Hit So Hard - Patty Schemel - Books - Reviews - Soundblab

Hit So Hard - Patty Schemel

by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date:
Hit So Hard - Patty Schemel
Hit So Hard - Patty Schemel

There are many great memoirs written by musicians. Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Rodney Crowell’s Chinaberry Sidewalks are outstanding examples written by artists who are also primarily songwriters, and therefore have a distinct advantage over most. Their stories are riveting but also literary.  Smith’s description of an era and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe along with Crowell’s depiction of dysfunction and poverty both being things that will stick with you.  Not being a songwriter, you would think that Patty Schemel, best known as drummer for punk band Hole during their most artistic period, would be at a distinct disadvantage.  But what her writing in her own memoir, Hits So Hard, lacks in literary style she makes up for in narrative drive and directness.  As a drummer that seems to fit well, keep things moving and provide impact.  Her story also benefits from having a different perspective.  Not being the leader of the band, the sense of being relegated to “band member” surrounded by the sizable personality and whims of a Courtney Love also brings an interesting twist to things.

In her earlier years, Schemel grew up the middle child of three in rural Washington state.  As Mary Karr (the mother of all memoirists) puts it, a dysfunctional family is a family with more than one person in it and Schemel’s family is no exception.  She remembers her parents serving as a host home to Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings while the kids of the members played in their backyard.  Recollections of smoking cigarettes with her Dad in the grocery store, although certainly more acceptable at the time, stick out as “non-traditional”.  Schemel’s mother comes across not quite as sympathetic as she was portrayed in the like named documentary from several years back.  She certainly is accepting of her kids and their identities, but the lack of supervision is telling.  As Schemel puts it later in the book, today we are a child focused society and that was not the case back then. She and her siblings were the definition of 1970’s latchkey kids, her ultimately divorced parents worked for opposing phone companies which does provide a bit of levity.  As an adolescent, already dabbling in alcohol, she discovered both that she was gay and that she had a connection to punk music.   

This is primarily a story of Schemel’s addictions, so although there are stories surrounding Nirvana, Hole and other bands of the era, that is really secondary to the personal narrative. Schemel describes herself playing barefoot, bleeding through her playing (not taping her fingers), and this sets her apart playing an instrument “that girls weren’t supposed to” and as she puts it, “I loved that drumming hurt.”  Her first paid show was played in a band called The Primatives opening in a lineup that included the Melvins (Kurt Cobain was actually a roadie for the Melvins at this time!) - they were paid $6 apiece which covered their gas.  Ultimately, Schemel migrates to Seattle and the more vibrant scene there.  It’s there that she plays more and interacts with bands like Nirvana and the Screaming Trees.  

Ultimately she is introduced to Courtney Love via Kurt and to crystal meth and heroin, though those things are not necessarily interconnected.  Schemel plays on Hole's Live Through This, famously released between Cobain’s and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff’s deaths, and tours extensively in support of that album.  On the topic of Pfaff’s death being overshadowed, Schemel points out, “When Kurt died, it changed the landscape of rock ’n’ roll itself, but when Kristen died, it just changed our band.”  One of the things that strikes you in the book is how much travel there is from Seattle to L.A., to the East Coast, to Europe all under heavy sedation but somehow pulling it off.  There is a brief description of the recording of Celebrity Skin where Schemel is unceremoniously booted from the recording of the album at the hands of producer Michael Beinhorn (the Michael Bay of producers as she describes it - “he’s just there to blow stuff up”) and Love, leading to one of her darkest drug binges.  What does stand out is how she and other band members are ultimately left to paddle in the wake of Love or whoever was calling the shots at the moment.  Whether there was any ill intent or not (and you do get the feeling Love cared at a fundamental level about Schemel’s well being) trying to live and make a career at the whim of others has to be demoralizing and Love’s wake was that of an aircraft carrier not a pleasure boat.           

