For the record, I didn’t make Courtney Love cry. She made herself cry, every time she mentioned Frances, her 15-year-old daughter from her marriage to Kurt Cobain, the frontman of the grunge band Nirvana. As she raised the subject four times over the course of two hours, this meant she cried four times: real, eye-dabbing, make-up running, sniffy-nosed tears. But this is to come. For now, if anything, it is she who is bringing me close to tears with her Buddhist chanting. I have to endure 15 minutes of it before the interview can get under way. We are in her hotel suite, one of London’s most exclusive. She is in the adjoining bedroom, chanting loudly. I am sitting waiting for her on a sofa surrounded by unruly piles of magazines, a guitar in a case, two full ashtrays, burning joss sticks, property details for a £4 million house she is looking at in Notting Hill, and racks of her clothes — Givenchy, mostly, as Love is the new muse for that label.
A gong sounds, the chanting stops and she appears smiling in a skimpy black nightie and no make up. There is a longhaired man with her. ‘This is my friend David,’ she says. ‘We’re chanting. Obviously. But he is so much better at explaining it that me.’ She disappears to get changed, leaving me with her guru. As he is explaining what the chanting means I reflect on the living (despite the odds) legend that is Courtney Love. This is a woman who seems to have teetered on the edge of mayhem all her life — the heroin addiction, the air rage incidents, the tabloid headlines, the custody battles, the jail sentences, the star fucking, the millions made, the millions lost, the rehab — but she has never been boring. Or predicable. And although she was often described as the Yoko Ono to Cobain’s John Lennon, she was always a rock star in her own right. Indeed, immediately after her husband killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head in 1994, she embarked on a tour with her band Hole which, according to John Peel, verged on the heroic. ‘Swaying wildly and with lipstick smeared on her face, hands and, I think, her back, the singer would have drawn whistles of astonishment in Bedlam,’ he wrote.
Back in the hotel room, ten minutes have passed and the guru is coming to the end of his explanation. ‘I tend to chant with Courtney for two or three hours a day,’ he says. ‘A lot of celebrity Buddhists don’t like to put in the time. But she loves to chant.’
No kidding. It may make for inner harmony for her but for me the chanting adds to the sense of chaos in the hotel suite. But then there is always a sense of chaos when Courtney is in town, which is why she has been banned from staying at two of London’s finest hotels (on both occasions it was to do with fire alarms being set off). When she reappears she is doing pretend karate chops, I think because she is wearing a Vivienne Westwood outfit that looks as if it came from the props department of Kill Bill. It is a black corset affair with leggings, shoulder pads and buckles — I am staring at a particularly strange looking buckle when I realise it is the shop security tag still attached. As she talks she keeps adjusting her bra to try and get comfortable. She also tries to work out what to do with a rogue cord that dangles between her legs, gives up and instead gathers her long, bottle blonde hair over one shoulder — and teases two strands of her fringe down so that they hang dangerously over her eyes.
Courtney Love is 43 and in fine shape. Thanks to Madonna’s macrobiotic nutritionist, she is back to a size 10. But her weight yo-yos — ‘You have to be thin all the time to make it as an actress,’ she says, ‘but my rock weight is 20 or 30 more lbs than my film weight.’ She juggles the two careers. ‘Performing on stage is like great sex,’ she tells me. ‘Of course you want to be known for giving the best blow job in town but you also want to get yours, too.’ She has a new album out in the spring and various film projects in the pipeline, trying to regain some of the form she last lost since her Golden Globe nominated role in The People vs. Larry Flynt and her equally good performance in Man on the Moon opposite Jim Carrey. Actually, it’s three careers if you include the fashion thing: ‘Givenchy is like me,’ she says. ‘A legendary brand which has had its ups and downs.’
She lights up a cigarette and holds it between two straight, long fingers with nails varnished vampy black. Although her eyes are large, green and — because slightly divergent — slightly mesmerising, it is her pouty mouth that arrests the attention. She begins applying lipstick with a paintbrush as she is talking. And boy can she talk. She has a big mouth in every sense. A ‘big dirty rock mouth,’ as it was once memorably described
I have to say, I like her instantly. I like her goofy grin. I like the crack in her husky voice. I like the fact that she is funny, chatty, animated, boastful, open, vulnerable, namedropping and unselfconscious. She is also flirty, jiggling her eyebrows up and down when she wants me to look at something on her laptop — some art she is buying. Our opening exchanges goes something like this. ‘Did you like David?’ He seemed very nice. ‘I share him with Orlando Bloom.’ And how does feel after a chanting session? ‘Sometimes really aggressive. Sometimes really energised and ready for a fight.’ I see. Does her chanting fill a vacuum left by heroin? ‘I didn’t have an addiction when I was 24, which was when I started chanting. I try to focus on gratitude when I chant, because it kills anxiety and depression dead. I play tapes of gratitude in my head. Occasionally though, a negative thoughts sneaks through. Lately I’ve been getting weird visions of Vince Vaughn running around naked in an executioner’s mask.’
