COVER STORY : The Trials of Love : Just when Courtney Love should be focusing on Hole and her career, she can't help worrying about her husband, Kurt Cobain

This should be the happiest time of Courtney Love's life.

On Tuesday, Geffen Records releases the album that Love hopes will change her reputation from a curiosity to a respected artist. And she has just moved into a new lakefront house in Seattle with her husband, Kurt Cobain, and their 19-month-old daughter, Frances Bean.

In the alternative-rock world, Love is known as a provocateur with shrewd media instincts and charisma--a sort of underground Madonna (whose record company, coincidentally, once expressed interest in signing Love's band, Hole).

But the new album, "Live Through This" (see review, Page 72) is strong enough to break through the stereotypes. It's the boldest in a series of outstanding records written and sung by a new wave of gifted female artists.

So why did Love suddenly break into sobs last week in a Beverly Hills hotel room, in her first interview since Cobain suffered a near-fatal drug overdose last month in Rome?

Love is haunted by the incident and the aftermath, and though she won't speak about them on the record, the rumors last week were nonstop: Cobain's band, Nirvana, has broken up . . . he has had another overdose . . . she has had an overdose . . . he has checked into a recovery program.

She pauses and lights a cigarette. For once, the woman known for her biting sarcasm and savage wit in marathon interviews is speechless.

For all her cockiness, she now seems frightened and fragile. "Off the record," she says repeatedly before describing the tensions of recent weeks, mostly involving her concerns over her husband. She wonders how she can go on the road if he needs her in Seattle.

Because of Cobain's condition, Nirvana last week bowed out of headlining the summer's "Lollapalooza" festival, and the future of the group is in question.

'I don't care about 'Lollapalooza,' " Love says when asked about the situation. "I just don't ever want to see him on the floor like that again. . . . He was blue."

Courtney Love is so famous among journalists for her loquaciousness that the joke is that you don't have to worry about questions when you interview her--just be sure you have lots of tape.

All that talk can turn you into a bore or a star, depending on the level of intelligence and wit--and Love has both. Her conversation is peppered with the latest gossip and savage commentaries on pop culture, jumping from the profound to the frivolous without signal.

Above all, she knows the art of being provocative. No wonder a film agent once described her as a cross between Madonna and Bette Midler--a comparison she hated.

Until her husband's overdose in Rome, which caused her to suspend interviews, the San Francisco native looked forward to lots of talking this spring about the new album--because she knows she has an album that proves she is no joke as a singer-songwriter and guitarist.

To many, Courtney Love smells like rock hype. Reviewers may be excited about her, but the rock audience may be skeptical of the credentials of someone who is more famous for her interviews and her spouse than for her music. Hole's debut album, on the small independent Caroline Records, sold only 60,000 copies.

The band--Love, guitarist Eric Erlandson, bassist Kristen M. Pfaff and drummer Patty Schemel--is aware of the hurdles presented by its leader's celebrity status.

"We felt that pressure when we were recording," says Pfaff in a separate interview. "I think we all knew it had to be really good (to) get over the Courtney personality thing . . . the wife-of-the-rock-star thing and the girl-band thing."

The new album shows there is more to Love than an ability to titillate and amuse. It combines the naked intimacy of Leonard Cohen with the rock self-affirmation of Patti Smith. Rolling Stone labels it "excellent." Newsweek calls it a "bracing album shot through with real sadness and candor." Love, the magazine continues, "sounds like a young Chrissie Hynde, not Mrs. Kurt Cobain."

For her part, Love is confident the band will get a fair hearing.

"I believe in the music and I think it will be heard," she says, lighting another in a parade of cigarettes.

But she acknowledges the skepticism--and sure enough, there's a story in Love's endless well of anecdotes about her way of dealing with it.

While Hole got mostly glowing reviews when it previewed material from the album on a recent West Coast tour with the Lemonheads, she says the crowd in Vancouver, Canada, seemed more fascinated with her than with the music.

