Letters to Kurt, Eric Erlandson's new book, is no tabloid-y tell-all, but in many ways it's more revealing. As the guitarist and co-founding member of Hole, Erlandson has gone through more than even his band's roaring '94 major label debut, Live Through This, might have suggested. Dabbling in drugs and dealing with the subsequent deaths of friends, suicides, break-ups with and betrayals by Courtney Love (both romantic and professional), other high-profile relationships and the shocking passing of Kurt Cobain — Erlandson's life was like Cobain's in many ways.
Cobain serves as “the muse” for the passages, audacious anecdotes and bittersweet journal-like entries in Letters to Kurt. Over lunch in Echo Park last week, we asked him probing questions about Love, Cobain and the fame that clearly continues to affect those around him — and, for better or worse, inspire his art.
So you were originally going to do a more straightforward memoir, right?
Yes, a memoir telling my crazy stories, what I've gone through and what I've experienced in a rock band. One thing though, I feel I'm too young to be doing a memoir. When you're able to write something in a poetic way you can ease into it. I had already started this process; but I didn't know it was going to be my first book.
Why exactly did you call it Letters to Kurt?
Kurt is a muse, he's not here and I'm not writing to him per se. I'm writing to myself. There were certain points when I was writing this that his presence was felt. I was going through something during this book … something was taken away from me.
What were you going through? Was it the struggle over the Hole band name with Courtney?
We had a band together … in her head I was just the guitar player in the band and everybody involved knows that isn't the case. There was a contract signed that said neither of us can use the Hole name without the other's approval. But later, that's what she did.
You're talking about 2009's Nobody's Daughter, which started off as a solo project but ended up being put out as a Hole release right? Did you take legal action?
No, I thought we could work it out. I got a lawyer and thought we could work it out.
So that situation was a catalyst for the book?
I started the book January 2010 when she did that. At that same time, I had a lot of heavy things happening all at once. I used it all as fuel. I didn't want to use Kurt's suicide, and then I thought, how could I NOT use it? He was the one person who could understand exactly what I was going through. Even though he's not here, just his presence was important … just knowing someone knows what the hell you're going through.
Were you speaking to him or was his presence speaking through you?
I talk about that in the intro. The point of art is to get more clarity and move forward as people. The catharsis — there are two parts, the purging and the clarity. The catharsis really is a purging for most people, but for me it's also clarity. There is closure, redemption.
Are you referring to feelings toward Courtney and the anger? Do you think it shows through here?
No, it is more covert. I guard it, it's usually more metaphorical. I didn't edit out frustration; at the same time I didn't let the frustration rule the show. It's in there obviously, but it's one part of what I was going through. There were times I was really calm and reflective of the past, and other times it was all stirred up.
What percentage of Letters to Kurt is related to Courtney?
Every single piece is related to Courtney on some level. Because Courtney has become a modern-day archetype for a certain percentage of the population who view her as having a certain energy. That energy is, some people think, an inspiring strong female. There's also a big part of the population who think she's a destructive archetype. There are those two sides — well, there are many — but those are two.
My connection to the feminine is a big part of my life. I've always been drawn to it, I make music with girls, I have lots of girl friends, it's a big part of my life. I'm exploring how the female/male dynamic has shifted recently after the whole woman's lib thing and feminism.
Are you using your relationship with Courtney as an example or microcosm for the bigger picture of men and women, and how we deal with each other?
A lot of women think it's okay to call a guy and ask him out, and a lot don't. So there's this shift that's happening because in the past nobody, no woman, would ask a guy out. Now they do. But, what does that do to the guy?
Did Courtney emasculate you?
That's a part of it. She didn't try to emasculate me, I chose to be in a relationship with a person with that energy.
What is your relationship with Courtney now? What does she think about the book? I read a headline saying she didn't want you writing about your relationship or sex life. She was your girlfriend first, right?
We were a couple and lived together before we had the band.
Is it true she left you for Kurt?
There was one person in between us [“Billy Corgan?” we ask. He nods yes. From what I understand, she was just joking around [about not wanting me to write about our love life]. This isn't a tell-all, but at the same time I have to mention that because that is a part of my connection to her, because I was like this third wheel in that relationship.
Did your relationship just run its course, or was it a bad breakup?
It wasn't a bad breakup, we were still friends. It was emotional the whole time — she is and so am I. We are lucky and somehow held it together, even years after we broke up. It is a very rare story for the music world. I chose not to let my ego get involved and also, we broke up right before we got signed to a major label. Everything happened so crazy at once, it's like, how could you not make it work?
Well you guys definitely had chemistry on stage, in spite of, or maybe because of, your past relationship.
