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Living Through This: Two Decades of Courtney Love Love

Hole's seminal album was released 20 years ago this month and we're both still standing.

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By Fiona Helmsley

04/30/14

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I can’t say this about many things in this world, but I can say with a degree of certainty that I remember the exact moment when I became aware of Courtney Love’s existence: I was at my friend Chelsea’s house. 

Chelsea was a year younger than me, and her parents had allowed her to drop out of high school to take correspondence classes. My friends and I would skip class to go hang out at her family's cavernous house, where her parents were never home, and the refrigerator was always stocked with expensive organic foods. Chelsea would spend the school day there, all alone, dying her hair with different colors of Manic Panic, and sometimes doing her schoolwork, always with the TV set to MTV in the background. My friends and I had a snobbish air about the music we listened to. We subscribed to the adolescent idea of "the sell-out," a concept often espoused by those who don't know much about the real struggles of the world. We thought of ourselves as 16 and 17 year old punk rock purists, who listened to only the real deal, punk bands from Washington, D.C, or the Bay Area of California, bands that we told ourselves would never affiliate with major labels or “go mainstream” in order to promote their music. Chelsea was the only one in our group of friends who had no time for such posturing. She liked what she liked when she liked it, and this included bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana—all getting heavy rotation on MTV at the time. One day, my boyfriend Thomas and I left school early to hang out with Chelsea at her house. Her dog started to bark as we came through the door.

“Shut up!” Chelsea yelled in our direction. Her eyes were glued to the TV screen.

“Today, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain married Hole singer Courtney Love in Hawaii,” announced MTV VJ Kurt Loder on the screen, followed by a montage of Kurt and Courtney, and then snippets of Courtney playing with her band Hole.

With her ripped dress, bleached blonde hair, and candy-apple red lipstick, Courtney looked like a 1920’s movie star who’d gotten dressed for a fancy event, then neglected to change her clothes or wash off her make-up for the rest of the week. Her look said something about beauty in ruin, but with a little girl innocence, conveyed by the Mary Jane’s on her feet and the pink plastic barrettes in her hair. A journalist would later refer to Courtney and Babes in Toyland singer Kat Bjelland’s war of accreditation for this look as "The War of the Schmatta," schmatta being the Yiddish word for rags. Just the quick visual of Courtney relayed so much; playing with tropes of sexuality and innocence, she looked like the Little Match Girl with a guitar. I thought she was one of the most glamorous looking women I’d ever seen. For all my screams of "sell-out" along with my friends, I’d always loved Hollywood, especially old Hollywood, and treasured the battered copy of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon that I'd stolen from a used bookstore. Visually, Courtney was the physical hybrid of two worlds I worshiped at; one of them secretly, the other much more openly.

“Fucking bitch!” Chelsea said, throwing the TV remote at the screen. Though Chris Cornell from Soundgarden was Chelsea’s primary Northwest corridor crush, she still had a soft spot for Kurt.

“Who fucking cares,” my boyfriend Thomas said. Thomas' parents had recently moved to New York, but his father had done well enough in his job at a large corporation to afford to keep a house in the area so Thomas would be able to finish out high school with his friends. “They’re fucking sell-outs."

He took the remote from where it had fallen on the floor, and attempted to turn the TV off, but Chelsea yanked it back from his hands.

"Don't you ever try to turn off the TV in my house," Chelsea said, holding the remote close to Thomas' head in a menacing pose. "Asshole."

Thomas may have been my first real boyfriend, but Chelsea was my first real love. 

Because of our instant prejudice towards Kurt and Courtney, it would be a little while before I would hear the music of Hole. Nirvana was much more accessible. They seemed to be everywhere, but I purposely didn't pay much attention. Learning that Kurt and Courtney were fans of one of my favorite writers, William S. Burroughs, and that Kurt had even gone to Kansas to hang out with him, did nothing to change my opinion. So what if both Kurt and Courtney were making music with Pat Smear of the Germs, one of our favorite bands? We had started doing heroin, and it was pretty obvious that Kurt and Courtney also did heroin, but still we told ourselves we could not relate. Was it just the times? Coincidence? Were we influenced by what was going on in Seattle, or was the scene playing out there just a microcosm of what it meant to be a young person at the time?