"There were 3,000 people there and you could sense everyone talking while we were on stage," Love says. "You could feel this swirl of energy and talk . . . a group over there talking about what I'm wearing and a group over there saying something about me and Madonna.

"Finally about 15 minutes into the show, I just stop playing and go to the microphone. 'Oh, I get it. You guys don't know it's cool to like us yet.' I said, 'You know what? I'll just come back in six months when the word (gets up) to Canada. I know you are a little behind.' "

With that, she says, she walked off the stage.

*

Love has long been attracted by fame.

"It was something that was interesting and rare," she says, rubbing her hand through her hair, with its peroxide blonde highlights and dark roots, as she sits in a chair in her suite's living room. "It was a challenge--sort of hard to achieve, but not that hard."

She clearly enjoys being a star.

"Everyone likes to gossip about me," she says, pointing to a Macintosh computer that sits across the room in its packing container. "One of the reasons I got that is so I can read all the gossip about me on America Online.

"Everytime I go over to my friend's house, I punch myself in and there'll be all this crazy stuff about me."

Nothing appears to delight Love more than a good story--and some of those she tells about her background are so good that you wonder if she isn't above fabricating a few to make her background more interesting. Didn't Dylan do that?

Besides, shouldn't a reporter be on guard when the subject includes this line on her album:

I lie and lie and lie.

Asked about the lyric, Love says teasingly, "It's just admitting that I can be dishonest, that I can be a liar."

With a smile that summarizes the contradictions in her personality, she adds, "At least I'm honest about that, right?"

But much of Love's past has been verified.

Her mother is Linda Carroll, the therapist of Katherine Ann Power, the '60s radical who surrendered last year in connection with a murder/bank robbery after 23 years in hiding. Her father is Hank Harrison, a writer who authored some books on the Grateful Dead.

She describes her parents as hippies and says that they were divorced when she was quite young. Her childhood travels took her from New Zealand to England to Oregon, where she lived in a tepee near Eugene. A photo on the back of the new CD shows a young, barefoot Love from that period.

Seeing child star Tatum O'Neal win an Oscar for "Paper Moon" made her obsessed with show business at age 9.

"I said, 'Yeah, OK, that's cool,' and I started doing commercials and children's theater," she says, pouring a cup of tea. "I owned the Pacific Northwest when it came to the children's slot in radio jingles and voice-overs."

But there were dark times. She says she was in and out of foster homes in her early teens and was sent to a juvenile detention center after stealing a KISS T-shirt from a department store.

*

By 15, Love had discovered rock 'n' roll, and began a journey that took her over the next decade from New York to San Francisco to Minneapolis in search of the right musical partnership. She hooked up briefly with the bands Faith No More and Babes in Toyland. Somewhere along the line, she appeared in Alex Cox's film "Straight to Hell." On the side, she danced in strip joints.

By the end of the '80s, Love was drained. She headed for Alaska, where she went into virtual isolation while she tried to figure out her future.

"I was turning 24 and had been wanting to have a band since I was 15, 16 and I still hadn't succeeded," she recalls.

Her vow was to move to Los Angeles to give rock one more try--this time searching for her own inner voice as a musician.

Like thousands of other young rock hopefuls each year, Love put an ad in the Recycler in June, 1989, looking for musicians who, like her, were interested in such bands as Big Black, the Stooges, Sonic Youth and Fleetwood Mac.

Eric Erlandson, a guitarist who grew up in the same San Pedro neighborhood as Black Flag's Greg Ginn, responded to the ad.

"She called me back about two weeks later and talked my ear off at 3 in the morning," he says in a separate interview. "I was pretty scared off right away when I first met her. She was kind of overbearing. But I sensed there was something I could bring to the band.

"Even though she had that strong personality, I felt she needed some focus and discipline, which I had. I had a lot of patience. We played off each other."

