“If Courtney Love took a five-year course in Being Boring, she would still not scrape a pass.”
I interviewed Courtney Love in New York City on 5 June 1995. It was one of her first press encounters since the death of Kurt Cobain. Her late husband was among the subjects I was asked by her management to avoid. But in the event she spoke about pretty much anything that was on her mind.
At one point during our meeting she appeared to fall asleep, leaving it to her band members to continue. At another, she took her clothes off. She spoke a lot about her time in Liverpool, using an endearingly bad Scouse accent. Some of that material found its way into my later book Liverpool: Wondrous Place.
This article was the cover story of Q magazine’s August 1995 issue. I was always pleased that John Peel recommended it on his show; he particularly liked the line about drugs and lifeboatmen.
Five whole hours in the company of Courtney Love and so far nobody has tried to kill her. But all that may be about to change.
It’s New York City a half-hour after midnight. The minibus taking her and Hole back to their midtown hotel pulls up suddenly and the driver tells everyone to lock the doors. Stay where you are. We’ve been followed all the way up from a downtown photo studio.
Its occupants had overtaken the bus en route and the driver saw them stop and make for the hotel’s entrance. He’d get out and fetch the security guards. Guitarist Eric Erlandson is angry and declares he’s going to “kick their ass”. But Courtney urges him to sit down.
The trouble turns out to be only some weirdly determined fans who’d earlier stopped her as she left the studio and demanded photographs. Courtney will be led to her bed unmolested. But it’s been a jarring glimpse into the craziness surrounding her. She is, this month at least, the most talked-about woman in America and four-fifths of that fascination is not connected to her music but to the wracked, car-crash personality she is perceived as being. Most examples of modern celebrity seem to involve some kind of Faustian pact, but Courtney Love is being asked to pay the price almost before she’s had a crack at doing anything and enjoying its rewards.
These are mad days and they have scarcely quietened down during the full year that has passed since the suicide of her husband Kurt Cobain. That terrible thing occurred days after her band, Hole, released a second LP, with the suddenly poignant title Live Through This. Soon after that there was the death, through an accidental heroin overdose, of her friend and bass-player Kristen Pfaff. Courtney has fought to rebuild Hole’s promising future and raise the Cobains’ baby daughter Frances Bean. She’s had her own struggles with drugs before and since the bereavement. Many wish her well in her titanic efforts to hold everything together, but to others she is an object of ghoulish awe.
Her band might be her best hope and support. There is Hole’s co-founder Eric Erlandson, gangling and sleepy-voiced, gently protective. Drummer Patty Schmel is, by her own description, “solid – a real drummer’s trait” and a deep resource of calm. New bass-player Melissa Auf der Maur likewise projects sublime unconcern for anything except her role as one-quarter of this hard-working band. Courtney controls them all with a maternal bossiness, but talks about them with pride. She may, one feels, need to depend upon their loyalty and friendship in the difficult times ahead as much as in the awful year just gone.
They plan a third album for next year. Hole’s 1991 debut, Pretty On The Inside, was a raw slice of eloquently enraged American punk. Three years on, Live Through This saw their commercial possibilities shining through much more distinctly; still extremely taut and powerful but lyrically simpler, with melodies, such as on the single Doll Parts, fluttering like bright rags on the bare metal scaffolding.
Even then it bothered Courtney how much her work was eclipsed by the new-found success of Nirvana. It may be no easier next time around. The recent live shows by Hole impressed the majority of commentators but, as ever, it was Courtney herself and all the stuff which goes with Courtney that excited the most attention. At least they know what they must prove.
Courtney Love arrived on earth in 1965. Her birth certificate should have come with a clause incorporating film rights. Her early adventures, then… She was born to hippy parents – her father being a crony of the Grateful Dead, whose Phil Lesh is her godfather – but they soon separated and she was raised by her mother, a therapist, in a variety of homes, boarding school in New Zealand and new age communes, before travelling the world as a teenager, dividing her time between reform schools for petty crime, stints as a stripper in topless bars in Japan and LA, as a rock photographer in Dublin, a spell in the Liverpool entourage of Julian Cope’s Teardrop Explodes, and bit-part actor in the movies Straight To Hell and Sid & Nancy, eventually emerging as a presence on the US alternative music circuit, playing in an early formation of Faith No More. Having formed Hole. She married Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in February 1992.
