Two widows, one heroine

Some rock wives have a post-baby breast job. Others wash hubby's underpants. By Justine Picardie

Given that suicide is the ultimate distinction on a pop star's CV, it is hardly surprising that, in a convenient symmetry, two rock widows are currently to be seen on the publicity circuit at the same time. Centre stage is Courtney Love, the wife of dead American rock star Kurt Cobain, who shot himself in the head last year; standing in the wings is Deborah Curtis, the wife of dead English cult hero Ian Curtis, who hanged himself 15 years ago.

Courtney Love, recently in this country to promote her new album, Live Through This, is now as famous as her revered grunge-God husband. She's the one on the cover of this month's Vanity Fair, dressed as an angel in a presumably ironic comment on her reputation as rock'n'roll's newest, biggest hell-raiser. She has also been hailed as a feminist hero ("with a capital F," she declared last week), even though she wears teetering high heels and a see-through baby-doll nightie on stage (that's ironic, OK?) And after the shock-horror Pregnant Courtney Takes Heroin scandal, she now appears to have been rehabilitated, in popular imagination at least, as the caring, sharing mother of her small daughter, Frances Bean. Plus, every other rock star in the Western World apparently wants to have sex with her. Courtney Love, a formerly screwed-up stripper who is now hailed as an icon for the Nineties, has therefore proved what every other woman believed to be impossible: that, yes, you can have it all.

Meanwhile, up in Macclesfield, Deborah Curtis has been quietly writing a book (Touching from a Distance, Faber, £9.99) about life with her husband, who built a flourishing career out of misery (and, incidentally, paved the way for Kurt Cobain as the voice of angst-ridden youth). Curtis, as one might have expected from a man who named his band Joy Division after the female concentration-camp prisoners kept alive to be used as prostitutes by the German army, turns out to have been a complete pig. He left Deborah and their baby daughter at home with no money to pay the electricity bill, while he lived it up on tour with a groupie known to the rest of the band as "the Belgian boiler".

Deborah, who had been his girlfriend since she was 16, says: "I tried to provide a steady background life for him to depend on - a shelter." She nursed him through his increasingly frequent epileptic fits, but was soon deemed to be bad for the band's image. ("If Ian was going to play the tortured soul on stage, it would be easier without the watchful eye of the woman who washed his underpants.") When she did dare to turn up backstage at a Joy Division gig, she was made to feel embarrassingly unstylish and therefore redundant. As she observes, "How can we have a rock star with a six-months pregnant wife standing by the stage?"

Courtney Love, it seems, has the answer. It's fine to be the pregnant wife of a rock'n'roll hero if you continue to look cool; and even better if you're ready to go on tour soon after giving birth, after a trip to the plastic surgeon to get your breasts back into shape, and with a reliable nanny to take care of boring details like dirty nappies and baby food. Oh, and it helps to be thin, too (child-bearing hips simply aren't hip, you know).

Most important of all, even if you are a rock goddess yourself, it's best to know your place. As Courtney Love told Vanity Fair, in their marriage "Kurt wore the pants in a big way". That's presumbly why she's got a "K" tattooed an her belly, to prove her eternal devotion.

It is hard not to be completely gripped by the continuing Courtney Love saga. (You can already imagine the next instalments: Courtney Goes Gay! Courtney Weds Keanu!! Courtney Runs For President!!!) Still, in her own way, Deborah Curtis is just as much of a rock'n'roll survivor. She has successfully raised her daughter, to whom her book is dedicated, and she has also had another child in a happier second marriage; she has, moreover, reached her late thirties sane, purposeful, and very clearly in charge of her own business - a Macclesfield recording studio. This is, I realise, not nearly as glamorous nor as profitable an occupation as Courtney Love's, but nevertheless, qualifies Deborah Curtis to be recognised as a true feminist heroine, albeit of a more low-key variety than the ones who make it on to the front cover of Vanity Fair.

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