There is only one ground rule for this interview. "If I start to cry," Courtney Love says over the phone a few weeks before we meet, "I will probably get up and leave the room. Don't be offended."
As it turns out, she does cry–partway into the third hour of our first session in a hotel suite in Buffalo, N.Y. It would have come as a greater shock if she didn't. This is the first time Love has spoken for the record, in grim, extensive detail, about the death last April of her husband, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain; about the accelerating emotional distress that culminated in his suicide; her own slow recovery from hysteria and despair; and the long shadow he casts on her life and music.
But Love does not leave the room; she just keeps talking through the. tears. "He killed himself in this coat," she says, almost choking on her sobs as she points to a heavy brown jacket lying next to her on the sofa–coat that she has been wearing for the last couple of days to fend off the autumn chill. "I washed the blood off it. It's not even sentimental. I just washed one of my other coats, too."
Yet when I gently suggest that we take a break, Love bolts upright and vigorously scrubs away the tears with a Kleenex. "I don't want to," she snaps. "You knew this was going to happen. It's just better to do it like this. I'm not defensive. I have to do this."
The idea was that Love, now on tour with her band, Hole, for the first time in more than two years, would talk about Cobain's death once and for all–with the emphasis on "once." But this interview, done in three long sessions in Buffalo and Montreal, is really just part of a longer, purgative process.
Now every note and word Love sings onstage in her diamond-hard shriek ring loud with the resonance of recent history, including the fatal drug overdose of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff just two months after Cobain's suicide. When Love delivers the core line of "Asking for It," from Hole's second album, Live Through This–"If you live through this with me/I swear that I will die for you"–in front of a seething mosh pit at a club in Rochester, N.Y., she raises her eyes to the ceiling in a supplicatory glare that is unapologetically direct.
This is fire-wall punk pop driven by a powerful band–guitarist Eric Erlandson, drummer Patty Schemel and new bassist Melissa Auf der Maur–and fiercely reborn from all-too-real experience. Even as a widow, Love is one of the most polarizing figures in rock & roll. Ever since she met Cobain in 1990 (they married in 1992), Love has been hailed as an avenging punk-rock angel with a barbed lyrical tongue and skewered as a drug-fueled opportunist who married into celebrity and regularly embroiders the truth about her life and art.
In fact, she's a lot more complicated than that: a punk-rock devotee with surprising pop savvy; a media sharpie who cries, "Victim," then asks for the day's press clips; a highly informed and opinionated woman (on just about every subject) whose America Online postings read like transmissions straight from the id; an ardent feminist who can cover the Crystals' 1962 single "He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)" in concert with both poignancy and irony; a mother who genuinely fears for the future of her 2-year-old daughter, Frances Bean Cobain.
"My goal keeps me alive," Love says firmly. "And no personal issue is going to interfere with that. If people try to put me in the crazy box–'crazy fucking Courtney'–go ahead. But if you think you're going to stop me from where I'm going, you're not going to do it. I work my ass off. I deliver the goddamn goods. And I will deliver them again."
Born in 1965, Courtney Love is the daughter of Hank Harrison, an early, minor Grateful Dead associate, and Linda Carroll, an Oregon therapist who made headlines of her own last year when one of her clients, the fugitive '60s radical Katherine Ann Power, surrendered to authorities. Love was five when her parents split.
She went through a series of stepfathers (and, she says, four birth certificates) and, at various times during adolescence, lived with her mother on a farm in New Zealand, did time in an Oregon reformatory for shoplifting, supported herself as a stripper and hung out with punk rockers in Liverpool, England. No mere rock wanna-be, Love was already a veteran of several bands–including the all-girl Sugar Baby Doll (with Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland and L7's Jennifer Finch) and, for a short time, Faith No More–by the time she started Hole with Eric Erlandson in 1990.
Hole then became a celebrated fixture in the U.S. underground on the basis of two indie singles, "Dicknail" and "Retard Girl," and the 1991 flamethrower debut album Pretty on the Inside. With her marriage to Cobain, Love put Hole on hiatus and entered two years of wedded turbulence that ended tragically with his death.
