In a note left to his widow, Courtney Love, prior to his 1994 suicide, Kurt Cobain apologized for killing himself and begged her, ”Please don’t follow me.” Last month, as Love, once known for her dirty baby-doll dresses, smeared lipstick, and fondness for heroin, landed on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar as one of ”America’s Most Stylish Women,” it’s clear there was never any danger of that.
Love has often been skewered for her shrewd careerism, while Cobain is remembered as a tortured soul. But after reading about Love’s wretched early years in Poppy Z. Brite’s Courtney Love: The Real Story, it seems Love also suffered the kind of pain that could lead to suicide. In fact, the chilling details of Love’s childhood from hell are what save this book from being just another celebrity clip job. While the latter chapters mostly rehash old stories, Brite, who had access to court records and some of Love’s journals, describes her nightmarish family and her stints in foster homes, reform schools, and strip clubs so effectively that the book briefly transcends its genre. It’s a snapshot of a ’60s hippie couple and their abysmal child-rearing practices that would be fascinating even if Love weren’t famous.
Love’s parents, a onetime Deadhead named Hank Harrison and Linda Risi Carroll, a flaky heiress, raised her in a ragtag household in San Francisco. They divorced when Courtney was 5, and her mother won custody after testifying in court that Harrison had given his daughter LSD when she was 4. Carroll married twice more and had two other daughters, finally moving with her third husband to a commune in Oregon. Brite says other kids called Love Pee Girl, ”because no one ever thought to wash her clothes.” When she was 8, her family moved to New Zealand, but because she and her mother fought, Love was left behind with a friend of Carroll’s in the States. Eventually, Love was shipped to New Zealand. Once there, Brite claims, her mother again found her too difficult, and Love wound up back in the U.S., where she spent several years in reform school and juvenile hall. According to one reformatory report, 13-year-old Love came back from a visit with Harrison smelling of marijuana and said her father had given it to her. Love’s friend Robin Bradbury recalls once visiting Harrison with her and says he gave them a baggie containing LSD when they left. Bradbury also remembers Love’s delight when her first stepfather gave her a toothbrush: ”I don’t think she got the normal things kids get from their parents. I mean, to get so excited about a f—ing toothbrush.” (Carroll, now a therapist, once said Courtney had been troubled since the age of two.)
Given her childhood, her later years, in which she shuttled between strip clubs in Japan and L.A. and punk-rock hangouts in Liverpool, sound less apocryphal here than when first reported in Lynn Hirschberg’s notorious 1992 profile in Vanity Fair. When she marries Cobain, who reportedly never got over his parents’ divorce, it seems more like the inevitable union of two damaged souls than Hirschberg’s take that Love played a scheming Yoko to Cobain’s vulnerable Lennon.
Hirschberg’s devastating and prescient portrait of Love ruthlessly plotting her path to stardom, however, is sorely missed here. Brite seems reluctant to explore why Cobain ultimately turned on himself while Courtney, so far, has triumphed, morphing from the original riot grrrl into a Dolce & Gabbana-clad Serious Actress and mainstream media darling overnight. It could be that Love’s ferocious survival instincts were forged in a childhood that was actually far worse than Cobain’s. One clue to how far she’s come may lie in Love’s reform-school records. ”Internally, Courtney appears to be a very frightened young lady,” reads one report, ”who has never met with very much success at anything she has tried.” Now that the former Pee Girl has a potentially dazzling movie, music, even modeling career ahead of her, that kind of statement, of course, is no longer true. B