Joan Juliet Buck and Courtney Love inaugurate this series THE CHAT here at sessumsmagazine.com. Courtney, who is writing her own memoir right now, had read Joan’s recent one, The Price of Illusion, loved it and took to Twitter to proclaim that love. I know them both and put them together to talk about the permutations one encounters and pathways one discovers when setting out to mine one’s memory in order to find that seamless seam in one’s narrative ore. Or do I mean “seemless”? I’ll let them delve more into that – the veracity one owes one’s own life even as one owes the reader a story that resonates with his or her own.
Each of these women has paid the price of the culture’s illusion about them. Joan is a renowned writer and editor – she was Editor in Chief of French Vogue from 1994 – 2001 – as well as an actress. She has written for almost every major magazine in America and many in Europe where she was for a time the European correspondent for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. She was a contributing editor at both Vanity Fair and Vogue. It was at the latter she got into a cultural controversy in 2011 by writing an assigned feature on the First Lady of Syria, Asma al-Assad, wife of the country’s president Bashar al-Assad. But politics is in some way her birthright since her father Jules Buck, a movie producer, and her mother, actress and interior designer Joyce Getz, moved themselves and their only child to Europe in 1952 to get away from the political oppression in the United States at the time. Buck’s childhood imbued her adulthood not only with a cosmopolitan’s nuance but also the native cunning ironically inherent in anyone who feels at home many places in the world. It is a cunning that matches her intellectual curiosity. And she has a kind heart. Most of all she has that.
Courtney is imbued with all that too – cunning and curiosity and kindness. She too is an actress. I first met her when I did a cover story on her for Vanity Fair magazine and spent a lot of time with her on the road touring with her band Hole and at her home then in Seattle and in New Orleans. That was back when writers got to spend real time with our subjects and not just an hour between their bowel movement and their latest Botox injection. I adored her back then and my adoration has only grown over the years. I could go into her rockstar litany (widow of Kurt Cobain, wanton rock diva, reformed drug addict) and the ups and downs of her life – as she herself is doing for the first time really now as she focuses on it all for the book she is writing – but I’ll let her do that with Joan.
Courtney Love: Joan, you have written a fantastic memoir, The Price of Illusion. It is my favorite memoir I’ve ever read.
Joan Juliet Buck: Your reaction to the book on Twitter was my favorite reaction that the book has received.
CL: Really? It wasn’t too teenage gushy?
JJB: No. Gushy is a sort of frill along the top of something. It’s not intense. You are not frilly along the top.
CL: Someone told me I should read your book because you balanced everything really well and to look on it as an instrument, a guide on how to write my own memoir. So I did. Honestly, I didn’t really know who you were.
JJB: (Laughing) That’s okay.
CL: I knew you’d been a sort of Conde Nast big-shot but I hadn’t known French Vogue while you were there.
JJB: That’s good. You came to it clean.
CL: I did. But then I was surprised not only by how beautiful it was but also how brutal. And transparent. But you kept your honor and your dignity throughout. You didn’t get wayward with drugs. I did get wayward with drugs. So I’m going to have to address that and that’s very scary.
JJB: Is it scary as a writer because it’s difficult to describe the drug experience?
CL No. Not at all. It’s because I’m a mom in America and people know I did drugs. It’s still a fairly a puritanical culture. I read Keith Richards’s book. Keith is a dad in England. He had lots of scenes with his son, my friend Marlon. Marlon doesn’t mind. He’s fine with it. He loves his dad. But Keith gets away with his drug use in that book in ways I don’t think I will get away with. I don’t think I’m going to be going on morning shows with this.
JJB: (Laughing) I guess there’s a different standard for British male rockers and American female rockers. You obviously discussed all this with your daughter.
CL: Yes, she knows about it. She’s probably going to have some things to say about it all in the book. The trope that Keith used was, “I’ll let Marlon tell it.” And then he’d let Marlon tell what it was like for a bit. I just never thought I’d write a book.
JJB: What brought you to the point of wanting to write this?
CL: My music manager has been insistent about it, but for the last six years I was very resistant to the idea. I need a ghostwriter, and I went through several. I just wasn’t ready to do it. But now I am. It’s like, “Well, it’s a way to reach millennials and construct my own narrative.” I once thought I’ll just let them write books about me after I’m gone but there is some real empowerment in writing your own narrative and righting the wrongs. It’s not like some big magazine article.
JJB: Oh, no. The thing that brought me to writing my book was that there was nothing left to lose. I don’t think that you’re at that stage.
