Courtney Love: First-class provocateur - that crazy thing called Love

Andrew Gumbel
Saturday 08 February 2003 01:00
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It is not difficult to come up with uncomplimentary things to say about Courtney Love, but many of them, unfortunately, are unprintable. That is because, in addition to her propensity to cross, badmouth, insult, threaten and physically assault people she happens not to like – and there are an awful lot of them – she is also one of the most litigious people in show business today.

She doesn't just set her lawyers on journalists and writers who have risked her displeasure. She has also been known to call them up and intimidate the hell out of them. ("Be afraid. Be very fucking afraid," she said in a recorded message to one would-be biographer, who duly dropped the project.) When Spin, a now defunct magazine, ran a cover on her with the strapline "Sellout, Bitch, Killer", she kicked up such a fuss that the editors ended up grovelling in apology. When she thought her rehab doctor issued details about her drug habits, she sued him. When a report from California's Medical Board recently identified a certain "CL", a well-known singer, as a buyer of heavy-duty prescription painkillers from a dodgy backstreet physician since disbarred from medical practice, she threatened to sue the website that made the Medical Board's report public.

In the case of Lynn Hirschberg, a Vanity Fair writer who infuriated her like nobody before or since by reporting that she had taken heroin when she was pregnant, she went one stage further, issuing a bootleg through her band Hole entitled "Bring Me the Head of Lynn Hirschberg". Spying her nemesis at an Oscars after-party in 1995 – almost three years after the offending piece came out – she grabbed the nearest available heavy object, Quentin Tarantino's best director statuette for Pulp Fiction, and threatened to brain her. Not much later, she admitted (but subsequently denied) that the story about shooting up in the early stages of her pregnancy was true.

Never let it be said that Love is not an equal-opportunity abuse-hurler: everyone, it seems, is fair game for her vitriol. She wound up on probation after punching Kathleen Hanna of the punk band Bikini Kill during a live gig, and later boasted: "I do believe my fist... met her rathead and it was orgasmic." She used to refer to Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam as "Eddie Bedwetter", although she later changed her mind about him. Of Alanis Morissette, a singer she particularly loathes, she once told an interviewer: "The only thing that could vindicate [her] is a nervous breakdown."

Nothing, of course, sets her on edge more than the suggestion that she was somehow involved in the death of her late husband, Kurt Cobain, the grunge icon who blew his brains out with a shotgun in their Seattle home in 1994. When, a few years ago, the British documentary-maker Nick Broomfield made a film exploring the various conspiracy theories behind Cobain's demise, Love successfully pressured one of the film's backers into withdrawing financing and then got the finished product, Kurt and Courtney, dropped from the roster at the Sundance Film Festival.

For all Love's volatile insistence on safeguarding her image, it is remarkable how many people – especially people who were once close to her – are willing to trash her in public. She gets as good as she gives. One of her music producers, Steve Albini, called her a "psycho hose beast". Her father, hardly an angel himself since he abandoned her in childhood, has likened her to Charles Manson. Her first husband, a transvestite punk rocker called Falling James Moreland, once accused her of stealing his career and said that if they had stayed married he too would have "wound up like Kurt, shoving a shotgun down my throat".

In the long-running legal dispute she recently settled with the surviving members of Cobain's band, Nirvana, she found herself accused in court papers of being "irrational, mercurial, self-centred, unmanageable, inconsistent and unpredictable". In this context, the fracas that got her arrested this week on a Virgin Atlantic flight from Los Angeles to London looks like awfully small potatoes. It wasn't even the first time she had been arrested on an aeroplane. (In 1995, she got into a fight with a Qantas crew after they asked her not to stick her feet on the wall. "Go the fuck ahead and arrest me," she said, so they did.) The mid-air events of last Tuesday were nevertheless indicative of her volatile, fractured, utterly unpredictable personality – the same kind of see-sawing that has permitted her, across her career, to mutate from a haggard, angst-ridden, junked-up punk rocker to a Versace-clad, crimson-lipped, full-bodied Hollywood glamour-puss.

We should perhaps overlook the delicious irony of Courtney Love, of all people, flying on Virgin Airlines. (As the late night chat-show host Jay Leno remarked, you can fill in your own joke.) The fact was she was travelling at the invitation of Virgin's founder, Sir Richard Branson, to appear at a celebrity fund-raiser for the Old Vic. Apparently, she lost her temper – and then some – when the cabin crew told her she could not invite a friend in economy to join her in the first-class cabin. She swore like a sailor and refused to put on her seatbelt when it was time to land at Heathrow. The upshot: the pilot radioed ahead to have police meet her at the gate.

She was detained for nine hours, then took the first opportunity following her release to speak her mind all over again. "This is my second time on Virgin and my first time wasn't so great either," she told reporters. "I think that I have been flying British Airways for a long time and I will continue to do so."