Stability was never a keynote of Courtney’s existence – she claims to have been in therapy since the age of three – and her time with Kurt turned out as turbulent as any period before. The birth of their child in August 1992 did nothing to dispel her reputation for brashness and excess. The murky circumstances of her husband’s death only fuelled the controversy. She was in LA at the time that he killed himself in their Seattle home, but she has recently talked movingly of her attempts to rescue him from drug use, his morbid interest in guns and his general tendency to self-loathing and depression. That she ultimately failed is a matter that preoccupies her still, not least because she’s always had to fend off accusations of undermining Kurt and using his success to further her own lust for fame.
On the other hand she won admiration for her words at the Cobain funeral vigil in Seattle, at which she publicly debated with him on the content of his suicide note, simultaneously mourning him, defending his memory and deploring his last act of surrender. Ever since then, opinions have divided: she’s either an icon of feminine resilience or a slut who cavorts before nightclub photographers with an utter disregard for widow-like propriety.
That’s approximately where matters stand. Her thirst for work, her renewed ambitions in the film world (she recently played a small role in the movie Feeling Minnesota, with Keanu Reeves) and her general refusal of seclusion, all win her some respect. Others wonder if her fragile state is really best served by such high-profile activity, so soon. Still others look to the subsequent death of Kristen Pfaff and ask if Courtney is not, in some dark way, just plain bad news.
Sometimes her life gets described as a soap opera, but its key events have actually the cathartic drama of true opera. It’s rather more real than rock’n’roll stories are apt to be. Hence her acid retort to Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (with whom she toured this year and had a brief affair) on the topic of staging theatrical angst: “Get back to me when you’ve looked horror in the face, farm boy.” (The quote appears in her chapter for Amy Raphael’s current book on women musicians, Never Mind The Bollocks.)
The whole game escalated last month when Courtney was the cover star of US magazine Vanity Fair: in the United States that represents the pinnacle of celebrity. The risk, as she is aware, is that she becomes the rock star that everyone can read about without troubling to hear the music. But for now she lives every day with the prurient interest of strangers, and sporadically decides to confront that interest head on.
And the Vanity Fair cover carries a second significance. It’s like the mighty magazine is doing penance for a 1992 feature that alleged she took heroin while pregnant. She bitterly contested the charge (it led, for a while, to the baby being placed in the care of her sister) and her rage remains a staple of the Courtney legend wherever it is retold.
Six days after this Q interview takes place, Courtney Love makes fresh headlines. Flying from New York to Seattle, she is taken on to a hospital suffering from an overdose of prescription drugs. Whatever she’s been through, she’s not through it yet.
Courtney arrives for the Q photo session a formidable four hours late. There is immediately a minor drama as she nixes the idea of shots on the roof against the Manhattan skyline. One thing about Love is she is not conceited, but is severely self-critical of her looks. She photographs badly out of doors, she protests. She’s about to turn 30, she explains. It’s not as if she’s a supermodel – like her – she indicates a very pretty woman passing by.
Likewise, she’s against doing the interview in a restaurant afterwards, Right now she gets too much hassle in public places. So we should talk first in a changing room, while an indoor studio downstairs is hurriedly arranged.
Later, there are more delays. “This is the world of Hole,” a man from her management company will smile, as he licks his lollipop with well-practised serenity. “There is a lot of hurry up and wait.” Eric attempts a quick nap on the sofa. He’d obeyed his midday call, six hours earlier: “For a moment, I must have forgotten what band I was in.”
Courtney is tense when we meet, confessing herself “terrified” about the interview. The British press is her bugbear now, roundly condemned for errors of fact and betrayals of trust. Our interview takes place in two 90-minute sessions, before and after the photos. The prior conditions are tough: only the four band members together, never Courtney alone, and absolutely no questions about Kurt or any of her family, nor about drugs, or the death of Kristen Pfaff.
As it transpires, her own conversation will loop back around to these topics a lot. But one is not allowed to raise them. The fear is that her present notoriety overshadows the work of Hole. She wryly plans a poster that says “Hole is a band”, in the same font used for Debbie Harry’s campaign “Blondie is a group”.
During the first interview, her initial jitters give way to drowsy detachment. She chain-smokes, lighting each cigarette with the embers of the last. She takes pills from her bag. At various points she does these things: lies down, reads a magazine while talking, appears to be asleep, leaves the room entirely, chats brightly, sternly orders the other band members to contribute more, slurs in a deep drawl only her group can decipher, gossips wickedly, slips away once more.
The others do contribute, but Courtney still says nearly everything – and reprimands them at the end, like Mrs Thatcher. They show no signs of minding.