Even with the passage of time, the healing friendship of R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, Hole's return to action and the sunshine presence of Frances on the tour bus, Love still lives in lingering darkness. She admits her relationship with Nirvana's Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl is rocky. "There are issues between me, Krist and Dave that need to be resolved," Love says. "But I want the lines of communication to be open. For Frances' sake as much as mine." And there is the feeling of loneliness that has actually grown in recent days.
"I used to be able to talk to Kurt more, wherever he is," Love explains soberly. "But now he's really gone. I used to feel like mourning him was really selfish because it would make him feel guilty. And the best thing to do was to pray for him and show him joy, so he could feel the vibration of the joy. "But now I know he's dissipated, and he's gone. There's not anything left. Not even to talk to."
After everything that has happened to you this year, does it feel weird–or right–to be on tour playing rock & roll?
It was easier than staying home. I prefer this. I would like to think that I'm not getting the sympathy vote, and the only way to do that is to prove that what I've got is real. That was the whole point of Live Through This.
It feels normal to me. You just put one foot in front of the other. I don't think about all the stuff that's happened all the time. I don't even know if I'm supposed to think about it–or if I'm not–or what I'm supposed to do. There's no rule book or guide to what I'm supposed to do.
But how many of the people at these shows are just coming to see a celebrity widow?
If Kurt were alive, it would be the same thing. If you don't think I knew what I was getting into when I married Kurt... I mean, the lack of credit I get. Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth] and Julia Cafritz [who plays with Gordon in Free Kitten] told me when me and Kurt got serious, "You know what's going to happen?" They spelled out everything. Not taking into account Kurt dying, obviously.
Actually, in Julia Cafritz's version, Kurt would OD: "You'll become junkies. You'll get married. You'll OD. You'll be 35, you'll try and make a comeback." It was her worst-case scenario.
And I was going, "Yeah, I know what's going to happen. I don't give a fuck. I love this guy. My prince on a goddamn white horse. And I'm going to do it. I'm going to do both: be with him and do my thing."
What goes through your mind when you're onstage?
When the lights are blue and there are two of them in front of me, often they will symbolize Kurt's eyes to me. That happens a lot. That happened to me when I used to strip. I had a friend who died, and he had almost-lavender eyes. There'd be these lights on, and I'd see that when the big purple lights came on.
So there's that. The energy is reaching in. I know that wherever he is–whatever is left, whether it's part of one egoless divinity or what–his energy is concentrated on me and on Frances. And it's also concentrated on the cause and effect he's had on the world.
Do you feel vulnerable in front of an audience, especially now?
I had this theory that the persona people project onstage is the exact opposite of who they are. In Kurt's case, it was "Fuck you!" And ultimately his largest problem in life was not being able to say, "Fuck you." "Fuck you, Courtney. Fuck you, Gold Mountain [Nirvana's management firm]. Fuck you, Geffen–and I'm gonna do what I want."
My thing is "Don't fuck with me." In real life, real real life, I'm supersensitive. But people tend to think I'm not vulnerable because I don't act vulnerable.
Have the songs on Live Through This taken on new meaning for you because of what's happened?
You know the lines. Yeah, of course. And listening to them…look, I lived with someone who said every day that he was going to kill himself, and it wasn't like I was bored with it by any means. I did what I could to make sure that didn't happen. And that resulted in a lot of hysteria on my part.
There was a lot of screaming, a lot of yelling. A lot of kicking the walls, a lot of broken fax machines and telephones. I started to feel like my purpose in life was noble–to take care of these two human beings, my husband and child, and make sure that they lived. And it was a fine purpose. I didn't have a problem with that.
It also meant putting your own band–and music–on hiatus for two years. Did you feel cheated about that?
I have a lot of anger. It must be sinful, horrendous to talk about it. But, yeah, I have certain angers about the passivity that went on. I did feel cheated even though I knew what I was getting into, the maternal energy that was expected from me in this relationship. It wasn't just sucked right out of me and done nothing with. It was given back in a paternal-energy form, in a husbandly energy. So it was a back-and-forth thing.
