The Face February 1993 Article

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Article written for The Face by Amy Raphael

Hole were once one of Seattle’s hottest bands, but then their singer married someone more famous and the music got lost in scandal and speculation. But now, with a second album on the way, it’s time to get back to basics.

Tonight Courtney Love’s hair is a strange shade of orange red. Yesterday it was auburn, and tomorrow it will be white blonde, but without the usual dark roots. Vanity probably has something to do with it, because tomorrow she is doing the cover shoot for this story. But during a phone call to London a week earlier, she explained how she no longer wanted to go platinum because people automatically associate blonde with bimbo. Now she has a "fuck them" attitude; she prefers the colour, it’s more her. It’s louder, more in your face: it makes a statement. "I don’t see why I have to take on this frumpy housewife look just because I’m married and have a baby."

After waiting in Seattle for two days to meet Courtney (the nanny is on leave, and she’s been babysitting), I eventually join her partners in grunge, Hole, in a bar to wait for her. She arrives around midnight. You can feel her presence in the room before she comes into sight, her charisma projected in front of her. She smiles, a huge red lipsticky grin and saucer-round green eyes, and extends a hand. Courtney is the eccentric, artistic, larger-than-life front person with the strangely addictive personality. Who wears baby doll dresses, often a size too small, which give the impression of a grown woman presenting herself as a child. Tonight a stripy, hand-knitted woolly hat perches on the back of her shock of hair, a diamante heart hangs around her neck, a yellow plaid jacket covers a knee-length patchwork dress, and dark blue tights with occasional holes lead to dark, shiny strap-over shoes. The others excel at understatement. They are a jeans and Ts band, wearing the same clothes during the day, out at night, for the photo shoot.

I’ve been warned that there are three subjects I should steer clear of: Courtney’s husband and Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain; their five-month old baby, Frances Bean; and drugs. I meet Courtney and, as you’d expect of any loving mother, her conversation is punctuated by concern for the child, who she misses constantly. She can’t help but refer to Kurt and his music-after all, she shares a bed with him, and Hole are part of the same grunge rock scene. And drugs. Last September’s issue of Vanity Fair, which ran an investigative piece on Courtney, made on-heroin-during-pregnancy allegations and published a now-famous photograph of her semi-naked and heavily pregnant, with a cigarette obviously air-brushed out of her raised hand. So she can’t dismiss that subject out of hand either. Courtney insists she wants this piece to focus on Hole, but the events of the past year make it hard for her to devote herself to discussing her music and nothing else. She wants to do the best for Frances Bean, who she obviously dotes on, but she also wants to follow a career. There is a dilemma in wanting to be a right-on, politically correct woman and at the same time assenting to the attraction of the "hot rock chick" stereotype. From the stories she tells, she has always been a wild child-but, now that’s she’s getting paid to be one, she’s also finding that it has a price. Despairing about the past year’s events, she sighs heavily and says: "I guess my message to woman would be not to marry men who are more successful than them. I know I’ve got a this big mouth that probably would’ve gotten me into trouble anyway, but not this much."

She pauses, blows her nose loudly and continues. "I don’t do many scandalous things, I really don’t lead a debauched life. All I want to do is make good records. So far I’ve sold four crates of records and I don’t matter, I shouldn’t matter. I want a clean slate. Even if I have to dye my hair brown and put on tons of weight."

Welcome to the confusion that is Courtney Love’s world, to being more famous for being part of grunge’s royal family than for fronting a band that could by now have been successful in its own right. As Courtney herself says, she and her husband have become cartoon characters. The media records their every move, right down to the macaroni cheese and ice-cream they may (or may not) have eaten for dinner. At the height of Nirvana mania towards the end of ’91, their "Nevermind" album was shifting units in the States at the rate of around 50,000 a day. To date it has sold around eight million copies worldwide. While the leading exponents of Seattle grunge were still in the limelight-and rumours were abounding that Kurt was dead-Courtney and Kurt got married in Hawaii in February last year. Certain parts of the press delighted in describing Courtney as, among other adjectives, manipulative (she apparently talked him into the relationship and the wedding: very unfeminine) and evil (she supposedly got him into shooting up heroin). A few months later, amid continuing heroin rumours, Courtney’s pregnancy was announced, prompting more tabloid-style slander.

