Vanity Fair, June 1995
LOVE CHILD Grunge queen Courtney Love is on her way to becoming the most powerful female rock icon in the country, but she thinks everybody wants her dead. As Love searches for a new home--some place with "witches and vampires"--Kevin Sessums talks to the Great White Widow about sex, drugs, her daughter, Frances Bean, and the suicide of her husband Kurt Cobain.
"Somebody in Japan offered me a grotesque thing," says Courtney Love, the grunge diva who fronts not only the alternative-rock band Hole but also, as the widow of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, the grief-fed rage of an entire generation. "They offered me $4 million for this house because of Kurt dying here. Of course, I was, like, 'Go fuck yourself!' They were never even going to live here. They just *wanted* it. As what? As a fucking museum? Kurt wanted me to stay, or he would not have done it in the greenhouse," she continues, alluding to the day Cobain, having escaped from his last visit to a drug-rehabilitation center, took a gun, put it to his weary head, and pulled the trigger.
A guard unlocks the gate to the estate, which is high on a hill above Lake Washington in Seattle, near the house of Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of the Starbucks coffee-bar chain. The first thing I see at the end of the drive is that infamous greenhouse--now a shrine filled with orchids and daphnes and gardenias--above the garage. Parked below it, like a kind of auto couple, are Love's two Volvos, a sedan and a station wagon. The bumper sticker on the former reads, I'M A HOMEMAKER AND PROUD OF IT. As I enter the quarry-stone mansion, which she says once belonged to the Blaine family, who were among the founders of this most beautiful of northwestern American cities, the delighted squeals of Frances Bean Cobain, the two-and-a-half-year-old progeny of Kurt and Courtney, serve as a welcoming herald. The bright-faced youngster is being chased around the downstairs rooms by Love's bearded assistant. "I'm gonna get you!" he teases her. Captured, the child issues a child's instinctive challenge: "MOMMY!"
Mommy--a kind of autocouple herself since the death of her husband only a year ago, an embodiment of both Cobain's lingering spirit and her own carnal presence--cries out from somewhere above us, "Bean! Bean!" The voice is ragged, loving, rocked-out after two weeks of performances. "Beeeeean!"
To the left of the manor's grand staircase is a rather formal dining room lorded over by a dark and bedeviling Robert Hawkins painting titled "The Drug Dealer's Horse." To the right is a parlor containing three overstuffed sofas. A giant framed needlepoint angel is on one wall. On another hangs a gift to Cobain from the writer William S. Burroughs, a sketch, primitively rendered by the grizzled author's apparently shaky hand, of a slit-eyed, slightly evil, alien-looking creature--an ET with the DT's. What appear to the bullet holes riddle the portrait. The inscription from Burroughs reads, "The Priest, they called him."
"Burroughs shot it," a bleary Love, now standing in the room, tells me when she sees me looking at the holes. Her mottled blonde hair is matted, and a white silk robe is thrown matter-of-factly over her blowsy body. "That's what he does--he shoots up his art. Kurt would go into a Burroughs imitation when he was on drugs, or in bed. 'All riiiiight, baaaaby...arrrgggrrr,'" she growls, imitating Cobain imitating Burroughs.
Across the living room is the Buddhist altar on which most of Cobain's ashes are kept in an open urn. (Some are buried beneath a small willow tree outside; others are in Love's bedroom under a miniature sculpture of a benevolent Buddha.) A baby picture of Cobain looking exactly like Frances Bean--especially the eerily wise, walnut-size eyes--sits next to a portrait of him as a famous young man. "He was so gorgeous....Kurt," Love laments. "I don't know how I got lucky that way." She opens a small round box next to the altar. Inside is a mass of black-rooted blonde locks. "Look at his beautiful hair," she tells me as I pick up a precisely folded piece of tissue that sits atop the strands. "Those are his pubes--I snagged a few," she brags. "I *wanted* his heart. I wanted his heart to put an oak in it. I was going fucking medieval."
"An oak?" I ask.
