Courtney Love was rejected by her parents at 9, raised in institutions and grew into the wild woman of rock. Our correspondent spent the weekend with her and found a lonely girl who still yearns to belong
‘I would still love to have sex with W.B. Yeats’ – Listen to the Courtney Love podcast
So who lives in a house like this?
In the drive: an Aston Martin.
In the porch: rubber bats, put up for Hallowe’en.
Inside the house: lace curtains drawn, candles flickering and perpetual dusk. The air smells of equal parts cigarette smoke, cat urine and incense. The rooms are furnished with edgy art and antiques. Many rooms away, a huge plasma TV booms out the recent BBC adaptation of Bleak House, at top volume.
The home’s occupier, however, has her mind on things other than the plight of Lady Dedlock. “This is my ballroom. Look at the size of my fireplace! I could roast oxen in it. These paintings, I bought these off Cher. She was selling off all the stuff from her Gothic phase. This table is Sue et Mare and this chair is Sue et Mare. I’m collecting Sue et Mare. You know all of Hollywood loves Art Deco? Well, Sue et Mare were ultraexclusive artists working in the phase just before Art Deco. I’m trying to collect as many pieces as I can. This is my shrine, my Buddhist shrine.”
The shrine is an ornate affair — slightly disrupted by a pack of Camels, a lighter and lipbalm. It looks like the kind of Buddhist shrine a teenager might hide out in, playing Echo & The Bunnymen records. “I chant for at LEAST an hour a day here. I’ve done five hours before now — with breaks for cigarettes, of course. Orlando Bloom was chanting with me yesterday. We are trying to get as many people chanting as possible. I think he’s coming over again tomorrow.”
We move into the bedroom — a full-blown boudoir of blue silks, blousy roses, and heavily scented candles glowing in the perma-evening. On the floor, in a heavy black frame, is a large, black and white picture of the actor Edward Norton. “There’s Norton,” the hostess sighs, swishing past the picture. “Don’t dare fill my bed unless you can fill his shoes. Here’s my closet! These shoes — oh, these shoes. There’s only ten pairs in the world. They were made for Marilyn Monroe. Elton [John] has a pair — of course.” The shoes are red diamanté stilettos. They are as approximately gay as a ghost train. “This is my cat, Fluffy, this is my child, Frances, and this is my beautiful house. It is beautiful, isn’t it? Let’s get tea. Macrobiotic tea. MIRIAM! Can you get us some of the brown rice tea, please?”
Throughout this tour, Courtney Love — for it is she whose keyhole we are through — has been dressed in nothing but her pants, bra and heels; fluttering a nugatory silk dressing gown and cigarette ash in her wake. Still for a moment, she looks on the dressing table, where there is a picture of herself with, of all people, the Duke of York. With an almost wilful incongruity, Love is holding a large, cosy teapot. “Oh, I bumped into him at Hay-on-Wye,” she says airily, dripping ash on the floor. “I was with Alan McGee [who discovered Oasis]. Prince Andrew said that I made the best cup of tea he’d ever had.”
And Love throws herself onto an ornate armchair, where a make-up artist, who has been patiently waiting during our half-hour tour of the house, starts applying make-up again. This is when I — here to spend the weekend at Love’s house — finally get the chance to say: “Hello, Courtney. Could you tell me where the bathroom is?”
Love with her late husband Kurt Cobain and their daughter Francis Bean (CPS/LFI)
Rolling Stone once called Courtney Love “the most controversial woman in the history of rock”, and in the 13 years that have intervened, nothing much has really occurred to alter that soubriquet. Indeed, Love gained that title before Nick Broomfield made a documentary alleging that she may have been involved in the death of her husband, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana — accusations for which, ultimately, there was no evidence but which still knock into sharp relief anything that the nearest contender for most controversial woman in rock, Madonna, has had thrown at her.
