Now that she’s over her recent bout of self-diagnosed paranoia, Courtney Love is feeling just fine. For months leading up to the release of Hole’s Celebrity Skin, the 35-year-old singer, actor, and generational icon admits, she wasn’t in the most emotionally stable state of mind. And things didn’t get any better when the album failed to convince impressionable young North Americans they finally had a valid cultural reason to burn their Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears albums.
For the root cause of her distress, you have to back up to 1996, when Love orchestrated one of the most celebrated arrivals in Hollywood since Quentin Tarantino’s. Making a seemingly effortless transition from rock ’n’ roll to celluloid, Hole’s main mouth won universal raves for her portrayal of Althea Leasure in The People vs. Larry Flynt. While the predicted Oscar nomination never arrived, Love at least scored an invitation to the Academy’s big bash. In the months that followed, the onetime grunge queen went uptown with a vengeance, hitting all the right Tinseltown parties, fielding movie offers, landing the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, and eventually modelling for Versace.
That all would have been fine if not for the fact that, when she exploded into the pop-culture consciousness of North America, the former stripper and all-round bad girl gleefully positioned herself as the fly in the ointment. As her mountain of often-negative press clippings proved, the pre-Hollywood edition of Love was hard-core: if she wasn’t punching out Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna backstage at Lollapalooza, she was baiting a flustered Madonna on MTV. After the Oscars, her fans hailed her as a Renaissance woman for the grunge generation. Her detractors slapped her with a less flattering label: sellout.
Figuring out how to behave when you’re sipping champagne at Spago was easy enough. For Love, the difficulty came when it was time to step out of the ball gowns, strap the guitar back on, and return to the dirty trenches of rock ’n’ roll. When she calls from a Toronto hotel for a wide-ranging, hour-plus interview, she says that’s where the problems started.
“Even though I now feel more confident and happy, I was really paranoid for about a year and a half,” Love admits. “Basically, what happened was that I quit taking drugs and I walked out into the world and was sort of in this film that was really well received. So, after years of living a more destructive lifestyle, I had to, instantly, kind of court this world which had incredibly nice value systems, but with protocols that I had never encountered before. And then I had to reconcile these two worlds. You know—I want to live a happier, more productive lifestyle, but the question was, did I want to renounce being in a great rock ’n’ roll band for that? The answer was ‘No way.’ ”
Love isn’t, of course, the first rock star to cross over to film. But what makes her different from David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Madonna, Sting, and a small army of failed, high-profile hopefuls is that she not only pulled the feat off to rave reviews, she’s from an alt-rock subculture that’s traditionally wanted nothing to do with the mainstream.
“I don’t think the media, or our generation, ever experienced a celebrity with my choices before—somebody that was actually worth something in the music community proving they were worth something in the film community. The cynical question became then: ‘What’s she going to choose?’ Are you going to choose the bourgeois road to the upper middle class, where you are mollycoddled, or are you going to prove what a punker you are by walking down a road to destruction? I’ve never had to deal with any of that before, and that’s where the paranoia came from.”
Which road is the honourable one depends entirely on how you define punk rock. Narrow-minded purists will argue that, to truly be punk, you have to strut around in a ripped NOFX shirt, live on Kraft Dinner, and spend your days squeegeeing windshields at downtown intersections. But those who’ve paid their dues know there’s nothing more punk than blazing your own path—even if that happens to piss off the holier-than-thou faithful. That’s why there’s nothing more punk than Mike Ness putting Social Distortion on hold to make a country record. Or Henry Rollins signing on for a series of Gap ads. Or Courtney Love striding on-stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a Versace dress.
It’s when the subject of Rollins’s Gap ad is raised that Love, in a roundabout way, explains how she finally decided there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the girl with the most cake.
“You know what? You have this fucking problem that 22-year-olds don’t have—which is that you and me are still being pathetic discussing Henry’s Gap ad,” she says. “Do you think that a 45-year-old boomer gives a fuck about Henry’s Gap ad? All he’s smugly doing is going, ‘Yeah, of course Henry Rollins sold out; I did too.’
