A Walk with Love and Death: The 'Essential' Courtney Love Cobain
One of the most notorious icons in pop culture talks exclusively with PopMatters about shedding scales to create her signature style of performance, codes of silence at movie star tennis brunches, and how a very famous actress once slipped her a mickey at the Russian Tea Room.
Researching an interview with Courtney Love Cobain is as exciting as you might imagine, and also just as equally anxiety-provoking as your allotted time looms. You read some curious, strong opinions, and to be sure, many writers who have profiled her in the last decade typically have noted her history of being a hell-raiser. Even if they don’t get nasty, most usually just want to go on and on about the drugs and excess. There seems to have been a compulsive need for the media to cast her as a Medusa figure since the time when the landmark album Live Through This (1994) polarized listeners as it was released near to the date of her husband Kurt Cobain’s suicide, toxically combining with the voracious hunger of the public to watch famous women self-destruct in real time on the 24-hour news loop. This has all figured into her mythology. Despite Love Cobain’s often-shocking insistence on a blunt, punk rock feminist originality and her fearlessness of artistic expression, she is perhaps best known for simply being herself despite what seems an army of opposition.
To give a great performance, on tour, in film or otherwise, it is often said that one must disappear into the character, while others would argue that the actor is the character and that is why they are cast in the first place. Love Cobain has done both and has been able to convey a strong female point of view in all of her ventures, music, cinema, and beyond. The truth is you probably don’t know which Courtney you’re going to get, or what kind of interview you’re going to get, until you get on the phone with her and just go where she takes you. That’s part of her allure, part of her mystery and perhaps why she is such a charismatic star. That and the various hustles she is juggling, which are impressive: aside from another upcoming tour and a new album, she has also recently designed a clothing line, Never the Bride, has been the face of Yves St. Laurent, and had a notable art showing entitled And She's Not Even Pretty. It is rumored she will join the judging panel for American Idol’s next season, and the mere thought of her take-no-prisoners approach being applied to the particularly kind of smarmy contestants on that show sounds like a ratings bonanza no-brainer at first blush. Imagine how scared those kids would be; it would be hilarious.
Less hilarious was when my phone rang and Love Cobain jumped on. I too was scared. I’d read about how she’d go on tangents, take the writers to task, or just be bored and chain smoke on the other end of the phone sometimes. Read any recent feature on Courtney Love Cobain and you will immediately see that she will take an interview in any damn direction she pleases. She will never be accused of being boring and is frequently accused of being turbulent or destructive even when she is trying to be sweet. Love Cobain is just as unpredictable as we all can be and this why she’s been loved, hated, editorialized and the object of fascination for so long. There’s blessedly no filter, just an unruly mix of independence and vulnerability has rubbed folks the wrong way, not unlike that (in)famous idol of her’s, Frances Farmer.
My fear quickly dissipated, however, as she thoughtfully covered some of the more substantial highlights of her career during our chat. Topics ranged from an upcoming memoir and the challenges of finding the right voice to use for it, to a desire to play another great acting role, as she did in 1996 in the film for which she makes our annual Essential Performances update list: The People Vs. Larry Flynt. Love Cobain was as deliciously engaging as ever, in good spirits and more than ready to give me a little mid-afternoon dish when we chatted about Hollywood Babylon by phone during a recent tour stop in Los Angeles, natch.
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PopMatters: I read in a recent interview that you’re embracing death of nostalgia when it comes to performing. I loved that sentiment. How does this inform your current live show?
Courtney Love Cobain: Well, I mean, you know, like last night, my drummer is like obsessed that we play “Doll Parts” so... The last tour we didn’t play “Doll Parts” at all, but, you know, getting into it was like getting it off of me like scales… but it can be really fun to honor your past, it’s just, like, without doing an “oldies” thing, you know what I mean? We’re going out on tour at Christmas and we’re gonna tour in much bigger venues because we have new material coming out, these are really small shows. These kids know the words to every single song, including songs that didn’t make it commercially, you know, from Nobody’s Daughter. You know, songs like that. I don’t perform much of Pretty on the Inside but I’ve been doing things a lot more maybe the last few shows more impulsively, and my stamina’s gotten a lot better. It’s hard because there’s no new material, so I have to go back into old material and find something interesting about a deeper cut and/or covers that is interesting.
