In 2010, as former Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson was coping with the theft of his life savings, he learned that his onetime band mate and long-ago girlfriend Courtney Love had reformed the band with a new line-up, in violation of a contract the pair had signed. During that trying period, he found it difficult to trust anyone at all. But eventually, he found himself confiding in an old friend who was the only person he thought might empathize: Kurt Cobain.
“He just had a special gift with people,” says Erlandson in a phone interview. So, when he started writing about what was on his mind, “I felt like Kurt would be the perfect reader. He would understand what I was going through — even though it’s not really about him, it’s not really about anybody else, it’s just stuff bleeding through from the past, the present, and maybe even the future.” The book that resulted bears little resemblance to your standard tell-all rock ‘n’ roll memoir. Letters to Kurt is a series of prose poems that serves as a meditation on celebrity, suicide, the strange and bewildering details of contemporary life, and, most of all, the business of finding balance and purpose post-fame. Influenced by research in which he learned that “all these emotions that happen after [someone close to us kills himself] are completely valid,” Erlandson allowed his anger — and even some dark, wry humor — to show through, breaking the unspoken rule that suicide must be discussed in grave and somber tones. If “you numb [the feelings] or resist them, then you don’t go out the other side, to where you can move on,” he says. “They still rule you unconsciously.”
Outside of his personal reasons for addressing Cobain, who was found dead in his Seattle home 18 years ago today, his invocation of the Nirvana frontman is an attempt at using celebrity for creative — rather than frivolous or destructive — purposes. “When you’re looking for muses, we no longer have the Greek and Roman gods,” says Erlandson. “Instead, we worship celebrities. Instead of just idolizing and gossiping about the celebrities that you like, have them be your muse and find them inside yourself and use them in your art.”
A long-time Buddhist who recalls the process of writing Letters to Kurt as an “internal journey” that has allowed him to confront old demons and move on to the next phase of his life, Erlandson has always had a unique perspective on Nirvana, Hole, and the self-destructive world of rock stardom. He characterizes himself, in the book, as having one foot in Cobain and Love’s drug-afflicted downward spiral and the other outside, on solid emotional ground. In fact, there is literal truth behind this imagery: “When I first started playing music with Courtney, she lived in this rundown, junky building in Hollywood. I’d go over there and we’d talk for hours and she’d be laughing at me because hours would go by and I’d be trying to leave, and I’d have one foot in the door and one foot outside. She’d still be talking my ear off. That’s kind of a metaphor for what I was able to do, to have one foot anchored outside that grounded me and one foot inside the door of fame, celebrity, genius, chaos, cartoon personalities.” Pensive and down to earth both in his writing and in conversation, Erlandson’s status as both an insider and an outsider makes him an instantly relatable narrator.
But for many years, when he was in the public eye, he resisted the opportunity to tell the story from his perspective. Writing the book “opened up my voice, a voice that I’ve allowed to be squashed,” he says. “I tended to be more shy and let somebody do the talking for me. But after a long journey inward, I’ve realized that’s not doing the world any good, for me to be quiet. If I have something to say, I have to say it.”
One topic Erlandson doesn’t find particularly inspiring, however, is pop culture’s recent and all-consuming obsession with the ’90s. “I’m not a big fan of nostalgia, but I understand it. I don’t want to go see the bands from then play their hits,” he says. “I’m more interested in finding stuff I haven’t already experienced. But I understand the nostalgia because it was pre-Internet, we found out about things via word of mouth, and also there was more soul, an energy running up from the high ’90s.” Despite the renewed interest in Nirvana, Hole, and their contemporaries, Erlandson writes about the impossibility of imagining Cobain in our contemporary world of social media and Celebrity Rehab. “You can’t picture it because it doesn’t make any sense. It’s not what he was about,” he tells me, inadvertently contradicting Love’s prediction that if Cobain had lived, the couple would “probably live on the Upper West fuckin’ Side now and have three fuckin’ kids” — or be divorced, or have an open marriage. Or own a yacht.
It’s Erlandson’s insistence on writing himself away from old wounds and into the less chaotic, if more mundane, present that makes Letters to Kurt the opposite of nostalgic. Instead of reveling in the past, he realizes that he needs to come to terms with it in order to move forward. “You have the time to slow down and look at things and explore life,” says Erlandson. “That’s what I’ve been doing, and I’m a much better person for it. That’s the whole point: We’re not competing with other people, we’re competing with ourselves to become better people.”
Photo credit: Planet Swan