"Yeah. I wanted to plant an oak in it and have it grow. It's an old Saxon tradition. He had a lot of German in him. Some Irish. But no Jew. I think that if he had had a little Jew he would have fucking stuck it out. But he didn't....His ashes are finally going to the Calvary Cemetery here in Seattle. I was thinking at one point: Because he loved it so much, would Kurt want to go to New Orleans? When people go and make their fucking pilgrimage, would they like to go to New Orleans? Mmmmm...NO. I guess Seattle will stay the mecca for drugs and Kurt Cobain."
All about us are vases of Stargazer lilies, Kurt's favourite flower, as well as an array of religious symbols and artifacts. "A lot of this Christian stuff is Kurt's," Love says as she shows me the rest of the house. "Mine is the Buddhist stuff. The Jesuses are Kurt's. He had Jesus-envy. But we both sort of defied it, too, because we started studying Buddhism .... I like all the angels around, because I think they protect me and my daughter. I mean, her *dad's* an angel. When she sees her dad on TV, she goes, ' angel'--whatever that means in her little head."
Love relieves her assistant and begins to chase Frances Bean herself, mother and daughter harmonizing in their squeals of alarm. At the top of the staircase, they hang a right and end up in Frances Bean's bedroom. Love, looking at the lone, small photograph above the bed, curls up on the covers while the child searches through the books strewn about the floor among the stuffed animals. "Who's that?" she asks her daughter, pointing at the portrait of a happily disheveled couple.
"That's Mommy," Frances Bean answers, looking up from where she is digging deeply into a pile of toys.
"Who's that?" Love asks, this time reaching up to touch Cobain's face with her nicked and nicotined fingers.
"That's Daddy."
Frances Bean finds what she's been searching for. "Will you read me this?" she asks, handing Love a copy of _Beauty and the Beast_ before retrieving a naked doll--a rather handsome young male one--to hold as she climbs onto her mother's lap.
"Who's that?" I ask the child.
"It was a gift from her father," Love tells me. "It's Luke Perry. But Kurt dressed him in a dress before he gave it to her."
Frances Bean eyes the doll.
Love begins: "One cold winter's evening a ragged old beggar woman came bearing a rose to the door of a castle. She pleaded for shelter, but the spoiled young prince who lived there turned the woman away..."
Continuing to read, Love tries to wrap her daughter in the white robe that barely clings to the edges of her breasts. Handing me the doll, Frances Bean climbs higher on Love's lap and hangs on every word. The child places her tiny hands on her mother's cheeks and listens to the last lines read to her that in ragged, loving, rocked-out voice. "The spell was broken," her mother finishes, knowing the lines by heart, and turns to look into her dead husband's eyes framed there in her daughter's face. "The Beast was no more," she recites, more in a rasp than a whisper. "Love had changed his life forever."
There is a Grand Guignol naivete about Courtney Love. Offstage, at home, it enhances the maternal intimacy she enjoys with her daughter. Onstage, it is monstrously effective at arousing in her audiences the mother lode that all great rock 'n' roll stars must tap--puerile rebellion. Offstage and on, Love is as unpredictable as she is prurient. Louise Brooks, the great screen siren, could have been describing Love when she once summed up the charms of the American child star Shirley Temple: "a swaggering, tough little slut."
Love's kinder-slut persona is primed and ready by the time I catch the last leg of a recent Hole tour in Salt Lake City. As I wander around the temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, located in a 10-acre square in Salt Lake City, I can't help but wonder who will show up for Hole's concert tonight. The young people here are so well scrubbed and polite that I can't imagine them singing along with anything other than Mormon hymns. Stationed around Temple Square are lovely young girls from all over the world, referred to as "sisters," who are doing their missionary work for the church. Flight attendants for the ancestral angels of this faith, they piously dispense information about the holy pioneers who settled in this valley in 1847.
Even in Salt Lake City, it turns out, Courtney Love and Hole can pull in a crowd. "Hers is the heart of the rock 'n' roll audience," Danny Goldberg, who once managed Nirvana as well as Hole and is now chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Records, tells me. "You meet 14-year-olds and they're all into Hole. It's not just a cult. It's not just colleges. It's not just critics. She's appealing to the heart of the MTV mainstream rock audience. It's not just based on one song. It's *her*. There are very few women who have ever done that....My daughter, Katie, who is four and a half, often says she wants to be like Courtney when she grows up," Goldberg continues, laughing nervously.