By August, if you believed everything you read, Courtney’s baby was dead and Nirvana weren’t playing Reading, they were splitting up. Nirvana headlined at Reading; Kurt was resplendent in a blond wig, and encouraged the mud-caked crowd to chant "Courtney, we love you." Later that month, a heavily-pregnant Love appeared in the Vanity Fair piece. Frances Bean was born and, although Courtney says she was a healthy seven pounds plus, information was "leaked" from the L.A. hospital to the effect that the child weighed in at only three pounds. The tabloids swooped on the rumour and insinuated that it was a crack baby. No stranger to insults, Courtney could live with having been dubbed the "wicked witch of the west." But the drug stories, circulating at a time when Bush’s administration were stressing the importance of family values, made the couple and their baby acutely vulnerable and open to public and state inspection.

She speaks of it now as a "witch trial." "I’m famous for really crass, gross things. People here think I live in a different dimension, so I can’t hear them talking about me. Everything gets reported, like how many zits I’ve got. It’s like the game of Chinese whispers; I hear that I wasn’t wearing any underwear, that blood was running down my leg. I get it more than my husband, and that’s the really scary part."

Perhaps one of the scariest aspects of being in the limelight is how much money people can make out of you. Another event which caused a furore last year - and which will continue this year - was the researching of an unofficial Nirvana biography. Apart from shamelessly approaching friends and ex-lovers, the writers also allegedly offered the band’s tour manager a substantial amount of money to talk. And, Courtney says with disgust, they rifled through the dustbins outside her and Kurt’s L.A. home, only to find mountains of empty beer cans because Hole’s drummer Patty had been staying there. "I think I sacrificed our band to make Kurt more interesting," she quips, playing up to her image.

Before Kurt, before Frances Bean, before the press reports, before public (mis) understanding of and reaction to those reports, compromise was never a word on Courtney’s agenda. As a child she reacted, in the most part, to her parents, who used to chide her for her pre-pubescent naughtiness: "Why don’t you act normal? You could do really well at school, you could excel. You don’t need to indulge in extreme behavior." Love was born 26 years ago: her mother was a bit of a hippy, her father a part of the Grateful Dead entourage who abandoned his family early on to dedicate his time to the band. She traveled with her mother to New Zealand and Australia, got into minor trouble and returned to the West Coast.

Between then and now she has played in several bands, including an early Faith No More and Sugar Babydoll, which she formed with Kat Bjelland- now of Babes In Toyland - and L7’s Jennifer Finch. She auditioned for various films and got a part in Sid & Nancy, a couple to whom she and Kurt have since been compared, and starred in Alex Cox’s disastrous spaghetti western piss-take, Straight To Hell. She spent time in Liverpool, sharing a squat with Julian Cope and listening to Echo And The Bunnymen records. And, she mentions in passing, she married a transvestite in Las Vegas on a drunken whim and divorced him days later. Moving to L.A., she decided on the name "Hole" for her new band, taking it from Euripedes’ Medea. There’s a line in the classic Greek play where Medea talks of a hole piercing straight through her, through her soul. "It’s about the abyss that’s inside," says Courtney, simply.

"I was terrified of being mediocre, so I never behaved in a socially acceptable way," she says with a hint of post-adolescent embarrassment at her mis-spent youth. "Now I wish I would’ve [been more mediocre], because then I’d be more centred." These days, she’s suspicious of people, wary of speaking her mind quite so freely. She’s obviously trying to be more balanced, but if she were to really succeed, it’s unlikely she’ be quite such a magnetic force.

"I haven’t done a prank call in ages," says Courtney gleefully. We’ve moved on from the bar to the drummer’s apartment, and Courtney is leaning on a table leafing through a phone book. She’s sniggering at some numbers, scowling at others. "Who should we call?" she asks the other members of Hole, without looking up, but no one answers. Patty, who’s playing host, is preoccupied with choosing a record. Leslie, who joined the band on bass at the end of last year, is in a post-travel daze, suffering from a non-stop, three-day drive up the coast from L.A. She sinks into the sofa and sips her beer. The six-foot-four lanky guitarist, Eric, the longest-standing Hole member (he responded to an ad Courtney placed in a local L.A. paper), is on his way. Courtney makes a prank call (pretending to be a groupie to a local, rather famous band), ponders doing another one, then gets distracted by calling Kurt to see how the baby is.