I remember going to a group-therapy thing we had at one of the rehabs. And these couples are all in there, talking and waiting to hear what we're gonna say. And we thought, "Fuck it, these couples all seem so dry." What's the fucking point if you don't have soaring heights of passion, moments of intensity and beauty? Where you learn and gobble and stuff. With Kurt, I was never particularly bored. Although I'd get pissed at the passive-aggressive things he did.
What was your state of mind, the state of your life, while you were making Live Through This?
Live Through This was just me on three gears, not four. Because my fourth gear was sucked up through drugs, a relationship. I did not have a fourth gear to work with. The purity was not completely there. It was like where in school I would cram–not do my homework. If I did it, I know I'd get an A. I'd cram and get a B or B+. I never did that extra footwork for the A.
This record was a B-. And I knew that was enough to get by–in terms of my peers. But not in terms of my own standards. I wanted to have the highest standard possible. In my parallel universe the No. 1 album would always be [Captain Beefheart's] Trout Mask Replica. Kurt and I fucked to that record once. It was amazing sex.
The thing that struck me about your show last night was how the songs from Pretty on the Inside roared with paralytic anger, whereas the ones from Live Through This seemed to be about being stuck in tortured limbo.
The limbo was because my choices were so narrow and myopic. The paranoia of my life was so weird. The frenetic outside world was the enemy, horrifying. I'd try to get Kurt to stop reading stuff about himself; I wouldn't buy him magazines anymore. But he'd sneak off and buy them. He got addicted. Every gibe, every caricature, every reference. This was someone who couldn't deal with being paraphrased wrongly. So to be the cultural reference for every fucking thing there was…and this was someone who had been pretty much unnoticed most of his life. He wanted to be popular, very much a people pleaser.
He found a hidden stash of magazines that I put away, about three months' worth. And we got into a physical fight. I was trying to tear them away. He was ripping pages out on the floor. He was like a cornered animal. He hit out at me–"Get away, get away." I couldn't stop him. I tried to say to him: "It's a cloud; it'll pass." "Damn right, it'll pass. I'm not gonna make any fucking music ever again. I'm not gonna fucking be here to see it pass." The usual stuff he would say.
Then he would get a call. And he would play the game because he was afraid.
It has been a year, almost to the day, since I interviewed Kurt. At the time, he told me he was happier than he 'd ever been. And frankly, I believed him.
He probably was–at that moment. But his whole thing was "I'm only alive because of Frances and you." Look at his interviews in your magazine alone. And everything in between. In each and every one he mentions blowing his head off.
He brought a gun to the hospital the day after our daughter was born. He was going to Reading [the Reading Festival, in England] the next morning. I was like "I'll go first. I can't have you do it first. I go first." I held this thing in my hand. And I felt that thing that they said in Schindler's List: I'm never going to know what happens to me.
And what about Frances? Sort of rude. "Oh, your parents died the day after you were born."
I just started talking him out of it. And he said, "Fuck you, you can't chicken out. I'm gonna do it." But I made him give me the gun, and I had Eric [Erlandson] take it away. I don't know what he did with it. Then Kurt went to some hospital room; he had some dealer come. In hospital, he almost died. The dealer said she'd never seen someone so dead. I said, "Why didn't you get a nurse? There's nurses all over the place."
That was on Aug. 19 . He could not take the Lynn thing [the profile of Love written by Lynn Hirschberg and published in the September '92 issue of Vanity Fair]. I don't want to get into a Lenny Bruce bit, but there is such a direct correlation. It went from that to that.
And yet Kurt never lost faith in his ability to make music, even during the week before he died.
I never really heard him put that down. That was the one area that he wouldn't touch like that. I got to sit and listen to this man serenade me. He told me the Meat Puppets' second record was great. I couldn't stand it. Then he played it to me–in his voice, his cadence, his timing. And I realized he was right.
The only time I asked him for a riff for one of my songs, he was in the closet. We had this huge closet, and I heard him in there working on "Heart-Shaped Box." He did that in five minutes. Knock, knock, knock. "What?" "Do you need that riff?" "Fuck you!" Slam. [Laughs] He was trying to be so sneaky. I could hear that one from downstairs.
