There’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Photo: Juergen Teller/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Male rock stars who’ve sung songs about rage pretty much grow on trees. You can get them unbridled from the Sex Pistols or self-deprecating from the Violent Femmes or sardonic from Elvis Costello or sexy from the Rolling Stones. But the female rock star who’s made art out of anger is a creature even more rare than the female rock star. For this I love Courtney Love. Oh that’s right, I sometimes think when I hear her, her music is actually really different, and really good. And why had I forgotten that in the first place? Because Courtney Love the exhibitionist is so insistent upon upstaging Courtney Love the artist.

Unfortunately, before the artist releases her new album, How Dirty Girls Get Clean, due out this spring, the exhibitionist is publishing Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love. To get a sense of what the first half of the book is like, you don’t have to actually read it, you just have to conjure your own childhood diaries or ancient homework assignments. Mortifying stuff. How you thought you were so clever and soulful. Or, as adolescence descended, how limitlessly self-righteous you became. Or even (let’s face it!) what an intense freak you could be in your twenties. But that’s okay, because nobody will ever see these artifacts of your recent past lives, unless you forget to burn them before your death. Or publish them between hard covers.

Why? Why would Love show us a poem written at age 9 called “Angel Dust” that includes the words “falling like pearls from the mist”? Or offer to the eyes of the world a list of her goals from early adulthood: “Make LP, Achieve LA visibility, 125 Toned Pounds—Heal, Cash flow very good—loose”? Is it a generous gift from Love to self-involved girls across the country who will see themselves in her anguish and princess doodles and take comfort in the thought that someday they too could be stars? An altruistic urge that comes from the same part of Love that wrote (as a young woman already in Hole), “I want to help the ugly, the disavowed, the disowned, the terminal”? Or is the publication of this book the behavior of a narcissist so venal and deranged she thinks every scrap of paper she’s ever scrawled on is worthy of public attention?

And make no mistake: Dirty Blonde is literally a collection of scraps. There are barely legible scribblings, a Xerox of Love’s passport, and, more interesting, snapshots of her with Kate Moss, Winona Ryder, and Hillary Clinton, and a letter she once wrote to Kim Gordon (in which she uses the word slenchingly). This is a Dumpster-dive through Love’s life; Love and her editor offer almost nothing in the way of organizational framework to guide the reader through the entries. For example, after pages of Love’s jottings on an airplane (we don’t know from or to where) about the first flush of fame (“since I have no friends, this is the thing that excites me—manipulating people for press—i’m pretty good at it because in isolation you hone your skills”), we get the first clear mention of Kurt Cobain: a photo of her with him captioned “Frances in my tummy.” If you’re looking for Love’s private thoughts on hooking up with the king of grunge and giving birth to his baby, you won’t find them here.

You do get to see Love’s rock memorabilia from the Pacific Northwest’s heyday, and that’s fun stuff. For instance, a collage Love made of photos of good girls with her solicitation for a female bass player written under them: “Someone who can play ok, and stand in front of 30,000 people, take off her shirt and have fuck you written on her tits. If your not afraid of me and your not afraid to fucking say it, send a letter. no more pussies, no more fake girls, I want a whore from hell.” It’s exciting to be reminded of a time when Love was able to tether her appetite for attention to her talent (as in her most famous lyric: “I want to be the girl with the most cake”). Love seemed, initially, to embody a kind of fabulous, feminist integrity, and her wildness sparkled with the possibility that she just didn’t give a shit.

These diaries make it clear that nothing could be further from the truth. She is, as she has written over and over throughout the course of her life, obsessed with being accepted, and the publication of these diaries is the final proof that, unlike many celebrities, Love wants to be affirmed for every humiliating detail of her being, not just the interesting or artistically successful bits. She will not rest until she’s told you everything, and seen if you will keep on listening. In the era of Us Weekly and reality television, when the bar has been set very, very low for acceptable celebrity attention-seeking behavior, Love has still consistently managed to find a way under it.

A family photo of Love in Hawaii, 1996.Photo: Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux

This all works out fine for a public that seems to have an insatiable desire to see Love, as she once put it, “covered in loser dust.” It is somehow not enough to know, as we already did, that Love’s father gave her drugs when she was a little girl and later tried to make a career of telling anyone who would listen that she murdered Cobain. (Supportive!) Or that she once crashed an MTV interview at the VMAs to literally kneel at the feet of Madonna (who acidly remarked, “Courtney Love is in dire need of attention right now”). Or that she has been, at different times in her 42 years, a stripper and a junkie, and has overdosed in front of her daughter on OxyContin and been straitjacketed and removed from her own home. If Love were to put Frances Bean’s old dirty diapers on display at a gallery, I doubt the show would be underattended.

Many an artist, male and female, has had a nervous breakdown or a drug addiction: Janis Joplin, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath. But there is a difference between succumbing to the dark or pathetic forces within oneself and fetishizing them—imagining that your neuroses are as interesting as your talents. These diaries, while putting a lot of personal detritus out there, don’t bring us any closer to understanding what is really special about Courtney Love: her music. Dirty Blonde ends with an afterword arguing that Love is a feminist role model because she defies feminine conventions. But what would be really thrilling is to see her defy the feminine convention of self-loathing.

There’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate