Did Kurt Cobain really write all the songs on Hole’s Live Through This?

Well, the only people who know for sure are Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Cobain’s dead, and if that rumor were true, it’d be surprising if Love let on now.

Here’s the basic arguments from those who think he did: 1. Courtney Love never made an album anywhere as good as Live Through This, either before or after. 2. It would be in character for both of them: Cobain would enjoy turning Love loose on the world with an arsenal of kick-ass songs, and Love wouldn’t be above accepting them. 3. In 1996, a widely circulated bootleg emerged of Cobain singing the Hole song “Asking for It,” and stories circulated of there being tapes of Cobain singing most of the Hole record. Love’s camp floated the story that the intention had been to release a version of Cobain and Love singing the song together, as a treat for fans who craved the notion of grunge’s first couple duetting like Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond doing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” 4. One Hole track, “Old Age,” an outtake from the Live Through This sessions, appeared abroad in 1993 as the B-side to “Beautiful Son,” with Courtney Love listed as sole songwriter. In 1998, however, a boombox tape surfaced of Nirvana rehearsing “Old Age” in 1991, with some differences but still recognizably the same song; bassist Krist Novoselic confirmed that the song had been written by Cobain.

Here’s the basic arguments for those who think he didn’t: 1. Isn’t it a bit sexist to assume that when a great female rock star emerges, her success was actually because of a man? 2. The songs on Live Through This don’t really sound like anything else Kurt Cobain ever did.

Here’s some more information: When I interviewed Cobain at his Seattle home in the summer of 1993, he said that he loved playing music with Courtney, and found it rejuvenating, but that they probably wouldn’t ever release any of their collaborations because it was a bit too redolent of John and Yoko. He did say that they had written “Penny Royal Tea” together. (In other people’s accounts, the song was written years before he met Love.) In October 1993, Cobain visited the Atlanta studio where Hole were recording Live Through This. While he was there, Love dragooned him into singing background vocals on a few songs; according to the producers of Live Through This, Cobain seemed completely unfamiliar with the songs (which included “Asking for It”). That day was the source of the tape that later leaked; why a ludicrous story about a duet for the fans seemed preferable remains a mystery. Although his vocals are mixed very low on the final version of Live Through This, Cobain is audible in spots.

Here’s my theory, which you may choose not to believe, but which has the advantage of conforming to the facts as we know them: Courtney Love is a talented lyricist and songwriter who can’t quite put the pieces together. She has a gift for turning a sharp phrase, she has good taste in music, she can come up with a good hook–but for some reason, she doesn’t have the ability (focus? patience?) to assemble a full song. What she really needs is an editor to make her ideas work, just as Stevie Nicks has said she needed Lindsey Buckingham to shape her raw musical material. (“He could take my songs and do what I would do if I had his musical talent,” Nicks said [in an interview conducted by Love!]. “When he wasn’t angry with me, that is. That’s why there’s seven or eight great songs, and there’s fifty more where he wasn’t happy with me and didn’t help me.”) Cobain was an excellent editor, which is why Live Through This is Love’s best work. In addition, Love was something of a magpie; there are anecdotes of Cobain working on a riff at home, seeing Love get interested, and telling her, essentially, “hands off that one.” I think Cobain gave her permission to rework “Old Age” and helped improve her songs in various other ways, but that the songwriting on Live Through This is essentially hers.

If Cobain polished Love’s raw songs, it would be perfectly reasonable to think of his role as editorial. Many other people, however, would define the work he did as collaborative. And that’s why after he died, some of her attempts to draft other people to take his place have ended up messily: for example, after Billy Corgan helped Love with some of the songs on Celebrity Skin, they had a public argument over how much credit he deserved. Corgan called his role on the album “Svengali”; Love preferred “music teacher.” She semi-coherently summed it up recently: “Live Through This is formless, has no information except these chords I learned from Billy and certain things I learned from Kurt – [take] really boring three chords and make them fucking magical.”

(Excerpted from the 2006 book Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?: Music’s Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed, published by Three Rivers Press, written by Gavin Edwards.)