Courtney Love Discusses Nirvana, Rage, and Not Being Crazy
Story reprinted from the June/July 2013 issue of BUST Magazine
Courtney Love is not happy. She’s not happy with the pretty hairdo that the stylist has just worked on for an hour, not happy with the lovely look the makeup artist gave her, and not happy with the designer clothes the wardrobe stylists have picked out. And she’s definitely not happy with how she appears in the photographer’s first test shots. It’s not that she doesn’t look great, but something’s clearly not sitting right with her. After studying the digital images on-screen, the 48-year-old musician has an idea. “Just give me five minutes—alone,” she says, and retreats to the dressing room. Finally, she reemerges. She’s selected a vintage white lace minidress from the stylist’s rack, added dark plum-colored lipstick to her makeup, and rearranged her coif into her trademarked tousled head of bright blond hair. She looks amazing. She looks like Courtney Love. And no one is better at creating an image for Courtney Love than Courtney Love.
Love is having her photo taken for our cover not only because it’s our 20th anniversary, but also because she has a new music endeavor that she is anxious to promote. Shortly after I arrive at the photo studio in N.Y.C.’s Chelsea district, she directs me to the dressing room, where she has me plug my earbuds into her laptop so I can listen to her new songs. There are, for the moment, only two, which are both set to be released on iTunes. “I have two excellent songs, and I have two new really good songs, and I’d rather just release the two excellent songs—like an old-school single,” she explains. “The first song, ‘Wedding Day,’ is impeccably great as a slab of really raw rock with an insane hook. The second song is called ‘California’—clearly a leitmotif. I’ve written ‘Malibu,’ ‘Pacific Coast Highway,’ and ‘Sunset Strip,’ so if I want to call something ‘California,’ it had better be good.”
Although the songs sound exactly like what you might expect from the lead singer of Hole, the band will not be called Hole, but instead, Courtney Love. “My name symbolizes a lot of things, and I have to sit in these rooms with lawyers and be called a ‘brand’ often, so I was just like, ‘Fucking name it after me!’ I don’t care.” The band, such as it is, consists of Love, her guitarist Micko Larkin, drummer Scott Lipps, and bassist Shawn Dailey. For now she’s the only girl in the group, but that’s not for lack of trying. “I put an ad on Craigslist that said, ‘Band in the style of Hole looking for bassist in the style of Melissa Auf der Maur.’ I got exactly one response. There’s just not a lot of chick bass players.”
Now Love has toned down her lip color and is in front of the camera, masterfully striking poses in a fluid stream of motion. The confidence she exudes—even with 10 people standing around, lights bearing down on her from all directions, a fan blowing in her face, and a photographer snapping away—makes it clear that this is the sort of situation where she feels most comfortable. But that’s no surprise. Love is, above all, a performer, and a powerful one at that. While she first came to pop-culture prominence as the wife of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, it was her ability to channel her anger on stage that made her such a compelling—and controversial—figure. Hole’s 1994 album, Live Through This, released just a few days after Cobain’s suicide, was a runaway critical and financial success, and brought Love the kind of mainstream attention and accolades she had always longed for. In her babydoll dresses, combat boots, and smeared red lipstick, she looked a bit like Cindy Brady all grown up, but on stage she transformed herself into an icon of female rage the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Medusa. It earned her the devotion of a generation of women taught to sublimate their anger, but it also made her the target of much media criticism. She was vilified for being a mess, for being a drug addict, for having a big ego, for not being a great parent—in other words, all of the things we expect in a male rock star.
She was vilified for being a mess, for being a drug addict, for having a big ego, for not being a great parent—in other words, all of the things we expect in a male rock star.
This latest project is her first foray back into music since 2010’s Nobody’s Daughter, a record that began as a solo project, then morphed into a release featuring her current collaborators. The album bombed. “I put my fucking money and my ass and my shit on the line for Nobody’s Daughter, and that record is a masterwork,” she tells me. But even without a recent musical success, there is still plenty of demand for Love. “I’ve been offered money to do an oldies [tour] sort of thing,” she explains. “It’s just not me.” She’s not averse to performing some of Hole’s greatest hits, though. “I don’t mind making a crowd happy. I still really like ‘Malibu.’ I play ‘Miss World’ sometimes. I don’t like ‘Doll Parts’ anymore; it’s just a simple song, like three chords, and it kind of drives me nuts.” One thing that won’t ever happen, she says, is a Hole reunion, “for reasons that I cannot even begin to get into,” but then she does get into them, at length. What it comes down to, it seems, is that she has some serious beef with Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson.
