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Courtney In Liverpool: An Interview With Dave Haslam
Duncan Seaman , March 14th, 2020 09:06

Dave Haslam talks about his new book, Searching For Love: Courtney Love in Liverpool, 1982

As a DJ, promoter, music writer and university lecturer, Dave Haslam has a long association with the North West of England. His strong ties with Manchester were formed 40 years ago when he moved to the city as an undergraduate, and he would go on to DJ more than 450 times at the Hacienda nightclub, write for the NME, found the record label Play Hard and later chronicle the city’s musical history in his book Manchester, England.

His new book, Searching For Love, however, is set thirty miles away, and traces the experiences of Courtney Love, then an aspiring seventeen-year-old musician, who spent five key months in her life in Liverpool in 1982. The chapter would inspire her later musical career with bands such as Faith No More and Hole, and as a solo artist.

“I’ve always been a big fan of the Liverpool music scene of that era,” says the author. “81–82 was when I first started going over there from Manchester. I got to know Pete Wylie and went to see the bands that were around. That era was the beginning of The Pale Fountains, for example, who I really loved, and I met Jayne Casey from Pink Industry, and I found it very inspiring city.

“Then I became aware probably about ten or fifteen years ago from a few mentions in Courtney Love’s book Dirty Blonde, which was a scrapbook of her diaries and notes through her life, of her being in Liverpool and that was what first sparked my interest – the idea of that scene in Liverpool, that I remember being so exciting and so fertile, and Courtney as a seventeen-year-old engaging with that world.

“Obviously we know what we know now about Courtney and I became interested in understanding why it had such an impact that she ended up saying that it was one of the most important periods of her life and that she learned everything that she needed to know about being a rock star while in Liverpool for five months. I thought there was a lot to investigate.”

Love’s Merseyside sojourn has been the subject of much mythologizing; Haslam aimed to get as close to the truth as he could about the period. He says: “With my slightly nerdy cultural historian head on, I thought if I investigated enough I’d be able to find the truth and be able to create a timeline of events of everything that happened, but I began to realise that I was never going to know the details.

“Courtney talks, for example, about losing her virginity in Liverpool and the young man [Michael Mooney] that she says was there denies knowledge of that. Courtney also talks about being in a band while she was in Liverpool that, as I researched, became lots of great stories but not necessarily stories that didn’t contradict themselves, and there were one or two stories that I felt were a bit unbelievable, not from Courtney always but from some of the people that I was talking to.

“So I decided that I should put my cultural historian head to one side and instead in a way search for a different kind of truth. Instead of being a factual truth, to try and find out something about the truth of human nature, and how on the one hand young people can be energised by an experience like that, at a stage when you’re particularly porous and impressionable in your formative years, and also the truth about how we remember our past. Not just Courtney, but all the people that met her. And indeed cities like Liverpool. Cities and countries create a past, or at least adjust our memories in order to understand who we are. That became something that really began to interest me. Especially as we’re all now in our late 50s and early 60s, all the protagonists that were then practically teenagers. The passing of time, I think, has done something very interesting to how we remember that era.”

Haslam believes Love’s self-mythologizing might in part have been a means of escape from a highly unconventional upbringing in the US. “I didn’t realise until I began to research the book just how chaotic and dysfunctional and alienating it must have been,” he says. “One of the things that struck me was how no-one seemed to care about her, no-one gave her a voice, no-one listened to her.

“She was a young woman who was rejected in many ways by her mother [Linda Risi] and never had a stable relationship with her father [Hank Harrison, tour manager for the Grateful Dead]. She never had a father figure, and also was moved to so many different places that she never had a network of friends until she was about 17 and going out in Portland, Oregon, meeting people in clubs and bars. They became, in a way, her substitute family, and music became, because of that, an even more important thing to her.

“I think she began to see rock ’n’ roll as a means of self-expression and a means of escape and being in Liverpool reinforced that for her.”

Prior to Liverpool, Love had crossed the Atlantic in 1981 to stay with her biological father, who was then living in Dublin. Their relationship broke down and she started living in a squat and began to frequent clubs and bars in Dublin. At a Teardrop Explodes gig she met the band, Haslam says. “Then a friend of hers called Robin [Barbur] came over and joined her and the two girls went to see Teardrop Explodes in London in February [1982]. They had been there for a couple of months and I think wanted to get out of London. They drank Grand Marnier and cider or a mixture of both and walked the streets. They explained to [Teardrop Explodes singer] Julian [Cope] that they were a little bit at a loss what to do with the time that they had in Britain, because their visas weren’t going to run out until July, and he said, ‘I have a room in a house in Liverpool which I’m not currently at. Go and knock on the door of No20 Devonshire Road and stay there’.