I love that you’re doing a lot of unexpected songs for fans. I found your cover of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” pretty unexpected. How does that song change when you do it?
Welllll… I mean, I removed some of the lyrics. I actually cut out a verse because it was really long. It’s a long song, if you’re making it into a kind of acoustic song. But it’s not that too far off, in terms of gender and race, to a song of my own, in sense that it deals with a lot of rage, with feeling trapped. It deals with, you know, Jay feeling picked on blah blah blah. So you know, the cover wasn’t really pristine, but it was ok. I mean, he liked it. He loved it. I think that it’s one of those things you just do once. Like the last time I was in Seattle, we did [Pearl Jam’s] “Jeremy”, it was great but we only did it once. Same with “99 Problems”, it’s just not a song you’re going to do every night. I made it into a Bob Dylan song.
True. Speaking of Bob Dylan… who, like you, was someone who sort of bridged the two worlds of film and music performance, I would love to know what you think about musicians and singers appearing in notable acting roles like you did when you played “Althea” in The People Vs. Larry Flynt. What do you think are the pros and cons for a person coming from the music world into the film world are?
Well the behavior… There are two things: as an actor you’re far, far more supported because people need you to be alive. A dead artist or a dead musician is worth a lot more…
Ahhhh, of course…
Yeah, look at Kurt…
…but a dead movie star is basically worthless. So, you know, agents and managers of actors tend to really go out of their way to make sure that their movie stars or their actors are really, really happy. There’s a lot more prestige involved. There’s also a huge set of decorum, you know? It’s a different set of manners, it’s like going to Buckingham Palace. You know, it’s like you don’t speak ill of anybody publicly – you can do it privately and no one cares! I remember the day after Princess Diana died, I went to a very well known agent, his name was Ed Limato, to his house for a tennis brunch and not one person mentioned it. Because, you know, death is sort of the great loser dust in Hollywood. I mean, you know, there were all sorts of people there. Clint Eastwood was there, Mel Gibson was there. It was a major movie star tennis brunch with everyone in their tennis whites and not one person mentioned that Princess Diana had died the day before.
Which kind of shows you the level of decorum that expected of you when you’re acting. You really have to engage with other people, whereas if you’re a musician you can kind of be a grump and get away with it. More enigmatic, you know, you don’t have to like, pause and smile and grin, ask how someone’s Uncle Simon’s brick laying business is doing… that you met seven years ago. I mean Tom Cruise can do that. Russell Brand can do that. Bono can do that and he’s a rock star. These are major, major operators. But [I guess] they’re not really operators, they’re actually really engaged, otherwise you can’t do it. You have to really know that Rainn Wilson’s wife’s sister is a script supervisor. I threw a dinner for Russell Brand one time and three hours into the conversation, he remembers that Rainn Wilson’s wife’s sister was a script supervisor. I was like ‘Jesus, man’. He was working within 48 hours, I can tell you that.
Critics practically fell on their knees before your performance as “Althea” [Love won the New York Film Critic’s Circle and Boston, Chicago and Florida Film Critic’s awards for Best Supporting Actress, and was nominated for Best Actress - Drama at the Golden Globes]. What do you see now when you look at the film?