"I'm a Courtney Love fan because I think she's a woman who goes beyond the limits of anything to say what she wants to say and to do what she wants to do," a chubby teenager named Holly tells me just before the concert begins in a small hall on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. Along with hundreds of other sweet-faced girls and tough-talking boys, she is getting revved up for her idol's entrance. "I think she's been through hell and back," says Holly. "And she's *survived*!"
Suddenly the crowd lets loose with a pulsating roar. I look up and see Love, in a girlishly pink getup, stagger onto the stage full of Stoli and a couple of weeks' worth of road-weary attitude. Her band--the beautifully aloof bass player, Melissa Auf Der Maur (who replaced Kristen Pfaff after her death from an overdose of heroin last year), guitarist Eric Erlandson (his stoicism tested tonight by the news of his father's death), and drummer Patty Schemel (calm, kick-ass, the keeper of the rhythmic flame)--grab their instruments and wait for Love's signal to let the music rip. Holding a stuffed Barney dinosaur in one hand and a Dunhill cigarette in the other, she pauses to stare down at the throng of rowdy boys crowding the stage below her, then smirks at their crude innocence and drops the Barney amid the trademark array of broken dolls that adorn the stage around her. (Love's song "Doll Parts" has become the latest teen anthem for pubescent girls terrorized by their own tender, morphing bodies.) Ready to mosh--an activity that entails pushing, shoving, and lifting performers or audience members and passing them over the heads of the crowd--teenagers of both sexes are screaming obscenities at her. One boy even has the audacity to shout out that he loves her. "How do you know you *can* love me?" Love asks him with disdain. "I'M A BITCH!" she warns them all and cranks up the music.
For more than an hour, her vulgar allure in full bloom, Love flaunts her superiority over the audience. Her performance is a slur of politics and pouty sexuality. She is scornful. Scatalogical. Scurrilous. Every lyric she sings--from "I fake it so real I am beyond fake/Someday you will ache like I ache" to "I made my bed, I'll lie in it/I'll lie in it,/I made my bed/I'll die in it"--is echoed by these kids. A fervor bordering on the religious seems to be sweeping through this more or less Mormon congregation, and as she douses them with bottled water--a ritual she performs for her audiences--the shtick takes on the added ceremonial trappings of baptism.
At one point Love beckons a boy from the crowd, who, shouting "Fuck you, Courtney!" over and over, shoots her the finger. By the time the others have passed him over their heads to the stage, the boy's pants are down around his knees and his boxer shorts are low on his hips. Love elaborately fakes fellating the teenager, then pulls his boxers all the way down. The boy flashes his penis at his buddies before Love wrestles him to the floor and kicks him off the stage. All in all, Sister Love is giving an amazing, appalling performance. She possesses the swagger of Joplin at full swig and the foul mouth of Morrison at his marauding, raunchy best. Expertly guiding this latter-day throng into a Holey, ghostly frenzy, Love is a tough little slut all right, a flight attendant for the ancestral angels of her own deeply rooted American faith.
Already in a state of dishabille--a dirty t-shirt and panties the extent of her attempt at getting dressed today--Courtney Love strips the rest of the way and steps into the bath she is drawing on the second floor of her Seattle home. The steaming water rushes from the faucet as she slides down lower and lower into the tub. Spreading her wounded legs, scabbed and bruised from stage-diving into the waiting clutches of her fans, she lets out a low moan as her body reaches the onrush of water. Slowly she slides back up and begins to wash herself deep beneath the suds that surround her. Her white breasts, like great cakes of soap, bob about in front of me.
"I've always had great tits," she's told me. "So after Frances, I had them lifted....They didn't move my nipples, and they didn't put anything inside of my breasts. But if I see this in a pull-quote in the story, Kevin, I'll say you've had a penis extension."
Love lathers up her hair, and as she scrubs away at her black roots, she tells me how her buddy REM's Michael Stipe has inspired her to experiment with sleeping with members of her own sex with what she calls his pansexuality. "But I'm more of a fag," she has told me. "I've got the same tastes as fags. I like to suck. I go for the rough-trade boys. I'm a total drag-queen fag."