What kind of mood was he in on the European tour before he overdosed in Rome? Was that a genuine suicide attempt?
He hated everything, everybody. Hated, hated, hated. He called me from Spain, crying. I was gone 40 days. I was doing my thing with my band for the first time since forever.
Kurt had gone all out for me when I got there [Rome]. He'd gotten me roses. He'd gotten a piece of the Colosseum, because he knows I love Roman history. I had some champagne, took a Valium, we made out, I fell asleep. The rejection he must have felt after all that anticipation–I mean, for Kurt to be that Mr. Romance was pretty intense.
I turned over about three or four in the morning to make love, and he was gone. He was at the end of the bed with a thousand dollars in his pocket and a note saying, "You don't love me anymore. I'd rather die than go through a divorce." It was all in his head. I'd been away from him during our relationship maybe 60 days. Ever. I needed to be on tour. I had to do my thing.
I can see how it happened. He took 50 fucking pills. He probably forgot how many he took. But there was a definite suicidal urge, to be gobbling and gobbling and gobbling. Goddamn, man. Even if I wasn't in the mood, I should have just laid there for him. All he needed was to get laid. He would have been fine. But with Kurt you had to give yourself to him. He was psychic. He could tell if you were not all the way there. Sex, to him, was incredibly sacred. He found commitment to be an aphrodisiac.
Yeah, he definitely left a note in the room. I was told to shut up about it. And what could the media have done to help him?
What happened after he came out of the coma and returned to Seattle?
The reason I flipped out on the 18th of March [Love summoned the police to the house after Cobain locked himself in a room with a gun] was because it had been six days since we came back from Rome, and I couldn't take it anymore. When he came home from Rome high, I flipped out. If there's one thing in my whole life I could take back, it would be that. Getting mad at him for coming home high. I wish to God I hadn't. I wish I'd just been the way I always was, just tolerant of it. It made him feel so worthless when I got mad at him.
The only thing I can call it was a downward spiral from there. I got angry, and it was the first time I ever had. And I'm sorry–wherever the hell he is. And when people say, "Where was she, where was she?" I was in L.A. because the interventionist said I had to leave. Interventionist walks into the house: "Dominant female, get rid of her." I did not even kiss or get to say goodbye to my husband. I wish to God. . .
[Long pause] Kurt thought I was on their side because I had gone along with them. I wasn't. I was afraid. "It was in the L.A. Times that you're not going to do Lollapalooza. Everybody thinks you're going to die. Could you just go to rehab for a week?" "I just want to see Michael [Stipe]. You think I'm going to do dope in front of Michael? No, I won't."
I should have just left there, flown up to him. Peter Buck lives next door. Stephanie [Dorgan, Buck's girlfriend] had the tickets [to Atlanta]. I wish I'd just drove him to the airport. Let him go. He worshiped Michael.
Guns were a big issue in the arguments you had with Kurt, and the police were constantly taking them away. Yet when I pointedly asked him about guns in our interview, he started talking about target practice.
He totally fucking lied to you. He never went shooting in his life. One time he said, "I'm going shooting." Yeah. Shooting what? He never even made it to the range.
Yeah, it was an issue in the house. I liked having a revolver for protection. But when he bought the Uzi thing..."Hey, is that a toy, Kurt?" Yeah, it's dangerous when you're dealing with two volatile people–one is clinically depressed and the other one is suicidal at moments and definitely codependent.
Then there are the infamous photographs of Nirvana that appeared after his death in which he's holding a gun in his mouth.
Here's a great story. Kurt didn't have any real friends. I have a larger group of friends, people I've known for a long time. Two of them are really big queens. And Kurt would hear me on the phone, laughing, getting hysterical, talking about designers.
So he made this great officious ritual about his friends, and he made a friend in Paris named Yuri. He dared me to say that Yuri was a piece of shit, which was very obvious to me, a million miles away. I never said a word. He wanted me to be controlling. "OK, say Yuri is a piece of shit. Say it."
