And the Sky Was Made of Amethyst

And the Sky Was Made of Amethyst on Violet Book Online (en-GB)
Courtney wears dress by CELINE.
And the Sky Was Made of Amethyst on Violet Book Online (en-GB)
There’s a lot that people don’t lead with when they talk about Courtney Love. An American iconoclast, who has spent much of the last few decades being castigated by the media, Love inhabits an old-world Hollywood charm, but with a counterculture edge; always pulling towards the darkness, the rage, the challenge. Being misconstrued might come with the territory of prophesying and speaking out, but the impact she has left in her trails is rarely given the time it deserves.
Stephanie LaCava
Photography  Laura Bailey Styling  Leith Clark Interview  Stephanie LaCava

Love has left a legacy of defiance. One that contends with authority, patriarchy and the world of men that dominate and sneer. Since the beginning of her art-making, she gave a new voice and version to female anger, one that punctuated the space with a reckoning no-one was ready for. Before her, we had glimpses of this deep fury in literature, like when Anne of Green Gables breaks the slate on Gilbert Blythe’s head after he teasingly calls her ‘carrots’ or when Amy burns Jo’s manuscript in the fire after a fit of deep anger in Little Women. These were moments in time in art that felt so rare, yet they were threads. In her music, in the candor of her words, Love was reflecting all the depths of feeling trapped with nowhere to go, wanting nothing but to scream and scream and scream. She showed us somewhere to pocket that feeling, she showed us a way back to that place, to nurture it and be in remembrance of it.

Wearing a tiara and a slip dress, she also harnessed a different version of femininity. One that was both flirty and critical, sexy yet punishing. She goes where others can’t, but I imagine she (and also us) wouldn’t have it any other way. This magazine, Violet, was named after the song by Love’s seminal band, Hole. “Go on, take everything/ Take everything, I want you to,” she taunts, she sways. It’s so clear, she’s leaving a relic of her heart out there for all of us to see, so that it’s never forgotten, so we bear witness. For this issue, Stephanie LaCava was lucky enough to get a chance to do exactly that.

By Fariha Róisín

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Stephanie LaCava: Hi, hello. How are you?

Courtney Love: I just got hypnotised to stop smoking. It’s the second time I’ve done it. It takes 72 hours, and then you can talk about it. You really have to lean into hypnotism. It does work with nicotine. Doesn’t work with the others. This is the last piece: removing the cigarettes.

Your body has been resilient through a lot of things...

It’s wild. Finally, this year it was like, ‘Fuck you. You need to look at all of this’. It just broke down.

Somebody who knows me really well said, ‘Was it just that you couldn’t take it anymore? And so your body decided to turn against you?’ The fact that I wake up every day and am presented with a bunch of physical challenges is nothing compared to the psychic and cultural battery I dealt with for so long.

What do you mean?

The only time I felt respite from the hurricane was when I was acting. Otherwise, it was an unending cycle of madness. Before I moved to London, the only break from that grind was to be a movie star for two years. I thought my face would fall off from phony smiling. I love acting, but I hate fake smiling. Through my friend Dr. Jamieson [Webster], I found my therapist. He helped me make the choice to get off narcotic drugs.

I like Jamieson a lot. She took me to a conference once because she knew I was into the uncanny. I love Freud.

I don’t love him because I think he hates us [women].

Fair point.

He thinks we are born with no honour and I honestly think he’s wrong. I haven’t read enough of him. [Jacques] Lacan is perfect for me because [he is] about language.

When I speak it needs to be in poetry—lyrics—visuals and melodies, otherwise I’m wasting my breath. I learned these punk hard-working habits growing up from artists like Nick Cave, Henry Rollins, Patti Smith. You always had your pen filled with ink because you write lyrics. But the Notes app on the phone: it’s fast, it’s smooth.

My friend Laura [Bailey, who shot this story’s images] gave me this today. It’s Smith’s first poetry book from Telegraph Books. Patti writes about Edie Sedgewick [Courtney reads from the book she’s holding]:

‘I don’t know how she did it. Fire She was shaking all over...’

What really blew my mind was how it goes—watch my finger [she points to the passage in the book]—‘Fire She was shaking all over.’ There’s no comma after ‘Fire’. It just says, ‘Fire She was shaking all over.’ It’s this beautiful use of language.

For some reason, I thought of Kathy Acker. She had a book called My Mother: Demonology, and I liked the movement of the words so much. Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill wrote this book called The Boy Looked at Johnny: The Obituary of Rock and Roll, which changed my life. I’ve never seen a woman be so acerbic in print. I loved it. It was about punk and boys and stuff. I was too young for it.