“I’m not busting you—I’m only saying that you, like me, have a subconscious chip in your head. This is the cloud that darkens our little, secret, quiet generation. We’re going to be dragged to the gallows with nothing to remember us by because we’ve been brainwashed by the boomers who raised us that if we succeed, then we’re selling out all of our ideals. Anyway, my point is that kids who are Blink-182 fans or who are buying Epitaph records can’t even have the selling-out argument because they are three generations away from what punk once was. The only people that still argue about this kind of stuff is me to myself, you, and people our own age. We’re the most pathetic people, and that’s why nobody is going to remember us unless some of us do things that are notable.”
For a good indication of how determined Love is to leave her mark, you need only check out the candy-coated diamond that is Celebrity Skin. Scarily self-assured and insanely catchy, the album arcs from crunchy, double-glazed guitar bombs such as “Celebrity Skin” and “Use Once & Destroy” to the sun-scorched California pop of “Awful” and “Malibu”. Even the album’s bleakest moments—the desperate lullaby that is “Dying” and the flat-out mournful “Northern Star”—seem upbeat when compared to the unholy roar of catharsis that made Live Through This one of the seminal releases of the ’90s.
While Love acknowledges that the record finds her wholeheartedly embracing pop, she argues it’s not the first time she’s done so. Long before she and Hole cofounder Eric Erlandson began working on Pretty on the Inside, the band’s stupefyingly abrasive, squall-of-white-noise debut, Love took her first serious crack at the music business. It was only after being shot down by the recording industry that she began writing songs that sounded like an inner-city riot.
“I’m going to tell you something that I told someone the other day, and he didn’t believe it,” Love says. “In 1985—a time when you’d go out to look for girl music and would be lucky to maybe find a Throwing Muses record—I was in this band. We were all women, except that I’ll admit we had to get a male drummer. We were cute, we wrote eight immaculate pop songs, put four of them out there, and no one gave a fuck. How in the hell, when there was a vacuum that desperately needed to be filled, could three women, who are hot, put out four immaculate pop songs and have them be ignored?”
In hindsight, the band in question—the San Francisco–based Sugar Baby Doll—was every bit as much a supergroup as Seattle grunge prototype Green River. Kat Bjelland went on to form the tinnitus-inducing Babes in Toyland. Jennifer Finch found antistardom with L7. And Love headed to Los Angeles, where she put together the first edition of Hole.
“Releasing those songs into the void, and not having the void answer back, led all of us to splinter off and attempt to make our mark by deconstructing. Instead of going forward with my tunesmithing, I went back to the beginning. And that’s what Pretty on the Inside was about. I said, ‘I’m not going to follow any of the songwriting values that I’ve been learning for a good seven years. Instead, I’m going to set up on my own land and make my own stake, and see where it goes.’ And the next place that takes me is Seattle, where what was happening was so heavy, and so intense.”
Just as Hole’s debut was coloured by Love’s initial dealings with the record industry, Live Through This reflected what it was like to be caught in the middle of the great grunge explosion of 1991. For a generation weaned on bands like Black Flag, the Replacements, and Hüsker Dü, the Seattle-sparked, alt-rock revolution couldn’t have been a more romantic revenge. After being shut out of the mainstream for years, the lunatics, almost overnight, hijacked the asylum. Thanks to her high-profile marriage to Kurt Cobain—who single-handedly blew open the doors with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—Love found herself at ground zero. And, with a fervour not seen since the salad days of Yoko Ono, she was vilified in the press as everything from a talentless opportunist to a gold-digging junkie.
Live Through This silenced critics. In retrospect, it’s every bit as grippingly personal an album as Nirvana’s In Utero. From the runaway locomotive “Violet” (in which she howls “Go on take everything—I want you to”) to the revved-up Seattle sludge of “Miss World” (which found her roaring “I made my bed I’ll lie in it/I made my bed I’ll die in it”), Love spilled her guts, and then splayed them out for the world.
“Without the benefit of history, there was no way you could be in the middle of all that and understand what it was like,” she says. “To be a couple that persecuted, and to be such weak people, so frail and reactive, huddling together because the whole world is going [she makes a sound like a bomb going off]. You’ve got your own team, the sectarian left, splintering off and pointing accusing fingers. We’re fucking picking nits off Eddie Vedder and Eddie Vedder is trying to take on the constitution, and the whole fucking world is damning me to the stake. It was insanity. So in reaction to that, I made a record about it.”
