Cover Story

The Power of Love

After two major tragedies, Hole's frontwoman is putting her life back together

''I want people to see that I'm healthy, that I'm not wearing a funeral shroud, and they shouldn't either.''
-Courtney Love, July 1994

No one would question Courtney Love if she were still wearing a funeral shroud instead of the baby-doll dresses she pioneered in public four years ago. In early April, her husband, Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's tortured frontman, killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head. In June, Kristen Pfaff, the bassist in Love's band, Hole, died of a heroin overdose. Love, punk rock's dangerous princess, a singer-songwriter with two acclaimed albums to her credit, once predicted she would become famous before Cobain. Instead, she has been nearly overwhelmed by the dark side of fame.

But the dark side sometimes holds painful, ironic compensations. Overshadowed first by Cobain, then by Cobain's horrifying death, Love, 29, is turning into a symbol far more complex than anything she envisioned as a teen groupie bent on stardom. She's become the Yoko Ono-cum-Jackie Kennedy for the ragged edge of Generation X. Even though she has appeared on stage only once since Cobain's death — performing two spontaneous songs with the Lemonheads in Manhattan last month — her popularity is growing. In fact, she may finally be transcending her reputation as the rebellious punk-rocker/druggie mama everyone loves to hate. Her so-called ''kinderwhore'' dresses (Love's word) are the uniform du jour on L.A.'s club-lined Sunset Boulevard — as well as in the pages of Vogue. And Hole's second album, released days after Cobain's suicide with the eerily prophetic title Live Through This, has sold 167,000 copies with almost no promotion, more than four times as many as the group's 1991 record, Pretty on the Inside.

''The Hole record is brilliant,'' says Howard Paar, a vice president at Mercury Records. ''To me it's the most compelling record of the year. I'm absolutely in love with it. I play it constantly.'' Adds Billy Corgan, lead singer of top alternative act Smashing Pumpkins and Love's pre-Kurt boyfriend, ''There are better-looking women and better guitar players than Courtney, but there is no one else like her. And the fact of the matter is, she's made two records which are pretty much better than most albums I've heard. No girl rock band has come close to [Hole's] fury, someone just screaming their head off in a very smart way.''

After four months of near-silence, Love is cautiously making noise again. Interviews with her closest friends and record industry insiders, plus conversations with Love herself, indicate that she is showing signs of recovering from the one-two punch of Cobain's suicide and Pfaff's fatal overdose. Love was extremely reluctant to be directly quoted on any subject, especially about either of those tragedies (''I'm not ready because I don't want to get f---ing hysterical in front of a journalist,'' she says). She does, however, want the world to know that she is healthy-and drug-free. With her 2-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, an assistant, and a pair of nannies in tow, Love has been shuttling across the country, dividing her time between Atlanta, two homes in Washington State, the Paramount hotel in Manhattan, and the Namgyal Buddhist monastery, associated with the Dalai Lama, in upstate New York (Love has been a serious student of Buddhism for seven years; Tibetan Buddhism was the only religion Cobain recognized, and his funeral adhered to its traditions).

Despite snagging headlines in the New York Post for shopping sprees, dinners with the celebutante designer Anna Sui, and hotel romps with Lemonhead Evan Dando, Love is said by friends to be in mourning — Courtney-style: chain-smoking and talking for hours at a time on the phone, and, at one point, wearing the jeans Kurt died in. ''She did hole up for awhile, which was to be expected,'' says longtime friend Roddy Bottum, keyboardist of Faith No More. ''I mean, she was horrified. And there were people outside her house every day. People in the trees, people throwing microphones in the yard.''

A few friends suggest it was Pfaff's death that shocked Love, a former and notorious hard-drug user, back into the world. While Cobain had struggled with chronic depression and severe stomach pain for more than a decade, Pfaff's death was strictly the result of drugs. ''I think there's a great big message here, when that stuff happens around you,'' says a confidante of Love's. ''It's such an example of how powerless people are about drugs. Just take that part out of your life and things start changing.''

What has kept Love sane, say those nearest to her, is the need and desire to take care of Frances. ''She's a wonderful mother,'' says Cobain's mother, Wendy O'Connor, 47, who remains close to her daughter-in-law. ''Not just in tragedy, but especially in tragedy.'' The foundation for that, say friends, is the formidable energy and intelligence for which Love has rarely been given credit, along with a charm and vulnerability she tends to display only to friends. ''She has her shortcomings, God knows,'' laughs Danny Goldberg, the president of Atlantic Records, Kurt's onetime manager, and the man Courtney calls her ''spiritual'' father. ''But the one thing for sure is that she's unbelievably intelligent. Even her worst enemies would acknowledge that.'' Says Corgan, ''There is a depth there that would pretty much stun anybody. Fact is, if Courtney made up her mind to be an NBC newscaster, she would have been that.''

