Living Through This: Two Decades of Courtney Love Love
Once Clem had opened my copy of Live Through This, I was exposed to the liner notes and the pictures inside.
Courtney in a tiara, short white dress, little girl tights and a fuzzy coat, smoking a cigarette.
When I'd left the rehab center after getting kicked out, I'd looked very much like this, minus the tiara. After seeing Courtney on television at Chelsea's house, I'd subtly adopted her look, though I would have denied that she was the inspiration for it at the time. When I left Conifer Park Rehabilitation Center, marketed as “a facility for the treatment of alcohol and drug dependency, located in the pines of Schenectady, New York," I was wearing a 60's style shift dress, fishnet stockings, and my own fuzzy winter coat. I was almost three hours away from home. My mother had purposely sent me somewhere far away, thinking my friends would not travel the distance to pick me up should I try to leave. The rehab staff forced me to vacate the premises immediately. All I had with me was the clothing on my back, and a small bag that functioned as my purse. I later learned that the staff had called my mother. Assuming that I would not be able to make it very far, they thought I would be forced to humble myself, and come back.
As I walked in the direction of what I hoped was downtown Schenectady, it began to snow. It was April, but it felt like mid February, and I only had about two dollar's worth of change in my purse. I had no idea what I was going to do. I thought my friend Renee would probably come and get me, but I had no way to communicate with her. Even if I could get to a payphone, I would have to call her collect, and she was at school. For now, all I could do was walk. Eventually I came to a small supermarket. There was a bench outside, and I sat down. Cold, hungry, and feeling completely hopeless, I began to cry. People came in and out of the store, eyeing me suspiciously. Back home, I'd gotten used to being called a "freak" because of my appearance; I'd even fed off of it a little bit, me and what I told myself was my preternatural uniqueness. But on a cold bench, in a strange town, under falling snow, my uniqueness didn't carry any currency at all. It was only detriment. A little old man with a cane approached the store with a woman. Instead of going inside, he whispered to her, then sat down on the bench next to me. The woman hadn't tried to dissuade him, despite the cold, the snow, or me on the other end of the bench.
"What's the matter, young lady?" the man asked.
I had never felt more utterly alone. I had come to the point of crying where my whole body was shaking with every breath. What could I possibly say to this little old man that wouldn't make him grab his cane and hobble away from me?
"I'm far from home, and I can't get in touch with my friends," I stammered.
He seemed to think about this.
Feeling like I had nothing to lose, I took a chance, and told the man an amended version of the truth. I told him that I had left rehab, but changed the drug that had put me there from heroin to pot, thinking it would sound less severe. I made my mother out to be the villain of the story, portraying her as strict, unreasonable, and out of touch.
"Well," the old man said. "It's too cold for you to stay out here in what you have on. Let's go talk to my wife. I think she'll agree, we should take you back to our house until we can figure things out for you."
For all the things I didn't understand about the world, for all the things I dismissed, or viewed with a precocious sense of cynicism, I could see—even then—the gesture of this little old man as a profound act of kindness; of caring. This little old man, who walked with a cane, so fragile and vulnerable, offering his home to this weird looking girl in overdone make-up and provocative clothing—this girl who had just told him that she’d left rehab.
As we walked the aisles of the supermarket looking for his wife, the man turned to me.
"You like loud music, don't you?" he said. "I bet you were a fan of that young man who just died in Seattle. It's so sad, you kids today. Killing yourselves as a form of expression."
I have to stop.
If I was an actor, and had to cry for a scene, all I would have to do is think of that little old man. It kills me every time.
In a 1995 Spin magazine interview, Courtney Love said, "I may lie a lot, but never in my lyrics."
It was the visual of Courtney Love that attracted me to her at first, then it was the sound of her band, Hole, (a sound that Billy Corgan once described as "someone screaming their head off, but in a very intelligent way") but what has kept me a fan of hers for the last twenty years is her lyrics. Her poetry. Some of the more famous lyrics from Live Through This have become so familiar, have been so oft-repeated, that to list them here almost feels redundant:
I don't really miss God, but I sure miss Santa Claus
I don’t do the dishes. I throw them in the crib
I'm Miss World, somebody kill me
I want to be the girl with the most cake
Was she asking for it? Was she asking nice? If she was asking for it, did she ask you twice?
