Unfortunately for her--and for us--she was right.
Certainly not everyone in this country really wanted her dead, but eight years later, an astonishing number of people had started to wish she'd take this train wreck to its predictable end and give us all a break. (Love used to have zillions of fan sites lovingly documenting her every move--now there are more of them devoted to hating her, complete with violent animated "fan" fantasies about watching her die.)
Courtney was always a divisive character, though. In the late '80s and early '90s, there were plenty of people in Portland and Seattle who had bad Courtney stories. She was a natural contrarian: insecure, brash, directionless, and ambitious. The punks thought she was a phony and the rock crowd resented her feminine brand of bravado, but no one doubted her desire for infamy. Regardless of what people thought of her, she was an intriguing troublemaker who always made a scene--and even an uptight community like the Northwest could see the value in that.
But when she married Kurt Cobain in 1992, all that began to change.
Despite a brief stint of public sympathy after Kurt committed suicide in 1994, and the drug-related death of her bandmate Kristin Pfaff shortly thereafter, Love was soon being criticized for either mourning too publicly (simulating Cobain's death onstage by pointing an index finger toward her open mouth and howling) or not mourning enough (rolling around in hotel rooms with Evan Dando and Trent Reznor). The press had a field day watching her behave like a lipstick-smeared Tasmanian devil every time a camera or microphone was pointed in her direction--and it became easy to interpret Courtney's public grief as distasteful and disingenuous.
But she had more reason to act so unpredictable then. How on earth was she "supposed" to behave? Should she have, as she herself once put it, "closed the drapes and [shot] drugs" and refused to tour in support of Hole's beautifully executed second album? It didn't help that she was almost immediately fielding accusations that she had driven Cobain to his early grave with her insatiable ego and inability to release him from his heroin addiction. Apparently everyone had forgotten that this man we all held in such high regard actually loved her, warts and all (and he had already been horribly depressed for years prior to their involvement). Furthermore, it struck me as profoundly inhumane that people thought she shouldn't be acting irrationally and destructively in her situation. Until you've faced the horrific three-way spectacle of a husband swallowing a shotgun blast, a colleague overdosing in her bathtub, and then facing a world that holds you--at least in part--responsible for both losses, I think it's wise to reserve judgment. As a sympathetic fan, I was ready to give her plenty of time to put her life back together.
I also was just a fan, period, and I certainly wasn't alone. In the early and mid '90s, Courtney Love and Hole gave plenty of young third-wave feminists (and more than a few gay men) an awful lot to identify with, in both trivial cosmetic respects and transcendent intellectual levels. Her "kinderwhore" fashion statement was tailor-made for Gen-X women raised by well-intentioned feminist mothers insistent upon dressing their daughters in gender-neutral garb. My Ms.-reading mother, bless her heart, raised me to question authority and defy gender roles, but she also sent me to school wearing Birkenstocks and a boyish bowl cut when I would have gladly turned over my precious Free to Be... You and Me record for just one pair of shiny Mary Janes and a satin-sashed babydoll dress. Thanks to the examples of Love (and her rival/collaborator Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland), I could embrace feminist theory and tarty outfits--and finally feel like myself. What's more, my trucker's mouth and conflicting morals about sex, drugs, and punk idealism were reflected right back at me in Love's fucked-upness.
That was one of the things I treasured most about Courtney at that time: She was a pop-culture feminist who made mistakes in public. While I sincerely admired Kathleen Hanna's earnest diatribes against the dominant paradigm, I often found myself slipping up. Even as I embarked on a career at Planned Parenthood and volunteered with Home Alive, I'd entangle myself in relationships with bad men, drink too much, and listen to Guns N' Roses and N.W.A. as often as I listened to Team Dresch and Bikini Kill. Courtney was just as unreliable--she'd say something insightful like, "I might lie a lot, but never in my lyrics," and then do something moronic like get into a shouting match with an Australian flight attendant. She'd seesaw back and forth between admirable and obnoxious, and I'd feel less ashamed of my uneven punk-feminist lifestyle. More importantly, her scrappy, no-one-can-hold-me-back attitude somehow fostered my drive to actually act like less of a hypocrite--seeing her get up every time someone kicked her down (or she tripped herself) gave me the strength to do so.
And then there was her music. Hole's debut, Pretty on the Inside, was filled with almost-melodic bursts of white noise and was jarringly punctuated by Love's raw-throated roar. It sounded like every ugly thing I'd swallowed as a young woman for the last 21 years. It was incredibly hard to take, thanks to Kim Gordon's rough-hewn production style and the disturbing lyrical imagery, but it was undeniably honest and worth the time it took to appreciate. She clearly hit her stride with the inadvertently prophetic Live Through This, a virtually flawless rock record that showcased her Anglophile side and harnessed her stream-of-consciousness rants into lucid meditations on motherhood, self-loathing, revenge, and redemption.