Her sturdy, upbeat survival skills aren't a new acquisition. ''Kurt would've drowned [a lot earlier] without her,'' admits his mother. ''The way I explain Courtney to people is that she's cast iron on the outside and porcelain on the inside. She's like three walking, talking encyclopedias. She's the sunshine of my life. The problem for a lot of people is that she's outspoken — which in women can be threatening to men — and she can see through bulls---. People don't like folks who can see through them.'' O'Connor sighs heavily. ''It really bothers me that people think they know Courtney by reading newspaper or magazine stories, which are highly mistaken and naive.'' She laughs. ''One of the tabloids has her insane, sleeping with Kurt's ashes and her new man. Courtney is far from insane.''

Insane, no. Her own worst enemy? Many times, yes. Love has made herself a target — a media-ready bad girl with a big, red-lipsticked smear of a mouth that both gets her into trouble and keeps her on top. And though she and her friends complain about the treatment she gets from the press, Love does little to tilt public sympathy in her favor. ''She's helped narrow public perception of her and then she's fed into some things that made it even worse,'' concedes Corgan. Case in point: A few months after Cobain's suicide, she sent a stream of virulent America Online messages railing against those she thought were exploiting his death. ''I'm on fire, you f---, and all of you that ever denigrate or blaspheme Kurt, have ever violated him, be afraid, be very f---ing afraid,'' read one posting. To would-be Cobain and Love biographers, she wrote: ''I wish I could show you all the form letters you are sending, the vaguely threatening tone, the 'This book WILL be written' platitude and 'I'm the guy to do it' as if you think somewhere between striking the right chord and provoking me into the wrong you can gleefully rush into the alleged publisher's office with 'I'VE GOT HER' written all over your face.'' For many it was the first public glimpse of the widow, and not one that endeared her to the world.

Critics would say that Love's hostility is uncontrollable and a big part of who she is. ''She can make you feel like the most important person in the universe,'' says a former boyfriend, ''but she can turn from charming to ferocious, spiteful and hateful, on a dime.''

Supporters will argue that Love is being penalized for her creative mania, for being too brutally honest in the increasingly prepackaged world of major-label pop and media-savvy sound bites. She is the anti-Mariah Carey; she doesn't care what side she's photographed on, and once she gets going on her favorite instrument — the telephone — even a world-class publicist like PMK powerhouse Pat Kingsley (whom Love recently hired) can't shut her up. (One ex-boyfriend, half-jokingly, claims the at-times manic Love is capable of talking ''for 72 hours nonstop.'') ''Courtney is sweet and entertaining, but she has a daunting image, like a Tasmanian devil,'' admits Evan Dando, who faked a kiss with Courtney for a friend's camera in July. That photo, stolen from his hotel room, ended up on the gossip page of the New York Post-more ''evidence'' of the widow's inappropriate party-girl ways. Dando called Courtney, concerned that people would get the wrong idea about them. Love, as painfully aware of her rep as anyone, laughed and said, ''Believe me, your fans don't want your persona linked with mine.''

The Courtney Love persona is rooted in her tumultuous, much-chronicled past. Her mother is therapist Linda Carroll, best known for her client Katherine Ann Power (the fugitive '60s radical who recently surrendered for involvement in a 1970 robbery in which a policeman was killed). Her father, whom Courtney has not seen since she was 13, is Hank Harrison, a Grateful Dead hanger-on-turned-small-time book publisher. Her parents split when she was 5, and she lived briefly with her mom in New Zealand. At 12, Love's mother turned her in for shoplifting a Kiss T-shirt and she did time in an Oregon reformatory. Her parents are the one subject about which the normally voluble Love rarely talks. ''She does appreciate her mother for raising her a feminist, and for taking her to breakfast with Gloria Steinem when she was 8,'' says one close friend. ''But she has no relationship with them now, and she has no problem with that.'' Adds artist Joe Mama, one of Love's best friends since 1982: ''Courtney's basically raised herself since she was about 12. She's truly a product of the world.''