But what the focus of the book is centered on is Schemel’s long term relationship with heroin and later crack cocaine.  There are also relationships with partners along the way, but frankly it becomes a bit of a blur who she is with at a given moment given it all takes place in the fog of war with her demons.  (Given the passage of time, the drug use certainly is more shocking today than Schemel’s sexuality, but that is not to downplay her sexual self-discovery and obstacles she struggled with as a teen and as a teen would today).  Ironically, one partner, Alice, is specifically called out as being particularly harmful or self-serving, but you are left wondering that if without someone at least being in her presence if Schemel would be here today to tell this tale.  

Her description of the lengths she would go to for her fix from town to town is truly terrifying.  Setting aside the drug use itself, the number of times she put herself at risk of personal harm or death by wading down back alleys, into crack dens, and prostituting herself for her fix shows how all rational thought went out the window.  Schemel does have a self deprecating sense of humor and her refusal to attempt rehab through the Church of Scientology at one of her many depths does show that not all shreds of reason were gone. There are many moments that one might describe as a low point, but some stick with you more than others.  In one passage, Schemel reunites with a former girlfriend, Annie, only to have her ex basically code immediately upon shooting up.  Schemel does manage to get her to the hospital, but ends up “shooting up in the public restroom” with Annie down the hall with her parents because she just couldn't deal with the situation straight.  Even in and out of rehab, both chemical as well as therapeutic, many times, the drive to use is overwhelming.  Another passage that jumps out as representative detailing an “escape” from rehab:

“We were out of there in no time, and on our way to buy some dope, first thing, then drive to the Valley to pick up Hannah’s friend Dawn…bust her out, and take some drugs.  Dawn wanted crack (Schemel’s first experience with crack surprisingly) and heroin, and that worked for us.”  If Schemel could be described as being in “control” of her heroin use, the crack took her down a whole different path into homelessness and prostitution.  The crack serving as spiked counterpoint to the heroin and starting an understandably vicious cycle.  A final passage that sticks out as another low is when she knowingly uses a syringe just used by another woman who clearly had Hepatitis - yellow skin, distended belly - and doesn’t give it a second thought in quest of her own fix.  

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Schemel does ultimately find her way clear and clean, but knowingly she refers to the successful rehab as being “circumstantial” as if there were no reason that particular attempt at rehab worked when many others didn’t.  As she relates herself, there were many other “lowest points” along the way, but in a fortuitous stroke that she has no understanding of, the last time it finally stuck.  She does point out in a moment of sobriety prior to this when listening to the Pixies after they reunited, “I realized that my love of music had nothing to do with my addiction to drugs”.  There must be a freedom to that and this is probably the most powerful line in the book.  That the thing you love the most and have connected to the most over your life is not what put you in harm’s way has to be liberating.    

Finally, under the category of a picture is worth a thousand words, no matter how trite that might sound, that is particularly evident here.  Of the several dozen pictures that are included in the book, there is one thing that is particularly notable.  Schemel is smiling in exactly three of the pictures:  one when she is around five years old (what kid doesn’t smile); one laying in bed with Kurt and Frances Bean between them which is particularly prescient given her current role as parent; and one with her future wife, Christina, taken when she was six months into twelve years and counting of sobriety.  And in that last picture, you could hardly call it a smile, it could only be described as a beaming flashlight cutting through years of indescribable darkness.  Whether it is due to her new found sobriety or discovering love versus a misguided dependency, it doesn’t really matter.  It is one of the latest pictures in the book and most telling.  The picture, and the book, speaks to having survived a veritable Hell on Earth and somehow coming out the other side intact and that’s something worth celebrating. 

Comments (3)

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Great review. Looking forward to reading this one, it's on my Christmas list

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Agreed, Mark - thoughtful and engaging review. I humbly submit another great rock memoir to your list, that of Slits founder Viv Albertine, "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys." It's my personal favorite of the genre.

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Thanks for the comments guys and taking the time to read. It's definitely a compelling and honest memoir. I will put that one on my list Steve.

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