The problem with Love is, aptly, the problem we also have with love: that the huge, crazy acts of Love and, indeed, love, are what first spring to mind — when the thing that makes love and, indeed, Love, worthwhile are the small, silly, brave things. Love might very well be a gobby, self-dramatising, sporadically delusional (she claims she will have 16 Vanity Fair covers in her lifetime; before, in a sudden fit of realism, downgrading it to a mere five) megalomaniac whose name-dropping proclivities make even the simple act of recalling a phone call read like the cast to Murder on the Orient Express.
But she is also a ferocious autodidact with a neat line in self-deprecation, the cultural chops of an habitual early adopter, a punk-rock attitude to her social circle, and a magnesium-flare talent that has encompassed both rock music (her 1998 album Celebrity Skin is classic West Coast pop-rock) and a Golden Globe-nominated turn as Althea Flynt in The People vs. Larry Flynt.
She also has — ardent Anglophile that she is — a very British sense of humour. The day after she got arrested for an air-rage incident on a Virgin Atlantic flight (the charges were later dropped), she appeared on stage at an Old Vic fundraiser, dressed in a giant duck costume, singing Elton John’s The Bitch is Back.
But, as Love herself is the first to admit, “My press is disproportionate to the amount that I’ve done.” What should have been a solid 15-year career has actually resulted in a rather scrappy, pot-holed CV. The first phase, as a “kinderwhore” rock hero in her band, Hole, foundered, somewhat understandably, when Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994. The day after his body was discovered, Hole’s second album was released, the ironically titled Live Through This. Committed to a pre-booked world tour, and perhaps believing that work would be the best distraction, Love embarked on a journey that saw her stumbling onto stages, medicated up to the eyeballs, crying, collapsing and putting on one hell of a show. The late John Peel reviewed Hole’s performance at the 1994 Reading Festival in England, saying: “It generated a tension that I cannot remember seeing on any other stage before. [Love] dared you to pity her. Heroic.”
At subsequent gigs, Love received death threats, culminating in someone throwing a bullet on stage at a US concert. Love walked off stage after four songs.
From the ashes of this very public self-immolation came one of the most unlikely makeovers of all time. Love disappeared for a year and a half and, when she emerged, she was a clean, serene Hollywood diva, walking red carpets in white satin dresses. Armed with a ferocious publicist — Pat Kingsley, press envoy for Cruise, Sinatra, Hanks, Foster and Pacino — Love ascended quickly to the ranks of Hollywood royalty. She had a discreet, low-key engagement to the coming man of Hollywood, Edward Fight Club Norton and, with Drew Barrymore (“We met in a bathroom, smoking. I was 19 and she was, like, 8.”) formed an unlikely pair of reformed Californian rogues.
But around the time Love lost the role of singing whore Satine in Moulin Rouge to Nicole Kidman — an event that still vexes her (“Kidman is such a HOG!”) — Love began her second fall from grace. Breaking up with Ed Norton, Love embarked on a relationship with a married record industry executive, Jim Barber, during which she retreated into her Hollywood home, doped to the eyeballs on prescription drugs and, with woozy complacency, turning down roles “of which every one was Oscar-nominated or would have earned me millions of dollars. Every one”.
Things deteriorated rapidly until, by 2005, after drug busts and assaults, Love had lost custody of her daughter and was given a court order to go into rehab. Concurrently, an estimated $20 million of her money was apparently siphoned off in a case that is still being investigated by the FBI (which has dubbed the unfortunate Love, “The human Enron”). By autumn 2004, Love was jailed, broke, childless and fat. “And you know what?” she says, lying, but kind of not, “it was the being fat that was the worst part”.
When I join Love in LA, it is almost a year since the judge ordered her into rehab. She has regained custody of her daughter — Frances Bean, the spit of her father, is bouncing on a trampoline in the garden — and has been clean of drugs for 12 months. Through the sale of a 25 per cent stake in the Nirvana back-catalogue, Love has become solvent again — hence the Beverly Hills house and Cher’s art. And thanks to Madonna’s macrobiotic nutritionist, Love is back to a svelte size 10, “Thank GOD”.
