Thursday 18 January 2018

Courtney Love: Still Courting attention 20 years on

Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain and their daughter Frances Bean
Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain and their daughter Frances Bean
Courtney Love has not commented on the note said to be from her late husband Kurt Cobain

Tanya Swenney

Recently, amid a flurry of '90s nostalgia, a familiar, if slightly faded, figure re-emerged from the shadows. As the 20th anniversary of her husband Kurt Cobain's death loomed, Courtney Love was photographed jetting into Los Angeles this month.

She appeared pale and fragile: a world away from days of yore. Yet Cobain's anniversary threw Love back on to the world stage. And rather comfortable she seemed, too: Love courted attention by hinting a Nirvana musical was 'very likely' to happen, as might a biopic and documentary.

No matter her own musical contributions down the years, Courtney Love's current job spec reads rather prompt: a professional widow keeping the legacy of her husband aflame.

When it comes to staying in the limelight, it hasn't been for want of trying on Courtney's part. Her musical output has been scant at best; an album, Nobody's Daughter, failed to kick up dust in 2010. A new single, You Know My Name, drops on May 4.

Yet we're rarely far from Courtney's soap opera: the Twitter spats. The often fractious relationship with her daughter Frances Bean. The feuds with Dave Grohl. In March, she offered up a theory on Facebook as to the fate of the missing Flight MH370. The resulting worldwide headlines were condescending of her at best; mocking at worst.

The episode gives an interesting indication of where Love sits in the celebrity ecosystem. Not for her the luxury of elder-stateswoman status, like Debbie Harry. Far from ripening in time like PJ Harvey, Hole's musical legacy has all but rotted on the vine.

While her erstwhile scene buddies Kathleen Hanna and Kim Deal benefit from a cocoon of '90s nostalgia, Courtney is out on her own, living to fight another day.

Rewind to the early '90s, and Courtney Love at the centre of it all. To our malleable teenage minds, the Kurt and Courtney saga was part Dallas, part Sid and Nancy. You couldn't get more glamorous than smeared lipstick and baby-doll dresses, and more compelling than their exotic stew of drugs, sex, wounded childhoods, sparring and guitars.

On the TV show The Word, as Nirvana performed 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', Kurt made an announcement: "I just want you people to know that Courtney Love, lead singer of the sensational pop group Hole, is the best f*** in the world". As PR went, it didn't get any better. Yet not even the most well-oiled PR machine could have orchestrated what happened next. A week after Cobain's suicide in April 1004, Hole's major label debut Live Through This was released in an atmosphere charged with emotion and drama.

Even the album's title seemed timely, sad and grimly resolute. We couldn't get enough of its masterful mix of delicate and glossy songwriting and urgent, angry guitars. Lyrics like 'Doll Parts' "Someday you will ache like I ache" took on a prophetic meaning.

Amid it all, the grim soap opera continued apace: Hole's bass player, Kristen Pfaff, died from a heroin overdose two months after Cobain's death. Love was then accused of Cobain's murder (though no charges were brought ).

By the time she took to the main stage at the 1995 Reading Festival, things had reached critical mass. On that stage, with the world's eyes watching, she changed a lyric on 'Doll Parts' to: 'I am the one you want/the one who should have died'. Suffice to say that, Love wore chaos pretty well.

Herein lies the irony. Love and Hole doubtless paved the way for a number of female guitar players and rock singers. Yet the attacks on Courtney have rarely abated since the '90s. She was a feminist icon, yet Mrs Kurt seems to have overshadowed everything Courtney has tried to do.

Some of it smacks of misogyny, of course. The way some call it, Hole would be nowhere without their association with Nirvana. One myth insists Cobain wrote most of Live Through This. Recalling the making of the album, Love admitted she felt competitive with Cobain after Nevermind's success.

"I'd be proud as hell to say that he wrote something on it, but I wouldn't let him," she added.

Though there were cocksure female artists before Courtney, few had attempted her high-wire feat. She was loud and gave as good as she got. Perhaps this is what made her an easy target. She was one of the boys, but she was made to pay in a way that no male rockstar has had to.

Courtney's new single growls and rasps, calling to mind the firestarter of old. She has also hinted recently at a Hole reunion, posting a Twitter picture of her in the studio with bandmates Eric Erlandson, Patty Schemel and Melissa Auf Der Maur. Yet whether Hole can reignite that long-shadowed musical behemoth is anyone's guess.

Can Courtney conjure up that younger, cockier version of herself? Or will decades of being Courtney Love turn Hole into an entirely different beast? It all remains to be seen.

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