We both practice Buddhism. It helps you resolve all relationship difficulties. She's been through a lot and that's the thing, looking back. I've been practicing Buddhism for 20 years now, and now I can see that's the thing that really held things together. I had to go off on my own to grow as a person because I was being kept down.
Your record was like your child.
Our band was our child. And you wait until the child is grown before you split [laughs].
Was their weirdness between you and Kurt when he started dating Courtney?
Kurt's not somebody you can hate. Despite the nature of their relationship and some of the stuff that was happening back then, I still had such great respect for him as an artist. And I knew he was a great person, a really sweet guy, a nice guy caught in a storm. And I was caught in that same storm, but in a smaller storm that was associated to his storm. I had an anchor, a lifeline [Buddhism] and he didn't. I also have a less addictive personality. I come from a different upbringing so I had a little more grounding in that area.
Did you try to get him into Buddism?
He didn't get into it. Courtney was in and out of it. With the drugs and stuff, it was hard.
You did some drugs yourself. How were you doing during the downward spiral of that Kurt and Courtney got caught in?
I never got hooked. I dabbled on the hard stuff for at least 10 years. Started when Courtney and I started living together and lasted until that was over. She goes all the way. I was helping her hold back, but with them together … I was trying to help them. So I wouldn't do my own dirty stuff around addicts because I felt I was furthering their addiction. Instead I tried to be the person like, “Come on, we need to get our shit together.”
You seem really laid back, non-aggressive. But with a personality like Courtney it seems like it would hard been hard for you to have any control.
There's that cartoon side of her that is intimidating, but deep down inside there is a sweet little kitten. I got to see that, I was lucky enough to see that when we dated. I got to see a lot of that side of her that people don't know anymore.
When was the last time you spoke to her?
Not since October of last year.
Have you heard if she's seen the book?
Did you have any concerns, about what she or others would think about the book?
The message is bigger than me, bigger than me holding back and saying “No, I can't say this, someone might get hurt.” It's just fear and I don't want to buy into fear. I'm talking about Kurt's suicide when there's theories out there claiming otherwise [about his death]. So I'm actually supporting her in a strange way with this book because I think it's important. A lot of what happens with suicide is denial of how it happened, even with a non-famous person.
I referred to a book written by Carla Fine, No Time to Say Goodbye, where she lost her husband, a doctor who committed suicide unexpectedly. The author went into the murder conspiracy. It's natural for [a person to believe that] because you can't accept that this person killed themselves. There's no validity to that, that's a part of the process of suicide.
You're referring to the conspiracies blaming Courtney for Kurt's death, like in the film Kurt & Courtney?
That movie was made by somebody that is not a conscious person, or was not conscious when he made it. That movie was made in a tabloid manner, and I wasn't interviewed for it. Same with the books, even sanctioned biographies, they never interviewed me. They never have the full story. They've never reached out to me. And I have not talked about any of that to the press.
What about the people that feel Courtney led Kurt down a bad path, perhaps to suicide?
That is valid on one level. I've led people down paths. But I don't believe there are victims, so that's doing him a disservice by saying he didn't have a choice or he didn't have his own problems.
You explore the culture of fame in the book, positives and negatives. How do you feel that played into Kurt's death?
Fame is a drug. Do you blame the drug for someone's death? No, you blame the person using the drug. But, at the same time, our society is becoming fame-obsessed. On the Internet, everybody is famous and anybody can be famous and everyone is excited to be famous. When you're in it, you can't see it. You're a little aware of it. With Kurt and Courtney and others I've been with, I've felt like I was in the shadow, even when the lights were turned on me.
You were also in a relationship with someone famous (Drew Barrymore) for a few years. Based on your experiences then and in the band, do you have a bad perspective on fame?
I have a negative view of it — being worshiped too much. Fame is fame. It's only going to lead to more alienation, more isolation, more suicide, more problems. More negative things in society. The good thing the Internet did was bring down everybody a notch, so it cheapens fame a little. It's not something you want to go for — you don't want to be famous, you want to do good work in life. Even when I had posters on my wall, it wasn't the fame thing. I wanted to do good work. I was more interested in doing something good and doing something that felt good to me.
You've produced and been part of various music projects, but why haven't you formed another band?
It doesn't feel right.
Would you feel like you were leaving Hole — your baby — behind once and for all?
That's it maybe. I don't know, it could be some psychological thing. I want to do music, but music has gone through a lot of changes. It was like I was on the sidelines watching, but I was in it too, playing the whole time.
Eric Erlandson will be reading from Letters To Kurt, at Skylight Books, tonight at 7:00 p.m., 1818 N. Vermont Ave, (323) 660-1175.