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Black Sky Thinking

Why Courtney Love Was Kurt Cobain's Lyrical Equal
Ben Hewitt , December 16th, 2009 06:21

Hark now, hear the angels sing: Kurt Cobain is back once more. Or, more accurately, he's never truly gone away: the permanently tragic anti-hero, forever frozen in time as a bleached-blonde sex symbol destined to exist for eternity as a figurehead for millions of outcast teens sitting in darkened bedrooms with only a copy of Nevermind for company. As the end of the decade draws closer, his legacy burns as brightly as ever. Both the recent reissue of Bleach, Nirvana's murky yet melodic debut, and the first official release of Live At Reading, their breathtakingly tense headlining set at the 1992 festival, suggest the demand for grunge's most enduring icon will never disappear.

Then there's Courtney Love, his former wife and muse. She's resurrected Hole - in name at least - for her new album Nobody's Daughter, which has taken on a slightly eerie feel given that Love has just lost custody of her daughter, Frances Bean. What are the chances of it being embraced with the same warmth as the Nirvana releases? Love is widely perceived as a kind of Lady Macbeth, and her increasingly unhinged slideshow of celebrity feuds and rock & roll trysts - plus the odd naked photo shoots - have wiped out any lingering traces of public affection she once enjoyed. It wasn't just the readers of that infamous issue of Q magazine who felt they'd seen just a little bit too much of her.

There are millions of reasons for this disparity of course. Most obviously, Nirvana were the biggest alternative band on the planet during their pomp and achieved a level of success Hole could only dream of. Then there's Cobain's morbidly glamorous career trajectory, an infinitely more glamorous decline than Love's protracted and public decline - as he surmised in his suicide note borrowing the words of Neil Young, "It's better to burn out than fade away". It's not hard to understand why Nirvana are more widely celebrated than Hole. What is hard to accept, though, is the exaltation of Cobain as a lyricist while Love's own brilliance as a wordsmith is criminally overlooked.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Cobain's canonisation as a lyricist is that Nirvana were never a band overly concerned with eloquence. At their snarling best, they were about incommunicable rage, the confusing and overwhelming emotion that every disillusioned teenager feels but can't express. Cobain struck a chord because he couldn't express them either. He wasn't a spokesman. He was just as tongue-tied and fucked up as everyone else. It's something he seemed to recognise, too, and it's his ruminations on his inability to convey exactly what he was feeling that are arguably his most powerful. "I found it hard/ It's hard to find/ The will, whatever, never mind" he shrugged in 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', while 'On A Plain' offered an even more explicit admission of his inarticulateness: "What the hell am I trying to say?".

Meanwhile, as Cobain's dispirited musings were propelling Nirvana to stardom, Courtney Love was producing a torrent of deeply personal and unsettling poetics. For her, words aren't a disposable commodity. She wrestles and struggles with them, using her ink to stamp her own persona on her songs, and utilising a wilfully self-conscious desire to be understood to establish her own sense of identity. If it was hard to tell exactly what troubled Cobain from his music, there's no such problem with Love. She's all over Pretty On The Inside and Live Through This: a lost, angry and self-loathing girl lashing out at herself and everyone around her. If one of the most recurring plaudits for Cobain as a lyricist is exploration of the macabre then Love is easily his equal. Just look at the disturbing 'Jennifer's Body', a gruesome tale of violence and domestic abuse that's a comfortable bedfellow to the kidnap-and-rape narrative of Nirvana's 'Polly'. She captures the disconcerting relationship between abuser and abused through the prosaic confessions "I'm sleeping with my enemy" and "My better half has bitten me" to build up to the haunting exchange: "He keeps you in a box by the bed/ Alive but just barely/ He said 'I'm your lover, I'm your friend/ I'm purity, hit me again'". And if the gruesome image of a broken and trapped woman isn't enough, there's the skin-crawling climax of "Just relax, just relax, go to sleep". It should be soothing, but there's no succour to be taken from her words. It's a twisted fairy-tale gone wrong, and a futile attempt to escape a waking nightmare.