...but that's the fate of great poetry. Everybody owns it. It gets repeated ad infinitum, scrawled on backpacks, scribbled on the sides of buildings, recycled in ad campaigns, tattooed on body parts—why? Because it resonates. The lexicon of Courtney’s poetry is made up of girls (pee girl, retard girl, gutter girl, girl with the most cake), drugs, death, rebirth, boys, feminism, prostitution, California, dresses (both ripped, and on fire), Anne Boleyn, Hester Prynne, Yoko Ono, the Internet, self-loathing, suicide, glamor, and children. It isn't surprising that Courtney chose to read from Sylvia Plath's Daddy in her tryout for a 1970's version of the Mickey Mouse Club. There's a lineage.
Courtney's lyrical composition is jarring. Despite Hole's embrace by mainstream audiences in the mid 1990's, Courtney's writing speaks of a very specific female perspective and experience. It's one that has never been represented in depth in mainstream music. The drugged and despairing, exploited yet optimistic, super-sexual, whip-smart, body dysmorphic feminist. The voice in her lyrics is fucked beyond what we’ve been taught should ever be redeemable. The perspective is contradictory, and inconsistent. It is messy. It says, in spite of my ambition, I won't clean myself up. It says, literally, don’t you try to shut me up; in spite of my mess, you will not dismiss me.
There are other lyrics of Courtney's, both pre and post Live Through This, that aren't as well known, but carry the same kind of weight, and power:
There is no power like my pretty power. There is no power like my ugly power
An eightball isn't love. A hooker's never gonna cum
They royalty rate all the girls like you. And they sell it out to the girls like you
Watch her wrap her legs around this world. You can't take the gutter from the girl
She spent twenty years in the Dakota. She spent twenty years like a virus. They want to burn the witches inside us
What a waste of sperm and egg. He just falls off his Bambi legs
I don't believe in anything. I know that Mary lied
Does widespread, mainstream appeal detract from the emotional resonance of the sentiment conveyed?
I think of the closing line of one of the most famous poems in the world, Sylvia Plath's Lady Lazarus:
Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.
The answer is no. What is it, then, that makes us back off once something passes through the pearly gates and gets embraced by mainstream society?
It's that desire to think of ourselves as unique, to rebel against that which is actually comforting: the idea of the universal experience. It has nothing to do with the validity of the music, or the poetry, or the sentiment conveyed. It's our want to think that we’re the only one. That we are somehow... special. It's snobbery, and it's cynicism.
Whatever Courtney has experienced through the years, whatever she has really lived through, free from what we might think we know about her, free from any inside source exclusive reported on television or in the tabloids, I can see my life in her lyrics. We have had the same experiences. We have both lived our lives in the same almost constant state of contradiction. Hooker waitress model actress oh just go nameless. The lyrics of Courtney Love are my cultural zeitgeist. I read her lyrics—her poetry—and I can see the story of my life.
I have never met Courtney, nor do I want to. I've come close; with the advent of the internet, and her affection for the medium, I've talked with her a bit online. She gave me advice on how to get off Xanax once; another time, she messaged me to say that she was taking one of my Facebook statuses about how thunderstorms made me horny and texting it to a male friend. I don't want to meet Courtney, because really, in my mind anyway, she exists free of herself. She is a person of flesh and blood, yes—but she is also an idea. When I finally stopped hiding the fact that she intrigued me, and started reading more about her and her life, I became fixated on something. Something probably totally insignificant to most people: that she was 25 when she started Hole. I fixated on this small detail because it gave me hope. I may have been 18, drug-addicted, and homeless, but knowing that Courtney was 25 when she started her band told me that I still had time. It wasn't over for me yet. You’ll hear little kids talking about their role models, those people who give them something to aspire to beyond their circumstances. Courtney Love did that for me. When I was a fucked up kid, she gave me hope. Hope that I still had time. Time to take my mess, and make something out of it. Hopefully something beautiful.
Fiona Helmsley has written for The Rumpus, Junk Lit, Jezebel, and xojane, among others.