Fame-hungry, drug-crazed, a vulnerable romantic: the poster girl for 90s grunge continues to divide opinion. Now rock's most famous widow is 50 and back on tour. Compelling? That's something no one could argue with...
Courtney Love’s earliest memory doesn’t involve a cherished toy or family outing. Instead, as a three-year-old she remembers being driven through the Waldo Tunnel in San Francisco, putting her hand up to catch the rainbow painted around the entrance and wishing that one day the world would know her name. ‘I cannot remember ever not wanting to be famous,’ she says.
She fulfilled her dream, but fame Has come at a heavy price for Courtney, whose smeared make-up and ragged baby-doll dresses made her an icon of the 90s riot grrrl movement. Now 50, and 23 years after her band Hole’s debut album Pretty on the Inside was released, Courtney is back with a new solo career. Could this finally be her moment to shine?
Born Courtney Michelle Harrison in San Francisco on 9 July 1964, her childhood was tumultuous to say the least. Her parents, psychotherapist and author Linda Carroll and former Grateful Dead manager Hank Harrison, separated when she was a toddler and she was bounced between relations to live as her behaviour became increasingly intolerable.
In a 2006 memoir, Linda revealed she first took Courtney to see a therapist at the age of two. ‘I felt something was wrong,’ she said. ‘There were times when she would cry for hours and couldn’t be soothed. The first therapist I consulted said, “I don’t know what’s wrong. But I have a feeling it’s going to get worse, and there’s not anything we can do”’
He was right. By eight, Courtney was erupting in violent rages. She was prescribed sedatives for insomnia at ten. According to Linda, Courtney started self-harming and bingeing on alcohol at 12, and when she was sent to a juvenile detention centre in Oregon at 14 for shoplifting, said, ‘I’ve been on my way here my whole life.’ At 16 Courtney applied to be legally emancipated from her parents. Off the leash, she travelled the world, journeying as far as Japan, where she became a stripper. At one point she lived in Liverpool, where she had a brief relationship with rock musician Julian Cope.
Eventually Courtney returned to the States and shuttled between Portland, Oregon, where she had family, and San Francisco. Restless and rootless, at one point she even moved to Alaska, where she continued stripping.
In 1984, when she was 20 and living in Portland, she formed her first band, Sugar Babydoll, and during its tenure began to experiment with heroin. ‘There was this huge amount of peer pressure to do [it],’ she later revealed in an interview.
When her next band, Pagan Babies, failed to take off, too, her attention turned to acting, scoring a bit part in the 1986 cult movie Sid & Nancy, which chronicled doomed Sex Pistols singer Sid Vicious and his murdered girlfriend, Nancy Spungen – a couple she and Kurt Cobain would later be endlessly compared to.
In the summer of 1989 she took another stab at music, this time in Los Angeles. After placing an ad looking for bandmates she met guitarist Eric Erlandson and, alongside drummer Caroline Rue and bassist Jill Emery, formed Hole. They were soon at the forefront of the new punk rock movement, with Pretty on the Inside released to critical acclaim. But it would take her marriage to Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, to give Courtney the fame she craved.
They met on 12 January 1990, in a Portland nightclub. Courtney made a disparaging comment about Kurt resembling another singer, Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner, and he wrestled her to the floor. Afterwards she described the sexually charged moment as ‘a mating ritual for dysfunctional people’.
Both damaged by near-replica childhoods, it was another 18 months before they got together: Courtney went backstage at a Nirvana gig in Chicago and announced her arrival by plonking herself down on Kurt’s lap. After that they were inseparable. ‘I’ve met the coolest girl in the world,’ Kurt told his best friend, Ian Dickson.
By the end of 1991, Nirvana were the biggest band on the planet following the release of their album Nevermind. Fans accused Courtney of piggybacking Kurt’s fame and blamed her for his chronic drug use. Yet Charles R Cross, author of the Kurt biography Heavier than Heaven, said the rock star was hooked on heroin long before he met Courtney, taking it to ease debilitating stomach pains he’d had since he was young.
‘She was well aware that to be in an intimate relationship with him meant living in an opiate-soaked world of escapism,’ Cross said. ‘She chose Kurt and, in doing so, chose drugs.’
Courtney was already pregnant when they married in Hawaii on 24 February 1992. Both came off heroin but Kurt soon relapsed, and when Courtney went into labour at LA’s Cedar-Sinai hospital on 18 August 1992, he was being treated in the same hospital’s dependency wing. ‘I’m having this baby, it’s coming out, and he’s puking, he’s passing out, and I’m holding his hand and rubbing his stomach,’ she later told biographer Michael Azerrad.
