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COVER STORY : The Love Machine : Courtney Love has been a celebrity widow, an occasional near-OD case, a meltdown in the making. Don't think it doesn't take a lot of work.

August 13, 1995|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

DETROIT — It's nearly 3 p.m., but still early morning by Courtney Love's clock. Rock's most vola tile woman is lounging under the covers on her hotel bed and talking about one of her favorite topics: madness.

To much of the pop world, she's already demonstrated her firsthand expertise in the subject.

"I understand that I fit a cultural archetype: the tragic female, the bitch goddess," she says, wearing the flannel pajama top of her late husband, Kurt Cobain.

"It's the whole Blanche DuBois-Zelda Fitzgerald-Sylvia Plath-Anne Sexton tradition of going so far out there that you wonder if you are going to implode because you start believing those voices in your head are going to stay.

"The problem is tragic places a mark on you if you are a woman. When male rock stars go near madness and come back, people look on them as somehow brilliant. But when women do it, they are seen as merely mad. They are written off as crazy."

The label stings because Love, 30, has been written off in just that fashion by many who have read about her self-destructive, combative attitude.

Though "Live Through This," her album with her band Hole, was voted the best release of 1994 by the nation's pop critics, some detractors see her flamboyant behavior--including rumored drug overdoses and acidic ramblings on America Online--as just an act. To her critics, Love is in the spotlight only because of the morbid curiosity resulting from the shotgun suicide last year of her husband.

At a recent Lollapalooza concert in Pittsburgh, someone threw a spent shotgun shell casing on stage. In this month's Esquire magazine's cover spread, "Women We Love . . . and a Few We Don't," the ugly message to Love: "Next good career move: Choke on your own vomit."

Against this backdrop, Love has gone through what she describes as her own form of madness. It included a few months so bleak after Cobain's death that she tried to commit suicide herself, she admits for the first time during an interview that covers nearly her entire day--from her late breakfast to the Lollapalooza concert here, a few hours in a bar and back to the hotel.

But she says that the worst is over; that she has learned her lesson. She's even thinking about taking Prozac to control her mood.

"I'm like a cockroach--the ones that survive the nuclear blast," she says proudly.

But there are moments when she is clearly vulnerable.

One is when I mention that her comments about being a survivor remind me of what Janis Joplin once told me about her own self-destructive image.

"People seem to have a high sense of drama about me," Joplin said in 1969. "Maybe they think they can enjoy my music more if they think I'm destroying myself."

Love pauses only briefly at hearing the words, but they stick. An hour later in the lobby, she asks: "How long was it between the time Janis Joplin told you that and when she OD'd?"

When told that Joplin died within a year, alone at a Hollywood hotel, Love becomes uncharacteristically subdued as she heads to the limo for the ride to tonight's Lollapalooza concert, where she will again go through the hysterics onstage that will make some in the crowd wonder how this woman ever makes it through 24 hours.

I made my bed, I'll lie in it

I made my bed, I'll die in it

--Courtney Love

*

'W elcome to the road," Love says, good-naturedly in her hotel room at the start of a midafternoon interview. "What's going on in L.A.? Heard about any good acting roles?"

This is the Love that the public never sees.

On show days like today (Detroit is an early stop on the Lollapalooza tour that continues Monday and Tuesday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre), she is normally awakened around 2 p.m. and eats breakfast in her room. French toast is a favorite.

Putting down the copy of a play that someone has written based on her on-line postings, Love tidies the bed by pushing newspapers onto the floor and lifting an ashtray filled with two packs of cigarette butts onto a nearby table.

Lying in bed, she talks about her late husband and their daughter, Frances, who will turn 3 on Friday and is with a nanny elsewhere in the hotel.

As the day progresses, Love's mood will change frequently, a shield finally going up as she becomes, in her own words, the fiery bitch goddess onstage--someone hard-boiled and physical enough to suggest a champion mud wrestler. At other times, she can also be wickedly funny. Now, however, she seems tender and unguarded, a woman trying to regain her emotional balance.

"You know," she says softly enough that you have to lean forward to hear her. "I was over the idea of romantic love long before I met Kurt. I had had so many bad experiences that I just figured it wasn't for me. I had been a stripper and I had heard every line in the book. But Kurt got to me--he was a good man."

Love hopes through her study of Buddhism to learn about communicating with her husband.

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