“I guess it’s the kind of thing people might say after a few ciders backstage, not expecting the two girls to get on a National Express coach, go up to Liverpool and knock on the door and totally surprise the various young men who were living in the house at the time, one of whom [Paul Simpson] was in The Wild Swans and another [Pete de Freitas] who was in Echo and the Bunnymen. So from the moment they arrived not only were they causing chaos but they were right in the centre of the Liverpool music scene.”

Love and Barbur’s propensity for mess and loudness led de Freitas eventually asking them to leave. Haslam finds the story “a mixture of the mundane and the extraordinary”. “On the one hand you have this woman who was going to go on to become such an iconic figure and you have these characters who were on the front page of the NME often, but also both her and those characters were spending a lot of their time hanging around in the Armadillo tea rooms making a cup of Earl Grey tea and walking round with their big overcoats.

“Liverpool musicians weren’t stars and millionaires at that point and neither was she, and, like every multi-occupancy house, I think the dynamic between Courtney, Robin and the people they were sharing with was a bit strained. Pete de Freitas eventually wrote them a note asking them to move on and they were really taken aback. As Robin told me, they understood they were sometimes in the way of everybody, especially the boys who were in the bands, but they wanted to belong, I guess, and they wanted to be part of that circle. I think Courtney wanted to leave Liverpool at that point, but Robin persuaded her to stay on and they got a house together around the corner.”

One titbit that Haslam uncovered was that Love visited the Hacienda in 1982 to watch a gig by Teardrop Explodes, although, he says, he’s “not sure Courtney knew that”, having never remarked upon it. “The Hacienda was only open two or three weeks at that point and was often quite empty, as it was that night. Then she went back again with Echo and the Bunnymen,” Haslam says, admitting that he became obsessed with trying to find film evidence. “It led me to actually look at all the footage of Echo and the Bunnymen live at the Hacienda in 1982, frame by frame in a desperate effort to see if I could see Courtney in the audience. Unfortunately the footage is very grainy and there are a lot of girls with big hair and she could be any of them. I like that she was there but not there. I also like the idea she was there before Madonna. The two of them have had quite a rollercoaster relationship, but if Courtney knows that she went to the Hacienda she could use that against Madonna.”

Although Love looked up to Cope, he would later express dislike of her, going so far in 1992 as to take out a full-page advert in the music press calling her a ‘Nancy Spungen-fixated heroin a-hole’. Haslam’s investigations led him to think Cope “cared about her” at one time, however, he says: “Julian has a history of burning boats and losing friends. There are plenty of people that I know who also had a close relationship with Julian Cope in that era who’ve been totally ostracised by him. I think it’s partly Julian’s personality but I have to admit I was shocked when I began to read about just how angry and dismissive he has subsequently been about Courtney. There are various theories but as with a lot of things in the book, there isn’t one reason that’s pindown-able.

“Julian in the early 90s seemed to have a problem with her and I think she was surprised at how angry and aggressive he was towards her in interviews, and how dismissive in his first book he was about her.”

Another Liverpool contemporary, Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive, seemed to later come round to respecting Love years later. Haslam says: “I think lots of people in Liverpool did like her, lots of people could see, as Pete Burns said, ‘the fire inside her’. I just don’t think a lot of people could cope with what she was like. I don’t think they’d met anyone like her before. Pete Burns’ default position was to be rude to people, even when he was serving people behind the counter at [the Liverpool shop] Probe Records. So he went into default mode and was rude to Courtney. Courtney gave it back and I think it was that, that years later Pete accepted there was something brilliant about her.

“When you’re that age, between fifteen and twenty-five, a lot of people don’t know how to behave. Whether it was some of the Liverpool scene not knowing how to deal with Courtney, through to Courtney not knowing when she wasn’t wanted and going for a walk and not annoying them. But there’s something really endearing and human and real about that which is way beyond self-mythology and detail and timeline, something almost universal. People wanting to belong and not being accepted, and various other life-changing things that I think Courtney realised either before or after her time in Liverpool.

“She says that in her life she has ‘before Liverpool’ and ‘after Liverpool’. As soon as she got back to America she formed a band, within eighteen months she was lead singer with Faith No More and in the book I’m clear that Faith No More loved having her as a singer, they said she was challenging and fantastic onstage and had a great presence. The only reason why they didn’t keep her in Faith No More was because they thought their fanbase wouldn’t be able to deal with an honest, raw, challenging female singer, but she just blasted through all these obstacles. She’s had so many obstacles since and she’s blasted through them and survived.

“I didn’t know when I set off writing the book that I would end up admiring Courtney more than when I started. But by the end I had nothing but admiration for her.”

Searching For Love: Courtney Love in Liverpool, 1982 is part of the Art Decades series of mini books by Dave Haslam.