CL: I’m not, and that’s what’s really terrifying about it. But I’m embracing it.
JJB: Is there an ultimate thing you want from having written this book? Is it to be back on the charts?
CL: Yes. I’d love to make a record and have people hear it and have that record be successful. I’m 53 but my music manger who’s insisting I write this has artists over 40 who make hit records. So, yes, that’s part of it.
JJB: There’s a endgame to this for you.
CL: Yes. Because I’ve been both Hollywood and rock … ah .. well .. the rockers don’t care. It’s all been out there anyway. The feuds. The fighting. The fucking. But with the Hollywood stuff, you have to be really careful. I’m not going to omit much, but there are definitely secrets I will keep and not write about. But Hollywood is very different than the rock’n’roll world. Hollywood people you just have to be careful about.
JJB: But there will be lawyers at Harper Collins, your publisher, who will go through your manuscript and say change this, change that.
CL: No, I’m not talking about that stuff. I’m just talking about adventures … in the night .. with people.
JJB: Oh: sex.
CL: To some extent, yeah. Sex, drugs, whatever: adventures.
JJB: You can describe the adventure and slightly change who the person is because it is about the quality of the adventure. Here’s the thing that’s most interesting that I’ve really found out. Fame – famous people – fade. Stories about them years later don’t mean anything. The fact of their being famous is not the important thing. It’s about the quality of the moment. And the quality of the moment absolutely does not need the name of the other person in it. Because the moment will have its real quality that existed at no other moment and if you go into it enough, it becomes universal. The more specific it is, the more universal it is, and the less it needs a name. That’s what I find so interesting.
CL: That’s a good tip. Thank you.
JJB: The first draft of my memoir was a 1050 pages. I didn’t leave anything out. Then I cut out 600 pages. I didn’t have a real endgame like you do. My purpose in writing my book was to find out what the hell happened and who I was, who I am.
CL: That’s what is happening to me as I talk to the writer who is working with me right now. As he’s transcribing what I’m telling him and giving it shape and a voice, I am finding out what the hell happened. I found Hal Willner – the music producer from Saturday Night Live – via Facebook. Facebook is not so good for me personally, but has been great in reaching out to people who remember things I don’t remember. Hal remembered my sleeping on his couch, and Marianne Faithfull being around, and my being around John Zorn. He told me I had met Lou Reed several times. I went, “I did?” and then I remembered it. Yeah, I did. Someone reminded me I was on Andy Warhol’s television show Fifteen Minutes.
JJB: I was on that, too. We all were.
CL: I had been stalking Andy. He put me in Interview finally. Then he asked me to be on that show. But the day I went in to be on it was the day he went into the hospital. So I never met him. But in my memory I thought I had. I was staying back then with a woman named Kate Miller who was part of The Factory. She lived way over on Avenue B or someplace in this tiny apartment. I went to write her a check for running up her phone bill once we had reconnected but she said I had paid her for it a long time ago. I was famous back then for running up huge phone bills.
JJB: How much?
CL: Three hundred bucks. At one point when I was onstage in Vancouver or Portland or LA, I’d shout out to the crowd, “Does anybody have a phone bill that I owe them for?” Back in the day, I loved to be on the phone. I’d call up boys I liked. A lot of them were on the opposite coast. Agents. Whatever. I was always hustling. Now I text.
JJB: Were you just lying on your back on some sofa having long conversations?
CL: I never stole from people during that time in my life but I did run up their phone bills.
JJB: Aahhh … I remember phone bills. Did you keep diaries?
CL: Yes. I just found one I kept in Liverpool. I had gone to Dublin, ostensibly to attend Trinity College, but that wasn’t doable. My biological father had written me a letter saying he was a professor there but he wasn’t. He said he could get me in. So that didn’t happen. I had great SAT scores even though I was fresh out of juvenile hall.
JJB: Juvenile hall? Were you stealing cars?
CL: No, no. I was just being incorrigible according to the state of Oregon. Now “incorrigible” is a great word. “Disruptive” and “incorrigible” are non-pejoratives now. But back in the 1980s and 1970s, those words could get you into trouble and put into juvenile hall. I had been in a boarding school in New Zealand which didn’t work out. So there I was suddenly in juvenile hall – which I actually enjoyed to be honest. It’s why I like being on tour, or on a movie set – it’s structured.
JJB: They feed you, too.
