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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there