Though all of Courtney Love’s songs, from “Teenage Whore” to “I Think That I Would Die,” have an autobiographical tilt to them, no song title seems to sum up her present predicament better than “Asking for It.” Was she asking for it? Did she ask you nice? Was she asking for it? Did she ask you twice?

No matter what Love does, or how she’s portrayed in the press, or what rumors are currently circulating, there’s always someone around to say she was asking for it. When she dives into the mosh pit and comes up with her clothes and jewelry torn off, she’s asking for it. When she gets called a whore or a groupie or we hear about the rock star du jour she’s fucking, well, she was asking for it. No one makes her come onstage in dresses that barely cover her bottom and then prop a high-heeled foot on the monitor to present the crowd with a clear view of her panties. No one makes her tell the crowd, “You don’t love me till you’ve fucked me,” or make unsubtle reference after unsubtle reference to her old boyfriend Billy Corgan. And wasn’t it someone from her own camp who planted the untrue tales of her love affair with Nine Inch man Trent Reznor?

When she brings baby Frances Bean onstage (she didn’t in Chicago) or includes heartbreaking references to her late husband in the video for “Doll Parts,” she’s using them to get attention. Or is she? Her anger toward Cobain is startling. She refers to him as an asshole, screams at him for leaving her, changes the words in her songs about him to the past tense. When some fans at the Chicago show handed her a poster to autograph after the show, she unrolled it and shouted, “Don’t give me your fucking Nirvana poster to sign! Fuck you!” Why can’t she make up her mind? Does she want to play the grieving widow or the sex-starved goddess in a merry widow?

Then there’s the media. In the now-infamous Vanity Fair profile, she was a gold-digging, heroin-shooting mother-to-be who made Kurt Cobain’s life pure torment. What was the point? That unlike, say, Christie Brinkley, Love was so unlovable as to be unworthy of her famous husband? After Cobain’s suicide the spotlight grew even hotter. Esquire reported (without attribution) that he may have been driven to kill himself because he believed Love was having an affair with Corgan. Other stories followed in mainstream publications, all rife with rumor–the cabdriver who heard Love and Cobain arguing bitterly days before his death; the Enquirer story that claimed Love slept with a teddy bear stuffed with Cobain’s ashes.

Then somewhere in the middle of all the mudslinging, around the time of the heroin-induced death of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, a wave of media support emerged, cemented by the strength of Hole’s second album, Live Through This. Had that album been worse, Love probably would have been completely Yoko-ized. But Live Through This showcases a writer of talent. Hole’s previous album, Pretty on the Inside, was also lyrically wonderful, but aurally it was an off-putting combination of screeching vocals and a poor backing band. A new rhythm section backs Love and guitarist Eric Erlandson on the new album, which not only balances anger and sensitivity in much the same way that Nevermind did, but also touches on feminist topics few women rockers even think of. While Pretty on the Inside dealt with more adolescent concerns–being a “Teenage Whore” or the “Good Sister, Bad Sister”–Live Through This is all woman. There are no “Supernova” paeans to men here; in their place are tales of the search for sexual equality (“Asking for It”), society’s images of beauty (“Miss World”), hypocrisy (“Gutless,” “Rock Star”), and, most prominently of all, motherhood. Few women rockers have ever touched on the subject, especially in Love’s alternately desperate and ambivalent tone; she does twice, on both “Plump” and “I Think That I Would Die.” As if to add fire to her already bad image, Love suggests that pregnancy isn’t just nine months of warm, happy feelings. And it’s all done with her knack for phrasing (“I don’t really miss God, but I sure do miss Santa Claus”).

But while the album has raked in positive reviews, the credit has often seemed to go to Cobain. Lyrics have been analyzed for references to him, it’s been rumored that he actually wrote the album, and interviews done with Love even before his death placed a heavy emphasis on her personal life rather than on her profession. So by the time Hole finally headlined in Chicago, things had gotten confusing. Was Love the powerful, brave, beautiful woman Kurt Cobain had adored? Or was she a drug-crazed, trampy manipulator making a career off his name and a lot of bad publicity?

I thought Love had only been disparaged by the press, but her show at Metro suggested that the real abuse comes from the public. Maybe the crowd was cynical because of what they had heard or read; but whatever it was, the hostility was incredible. The people there weren’t fans. Teenage grrrls roamed the sidewalks trying to buy tickets from scalpers while beefy guys in Nirvana shirts hogged the mosh pits; the reserved section was overflowing with critics and Geffen execs. Come see the Courtney Love freak show. What will she do tonight? Will she come up from the mosh pit naked this time? Will she shoot up onstage?

For the show’s grand finale, Love made a swan dive into the pit, emerging with her clothes in shreds and hunks of her hair plucked out as souvenirs. Afterward, even this was something to debate. While Eddie Vedder, Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, and other male rockers do it (and also lose clothes and hair), it’s apparently improper for a woman. Love says she wrote “Asking for It” about a mosh-pit experience she had during an earlier tour, when–in the course of trying to do what she’d seen the men doing–she had her clothes torn off, her breasts twisted, and fingers “poked inside me.” As with rape victims, whether Love was wearing a nightie or a suit of armor seems irrelevant; it would have been removed regardless. But Love usually finds herself in no-win situations. If she had stayed locked in her mansion after Cobain’s funeral, it would have been said that she was strung out. When she came out and went on tour, it was too soon, disrespectful. If she carries Cobain’s ashes in a teddy bear, she’s weird, sick. If she sticks them in a box at home, she’s cold, she’s already forgotten him. If she brings Frances onstage she’s exploiting her. If she leaves her at the hotel she’s ignoring her.

It would be easier on Love if she kept her mouth shut, kept her dress down, signed those Nirvana posters, stayed out of the pits. But she doesn’t. She does things on her own terms. Even worse, she doesn’t fall into one of the established types for women rockers–the masculine figures in combat boots and jeans (L7, Chrissie Hynde), the sex kittens (Pat Benatar, En Vogue), the hippie chicks (Edie Brickell, Natalie Merchant), or the assertive and clever but nonthreatening babes (Liz Phair, Salt N Pepa, Bonnie Raitt). Courtney Love might suck you till your dick is blue, but she’s just as likely to scratch your eyes out, tell a charming story about her baby, cry, or give you her perspective on The Beauty Myth. While all of the aforementioned artists–and most women in general–are just as multifaceted as Love, they’re not so forthright about showing it. Public figures of both genders usually pick one image and stick with it.

What I like about Love is that she doesn’t assume the public is too dense to grasp that she’s more than just one thing–a rock star’s widow, a rock star, a hell-raiser, an intellectual, a sexual being, a mother, a product of a dysfunctional family, a businessperson–and she isn’t afraid to show us all those sides. Or maybe she knows we’re too dense to ever really understand her, but she keeps trying. She keeps asking for it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.