In between photo setups, Love returns to her chair in the makeup room, talking nonstop. In fact, she’s been talking ever since she got to the studio, regaling us with stories about her numerous financial and legal woes, how she posed for Saint Laurent’s latest ad campaign, and how she can fix anyone’s credit score. She’s very entertaining, but also a bit overwhelming. At one point while she’s speaking, I find myself staring at her clear blue eyes and wondering what is really going on behind them. Because as far as I can tell, her mind is like a carnival of thoughts and ideas, featuring bumper cars driven by lawyers, a Ferris wheel of potential litigants, and a roller coaster filled with lovers, past and present. “She’s a genius,” the makeup artist sighs as soon as she’s left the room. Then there’s silence—the first silence in a long, long time.
After a few more hours, the photo shoot is done, but I still haven’t had a chance to do the interview. “Why don’t we just do it at my house?” she asks. “I just need to go chant first. Do you mind?” We head downstairs, hop in a car, and soon arrive at a Japanese Buddhist center. The place feels more like a night school than a sanctuary—it’s all fluorescent lights, linoleum floors, and hallways. We go upstairs to the chanting room, which is like a large, brightly lit classroom with rows of folding chairs facing a small shrine. About 20 other people are there, reciting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” over and over until they begin to sound like a field of buzzing bees. Love takes a seat toward the front, removes her sweater, and bows her head. From the back of the room, with her messy hair and bare, boney shoulders, she looks almost vulnerable. I think about what a rare moment this must be for her, how the chanting must be a warm refuge from the swirl of lawsuits and finance and insanity that surrounds her. Here, Love is just a girl with problems, hoping to chant them away. The thought almost brings me to tears, but then I catch her reflection in the glass wall. She is hunched over her smartphone, texting.
After about 25 minutes, Love gets up, and I follow her out. Despite what may have gone down this evening, I know that Love has genuinely devoted herself to this practice for the past seven years, and I ask her why she does it. “At first you chant for yourself, for things that you want, but as you advance, you chant for others, for the world,” she explains. We grab a cab and head for Greenwich Village, where she’s renting a brownstone in the most beautiful part of the neighborhood. I get a quick tour of the majestic house, which is more than 100 years old: three floors, several fireplaces, loads of original details, and more rooms than I can later remember. In a sitting room outside the master bedroom, Love plops down on the couch, picks up a remote, and clicks on the TV. “I just want to chill out and watch some episodes of 30 Rock first,” she explains. But we don’t actually watch the show at all, because Love has a lot to say, even before the interview has really started.
As I listen, I quickly realize two things. One is that Love is smart as a whip, tossing off words like “hubris” and “gestalt” and “autodidact” with the ease of a Rhodes scholar. The other is that she is going to control this interview the same way she controlled the photo shoot. I might as well just crumple up the piece of paper I’m holding, with all of my neatly typed up questions, because Love is going to talk about what Love wants to talk about. And one of the things she wants to talk about is her suspicion that everyone around her is plotting to gain access to her piece of the Nirvana publishing rights, rights that she, together with daughter Frances Bean, inherited after Cobain’s death. Well, not everyone, but a lot of the people she encounters have an underlying agenda, she fears. Even the boyfriends might have ulterior motives. She once said of her romances something like, “Everyone wants to be where Kurt’s been,” but when I ask if that’s still the case today, she scoffs. “Nobody gives a shit about where Kurt was. That was rock-star guys,” she explains. “I haven’t slept with a musician in ages. I go for the safe business guys, and then they see [the Nirvana publishing rights] and they go, ‘Boing! You should sell that shit!’”
“I haven’t slept with a musician in ages. I go for the safe business guys, and then they see [the Nirvana publishing rights] and they go, ‘Boing! You should sell that shit!’”
“The Nirvana stuff is fucking cursed in my opinion,” she continues. “I mean, how much of this interview has been just directed to that death and the consequences of that death?” I don’t bother pointing out that I haven’t asked a single question about it, but she goes on. “It’s not the defining point of my life….” She pauses. “Yeah, that’s not true. Someone shoots themselves, that’s a pretty defining point of your life.” And along with owning a piece of the publishing rights—and its profits—comes a very heavy burden. “Somebody has to guard the gates of this thing,” she says. “Because you know what would happen? The second I sell [the rights], it becomes a jukebox musical, makes a billion dollars, and you’ve got jazz hands on Broadway. Or he’ll be in Gatorade commercials. I will never sell the fucking stakes I have in it, because no one else will bother protecting him.” At times, it all becomes too much. “Some days I look at my passport and I’m like, Can I just leave? Because it’s so much pressure. And my daughter is really all I care about the most. And to lose my daughter over lawyers and money is beyond….” She trails off, avoiding getting into the specifics of her relationship with Frances Bean, from whom she is currently estranged. “I’m thinking of maybe naming my fucking album ‘Died Blonde,’ because I’m in such a morbid space. You know what I mean? It’s not that I’m unhappy. And it’s certainly not that I’m crazy. It’s just that I know all this shit, and I don’t know what to do with it.”