I haven’t watched it in forever and ever and ever. But I do have a really amazing new agent and I’m really excited about it. He came and he found me. His client list, they’re all so young, it’s ridiculous. I don’t even know how old these kids are but like they are like, huge, huge, huge stars. So, he came and found me. It’s not set in set stone yet, but I’m really looking forward to –and thank God he’s gay, which is like, the best thing in the world…
(laughing) You know, we’ll see, we’ll see how that works out. I haven’t worked in 11 years, so he thought, as do many people, that I’m not interested in pursuing acting, but for the last three years I’ve been really interested in pursuing acting again. Previous to that, not so much. I really like it. It’s something I really want to do. You know, I love touring, I love playing rock and roll -- it’s something that’s part of me, but so is acting. You know, I’ve been acting since I was in the Portland Children’s Civic theater when I was seven years old. Wish me luck!
Obviously, I would have liiiiiiiiiiiiiiived to see you play Lady Macbeth. Texas Guinan (Hello, Suckers!) is another I’d have really liked to have seen you do…
That needed a really, really big rewrite and then something happened at this Russian Tea Room party where an actress -- who shall remain nameless, but got arrested for shoplifting -- slipped me a pill. We ended up singing the soundtrack. It was impeccable, you know, 1920s songs, and then the performance itself was great, but really drunken. The next day I walked in, and one of the producers was [Martin] Scorsese and his ex wife and I remember I overheard them say ‘well, what are we going to do about Courtney?’ because I literally was swinging from the chandelier the night before.
Well, that’s sort of the character, right?
Courtney Love Cobain: (laughing) It took the edge off of my menstrual cramps.
You once compared your daughter to Gene Tierney -- the highest compliment in my book! What about Gene Tierney do you love?
I don’t know, I just feel that Frances photographs however she wants to photograph. She’s very photogenic. But those pictures she did with Rocky Schenck looked a lot like Gene Tierney, I thought. I think she thought so too -- that’s what she was kind of working. And me and Frances love watching old movies together. Leave Her to Heaven is just one of those crazy old movies you can watch over and over again.
I loved her in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir as well…
Yeah… before he was married, she had an affair with JFK.
I read that you looked at Patti Smith and Russell Brand as an exercise into what it means to have a “voice” when writing a book.
Patti sat down and wrote an encapsulated story about her and [Robert] Mapplethorp kind of period. I haven’t done that. If you are expecting at Christmas, in this book from Harper Collins, Just Kids, it’s not as filigreed as that. I mean, it’s definitely got a voice, but it’s not … I’m just too lazy, man… it’s just too lonely. I tried it, I’ve done the whole ‘stream of consciousness’ thing, you know writing… I’m not yet disciplined enough to write a story that baroque, you know?
So Russell’s book, actually it’s a little more ‘pop culture’, it’s a little more lowbrow, it’s a little bit more ‘lowest common denominator’. But at the same time, it’s not salacious…I mean, there’s a lot of sex in it, let’s be clear…but it’s his voice. Russell’s a really, really good guiding force for me because he worked such a tight program with his whole drug thing and he also is so loquacious and such a great improv artist and I think he’s just a genius, I absolutely adore him. And I also got him to come, and he’ll be the first to tell you this, over to LA, with his manager Nick and I threw several dinner parties for him and helped him get started. I mean, we were on radio at that point.
I feel like Celebrity Skin was a very prescient record. What about that album do you think most holds up?
Everything about that album holds up. It’s, you know, very different from Live Through This. It cost a bloody fortune. I mean, it wasn’t like we were making The Wall but fortunately, because I was sort of like the queen of the lot at Geffen, I couldn’t stop how much it cost. So it never did recoup, I didn’t make much money off it. We’ve been doing “Petals”, we’ve been doing “Dying”. There isn’t really a bum track on that whole record. Well, I love “Awful”. “Awful” almost went to Top 40. There was a merger -- this is probably before you were born—but Geffen spilt with Interscope and I lost a single. Sheryl Crow lost a single. No Doubt lost a single. And I lost “Awful”, which was really heartbreaking because the video was all sorted out. It was ready to go to Top 40. You know, I should have put out “Awful” second, and “Malibu” third, which I should have done because it would have trapped them, because they would have had to put out all three. I’m kind of shocked that “Awful” never made it into a crossover position, but you know, it’s still a great song!