At 16, Love went to court and legally became an emancipated minor, responsible for her own welfare. Aided by a modest trust fund (her mother is heiress to an eyeglass fortune), Love spent her late teens bouncing around the world, following acts like Adam and the Ants and Julian Cope, and dabbling in drugs. Always attracted to rock, she started numerous bands and renamed herself Love at 19. ''Being a star was always the dream,'' says Ursula Wehr, who met Love in Portland, Ore., when they were both about 15. ''She was planning things, and what's wrong with that? She always had this focus. Maybe people got stepped on along the way, but I think now she's a lot more gracious and considerate.''

By 1987, the voracious reader had also finished close to four years of college at four different schools (Portland State, San Francisco State, San Francisco Art Institute, and Dublin's Trinity College), majoring in English, and was beginning to study Buddhism. ''Those are the things most Courtney profiles leave out,'' says Joe Mama. ''They'd much rather focus on the fact that she stripped off and on (in her 20s, at L.A.'s seedy Seventh Veil club).'' In 1992, two years after a brief and inauspicious first meeting with Cobain at a Nirvana show in Portland (he plopped down at her table uninvited and drank some of her beer), she and Kurt married in Hawaii, and she became Courtney Love Cobain.

By all accounts they had a turbulent relationship; the police were called to their Seattle home after one particular fight in June 1993. But a member of Love's inner circle says she regarded Cobain as the prince she'd finally found after a series of bad relationships. ''People saw Courtney as the powerhouse and manipulator,'' says Joe Mama. ''But there was some pretty traditional role-playing in their marriage. As much as she's a really strong feminist, she's also vulnerable; a little girl who never had a daddy, who wants a strong guy to take care of her.''

For all his fragility, Cobain fulfilled that role, especially where Love's music was concerned. ''Kurt said, 'She's so goddamned good,''' says O'Connor. ''They were like clones, glued to each other. He was probably the only person who loved her totally and completely unconditionally. [After the suicide] I was so worried about her wanting to join him that I stayed in her room. I did guard. I thought, I can't afford to lose her. I need her. Frances needs her. But she's got motivation and she's trying to get her boat veered in the right direction.''

To that end, Love has intensified her commitment to Buddhism, chanting for hours at a time, and recently lent her Carnation, Wash., home to the Namgyal monks who, she says, have helped her through the past months. Love is also beginning to perform again, and most of her friends agree this is the next step in the healing process. ''Other people, after their husbands die — no matter how tragically — they go back to their jobs after a few months. They have to,'' says Danny Goldberg. ''They have to psychologically and they have to make a living. Her job is a singer in a rock band, and she's good at her job.''

The first sign that she was back on the job came in June in her surprise appearance with the Lemonheads at New York City's Roseland Ballroom. She's also seeking a new bass player for Hole and preparing for the band's first gig in months at the Reading Festival in England on Aug. 26. In addition, Hole will shoot ''Doll Parts,'' the second video for Live Through This, within the next few weeks. Despite the understandable delay in promotion, Hole's label, Geffen Records, has no worries about the album's eventual breakthrough. ''Courtney's a bigger celebrity than her record sales indicate,'' says a Geffen spokesperson. ''But I'm confident sales will catch up. By the end of the day, everyone's going to be happy.''

Apart from her music, Love is also contemplating film roles. In fact, she was rumored to be up for a part in Batman Forever. But Love's friends say she is characteristically scornful about this detour from her music — although at one point, says a source, she quipped sarcastically that ''maybe I should do a movie where I die so that people who don't like me could get that desire out of their system.''

Love's drug history is an obvious concern to everyone who will work with her. She may never entirely escape the scathing 1992 Vanity Fair story that described her shooting heroin while pregnant (an assertion Love continues to deny vehemently). Her friends insist she has not used drugs since entering detox just prior to Cobain's suicide, and she has been encouraging others in her entourage to clean up, even helping a few, including one of Frances' former nannies, get into rehab.

As those who know her try to assess her life today, their tone is often hopeful, though wary. ''Some days she seems strong,'' says Patty Schemel, Hole's drummer. ''Other days her mind seems to be staring out the window, and I know she's missing Kurt.'' But friends are encouraged by her bad-ass strength and will to survive. ''A lot of people will never let her live down past mistakes and try to blame her for what went on with Kurt, which is obviously ludicrous,'' says Corgan. ''But no matter how many people try to attack her, cut her legs out beneath her, she'll always still somehow rise. Courtney Love is irrepressible.''

Originally posted Aug 12, 1994 Published in issue #235 Aug 12, 1994 Order article reprints
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