So he makes friends with this Yuri, and he does this photo session with a gun in his mouth. Playing with the guns. Gets all high. And then Rome happened. I see the British tabloids, and there's Yuri's picture on the front page. I hid them. Because to tell Kurt would have hurt him so much. He made Yuri his friend, and this friend fucked up. I never showed him those papers. I didn't want him to feel inferior and deficient.
Did Kurt's suicide note make any sense to you – that he'd found any kind of peace in what he was going to do?
He wrote me a letter other than his suicide note. It's kind of long. I put it in a safe-deposit box. I might show it to Frances–maybe. It's very fucked-up writing. "You know I love you, I love Frances, I'm so sorry. Please don't follow me." It's long because he repeats himself. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'll be there, I'll protect you. I don't know where I'm going. I just can't be here anymore."
There's definitely a narcissism in what he did, too. It was very snotty of him. When we decided we were in love at the Beverly Garland Hotel, we found this dead bird. Took out three feathers. And he said, "This is for you, this is for me, and this is for our baby we're gonna have." And he took one of the feathers away.
What about Frances? On the tour bus today she seemed like a happy, bouncy, normal toddler. But how much does she really know about where her father is?
I don't know. On some nights she cries out for him, and it freaks me out. And I thought she didn't know anything. [Long pause] So every couple of days I mention him. But it's when she's gonna be six and seven.... People are gonna make fun of her, make fun of her dad, and she's gonna feel like she's not good enough for him, and she'll probably feel ugly.
He thought he was doing the right thing. How could he fucking think that? In his condition he was so fucked up to think that. If I could have just spoken two words to him….
And then he would have OD'd when he was about 34 or 35. But at least he would have had those seven years to make his decision to be a heroin addict forever. Or whatever the hell it is he wanted.
You brought Frances out onstage in New York, and you pointed her out to the crowd last night in Buffalo. You probably have good intentions, but I question the wisdom of letting her be seen as a kind of sympathy prop.
I used to see Lee Ranaldo [of Sonic Youth] bring his son to shows and think it was really horrible. And Kurt was really paranoid about her being kidnapped because of her recognizability. But it's nice every night to see her out of the corner of my eye, and she puts her little headphones [industrial ear protectors] on. She goes, "Loud, loud, Mommy. Play guitar loud, loud." If it's a night off, right at the right time, she'll go, "C'mon, c'mon." And if it's not gonna happen, she throws a huge tantrum on the floor.
You're probably right. Definitely, as the shows get bigger, I'm gonna rethink it. It's very impulsive. But she really wants to see me. And it makes her feel better. When we were in a big hall in Minneapolis with Nine Inch Nails, she was turning around, going, "Daddy, Daddy." Which she doesn't do a lot. Only in her sleep.
In May you attended the MTV Movie Awards with Michael Stipe. How did he help you get through the period right after Kurt's death?
Michael could see through any of my bullshit. He knows when I'm doing drugs. He's so on it. And he probably doesn't even know how much he kept me alive. And he did. He very telepathically called me at strategic moments.
I thought he felt sorry for me. And I hate it when people feel sorry for me. But then he put this posting on the Internet, like "I'm not Florence Nightingale. I love you. You kick ass. I don't feel sorry for you."
I adore him. And I asked too much of him at first. In my will, I wanted him to take Frances if I died. And he wasn't willing to do that. He probably felt that if he did, I would instantly kill myself. But I know what Michael feels about me is genuine. And I know that I love him, and I would do anything to protect that love.
And "Crush With Eyeliner" [on R.E.M.'s Monster]–I know it's about me.
How do you know? What's the giveaway clue?
"Three miles of bad road." And the fact that when me and Kurt went to Atlanta, Michael gives us eyeliner. He knows I'm going through an eyeliner phase, and before I even look at it, I go, "It's Aveda, right? No cruelty to animals? Michael, get us the Maybelline." [Laughs.]
Given the comparisons that have been made between Kurt and John Lennon, do you feel any affinity now with Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono?
I felt a lot of empathy for her. But I don't relate to her. You also have to remember that from now on, people will refer to rock couplehood not just in terms of Sid and Nancy and John and Yoko but Kurt and Courtney. We're in the pantheon.
