Ten years on, Courtney still loves to shock and roll

As the anniversary of Kurt Cobain's suicide nears, his wife's behaviour is deteriorating. Gina Arnold watches an exhibitionist in freefall
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The Independent Culture

Ten years ago, on 8 April 1994, the world awoke to the news that a young man was lying dead from a gunshot wound in the carriage house of the mansion owned by the rock star Kurt Cobain. In an unprecedented display of disdain for the idea that fame and fortune will make you happy, Cobain had taken his own life.

Ten years ago, on 8 April 1994, the world awoke to the news that a young man was lying dead from a gunshot wound in the carriage house of the mansion owned by the rock star Kurt Cobain. In an unprecedented display of disdain for the idea that fame and fortune will make you happy, Cobain had taken his own life.

Cobain's suicide marked the end of the punk era, when anti-corporate DIY ethics at least paid lip service to the idea that the selling of rock was an ugly process. You would think killing himself would have been enough to make this point, but there was a sort of exclamation mark to his gesture in the subsequent career of his wife, the redoubtable Courtney Love, whose career as a human paean to commodity culture had only begun. The week Cobain died, Love's band, Hole, released its record Live Through This, and Love has ever since played on the notoriety she gained from his suicide. Despite her drug-addled, grief-stricken state, she was on tour nine weeks later. Although her musical career has long since faltered and her film career barely got off the ground, she has seldom left the headlines for long.

This week Love plumbed a personal nadir when she flashed her breasts to a bemused David Letterman during a live interview. She said: "The nature of my life is showing my boobs", before heading out for the night, exposing herself again in a burger bar. She ended the evening in custody, charged with assault after knocking out a clubber with a microphone she had flung.

Love has been staging a number of these antics lately. Perhaps it is the strain of promoting a new album, or possibly the imminence of the anniversary of Cobain's suicide. Based on her track record, it seems more likely that the date is shining a bright light on her. Love's life has never been particularly wholesome. Long before she married Cobain she was a manic, mouthy mess. The only difference was that after she married Cobain she had people around her who had a stake in keeping her employed.

With her film career a fading memory and her musical career also grinding to a halt, Love has come to symbolise all the things that Cobain rejected. As his aura of wealth-denying sanctity increases, her long plunge into the shallow eddies of celebrity becomes more pronounced. Love has wallowed in the trappings of fame. As she mires herself deeper in fashion spreads and underwear commercials, the place from which she arose - her role as the leader of Hole and as Cobain's wife - becomes more compromised by its proximity to her celebrity. Contrary to popular belief, she was never the grungey feminist she purported to be. Love, or her people, have been adept at spinning her story into some kind of palatable rock chick-lit fantasy: unloved fat girl, abused and abased, finds love and expression through screaming her guts out on highly acclaimed grunge albums. In fact, Love's story is closer to that of Paris Hilton than Patti Smith. She is a trust-fund kid who spent her twenties ingratiating herself in rock scenes across America and looking for rock-star boyfriends (Shane MacGowan and Billy Corgan were early contenders). The one she finally hooked up with held opposite creeds and values from her own, but that does not seem to have been an obstacle to their romance. I recall running into the happy couple in Honolulu the night before their nuptials: Courtney told me jokingly that for her wedding present, her husband was giving her "his ATM (cash) card".

I met her when I was documenting the story of grunge. Courtney never hid her motivation in life: she wanted to be a star, and she certainly always acted like one. She is the type of person who is always hours late to any appointment, will chat on the phone for hours if you are paying and can make a fuss over the smallest thing. She is also a massive exhibitionist. In her San Francisco days, she was once accused of throwing off her clothes and running naked in the street when her house caught fire. Later, as a celebrity, she continued an interview with a journalist while having a full bikini wax. She has always flashed her breasts at the drop of a hat. Her verbal diarrhoea beggars belief. One journalist told me his transcript of their interview ran to 60,000 words, the length of a short novel. She may be smart, and she may even be talented, but her instability is far more obvious than either of those traits.

On the surface it is easy to get a different impression. She has ample recording contracts, lawyers, personal assistants and publicity agents working to cover up her failings and lack of artistic productivity. Love acquired the army of assistants and the perceived "talent" only after she married Cobain. She got them because she was rich and powerful. She got rich and powerful by getting pregnant.

It is doubtful that Love would deny this interpretation of events, because "interpretation" is what she excels at. The real story of Hole is one the rock press has never wanted to know. This is where Love's genius finally appears. Somehow she managed to spin her relatively dull and sordid tale into one of feminist control and "rock-as-rebellion" dogma; how she did it is one of those mysteries where the facts are erased by a damn good publicity machine. That is why, much as I felt that her ascension upon Cobain's death to a place of artistic or at least media-worthy respect was unjustified, I have always felt like I learned a lot about the record industry from her. The erratic behaviour which shocks me also seems to be quite de rigueur in Hollywood. Once I was complaining about her impossible acts to a publicist, and the woman said: "Are you kidding? When it comes to rock-star assholes, she's not even in my top five."

Love's saga also creates a number of sad realisations about the culture industry, such as why the image of a hysterical, blonde female slowly fading into nothingness is such an enduring one in our collective psyche. It is no coincidence that the only time Love has been taken seriously was when she played a brunette, Althea Flynt, a character who, except for hair colour, was like herself. Love seems to revel in a good cliché and has seldom missed a chance to be one, whether it was the grieving widow billing herself as a "survivor", the drug-addled former stripper or the philosophy-spouting hippy mamma who was one of the kids on the cover of a Grateful Dead album. She does not miss an opportunity to rewrite the story of her life in a way that conforms to our expectations of the famous.

Although watching Love's long march out of the limelight is a sad spectacle, perhaps the saddest thing about it is the way it boomerangs one's thoughts back to her husband's tragedy: what he stood for and everything he rejected. The week he died, I flew to Seattle to attend a mass mourning at the Seattle Space Needle, at which Love read part of his suicide note. "I feel guilty beyond words about these things," it said. "For example, when we're backstage and the lights go out and the roar of the crowd begins, it doesn't affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love and relish the love and adoration of the crowd ... the worst crime I could think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having 100 per cent fun."

It makes me sadder to read those words now than it did to hear them then. It seems to me in retrospect like Love's career has been a desperate attempt to hear the roar and relish the love and adoration of the crowd. That she has not done so (and keeps on trying) is not just because she does not compare in talent with her husband and his band. Was she even listening?

Nirvana's music is out of fashion now. College students who love Radiohead and The White Stripes are barely familiar with Lithium or the tenets of grunge: its rejection of success and celebration of loserdom. Even the female stars of grunge would wear the same two shirts all tour and cut their own hair, which is unthinkable in today's music scene and an aspect of it in which Love was never interested.

Meanwhile, Love is still in and out of rehab, court and the fashion magazines. She stumbles in her high heels across the big sky of American celebrities, desperately trying to garner some cheap facsimile of Cobain's phenomenal fame, having taken in less than nothing of its implications or its denouement. It is ironic because her quest is emblematic of the very process in which Cobain refused to participate. Perhaps that is what makes it watchable, but it also makes it doomed.

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