Patty Schemel on living with Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, ending up homeless and overcoming addiction
A lot of people wish they could’ve been a fly on the wall during the 90s grunge scene. Patty Schemel lived it. As the drummer for Hole, Schemel spent years on the road with Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, and documented both their musical and their personal experiences together.
“I got a video camera for Christmas, and I just took it on the road with me,” Schemel explains. “I would just film stuff, and then when we were playing shows I would just hand it to somebody on the side of the stage and they would film the shows.”
That footage came in handy for Hit So Hard, a 2011 documentary that retold Schemel’s harrowing experiences with addiction, alcoholism, and homelessness. She chronicled the darkest moments of her journey and her recovery, and how she came out the other side as a musician, wife, mother, and teacher. After the documentary’s release, Schemel thought she was done telling her story – until she was approached by a publisher. She initially resisted, not considering herself a writer, but after being connected to author and literary agent Erin Hosier, Schemel was able to revisit the heavier moments of her life and approach it with a newfound perspective.
“It just forced me to look at a lot of stuff and get serious about it and not be a comedian about everything all the time,” she admits. It wasn’t easy, but it came with time. “Pouring out a bunch of words onto paper and then having Erin help me sort it through, or talking to Erin, helped me find my voice in all of it,” she says.
From discovering drums to documenting her numerous trips to rehab, Schemel’s alcoholism and addiction serve as the main through line in Hit So Hard: A Memoir. Twenty years struggling to get sober go hand-in-hand with her career in the book, including when she was fired from Hole for her addiction. “It’s all in the book,” she says. “It’s all in there.”
Rumours of a Hole reunion resurfaced last year, leading people to believe that there might be hope for the band to get back together. When asked, Schemel sounds unsure. “I’m going to say at this point, I guess I can’t speak to it,” she says. “I’ll just say that I don’t know, really. Do people really care? Do they want one? I don’t know. Does it matter?”
While a reunion might still be in the air, we spoke to Schemel to find out about the reality of addiction, the intimate look she had into Kurt and Courtney’s lives and turning her life around.
DRUGS AND MUSIC WERE THE FOUNDATIONS OF HER RELATIONSHIP WITH KURT AND COURTNEY
“What kind of drugs do you do?” was the first question Courtney Love ever asked Schemel. It was right after her first performance with Hole in 1992 at Jabberjaw – an all-ages nightclub in Los Angeles. It was after that show that Schemel would join Hole permanently and she would move in with Love and Cobain. They would do drugs together, or alone – but never with Frances Bean Cobain.
“Frances was not even around,” Schemel explains. “She had her own separate world, which was with her own nanny that took care of her.”
Schemel and Kurt would often disappear to get high together, with Schemel learning vital information from the Nirvana frontman about how to acquire more sedatives while detoxing and carrying a “preloaded syringe” in her pocket to use on the plane.
SHE WAS “BORN RECOVERING”
Schemel’s memoir opens with her candidly describing how, as the daughter of divorced parents who were former alcoholics, she was almost thrown into becoming an addict. From the age of 12, Schemel was drinking.
While she never saw her parents drink or do drugs, the words “born recovering” imply that Schemel has more than considered the fact that alcoholism was genetic. She began smoking pot with her first “drug buddy,” her brother Larry, getting lost with him in a swirl of substance abuse and rock‘n’roll.
“What a waste of music not to take drugs,” she exclaims in the book. That sentiment would follow her throughout her music career. “When I was full on doing drugs, it was alone,” she says of the time. It was the quiet time away from the grit and the stage that enhanced the appeal of substances. “We didn't really want to share what we were doing with each other. It wasn't like a social thing at all.”
GRIEF PERPETUATED HER SUBSTANCE ABUSE
Before Cobain’s death in 1994, Love and eight friends had a final intervention with him. Just a few weeks later, Cobain would take drugs before commiting suicide. Schemel understands why addiction overtook his life.
“If being in a rock band and being successful is your dream, and you think that when it comes true then everything is going to be okay – if it’s not, then you’re still searching for that thing,” she explains. “I think that’s what happened with Kurt, and what happens with everyone when they’re still searching for that thing they think is going to be something and turns out not to be.”
Two months later, Hole’s bassist, Kristen Pfaff, would die of a heroin overdose. The plethora of grief flooding Schemel’s life didn’t do her any favors. Addiction preceded the events and it would also continue for Schemel long after.
SHE SAW THE EVOLUTION OF HER AND HER FRIENDS’ BANDS ON TAPE
Schemel had an inside look at life inside Hole in the beginning. After getting a video camera for Christmas, Schemel would film everything and then would just hand the camera to a bystander to film the shows.
“It was really obvious, after looking at all of the footage, that we would just play the same exact set every single night,” she says. “And the only difference was the shit Courtney would say on stage!”
Later on, as the four-piece developed, she would see the band’s growth on tape. “I guess it was interesting to see the evolution of writing a song in my band, where it would go so far out into the world that we’re at Reading Festival and 70,000 people are singing those words right back at us,” she reminisces. “Those kind of things show the scale of that.”
At the same time she watched legends in the making. “It was also interesting watching friends in bands that just went on to become huge, legendary bands, in that Beatles way,” she says. “Seeing Bikini Kill was cool. I didn't know that they were going to become legendary.” At that moment when she was in it, she didn’t see the impact, but now she can see how it happened.
BEING HOMELESS WAS THE TURNING POINT FOR HER
After Schemel was dismissed from Hole in 1998, she broke her sobriety and fell into a spiral of heroin and crack cocaine addiction and prostitution. At that point she was living on the streets and had cut herself off from family and friends.
Being homeless isn’t something she’s ever really let go of either. “It was just difficult, talking about being a homeless person,” she admitted.
Losing everything was the turning point for Schemel. In 2005, after 23 times in rehab, she finally got sober. When she thinks about her many trips to rehab, she finds herself saying, “Jesus! Don’t!” as a warning to herself not to use again. It only sticks once.
THERE’S MORE TO PATTY THAN BEING A DRUMMER
While Schemel rose to fame in a generation-defining band, she’s come to realise she’s just a drummer. Not anymore. “There's a lot I discovered in recovery: that I like to tell stories, I like to write, I like to be a mom, I like to play music.”
Schemel has grown up – and into someone she never imagined she’d be. “I'm learning how to knit, I know it sounds hysterically funny but I like that. It's cool to discover different things, not just my old identity of being the cool person in a band.”
DOCUMENTING EVERYTHING HELPED KEEP HER IN CHECK WITH BEING CLEAN
“Everyone looks for that one thing that will make them feel better,” Schemel says. For the Hole drummer, it was heroin, crack, and alcohol that did the trick. While she may have ended an 11-year rehab/relapse cycle and has been clean and sober for years, it’s something that will always be a part of her.
“I will never all of sudden wake up and be able to shoot heroin recreationally,” she says. It wasn’t about partying or having a good time. Writing all of her memories down keeps Schemel accountable for her past and her future.