With Celebrity Skin, Love made no attempt to repeat that process. If there’s one thing she’s working to change about herself, it’s that she’s always been a reactive writer. In other words, take a listen to Pretty on the Inside or Live Through This, and you get a clear sense of what was going on in her life—and in pop music—at the time. The most immediately striking thing about Celebrity Skin, therefore, is that it doesn’t play out like a harrowing therapy session.
“This record was really hard, because I didn’t want to address Kurt’s death in a way where all the songs would be about living in this house with my daughter, going through this horrible thing, and how it’s taken me years to deal with it. The abstract terror and horror of what happened is obviously there, but the gravity of it has still not dawned on me to a certain degree. I know that it will be an albatross on my daughter—and I have very definitive ways of protecting her from that. The main thing was that I knew that, creatively, I wasn’t going to respond through my music.”
Love pauses, and then continues.
“Maybe you’ll understand it if I put things this way. I had a really big decision in front of me. I’m a relevant writer and we’re a really good band—me and Eric are a good team. Then this thing happens. History is not going to care about this thing the way our generation cares about it. So I had a choice: do I write about this, or do I write around it? And I chose to write around it, because to do otherwise would have been, well, undignified. Not right. Dishonourable. Exploitative. Cheesy. Does all this make sense?”
Actually—unless you’re the kind of person who considers Elton John’s Princess Di tribute “Candle in the Wind” genuinely touching—it does. Once she decided the follow-up to Live Through This wasn’t going to be an exercise in sonic exorcism, the challenge was to come up with a new plan.
“I had to use my brain,” she says simply. “It was a matter of learning manners that I’d never learned before. It was a matter of courtliness, of expressing things in maybe a more 16th-century way, to develop the heart of a courtier, to be more oblique and yet still express exactly what I was thinking, without it being straight-up. In the end, as a performer, I gave myself a record full of beautiful, complex maps and tracks. Every night I can go for inspiration, which I couldn’t do if I’d just written plain out ‘This guy died and it’s horrible.’ ”
Whether people would accept a more melodic, less in-your-face Hole—which headlines Edgefest ’99 on Wednesday (July 14) at Thunderbird Stadium—wasn’t a concern. Like R.E.M., which has made a career out of throwing its fans curve balls, Love understands you don’t achieve greatness by giving audiences what they want.
“I knew it would be met with either reasonable success, or a whole hell of a lot of it,” she says. “I hoped that it would do what I felt it was capable of doing, and it may yet, and it may not. But ultimately, I don’t really care, because I love it—it’s so excellent, such a good thing, and a great piece of catalogue.”
For confirmation of that, you need only consider the album’s universally strong reviews and the fact it placed strongly on 1998’s Top 10 lists; if rock ’n’ roll weren’t, at the moment, as dead as the combined careers of the Melvins, Mudhoney, and the Lunachicks, Celebrity Skin would be hurtling toward triple platinum instead of hovering around a more-than-respectable 1.5 million units sold.
Still, not everything has been sunshine and lollipops since the record’s release. Against her better judgment, Love signed on for a package tour with prosthetic-boobed, G-string–sporting, all-purpose millennial bogeyman Marilyn Manson. For reasons that, at the time, were only vaguely defined, she pulled Hole off the bill after just a handful of dates.
“The shows were really scary,” Love says. “There wasn’t enough room for the both of us—I just didn’t like dealing with his energies. I don’t understand the way he plays with dark tools—why would you bring death and ruin and drugs on yourself on purpose? And why would I ever let my band go on tour with him? Don’t ask me. I ask myself that question every day. I was bullied into it, and my record company had a big interest in it. But at least I called it when I saw it.”
And she’s done the same with Lilith Fair—a festival that, quite frankly, could use the kind of edge that’s made Love notorious. Even though she has a host of reasons why Hole would be good for Sarah McLachlan’s female-oriented, feel-good love-in, the band won’t be as previously announced—performing on select dates.
