The Love Issue: Our October 1998 Cover Story

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 24: Courtney Love performs 'You Know My Name' tour at Enmore Theatre on August 24, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

This cover story originally appeared in the October 1998 issue of Spin. In honor of the 20th anniversary of Hole’s Celebrity Skin—originally released September 8, 1998—we are republishing it here.

Courtney Love was talking about the Vice President.

“He goes, ‘I’m a really big fan,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, right. Name a song, Al.’ ‘I can’t name a song, I’m just a really big fan.'”

“You said that?”

“Yeah. I went to this big fancy producer’s house. There were about 14 of us invited to dinner with Al Gore. I’m sitting next to this guy who’s like Gore’s Stephanopoulos, and I said, ‘Why am I here?’ Because the only other famous person there was Kevin Costner. He said, ‘We’ve done our research and we want your vote,’ and I was just so proud. There are pictures of it. Edward has them. For some reason I looked really wholesome that night, and when the pictures got developed, it’s like me and Al, and we’re dancing a little and we’re fighting. I was throwing my hands at him. And I brought them up to my mother-in-law at Christmas and framed one for her. I was really impressed, which happens very rarely.”

Love drew another French cigarette out of the pack on the kidney-shape table. Edward was Edward Norton, the actor with whom she’s been linked romantically.

“You’re jaded,” I said.

“No. Yeah. It’s because really early on, living in Los Angeles, when I first hung out with Eric”—Erlandson, Hole’s guitarist—”we’d see a famous person and he’d gawk and I’d say, ‘Eric, that person is no better than you, don’t gawk,’ so in order to catapult to where I wanted us to be we had to deal with people that we really were really impressed by, like Kim [Gordon] and Thurston [Moore, both of Sonic Youth] or Michael Stipe—you have to be able to shut down and afford that person the consideration that their fame and they are very, very separate. I just learned to do that from an early age.”

Love finished the cigarette and got up to go to an alcove, and I heard a blender going, growling through organic vegetables. This was late at night in the greenroom of a recording studio off Times Square in New York City, and she was working on Hole’s new record, Celebrity Skin. She came back out of the alcove wearing a mustache of green-purple juice. It set off the black, fashionable outfit she had put on to meet with movie people that day.

“Madonna was talking to me about responsibility,” she said. “Our responsibilities. And some of what she says I think is a load of hogwash, and some of what she says is true. It’s like a 17-year-old girl comes up to you and tells you that she does drugs because you did drugs. I mean that’s like a heavy negative social responsibility. How do you atone for that?”

“That girl is doing drugs because she wants to,” I said.

Love would have none of this. “I see pictures of how I looked,” she said. “It’s disgusting. I’m ashamed. There’s death and there’s disease and there’s misery and there’s giving up your soul, there’s this creaky old-man phenomenon that happens to you. The human spirit mixed with certain powders is not the person, it’s the demonic presence.

“If you want to go back to Madonna for a moment, a quote from Vanity Fair: ‘She doesn’t have a self-destructive bone in her body.’ Well, I have many”—Love gave a mature, wheezy laugh—”and I’ve broken a bunch. I think self-destructiveness is given a really bad rap. I think that self-destructiveness can also mean self-reflection, can mean poetic sensibility, it can mean an empathy, it can mean a hedonism and a libertarianism and lack of judgment. But when you’re living the fantasy of someone else’s shadow, you’re not light. Everyone’s scared of you, you can’t really make any friends, they want to have a big Hollywood meeting with you just so they can stare at you for ten minutes. You know what I mean?”

She slumped on the couch and lit a cigarette.

This spring and summer, as Hole prepared their third album, Courtney Love was under attack everywhere. The film Kurt and Courtney aired accusations that Love played a role in the 1994 death of her husband, Kurt Cobain, and while even filmmaker Nick Broomfield said he didn’t believe the claims, they were treated seriously in the press. (A book, published by a fringe press but picked up nationwide, actually suggested she was a prime suspect.) The movie tapped into what appeared to be a widespread hatred of Love. She was a Yoko figure, demonized for sucking the lifeblood from Kurt Cobain. Once an icon of uncompromising female rage, she now seemed grasping and shallow, hungering for fame and acceptance as a movie star, putting on designer gowns to attend the Academy Awards and posing for Richard Avedon ads for Versace. Was she anything more than just desperately ambitious? And as for her music, rumor had it that Hole’s long-delayed new record has abandoned the hard crunch of the classic Live Through This for a deracinated California sound.

Could she do anything right? I spent hours with the band and Love through the first half of the year as they finished Celebrity Skin. It was clear what so angered people about Love, but the hostility toward the “New Courtney” was at times smug and self-congratulatory. During the past year, Love has been largely silent (at least for her), and it only seemed fair that she be allowed a full defense.