Frances Bean was born healthy and drug-free, but days later she was taken into care when Vanity Fair published an interview in which Courtney was quoted (she argued misquoted) as saying she’d taken heroin while pregnant. It would take seven months, a $200,000 legal battle, court-ordered rehab and mandatory drug-testing before she and Kurt were allowed unsupervised access to their child.
The toll on them both was immense, and Kurt fell headlong into an abyss of drugs and depression. More than once he overdosed, telling family he wanted to die, and Courtney later said, ‘Kurt had this dumb suicidal ideation – that’s what I called it.’ On 8 April1994, when Frances Bean was just 18 months old, Kurt’s body was found at their Seattle home. He had a gunshot wound to the head and had been dead for three days. Courtney was in LA on a promotional tour at the time.
The coroner ruled it was suicide – Kurt left a note concluding Courtney and Frances Bean would be better off without him – but fans and conspiracy theorists continue to claim he was murdered and that his wife played a role in it. Those theorists include Courtney’s now estranged dad, Hank. ‘I can’t prove she pulled the trigger, but I can prove her involvement to a high degree of certainty,’ Hank said in April this year, on the 20th anniversary of Kurt’s death (he has yet to produce evidence and Seattle police have refused to re-open the case).
Unsurprisingly, Courtney fell apart after Kurt’s death. She insisted on wearing the blood-splattered corduroy coat he died in and straddled his body in the funeral parlour, putting her head on his chest and wailing, ‘Why? Why? Why?’
Biographer Cross said that in the immediate aftermath of Kurt’s death, ‘friends had begun to arrive to comfort Courtney, and many brought drugs, which she indiscriminately ingested. Between the drugs and her grief, she was a catastrophe.’ It fell to Kurt’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, and his younger sister Kim to take care of 18-month-old Frances Bean while Courtney recovered.
The turning point came two years later, in 1996, when she landed the lead female role in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Director Milos Forman stipulated Courtney had to quit drugs if she wanted the role and she submitted to regular testing throughout filming. A close friend, The Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando, said at the time, ‘She’s scarily together right now. She doesn’t even take pills.’
Courtney’s nuanced performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress, as well as a new Hollywood boyfriend in co-star Edward Norton. They were together for four years, during which time he reportedly proposed and became a father figure to Frances Bean.
With more film roles following, including the lead in Man on the Moon opposite Jim Carrey, Courtney underwent a startling Hollywood transformation, swapping grunge for Versace dresses and a chic, shiny bob.
She also tried plastic surgery for the first time, slimming her nose down. She’s since expressed regret at undergoing further procedures, including at least one more nose job, breast implants, lip augmentation and liposuction. Of her lips she said, ‘I just want the mouth God gave me back; it was perfectly cute, and I had nice big lips.’
Norton has never spoken publicly about their relationship, but two years after their split, without his seemingly stabilising influence, Courtney slipped back into her old ways. On her 40th birthday, in 2004, she was pictured being stretchered in to New York’s Bellevue Hospital Centre after an apparent psychotic episode.
It was almost inevitable that Frances Bean would become a casualty of the drama that surrounded Courtney. In 2003, aged 11, she was sent to live permanently with her grandmother, Wendy, after Courtney lost custody following her arrest for attempting to break into an ex boyfriend’s home while under the influence of opiate-based painkiller OxyContin. She was later sentenced to 18 months in drug rehabilitation and lost custody once again in 2009.
Later that year, by then 17, Frances Bean won a restraining order against her mother. During her testimony she said Courtney had taken drugs ‘for as long as she could remember’. She added, ‘She often falls asleep in her bed while she is smoking, and I am constantly worried that she will start a fire [which she has done at least three times] that will threaten our lives.’
Since then, their contact has been limited to Twitter. They were expected to reunite publicly for Nirvana’s induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, but Frances Bean didn’t attend, citing illness. The occasion did, however, see Courtney make her peace with Kurt’s bandmates, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, who she’d sued over royalties in 2001.
It’s one of many feuds she’s waged over the decades, but earlier this year she declared a truce against the former lovers she’d previously accused of wronging her, including Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, Norton and comedian Steve Coogan.
Age, it seems, is finally mellowing Courtney, who famously flashed her breasts on the Late Show with David Letterman. ‘Much of my high jinx have been drug-related,’ she once admitted. ‘When you’re under 30, whatever- but once you’re past 40 it’s just ugly.’