"Are you a top or a bottom when you sleep with women?" I ask.
"I'm still trying to figure that one out."
"How about heterosexually? Top or bottom?"
She dips her head back in the water. "Heterosexually I'm a full-out bottom."
"You're probably a bossy bottom," I guess.
"No," she says. "That's Madonna. *That's* the difference between us....I let men be men. I should let people know this so that then I won't have all these wimpy little boys chasing after me anymore. They keep thinking I'm going to beat the shit out of them....That's one of the misconceptions about my husband that was so fucked up--that he was passive. He wore the pants in a big way."
"So he wasn't bisexual? Some people have even suggested that he was gay."
"He wanted people to *believe* that. I don't think he was ripping them off, either. He wanted that part of himself to be free, but he didn't go through with that, because that wasn't his preference....I left him with Michael Stipe one night and told him to go explore his cravings. 'Big talker, go on!' I told him. All he'd ever done was kiss some guy in high school and some kid in a club. He came back the next day, and I started screaming, 'What happened?' He said, 'I dunno. It was just weird. Nothing happened, but *sort of*.' I'll never know. Michael's never told me....I don't know, this whole subject of sleeping with people and going out with somebody....It's been a weird year. A few months ago I really began to 'see the world,' so to speak....You know, I have a weird Michael Douglas fetish. I LOVE Michael Douglas. He's older. Jewish. Hot. I really want a Jewish prince."
No matter what Love claims, she is interested less in Douglas's ethnicity than in his Hollywood pedigree. She has become increasingly enamored of the idea of becoming an actress. "My agent kept saying I was a cross between Bette Midler and Madonna," she says, remembering her early foray into Hollywood. "But I kept saying, 'No I'm not. Fuck you. I'm James Dean. I'm Sean Penn.'" Recently, her movie dreams rekindled when she was hired to play the small part of a waitress in Keanu Reeves's upcoming film _Feeling Minnesota_. "Keanu is pretty savvy," she says, putting out her cigarette in the tub. "He keeps to himself....During _My Own Private Idaho_, all those boys were in Portland fucking up big-time." She is referring to the disturbing Gus Van Sant film that starred the late River Phoenix and depicted the deliriously dark lives of northwestern street urchins. "I've gotten real scared that dope--you know, heroin--has gotten more and more chic with the actors. They don't know how to deal with dope. It's been in my world--rock 'n' roll--forever. But these are little kids. Little actor-boys. 'Aren't we cool? We're copping!' Well, no, it's not. I remember one night, New Year's Eve 1991 into 1992, Keanu was really trying to make friends with Kurt....But Kurt was being really rude. There were a bunch of fucking Ashley Hamilton rich kids in their rooms, and they were all fucking wasted. We were, too. Kurt finally put a sign on our hotel-room door: NO FAMOUS PEOPLE PLEASE--WE'RE FUCKING!"
"Courtney, how can drugs be in your life?" I ask her. "Your husband blew his brains out. Dope played a large part in that. Your bass player in Hole OD'd. Your child was almost taken away from you because of allegations about your using heroin during your pregnancy. How can you be around dope, much less use it?"
There is a long pause.
"For me, I've found that accessibility is nine-tenths of the law....Yeah, I was taking drugs for a while after Kurt died..." She stands and wraps herself in a white terry-cloth robe. Tying a towel around her wet hair like a turban, she closes her eyes and turns her face toward the late-afternoon light. Scrubbed clean, as if she had washed away all the cloying aspects of her personality along with the grime from two weeks of road shows, she sighs and takes in the sun's final inches of warmth. At this moment--as sad and sultry as any Marilyn ever had--the woman is adorned with nothing but her damned beauty.
"Come," she demands.
"Courtney is the definition of a star," says David Geffen, who signed Nirvana and Hole to recording deals with his eponymous company. "She both excites people and provokes them. She's on the beat and pulse of the time. Mostly, though, she's talented....Yet I think that being a big star is a very, very damaging experience, so who she will evolve into out of this experience is really a big question mark and can only be dealt with in its time."