The first Hole lineup made its stage debut three months later at Raji's in Hollywood, opening for the L.A. female quartet L7.

Erlandson didn't feel that the band was ready to play a club, but Love believed in learning in public, he says. She enjoyed the chaos and the challenge.

Things progressed fairly quickly.

Hole--which then included Jill Emery on bass and Caroline Rue on drums--released its debut album in 1991 on tiny Caroline Records.

The album downplayed the pop instincts of both Erlandson and Love, reaching instead for an aggression and Angst that was typical of the punk-influenced alternative scene at the time.

"I told myself, 'I'm going into this level of anger that is going to be beyond wretched and I'm going to just spew it out,' " Love says. "I had some jangly songs at that time because I was a big fan of R.E.M. and Fleetwood Mac, but I just didn't use that sound. I kind of regret that now, but I was intimidated by the scene."

The pop press, especially in England, crowned Hole the Next Big Thing and the band's leader was flattered by all the attention.

Within months, she was dating Cobain. When the superbly crafted tales of youthful alienation on Nirvana's breakthrough album "Nevermind" led critics to call Cobain the voice of a new rock generation, it set up Love as the Yoko Ono figure to Cobain's John Lennon--someone who was perceived to have hooked on to a star.

But rumors of drug use led to a more troubling comparison: Love and Cobain as Generation X's Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen.

As Nirvana got more popular, the rumors about the couple became more widespread. The most infamous moment was when Love was quoted in Vanity Fair as saying that she took heroin while pregnant with Frances. (Love insists she didn't know she was pregnant at the time).

In a 1992 interview with The Times, Cobain admitted using drugs, including heroin, but said that he was then drug-free. He made the announcement, he said, because he didn't want his daughter to be told by someone else that her parents were junkies.

But Cobain had another reason for saying he was through with drugs: He and Love were privately battling attempts by a Los Angeles County agency, apparently alarmed by the Vanity Fair report, to take custody of their daughter.

The couple prevailed and the drug issue faded. Until Rome.

Love had flown to Rome early last month to spend a few days with Cobain after he canceled part of a European concert tour because of illness. She woke in their hotel room to find him unconscious, having taken some of her prescription tranquilizers and alcohol, she says.

"He was dead . . . legally dead," she says. "He was in a coma for 20 hours . . . on life support. They thought he was never going to come out of it."

On the new album Love declares, "I don't believe in God," but the singer, who was raised a Catholic, purchased Rosary beads and prayed for her husband at the Vatican.

When Cobain came out of the coma, he was transferred to another hospital. The move attracted hordes of photographers.

Trying to prevent anyone from getting a ghoulish photo of him as he lay on the stretcher with tubes in his nose, Love kicked at a photographer who had a clear shot. Now she regrets it.

"I wish Kurt could have seen (a photo of himself) because if he had, he never would get into that situation again. . . . He has such a great gift. . . ."

*

Love has been talking nearly three hours now and she's trying to be optimistic. A copy of Hole's new CD sits on a table, near a Narcotics Anonymous handbook. Frances is in a room down the hall with a nanny.

Love speaks about the early reaction to the album . . . the news that the group may appear on "Saturday Night Live" next month . . . the start of a concert tour.

But the strain of recent weeks remains.

Tears well again in her eyes.

Picking up the handbook, she says, "I accepted the fact I was a drug addict and I go to the (expletive) meetings and I chant (an outgrowth of her interest in Buddhism). I am aware I am not above it. I realize drugs can floor me."

She pauses to light another cigarette.

"I know this should be the happiest time of my life--and there have been moments (over the last year) where I felt that happiness," she says, wearing a soft pink sweater over her trademark baby-doll white dress. "But not now. I thought I went through a lot of hard times over the years, but this has been the hardest. . . ."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday April 10, 1994 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction Kurt Cobain--The Sunday Calendar cover story on Courtney Love of the rock group Hole was printed before the apparent suicide of Love's husband, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.
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