But a few years after Live Through This, I began to realize her seesaw was being wobbled by more than conflicting ideals or a lack of personal discipline--she was lying to herself as much as she was to the media and her fans. Seeing her surgically augmented, peach-lit form on the front of Us magazine in 1997 was the beginning of the end for me. Her gaze was all demure starlet, but her ambition was clearly Hollywood glamour at any costs, and it was this endeavor she spent the majority of her interview defending. She weakly claimed that Makeover Courtney was subversive in itself, that she would push her way to the front of the A-list crowd and prove that brainy, bawdy feminists were worthy of the spotlight. Citing Madonna, Sharon Stone, and Demi Moore as newfound pals, she rhapsodized about having designers send her free gowns for the Academy Awards ("It's an opulent, wonderful thing. I love it. It's drag! Why would you not go to the biggest drag show on earth?") and I found myself getting a little sick to my stomach. I desperately began searching for some truth and value in this new agenda, but things just got worse when she released Celebrity Skin, her overdue, anemic follow-up to the bloody, brilliant Live Through This. The title track was passable and initially seemed to address the unsettling arrival of Makeover Courtney, but nearly every other song was overproduced--a trait she excused by claiming a desire to create a sun-kissed, California sound, but which was really the result of too many ill-advised collaborations and a lack of creative direction. The finished product sounded as watered-down and benign as her personal politics at the time. Part of the reason I'd remained a fan for so long was because her construct of what she'd originally claimed to be had sounded fantastic, but it was just that--a construct, not a reality. Her artistic output was starting to match her questionable PR moves, and I was becoming disillusioned.
By 2001, my disappointment had been replaced by all-out disgust when Courtney sued to block Universal's release of a Nirvana boxed set Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had been putting together for nearly five years. Although she claimed she was trying to protect Cobain's legacy and her daughter's interests, it was very difficult to look at the empirical evidence and not see it as a move to gain leverage in her own lawsuit against Universal. She was suing Universal to release Hole from its record contract in the hope of creating a precedent-setting case that would draw attention to unfair contractual practices by major labels. Courtney's purported cause was admirable--major-label contracts have always been obscenely unfair--but the eventual outcome made me believe it was all a ruse. Once she settled with Universal out of court, she dropped the unfair-labor-practices suit and we never heard another peep from her about the artists' rights she was claimed to have been fighting for.
The final straw was when she and then-boyfriend/manager Jim Barber published Cobain's personal journals, a move that seemed at best an exercise in extremely poor taste and at worst a garish violation of privacy. I was always an even bigger fan of Nirvana than I was of Hole, and I was eager to learn more about Cobain's life--but not by reading his diary. Directing a voyeuristic gaze at a man who claimed the spotlight pained him was something I wanted no part of.
As I and other former fans started signing off, the media's view of Courtney became more and more ugly. With few supporters left, Love started to unravel in a way that was even more disconcerting than her early widowhood. Always hyperactively intelligent in words if not deeds, she started giving off clear signs that her unchecked substance-abuse problems and untreated mental-health concerns had begun their inevitably erosive effects. Some of her public displays were initially funny--showing up at Elton John's birthday in a Donald Duck costume--but others were simply creepy. When I saw the sloppy nude spread of her in Q last March with pull quotes that screamed, "Wax my anus!", all I could think of was that excruciating scene in Welcome to the Dollhouse with the awkward teenage girl rocking out to songs penned by her unrequited crush. There was nothing edgy or entertaining about it--it was a pathetic bid for attention aimed at a public that for all practical purposes already considered both her and her career over.
When drug charges caused her to lose custody of 11-year-old Frances Bean last month, it became abundantly clear that absolutely no one thought she was entertaining anymore, except for journalists who wanted to continue to point out the obvious: "She's clearly a bad person and a worse mother." It's an easy assertion to make and one that we've already heard a thousand times. What astonished me was that people continued to overlook that Courtney Love appeared, to me and others, to be suffering from a serious mental illness that she'd been fatally self-medicating for several years.
Emotionally disturbed drug addicts are generally selfish and unpleasant people--despite what urban mythology would have us believe. Junkies are not usually sitting around in a blissful haze, languidly creating art and occasionally curling into a fetal position to soothe their own misery. They lie constantly--even when they don't want to--and their narcissism can be blinding. While the public and the press were delighting in her downfall, Courtney Love was getting deeper into serious, serious trouble (and although I refuse to speculate about her parental fitness, I don't think any of us would like to see Frances lose both parents). She finally wiped away every last drop of public sympathy that was remaining, and that's when things get truly dangerous for an addict.
It also most certainly means the end of an addict's career. Courtney may have been pissed that we wanted her dead, but that anger was a propulsive force that made her work harder to prove us wrong. When she stopped channeling the productive anger that gave her artistic output its human gravity, we were simply left with a deeply troubled woman who desperately needed help, but had no one left to ask. My love for Love might be lost, but it's what she did to herself and how little we care anymore that saddens me the most.
Hannah Levin's favorite Courtney moment was driving down Lake City Way ten days prior to Kurt Cobain's death, listening to an advance copy of Live Through This and feeling confident that Kurt, Courtney, and Frances would be fine.