CL: Yeah. I like the institutionalization of it. I like knowing I’m getting up at 5 a.m. and having breakfast at 8 a.m. because I didn’t grow up with that. Anyway, I met a rock star from Liverpool when I was in Dublin not going to Trinity College who said come live with me and I said sure. So that was my Trinity moment. But a few years ago, Joan, I was contacted by Trinity and they wanted to give me an honorary degree. I told Bono that and he said he had a doctorate from there. I said, of course you do, you’re fucking Bono. I like getting these honorary things though.
JJB: Do you have a lot of them?
CL: No. I don’t. I want more. I want one from Harvard. I want to do that Hasty Pudding thing.
JJB: Do you have the diva gene?
CL: Yeah, I have it. But I don’t like keeping audiences waiting. I think that’s rude. I have only missed one show and that was in Salt Lake City and that was because I was held up in Chicago by .. well … drugs.
JJB: I’m curious – to get this back to writing memoirs – what do drugs do to your memory?
CL: Well, they mess it up. I’ve gone to a friend of mine who has been sober for 27 years and has tons of old photos of me and of us and remembers things I don’t. Once I get nudged, I can remember it.
JJB: You are coming to your book from such a different place than where I was coming from when I came to mine. You have a lot more obstacles in a way.
CL: I think it’s relative. I have some deaths to deal with. I have a child to discuss.
JJB: Human responsibilities.
CL: I have the drug thing, which we’ve already talked about, which I’m really nervous about.
JJB: But wait a second. All our mutual friends are sort of dazzled by your intelligence, and they all tell me how literary you are and what literary acumen you have. You’ve probably read Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises about his use of opium and hashish.
JJB: So can’t you take on describing how all that felt?
CL: Yes. But the Beverly Hills bourgeois housewife who lives inside of me is nervous about how I will be judged. It can’t be a part of the process. But I do have to admit that.
JJB: But I would have never started my own book if I hadn’t have been judged as being a drug addict (which I’m not and never was) or insane (which I’m not and never was) or a shill for the Syrians (which I’m not and never was). But I have these things sticking to me. I unfortunately accepted this Vogue assignment to go interview this woman who was married to the president of Syria – it was before he started killing his people. He was supposed to be a reformer, and she kept talking about kids and youth centers.
CL: But wasn’t she herself okay?
JJB: She’s an English banker and I basically think bankers are never okay. I had doubts about going over there to do that story from the beginning but mostly because at that point she was a banker. (Laughing ruefully) They have always been very bad luck for me: bankers. So I called a bunch of people to ask advice and they all said the father was the worst shit who ever lived but this guy is a reformer, and she’s kind of cool. I thought, oh, I’ll get to see Palmyra. So I went off to do the story. I trusted Vogue. I trusted that they knew what they were doing. But the upshot of having written this piece – and having rewritten it four times to please Vogue – was that it came out at the wrong moment. Everyone attacked me, and every time Assad killed his people it turned out, on the internet, to be my fault. So basically I spent two years being called a murderess on the internet.
CL: I’ve spent twenty-four years being called that. It’s hardcore.
JJB: Twenty-four years. How’d you get through that?
CL: Thick skin.
JJB: Did you have a thick skin before or did you grow it?
CL: I’ve grown it over time. People still want to meet me when I’m offered things, to check me out to see if I’m in good enough shape.
JJB: They want to stare at your pupils?
CL: Yeah. But that has gone on much longer that is deserved. Robert Downey, Jr., was in prison, and he’s gotten past that. He’s got his shit together. I do think the standards are different for women and men. But I don’t care. If they like what they see, they like what they see. If they don’t, they don’t. I don’t care.
JJB: It must get old though, having to deal with other people’s projections.
CL: The projections are always going to be there, to a certain extent. But with this book, I think I am trying for the first time to control my own story. And embrace it.
JJB: Did you really live in Alaska at one point?
CL: Yes. I had this idea that if you weren’t a rock star by the time you were 25 then you better find something else to do. I heard you could make a ton of money in Alaska as a stripper, so I headed up there to strip. I got a job at a bar called PJ’s and they gave me a trailer to live in, in the back of it where I would go and write lyrics and lyrics and lyrics. I don’t think I spoke for months. Just wrote lyrics.
JJB: You really didn’t speak?
CL: I really didn’t. There were no private dances at that place, so I never had to speak to customers. I just wrote and wrote. By the time I got back to LA, I was ready to start a band. I was a little chunky, so I did have to lose some weight. I knew LA was the place for me, because if I were in Seattle I would have died.