During a break, before doing pictures, I am alone in the room with Courtney and I realise that she is nearly undressed and reaching for another costume. It may be of no concern to her, who’s spent so many occasions stripping away either her clothes or layers of her psyche. But I exit hastily – whether prompted by politeness or just some pitiful British uptightness, it’s hard to say.
Collectively, the band’s conversation wanders across the US rock and movie scenes. Eric Erlandson goes out with the actress Drew Barrymore, and in their small talk she mingles with the likes of “Keanu” on one side and, on the other, PJ Harvey, Juliana Hatfield, Jeff Buckley and Evan Dando. Courtney’s own repertoire of anecdotes is especially rich, ranging from Echo & The Bunnymen to Quentin Tarantino, stopping off frequently at her current most favoured rival, Justine of Elastica. They discuss acquaintances who have died of drugs with the stoic resignation you might find in a roomful of lifeboatmen recalling colleagues claimed by the sea. It seems to be all around.
The encounter rambles somewhat mazily. It’s established that Hole’s next album might get produced by the US techno star Moby, if Courtney gets round to asking him. ‘I had a dream… he’s been name-checking us in interviews – well first it was us and Nine Inch Nails and then he dropped the Nine Inch Nails. Ha! He said something about me and my clothes, and me looking like the Whore of Babylon, and wanting to be Jesus and cover me like Mary Magdalen. His whole take is so beautiful, his viewpoint on why he’s a Christian is so intense, that anyone with faith like that has got to have a high IQ.”
She’s said in the past she was too distracted, making Live Through This, to give the project her best efforts? “Unless my husband was with us. When my husband was sitting in the studio, I could, cos I knew where he was, so I didn’t have to worry about him. But the worry factor was so much there for me…. Kurt’s vocals are on every track, practically, but they’re buried. He just came to show me some harmonies then it was, Well, keep some of mine…
“I have a printer on my computer so I can take all the lyrics that Kurt ever wrote, as they were and keep them somewhere, and take all the lyrics that I ever wrote, as they are, and keep them somewhere, and divide them into, like, food/sex metaphors, complete suicidal misery metaphors, death/sex metaphors, whatever.”
Why does she so often talk about “not being Yoko”?
“Kurt and I couldn’t collaborate until I’d proved myself. Then we could do whatever the fuck we want. I’m not going to be seen as Yoko. She was an avant garde artist. At the same time she didn’t have a chance anyway, but she shouldn’t have used her husband’s power to help herself. I’ve always tried to stay away from that. I was in Faith No More for a year. They say it was a month, and when they were really huge, what was I going to do, say it was a year? I didn’t want to be seen as riding on their back. I mean, fuck it…
“I think it’s very baby boomer to put me and Kurt in the position of being Sid and Nancy or John and Yoko, because we were neither. We were definitely our own couple.”
She says she has played “the Muse” part and transcended it, just as she once progressed from wishing she was the girl in Leonard Cohen’s song to becoming the woman who wanted to write those songs. “The whole glamorous girlfriend idea. I’ve just said Fuck you to it from the beginning. When I first went out with my husband, Pretty On The Inside was outselling Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, two to one. Anyone who’s well-informed knows that.
“There will always be physical differences between men and women that I respect and love, which is why I’m a heterosexual, thank you very much. The problem with rock is testosterone is getting kicked out of it, and part of rock is dick, part of rock is going to see a gig and wanting to fuck the guy. I didn’t get into this to chop off everyone’s dick and have nothing but girls playing music. That’s ridiculous.”
We discuss some of her well-publicised outings on the internet. “I am never going on-line again because I spend nothing but energy there that is wasteful, and nothing positive has come out of it.”
Eric: “You could surround yourself with so much dark energy that that it’s going to come through your music.”
Courtney: “Even if you’re the Boo Radleys. If you have enough evil around you. One real small review years ago has stuck in my head – I respect a good review, I don’t read them all, contrary to popular belief, I really don’t – but it was, This band is so full of hatred, they’re surrounded by darkness, they’re just a black sucking void. And he was addressing two practising Buddhists (herself and Eric) which has everything to do with bringing light into your culture.”
Is Buddhism a tangible influence on Hole?
“Yeah, because a lot of the lyrics are painful and confessional but, at the same time, it’s as much as possible about a higher level of generosity of spirit. That’s why Moby’s Christianity appeals to me a lot. You can turn yourself inside out and show all of the ugliness inside. At the same time you can use that as a way of positively creating constructive energy. You don’t have to let it swallow you. You don’t have to become a victim of that beautiful sickness the way that Sylvia Plath or Zelda Fitzgerald or Kurt seem to have. Years ago Julian [Cope] made a comment about Ian McCulloch’s lyrics, which was, How the fuck does he have the right to write those lyrics when he hasn’t done anything?”
