Few figures in pop culture have been as polarizing or as scrutinized as Courtney Love. She's been vilified as the grunge Yoko Ono, lambasted for her outspokenness and been a favorite tabloid target well before the Blog Age. We all think we know who Courtney Love is, but, in person, she is not who you expect. The brashness and frankness is still very much evident, but it is backed up with thoughtfulness and an eloquence you won't often find in her online posts.
In December, Spinner went to Love's New York apartment to get a preview of the upcoming Hole album, 'Nobody's Daughter,' and talk with Love. What comes across most when chatting with her is her absolute immersion into music. A fan who can go on about her favorite songs -- including stuff by the Kinks and the Beatles, hanging with Bono, her friendship with Elton John and her own place in rock history -- Love maintains her teenage ardor. Combine that passion with her own incredible history -- as a woman who once was a nanny for Joe Strummer, married Kurt Cobain and sold her home to Paul McCartney -- and you have a very memorable conversation.
How do you account for all the misconceptions about you?
Sarcasm doesn't really read well in print. When I do television, then people do [have misconceptions]. Also, I don't do a lot of interviews like this anymore. I'm starting to lately because I have a record coming out. But for seven years now, eight years, it's been conjecture where something is said online. What I say online is irrelevant. It's not really anyone's business. Yeah, it's public, I guess, but it's like I can't even stop.
So when you post stuff online, are you surprised by how much people pay attention?
When I post, I forget I'm famous. Then occasionally I'll look, and it'll say 345,000 people and I'm like, "Ah!" It's a really bad thing: I'm a good rock musician; I am one suck-ass celebrity, though. It's OK; I would rather be good at what I do and a terrible celebrity than a good celebrity and suck at what I do.
Is there a difference between Courtney Love the musician and Courtney Love the public personality?
I've been away for a really long time. I've been in the public eye because I always am; I can't seem to get away from it. I live in urban centers, I walk around, and I'm some sort of kooky person. At the same time, it's nothing to do with me. It's like this Courtney Love Monster is not my problem. It's your problem, basically. The Courtney Love Musician is a different thing altogether, and, in fact, my actual name is Courtney Love Cobain -- that's what's on my passport. So it's sort of like I'm watching a '90s revival. I'm watching Alice in Chains nostalgia, and I'm like, "Wow, it's good to be me right now." I had no idea it would be good to be me five years ago, because it wasn't good to be me five years ago, but I kind of didn't care. I always figure my timing has always been either really good or really bad. I seem to have been in the right place at the right time for most of my life.
Do you care now?
Of course I care.
You said five years ago you didn't really care.
Well, I didn't care because I was playing music for the same reason I'm playing music now, which is for myself. I remember once my daughter was really mad at me, and she said, "What if your record flops?" I'm like, "I don't really care because I know I made a f---ing classic record." I've gone through 40-some songs to get to the really excellent songs. I want every track to have no flaws.
'Live Through This' was a big critical hit at its release. Do you feel the album has been underappreciated since, because of the time and circumstances surrounding it?
No, people realize how great it was. I like it when people who are young realize how great it was because that's not about a moment to them -- even though there's nothing wrong with about-a-moment music. I'm sure I can say to you 'Unsatisfied,' and it's about a moment in our lives. I'm sure 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is about a moment. But the fact that it's also a good song and holds water is another great thing. I like it when people like it because it's good and pure and visceral. I don't particularly like that if it's an of-the-moment person. It's not as good of a compliment if it's a 22-year-old, or if it's a "You saved me in high school, thank you." I'm about to save you again. I'm not quite done, and then I'll be done and I can do Christmas records or whatever.
You've always been around amazing people, from working as Joe Strummer's nanny to your marriage to Kurt. Are there any career moments that stand out?
I got to sing 'The Bitch Is Back' in the same duck uniform that Elton wore at Yankee Stadium -- and I was arrested in the morning in England in 1998 on Virgin Air. [Actually] I wasn't arrested -- there were all these paparazzi and police. I was taken to the Heathrow Airport police station. They said, "Oh, the Virgin girls," and let me go. I learned that day about long-lens paparazzi because I was really scared, but I wouldn't cry in front of the paparazzi. Then I got in this paddy wagon and I started crying, and the picture of me crying made it in the paper. I don't like pictures of me crying anywhere; it's sort of like my thing: "Don't ever let them see you cry."
So, in any case, I was really scared, and that night he let me sing 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me' in a black dress with nothing expositional about it. I probably hit a million flat [notes], but it was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done. He's always had my back, always. You go to rehab, you feel really skinless, feel like no one likes you and you feel ostracized. Carrie Fisher called this business of show "high school with ashtrays," which it very much is. We're all very codified in a 17-year-old's mindset. I have a 17-year-old; I know exactly how she feels. I'll never be cool enough for her. You can never be cool enough for your kid. Keith Richards isn't cool enough for his kids. There's this state of adolescence that rock 'n' roll puts you in, and the indie-rock machine even puts you in more.
What's the secret to selling a house to Paul McCartney?
