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July 10, 2023

Before Hole, Courtney Love Lived in Liverpool in 1982 When She Was 17

At the age of 17 – before Hole, before meeting Kurt Cobain – Courtney Love took a trip to Liverpool. She described the months she spent in the city in 1982 as “one of the most important things of my existence.” Love has said that Liverpool was a great place to learn how to be a rock star.

Courtney Love in Liverpool in 1982. (Photo: Robin D Bradbury/Confingo)

Love’s parents, Linda Risi and Hank Harrison, met at a party for Dizzy Gillespie in San Francisco in 1963. “We were doing tons of acid,” Harrison recalled, “changing sex partners, and tripping out.” Apparently, he managed The Warlocks in 1965 before they became the Grateful Dead. Risi, then 19, came from a wealthy family. Love’s grandparents provided her with a trust fund of $500 a month. This paid for the trip to Liverpool.

On July 9, 1964, Risi gave birth to Love Michelle Harrison – later known as Courtney. But Risi and Harrison fought, and, after they divorced, in 1970, a custody battle ensued. Risi and one of Harrison’s girlfriends testified that he had given his daughter LSD when she was four.

By the end of 1973 Risi had moved to New Zealand, leaving Love behind. She was just eight. She finally ended up in an institution for wayward teenagers, after being caught shoplifting. By the time she was 17 she had decided to leave behind her unhappy San Francisco childhood, and in 1981 she set off for Ireland. She moved into a squat in Dublin and started hanging out at the music venue McGonagles, where she collided with the postpunk Liverpool scene.

The Teardrop Explodes played Dublin in December. According to Bernie Connor, who was mates with Julian Cope and sold T-shirts on the tour, Love passed the monitor engineer a note for Julian. “Are you married?” it said. “So Courtney comes back to the hotel,” continues Connor, “attaches herself, and gravitates a little closer to Julian with every passing minute.”

Cope gave Love and her best friend Robin Barbur his Liverpool address and said they could stay, neglecting to mention he wouldn’t be there. They soon moved in to a “horrible” flat on Princes Avenue. Love recorded it all in her diary, from the “textured tawny-beige-green and brown-silver and white-old-human wallpaper” to “swirlfudgesludgepatterned earth tones carpet”.

Courtney Love in Sefton Park, in Liverpool, around 1982. (Photo: Robin D Bradbury/Confingo)

It possibly didn’t feel like it, as they sat in their coats in a cold, dimly lit flat on the edge of Toxteth, but Love and Barbur were in the right place at the right time. In April 1982 John Peel broadcast a BBC Radio 1 show live from Liverpool. The week-long extravaganza fueled and celebrated the scene that so thrilled the girls. It was a time of energy and ambition, with bitchiness galore.

While the sharp-tongued Pete Burns, later of the band Dead or Alive, was often at the center of the acrimony, one feud, between Julian Cope and Ian McCulloch, has had a staggering shelf life. The pair haven’t had a good thing to say about each other in the four decades since. In Liverpool, making music and making enemies went hand in hand – a lesson that would stand Love in good stead.

David Balfe at the Liverpool label Zoo was keen to launch a female version of Soft Cell, so he lent her a synthesiser and a four-track recorder. She didn’t know how to use them, but his enthusiasm galvanized her. As for the compositions, it seems her sludge-coloured flat came in handy. “I went on about porridge,” she recalled, “because all we had was porridge.” Although she describes the songs as stupid, they at least reflected her life in Liverpool. One of the first numbers was an ode to Cope, with a chorus beginning: “Julian, Julian, where have you been?”

Love once once said: “Before Liverpool, my life doesn’t count. Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope taught me a great deal. I owe them a lot. Liverpool had been a great school to become a rock star.”

Understanding the mechanics of songwriting, and finding ways to channel influences and experiences, is important – but attitude counts too. “Julian told us to live your life as if you’re being followed by a movie camera,” Barbur later said. “I remember Courtney started walking very self-assuredly, head up, fast.”

A decade later, when Love was the frontwoman of Hole and married to Kurt Cobain, of Nirvana, Cope took out an advert in NME, the music paper, that said of her: “Free us from Nancy Spungen-fixated heroin A-holes who cling to our greatest groups and suck out their brains.” What was it that had got under Cope’s skin? “She was always in your face,” says Connor. “I was able to detach myself, whereas she lasered in on him. I can understand it oppressing him.”

Barbur is less forgiving. “Julian was crazy. It was part of the charm. I don’t want to be a bitch, but maybe by this point she’d got a little famous and he’d got a little bit bitter. He hadn’t seen her since she was 17, 18. He probably saw this bratty, obnoxious girl was now a superstar pretty much, and thought, Damn her. I don’t know. She really adored Julian.”

Love wrote to Cope and said that his ad had made her violently ill: “Imagine that it’s 1983, 82, 81 and 80, you’re a teenage piece of white trash and not even remotely decorative, but you love the great rock dream and it’s all you’ve got… And you buy a guitar and it burns like a coal in your hand and you feel some power and for once it isn’t the power of being made fun of or picked on, it’s […] the power to change the f***ing world.”

On July 21, 1982, she caught the National Express bus to Heathrow, stopping off for egg and chips in the English midlands. At the airport, she wrote in her diary: “I can play music and understand technology. I can stay in and resist the temptation to make the first move, or stay too long or worse get intense. I can make tea now. I can remain enigmatic, pose well and appear feminine.” She thinks about all the people she met and concludes: “There’s one asset everyone has until they’ve spent it. Their mystique.”

Ahead lay fame, some terrible choices, loss and hurt. Rock’n’Roll was her dream, Liverpool her inspiration, and fronting Hole gave her a voice – an honest, unignorable, insistent voice that broke the silence.


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