Courtney Love talks incessantly. Almost every situation elicits an excited or disappointed shriek. She is fuelled by the sort of hyperactive adrenaline normally present in a child, she practically chain smokes, she laughs boisterously and speaks in jokey character voices with the band. They are perfectly talkative when Love’s not around (with the exception of the sultry Leslie, who, unimpressed by the attentions of the photographer, announces sarcastically that she only dates girls), but Courtney’s presence seems to signal a certain reserve. This could be because they can’t get a word in edgeways. Or maybe they’ve learnt from Courtney’s mistakes.

When Hole released its first and only album to date, "Pretty On The Inside," in autumn ’91, it received critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, and for a while they were touted as the next Nirvana. The songs are a close reflection of the band’s singer-guitarist-songwriter: her moods, her confusion, her anger, flooding out in a torrent over an abrasive punky grunge soundtrack. Co-produced by Don Fleming (Teenage Fanclub, Screaming Trees) and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, it was dubbed autobiographical by some (especially the single, "Teenage Whore") and New York’s Villiage Voice voted it LP of the year.

Both Courtney and Eric feel that, although the music on the LP may have been sloppy, the lyrics stand the test of time. But, she insists, they’ve never been a "big cathartic hate band." She is passionate now: "When you hear a great song, it touches your life. It affects you, it’s like a scent, it reminds you of something. You fuck to it, you feel blue to it, you feel great to it. It’s like Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’ - that song meant so much to me when I was younger." Her frustration at being misunderstood spills over. "We were getting associated with this dark side, with hate-mongering, with contrived hostility. The anger’s just something that comes out of me naturally, even when I try to temper it. But I’m not like some young girl saying ‘Look at me, I tried to kill myself and I’ve got tracks!’ Things like that, your scars, you want to try to hide them from people. But people keep looking for them." Which is hardly surprising when songs are as provocative as "Teenage Whore."

After a lengthy musical silence, Hole return this month to sell a few more crates of records with a single their PR person ambitiously muttered could prove to be their "Smells Like Teen Spirit." "My Beautiful Son" will give Hole, and more importantly Courtney, a chance to prove herself, a chance to deflect the attention back to a so-far promising musical career. Hard but melodic, as short and sharp (but not as vitriolic) as a punk classic and not a million musical notes away from Sonic Youth, "My Beautiful Son" is surprisingly accessible and is backed by "20 Years In The Dakota," an almost tender song with Beatles-esque vocal harmonies. If there is a notable step gap to be filled by a girl (grunge/punk) rock band this year (and there is), then Hole are in hot contention to fill it. That said, the competition is certainly warming up - along with L7 and Babes In Toyland, there’s the fellow Seattle all-girl group Seven Year Bitch and the nearby-based, Hole-inspired collective, Riot Grrrls.

Patty’s brother (who’s also in a band, as is Patty’s girlfriend - in fact, her band Sour Pussy would make a great double bill with Hole) comes into the apartment he shares with his sister with a gaggle of friends. One is an old boyfriend of Courtney’s who, she later explains, laughing, used to try to meet her on the sly "because all his friends used to make fun of me. They were punk rock and I was new wave at the time. I bust him every time I see him. I was hot! I had my own apartment."

We move next door to Patty’s bedroom, where she treats everyone to a complete dissection of her own record collection - "Here they are, you can bust me now." She gets busted for Cactus World News (Courtney: "I bet you got some shitty records in there, The Alarm or something"), given the cred thumbs up for Patti Smith and Janis Joplin, screamed at for Images’ second LP, and given all-round approval for PJ Harvey.

One of Courtney’s pet subjects is the eternal dilemma between having certain post-feminist ideals in your head and still being aware that it’s the way you look which makes that vital first impression. "Yeah, I know, I’ve done it to death, how you look and how you should negotiate the world. There’s a mystique to rock music that I respond to that has to do with people being fucking hot, and having some sort of charisma about them that’s not inherently about technical attractiveness. You get a critics’ band, and there’ll be fat guys in the picture but they can still be seen as a great band. It’s not the same for fat girls."