[The Zombies'] 'Odessey and Oracle,' man. 'Odessey and Oracle' beats 'Revolver''s ass -- and the reason it's exactly in competition is because [the Beatles] were in one room in Abbey Road and the Zombies were in another room [recording at the same time]. When Paul McCartney came to my house, I took every f---ing Beatle book I had ... I stuffed it all in a bin where he couldn't find it and had lots of Rolling Stones stuff around, then had 'Odessey and Oracle,' boom, straight by my bedside. Now I am convinced that's what sold my house to him. Convinced. And if it's not true, I don't want to know.
Is there anything you regret?
Well, my whole drug period isn't so great. But Frances is mostly embarrassed about when I'm fat more than the drugs. I used to hate it when people would say to me, "I love Nirvana." It's like, "What the f--- do I have to do with Nirvana?" Look, this is me when I'm stripping, teenage full on the pole. I never did anything graphic, but if you knew how young I was there, you would freak out. That was in Japan in 1979, born in '64 -- you do the math.
Would you ever write a full autobiography?
No. As Stevie Nicks once said to me, kingdoms would fall if I ever wrote all of the things in terms of sexual adventures and things like that. No, I don't spill.
What are your meat-and-potatoes rules of rock 'n' roll?
That the riff comes first and foremost. I want to sell records and I want to have a platform to do so. At Carnegie Hall [for an all-star benefit concert hosted by Gavin Friday], I waved at someone I knew in the audience, but not when I was singing. When I'm singing I'm in it to win it. That's one of the reasons [the group encore of David Bowie's] 'Jean Genie' was one of the most significant, important things that's ever happened to me as a singer. I let a flat [note] out in Carnegie Hall. I was insanely aware I let a flat out, so I went up to the mike -- and I have a great tone, but it's nothing compared to, say, Michael [Jackson]'s or Bono's, and I know it. Then Bono steps up because I let a flatty out -- he knew exactly when I let it out because we talked about it afterwards -- and he just went out and his beautiful voice poured out like honey and covered me. The rest of the time I just postured. I'm stuck onstage, I'm there, and I didn't know we were all being called out to sing that song. Well, I can't be a girl anymore, I have to go f---ing be a rock musician now, which, really, it is a sexist thing because I'm a frontman. You can't think about how your face looks. You can't think about if you're pretty or not. Do you think Slayer worry about if they're pretty or not? No, they wear a black f---ing T-shirt and they rock. You can't do it in high heels. You can try and put on makeup. It'll smear; I've proven that.
You say the riff comes first, but certainly there's a lot of thought put into the lyrics.
Oh, they're damn good, but I won't let a lyric get in the way of a riff. Like at the end of 'Samantha,' "There's murders of crows/ But there's prides of lions." But when we got to singing it, there's a lead right in the middle of it. And that lead is more important than what I'm singing. [Billy Corgan's] star turn in that song is certainly more important 'cause a tune goes through your head.
You've never been afraid to speak your mind, to say the least. Is there a point you won't go past?
I'm the edge, but you can't really go past me. I guess Keith [Richards] can, but I sort of set the barrier of behavior, and I know when to rein it in now. I didn't know earlier because [when] my husband died, I had no time to grieve. I was simply put on tour because I was a juicy financial bucket.
I Googled me and Kurt recently and I just saw pages and pages and pages. I went through the images only -- I'd never done it before, and I saw tons of tabloid covers, tons of magazine articles that I didn't know anything about. I really didn't. I remember getting on AOL in 1994 after he died. Someone told me about a bulletin board that talked about me. Go to the annals of AOL: I'm the first famous person that would argue viscerally on my f---ing AOL board. So I would sit on my bed in my dotage of widowhood for about four months -- I got to be a widow for about four months, just being really angry. I didn't go to bereavement, I didn't go to a psychiatrist, I wasn't taken to one. We were, like, infantilized.
What is important to you?
I don't like history being wrong. The thing with that movie [an upcoming biopic of Kurt and Courtney], by the way, is as long as it is accurate, I will let it out. The way that I read the first draft of the script was the writer was busy kissing everyone's ass to get permission -- Dave [Grohl] had his great moments, Krist [Novoselic] had his great moments, I had my great moments. Don't bother, we're all gonna give you the rights. Tell the truth.
Dave, [in one scene], tells Kurt, "This chick you're in love with is f---ing singing about her vagina, clapping together a pot and a pan, and she's fat. We're gonna go to a strip joint and we're gonna eat meat like men," which really helped him because he was in this total suicidal funk about this chick who could not hold her own. Her center of gravity totally broke when Nirvana went [rubs hands together]. Did you ever go out with somebody who you just were never good enough for? That feeling of nothing you could do, no name you could drop, no accomplishment you could make. You could go land on the f---ing moon by yourself, motor the thing and build the rocket, and it still wouldn't impress her or him. That's what this chick was like, but when he got really, really famous, she came back. It was really weird because all the s--- he'd gone through to prove himself to her, it was like she came around. And when that happened I was like, "This must be really shockingly big."
I married a guy that just completely blew up without any of us ever being able to predict that. The one thing I had no contingency plan for was to be attached to a man. I had a contingency plan for every single thing -- five-year-plan, knew exactly where I was going, what I was doing, how I was doing it -- but I didn't expect, being the alpha female in this one scene and meeting the alpha male (and of course you were going to like each other) was going to get me a whole huge amount of trouble. It sure did, man, but it's worth it. I've got the best daughter in the world and I wouldn't give back one second of my time with him. You can't really control who you're going to fall in love with.