peace, my empathy." Some of the original lyrics are changed, perhaps to reflect time passed since the '93 version was recorded: "Black Acid, it pulls the scum/ You must be the lucky one/ Who gets to supply my demand" became in the second version, "No one knows she's Hester Prynne/ Someone please tell Anne Boleyn/ Chokers are back in again." A new ending repeats the lines "Rest in Peace and I'm sorry/ Me in pieces so sorry" to heavy effect.

So whose song is "Old Age" really?

Music publishing company BMI has the song registered to Love only. The log states simply: Writers: Love, Courtney M; Publishers: Bad Sister Music.

The Stranger contacted Krist Novoselic, who played bass for Nirvana, to inquire whether the tape we had in hand was authentic. Novoselic is reluctant to talk about the old days and the current controversies. He's into yoga now, and political activism, and has a progressive news show on the radio. Before cutting the interview short, however, Novoselic did confirm that the boom-box tape was made in early 1991, and the song in question is indeed Nirvana's.

"'Old Age'? That's a Nirvana song. Kurt wrote that song."

Not according to Courtney Love, it would seem.

Since the release of Live Through This, many have speculated that before his suicide, Cobain contributed, willing or unwillingly, to Love's creative process. Her lack of new material on …Hand Grenade only fuels this debate. On her much-anticipated, and persistently stalled, forthcoming album, Blinker the Star's young creative force Jordan Zadorozny was rumored to have been "involved" in the songwriting process - though a January 1997 Entertainment Weekly article titled "The Hole Truth" shows Zadorozny's label, A&M Records, confirming the collaboration, and Geffen, Hole's American distributor, denying it ever took place.

In terms of royalties, Cobain said in an interview he recieved 100 percent from the lyrics and 75 percent from the music, with the remaining band members getting the rest. So if the composition is indeed Cobain's, it would appear that the surviving members of Nirvana would at least be entitled to back royalties. Even to an untrained ear, it's jarring listening to the two songs back-to-back; only the lyrics differentiate each band's version. If in fact it is Cobain's song - and whether or not he gave Love the melody to use as her own at some point in their marriage - Love taking credit for writing the song in its entirety is like scratching the name off a Picasso and replacing it with the name of the person who bought it.

The credits page in the My Body, the Hand Grenade CD booklet states only that "Old Age" is a Live Through This outtake, written by Hole and recorded in 1993. The Stranger contacted both Hole's management and Geffen Records, but received neither confirmation nor denial of Love's authorship by press time.

Ironically, in a Rolling Stone interview published December 23, 1993, Love had this to say on the subject of songwriting: "I would love to write a couple of great rock songs in my life, like Chrissie Hynde did. She's really the only person of my gender who I find completely accomplished, because as much as I love Patti Smith, she didn't write her own music.

Additional reporting by Ben Jacklet

HOW SIMILAR ARE THESE TWO SONGS?

Judge for yourself by downloading the audio files below!

    Note: The following audio files are meant for journalistic purposes only, and are not intended for reproduction elsewhere.