But the pressing subject for Love is how to regain the time and the career that she has wasted while battling drugs. It’s notable that, in the year that she has been clean, she has produced more work than in the drugged three years preceding it: a documentary for More4 that she ultimately wasn’t too fond of (“They took out all my jokes! Where was the humour? It just made you [face of disgust] . . . pity me.”); a forthcoming album, produced and co-written by artist du jour Linda Perry, the woman behind Gwen Stefani and Pink; and the item we are here today to discuss, Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love. “Why now?” she asks, lounging on the bed with a cigarette. “Well, why not?”
Love will be undergoing her first round of publicity since she became sober. The last time she did TV, it was at the height of her drug problem. She appeared on a US tribute to Pamela Anderson slurring and, on Letterman, talked hyperactively, “Am I being weird? Am I quirky?”, and revealed her breasts. Letterman silenced her with a question that feminist scholars could spend a lifetime pithily commenting on: “How much do you weigh?” This time things will be different. Love will be sober. There will be Letterman again, Jonathan Ross and — something that Love anticipates with a puckish relish — Richard & Judy.
“Americans never usually do that show well, do they?” Love says, with her unexpectedly goofy grin. “They don’t get it. I’m going to go on and talk about, like, Marmite and shit.” However, as befits someone with her get-up-and-go, Love is also planning to run a simultaneous, more holistic comeback campaign.
Tonight, Beverly Hills will see one of its biggest parties of the year — a birthday for a movie legend that annually attracts the kind of people who have handprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. “Kidman, Cruise, Elizabeth Taylor, Hanks, Francis Ford Coppola, Spielberg, Beatty, Julia Roberts, Madonna, Barbra Streisand, de Niro, Whitney Houston, Jagger — they all go to this party. It’s this and the Oscars,” Love shouts. She’s in her walk-in closet, deciding what to wear. She comes out in a short, black slashed dress with a navy panel, and matching navy shoes.
“Do you think Spielberg will like me in this?” she says, striking a pose with her cigarette. The pose holds and then crumbles with a moment of doubt. “It’s quite Rock Star, isn’t it? Maybe I should be more . . . secretarial. Spielberg would probably like me more secretarial.” Off she goes and comes back in a demure Chloé blouse, which she still manages to make look pleasingly louche, and a tight pencil skirt.
“This is more Movie Star, isn’t it?” she says, wriggling. “I don’t want to be too, you know . . . rargh.” She mimes a state of base sexual allure. “You know, Warren [Beatty] took me for lunch, and he said: ‘Courtney, in the movies there are wives and there are whores. You have to learn to play a wife.’ And he’s right! I do! I need to be a wife!” Love goes over to the window and pulls back the heavy lace drape. “Look!” she yelps, creasing with laughter. “Look!” In the garden, Frances Bean is lovingly rubbing mud into her puppy’s fur. “First sign of a serial killer!” Love cackles, looking fondly on her child.
Frances knows many of the children who will be attending the party and so she accompanies us in the car. Love tells her driver to put her forthcoming album on the stereo “very loud”, then winds down the window to smoke a cigarette, knocking out the air-conditioning.
Frances is discussing one of her classmates. “ . . . and he’s 13 years old, AND HE DOESN’T KNOW WHAT A CONSONANT IS,” she concludes, face creased with disbelief. Frances, who, at 14, is already being offered movie roles and representation with big agents, comes across as a very grounded, almost nerdish child but with a little, sensitive mouth and these huge, age-old eyes. Frances, I ask, why were you rubbing mud onto your puppy? “I wasn’t! Well, he was muddy already, so I thought I’d make him a bit muddier so I could give him a proper bath.”
We arrive at the party at the movie legend’s house. Love instructs her driver to get something out of the boot, “and put it in the main bedroom”. It is a box full of copies of her book. Courtney is clearly intending to orchestrate some aspects of her comeback personally.
“Stick them under the bed,” Love is saying. She then crouches to give a pre-party pep talk to her daughter. “Have a great time, don’t feel bad about the bitches, you’re better than them, and if I see you drinking, I’ll put you in rehab for a year. Seriously.” She tenderly kisses her daughter on the forehead, wobbling slightly in her heels.