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Tell me a little about growing up, about your parents.

My mother was adopted by a wealthy San Francisco family. Her biological mother was the novelist Paula Fox. I found out years ago that my step-grandfather, Mort Greenberg, Paula’s husband, was the brother of [art critic] Clement Greenberg. People go with the story that I’m a girl from Northern California.

My father doesn’t rate me as an artist, neither does my mother. They don’t rate rock and roll. As for acting, my mother was terrified of Los Angeles. They always taught me, ‘Never go there, that’s where the phony people live.’

An old boyfriend, Jeff [Mann], had to drag me to Malibu. I bounced into town with Rit-dyed black hair, 80s slip dress, long johns, ballet slippers, and a flannel. I had a rucksack that could fit everything I owned.

When I first went to LA, I loved it. I loved the glamour. I loved being on film sets. I loved every single thing about it—except for the hardcore music.

There’s a story that you started off acting when you were very young. You sent in a tape to the Mickey Mouse Club of you reading a Sylvia Plath poem?

I did read Daddy. I also did a Dorothy Parker kind of monologue thing, but Disney wasn’t ready for me yet. I think soon. [Laughs.]

Movies were a thing for you even before the music?

I would say that my soul is in the costume department. Jeff brought me to Malibu from San Francisco to meet his mom, Bernadine. She took me to the set of Mommie Dearest where she was working as Faye’s [Dunaway] dresser. She did this for twenty-some years: The Eyes of Laura Mars and Network. I learned everything from her.

The first film set I worked on was a Sam Peckinpah movie called The Osterman Weekend. They were shooting in Malibu. Bernadine and Jeff lived in a trailer there, six and half miles up Old Chimney Road in Latigo. When you go through the canyon, down to Malibu, it’s really this sacred patch of land for me. That 27 miles of coastline really soothes my soul.

Bernadine would start out at about 4.30am every morning. So I learned her rhythm. She took over the wardrobe department at Paramount. That’s where I was really let out to play. I’m steam drying things that say ‘Miss Carole Lombard’, ‘Miss Lauren Bacall’, and getting to take home whatever was broken. My job was also to throw out the things with dry rot. Of course, I didn’t throw them out. I wore them every night. I was the best-dressed girl in Hollywood. Are you kidding!?

That’s where I came from. I was the punk rock extra on Brewster’s Millions with my friend Pat Smear for $35 a day. Bernadine was doing Richard’s [Pryor] clothes. I remember being offered a job at Palace Costume. It’s weird, I didn’t even know [costume designer] Arianne [Phillips] yet but obviously we were destined to become friends. I didn’t take that job, but it was a fun straight job.

The predominant narrative in the media is that you went through a Hollywood phase, but it was never a pivot. You didn’t bend your identity to act. It was there all along.

I know the narrative is beyond twisted. I think I’m one of those people who will hopefully be alive when history rescues me with facts. I wanted to act from grade school. I knew I wanted a band, but I also knew I wanted to act.

How did you form your first band?

It was really hard because girls didn’t play much. I remember Jennifer Finch trying out for The Pandoras [she formed L7 later]. They said, ‘No. I know you can play well, but you’re not good enough yet.’ In Jennifer’s case, I think they said she wasn’t cool enough. Boy, did she prove them wrong.

So, Jennifer and Kat [Bjelland]: one I had to drag from college in Portland [Kat] and one I had to drag up from Hollywood to meet me in San Francisco [Jennifer]. We started up what was a joke band, because I couldn’t play, but they could.

At one point, I wanted one of my oldest friends from Portland to be the singer and Kat to be the guitar player. I said this on VH1—and it’s a super comic line, but I really meant it: I was going to be the quiet genius. That was my job. There were these spit takes on Behind the Music where people were like, ‘The quiet genius!?’ It’s really funny, but I was saying it in all seriousness.

Things happened and they went on to form their own bands [Jennifer in L7; Kat in Babes in Toyland]. Lee Ranaldo produced Kat’s major label debut record; the single is a seven-minute ode to her breaking a whiskey bottle. She wasn’t focused on writing melodies; rather, appealing to the elite cultural gatekeepers. This left her without a sustainable way to make a living. Melody is currency to me. It makes me mad that it’s often undervalued or dismissed.

And you were in Faith No More?