What does make her happy, she tells me, is performing. “That’s my only break. When we were doing photos today, fashion, art, reading—that is my only fucking break.” She’s keeping herself busy with quite a few projects these days, but one thing she doesn’t seem to be doing is acting. “I just spent a week in L.A. and experienced a lot of ennui, because if you’re in L.A. and you’re not working, it’s a really weird feeling.” It’s a bit surprising, actually, that Love hasn’t continued her ascendancy in Hollywood, as her film career got off to a very promising start. She had a bit part in the 1986 flick Sid and Nancy, but it was her role as Larry Flynt’s wife, Althea, in 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt that really made Hollywood sit up and take notice. The role, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress, instantly gave her “credit in the straight world,” to steal the title of a Hole song. It also resulted in her second-most-publicized relationship: that with her co-star Edward Norton. The relationship seems to have had a profound impact on her, and she still makes frequent references to it, but after three years, it fizzled. “I had my movie-star moment,” she says of that time in her life. “I watched the VH1 special about me, Behind the Music—it got the highest ratings of any of them—but the last half hour was an absolute wash. It was just like, ‘Why didn’t she marry Edward Norton and become a movie star?’” Then she answers the question herself. “I wasn’t ready to, I didn’t want to, I didn’t know how to.”
I remind Love that the first place I interacted with her was some 20 years ago, on the Hole bulletin boards on AOL. That’s where so many of her fans congregated, especially in the wake of Cobain’s suicide. It was all just typical fangirl stuff until Love’s stepfather, Hank Harrison, showed up and told us that he’d been printing out all our posts and giving them to Love to read, and that they were making her happy. Shortly thereafter, she began posting to the board herself. “I was really raw in that moment,” she tells me. “I was in bed most of the time, and my husband had just shot himself, and I heard there was this place online where they were talking about me. When I went on there, I saw that some people were saying things that weren’t true, so I defended myself.” In fact, Love was possibly the very first celebrity to engage with her fans online this way. Unfortunately, it’s that same willingness to interact directly with her audience that has since gotten her into hot water, particularly in relation to some nasty tweets she wrote. “I didn’t really understand how to deal with these social networks,” she admits. “I was being the same person that I was back in 1994. I still thought Twitter was like AOL and you could say, ‘Oh, fuck you, you dirty bitch!’—and then I got a lawsuit.”
“I didn’t really understand how to deal with these social networks. I thought Twitter was like AOL and you could say, ‘Oh, fuck you, you dirty bitch!’—and then I got a lawsuit.”
Her tendency to fly off the handle, coupled with her erratic behavior, has led to many a “Courtney Love is crazy” story, especially online. Since most people feel emotionally singed whenever they read anything negative about themselves on the Internet, I ask her how she deals with it. “Oh, the crazy thing is really easy,” she says. “If anybody could have ever proven me to be crazy, they certainly would have. And it’s never happened. Technically, in the sense of being bipolar, manic-depressive, or any of that stuff, it’s just not true. I mean, have I gone online and ranted and raved about my finances? Abso-fucking-lutely. Without any filter on. I mean, there’s a part of me that just doesn’t fucking care. And if that’s defined as crazy, then I need to find a psychiatrist who will diagnose that. I mean, maybe I’m more antisocial. I even asked my shrink, ‘Am I bipolar-ish?’ And he’s like, ‘No, you’re not.’ And I said, ‘Not even ish?’ And he said no. It’s just not there. So ‘crazy’ is a word that doesn’t affect me.” She’s also, she tells me, clean and sober. “I was taking Adderall, but I stopped taking it this summer because it serves absolutely no purpose and is just speed.”
It may be hard to imagine a sober, serene Courtney Love, but these days she’s even something of a homebody. She’s working on a memoir for HarperCollins, and the deadline is putting a crimp in her social life. “It’s one of the reasons why I stay home and watch 30 Rock,” she says. “Because I have to write this goddamn book and I know it.” It’s scheduled to be published next year, and with the manuscript due in May, she’s feeling the pressure. “I never thought I would write this book. It’s fucking exhausting,” she says. “But I would rather redefine myself myself than have anybody else do it.” In addition to writing, she is also working on a fashion line called Never the Bride, and recently had a show of her artwork. “Making art is kind of meeting my own destiny, as my mother always wanted me to be an artist. I went to San Francisco Art Institute, but I didn’t learn anything there.” She brings out a bound book of her work and leafs through the pages with me. The images look to have been hastily created in watercolor and pencil. Many of them include a sketch of a girl, mostly naked, with words and colors scrawled all over the picture. “I started by doing kind of ass-kissy pictures of girls, and there’s a lot of sex and death and romance,” she says. “This one I made for Gwyneth [Paltrow]. This I did the day of Amy Winehouse’s funeral, with Frances behind her.” She points out a few more of her favorites, then autographs the book and gives it to me, for keeps.