Frances shoots off to see her friends — in the main, a disquietingly sophisticated bunch, compared with her puppyish, bookish intensity — and Love grabs my hand. “Come on!” she says, as we enter the party. We walk into the study, a beautifully furnished, shabby, semi-Mexican den with a roaring fire. Stephen Fry is standing in front of the fire in a splendid tweedy, Fry-ish suit and waistcoat. “Stephen Fry!” Love whispers. “I love Stephen Fry! Let’s go and be friends with Stephen Fry!”
She strides over and lays a hand on his arm. In less than a minute, they are engaged in a semi-raucous conversation about a mutual acquaintance and what a cad he is. During the conversation, Fry intones, Fry-ishly: “Odi et amo — I love and I hate.” “Wait, wait — what was that?” Love says, getting out her mobile and beginning a text. “Spell it for me. I have someone who I need to say that to.” Fry patiently spells out the phrase while Love punches the message with bitten nails into her pink-crystal mobile. Someone in London gets a Latin text message at 5am.
We spend much of the evening with Fry, who is, as you would expect, delightful and appears to have a genuine regard for Love, even though he has never met her before. He says he admires her ability to cut through social barriers and the culturally scattershot scope of her conversation.
Love, however, is having the horrors by the buffet table. “Look around!” she says. I see Sharon Stone, Helen Fielding, Robert Downey Jr and Garry Shandling. “They’re not here!” Love persists, loading her plate. “No one’s here! Elizabeth Taylor always comes. Spielberg. Kidman. Cruise. But they’re not here this year. This is punishment.” While wolfing down fried chicken and mash, Love explains that the movie legend was the centre of a huge scandal last year and that, clearly, the A-list has decided the legend must be sent to Coventry.
“God, I’m so carby!” Love says, lighting a cigarette. “Look at me! [staring at her stomach] I look like Father fucking Christmas! But the thing is,” she says, returning to the subject of the deserted party, “whatever I did wrong, they never punished me like this. Never!”
She seemed genuinely rattled at her friend’s misfortune. She looks unhappily around: “We should get cake, and then go.” She texts her driver and tells him to retrieve the box and put it back in the car. “Who am I going to give them to, Garry Shandling?” she says, eating cake. “He hates me. I talk to him every year at this party, just to piss him off.”
The next morning, I wake in Love’s guest bedroom and wonder how I will know when she has awoken. Twenty minutes later, I hear the TV boom on to BBC America, smell cigarette smoke and then hear: “MIRIAM! WHERE ARE MY BLUE PILLS?”
Love is on two types of medication — Adderall for ADHD and sleeping pills which, presumably, work to counteract the stimulant effects of the Adderall. This morning, she is particularly keen to take her medication as she’s had a fitful night. Just before she fell asleep, a Google Alert came on to her crystal-encrusted Apple laptop. Her estranged mother, Linda Carroll, a writer and therapist who wrote a book about Love last year that Love describes as “ vicious”, has announced a lecture tour of the US. “It’s basically going to be a lecture tour on how mad I am,” Love says, sitting barefaced on her bed in pyjamas, crying. When she weeps, she looks no older than her daughter. “I am not mentally ill by any definition of the word, by any psychiatrist. It’s on paper, it’s in court reports. I am not bipolar, I’m not mentally ill, I’m not manic depressive. What I am is when I’m on drugs, I’m fucking nuts — but the rest of the time, I think I’m just a true eccentric or something. You know, that book Diaries is me. That’s me backed up against a wall. I’m that book, so that’s me, and that isn’t mental illness.”
To understand Love, one must understand her childhood. And to understand her childhood, one need look no farther than her book. At one point, there is a Juvenile System report, detailing the places that Love was in care between 1978 and 1980. There are eight locations. She stays nowhere for more than two months. In total, there are 24 transfers between institutions. Love notes that, around this time, her case folder bore the legend “Parents’ whereabouts unknown”.
Love’s take on her childhood is bleak. “My mother told me she tried to abort me, and that I was the result of a rape. My dad says my mother was high on acid. I was raised by wolves.” She shrugs — maybe she has heard R. D. Laing’s aphorism, about character being conditioned by the fuck that made you.
