Talking to Courtney Love is a little like jumping rope — or trying to, anyway. You stand there while her words whip past you, waiting for a spot to jump in, all the while trying not to say anything to set her off and get yourself smacked in the schnozz.
It could happen; you’re calling from Seattle, where Love constructed a name for herself as the wife and later widow of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain — and where she is playing the Moore Theatre on July 23.
Would it set her off if you mentioned that the City Council in Aberdeen — Cobain’s hometown — just voted to keep the “Come As You Are” sign at the city limits?
Would she go off if you asked how she feels about coming back here, and how she might be received? We’ll just have to see.
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You start by treading lightly. She’s at home in New York’s Greenwich Village, where she is playing with her “newly shaved” Shih Tzu.
“Her name is Sugar and she’s really pissed,” Love says in her raspy, seen-it-all tone, one she has worked over the years to stay familiar, public and relevant. “I can tell she is traumatized. She looks like a little skinhead.”
There’s noise in the background. A TV? Music? Both?
“I have the end of ‘The Bourne Legacy’ on in one room and the new ‘Queens (of the Stone Age)’ album is on in the other room.”
(And she’s doing press calls for her tour and record. OK.)
“It’s happening!” she said of the Queens record. “It’s cool for rock! It’s like, you know, I have not got great blood with Josh (Homme), but I still like them as a band. I’m just thinking about 2004 and chasing each other around the Bowery Ballroom.”
I tell her that Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The news quiets her.
“Really?” she asked. “I haven’t talked to him, I talked to him once in the last few years about a really strained financial thing …”
And then she’s off again, talking about Poneman and former money manager Dana Giacchetto and the book written about Giacchetto by Emily White and a dream she had. It’s a series of name-drops and half-references that assume you have been following Love all along.
Which is partly true. After Hole’s second album, “Live Through This,” was released in 1994 (just four days after Cobain’s body was found, dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound, at their Lake Washington home), I didn’t listen to anything else for weeks.
The following year, I went happily hoarse at a Hole show, where Love, in a short dress, put a leg up on one of the monitor speakers and flashed her notorious doll parts. When she spotted my photographer near the stage, she bent toward him, locked eyes with the lens, and took a long draw from her cigarette.
I framed the resulting photo — the orange head of her cigarette setting her mouth and eyes aglow — and put it up on my bathroom wall, a suitable place.
My other memory is one I wish I could forget: A grubby photo of Love, on some kind of drug-addled lost weekend, allowing a complete stranger to suck on her breast at a New York City Wendy’s.
Not long after, she went to Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital on a stretcher.
Love’s life has been on a celebrity spin-cycle for years, although she never really seems clean, or stays steady for very long. Until now, perhaps, when she is writing new music and taking a new band on the road.
“Touring makes me feel better,” she explained — except of course returning here.
“I don’t like coming to Seattle much,” Love told me. “I talked to (Soundgarden frontman Chris) Cornell about it not that long ago. And (Alice in Chains guitarist) Jerry Cantrell.
“None of us like it. It is beautiful, objectively. The arboretum is great. But it freaks me out for obvious reasons,” she continued. “ I didn’t really live there. I lived behind a gate. I would try to go up to (Pike Place) Market. My big expedition would be Urban Outfitters and the yoga store, but when I tried to go to yoga class …”
Love stops, as if the memory came to a sudden halt.
“It was war, the time after Kurt died.”
The feeling is, apparently, mutual. Mention her name to some of those who were around when Nirvana hit, and smiles fall flat. Monosyllabic words are spat out like gnawed-off fingernails.
Love stayed only until she got a part in “The People Vs. Larry Flynt,” and then moved to Los Angeles.
“I fled,” is how she put it. “But I kept going back up to Seattle for legal reasons.”
Her only child, Frances Bean Cobain, “still has Seattle firms to deal with,” she said, naming Perkins Coie and Preston Gates. (Mother and daughter converse over email, but haven’t seen each other in three years.)
“Wendy (Cobain, Kurt’s mother) and Kim (his sister) moved out from Olympia,” Love said. “They can’t take it anymore.”
Love recently told Howard Stern that in 2006 she sold 25 percent of her stake in the Nirvana catalog for about $50 million.
“The Kurt money, the Nirvana money, I just consider it cursed,” she told Stern. “I prefer to make money that’s the Courtney money.”
To that end, she is working on new material that she won’t be able to release until the first of the year.
“That’s the best record deal I got,” she told me. “It has a tech guy behind it and he loves me because he’s gay.”
She is also working on a memoir, which she hopes to have done by Christmas.
“Harper is very serious,” she said of her publisher. “I’ll lose my advance if I don’t get it finished, but they are very excited about it.”
And what is she reading?
“You want the truth? I just finished a ‘Mommie Dearest’-like book called ‘Mother’s Keeper’ that Frances sent for Mother’s Day. It’s by Bette Davis’ one biological daughter. The kid was born after ‘All About Eve.’ ”
Interesting. Was there a message there?
“Yes, but I’m not going to tell you,” Love said. “It’s a gag gift.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org