"WHAT A WASTE OF MUSIC:" Review of HIT SO HARD by Patty Schemel

“What a waste of music not to take drugs!” opines drummer Patty Schemel in her 2017 memoir Hit So Hard (written with Erin Hosier). Sober since 2005, Schemel takes a look back at her life’s oppositional movements: her downward spiral into drugs (battling addictions to alcohol, heroin, and crack) and her rise to the rock ‘n roll top (traveling the world, covering magazines, and playing on national television in the 90’s band Hole).

Schemel grew up in Marysville, Washington, in the late 1960s, the middle child of recovering drinkers who frequently held Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in their home. Schemel writes, “My religious upbringing was never about God but ‘God as you understand him’ (which is a difficult concept to grasp if you don’t know what anyone else understands).” Schemel gets drunk for the first time at age twelve with her siblings. She writes, “This story is one I hear from all of my recovering friends. With the first drink or drug we feel finally ‘at home.’” She drinks steadily from that point on. After her parents’ divorce, things become even more lax at home, and Schemel begins openly smoking cigarettes at thirteen. Around that time, she starts playing drums in her school’s marching band, which opens up her social life. Music becomes “the common thread for all my relationships.”

Schemel is a lesbian. As a child, her mother had “tried to embrace my inner butch, which I still appreciate. She made sure to point it out whenever there was a woman doing a man’s job. ‘That lady is driving a dump truck.’ Or, ‘That’s a lady climbing that telephone pole! Isn’t that neat?’” When Schemel comes out, her mother “hugged me tight and told me that it was okay and there was nothing wrong with me, that there was a whole wide world out there outside the small town of Marysville, and I would find my people.” Still, Schemel worried what the neighbors would say: “I just hoped that if people were gossiping, it would be about my drinking and not my being gay. After all, only one of those things was socially acceptable.”

After high school, Schemel finds works for the phone company (as her parents did), playing music on the side. In short order she moves to Seattle to live with a band mate, tries heroin for the first time, and meets Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. They immediately bond. “Kurt was like a sister trapped in a brother’s body,” Schemel writes, alluding to his sensitive nature. Everyone in their scene is well aware of Kurt’s considerable musical gifts—“There was something about his singing voice—when you heard it clearly, you could feel it physically”—and when grunge music “really blew up”, a bewildered Kurt makes the cover of Rolling Stone, his band going on to define the look and sound of that musical era.

Kurt is the one who recommends Schemel to his wife, Courtney Love, for the band she’s putting together. “Not to brag, but I knew I had a lot to offer,” Schemel writes, noting that Courtney “was already notorious and surrounded by myth…she’d burned a house down but made sure the cats got free.” Shemel describes their first meeting as “now a Courtney cliché—the bleached blonde hair, red lipstick, bruised knees in a prom dress, chronically late.” Schemel is asked to join the band and moves to LA, getting “the message quickly that there was room for only one person’s chaos in Hole.” Schemel manages to stay sober for shows. “Then of course once I’d walked off stage all bets were off.”

While Hole works on their album, Kurt struggles with his massive fame. Seeing that he’s depressed and strung out, Courtney stages an intervention. The next day he’s dead of a shotgun wound. Hole’s album comes out a week later. Almost presciently, it’s called Live Through This.

Drugs take over Schemel’s life, and the lifeless account of her drug habit takes over the rest of the book, enlivened only now and then when she scratches interesting surfaces about class and race. She describes herself in rehab in the company of “[g]ang members, criminals, people who had every disadvantage. There was a shocking amount of overt racism on display, which was a wake-up call to me but absolutely normal for some. It seemed to carry over from jail, where different groups often self-segregated.”

Schemel’s life, full of dramatic episodes and high stakes, is rich material for a book, but she doesn’t feel emotionally involved with the writing of her story, nor to have surprised herself in any way in the telling of it. There are moments that seem to teeter on something profound and feel like they will be entry points into deeper, serious conversations about being gay and being a woman. Shemel acknowledges these places, but somehow steps over them. The observations don’t blossom into insights. We don’t see the way these experiences change her thinking. The “ah-ha” moments might have been hard-won off the page, but they’re simply logged here. In the pages we read, Schemel doesn’t evolve. She’s either sober or not, on and off like a light switch.

The book works best in the few places she lets herself be vulnerable. Talking about the death of another addict she meets in rehab, she opens up to uncertainty: “I don’t know why she died and I didn’t. She didn’t do anything wrong, and I didn’t do anything right; I just got more chances.”

The book’s biggest blank is Schemel’s relationship to music. Touring France after Kurt dies, Schemel comes across an old zine where he was interviewed saying, “’Hole just made a great really great record, and Patty Schemel is the best musician in that band.’” We can imagine how much this means to her: a musician she admires, maybe more than anyone, admiring her playing. We feel her light up. I wish there was more about other musicians who inspired her, and the reasons why. Schemel writes, in closing, of “picking the drums as the god of my own understanding.” It’s a neat thing to say. I just wish she’d convinced me it was true.

Patty Schemel with Erin Hosier, Hit So Hard: A Memoir, Da Capo Press, 2017, 270 pp.