Eric (curious): “What hadn’t he done?”
“He hadn’t done anything. He was swanning. He used to wear a big thick coat and glasses and hang out with Pete Wylie and mumble. A working-class boy who hadn’t done anything. That doesn’t necessarily credit me, just because I’ve been around the world and done so many things, that I have a better authority to speak on what goes on in my head, because those things are based on very small emotional experiences that happened to me in very contained environments, extreme situations like being abandoned on a freeway at 4am with a killer loose. That shit’s built up my character, but…”
Melissa, who is from Montreal, smiles soothingly. “Maybe I should have stayed in Canada. Why am I surrounding myself with all this evil?”
If Courtney Love took a five-year course in Being Boring, she would still not scrape a pass. Whatever the question, her answers spin away intriguingly. They might tour you through early Judaeo-Roman history (“Calling yourself a Jewish Messiah then was as popular as calling yourself a stylist, or a rock journalist, or being in a band, it really was the thing to do because they were really waiting for it. There was a new Jewish Messiah every weekend, and in my opinion one particular one caught on, and that’s that. I don’t know how enlightened he was. But my point was…”) leading – but of course! – into a dismissal of dance acts such as The Prodigy and The Shamen, and opinions on Then Jericho, Brother Beyond, Take That, Shampoo and Strawberry Switchblade.
Eric remembers the early Hole as “reacting against the Guns N’Roses thing. The ’80s hair bands.” And Love adds: “That was the blatant one, yeah. But I’d also been sitting in Minneapolis in the middle of indie snobbery. That was my scene and I wanted to rise above it. But everyone my age, whether it’s Nine Inch Nails or whether it was Kurt or Soundgarden, there was really one goal. Get bigger than Sonic Youth, but you couldn’t get as big as Jane’s Addiction, those were the rules.
“That’s the slot Nirvana went for, and we went for, and then it just became obsolete after Nevermind. It was like: quarter of a million records? Pah! Whereas previously, I used to have to pinch myself that we sold more than the Bunnymen in the States, or Joy Division or Psychedelic Furs. But I secretly have always stuck with liking Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks.”
Courtney insists her film ambitions will not interfere with her wishes for Hole, admitting the roles she gets offered now are mostly for “junkies, whores and strippers… I was sad when I didn’t get Nancy Spungen, but I wouldn’t be talking to you now if I had, cos I’d be dead.” Of filming, she says, “One thing I get is, Oh, she’s on time! Well, what am I supposed to be? I’m flown out to the middle of fucking Minnesota. Where am I going to go when I have a 5am call? I have something better to do? That’s how movie stars want rock stars to act. Trashing rooms.”
Is it any fun being in Hole?
“Being a band is great, but the music business is grosser and grosser the more you know about it.
“I enjoy knowing what the fuck is going on. It’s like chess to me. I like knowing who’s gone where in what company. I need to know what writers are hateful towards us so that I don’t fall into a situation where I’m doing an interview with one. I need to know what editors hate my fucking guts. I don’t feel like spending $5000 on a libel suit or going through the bullshit that comes from really damaging stitch-up pieces that hurt our career. You get to a different level of commerce and there’s a whole different level of scrutiny that comes with it.”
How close did you come to breaking up as a band?
Eric: “I think there was one day when I thought about that, then I just ignored it and went on.”
Courtney: “We’re very sturdy. We’re too good to break up.”
Eric: “Once you start thinking, Oh wow, there’s all these bad things happening, shall I keep doing what I’m doing? You just do what you do.”
Courtney: “It might sound pathetic but Jeff Buckley said it to me last night and I’m in agreement, it’s life or death for me. If I was going to a desert island I’d bring my pen, my paper, a guitar.
“We’ve always appeared to be more fragile on the outside than we are. We have far too much to lose, and far too much to gain… That’ll be the British’s new plan of attack: Oh they’re breaking up. It’s like, me and Kurt were gay, you know what I mean? Sure.”
Melissa: “People who spend this much time together are obviously going to have differences but because of this negativity that people claim surrounds us, they focus on it – the tragedies. They focus on how fragile we must be, but people have dealt with it in ways that they can and we’re all solid people.”
Eric: “You get tougher.”
Courtney: “You also get more spiritual. That’s a major part of my life and, and it was before those two very significant people died. Two other very significant friends of ours died. Both our records were dedicated to people who died – for the usual reason in our world, which is overdosing. So many people die of that. When I was growing up, and Melissa, back in our hippy households, our parents’ friends would die of overdoses and it’s a major problem that needs to be stopped and hopefully won’t be as romantic in future generations.