At the time, the boomers and the boomlets had to stick us in a retroarchetype, and those were the only two choices available. The drug using, the cultural parallels, where do I fit in? Well, I'm neither of those women on any level. Nor am I a mixture of the two of them.
But like you, Ono was an artist whose work was always judged in the reflected light of her husband.
At the same time, why did she use his musicians? Why did she use his time in the studio? Why didn't she get her own record deal? I'm not dissing her, I'm not putting her down. But I avoided that like the plague.
You can compare Kurt to John Lennon. I see that affinity. I read Albert Goldman's book [The Lives of John Lennon]. I wished I hadn't, but I had to. I felt like books on Kurt were going to come out. OK, what's the worst? I don't believe that human beings can be that gross and horrible as Goldman says they are. Yet there were parts ... like the part about Lennon just staying in his room in this Howard Hughes way, just on the phone all the time. I was like "Yeah, some days are like that." You're scared to go out there.
You've become quite notorious for your America Online postings. What's the attraction of the net?
It was the only person I talked to for months. I just got caught up in it. It was the void that you talk to. And since I didn't speak to anybody else, I had to get in trouble some way. [A thin smile crosses her face] I thought it was normal. I know that Michael Stipe posts, and Perry Farrell posts. I know that Trent [Reznor] and his drummer were kicked off Prodigy because no one believed them. "No way would Trent Reznor have the time. He's got more to do."
Is there anything you've said on line that you regret now?
Not particularly. The smack addled vs. Joycean argument about my typing skills is hysterical. I didn't study to be a clerk. My keyboard is sticky. There's a cigarette burn on it. There's some baby applesauce on it. It's literally a sticky, fucked-up keyboard. My y doesn't work.
The other day someone posted some salacious sex gossip about me, and the profile of the person was me. And then it's "Yeah, you're planting your own sex gossip." Oh, yeah. Someone, a rock-star guy, recently asked me, "I don't know who Bono's married to. I don't know who Eddie Vedder is married to. I know what sign you are. Do you have little elves to keep you in the gossip columns?" No, actually. I have two big elves to keep me out of the columns. He didn't believe me, I think. I'm like "Welcome to my nightmare. You be friends with me, we're spotted together. Just remember, I warned you."
Now it's my new breast implants, my liposuction, fucking Stipe and Billy [Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins] and Trent and Perry and who else.
Onstage at Academy, in New York, you also mentioned David Lee Roth and Bruce Springsteen.
The fact that people don't realize I'm sarcastic–yet. I'm still insanely amazed by that.
OK, then, let's talk about the pictures of you in bed with Evan Dando that were taken after the Lemonheads show in New York last summer.
We had a big kiss. "Hey, you guys, kiss." Mmm – wah! At the time we did that photograph, his sister Holly and his mother, Susan, were both in the room. Milla the supermodel was in the room. It was stupid. We were just talking about something, someone had a camera, and it was "Let's kiss!" And, yeah, we'll see it in like five years. I saw it in five days.
Let's go back to your life before Kurt. On the tour bus today you were talking about Frances growing up on the road, how she thinks everybody plays in a band. What do you remember about your childhood environment?
Guys in stripey pants in a circle around me, and my mother telling me to act like spring. Then to be summer and fall. Interpretive dancing.
People in tents with wild eyes, painting my face. I remember a really big house in San Francisco and all my real father's exotic girlfriends. We'd drive down Lombard Street in a Porsche my father probably borrowed from the Dead.
We went to Oregon pretty quick, and I was in Montessori school. Then things got a little more straightened out. Mother remarried and went to college in Eugene [Ore.].
What was your relationship with your mother like?
A lot of it was – I believe in my heart–a projection that my mother made on me because of a repulsion she felt for my father, for which I don't blame her. But it is something she denies to the death. If I had a child, and I was repulsed by the father, I would have a difficult time. Knowing the history of my father, I don't know if I would try and make up for it.
There is some irony in the fact that given your own very public problems, your mother is a well-known therapist.
When Newsweek found out she was my mother in the middle of the Katherine Ann Power thing, she was just mortified. Because people have met me who were her clients: "If that's your product, my friend..." The only advice she ever gave me in my life was "Don't wear tight sweaters. They make you look cheap."