Courtney is no stranger to weight paranoia. She claims that in the days when she used to strip - "It was a totally normal thing to do, every girl in a band did it do they could buy guitars and amps" - she was overweight. And as a child she spent all her energy on "chasing boys that didn’t like me when I could’ve been in my room learning Led Zeppelin." But ask her about plastic surgery and she sarcastically ums and ers before saying, with a straight face: "The one operation I’m waiting for is when they learn to remove the gag mechanism, so women can give better blow jobs."

"This," says Courtney picking up a copy of Janis Joplin’s biography from Patty’s bedside and waving it in the air, "is the sort of biography I want written about me. I want to read out the first sentence, OK. ‘I was stark naked, stoned out of my mind on heroin and the girl lying between my legs was Janis Joplin.’" There are guffaws all around. But Courtney has more to say. "Why has no one written the same about Jim Morrison? ‘I was sucking Jim’s cock and there was semen all over my mouth….’ This Joplin book is insanely graphic, you know, all abscesses, butt sex, heroin this, cocaine that. I can’t believe she was like that."

Putting the Joplin book down, she picks up some magazines, shrieks and pulls a face as though a nasty smell had suddenly appeared in the room. "Oh my God! She could have been our boss!" The offering magazine cover features a close-up of Madonna’s face, an image that is almost as unflattering as the Michael Jackson photos published by the Mirror last summer. In a widely publicised affair, one of the first bands Madonna showed interest in when she started her Maverick label was Hole. According to Courtney, Madonna ordered a clipping service on the band and then phoned her up. "This really insane, weird thing happened with her. I think she wanted to buy not only us, but all these underground band she doesn’t have a clue about, like Pavement and Cell. I pretty much only had on in-depth conversation with her, and she was going on about being a revolutionary. I’d sold like two records compared to her, but I felt like I’d hate for her to be the person who put our records out. When you fuck with Jesus or God or whoever she thinks she is, you pay a price."

Part of the price was the publicity machine that as yet still surrounds Madonna’s every move; Courtney’s refusal to consider the Maverick interest seriously was turned into a bitching feud in some parts of the media. She shrugs as she recalls it. "I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. In fact, I didn’t even want anyone to know. Ijust made a few choice comments on it, I never did some of the things I’ve been quoted as saying. Initally I did make some jokes, like I’ll go out for dinner with her if she pays, and the world’s too small for her too be my boss. But I’d never say anything as ridiculous as someone is going to steal my look; I don’t even think sexist things like that."

After her interest in Hole, Madonna turned to Daisy Chainsaw. "Nothing against them, but that really told me something, that it was all about visual image. And the fact that Nirvana had made so much money." When asked for her side of the story for this feature, Madonna’s response echoed the one she made in Vanity Fair - "I’ve never heard of her."

Commenting on the rush to sign Hole, America’s Spy magazine recently quoted a record industry executive as (rather cruelly) estimating that "sleeping with Kurt Cobain is worth a half million dollars." Talent scouts couldn't get enough seats on planes to Seattle to check out the bands behind the new buzzwords: Hole, along with L7 and Babes In Toyland, were jokingly labelled as "foxcore" by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, a "girl rock" by Courtney, and "female grunge" by others. As well as Madonna's interest, Hole were courted by other majors, and a huge bidding war saw them opt for Geffen, home to Nirvana and others. The deal is said to be one of the biggest ever for a predominantly female band.

Seattle and its famous Sub Pop label are no longer setting the musical agenda in quite the way they were a year ago or even six months ago; the planes are now full of Japanese tourists making pilgramages to North Bend, the nearby town where Twin Peaks was filmed. As Patty says: "Seattle was great for music for a few years, but now it's a joke again. Because it's a nice place to live, there are millions of Californian number plates everywhere, all these yuppies driving BMWs." Born and brought up in a small town half an hour's drive out of the city, Patty used to go to gigs in Seattle at weekends. At 16 she was in a punk band with two other guys from school. Everyone else in her neighborhood used to wear cowboy boots, and they weren't too keen on Patty and her band. People would chase her and beat her up with baseball bats.