My mother forced me into rehab for the first time during my senior year of high school. While I was there, Kurt left the rehab center he'd been forced into in California, went to the beautiful home he and Courtney had bought in Lake Washington, closed himself up in the greenhouse above the garage, and killed himself. I can remember Chelsea, in tears, telling me this over the rehab payphone, and being shocked for a moment, then circling back to the familiar attitude I espoused in all things Nirvana-related: cold, calculated dismissal. All the empathy I'd feel for Kurt in life, and in death, would come later. My lack of empathy and my cold response to the news of his death would come to rate high on my list of regrets related to the precocious cynicism I felt when I was young. It seems like it should be an oxymoron: how can someone be so young, yet already so world-weary? In 1998, Courtney wrote a song called "Awful" for the Hole album Celebrity Skin containing a lyric that, when I think back to this time in my life, I want to scream at myself:

Oh just shut up you're only sixteen.

In the same payphone conversation with Chelsea, I remember changing the subject of Kurt's death to complain about the rehab staff taking away my Re/Search William S. Burroughs t-shirt. "Fucking assholes!" I said. "They're trying to rob me of my identity! They're trying to turn me into a clone!"

I want to smack myself.

***

A few days later, I was kicked out of rehab for refusing to leave my room. Subscribing to the same tough love philosophy that Courtney would later say she regretted using on Kurt during the final month of his life, my mother refused to let me come home, and I became homeless.

My friend Jeff worked at Record Town, and was a prisoner behind the counter as my friends and I came into the store and pillaged it of everything that even vaguely held our auditory interests. We were greedy and non-discriminating. I had Ozzy Osbourne box sets, Woodstock anniversary commemorative CDs, piles and piles of tapes and CDs that I never opened, and never planned on opening. They would come in handy later, when I started selling my possessions for money for heroin. Homeless, I tried to spend as much time as possible with my friends, but there were many hours I had no choice but to spend alone. One day I went to Record Town by myself, spent a few cursory minutes talking with Jeff, and then went over to the new music display to see what I could take. Immediately I spotted Hole's new album, Live Through This. The album seemed cursed, released only a week after Kurt's death, and with that eerily prescient title. It was for there for the taking. With none of my friends there to judge me, I slipped it into my bag.

Later that night, I went to a show in a far-off corner of Connecticut. The band was rather infamous in the area, and it was my first time seeing them play. I took an interest in their singer, Clem, a skinny, pale boy with a twitchy right eye. I thought his resemblance to Sid Vicious was uncanny. I approached him, and over the course of an awkward conversation, I mentioned to him that I was homeless.

"Where do you sleep?" Clem asked, sounding intrigued.

"I don't know," I answered. "Wherever." 

"Where are you sleeping tonight?"

I told him that my friend and I had driven some distance for the show, and that after we returned, I'd probably sleep near her house on the beach. 

"I'll come with you," he offered.

In my friend's truck, Clem was being flirtatious, and starting rummaging through my bag, exposing the Hole tape. I immediately became defensive, expecting the same dismissive attitude towards the band that I was so used to. "I don't know why I took it," I began, "I don’t even like them. I’ve never even heard them.” "You've never heard Hole?" Clem asked, either not noticing, or choosing not to call me out on the skewed logic of not liking a band that you’ve never heard. He handed the tape to my friend, who had a stereo in her truck. We listened to the tape on the drive back to town, where she dropped us off by the beach. I had heroin, and it turned out Clem was not at all comfortable with this. I'd completely misjudged him based on his appearance. Later that night, while I was nodding off, Clem attempted to run to the water and throw my bags of heroin in, but I came to and tackled him to the ground before he could. Clearly, Clem and I were not going to work out. But on the car ride, he'd introduced me to a Hole song that I couldn't get out of my head. It was called Rock Star. Courtney had put it on Live Through This as an afterthought. Rock Star wasn't even the real name of the song, but the track listing for the album had already been printed that way; it was what the song would become known as:

"When I went to school, in Olympia, and everyone's the same. We look the same, we talk the same, we even fuck the same."

Before Clem would go his way, and me mine, he would tell me about going to see Nirvana play in 1991, at a club in New Haven called The Moon. "It was one of the best shows I've ever been to," he said. "It made me want to start a band."

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.

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