For Better Or Worse

YOKO ONO TOOK AS MUCH AS SHE could take, and then she took some more. "I can take hatred, because I don't believe that people are capable of real hate," she wrote in 1973. "We are too lonely for that. We vanish too quickly for that. Do you ever hate a cloud?" Well, no, Americans have never hated a cloud. But don't get them started on the ambitious wives of rock stars. In 1992, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was being heralded as the next John Lennon, and his bride, Courtney Love, was being pegged as the next wife on wheels. One evening, the newlyweds were in Los Angeles, when one of Cobain's bandmates called. Love was entertaining a reporter doing a story on her for Vanity Fair, when she answered the phone. "I'll go get him," she told the caller, then turned to writer Lynn Hirschberg: "Just call me Yoko Love. They all hate me. Everyone just f---ing hates my guts."

We're used to rock stars marrying models, but we still can't quite forgive them for marrying musicians. Women like Ono and Love must prove that they're not gold diggers, or Svengalis-that they earned their celebrity and didn't just marry it. To rabid fans, a rock wife's career looks like something she does in her spare time, when she's not, say, trying to break up the Beatles. (Last week, Nirvana postponed a European tour, triggering yet more rumors that the band was splitting up.) Linda McCartney has been widely mocked as a backup singer; Patti Scialfa, who's married to Bruce Springsteen, has been widely ignored as a solo artist. It seemed like a miracle when Ono recharged her career, first with a 1989 Whitney Museum retrospective, and then with a CD set, "Onobox."

Alas, Ono's career has hit another snag. Her musical, "New York Rock," which opened off-Broadway last week, is preachy and generic and will only confirm her status as the widow in the Porsche sunglasses. "Rock" follows a woman who falls for a guitarist. Above the ticket window at the theater, a sign reads: WARNING: A STROBE IS USED AND GUNSHOTS ARE FIRED DURING THIS PERFORMANCE. You get the idea.

Ono has never commanded much of an audience, but Love's band, Hole, is built for the big time. Hole's major-label debut, "Live Through This," due out next week, is a bracing rock-and-roll album shot through with real sadness and candor. Love, 28, sounds like a young Chrissie Hynde, not Mrs. Kurt Cobain. "When I heard this album, I was blown away," says one record executive. "It never occur-red to me that she had talent."

"Live Through This" succeeds because it manages to bottle all the dark animus of Love's personal life. The singer was recently seen ushering Cobain to a Rome hospital, after he accidentally overdosed on painkillers and champagne. By then, it seemed as if she'd always been at his side. As a wife, Love has ruffled as many feathers as Ono did when she walked into the Abbey Road studios during the making of the Beatles' White Album. "Yoko ventured opinions," says Bill King, publisher of Beatlefan. "Everyone was like, 'Who is this woman who's trying to tell the Beatles how to record?!"' Love has ventured plenty of opinions about Nirvana, says the band's biography "Come As You Are," even scolding its management company on Cobain's behalf.

The biography also records the fallout of Love's fighting spirit. Steve Albini, who produced that band's last album, referred to the meddlesome Love as a "psycho hosebeast." Axl Rose, of Guns N' Roses, reportedly threatened Cobain at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards: "You shut your bitch up, or I'm taking you down to the pavement!" Those were sexist broadsides-but Love isn't always an innocent bystander. She plays the troublemaker, a blur of anarchic energy in bright red lipstick and a torn baby-doll dress. From the beginning Love gave as good as she got-and often better. "Just you try and hold me down," she sings on an excoriating new punk tune called "Gutless." "Come on try to shut me up."

Love was born in San Francisco and raised by hippie parents with whom she had a troubled relationship. (Her mother, Linda Carroll, was the therapist who helped fugitive Katherine Ann Power come in from the cold.) At 12, Love was sent to a juvenile-detention center for stealing a Kiss T shirt from a Woolworth's in Oregon. Later, she sang for the band Faith No More, acted in the movie "Sid and Nancy" and worked as a stripper in L.A. Love began dating Cobain in the fall of 1991; in February 1992 they were married in Waikiki.

Love is a confirmed feminist. She's never made a secret of her arrogance (in Creem, she says, "Let's talk about Pearl Jam. I know we're better than Pearl Jam"), her adventurousness (in Out magazine, she says she has slept with "about 15 women") or her ambition (on the hypnotic "Doll Parts," she sings, "I want to be the girl with the most cake"). By '92, Hole's independent album, "Pretty on the Inside," had attracted the attention of a slew of record executives. But some people were dying to believe the band landed its reported $1 million deal with Nirvana's label, Geffen Records, simply because Love's husband invented grunge. Says Jonathan Poneman, of Sub Pop records, "The idea that this woman can become rich and powerful by herself is too much for a lot of insecure men to handle."

To be fair, there are times when Love may be too much for anyone to handle., Some of her exploits (such as baiting Axl Rose) seem funny and subversive part of a never-ending crusade against pretension and men who date models. But there's a sinister quality to some of Love's machinations. She and Cobain have reportedly threatened a few writers, the telephone being their preferred instrument of torture. When Vanity Fair said Love had done heroin after she learned she was pregnant with Frances Bean Cobain (now a healthy 19-month-old), the couple vehemently denied it. Cobain was later quoted making violent threats against Hirschberg. A source who's worked with Love says, "She's trying to create a climate where people are afraid to mess with her." Some associates are even nervous about saying something nice. "I think Courtney's strongest talent is as a poet," says Paul Koderi, who coproduced "Live...... And I don't think that she'd be upset that I said that."

Love is a good poet-and she's got a wonderfully surly voice. Yoko Ono's avant-garde music puzzled people for years before bands like the B-52's cited it as an influence on new wave. But no one who hears "Live Through This" will question Love's credentials. Atlantic Records president Danny Goldberg, who helped manage Hole, thinks the singer parts ways with Ono here: "Courtney won't have a hard time getting people to listen to her music. She's beaten the system."

Still, the system doesn't have to like her. Cobain once wrote, "My wife challenges injustice and the reason her character has been so severely attacked is because she chooses not to function the way the white corporate man insists." There may be some truth to that; Lennon talked about the "fat, vodka-lunch, shouting males" who once dubbed Ono the Dragon Lady. The suits better get over their fear and loathing-or they'll have to answer to Courtney Love.