"Is part of her appeal the fact that she's the Great White Widow?" I ask him. "No, I don't think that at all. The fact that she is the widow of Kurt Cobain made life more difficult for her and her record [_Live Through This_]," says Geffen. "When it came out pretty much at the same time, I think people were hostile to her, and hostile to it, and didn't deal with it on its own terms. The fact that it has nevertheless been this great success is in spite of that, not because of it."
"Courtney is emerging at a time when women in general are becoming important in rock 'n' roll, and she is the primary symbol of that," says Danny Goldberg. "She combatively and assertively identifies herself as a feminist rock singer, and this is a time when the culture is ripe for that. In some respects she is the most powerful female rock star. I'm not saying she's the best, because there have been many great ones--Chrissie Hynde and others. But there is a kind of cultural power she has that I don't think anyone since Janis Joplin has had. She has the *power* of real hard rock. It's not middle-of-the-road music....There are many, many artists that get a lot of press and win critics' awards that don't really sell a lot of records. But without selling a million records--which she's going to do with _Live Through This_--you're not a rock star. You're a cult figure. She's emerging from that cult status."
Syndicated rock columnist Lisa Robinson sees Love, ironically, as the latest in a long line of male rockers. "Courtney has that element of danger," says Robinson. "You never know what she's going to do next. We're not used to seeing that in a woman. We're used to seeing that from Jim Morrison, or Iggy Pop, or from Johnny Rotten in the early days of the Sex Pistols. She's a rock star in the sort of unpredictable, volatile way that people voyeuristically expect. But if she had not made a really great record, which she did, none of that would matter."
Robison's colleagues agree with her. Though Hole's first album, _Pretty On The Inside_, challenged mainstream audiences with its raw power, _Live Through This_ has crossed over and gained Love and the band the respectability of being not only rock artists but also recording-label moneymakers. The rival rock journals _SPIN_ and _Rolling Stone_ named _Live Through This_ best album of the year in 1994. In both readers' polls, Love was named best female singer. Hole opened MTV's "Unplugged" series in April of this year. And even _The New York Times_ hailed her as "nobody's victim. On the stage, she is a charismatic and powerful performer, in complete control of her band and her audience."
"There are two rock 'n' roll audiences--there is the _Beavis and Butt-head_ audience and the REM audience," Love claims, and she'll have to confront them both when her band becomes one of the star attractions during this summer's Lollapalooza tour. "The REM audience is older. They're like the Sarah McLachlan audience. You've got to have the _Beavis and Butt-head_ crowd, but it's really hard to train Beavis and Butt-headers to understand that girls can play rock....Rock is all about writing your own script; it's all about *pioneering*."
"There's never been a woman quite like her before in rock," says music critic Jim Farber of the New York _Daily News_. "The really great show I saw her do was the one at the Academy last September in New York for the college media. At the end she did 'In The Pines,' the old Leadbelly blues number that Kurt Cobain had done at the end of his _MTV Unplugged_ performance. It's a mythic blues song about sexuality and longing and jealousy and loss--all the blues themes that are very erotic. She sang it as brilliantly as he did; then she dove into the audience and kind of sank to the bottom. You didn't really know whether she was going to resurface. It was like this _Suddenly, Last Summer_ thing. You really wondered, *are* they going to devour her? And then there was this resurrection when she came up again. It really had that drama....The only women who have come close to her are marginalized women. Lydia Lunch is certainly out there. And Diamanda Galas. But they have very small audiences. Courtney is someone who has barged her way into the mainstream, blaring all the way....And yet there just is this...this...*tragedy* all around."
It began early.
"I am conceived out of a really bad situation," Love claims, and proceeds to give a rather frightening portrait of her father, who at the time was a San Francisco hippie hanging around the Haight; indeed, the renowned district is, in addition to all its other connotations, a heart-breaking homophone for the very emotion she still feels for the man. Love's mother was already pregnant with her when her parents married, but they divorced only a few months after her birth in 1965. Her father, Hank Harrison, was a Grateful Dead disciple. Her mother, Linda Carroll, is now a therapist living in Oregon whose latest claim to fame was talking radical fugitive Katherine Anne Power, who had been on the run for two decades, into finally turning herself in to the authorities in 1993.
