The Diaries of Courtney Love.
Edited by Ava Stander.
Illustrated. 292 pp. Faber & Faber. $35.
There was a moment — let’s say 1989, since that’s when I discovered her — when Courtney Love seemed like the solution to every girl’s problems. A brazenly feminist punk rocker with big hips and a sloppy grin, she was the first female celebrity in a long time who wasn’t embarrassed to take up space.
Sure, they called her Kurt Cobain’s Yoko. And she certainly got into a lot of fights. But Love had a messy charisma and a style — those ripped babydoll dresses and smeared makeup — that felt like a satire of sexiness. Her 1994 album “Live Through This” was the first rock I’d ever heard that really focused on women, with lyrics about breast-feeding and rape and competition, but done with humor and a nutsy aggression rare among female performers. I listened to it about 50 times.
Love, now 42, had a colorful bio, too, like a punk Pippi Longstocking. A foster kid with a trust fund, a bratty sometimes-stripper who bounced between schools and juvenile detention halls, Love traveled the world after being emancipated at 16 by her therapist mom, and then popped up in the Seattle grunge scene. Her role models were women like Frances Farmer and Anne Sexton — crazy artists too pure to live — but Courtney Love felt more accessible, like a friendly, shaggy golden retriever throwing her paws up on the public’s chest.
Then all the terrible stuff happened. A Vanity Fair profile accused Love of using heroin while pregnant; the courts got involved. In 1994, Kurt Cobain killed himself, leaving behind their daughter, Frances Bean, who was not quite 2. In the aftermath, Cobain’s widow seemed to swell to three times her own iconic size. She stood in front of a crowd of grieving Nirvana fans, furiously deconstructing his suicide note. Her emotional response seemed mythic and awesome — and then, as time passed, more unstable, more unsettling. What kind of mother was she? There were the drugs. There was the grandiosity. There were the Hollywood friendships, the fights over Nirvana money, her remark about making an overdose “fun” for her daughter. There was the plastic surgery that melted her into the starlet she’d once parodied. She seemed less to be selling out than having a fire sale.
Once in a while, she would have a comeback. But with each tabloid incident she emerged less of a superhero, more cartoonish than larger than life. Now, students of Courtney have an updated textbook and a chance to come back to her lunatic fold: “Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love,” a scrapbook of Courtneyana and the precursor to her latest album, “How Dirty Girls Get Clean,” scheduled for release this spring. It’s the sort of thing that generally appears only when a person is dead, a kind of companion volume to Kurt Cobain’s lost-boy diaries, published in 2002. We get scribbled rants and lyrics, set lists, posters — everything from a Mickey Mouse Fan Club rejection note to an e-mail exchange with Lindsay Lohan. Self-indulgent isn’t a strong enough word. And Love herself seems to know this. A meta-scribble reads: “No I do not want my diaries published. I want my poetry & lyrics published. I don’t want my gobblegook nonsense ‘Romantic’ cathartic unstable keening published.”
Nontheless, here it is: all that cathartic keening, curated for your coffee table. And the truth is, a lot of it is very affecting. For anyone as interested in Courtney Love as Courtney herself is, this book presents a classic showbiz story: the smart, miserable rebel passed from school to school, writing lousy poetry and developing fantasies of world domination through rock ’n’ roll. At 13, she scrawls a painful confession in red crayon about her relationship with her mother: “When I get around her I get so nervous and awkward and timid and weak and I always find myself trying to prove to her that I can make friends and be popular even though she lives on the other side of the world.” There’s a scribbled heart and the note: “I think I’ll be a Rockstar. Get an Oscar too and be best friends with Elton John.”
Love never stops trying for these two things: rock-star magnificence and famous friends. As an adolescent autodidact, she’s obsessed with punk and female glamour and enamored of Hollywood starlets like Pola Negri and Jean Harlow. She is tireless in her study of success, constantly drawing up motivational lists. There’s a 1991 set of goals: “achieve L.A. visibility,” “125 toned pounds,” “write 3-4 new songs”; a list of “things that interest me” (Nazis, teapots, true love); things she hates (drugs, being pregnant, Sassy magazine), and things she loves (drugs, Yoko Ono, Gus Van Sant). An egotist yes, but Courtney Love is an insightful student of herself. “I have mojo, but I don’t have confidence,” she worries in one note. If as she achieves fame, her scribbles become more grandiose, at least her heart is in the right place, as with her fevered pledge to help “the ugly the disavowed the disowned the terminal” — to “never again scapegoat anyone” now that she is “one of the pretty ones.” (Underneath, a red ink scribble adds, “man I most want to sleep with; W. B. Yeats.”)
A streak of overcompensating insecurity runs through the book, as Love obsesses about her own mythical potential: Is she pretty? Original? Is she better than skinnier, more popular girls? Do famous people like her? Love reproduces a note from Marc Jacobs, who thanks her for an unnamed thoughtful gift and promises to keep it private. And then there’s that exchange with Lindsay Lohan, who commiserates about leeches she calls “sickofans” — a brilliant pun or a bizarre typo? Hard to say.
Kurt appears only halfway through the book, in touching snapshots with baby Frances Bean. But perhaps the saddest, funniest artifact is an early page labeled “Things to teach my children (I will have four children).” Scrawling and amending as she goes, Love sets down her wisdom: “be caustic (dry),” “be humble” and “Don’t fight. If you do, win. If you lose I’ll fight for you.” But most of her advice seems to be addressed to her own inner child. “Never let anyone see you be self promoting.” “Be glamarous, get your highlights done every 16 days,” “Be honest. Pay Even the littlest things Back. Never borrow any money.” “Earn your own fame.” “Alchohol and cigarettes are weaknesses. Disgusting ones.” “You will be very spoilt,” she concludes. “Don’t abuse it.”
I recently saw a young woman reading “Dirty Blonde” on the subway. She loved Love, she said; she was even in a Hole cover band. The slot Courtney Love filled nearly 20 years ago — the big-mouth punk lunatic feminist rocker, the bad girl as role model — is still open. But it’s nice to know the original candidate hasn’t stopped auditioning.