On a rainy February afternoon, Love came into the Quad Recording Studios in Times Square wearing a Peruvian wool hat down to her eyebrows, beige corduroy jeans with a hole in them, and a chic green sweater. A guy with a video camera was taping her from a tripod set up next to the mixing board. “For posterity,” Love said a little self-consciously as she crashed down on the couch. “Don’t worry, we control the tapes.”

It came up that we’d both lived in Minneapolis, and Love said, “Did you see my picture at the post office?”

“What for?”

“Boyfriend-stealing and starting fires…. I used to move in with people and fuck them because I thought they’d give me their powers. And they did.”

“Weren’t you projecting on them?”

She gave me a funny look. “I was joking,” she said. “You’re so literal—that’s tragic.”

Her yoga teacher had arrived, and Love walked down the narrow hall to meet her. She was a clam smiling woman in a white leotard. Gurmukh. Love apologized for being late.

“What have you been doing?” Gurmukh asked.

“Kissing ass,” Love said.

Later that night, Love, Erlandson, and bassist Melissa Auf der Maur were in the greenroom talking about the record. The posterity guy was back with the video camera. A large man, Love’s voice coach, sat on the black leather couch next to her, hands draped around her head, massaging her sinuses. Drummer Patty Schemel was the only one who wasn’t there. The band argued over the name for the album.

“I love the name Holy War. It’s a mission statement. It’s a statement of such pretense and import. It’s incredibly ambitious, I like it for that,” Love said.

Erlandson held out for Sugar Coma.

“Do you want to live with that 20 years later?” Love asked. “Sugar Coma is so pedestrian—it denotes the end of a cycle. Something deadly. If executives like it, you know it’s bad.”

“What about Best Sunday Dress?” Auf der Maur asked.

“It sound like Kurt Weill,” Love said.

I sat there quietly, burning over the “kissing ass” comment from earlier. And Love had hurt my feelings a second time. Auf der Maur was leafing through a Harper’s Bazaar when I asked Love what it was like to run across people she knew in magazines. “You’re nervous. Don’t ask stupid questions,” she said, and she was right. I was nervous; it was a stupid question.

But the casual flip of her powerful hand across my face in front of everyone was humiliating. As she went on, talking about how she meant the record to be a “masterwork,” I began developing a critique of her in my mind. She was big and queenly. Like all ambitious control freaks, she bent others to her will.

Later, Love was gentler. “Darwinism got me through a hard time,” she said, lolling on the couch. Darwinism could explain drug addiction, Darwinism could explain the chemical of love, Darwinism made Freud look ridiculous.

“Aren’t you being reductive?” I said. “It’s just a lens for looking at stuff. What about astrology as a lens?” (The band enjoyed zodiacal talk.)

“There’s a truth in it, but I sort of stopped after I learned that Harrison Ford and I have the exact same chart,” she said. “We’re like the only two celebrities with double Cancer.”

“Maybe you share qualities.”

“Yeah,” Love said. “He’s a stoic.”

Celebrity Skin doesn’t have the unharnessed anger of Live Through This—nothing as awesome as the moment when Love sang of a betrayer, “Come on, take everything / Take everything, I want you to!” on “Asking For It”—but it has mature complexities, an atmosphere of regret and mistakes and disgust. The songs that stayed with you the longest were the deepest, the most felt, the haunting key and plainly mixed feelings of “Petals” or “Boys on the Radio.” In “Boys on the Radio,” there was undying anger and love and contempt, mythic/poetic images of vanity and self-loathing, all interwoven in a pop melody. “In your endless summer night / I’ll be on the other side / When you’re beautiful and dying / All the world that you’ve denied / When the water is too deep / … I will ease your suffering / …I know that you are rotten to the core / I know that you don’t love me anymore.”

A few nights later, Erlandson was eating take-out Chinese, his long body folded on the floor. Love was watching the Biography Channel and puttering away online. “I’m not pregnant,” she said to the screen, then asked Erlandson to disengage the computer for her. Love is flaky about those sorts of things—keys, money, and so forth.

I asked them why the album took four years.

She said, “Someone dies [Cobain]. Have a child. Someone dies [bassist Kristen Pfaff]. Do a major movie. Oh, by the way, stop putting things into your body that you’ve been putting in for, oh, a decade. Umm, gee, I don’t know, is that four years? I think that’s about four years of your life. I mean it’s pretty obvious. I don’t care about prolific, I want a body of work that is like, everything was good.”