I got kicked out of Faith No More when we were about to record a single. We didn’t have cell phones. I was living right above the nipples on this neon sign at The Condor. I had to do this champagne hustle down the street at a place called Big Al’s. I got home one night and there were two girls—runaways—I’d let stay in my room who told me, ‘Someone came and told us you’re not playing. You’re not going to the studio tomorrow.’

I didn’t know how to write songs. Roddy [Bottom, keyboardist in Faith No More] was writing everything on keyboard and I didn’t know where they were going. They were really nice about it. They said, ‘Well, we didn’t want a chick singer.’ It wasn’t that easy. But it was fine. I don’t think new girls are built the way I’m built. It was a dog-eat-dog existence in pay-by-the-week motels for most of the 80s. So, I was in Faith No More for a minute. I had no agency then.

What do you mean by agency?

Everyone says ‘agency’ now. There’s a couple of these words that I like: ‘triggered,’ for example. And I think ‘agency’ is a beautiful word.

Agency: money—economic power. And the power over your own presentation. If I could wish anything for my younger self it would be that I had been stronger. My reputation was in shreds before I had a choice in the matter.

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Tell me about Hole. You started the band in 1989 and announced your break-up in 2002? How did it end?

Honestly, I wanted an all-girl band for a reason. I did some really self-destructive stuff, including take up with the worst man ever... There were men fighting over me at that time, but not in any sort of good way. My boyfriend and my manager hated each other. They screamed and fought all the time.

Men are great. I’d die without them. But they can fuck off in my creative, secret space. I prefer women in that area.

I’ve always presented as very tough and been fine with that. I’ve had to be tough. But in terms of my own psychic space, I’m not. I’m so dainty, I think. That’s why I got sick. And why I’m getting well. I’m owning my frail.

In your experience, do men and women have the same chance of succeeding as musicians?

I’ve done really well compared to other women songwriters of my generation in terms of being able to have food, shelter, clothe my family based on work. And it’s probably only because of what I inherited and then it all comes down to wealth. So, the men are in everything. Is that how it goes? There’s too much disparity. ‘Even playing field’, my ass.

You mention your reputation. Do you feel like you’ve been misunderstood by the public?

I dated a great screenwriter who would often shake his head and say I was the most misunderstood woman in the world. He’s not the first man to say this and be shocked by it. But he would also never really take me out in public.

I do feel I’ve been relegated at times to this weeping figure. My daughter, and men who love me, have not been able to stand up for me. They haven’t had the words. They shouldn’t have to try to explain me.

How do you feel supported despite this?

It’s really smart to find mentors that know how to survive. Those that will help you thrive, that do not want your toys or the names of your lovers. They’ll stay by you quietly. When you’re presented as crazy, nobody likes sticking by you. Some people withdraw.

I’ve been lucky to have some strong, evolved friends who have stuck it out next to me. I think it’s because they know I live by some code of honour that I’m going to deliver on. I’m not here just to watch the Lakers game. Court-side seats are nice, but I think playing the game is more fun.

How would you prepare other women for being in there?

I would teach the game by writing new rules. Great laws around romance. It will be a version of ‘courtly love’. There would be an emphasis on poetics and honour. No society works without honour.

By the way, what does your hoodie say?

Dead Moon.

Fred and Toody! [Both in the band Dead Moon.] They had Captain Whizeagle’s [a musical equipment store in Portland]. I got my first guitar from them; they gave it to me!

Really?

Yeah, on layaway. I had to strip to pay for that guitar. Then, they got me a 1958 Gibson Melody Maker that I took to Liverpool. The guy from Echo & the Bunnymen stole it off me and wrote ‘The Killing Moon’ on it! I want that guitar back.

What were early reactions to your sound?

At first people said, ‘Don’t sing that way. So angry! Boys won’t like you.’ I think we proved those people wrong. The screams changed once I transformed some hysteria into rage, channelled my feelings and thoughts into words and melodies. People I admired, like Patti [Smith], were doing this already. I’m far more invested in melody than I am in screaming or noise music. Diamanda Galás was never my thing. I just really like The Beatles, if I’m honest.

All of that other stuff wasn’t really my job. I had to fight really hard because I’m pro-melody, pro-pleasure, pro-sex, pro-love, pro-living your life. Melody, melody, melody.

What’s undesirable about melody?

Some gatekeepers of culture think it has to be avant-garde, angular, ugly, or academic. Kurt [Cobain] had to hide so much of his melodic instinct on [the Nirvana album] Bleach. We discussed it a lot. He talked about the scene in Olympia and how oppressive it felt. Kurt was never accepted because he was, in their words, a ‘townie’ from the most sad, depressed town in Washington. He was told, ‘Capitalism is bad, ambition is bad, melody is bad.’ We all were, for a very long time.