Love’s mother remarried twice. At the hearing for the divorce from Courtney’s biological father, Courtney’s mother alleged that he had given the three-year-old Courtney LSD. After the second marriage, she, her partner and Love’s step-siblings moved to New Zealand. Love was left in the States with a therapist. She never lived with her family again. She was 9. The social services report notes: “Courtney does not feel she is as strong as she appears to be. She puts up a good front. She is a very frightened young lady. . . [who] repeatedly asks for authorities to find her a home.” Eventually shipped to New Zealand, to be placed in a boarding school, Love started to fantasise about finding a place where she would never again be abandoned. Like many before her, she presumed that this place would be movies and rock’n’roll — and that fame would eventually offer her the same protection as a normal family. In the absence of parents, she began to instruct herself in the things she thought would be necessary in her glamorous future life.
A list in the diaries from her adolescence has a list of things that Make it right, a chemically potent mixture for a young girl to feed herself on. It includes: W.B. Yeats, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, methyl dioxide, Joy Division, rough seas, Kipling, Babylonia, “being a great fuck” and “the lining inside my gloves”. The next page notes: “The language of love letters/Is the same/As suicide notes,” — uncanny prophecy for someone who was to have some of the most famous in recent history written to her.
Aged 16, she became a stripper and danced her last dance on the day she bought her first guitar. But in the front pages and $1 million record deals and the infamy that followed, she still didn’t feel the familial warmth she expected to feel. This is why, when the drugs come in, they come in. They give warmth. “They make me feel like I’m in a glimmering mist, and that I will never grow old. They make me content.”
But this is 2006, and Love knows that she will never be able to take that easy road to contentment again. “I mean, I know that drugs just ultimately make me nuts.” The Love of today has to work to find this comfort. One thing she works at is work.
“I’ve got that thing with six strings,” she says, gesturing to her guitar, “and pen and paper, and an Oscar-winning gorilla of a director who believes in me, and is going to bust me out of Actor Jail. I’ve still got my Oscar speech. I’ve got the bottle of Petrus I’m going to open when I win it. Only,” she laughs, ruefully, “I won’t me able to drink any of it now, of course.”
And aside from further weight loss, “I’m going to go to this place in the desert where they starve you and wash out your arse five times a day”, and looking after her daughter, “Well that’s fucking No 1. I protect and raise her, or I die”, Love is trying to find out what makes her who she is. Or rather, who made her what she is. As one would expect from a child who had six different names before the age of 14, her sense of identity and her ancestors are important to her.
Having wholly discounted her parents’ input — her Buddhist chanting includes a plea to be able to change her DNA — she is looking to her grandparents to find out what she’s made of. In the kind of event that is quite common in the surreal topography of CourtneyLand, there seems to be the possibility that she is Marlon Brando’s illegitimate granddaughter. Love has a lawyer getting DNA tests. Because she’s Courtney, she got Warren Beatty to ask Brando, while he was alive, if he was her grandfather.
“Brando said ‘Oh yeah — I heard about that’, and gave me a task” Love says, frustrated. “He told me to write him a letter, and I did, and he never fucking replied. Then he died.” And why does it matter so much to you? There is a pause. “It would make me bastard Hollywood,” she says, shrugging, as if that’s better than no Hollywood at all. Or, maybe, just straight better.
“Wouldn’t it be funny,” she says, before I leave, “if the Brando thing is true? That I belonged here . . .” she gestures to the Beverly Hills that she has fought so hard to reach, “all along? That I actually wasn’t the peasant outsider at all? That this was my birthright?”
She is chasing the ghost of Brando, I suppose, doing it for the reasons she does anything: because she could write a song about it. Because it would inform her acting. Because it would annoy Nicole Kidman. Because it would give her a new family. Because it’s about blood, and sex, and history, and lies. Because if there’s a juicy gossip story about Marlon Brando and Courtney, Love wants to be the first one to e-mail everyone. Because it would, in some way, make her daughter safer. Because it’s amusing. Because, like all of us, all she really wants to do is know who, and where, and what, and why, she is.