“I for one don’t want to be part of romanticising it. I don’t feel that Kurt did that at all. He tried his damnedest not to.
“When it comes to drugs, I might have some antibiotics… It’s funny, too, the places where people go, ‘She was obviously slurring.’ Really? In the middle of Idaho, I got some drugs? Somebody just came up to me in a pasture? It just doesn’t happen that way, I’m sorry.”
Her thoughts take a turn to her new managers and how she admires their attitude. Which is? “Fuck ’em. Tell ’em to fuck themselves, don’t go to the fucking Awards. Getting letters from the president of the company, “Please come to my Awards.’ Fuck you. Play my fucking band’s new video 30 times a goddamned week and maybe we’ll think about it, but if you’re just using me as a celebrity, d’you think I’m that desperate for attention? I think I have plenty of attention to contend with. Too much.
“I have three biographies coming out on me and I’m not yet 30. I’m not even on my sixth marriage.”
Courtney enjoys comparisons to Blanche DuBois, the raddled heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire. But she is reminiscent, too, of dialogue from another classic story of the South: “What is the victory of the cat on a hot tin roof?” Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can…” In other words, Hole could make their most powerful statement simply by surviving.
They were expected to disintegrate because of what they’d suffered. And they’re of an American generation that is not credited with the will to see anything through. Among the many sad aspects of Kurt Cobain’s end was how it confirmed that view. Everything is hopeless. The ’60s people used up all the fun and left their kids to pay for it. You’re from broken homes and you won’t ever win.
“We’re not slackers,” she says firmly. “The people of this generation who are the slackers are the ones that come from the middle-class backgrounds rather than the hippy backgrounds. Our value system is, Go away and do it until it’s done, because we saw our parents half-finish the painting too many times.
“Just sitting around with a bunch of hippies half-finishing their Gestalt therapy one too many times… It’s like things need to really fucking get done. I’m actually the laziest one but when I get down to it, I work harder than anyone I know.
“We’re chopping wood. We’re roping in horses. Just taking care of shit on the ranch. The ranch is what’s important and the rest of the fucking world can go and die or whatever… And what’s the pay-off? I guess it’s making good records, it tastes good in your mouth. And when that record sells, it tastes even better.
“In this female genre, we’ve sold more than anyone. We’ve sold more than the metal boys. But it bugs me. I like there to be some testosterone in rock and it’s like, I’m the one in the dress who has to provide it! These wimpy fucking boys Pavement, sitting there whining about something. That’s what Jane’s Addiction had that was good – muscle, metal. And we have too; we have some really good metal songs.”
Melissa: “And it all starts right here: Patty, the girl behind the drums.”
Courtney: “That’s why Lars from Metallica is so obsessed with our band. He cannot believe that someone with a uterus is a better drummer than him. It’s too much for him. But my feeling is not that Riot Grrrl shit of, If you don’t like my band, cos we suck, then you’re measuring us by male-centric ideas of bad and good. No. It’s just your band sucks. My feeling is, May whoever writes the best songs win. May the cream rise to the fucking top and that’s the end of it.”
Eric: “A perfect ending.”
A perfect ending? We can hope. Somehow it’s fallen to Courtney Love to redeem the legacy of her husband’s futile demise. She’s undergone what no young woman ought, and there is intense speculation about her capacity for survival. Like Kurt, she’s been made a symbol of America’s “dysfunctional” youth. Often, lately, she’s spoken of how important it is to believe in something.
Courtney’s previous Q interview took place just weeks before the Cobain tragedy. Her closing remarks at that time take on a haunting quality. “I have disappointing news,” she said. “I have no intention of dying young and being some stinking rock’n’roll person. In years to come I’m gonna be a matriarch with a big brood. I’d like to have an incredibly big garden and a potty old husband who sits and paints. I’d like to just sit and watch the sun and when I’m on my death bed, I’ll be thinking about my husband and my baby, nothing else.”
As we now know, that future was not given to her. So what will?
Rock has been around for 40 years but its new recruits seem never to learn anything from casualties of the past. The footprints lead straight to a cliff edge but they’re followed as eagerly as ever. Courtney and fame enjoy the same risky relationship as the moth and the flame. Will her inherent humour, guts and smartness be enough to save her from getting burnt? There look to be roughly equal grounds for optimism and for the other thing. Right now she walks the tightrope, on stilettoes.