Recently, someone asked me what was my favourite punk single. None is the answer.

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What’s your relationship to punk?

I lived in Joe Strummer’s basement. My first film role was Gretchen in Sid and Nancy, years after punk. I had to stay at the Chelsea hotel in ’85, having never been to Manhattan or the East Coast even. I was terrified. As for Joe, we were buddies. I loved him so much. We bonded over Federico García Lorca in Spain. He never understood when I became famous. I didn’t understand until last year why The Clash are so important. They are, but that doesn’t include me, an American woman.

I love how in 1977, punk won! It actually won over Thatcher’s ruins and poverty. That is power. It didn’t occur to me how important it was until recently, the scale. This group of rebels rose up to be heard.

I lived American West Coast hardcore. I didn’t like S.S.T. or Black Flag. Boy, I hated Black Flag, least inclusive thing ever. I’d rather open for Metallica—and I have!

The first time I saw Jane’s Addiction—that band was my saviour in LA. Bombastic, sexy, aspirational, grandeur, and with melodies. I lived very briefly in Liverpool and went religiously to see Echo & the Bunnymen. It was life changing; I loved them so much for many reasons. I loved early U2. Then, I got back to the States and discovered R.E.M.’s Chronic Town. I was post-punk, never punk. Whatever that means.

Where are you in relation to the Riot grrrl movement?

I re-read Tobi Vail from Bikini Kill’s Riot grrrl manifesto last week for some reason. These amazing theories were not sustainable lifestyles. They created no agency.

If you listen through the noise you can hear Lana Del Rey saying over and over in her interviews, ‘I am a singer/songwriter.’ Value that. Who calls their record, Lust for Life, knowing it’s the same title as the Iggy Pop album? I love it. Lana imagines things. Agency to pretend! That word again. Take a peek. Prepare to be delighted. She has graduated. All that hard, scary work paid off. She writes daily, often, always: a diligent, hard-worker.

Wait, let’s go back, fast forward to you returning to Hollywood, post-Hole.

All of a sudden, I had power, some agency. There was this former beauty queen who ran Paramount with a steel hand. She was very glamorous and very frightening. She offered me $10 million to play Janis Joplin. I remember sitting in this woman’s office and saying, ‘I’m not going to do Joplin.’

And she said, ‘You made $275,000 on the last movie, what are you talking about?’

Another woman in the office said, ‘You’re crazy. You know this, right?’

‘Yeah, I want The Yards.’

And she said, ‘It’s your career, Courtney.’

I was thinking, ‘We don’t do things for money. I don’t.’ I feel like the whole punk thing had really fucked with me at that point.

I had a meeting for Girl, Interrupted and someone said, ‘They’re just exploiting your image. They’re just trying to use you. You’ll never be able to handle the other actresses.’

And I would pass and then someone would get an Oscar. It happened a lot.

So, you have regrets?

I regret that I had years to prepare for my moment and that when my moment came, I listened to a man. And that I was reactive to messes I had made. I made some really stupid calls based on reactiveness.

I remember when my daughter, Frances, got her first film offer. It was about a damaged girl and a damaged mother. She took it really personally. I was enraged someone sent that to her, but at the same time, it could have been me when I was looking at Girl, Interrupted. They didn’t have bad intentions. Still, I think about what was whispered in my ear at powerful moments. I regret listening to some of those voices, not hearing my own.

I don’t cry about it. No. The only time it really hurt was when Stevie Nicks said something in the papers along the lines of, ‘She was beautiful, blah, blah. And she was a movie star, but she blew it.’

I’d probably be dead if I had pursued it. I know for a lot of people, being a movie star is the way-better gig. And I feel bad that I let them down.

It must have been impossible to navigate. One person says you’re ‘selling out’. Someone else says ‘you’re insane not to’. An endless loop.

One of the reasons I didn’t get a big role in an early movie is because of this particular casting director who is still around. In fact, she gets nominated, but her philosophy is abhorrent. This is her quote: ‘Poor kids don’t make leads.’ They don’t have access to all the privilege: good dance teacher, good orthodontics. That stuff.

Maybe in the end she’s right, that acting is an upper-middle-class girl’s game. You have to have had braces. You have to have real discipline, control of your weight. You have to naturally not curse. You have to have a certain distribution of features. We all live in the natural world where beauty is aristocracy. Even if your features aren’t one hundred percent perfect—a cartoon face filter—you can still buy it all. If you’re cool with that.

