It’s afternoon in a downtown Los Angeles loft, and Eric Erlandson is about to share some new music. The former Hole guitarist slips a blank CD into his laptop and burns a copy of the raw instrumental demos he recorded to accompany his first book, the prose-poem memoir Letters to Kurt. He then scrawls a confrontational title onto the disc: "Contempt to Tape."
Nearly two decades after the 1994 suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Erlandson looks just as he did at the height of grunge: tall, thin, stringy blond hair to his shoulders. Letters to Kurt is his accounting of that turbulent time, looking back with rage and affection for an era of great creative successes and a crushing wave of heroin and death.
"We were in the middle of that creative energy that was happening," Erlandson remembers. But at the same time, he tells Rolling Stone, "I was in the abyss. I quite literally had one foot in, one foot out. The one foot out was my anchor, which is my Buddhism. But sometimes I’d feel too clean and I’d want to get dirty. . . . There’s different forms of suicide. When you’re playing around with drugs, it’s a pretty clear suicide death wish."
He saw the self-destruction and depression up close, not just of Cobain but also in Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, who died two months after the Nirvana leader. She was Erlandson’s ex-girlfriend and he was the last person to see her before her heroin overdose soon after the release of Hole's Live Through This.
"You know someone’s suicidal, you know someone’s playing with death, but you don’t know how to deal with it. You don’t really know what’s going on until somebody defines it for you in a clear way where you get it," says Erlandson. "I admit, I made some stupid mistakes with some people, and people are dead because of my stupid mistakes. That’s what I want to say. And I want to use that, so that other people don’t make the same mistakes that I made, and other people start understanding. I get emotional about this. We’ve all lost people."
There are other revelations from the opening pages of his book, including his romantic relationship with Hole leader Courtney Love – before her marriage to Cobain. Even other members of Hole were unaware of it until much later. "She buried it. She would never talk about it. She would always skip it," he says. "She’s going to brush it off and say it didn’t happen. At a certain age, you grow up and you have to say this happened, I did this, I did that."
The impact on his life continues, he says: "There was a relationship and it was very profound because it changed my life on so many levels. She gave me the darkness – crazy stories, drugs – but also the Buddhism. I still have a lot of confusion about my relationship with her. Obviously writing the book helped define it for me."
When Love released a new album as Hole with an all-new band, Erlandson was shocked. He insists they had a contract barring either of them from using the Hole name without the other. "Obviously I haven’t sued her," he says. "I’ve made mistakes, so I have to allow people to make what I feel is a big mistake."
Even so, Erlandson doesn’t rule out a musical reunion with Love. "I never say never," he says. "I don’t know what’s going to happen to her. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I like things to be open."
When Love first put the band on hiatus, just as Hole was crossing over to a larger mainstream pop audience, Erlandson says he was frustrated and confused, but now has no regrets that it ended when it did at the end of the 90s.
"We could have survived that and it could have been fine," he says. "But I think that happened for a reason – to forced me to grow up and go inward and stop doing what I was doing. A lot changed right after that. I’m grateful."
He plans to write more on this period, and looks to the example of Patti Smith, who first published a small book of prose poems called The Coral Sea in 1996 that reflected on her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Only years later did she finish the more detailed autobiography in the form of Just Kids, winner of a National Book Award in 2010.
"I do want to write the prose book that tells the stories in another way," Erlandson explains. "Courtney will have her version of it. I’ll have my version. Everyone is behind their own camera. They’re all valid perspectives."
At his loft, he keeps an elegant Buddhist altar, and scattered nearby are several disassembled female mannequins, being prepared for a performance art project. On the wall is a brief list of his morning routine, beginning with "chant." Further down are "Write" and "Guitar."
He also keeps a manual typewriter, which he’d originally planned on using to write Letters to Kurt, but it was too clumsy for his fingers and he ended up writing the book by hand. He used the literary device of a one-sided correspondence with Cobain to get the stories out.
"I’m writing these letters to him, tapping something deep inside myself, but am I really talking to him? No," he says. "At the same time, I think he would really like this book. He had a really dark sense of humor and he loved wordplay. Look at his lyrics. He would know what I am talking about."
Erlandson put out an accompanying book of oblique photographs called "Cock Soup," which came with Letters to Kurt exclusively to readers who pre-ordered the book. Inside are 52 pictures of artifacts and ephemera from his life, including a rejection letter Warner Bros. Records sent to Hole in 1990: "We feel your work does not meet our needs and requirements."
Erlandson will read from the book this evening at the Basilica Hudson, the huge art and performance space owned by former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur in upstate New York. There will also be a screening of Hit So Hard, the documentary on Hole drummer Patty Schemel. The three of them will then perform together for the first time since 1997.
In an email to Rolling Stone, Auf der Maur called the book and the documentary "two remarkable tales of survival. I am personally so moved by both of them and how far they have come in their commitment to healing and reflection on what was a very dark and chaotic time."
Eric Erlandson Book Tour:
April 8th, 6 p.m., Basilica Hudson, 110 Front Street. Hudson, New York (Includes reading, live music and screening of Hit So Hard)
April 10th, 7 p.m., Books on the Square, 471 Angell Street, Providence, RI
April 11th, 7 p.m., Clinton Book Shop 12 E. Main Street, Clinton, NJ
April 16th, 6 p.m. Newbury Comics, Harvard Square 36 JFK St., Cambridge, MA
April 21st, 11:30 a.m.-noon, Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, USC Campus booth #84, Los Angeles; 4 p.m.-4:45 p.m., booth #176
April 23rd, 8 p.m., Largo at the Coronet, 366 North La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles
April 25th, 7:30 p.m., Moe's, 2476 Telegraph Rd., Berkeley, CA (Includes live acoustic music performance)
April 26th, 7 p.m., City Lights, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco