What Would Courtney Love Do?

9 July 2013

I often feel like I was born with a wooden spoon in my mouth. Oh, that’s not to say that my upbringing wasn’t in some ways unusually privileged, no, but I’ve always felt like I was lacking pretty much all of the things that most people take for granted – namely a normal family and someone to love me and I don’t even mean ‘love’ in the romantic sense, I mean in ANY sense. You see, I was raised by people who didn’t love me, didn’t even like me in fact, so being loved, a feeling that is familiar to most people, was for a VERY long time something of an alien concept to me.

I was abandoned a couple of months after my birth by my parents and then raised by my maternal grandparents who really didn’t like me at all. My life from that point on involved moving to a different town every couple of years, struggling at school with bullying, loneliness and undiagnosed Aspergers and Dyspraxia and at home with a lack of care and wearying emotional and physical abuse. At eleven, I realised with absolute clarity that I was already a failure and would never amount to anything worthwhile – a feeling that has never quite gone away, reinforced as it was by the daily reminders from my grandparents of my stupidity, fatness, ugliness and general unlovability and unloveliness.

Unsurprisingly, I retreated into a world of books, history and music. I could SO easily have skidded off the rails and got involved in alcohol and addiction, but that had no allure for me at that stage. I was entirely without hope and, I think, so beyond despair, so far gone in my acceptance of what I believed to be my essential insignificance and so resigned to my situation that I instinctively knew that there were no answers for me at the bottom of any bottle. No, instead I would take myself off to the fantasy worlds created by my favourite writers and musicians.

I had no voice and believed that I had no right to one either – until I listened to Hole for the first time. At another time the jangling, discordant, brutal music of their first album Pretty on the Inside wouldn’t have appealed to me at all, but in 1991, when I was seventeen, still a virgin and thinking that my life lay before me as an endless big fat mess of nothing, the furious, screaming, betrayed and betraying howl of Courtney Love’s voice sounded like a call to arms. It sounded like the inside of my head.

The first time I went to see Hole play was at the Clapham Grand in July 1993, the night incidentally that apparently Miss World got its first ever public airing. It was an unforgettable night. I remember standing in the darkness and sobbing as I listened to Courtney sing, not because the words touched me but because the pain and anger did.

Hole were there for me at my most awkward and difficult times – Pretty on the Inside will always remind me of my hideous teenage years, while Live Through This came out just as I was starting university, trapped in an abusive relationship, completely without support and terrified that one day my boyfriend might actually snap and kill me but doing my best to hide all of this. Luckily all of that was past when Celebrity Skin, a far more grown up and polished album to the first, was released in 1998 – I’d just about graduated, was working and in a different relationship, bad in its own way but not quite so bad as the last one. In short, the three seminal Hole albums saw me through my screaming angry teenage years, through university to an approximation of adulthood and as they became less angry, more contemplative, so too did I. In a way it was like we had grown up together, like the bad sisters of one of the songs on Pretty on the Inside and I will always love them for that.

For a long time, I really badly wanted to be Courtney Love – I imitated her bleached blonde hair that looked like it been roughly cut with nail scissors while blind drunk, I copied her silk baby doll dresses, smeared red lipstick, holy tights, Mary Jane shoes. I thought I looked amazing and that belief carried me through many a social situation, giving me a confidence that I didn’t naturally have.

For a long time too, ‘What Would Courtney Love Do?’ was my mantra, albeit not always a terribly wise one. It was fun though, rolling the Courtney dice and letting her make decisions for me about my life. I dread to think what sort of scrapes I would get into if I did it now but in my teens and twenties, nothing could be better and I definitely think I owe the vast majority of my ‘stories’ (like the time I jumped on stage to sing with Napalm Death, which is TOTALLY something that Courtney would do!) to her guidance.

What was it about Courtney Love that made her my icon, my hero? Isn’t that obvious? I was a wreck and so was she but while I had allowed it to cow my spirit and shut my mouth, she had transformed her misery, her rage, her pain. her despair into a force of nature that demanded attention, that commanded respect. Her anger made her strong and eventually so would mine.

It felt real too. Unlike every other pop princess of the nineties, there was never any sense that Courtney Love was pulling the wool over our eyes, simulating feelings in order to win hearts or sympathy. Pretending to be someone that she wasn’t just to be popular. In fact, ‘being popular’ was something that Courtney’s music and persona really wasn’t about at all – quite the reverse in fact. It was about being special in your own bloody, messed up, miserable, imperfect, completely mad way. It was about being yourself. It was about making mistakes and not even necessarily learning from them. It was about embracing the very worst of yourself as well as the very best.

I listen to Hole pretty much all the time anyway but today I think I will have it on repeat because it’s Courtney Love’s fiftieth birthday today, because I will always love her no matter what and because I owe her so much. She gave me my voice after all and at the same time she taught me that you don’t have to be loved or praised or pretty or thin or NICE or even happy to survive and that you don’t need anyone’s permission to be yourself, because being yourself is just fine. Better than fine in fact. It’s PERFECT.

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ps. I went to see her play in Bristol last month and she was STILL amazing.

pps. I’ve got to love that she shares my fascination with the decapitated Queens of history! In tribute to this I managed to sneak a mention of her into my dissertation about Marie Antoinette.

ppps. I’m getting a version of the Live Through This cover tattooed on to my arm by Rachel Baldwin in November because holy crap, if something has been a constant in my life for the last couple of decades it is that album so damn straight it’s going on my arm.

Set against the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of autumn 1888 and based on the author’s own family history, From Whitechapel is a dark and sumptuous tale of bittersweet love, friendship, loss and redemption and is available NOW from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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