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Do you think what was expected of you in the music world was the opposite of all that? How do you learn to inhabit opposing agendas?

I think my experience of what was thought of as ‘punk’ was always incredibly inclusive and exclusive. I had fun courtside being a celebrity. It’s great to have these stories, from the high to the low, and to have this sort of bird’s-eye view.

I’m a Camille Paglia redux stan. Re-read her. All of her. It’s amazing. She never liked me, Bob Dylan, or Leonard Cohen. She got lots and lots profoundly wrong. She’s obsessed with Madonna and Keith Richards. But the way she used to put me down! She hated that I found it delightful that suits in Hollywood were being really nice to me—executive male class, I guess. She didn’t like that I found the experience of being feminine fun within that world or construct. She went off on some essay about how Madonna would never ever be obedient. She thought I was simply not a real rebel. I never said I was. Ever.

Again, you highlight the two sides of it. What was your last movie?

The last studio movie I made was in 2001, it was called Trapped [released 2002].

It’s a time jump, but you moved to London more recently, exiting the Hollywood scene?

No one could have written songs through the last ten years of [my] life. No one. There’s no way. First of all, I’m an addict. Any anxiety is going to manifest with me running to drugs for cover. Let me tell you how different it is for women to be labelled as addicts and to then have your name be [associated with] controversy. I left LA with the absolute intention of never going back. I won’t go back there. I won’t go back to Manhattan, either. The lawsuits are non-stop in America. You can’t write songs with that. I can’t.

So, now I get to imagine England. The same way I once did with Los Angeles. I’ve left the recording of that town’s comings and goings to others, to those better suited to its moods and pitfalls.

How is it different in London?

The English have always been kinder to peculiar women of a certain temperament. For thousands of years, matriarchal ideals have been integrated into the philosophy of living. They have respect for hierophants, heretics, tormented nuns, and other poetic souls. They’re cooler than us [Americans]. Think of Joy Division, Marianne [Faithfull], PJ Harvey, Virginia Woolf.

People are incredibly polite and discreet. They have a legal system that seems to protect artists. It’s not the Wild West. Los Angeles is the most lawless city in the world. No one checks. No one cares. Crime is rampant in the music industry. Not a shock, I’m sure, but there are so many layers, and each is more scary an evil than the one before.

I like being in England, away from all that. No one fucks with me. It’s all burning with words and possibilities. So many amazing songs have been written here. I have the absence of noise for the first time in 27 years. Dealing with Kurt’s estate was not conducive to doing my job. So, I’m grateful that’s in order; I can think now.

I think this is my spot. I can hear lyrics and I can hear things on the wind. It’s beautiful.

You mentioned quitting smoking and staying busy, reading and writing—what else?

I couldn’t in 2010 envision having as happy a day as I had today, which is getting out of bed, writing poetry, reading poetry, throwing some ikebana, learning about this musical called Sunset [1983, by Gary William Friedman and Will Holt]. I’ve sent a link to it to everyone I know that is a dedicated professional watching and recording the moods of Californians, including Lana [Del Rey], who’s from upstate. Sunset, with Ronee Blakely singing a song I’ve never heard called ‘Cheap Chablis’. There are a couple that are very camp, but ‘Cheap Chablis’. That’s the one, babe.

Did I tell you I collect Japanese woodblocks too? I got some really crazy, beautiful ones off auction lately. Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ [‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’]. He didn’t paint that until he was 60. I think it’s a better emoticon than Andy Warhol’s soup can. That’s legacy. I love the language of emoji. I said to a friend the other day, ‘Your great wave is coming,’ when he sold his house. And then I just texted him the Hokusai Great Wave versus the Andy Warhol soup can.

I love that.

I’m going to leave you with this one thing about Noh theatre in Japan. It’s like ancient mime. There’s a professor [Christopher Harding] who is half Japanese and half Scottish and he wrote a book called The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives. He talks about the stages of the Noh actor.

I definitely would be in my fifth stage, which is the part before they make you a sage. The village feeds you and the roles aren’t about you anymore. Your job is to pass the knowledge on, to show the frameworks of each play and the nuances and dances to the actors.

I think that resetting a little with men is a good thing. That doesn’t necessarily mean becoming sexless, anti-chorus, anti-melody, anti-fun, anti-design, and anti-kitsch. I hope there’s a real needle turn for women. They needed me to go in there first.

Now, you can fix it.

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