But even Seattle has a slightly hicksville and smalltown, clannish feel about it: the scene is quite small, everyone knows everyone else. Just about everyone seems to be in a band, and lots of bars have live music most nights of the week. Eric's first impression of Seattle was "What's all the fuss about?", although he says he now likes it after the superficiality of L.A. If Seattle is resuming the life it led before the media circus happened, it has nonetheless established itself as the capital of grunge. The elderly man at Passport Control asked what I was going to do in Seattle and when I told I was interviewing a band called Hole, he responded: "I can't say I've heard of them, but I've heard there's some good music going on there." And although things may have died down, when a member of Nirvana recently wore a Wool T-shirt on stage, the relatively unknown band was signed within days.

"Nirvana write really good songs," says Courtney seriously. "But - and this a really obvious statement - this whole frenzy to sign these bands is a repeat of what happened in punk rock, in power pop and in new wave. Now it's just happening in alternative. Only this time it's all bands with lead singers with really great chests, like Alice In Chains, the Chili Peppers, Soundgarden. The point is, these bands were probably going to be big with or without Nirvana...." There's a momentary pause, then, obviously reflecting on the people she's just namechecked, Courtney becomes angry. "They may supposedly be new school, but their backstage is old school: purring limos, drug counsellors, psychics, roadies who get blow jobs from groupies in black bras. It's just like being backstage at a Skid Row concert. There's no arguement fo it being part of rock 'n' roll - there are really big bands who've never got off on that because it would have created an atmosphere of sexism and fear."

Although she's the first to say "thank God" Hole have one male member, Eric's non-macho presense doesn't always stop people from seeing them as a girl rock band. "It's weird what a boys' club it is," Courtney reflects. She hasn't, she explains, encountered much sexism. But there was an unpleasant incident at a gig at the Underworld in north London which she now talks about with surprising calm. "I was having a really good time, decided to stage dive, and all these football supporter guys at the front tore off my underwear..... stuck their fingers everywhere. It was a really grotesque experience. I didn't think it was my fault, but at the same time I realized why they did it. It's too threatening for a girl in a dress to jump on top of a bunch of football guys and be passed along. Considering what a liberal art pop music is, there really is an intolerable contingent of people."

It may be relatively easy for strong young women in the limelight to harbour feminist ideals. Once people have access to big money, though, you expect them to lose their liberalism. Courtney Love is a welcome exception to the rule: if anything her ideals have strengthened with her power. She reads books about women voraciously. (Naomi Woolf; Camille Paglia - "I'm beginning to see why she's dangerous as well as original"; Susan Faludi's Backlash - "it made me cry, it's so fuckin' true. You must read it, it's your responsibility as a journalist). She slams the "fucking homophobes" who go to Guns N' Roses concerts: "And I don't want people like that coming to see Hole because they think they can see my underwear." She says in a mock evil-greedy voice "no matter what happends I'll have some land" of the property (about three miles from the Twin Peaks location, 40 minutes drive out of Seattle) she and Kurt recently bought. Then she goes on to explain that they bought a further six acres to prevent the local racist loonies from securing it. She describes Seattle as having a "sick history of right-wing activities that are really scary" - not least its treatment of Frances Farmer (after whom she named her baby and with whom she strongly identifies). An intelligent, uncompromising actress in the Thirties and Forties, Farmer suffered for her radical politics and ideas. In what became a national cause celebre, she was committed to an asylum and subjected to LSD therapy and, finally, a frontal lobotomy.

It's well past midnight after a nine-hour photo session. Courtney is concerned about Frances Bean having a slight cold, but, reassured after a quick phone call, she is eager to go out. There's a sprinkle of white dusty snow outside, and it's still falling. The local freebie music paper is throwing a party, and having a last drink or two as we turn up is Sub Pop sidekick Jonathan Poneman plus assorted members of Mudhoney. Courtney, on an adrenaline rush after the session, runs around greeting people and making introductions. Eric, Patty and Leslie look much happier than they have all day. "This is honestly the first time I've been out in ages and it's been OK," says Courtney, grasping a bottle of cider (only her second - she can't drink) and grinning from ear to ear.

It's time to go. Everyone is being herded out of the bar. The snow is deep now and drunken snowball fights have started. We get into the car and white chunks hit the windscreen with force. Courtney is laughing. She winds down the window and, in her best and deepest mock-serious voice, says to someone from Mudhoney: "Don't you know who I am?"

"My Beautiful Son" is released on City Slang at the end of this month; an album is scheduled for sometime in the autumn.