“They were going to pay us five cents,” she says candidly. “It’s like, ‘You know what, you guys? Fuck you,’ for one thing. I think the whole Lilith thing might fall from the greed of it—so did Lollapalooza, so what’s new? But anyhow, for five cents, let them eat cake. They can throw up some nice Top 40 music, and we don’t care.”
What she does care about is that she has—largely because of her sheer magnetism—the ability to convince young women to pick up a guitar or start a band. It’s something she doesn’t underestimate, which explains why, when Hole played Vancouver with Marilyn Manson last March, she finished her set and then climbed into the Pacific Coliseum bleachers to talk to three teenage fans. Unlike most rock stars, Love seems to genuinely remember what it was like to be an acne-scorched adolescent with low self-esteem.
“Do you remember when you were young, and you’d stare at someone on-stage and think ‘Oh my God—he looked right at me?’ ” she asks. “I do, so I have this kind of rescue-fantasy thing. When I see kids in the audience I think, ‘Okay, that’s me, and it would be kind of cool if the person on-stage would come down and save me.’ I’m not going to be able to save every one of them, but I’ll do my best, because I genuinely like kids. If I didn’t have my lust for my art, I probably would have ended up working with them.”
There’s more, of course, to Love’s rescue fantasy than a need to play guidance counsellor. From Babes in Toyland to Seven Year Bitch, she says, the Lollapalooza generation once boasted a mobile army of ready-for-battle female rockers. Even though the war has been temporarily lost to radio-friendly unit shifters like the Spice Girls and B*Witched, Love is convinced someone needs to be signing up new recruits.
“You know what?” she asks. “There’s a huge futility here, because my peers have failed. How they are remembered historically is up for discussion, but there’s no denying that they failed. The only people who’ve really succeeded in my gender are the polished pros—the whole idea of DIY, get a guitar, start a band is, for girls, bitterly a lie. I read a review of the new Sleater-Kinney record and it was like ‘The Hot Rock—it’s a great album.’ No it’s not, it’s a fine record, but considering what it could be, considering their duty, considering their obligation, it’s a failure. I’ve seen them spouting manifestos at audiences. That’s fine. You talk your game, and when you’re done talking your game, go learn your craft.
“I look at those girls in Olympia, those girls in L.A., those girls in Minneapolis, those girls in New York, those girls in London, and think, ‘Where the fuck are they?’” she continues. “They are all gone. I’m one of the lone survivors, so the only way I can prove that it hasn’t all been a lie is by succeeding. That’s why when I hand off the guitar every night, I’m like ‘Man—I hope you get rewarded out there.’ I really do.”
To that end, Love, along with Erlandson, bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, and new drummer Samantha Maloney, is hell-bent on building a lasting legacy for Hole—a body of work that’s as varied as it is artistically pure. Celebrity Skin’s title track finds Love singing: “Oh, look at my face/My name is might have been/My name is never was/My name’s forgotten.” She understands that, without a well-thought-out battle plan, those words might easily become prophecy. The key is figuring out where to go from here. Given the extent of her ambition, it’s not surprising she has everything mapped out in advance.
“With Celebrity Skin, the point of the exercise was to make something that combined really good pop hooks with really good lyrics. Even when you take away the gender issue, that’s something that isn’t done a lot. While it was really hard, I figured it out. That is going to enable me to be a lot more textural with our next record—more like a Radiohead album that’s open and free. Approach me with a grunge riff and I’ll tell you to go to hell, because I now know another way to phrase things. I’ve got more options—professional options to go along with the primitive ones.
“One of the things that make me really proud is that, a little while ago, Entertainment Weekly, which is really nasty, mean, and cynical, and gets on me every week, did a music issue,” Love continues. “They went through each decade picking out two people—the ’80s had Madonna and Michael Stipe, and the ’90s had me and Beck. Under each of us was a sentence about our main achievement. Mine—and I was so grateful for this—was that I bridged punk to pop. I know that other people have done that, so I don’t want a medal. I just want to say that it’s heartening to know someone out there feels I’ve done a good job.”
(Note: I did this interview in 1999. I was supposed to have 15 minutes. She gave me an hour and a half. It's my favourite interview of any I've ever done.)
Follow Mike Usinger on the Tweeter at twitter.com/mikeusinger.