JJB: Why? The drugs?
CL: Yes. The drugs.
JJB: What was your drug? Was it heroin?
CL: Yes. Heroin. And the heroin in Seattle was too strong. I knew I would die if I stayed there. It would kill me … That’s all such a long time ago. I am at a real good place right now writing this book. And I’m acting a bit.
JJB: You’re such a great actress, Courtney. You were so great in The People Vs. Larry Flynt and you blew me away in the Menendez brothers movie on Lifetime in which you played their mother. In Larry Flynt you were balls-out. But in the Menendez it was so interior. Everything was happening behind your eyes.
CL: Thank you, Joan. That means so much to me. Thank you
JJB: What are you reading to get yourself going on your book? I read a lot of books to get myself going.
CL: Other memoirs. But right now I’m reading trash too. I’m reading this thing called The Widow of Wall Street. It’s chick lit. Another chick lit thing I’m reading is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. I’m also reading Patti Smith’s book The M Train.
JJB: That’s a beautiful book.
CL: I’m re-reading the Keith Richards book.
JJB: My pal James Fox did that.
CL: I really wanted him to co-write mine. I bugged him through the agent Ed Victor who just passed away. James wrote me a fancy letter turning me down and saying he was busy doing Damien Hirst’s book, but I saw Damien at the Venice Biennale and he said, no, James got Robert De Niro’s book and is doing him next. I’d screw me over for De Niro too. I never thought I’d be a woman who wrote a book but I am now a woman who is writing a book. I’m into it. It’s very freeing.
JJB: I’m reading the funniest book right now – Katharine Hepburn’s The Making of the African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. It’s hysterical. She’s hating every minute of it. She’s hating everybody. Actually, you must get a hold of this book. There is something there about Hepburn’s attitude. I don’t know where you’re going with the voice of your book. But this might a be a good one for you to read. It’s very, very funny.
CL: Have you ever read Errol Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways?
JJB: No, I haven’t.
CL: Oh, my God. It’s such a showstopper from the very beginning. He’s probably lying his ass off but it doesn’t matter. It’s a romp. It’s absolutely brilliant.
JJB: He was a swashbuckler and although I don’t know you, Courtney, I know your aura, and you too have that swashbuckling thing about you.
CL: Yeah, I am a swashbuckler so I get Errol Flynn.
JJB: You’re not a careful one.
CL: No. Not really.
JJB: So do you sit down and write, or do you sit with your transcripts and go over them? How does this work for you?
CL: I lie on the couch and I talk to my ghostwriter. It’s all very Freudian. I discover things about myself talking to him, just like it’s talking therapy.
JJB: And you don’t have to pay him like you pay a psychiatrist.
CL: Oh, he’s getting paid. He’s not doing this for free. I tell him every single thing and then I get out the big red pencil and decide what should not be in there.
JJB: That does sound freeing, as you said. What I found is that it was very freeing but also rather devastating.
CL: Yeah. I sort of felt that part when I discovered that letter from my father about Trinity College since he references the acid he sent me to sell, and was asking if I had tried it and how was it. Well, two girlfriends and I did try it and it was bad acid. It was a bad trip. It was acid he had kept in his freezer since the 1960s or something. There was a lot of it. I guess he was sending it to me in lieu of money. He was not a sane guy. It was his way of being a father, I guess.
JJB: Holy shit. I had no idea of the – not freewheeling exactly but … well .. insane -background you’re from.
CL: Yes, it’s insane. I have certainly not been a saint, and have done things I regret, but when people read about my background maybe they’ll be more forgiving.
JJB: I’ve never taken LSD. What’s the experience like?
CL: I think it’s good to do it once. It expands your mind. But once is enough. Once in San Francisco, I was being followed by a guy in The Haight who was an acid casualty, and he kept saying over and over “I am Phoenix Cat Scratch. I am love. I am Phoenix Cat Scratch. I am love.” I almost called my first band Phoenix Cat Scratch after that guy. My girlfriends and I only did a little of the acid my father sent us and sold the rest of it at a gay bar where we worked over the counter at the bar, or traded it for groceries.
JJB: He gave you that instead of an allowance?
CL: Yeah. You could say that.
JJB: There are so many different things and experiences in your life I’d love to read you describe. Do you describe well?
CL: Yes. I describe well.
JJB: To really show your life to people and let us know what it felt like.
CL: What’s important to me is to get my narrative out there on my own terms.
JJB: Do you like the word “narrative”?
CL: Not so much.
