[27 November 2006]
In the author’s note to Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love, Love writes, “I have always said that I would never write a book and I really haven’t.” Thus far, reviewers of the book have taken her at her word, using the publication of the diaries as an excuse for a rash of quasi-Page Six articles, rather than book reviews. This is not entirely unsurprising, since when talking about the work of Courtney Love, it’s very easy to slip into talking about the life of Courtney Love. As with a tortured confessional poet, it’s easier to take Love’s lyrics and writings at their autobiographical face value than to grant there may be something more complicated at work.
For an incredibly public person like Love, diaries are really the last refuge, and their publication will be viewed by many as a fairly typical act of exhibitionism on her part. Still, having been a wife, artist, mother, widow, and drug addict in the public eye, it seems almost as if Love finds it pointless to withhold the scraps and artifacts of her life that have not yet fallen under scrutiny. Because let’s face it, there’s not much.
What scraps there are have been artfully gathered into a coffee table book so unexpectedly lovely that more than one reviewer has likened the design of Dirty Blonde to a punk rock scrapbook—despite the fact that likelier stylistic influences are riot grrl ‘zines of the ‘90s, more ransom note pastiche than Martha Stewart. Taped in among the lyrics and essays are relics from Love’s life, including photographs, letters, and flyers for early Hole shows.
Readers looking for gossipy bits and previously undisclosed dramas will be disappointed as most of the diary’s narrative is already common knowledge. Fans of Poppy Z. Brite’s, Courtney Love: The Real Story will recognize many of the documents quoted at length there, including Love’s letter to Kim Gordon asking her to produce Pretty on the Inside (“we… all admire your body of work quite hugingly and slenchingly”) and Love’s foster care placement and behavioral reports from reform school and Children’s Services in Eugene, Oregon (“Courtney displayed numerous personal problems in peer relationships, acceptance of authority, a low self-concept and self-destructive tendencies”).
More recent artifacts include an email exchange with Lindsay Lohan, on being skewered by Vanity Fair (“I thought the world had split open and was going to swallow me whole”), and a letter to Kurt, asking him to hex Frances’s teacher (“He humiliated her in front of her class by calling her the ‘Queen Bee,’” and closing with the heartbreaking line, “Please come home. I don’t think you’d like the man I love, but he reminds me of you”).
Love’s flair for histrionics has frequently left her open to criticism, and made her vulnerable in her personal life. However, in her artistic life, Courtney Love has always seemed like a woman who says and writes precisely what she intends, her words always razor-sharp and whip-smart. As a result, Love’s diaries become less a place for her darkest secrets than a place for her mistakes, ill-fated experiments, and messy ideas. This is not the kind of artist’s diary that reads as a series of tidy exercises, a place where elaborate philosophies flow effortlessly and perfectly formed from the genius’s pen. Instead, the sloppy immediacy of the intensely personal writing in Dirty Blonde reveals a different kind of vulnerability than Love has previously shown.
Though versions of Love’s self have been dissected and reconstructed by admirers, detractors, critics, and conspiracy theorists, the portrait she assembles in the diaries is not necessarily the most accurate one. This is not to say that Love purposefully misleads readers, only that diaries are an unreliable medium for biography. And like many people, Love rarely uses hers to jot down the events of a day. More frequently, the diaries are a place for flights of fancy and, particularly in the early entries, a place for trying on attitudes, aesthetics, and personality traits.
Sometimes Love assumes the voice of a Victorian heroine, a goofy girly-girl, or a vengeful goddess, raining down hellfire. Some entries are written by a self-consciously precocious young woman (“actually there’s something quite lovely about being 18. something wise”), while others depict an ugly duckling insecure about her looks and her talent (“One day I’ll get my nose fixed and gain his respect”). Self-reflection (or absorption) is rarely this interesting.
Additionally, the diaries show Love working at her craft—warts, bad teen angst, and all. In some cases, the scrawled tidbits of songs like “Doll Parts” and “Celebrity Skin” barely hint at the accomplishment of the finished works. However, the way that Dirty Blonde is constructed, including multiple drafts of songs like “Sunset Marquis” and “The Depths of My Despair” (from the forthcoming How Dirty Girls Get Clean), demonstrates how Love whips stream of consciousness into lyrical shape.
As for the quality of the writing itself, Love has never been one for subtlety, and as a result, some entries seem overly simplistic with their dated feminist imagery of angel/whore girls and baby doll heads. That said, when Love is at her best and most furious, it’s refreshing to watch a writer attack big issues head-on, rather than picking at them with delicate imagery and clever metaphor. At one point in her diaries, Love notes, “The language of love letters/ is the same/ as suicide notes.” The language of Dirty Blonde bears certain similarities to both of these—absolute and melodramatic, possibly wrong, but defiantly certain.