While one must not make light of mental health issues — especially in relation to someone who has been in and out of therapy all her life — the journalistic devil on my shoulder does whisper into my ear at this point, thank goodness she’s still bonkers. Does she ever fear for her sanity, I ask? ‘I am naturally pretty paranoid,’ she says. ‘And I have a right to be.’
Because? ‘Mostly it is about money. What has caused problems for me is not understanding money. I had it and I had it stolen. I’ve had to rebuild it. It is a powerful thing. It has killed people in my life, the force of greed and covetousness. It has hurt me. I was embezzled.’
An estimated $20 million of her money was siphoned off in a case that is still being investigated by the FBI. Does she mean the royalties from Nirvana? ‘Not just the royalties from Nirvana, it is all the money I have made, too. I’m not a slice of baloney myself. I’ve sold nine million records.’ It’s true, it’s true. She was known for her grungy guitar playing, as well as for the way she would stage-dive into the crowd wearing charity-shop dresses and no knickers. Her biggest hit ‘Celebrity Skin’ still stands up, in my opinion. ‘The last money thing is from 98 to 04 when my assets were frozen,’ she continues. ‘I had everything stolen and so did my daughter, and that is upsetting.’
And so the sobbing starts. When she has composed herself I note that she is clearly very protective about her daughter. ‘She is 15 now. That’s a difficult age. She slept with me for the first time in a long time last night.’ She starts to well up again. ‘Sorry, I hate getting emotional. We get on well most of the time but teenagers are hard. Being a single mother is hard.’
Love’s own childhood had no stability whatsoever. A Juvenile System report detailed the eight different institutions where she was held in care between 1978 and 1980. Her case folder bore the phrase: ‘Parents’ whereabouts unknown’. Aged 16, she became a stripper.
Does she consciously avoid repeating the mistakes her own parents made? ‘Oh my God, so much. We went to Trudie and Sting’s the other night because Trudie has a daughter who is Franny’s age, but it was hard. For one thing they were going to see Control and I wanted to show Francis that she could go out in London without a nanny or a bodyguard, so they went by themselves. I wanted to get her a cake because it is the first time she has gone anywhere on her own. She came back so disturbed because — Daaa! — I forgot what the movie was about [the death of the lead singer of Joy Division]. Anyway Sting was there and he was reading his book and there were all their other kids there who had a mom and a dad, and Franny felt the odd one out.’ She wipes her tears. ‘I’m sorry. I just want things to be good for her but she’s a lot like me and a lot like her dad. I think she got the best of both of us, so there’s that.’
Good cheekbones, I imagine. ‘Yeah she is a very good-looking girl. I don’t want to put her in a burqa. But I want to protect her from your tabloid press. I can take it but she…’ Love trails off for a moment. ‘It happens to me when I get papped in the UK, in the car. It’s like Diana! Diana! Diana! You can’t see anything because of the flashbulbs. At least I know how it works now. According to the tabs I’m dating Pete Docherty and we went to a Wetherspoons. Yeah, I get the joke. Fuck off. I hardly know Pete Docherty. I’ve talked to him once on the phone about rehab, because I’m a good rehab guide. Rehab worked for me because the judge ordered me to do 90 days, not 28. It was in a house doing one-to-one cognitive therapy, all 12 steps. It’s a really good invention, the 12 steps. They gave me this sheet with all these negative attributes — paranoid, self-centred and so on — and told me to circle the ones that applied to me. Man there were a lot of circles on mine. It was like an inventory. Then I had to write these damn letters to people I had fucked over. Trouble was, my memory was so fucked from the heroin I couldn’t remember who I had fucked over.’
No one at all? ‘Well some things came back to me. I had to apologise to some guy I’d called a cunt. And when I was telling this to my friend Chris Rock he said, “You should apologise to me, too.” I said why? He said: “I remember getting 56 texts from you one morning.” I was like: what? He said: “I read some of them out on stage and, believe me, you kept a lot of brothers and sisters sober.”