Extraordinarily, this did not spell the end of her relationship with Branson. In fact, by the next night they were sharing cocktails and making light of the whole thing. Love said sorry, and Branson said he was proud to own an airline that made special dispensation for eccentric rock singers. At the Old Vic event, she appeared in pink satin knickers and fishnet stockings and draped herself across a grand piano to sing "The Bitch Is Back" with Sir Elton John tickling the ivories.

Clearly, not everyone loathes Courtney Love. Her saving grace is undoubtedly her talent, although it is a matter of some debate what exactly this consists of. The music critics have periodically embraced her work with Hole, notably the 1994 release Live Through This, which followed on closely from Cobain's suicide. The film critics loved her in The People vs Larry Flynt, although it could be argued that playing a stripper who dies of a drug overdose was less than a stretch for her.

The cultural critics, meanwhile, like to admire her for her sheer tenacity – for her ability to play the publicity slot machine (she recently did a nude photo shoot for Q magazine) and, time and again, make it come up all cherries. Nobody can accuse her of not knowing her audience: she is capable of fantasising to her rock-grunge audience about tying up Tina Brown and running her over, then turning up all smiles on television and talking as though she wouldn't even know the meaning of the word heroin. "Whatever you say about Courtney, you can also say the opposite," remarked another unauthorised biographer, Melissa Rossi. (Yes, Rossi was sued too.) "She's a walking Greek tragedy, and a comedy. She's horrible and great, inspiring and frightening, strong and weak. She's a role model – and everything you wouldn't want your child to be."

Love's personality does not exactly make it easy to pin down the details of her life. She was born on 9 July, although it is anybody's guess whether that was in 1964, 1965 or 1966. Her parents – father a road manager for The Grateful Dead, mother a psychologist – broke up when she was a little girl, and she was shunted from country to country (New Zealand, England, the US) until, at the age of 12, she was sent off to live with her mother's therapist in Portland, Oregon.

As a teenager, she was busted for shoplifting and bounced from juvenile prisons to foster homes. Eventually, she took her parent's money (they gave her a trust fund of several hundred dollars a month) and hit the road to become a glorified rock groupie. In Tokyo, according to her own somewhat lurid account, she worked as a stripper for the Japanese underworld, cutting herself with a razor blade as part of her act. In Liverpool, she alternately dazzled and exasperated Julian Cope of The Teardrop Explodes. Cope later took out a newspaper advert reading: "Free us from Nancy Spungen-fixated heroin A-holes who cling to our greatest rock groups and suck out their brains."

Spungen, Sid Vicious's junkie girlfriend and overdose partner, became Love's role model, and indeed – in between attempts to earn money as either a rock musician or a stripper – she auditioned to play her in Alex Cox's film Sid and Nancy. (She ended up playing Nancy's best friend instead.) By her mid-20s, she had been married and divorced, formed Hole, scored a critical success with the band's grim first album, Pretty on the Inside, and met the melancholic Kurt Cobain at a concert. (Their first courting gesture was to punch each other in the stomach.)

The romance was hardly idyllic. Love said they "bonded pharmaceutically over drugs... like battery acid and Evian". Cobain nearly overdosed several times, and missed the birth of their daughter because he was going through detox in a hospital toilet at the time. The baby, Frances, was briefly taken into care following the publication of Hirschberg's Vanity Fair piece, but even after she was returned the couple seemed unable to stay off the drugs.

His suicide, her album success and transition into film acting all followed in quick succession, giving many people the (largely unfair) impression that she was feasting off her dead husband's fame like a vampire. She has been a controversial figure ever since: a vicious, scheming control freak with a foul temper to some; a sexy, transgressive, self-inventing chameleon to others. Who is the real Courtney Love? Perhaps we should ask those nice, understanding people at Virgin Airlines for the answer.

Life story

Born

Love Michelle Harrison on 9 July, some time in the mid-1960s, in San Francisco.

Family

Her father, Hank Harrison, was a road manager for The Grateful Dead, whose bassist, Phil Lesh, is her godfather. Her mother, Linda Carroll, was a psychologist who treated Katherine Anne Power, a member of the Weather Underground urban guerrilla group.

Career

Began as a stripper, occasional actress and member of such bands as Faith No More and Babes in Toyland. Later formed Hole in Portland and released the album Pretty on the Inside. Two more albums followed, Live Through This and Celebrity Skin.

Films: played Althea Flynt in Milos Forman's The People vs Larry Flynt in 1996, and a turn in Forman's Man on the Moon (1999).

Love life

Includes Julian Cope of The Teardrop Explodes, her first husband James Moreland, her first bandmate Kat Bjelland, second husband Kurt Cobain (which resulted in baby Frances Bean in 1992), Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Evan Dando of The Lemonheads, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Edward Norton, the actor, and music executive Jim Barber.

She says

"My goal is to keep me alive, and no personal issue is going to interfere with that."

They say

"She's delusional. That's her biggest strength, but it will also be her biggest weakness" – Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair.

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