Live through this, Part 2: The trials of Courtney


February 15, 2004


LOS ANGELES -- Courtney Love was in a frenzy. It was Saturday night, and the part-time rocker, actress and activist and full-time controversial celebrity was scheduled to make a high-profile appearance at the Grammys in less than 24 hours.

"They gave me 40 grand so that I can go," Love said. "All those photographers -- I'm going to be in front of the entire world."

Love's new label, Virgin Records, was about to release her first solo album, "America's Sweetheart," on Tuesday, and it was necessary for the singer to appear at the Grammys to show the world that, contrary to popular belief, she is not a junkie hurtling full-speed toward self-destruction. But there was a problem: She had nothing to wear.

A woman who specializes in dressing pop stars (she's designed outfits for Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and many others) had carted a rack of a dozen gowns up to Love's rented short-term apartment in the Westwood section of L.A. Love has relocated because she has been charged with two counts of felony drug possession, and she is barred by court order from sleeping in the same house as 11-year-old Frances Bean, her daughter with her late husband, Kurt Cobain.

It's a popular practice in Hollywood for top designers to give stars their finest clothes to wear on the red carpets at events such as the Grammys and the Oscars. "But nobody in L.A. will dress Courtney anymore," the designer confided. Love wasn't pleased with the dresses the resourceful woman had managed to scrounge up, even though they included names like Halston.

"I can't wear this crap," she railed. "No offense, but I don't care about the names, and this is crap!"

As Love's fit of high dudgeon mounted, she suggested that we take a break from our interview and dispatched me along with her aide, a young kid from New York who serves as her gofer, to collect some more clothes from the mansion in nearby Beverly Hills where she usually resides. "I want you to see Franny," she said.


I've met Frances Bean Cobain twice before: backstage at Lollapalooza in the early '90s, when she was a toddler playing in the grass, and in the Beverly Hills house in spring 2002, when I was writing about Love's celebrated legal feud with her husband's surviving bandmates. Then, Frances bounded into the living room to collect a fiver after she heard her mom curse. "She charges me $5 every time I say the 'f-' word," Love explained at the time.

Now, the beautiful pre-teen was sitting in the kitchen, wearing a T-shirt from the club where she goes horseback riding along with the daughters of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Spielberg. She was having her hair tastefully curled by a punk-rock stylist so that she could accompany her mom to the Grammys. "She really wanted to go with me," Love had explained. "It's the first time she's ever asked to do that sort of thing."

Frances is being cared for by a loving relative, Courtney's stepfather, Frank Rodriguez. "I can be with her all day long -- we're together like nine hours a day -- I just can't sleep where she sleeps," Love said. "Which is what we do -- we hang out in the house. It's our thing."

If Frances was upset about the situation, she wasn't letting on. We chatted about building snowmen (she'd just done that for the first time during a trip to the Northwest), her mom's new album ("I've heard some of it, but I really like Good Charlotte," she said) and my job.

"Did you ever interview my dad?" she asked with a sparkle in piercing blue eyes that are eerily like her father's.

I told her that I had, back when she was still in diapers, shortly before the release of Nirvana's "In Utero." At one point, Cobain had asked me if I had any kids; I said I was expecting a daughter, and that the prospect of fatherhood scared the hell out of me. "No, it's the greatest thing in the world," he said. "You'll see."

Frances smiled when I recounted the story. "Oh," she said.

Several months after our last interview, in fall 2002, Courtney Love scored a victory in the Nirvana legal fight with a settlement that favored her claim that as Frances' guardian, she should have more control over the posthumous career of her late husband's band than his former bandmates. But things have not gone quite as well for her since then.

At the time, she was already long overdue for delivering new music -- she had not released a new album since "Celebrity Skin," the thoroughly disappointing final effort by her band Hole in 1998 -- and she hasn't had a prime film role since "The People vs. Larry Flynt" in 1996.

Then on Oct. 2, the 39-year-old singer was arrested when she was found screaming in the middle of the street at 3 a.m. after breaking several windows at the house where her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Jim Barber (who co-produced "America's Sweetheart"), was living. She was charged with a misdemeanor for possession of narcotics. Three hours later, she overdosed on the prescription painkiller OxyContin -- which she calls "hillbilly heroin" -- and was taken to a hospital. The felony charges for possession of OxyContin and Vicodin followed.

Love claims that she had prescriptions for both drugs, and that she will prove it to California Superior Court Judge Elden S. Fox, the same man who heard the celebrated shoplifting case against Winona Ryder. She dumped a plastic grocery bag full of empty pill vials on the floor of her apartment to make her case. "Look, I've kept everything I've ever been prescribed," she told me, though she added, "I had a little coke phase for a while there, everybody knows it."

She has since been through rehab -- though some news organizations reported that she did not complete her stay -- and she insisted that the only drug she is taking now is a legally prescribed anti-anxiety treatment. "I'm on Xanax, which normally I don't feel very good about, but 80,000 Americans take it," she said.

On Oct. 10, Love lost custody of Frances because of an investigation by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services; under California law, the agency can remove a child from a parent's custody if that parent has been arrested or is being hospitalized for drug abuse. Love is also fighting in court to regain custody.

"I really f---ing miss her," she said of her daughter. "She's my best f---ing friend. At first, I had a slow lawyer who didn't understand that every night away [from Frances] is hell." But Love is now confident that her legal problems will be cleared up soon.

It's not surprising that amid this turmoil, Love is having a hard time focusing on music. "[New York Times rock critic] Neil Strauss was just ordered to write my obit!" she railed when we talked earlier in the evening, before she got distracted by her wardrobe crisis.