But I'm not out to make a public forum of my relationship with my mother. It is what it is. She didn't have an abortion, and that's what counts. I'm here. I've survived.
Where was the picture of you as a barefoot young girl on the back cover of "Live Through This" taken?
It was taken in Springfield, Oregon, when I was living in a tepee in a communal environment. There was an outhouse. And I had to go to school just like that that day. I know it's very Freudian narcissism to use pictures of yourself. But my purpose was to say, "Well, that's who I am."
When I talk about being introverted, I was diagnosed autistic. At an early age, I would not speak. Then I simply bloomed. My first visit to a psychiatrist was when I was, like, three. Observational therapy. TM for tots. You name it, I've been there.
Who were your early musical inspirations?
I recall growing up with Leonard Cohen records and going, "I wish that was me he was writing about." I wanted to be Suzanne, I wanted to live down by the river. Not being old enough to know what I wanted to do, I just wanted to be the girl in the Leonard Cohen song. Or the girl in [Bob Dylan's] "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat." Or the girl in "Sad Eyed Lady of the Low-lands." All these girls riding the Jersey highway in a Bruce Springsteen song.
And then I came around. "No, no, no. I don't want to be the girl. I want to be Leonard Cohen!" We had Blue, the Joni Mitchell album, when I was growing up. That was very helpful. Once I was on PCH [Pacific Coast Highway], and Joni was smoking Newports in front of me, getting a protein pickup at the 7-Eleven in Malibu [California]. I was just like [her jaw drops] I didn't say anything. I was just "Oh, my God!"
What happened once you got turned on to punk rock?
My grand plan was to write this intensely primal record–go into my room and learn Led Zeppelin I through V, play all those things perfectly, and then come out and make the perfect rock record. That was my plan, if I'd been alone, utterly masculine and totally oriented.
I was into Brian Jones, the type of person who would start a band and kick everyone's butt. But all through the '80s, it was a goddamn nightmare, hearing things from other women like "Well, I can borrow my boyfriend's bass. We can open for my boyfriend's band. I can't make practice tonight because I have to meet my boyfriend." Ugh!
Where did your fascination with the tarnished baby-doll look really come from? And where's the feminism in it?
I would like to think–in my heart of hearts–that I'm changing some psychosexual aspects of rock music. Not that I'm so desirable. I didn't do the kinder-whore thing because I thought I was so hot. When I see the look used to make one more appealing–when I see a 14-year-old girl in a fanzine acting like she's nine, it pisses me off. When I started, it was a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? thing. My angle was irony.
Then again–my friend Joe pointed this out to me–ever since he'd known me, I had little baby teacups and blocks and toys. Maybe it had to do with never having patent-leather shoes. Never being allowed to wear a dress. Never having gender-specific dolls. I absolutely insisted on taking ballet lessons when I was young – which caused a big, big fight in our house. Nothing was gender specific.
Do you feel locked in to that look now?
Sometimes I want to just wear regular clothes onstage. Then I wonder, if by not being so extreme, can I still pull it off? I need my costume, my thing. Because my thing is a message. But then that gets mixed up with the idea of a woman having to be appealing to get across.
How much of your early music with Hole, especially that version of Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" [aka "Clouds"] on Pretty on the Inside, was your revenge against dysfunctional hippie parents?
It is interesting that you've picked up on "Both Sides Now." Because we used to be forced to sing that in the fucking Volvo in unison. I felt so humiliated by it. It was a major dis at my mother, as much as I love Joni Mitchell.
But just like the baby boomers had to grow up with Dean Martin touting booze, we had to grow up with this idealization that was never going to fucking come true, and it turned us into a bunch of cynics – or a bunch of drug addicts. None of my parents' friends ever died from acid overdoses or marijuana overdoses. But the popularity now of IV drug use–it's something that my generation does. And to become an icon of it is something I fear. And it was something Kurt feared most.
He called me from Spain. He was in Madrid, and he'd walked through the audience. The kids were smoking heroin off of tinfoil, and the kids were going, "Kurt! Smack!" and giving him the thumbs up. He called me, crying. That's why he would tell people, "No, I'm not on it." Because he did not want to become a junkie icon. And now he is.