JJB: To me, it belongs to Joan Didion – you know, stories we tell ourselves. But the fight I was having with myself when I was doing my book wasn’t about the stories, because I knew what the stories were, but it was: how on earth does any of this connect and add up? I felt increasingly bereft – well, not bereft exactly – because I found it kind of great to be living with all these dead people I really loved. Do you have people you love and rely on and trust?
CL: Yes. I have great friends.
JJB: It’s great if they are still around, but if they are, they have character traits, and you can get annoyed at them, and there is this ongoing relationship that is not always perfect. But once they’re dead you have the perfection of them.
CL: I have that with my husband. Definitely. But I haven’t gone to that yet. I haven’t really touched upon him so much yet. He’s such an icon that it has to be handled with kid gloves. But at the same time I’m just going to tell the story of what happened, and people can love it or hate it. I don’t care. I really don’t care.
JJB: The cleanest approach is through your own heart. It sounds so droopy to say that.
CL: No, it doesn’t.
JJB: The part of you that loves – just that – well, first of all, it makes you happy when you’re writing …
JJB: … because you’re in a state of love – which is not bad, given your name. And the love approach kind of allows you a 360. I found that when I was writing about people or situations and I felt any anger or any resentment, I just couldn’t write. It goes absolutely nowhere. That’s the thing.
CL: That’s one of the things I loved about your book. It was very loving. I got a sense of place and a sense of time. I knew nothing about your history, about your dad and your mom. My favorite part of the book was your shopping for crazy clothes and your not having that big job at French Vogue yet.
JJB: That big job was a fucking nightmare but that big job is what I’m known for. I didn’t want to write about it – probably in the same way you’re not looking at the time with your husband yet.
JJB: I just didn’t want to write about French Vogue because I had, stamped across my forehead, “Editor in Chief of Paris Vogue.” I only took that job because a Hollywood director had dumped me, and the kitty litter smelled bad. And I owed this tax bill from a couple of movies I had written that hadn’t happened. And I hated New York. But now I’m stuck with being known for that job. “Oh, you’re such a fashion icon. Where should I buy my clothes?” These are things that stick to one. You also think when you write your book and you write your truth and you write some of your secrets that people aren’t going to react with such open hearts. Your reaction is the one that thrilled me the most though, Courtney, because I don’t know you. I only know who you are. There was this uniform reaction from other people’s hearts. But that still doesn’t change the fact that there are trolls out there who blame me for everything that Assad does and want me to tell them where to buy their clothes. (Laughing) So it changes a lot, but there are certain things it doesn’t change.
CL: I’m sorry that’s still happening to you.
JJB: It comes down to self-protection. Do you have it?
CL: I’m pretty tough. I’m scrappy.
JJB: When I say self-protection, I mean an instinct. To me, what ruined my life was being sent to Syria in December of 2010 and I didn’t think once, oh, maybe this is a really stupid thing to do.
CL: Why would you have?
JJB: Because if I had called more people in politics or something … I don’t know … I feel stupid that I said yes. I still feel stupid. The book didn’t change that. So that’s the sad news.
CL: I think that people who don’t like me and and believe crazy shit and crazy conspiracy theories are always going to believe that shit, and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m not trying to reach them. There are 10 million English majors who grew up with all my records, and I am hopeful that this book reaches them instead.
JJB: It’s really simple. Everybody has a heart, no matter how many layers of shit it’s hiding under. But it’s the universal thing, and you have so many universal things to write about. What I want to read about is what is this fucked-up crazy childhood of yours – what are you holding onto? Who are you trying to see when you look in the mirror? What position did you sleep in when you were 17 years old? How did you feel about guys? Do you feel that they were adventures or safety?
CL: When I was 17, I think it was safety. But my self-esteem wasn’t fully formed then. It wasn’t formed until I had my band. After I had my band, I had the pick of the litter.
JJB: (Laughing) All puppies.
CL: Yeah. I could sort of point and go, “You.” Even with my age now, once someone sees me onstage, I am empowered. They fall under my spell. I’m not very good at playing games. My game is that I get on stage with a guitar and I play my heart out. And then people like me.
JJB: And you’re writing about that, I hope – what that feels like.
CL: That mojo – yeah.
JJB: People want to know about your mojo. Most people don’t have mojo.
CL: A dear friend of mine is a screenwriter and he told me that he just feels better when he’s writing. I get that. I feel better about myself when I’m performing.
JJB: That’s exactly how I feel. That’s why I write: to feel okay.