Erlandson said, “That there is so much crap out there people are putting out—I say, write for yourself, record your music for yourself, but don’t put out crap to the public if you know it’s not…”

“Be trustworthy,” Love interrupted. “If my and Harrison Ford’s charts are exactly alike, the one thing about Harrison Ford I can seem to relate to, you put the product out, you kind of know it’s going to have some level of quality to it.”

“We had another record in this four years we could have put out, and it was shit,” Erlandson said.

“It was self-indulgent,”Love said. “It was Plath, it was Sexton, it was shit.”

“Thank God we didn’t. Why torture the world with another crappy record?”

A man came tot he door who was by all appearances Edward Norton and, seeing a reporter, disappeared. Love grabbed Erlandson’s acoustic guitar and went out to the hallway. As she did, the body of the guitar clapped hard against a metal chair.

“Aaah,” Erlandson said, with buffered pain.

When Love came back, the two of them spoke of how they had always wanted Hole to be a mainstream success. “That was our biggest worry back then,” Erlandson said of the band’s start, “that ‘Hole’ [the name] could not be a mainstream band, and we wanted to be popular enough and sell enough records.”

“But also, when we started out, all I really wanted to do is piss everybody off,” Love said.

“I think it’d be great if [Celebrity Skin] pissed a lot of people off,” Erlandson said.

“It won’t piss anybody off,” Love said. “It’s supposed to provoke thought. There’s a good quote. I can only paraphrase it. Ninety-five percent of all popular culture is pornography, 5 percent creates inspiration, new aesthetic, and grace in people. I’d like to be in that 5 percent, using pop.”

Erlandson went into the studio to work, and I brought up Kurt Cobain. My reading of Celebrity Skin is that Love has distanced herself from her marriage, that she associates Cobain with dysfunctional behavior, and both pitied him and was angry at him, and was angry at the world of celebrity for being a place he couldn’t survive.

The album’s bad/great drug song, “Use Once & Destroy,” was a dark spiral that came close to confessional. The voice was angry at first: “I went down to rescue you / I went all the way down / I went down for the remains / Sort through all your blurs and stains.” Then abruptly it turned pained, loving: “Ooh, I will follow you/ Anytime anywhere / Ooh, I will come for you / Just say you aren’t there.”

Love had said there was a personal subtext in some of the songs, but she was unwilling to decode the messages. “I won’t talk about it because it’s none of your business,” she said simply. “Because you will never know.”

“Right now we’re talking about the death of your husband?”

“Or whatever, specifically, all of that shit—you will never know what that was like. And you will never know what that person was really like. And you will never ever ever know the personal truth of that relationship. And I will never exploit it for you. So that’s all I have to say about it, you know, and in the beginning, somebody should have locked me in my fucking room for a year.”

“But was it helpful to you?” I asked.

She stopped short. “The truth is, it was.”

“So why are you lacerating yourself?”

“You’re right it was cathartic, but I think people really took advantage of it. Let me tell you, I have some of the most amazing performances that people have ever seen, they’ll never see stuff like that again. It was like opera. But all I’m saying is that I can’t and I won’t engage in this kind of deep discussion of that situation because it’s…you weren’t there. You don’t know! It’s mine, it’s mine, and it’s already been robbed from me.”

Angered, she was vital and present. I kept at it. “Isn’t there a way that certain aspects of it are not yours.”

“You know what: I’m concerned with my emotional life.”

“But you’re a performer, you like things epic.”

“That whole other part of it, the mythic element, the archetype element of it, that has nothing to do with my reality. What was mine has been…a lot of it has been stolen from me.”

The mistrust that had been underlying the conversation came to the surface. “I don’t know how bad your jones is for this shit,” she said, “and I hope it’s not huge…it’s a gender thing too. I fucking like lived in that shadow and I’m alive and I’m going to live and I’m going to have great romances that are more than that was. I’m not going to live and I’m going to have great romances that are more than that was. I’m not going to live in that fucking shadow, it’s not my fucking shadow. I refuse.”

At the end when I’d transcribed nearly 40,000 words of Courtney Love’s conversation in files, I did a search for “Kurt.” It came up twice, both times Kurt Weill.

In March, Love went to Los Angeles, and soon after, Celebrity Skin‘s release was put off from June to early September. The pressure on the record was enormous, some of it self-applied. Working with producer Michael Beinhorn, Hole were bent on putting out a masterwork, an album that was the equal to Live Through This, to Nevermind. Then there was outside pressure. It’s an unfriendly time for raw, guitar-based music, and yet Hole want this record on the radio. Geffen Records has not had a hit in some time; meanwhile, many of its talented staff have moved elsewhere. Lately the label’s parent company, Universal, bought PolyGram, fueling speculation that Geffen may be folded.

And, of course, there were all the lances aimed at Love. “There have been few people in the