How free of drugs are you at this point?
I take Valiums. Percodan. Don't like heroin. It turns me into a cunt. Makes me ugly. Never liked it. Hate needles. When I did do it, it was like [holds out her arm and turns her head]. I have used heroin–after Kurt died.
How much grief and sympathy did you have left over when your bassist Kristen Pfaff died of a drug overdose in June?
I didn't process it, man. The only time I processed it was when I spoke with her mother. I could not extend in words . . . to lose your child. I had to go over there and get Eric away from the body. Kristen was his lover for a really long time. He'd already broken down bathroom door after bathroom door for her. He'd kicked in drug dealers' doors.
Did you consider breaking up Hole for good?
Absolutely. But Melissa [Auf der Maur] is very talented, and if I don't nurture her, she'll go out on her own and be great. God, it was Billy [Corgan], of all people, who suggested her. Billy is always right. He wasn't right about who I should marry [laughs], but he's always right.
You've been doing one of Kurt's unrecorded songs during the encore on this tour. How many of those songs exist?
There are three completed, finished songs. And there are 10 others, and then there's all the riffing. There's one song called "Opinions" that was a couple of years old. It was from the era when he was in Olympia, Washington, between Bleach and Nevermind. The other one goes, "Talk to me/In your own language, please" [she sings the lyric and guitar riff]. The third one, I can't sing. It's too fucking good. Every part of it is really catchy. He was calling it "Dough, Ray and Me." I thought it was a little corny.
It was the last thing he wrote on our bed. The chorus was "Dough, Ray and me/Dough, Ray and me," and then it was "Me and my IV." I had asked him after Rome to freeze his sperm. So there's this whole thing about freezing your uterus.
Then there's a song called "Clean Up Before She Comes," which is classic, formula Nirvana. There's the one we're going to play tonight. Melissa sings my part, and the part I'm singing is Kurt's part. I just call it "Drunk in Rio."
I recorded a whole slew of stuff in Rio that was just me and Kurt. It was when Nirvana did that Hollywood Rock Festival in Rio [in January 1993]. Patty [Schemel] and me went down there, so we recorded. There's these beautiful harmonizings with me and Kurt. Of course, I can't release the shit. No matter how aesthetically right it would be to do. "Fuck it, fuck what people say." No, I can't. I have to do this on my own. And no matter how normal it seems, the contribution of your husband or wife to your art, our case and circumstances were different. And now it would even be grosser.
You've also been doing some new song fragments of your own in these shows. How would you describe what you're writing – and what you're writing about?
It hasn't all been worked out. I always start with a pretty riff. Then I move on from there. Let's see: I wanna write one L.A. song. I wanna write one song about my sexual history [laughs]–this one did this, this one did that. And I wanna write one piano song. But I wanna make it really good. You can make really good melodies with a piano.
But I'm very confused as to content. One of the reasons I got so emotional with you is because I don't want to discuss it. I don't go to a therapist. I don't talk about it. So when it does come up, I go kinda nuts.
So what kind of record do you want to make?
I don't want to have one of those Shoot Out the Lights records. Like I've been to Auschwitz, so here's my Auschwitz record. I always like the mystery of fuckedupness that's not specific.
But can you really avoid writing about "it"? Directly or otherwise?
I don't know…. Doing this interview, I've got to be honest. Careful, but honest. Doing this next record, I have to be careful, careful, careful. When you've had your husband's blood on your face, how can you write about it? When you walk around in the coat that he shot his head off in, how can you write?
Yet one of the most provocative images in the video for "Doll Parts" is the young, blond Kurt–like boy.
Because it was my right to reference it. And I wanted to reference it. It happened. My husband was taken away. It was tasteful. I had this gorgeous little boy with me; we had a real fun time with him.
I have this real obsession with grace. That's the No. 1 thing I look for in a person in the physiological realm. But part of grace is not speaking–like the silent ballerina. I've wondered, after everything that's happened, "You can change your persona. You can be the silent widow." But I cannot kill the thing inside of me. That has to be kept alive. Or I will die.