But even with the music, the book, the fashion line, and her art, the issues surrounding the Nirvana rights seem to consume most of her time, energy, and thoughts. I can imagine what a relief it must be to have an outlet for all that anger, and tell her it’s exactly her ability to transform her anger into artwork that has been so groundbreaking. She nods. “You know what this guy said to me? He said, ‘Your problem is that women aren’t going to let their husbands go see you, because they’re going to think about you.’ I’m like, ‘Wait, sex isn’t my currency. If we have to talk about currency, I guess rage is my currency.’ He goes, ‘Do you get a lot of women who say, “I grew up with you, you saved me in college?”’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I get that every day.’ And he goes, ‘Why do you think that is?’ And I’m like, ‘Because I express this rage that no one expresses.’ It’s kind of simplistic to say, but there it is.” And so, even after 20 years, Courtney Love is still the girl with the most rage. “Listen, no one’s really come for my crown,” she says. “I mean, I’d be the first to fucking pass the torch.” Yet sometimes she wonders why her audience can’t just let it all out, the way that she can. “Maybe it’s that gene of not caring,” she says. “Maybe that’s the same gene that got me in all that trouble on Twitter, the same gene that got me into flame wars on AOL, and the same gene that allows me to get up in front of 600 people in Lubbock, Texas, or 100,000 people in Poland—where they love fascist dictators, so I might have missed my calling—and say, ‘Everyone take off your shirts!’ Everyone took off their shirts! I was like, Wow, you’re an obedient bunch.”
I’ve been listening to Love speak for hours, barely able to get a word—or a question—in edgewise, but finally I manage to ask her what we ask every celebrity we interview: Do you consider yourself a feminist? “I think the word ‘feminist’ has been polluted, horribly. I raised my daughter as a feminist, and she won’t identify as one, because the word has been so fucking polluted by boomer media in the sense that it means that you’re ugly, or you’re fat, or you’re a lesbian—nothing wrong with being all three of those things—and every time I read an article in the mainstream media, it’s like, ‘Feminism’s dead! Dead! Dead, I tell you! Dead!’ And I’m like, No, it’s really not—not in me. Do I believe in feminism? Of course I do, I’m a fucking feminist. Do I believe that there are a lot of us out there? No. I really don’t.”
"Do I believe in feminism? Of course I do, I’m a fucking feminist. Do I believe that there are a lot of us out there? No. I really don’t.”
The phone rings. She tries to ignore it, but when it goes to her voicemail she decides to answer. When she hears who it is, she lights up and tells the caller that she’s in the middle of an interview. “Oh, I’m glad I answered that call,” she says. “My savior. Yet another daddy issue. Another 70-year-old man who knows everything. But, you know, this one—it could be him. Chant. Chant for a good one.” At this point, I’m not sure if she’s talking about a new lawyer or a new lover. Later on she tells me a story that sounds like it might be about the same person. “I was smoking a cigarette outside of [this guy’s] office and he was like, ‘Why are you smoking in a doorway?’ And I said, ‘Because it’s illegal,’ and he said, ‘I’ll pay the fee! I own this fucking floor! I wanna see a beautiful woman smoke!’ I fall for that old ‘fakata’ shit,” she says, mispronouncing the Yiddish word verkakte, meaning dumb, crappy, bullshit. “I really do.”
Lawyer or not, after all the dark stories she’s been sharing with me this evening, it’s nice to see Love get giddy over a guy. But this mushy side of her is not one I’m familiar with. “I present myself as an archetype, as an incredibly strong, almost a dominatrix type. But my actual persona as a woman is really submissive—in terms of business, very submissive. So I’ll rant and I’ll rave and I’ll moan and I’ll write the fucking craziest emails, but when I’m facing that really, really smooth guy, it’s really hard for me to say no. And I will keep looking for saviors and looking for saviors, but the truth is, there is no Daddy Warbucks. Nobody’s gonna pull up in a limousine and say they’re going to save you. That’s not how it happens. You save yourself from drowning, that’s how you do it.”
By Debbie Stoller
Photographed by Amber Gray
Styled by James Rosenthal
Makeup by David Tibolla
Hair by Charley Brown
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