Love can do anguish and despair, then, as well her late husband. The plaintive opening and closing retort of 'Garbage Man' ("She tears the hole even wider/ It's all the darkness up inside her" and "Where the fuck were you when my lights went out?") are arguably rawer expressions of self-destruction than Cobain ever committed to song. What gives her songs an extra ferocious bite, though, is her intertwining of the morbid with her obsession with sex and violence. Like many of the women loosely categorised under the loose umbrage of the Riot Grrl scene, she's eager to convey the difficulty of being a woman in a sexist domain (or society in general), and goes to great lengths to create a harrowing depiction of sex as an act which brings humiliation and degradation - a subject touched upon in 'Teenage Whore' which draws upon Love's former work as a stripper ("I said I feel so alone and I/ I wish I could die… "When I was a teenage whore/ The rain came down like never before"). There's no pleasure or lust for her female characters. It's something to be endured, and is regularly compared to physical pain, torture and mutilation. There are countless examples in her songs, such as the brutality of "Slut me open and suck my scars" from 'Pretty On The Inside' or "Just you try and hold me down/ Come on try to shut me up/ Step and fetch, grease my hips" from 'Gutless', but the most vivid example is 'Babydoll'. Sex is both a frenzied act of violence and a means of subjugation, with the traditionally salacious image of a girl with her "pants undone" sullied by the comparison to "waste and void". What follows is a horrible slideshow of vulnerable girls and rampant men, slashing knives and gagging mouths, culminating in the image of the "Little girl on the floor she gets it all/ 'Cause she's the whore". And, tellingly, it's only in the final verse that she's granted a voice. Passive throughout, she finally cracks: "'I am, I am', she says, 'I am not free'/ She says help me I am withering, withering".

Ultimately, though, it was Love's ability to drop all of her anger, frustration and bile to produce moments of stunning tenderness that marks herout. As fantastic as it is to witness her fury in full-flight, it's those crystalized moments of raw clarity buried amidst the rubble that give her a whole extra dimension as a lyricist, like the sudden moment of affection dropped into the middle of the ferocious 'Asking For It': "If you live through this with me/ I swear that I would die for you". It's a display of brittle vulnerability that Cobain rarely showed. His attempt at a relatively conventional love song, 'About A Girl', is a schmaltzy affair overflowing with saccharine couplets shoe-horned into a rhyming scheme. Love's 'Doll Parts', on the other hand, is an insight into the heartbreak of an open-wound including confessions of inadequacy and inferiority ("I am doll parts/ Bad skin, doll heart"), jealousy ("Yeah they really want you, they really want you, they really do/ Yeah they really want you, they really want you, but I do too") and bitter resentment ("Someday you will ache like I ache"). Or perhaps a more pertinent comparison can be drawn between 'Rape Me' and 'I Think That I Would Die', their respective reactions to the removal of their daughter Frances Bean from their custody. 'Rape Me' is fuelled by visceral rage, but as powerful as it is, it's not an expression of loss or sadness. It's fuelled by anger rather than melancholy. While Love's response is also antagonistic - summed up by the line "It's not yours/ Fuck you") it's also harrowingly mournful, whether it's the heartbreaking symbolism of "There is no milk" or the desperation behind "I want my baby/ Where is the baby? I want my baby/ Where is the baby?").

Undoubtedly there will be some people who will balk at the thought of lavishing praise upon Courtney. True, she's obviously bonkers. So are Kate Bush and Prince, and we have no problem clasping them to our collective bosoms. Yes, her best days are probably behind her. Bob Dylan's are too, but that won't stop his worshippers at Uncut feverishly shuddering to a group climax when his Christmas album arrives to ruin our yuletide cheer. Sometimes it's necessary to divorce the artist from their art. And just as we should be able to cleave the image of Cobain the tragic idol from his musical output to acknowledge that his rage and depression often masked a paucity of lyrical depth, so we should appreciate that Courtney, for all her faults, has an aptitude for self-expression and exploration through her lyrics that elevates her above many of her contemporaries.

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