As the drummer for Hole during the band’s heyday in the early to mid-’90s, Patty Schemel is one of the era’s most well-recognized and respected percussionists. Her close friendship not just with Hole front woman Courtney Love but also her late husband, Nirvana‘s Kurt Cobain, secured her as a fixture of fascination by fans of the infamous grunge rock scene, which was populated by drug-laden scenarios and untimely deaths of both Cobain and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff in 1994. Schemel’s new memoir, Hit So Hard, details her life leading up to her becoming a professional musician in some of the world’s most famous bands (she briefly played with Nirvana) as well as delving into the experience of being on the road, in the studio and at home with her generation’s most lauded artists — herself included.
But Schemel wasn’t just watching the destruction of drugs and depression from the outside — she was an addict whose crack, heroin and alcohol use spiraled for several years, affecting her ability to play music, forge healthy relationships and, at rock bottom, make a living so that she could afford to pay her rent. Hit So Hard delivers the hard truths of being a junky as Schemel recalls the times she attempted to detox, the multiple rehabs and relapses and how she was able to finally crawl out it all to return to music and sobriety.
Hit So Hard, available from Da Capo Tuesday (Oct. 31), is a follow-up to a 2011 documentary of the same name which offered video footage and interviews from friends, family and bandmates as well as Schemel herself. But the book is more than just a companion piece, as it is able to expand on Schemel’s feelings, thoughts and reflections in greater detail, which is exactly why she wrote it in the first place.
“During the Q&As for the documentary there were a lot of questions that came up,” Schemel tells Billboard. “And then I was approached by a publisher, Ben Schafer, who had seen the documentary and he had a lot of questions, too.”
Schemel says Schafer asked if she’d ever been interested in writing a book, but she’d never thought of herself as a writer — “more of a storyteller.” But in the process of writing the book, Schemel says she discovered that she enjoyed writing, even if it was sometimes excruciating to relive the more sordid parts of her life as an addict.
“When I was looking at the pattern of my behavior and how that coincided with drug addiction and using women like drugs and then also the ultimate selfish act of being a drug addict that kind of tears through people’s lives and relationships, that was hard to look at and examine,” she says. “But the pattern really presented itself as glaringly clear — that besides being a drug addict, I definitely had a lot of abandonment issues and had to work through a lot of that, which is a ton of shit.”
Despite the dark subject matter, there are moments of lightness in Hit So Hard, largely those that stem from the wackiness of Love’s personality and Schemel’s ability to put up with the Hole front woman’s on and off-stage antics. Schemel takes music seriously and so concert interruptions where Love might go on a rant or jump into the audience only to be delivered back to the stage disheveled minutes later were distractions Schemel wasn’t a fan of.
“Sense of humor is another sort of coping mechanism in a way of sorting through stuff too and looking at it as an experience of something to create art from,” Schemel says. “So if that’ s a story or a funny story, to tell that. And also funny is free. When things are funny, it just feels better. That sounds so, I don’t know, cliche or corny or something, but trying to see the funny in something it helps. Also seeing the shitty parts of it, too.”
The continual nostalgia that surrounds the early ’90s and especially Cobain has always brought an interesting crowd to Schemel’s continued work, but she says she’s non-plussed about their coming to her through a Cobain-fueled fascination.
“That’s always been the case. Always — since the beginning,” Schemel says. “Since the day I sat down at my drum kit to be in Hole, people were there because of Kurt and that’s cool. And in the book, in my story, it’s not all fluffy. It’s all about what a fucking grind it is to be a junky. It’s not pretty. So have at it, Kurt fans!”
Schemel is glaringly honest, which is partly why her storytelling is so infectious. The tidbits she offers from tour bus rides with Sinead O’Connor or in Olympia with the riot grrrls and other alt-rock icons are a draw to be sure, but her straightforwardness about her feminism, sexuality and being a woman in modern rock are what make Hit So Hard different from most music memoirs. Schemel was one of few out lesbians in music when she came out in a Rolling Stone cover story, which she says wasn’t a difficult decision for her.
“I was comfortable in my band. We were feminists and also I think being a musician, I felt comfortable. I didn’t really give a fuck either,” she says. “I didn’t care about if you didn’t like me or not because I was gay and if you didn’t, fuck you. And I still feel like that. I feel like it more today. I feel like I want to tell people. Like I want to walk down the street and go, ‘I’m gay! Just bring it, people!’”
But the added bonus was that, in her subtle coming out (“It was more about me talking about my life and just being honest about it which meant I was gay,” she says), she also hoped to be a glimmer of hope for other gay women and kids who didn’t have anyone to look up to.
“I didn’t see any other gay women growing up,” Schemel says. “There was none for me — there were no role models and I think I might have felt a little less like a freak if Joan Jett came out.”
Schemel didn’t see being gay or a woman as things to conceal or hardships she’d have to overcome. Instead, she embraced the stereotypes of being a woman drummer (“They’re all true!” she says with a laugh).
“I am matter of fact about being a feminist, being a female drummer and a lesbian, but also I don’t want to seem like I’m not –” she pauses. “I’m gonna say it. I don’t want to be Chrissie Hynde about it like, ‘I’m one of the boys!’ I’m not, you know?”
Schemel’s transparency and want to be acknowledged for who she is was sadly uncommon until more recently. She says that seeing other contemporaries stay in the closet or hide from discussions on their own identities was frustrating, joking that she wouldn’t “call [them] when she needed help finding a Pride float in Seattle.”
Now several years sober and married with a young daughter, Schemel’s life in Los Angeles is different from the times she roamed the streets looking for a fix.
“It’s weird because the life I have now is so much different than my old life and I think that those same streets when I have to drive down them, I have history there but I still — those streets are different,” she says. “There’s new memories attached to them. Now they are just a shortcut that Waze is taking me so I don’t have to get on the freeway and get my daughter to school or whatever.”
Schemel is still playing music, drumming for the all-girl band, Upset, who released their debut LP in 2013 on Don Giovanni Records. For bandmates Ali Koehler and Lauren Freeman, it’s got to be exciting to have Schemel setting the pace, especially as Schemel notes, they’re “millennials” who likely grew up listening to the bands Schemel was in or counts as peers.
“Nicole, our bass player, shows up to practice wearing a Marilyn Manson T-shirt and not ironically,” Schemsl says. “I’m like ‘What? Really?’ And she’s like ‘Yeah!’ … They love Sheryl Crow — like love her. It’s just a whole different thing for me, maybe because she was around when we were around. I don’t know what it is. Everybody’s fascinated with the ’90s.”
No matter what reason people find to pick up Hit So Hard, readers will find themselves transfixed by Schemel’s tales of life as an addict, but also a working musician during one of the industry’s most tumultuous yet exciting times. For Schemel, she hopes that her honesty about where her addiction took her will help or inspire others who might have dealt with similar situations.
“That stuff was really uncomfortable but I couldn’t — that wasn’t something I could leave out because that’s where it did take me and that’s where it does,” she says. “I’m still the same person inside, but I just feel like made I’ve done some work on all the stuff that made me go there. I’ll always feel like as a drug addict when things start to come up for me, and it’s difficult instead of reaching for a drug or a drink, reaching for help from friends or go to a meeting or whatever. Those are the things I do before I would ever pick up. Now I just go eat a chocolate cake,” she laughs. “Move the addiction around.”