A court ruled that Courtney's father was not to see her unsupervised until was grown, according to her mother, who remarried several times. Courtney has two teenage half-brothers and two half-sisters--a social worker and a law student--from those marriages, but her early childhood was one of aching loneliness. "I was practically autistic my whole childhood," she says now about those years she spent at home before, shockingly enough, striking out on her own at the earliest of teenage years, supported by a small trust fund from her maternal grandmother.
"What Courtney has in her she *came* with," says Linda Carroll, who is speaking publicly about her daughter for the first time. "The reason that I'm a therapist is that I began taking her to therapy by the time she was two, and could really find so little help and empathy for both of us in the people I went to. She was in *so much pain*. And that manifested itself ever since she was a little girl in ways in which I had no clue how do deal with. I had no idea of any way to help her except just to love her and hold her. When I started taking her to therapists, one of the awful things that happened was they began to pathologize her, which is what psychology has done with what they don't understand. I think Courtney came with a tremendous sense of pain in her....She's not any different than she was when she was two years old....Yet there were times, even as a small child, she would be really, deeply, touched by something. And when that would happen, it was as though every part of her went soft for a little while--including her heart. Even then she was touched by oppression and pain. It was a part of her that I think was genuinely touched by Kurt. They were very alike. I don't know if this is true, because I didn't know Kurt when he was only two, but I suspect that Kurt was pretty different until he was about 9 or 10. I don't think Courtney was. I think she has carried this grief longer, and maybe that's why she's a survivor, because she came with it and had to learn how to survive with it from the beginning....Strangely enough, she was an absolutely, unimaginably calm and happy baby. She hardly cried."
"How could you allow your daughter to leave home at such a young age?" I ask. "What was it like for you?"
"It was horrendous. Unbearable. Horrible. But Courtney is not containable. She was never containable....My deepest fear about her is that what always made her life so torturous--this kind of psychic pain--is what is making her famous, and that ultimately has got to be *so* wounding. Her fame is not about being beautiful and brilliant, which she is. It's about speaking in the voice of the anguish of the world."
"What is one of the clearest memories you have of her?"
"When she was in second grade in Eugene, Oregon, she was having a lot of nightmares. I had no idea what to do. I took her to a psychiatrist just to try to find some way to bring her some solace. The psychiatrist said part of the problem with her was that she needed to join Girl Scouts," Carroll recalls, laughing lightly now at such a thought. "She needed to be in normal kid activities. I dutifully went to a Brownies meeting with her....I could tell it was really hard for her to be in this room with all these kids. The person who was the Brownies leader suggested they have an art show. She asked all the kids to draw something. The things that Courtney drew were always startling. She didn't draw sunsets and apple trees. She would draw sort of...*wounded figures*. I can still see her that day--her little face so intense with those crayons. At the end of that, the teacher told the troop that they were going to see what drawing they liked the most by holding them up and everyone applauding. I knew that this would be terrible for her. When it got to hers, she just grabbed it and ran over to me, and we left. At that time, when a child was exhibiting the kind of pain Courtney was exhibiting--a lot of nightmares and a lot of crying and hating school and hating *everything*-- the treatment was pretty much to try and make that child they called 'normalized' rather than saying, What kind of creature is this, and how can we make her be OK with who she is? That whole belief system was really awful for her."
It was so awful that Love fled as soon as she could. Her early life took her all over the globe. With her mother and stepfather, she moved to New Zealand, then back to America. By the time she was 12, she had landed in reform school because of stealing, and from then on, with her trust fun, she basically lived on her own by her increasingly well-honed wits in a number of American cities and foreign countries, including Japan, where as a 14-year-old she worked as a stripper; Ireland, where she hung around Trinity College; Liverpool, where she infiltrated the rock scene; Taiwan, where she stripped again; Hollywood, where she stumbled in her first attempts at screen stardom; New York, where she hung out in clubs and continued to rock; Minneapolis, where she rocked some more; Alaska, where she again stripped; and Spain, where she appeared in Alex Cox's unwatchable film, _Straight To Hell_, after having already had a bit part in his acclaimed _Sid and Nancy_. If any place could be called home base, it was Portland, Oregon. "_My Own P