Erlandson’s Cobain Letters

Eric Erlandson ’86 is a guitarist who with Courtney Love co-founded Hole, a seminal rock band of the ’90s. He also was a close friend of Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, one of the most influential rock bands of the 1990s. In 2013, Erlandson published “Letters to Kurt,” written some 20 years after Cobain’s suicide. Kirkus Reviews said of the book, “These 52 ‘letters’ … combine the subject matter of the Byrds’ ‘So You Want Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star’ with the fury of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl.’” Erlandson was interviewed about his book by Aaron Smith, a frequent contributor to LMU Magazine.

Describe the process of writing such a personal meditation on an icon.
Like Hell with moments of rapture. Or, the Haunted Mansion with a few trips to Space Mountain. I struggled until I had created a small world and grappled over the decision of whether or not to be sued. I placed my life under a microscope, and all the scars of my past appeared, along with some free-floating bed bugs. I worked hard at opening my arteries to whatever blood wanted to come.

How do you feel about it now?
I’m happy with it. It’s a strange book. Not the rock memoir people have come to expect. The topic of suicide is a buzz kill, but it’s a terribly common problem that should be brought to the public’s attention. My hope is the book helps someone somewhere reflect on where they are checking out, and become more aware of the signs, to begin figuring out solutions that go beyond therapy and medication.

Before the writer, there was the guitarist. When did you start?
At the age of 13, after hearing a lawnmower outside my window — or was it a leaf blower? I thought it sounded beautiful. I ran to the kitchen where my mom was making Tuna Helper and shouted, “Mom! I’m gonna’ be a rock star!” She slipped some Ritalin into my noodles and thought the matter solved. But I saved up for a leaf blower and began practicing in the garage, which drove dad nuts.

Which guitarists have influenced you?
Jimmy Page, Mick Ronson, Keith Richards, Neil Young, Ace Frehley, Rick Nielson, Joe Perry, Michael/Rudolph Schenker, Buck Dharma, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Howe, Steve Hillage, Steve Hackett, Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson, Ron Asheton, Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine, Robert Quine, Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, Poison Ivy, Prince, John McGeoch, Warren Cuccurullo, Steve Jones, Brian James, Rowland S. Howard, Blixa Bargeld, Keith Levene, Viv Albertine, Johnny Marr, Daniel Ash, Will Sergeant, Steve Albini, Lou Barlow, Mark Robinson, Kevin Shields and, of course, Courtney Love.

You cite 40 influential guitarists! What’s the result?
I’m what happens when Johnny Thunders has a three-way with Alex Lifeson and Lindsey Buckingham to the mood music of Glenn Branca and Terry Riley while Bela Lugosi watches.

Wow. How about a guitarist today?
My favorite guitarist now is any girl that picks up a guitar and allows her soul to ring true during this age of mass distraction. She gets my vote. We need more female musicians eager to explore new sounds, rather than mimic oh-so-tired male posturing.

At LMU, you studied economics — a long way from lead guitar for Hole.
I was working full time at a record store and didn’t have much time for reading. Economics gave me the most flexibility in terms of free electives. If I had to do it again, I’d probably be an English major.

A favorite teacher?
This guy my dad [Ted Erlandson] hired when he was dean of liberal arts. He reminded me of Woody Allen, and he loved Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. He never used notes, the whole class was in his head. Great sense of humor. He made econometrics fun.

What about KXLU, LMU’s student-run radio station?
Without KXLU, I would’ve never heard most of the music that inspired me. KXLU was my main source for all things weird, under the radar, or even cool old stuff I missed along the way. When Hole released our first single in 1990, I gave it to a couple of KXLU jocks. They didn’t like it, so we had to go to KROQ’s Rodney Bingenheimer to get a buzz going. I love that. KXLU was too cool to play Hole!

L.A. radio’s a wasteland. KXLU is the only true punk station around. So many great DJs: Agent Ava, Stella, Adam Bomb, Justin Thyme, Father Dan. And I love many of the newbies. I still listen whenever I get in the car, and I always hear some new band I would otherwise never know about. KXLU has consistently blown my mind for 30 years and counting.

So, what’s next?
Recording some music and playing live again. An instrumental soundtrack to the book. I’d love to put out the unreleased Hole stuff. I could spend lifetimes digitizing tapes while pondering the existence of a world enamored with technology and Disney pop.

This interview was conducted in January 2013. Follow Erlandson on Twitter @eric_erlandson.