Does she still have memory lapses? ‘The other night I was at the V&A and got talking to Vivienne Westwood, Dame Vivienne, and I said “great to meet you, I’m a huge fan” and she said “we’ve met before. And we talked on the phone for three hours one time.” I had zero recollection of it. I said: “was I horrible? Was I boring?” She said, “No, I would have hung up on you if you had been. You were terribly amusing.” Can you smell that?’ I test the air. ‘Smells like weed.’ Not mine. ‘Not mine either. Must be coming from the airducts. Someone is having a smoke. What were we talking about?’
Her memory. ‘Yeah, I’m just going through my three and half years sober and I’m afraid I burned some of my memory cells out. A lot of Courtney stories end in a fire. Usually on a set. But hey. I’m not a bad person. There were massive gaps in my education: like you are not supposed to sleep with people who are married. I didn’t know what to be scared of. I’ve stepped over the line here and there in my romantic behaviour but I have always been pretty moral.’
And pretty consistent. She likes to stick to front men: the front men of The Smashing Pumpkins, The Lemonheads and Nine Inch Nails to name three. She has also been consistently, um, high spirited in her behaviour. Does she feel when she is in a public place that she has to live up to a public version of herself as a hell raiser? ‘No, no no. There is a disconnect between who I am, and how I live, and how I am perceived. I used to play up to it a bit when I was on drugs because who cares: sex, drugs, rock and roll WAAAAH! I always seem to come number 2 to Keith Richards in lists of greatest hell raisers of all time. But if I was a guy I wouldn’t even be on the list! I didn’t know it was such a guy’s job. It’s like playing football in high heels and lipstick, no wonder it smears.’
Her appearance on Letterman is the stuff of You Tube legend. She talked hyperactively, wouldn’t leave and kept flashing her breasts. “That’s not art, that’s just me not being the greatest celebrity of all time. I’m not 19 any more so me standing on a Letterman’s desk is not as acceptable.’
An embarrassment threshold; does she have one? ‘God yes, I get embarrassed all the time. Are you crazy? I don’t like things that embarrass my kid… You’ve got me crying again.’
In 1992 Love admitted to Vanity Fair that she had used heroin while (unknowingly) pregnant. Afterwards she claimed that she had been misquoted. The LA County Department of Children’s Services nevertheless took the Cobains to court, claiming that the couple’s drug usage made them unfit parents. After months of legal wrangling, they were granted custody of their daughter. There have been other custody battles since. ‘I am a good mother and the proof is in the pudding,’ she says. ‘I would never, ever put Franny on television. I would never let her do press. She has been offered the lead in four features, and was offered a campaign for Hilfiger, and I tell her about these offers but she wants to be a political journalist anyway so… I don’t think any kid has been more wanted by both her parents and I don’t think any parents have ever wanted to fuck up less than we did.’
Some of the gaps in her memory must be good for her self-preservation, I suggest. ‘I don’t have a gap about Kurt.’
Does she go through guilt about his death, wandering if there was anything more she could have done to prevent him from killing himself? ‘It’s a horrible thing, but it is harder on a woman because widowers don’t get the blame for suicide and widows do. Imagine having to grieve in public. It almost prevents you from having your own grief. I went kooky bananas ten years later because I didn’t have a real association to my own grief. I didn’t do a bereavement group. I didn’t see a psychiatrist. I went on tour. Those shows were cathartic, but I was very defensive about what I would let out then. I was swaggering around all fucked up on pills but I wasn’t really telling the truth.’ She lights another cigarette. ‘Where were we? Yeah, my album. You’re going to love it.’
And that’s her. She is shameless. She is droll. She is a survivor, just, lurching from chronic insecurity to raging ego, self-belief and ambition. ‘I want to get to the grown up table once more and leave it with some grace,’ she says. The smoke alarm goes off. She crosses the room to open the window. ‘It is going to do this for a moment then it will stop,’ she says, shouting above the noise. ‘I hate this hotel.’ On her way back she gets tangled up in the Vivienne Westwood cord dangling between her legs. ‘I wonder what this string is for? I’m not sure what it signifies. The Dame sent me a few nice pieces, but this one is just crazy.’ She looks in her packet for another cigarette. ‘Shit. Do you smoke?’ When I shake my head she picks up the phone. ‘Could you get two packs of Marlborough Lights as fast as possible please.’
And so the encounter ends as chaotically as it began.