With quite a bit of help from Barber and producers Josh Abraham (Staind) and Matt Serletic (Aerosmith, Santana, matchbox 20), as well as co-songwriters Linda Perry and Bernie Taupin, "America's Sweetheart" was finally finished. And it is some of the strongest music of her career.

For the first time, the lyrics capture Love's style in conversation -- quick, scattered, but sometimes brilliantly sarcastic; alternately seducing and raging, and pairing seemingly heartfelt expressions of self-doubt with egotistical boasts. These are matched with hard-rocking but ultra-melodic sounds, and a voice that, while it's never been pretty, is as robust and filled with personality as it's ever been.

Love is disappointed only by the fact that she wasn't in control of mixing and mastering the disc. "I wasn't in shape," she said. Otherwise, she maintains, "I have a f---ing great record out." And she is eager to "clear up" what she calls "the Linda thing."

Perry, the former leader of 4 Non Blondes, became pop's most celebrated hired songsmith after writing hits for Pink and Christina Aguilera. Skeptics are giving her all of the credit for "America's Sweetheart," which is nothing new.

With every album she's released, Love has been attacked for appropriating the work of others: Hole's debut, "Pretty on the Inside," was said to have been ripped off from her friend and former collaborator, Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland; some credited the band's masterpiece, "Live Through This" (1994) to the influence of Cobain, and "Celebrity Skin" was written in part by Love's former boyfriend, Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins.

Love has never denied that she needs songwriting collaborators (though the credit for "Live Through This" should go to Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson, not Cobain). "But no one touches the words," she said. The one exception on the new album was "Hold On to Me," a tender ballad, which can be heard as a pledge to Frances, and which was fine-tuned with help from Elton John's veteran lyricist Taupin.

"Bernie offered to help with a lyric, a song that had too much Linda on it," Love said. "Writing with him was ecstasy for me -- I got to be Paul [McCartney]."

As for working with Perry: "It wasn't just she did the music and I did the lyrics -- it was musical for me, too."

Love prides herself on being a survivor. "Let's talk about the people that went down with the ship," she said. "Trent [Reznor], Scott [Weiland], Eddie [Vedder] and Anthony [Kiedis]. When I was in seventh grade, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were making records, so all I know is that if they're still around, I'm OK. I'm under the f---ing radar. I've never been a part of any genre."

She believes that her audience is no longer the one that supported her in the alternative era -- she's aiming younger. "F--- the Gen X'ers," she said. "One of the things I noticed from the demographic thing was that boys 18-25 like me more."

And she is eager to return to the stage to restake her claim as one of rock's most gripping live performers. "I'm good live," she said. "Hole wasn't a good guitar band live," but the new all-female band that she's in the process of putting together "will kick ass."

So far, she has only two confirmed members: drummer Samantha Maloney (who played with Hole and Motley Crue) and Chicago violinist Emilie Autumn. She plans to complete the group with two guitars and bass.

Love is optimistic that the rock world will embrace her once again. But there is also a glimpse of lingering concerns and more than little bit of paranoia.

"I truly believe I will be shot onstage," she told me. "And I truly believe it will occur because the zeitgeist demands I live my rock-star job."

In her view, the drug arrest and what she says was a 14-week investigation by DCFS were not because of her behavior as much as they were the result of her making waves about what she says are financial improprieties in the administration of her income from Nirvana and of Frances' trust fund.

She also believes that she is being persecuted because of the fact that she has not been working as an actress or musician.

"They came and got me," she said. "I got arrested for not getting a job."


When I returned to Love's apartment after visiting with Frances, it was clear that our interview wouldn't be resuming: The designer was sitting in the building's lobby in tears, and Love was frantically working both the phone and her BlackBerry e-mail device in search of suitable dress to wear to the Grammys. She planned to have the English designer Vivienne Westwood put some clothes on a plane in London and fly them to Los Angeles overnight.

"If I can't find anything to wear, I'm not going!" she yelled.

But the next night, there she was during the ceremony, with an obviously thrilled, Betsey Johnson-clad Frances at her side. (Love would make more sensational headlines for "losing" Frances at the Grammys. In fact, she and her daughter were only separated for a few minutes in the crowded but well-secured media area backstage at the Staples Center.)

The consensus in the media seemed to be that Love looked like a million dollars. She had solved her problem in typical punk-rock style; when I asked her where she finally found a dress, she grinned widely, high-fived me and replied, "Contempo Casuals -- $32!"

But it wasn't long before the shadows fell again.

Love was scheduled to appear Wednesday before Judge Fox on the felony drug charges. She didn't show -- or at least not on time; a Virgin Records spokeswoman said she was late -- and Fox issued a bench warrant for her arrest, though he agreed to stay it, providing she appears Tuesday.

Love's attorney said she did not turn up because of "security reasons," though he didn't elaborate. Love has been shadowed by a documentary filmmaker from Seattle who has hounded her during her last two court appearances, shouting questions that accuse her of having a role in Cobain's suicide, 10 years ago this April.

In 1967, when the Rolling Stones were considered a scourge upon the youth of Great Britain, Scotland Yard famously raided Keith Richards' estate, Redlands. Richards and Mick Jagger were charged with possession of four amphetamine tablets and some marijuana residue, and they were sentenced to several months in jail. They actually did time -- until the verdicts were overturned when the conservative Times of London ran an editorial quoting William Blake.

"I need a 'Who breaks a butterfly on the wheel,'" Love e-mailed me last week, referring to that famous editorial. "I need a way out of the insanity and the witch-trial madness."