Patty Schemel Lived Through This

By Stacie Stukin 04/26/12

The highs, lows and recovery of (get ready) the rock star lesbian Hole drummer–turned–crackhead–turned–wife, mom and dog whisperer.

Schemel (center) with Hole, Rolling Stone, 1995 photo via

The new documentary Hit So Hard tracks Hole drummer Patty Schemel on her dizzying trajectory from rock goddess to an addict who sold her body for crack and smack. The film showcases her close relationship with Kurt Cobain, and the footage of Cobain and Courtney Love is beyond intimate as we see jolting images of the couple sprawled in the playpen with their daughter, Frances Bean.

But Hit So Hard is ultimately Schemel’s story, and much of what we see Schemel shot on her Hi8 camera while traveling around the world on Hole’s notorious Live Through This tour in 1994 and 1995. (The album was released just four days after Cobain’s suicide; the tour was postponed due to Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff’s heroin-overdose death.) The band’s dysfunctional dynamic, not excluding drinking and drugging, causes pain and chaos, and eventually Schemel is driven from the band after a record label–ordained producer kicks her out of the studio. From there, she picks up gigs with bands like Juliette Lewis and Pink but spends most of a decade in the blaze and blur of addiction.

But this is a redemption tale. And director P. David Ebersole adds cathartic interviews with Schemel, band mates Love, Eric Erlandson and Melissa Auf De Mar along with commentary by other female rock trailblazers like Phranc and drummers Debbi Peterson (The Bangles) and Gina Schock (The Go-Gos) to create a well-rounded and heart-wrenching version of rock’s familiar from-fame-to-flameout theme and the portrait of a drummer who now, at age 45, has sobriety, a wife and a daughter and owns and runs Dog Rocker Dog Care.

"My story really isn’t that unique, except maybe the part of being in a rock band."

It’s hard to reconcile the behind-the-scenes dread with the drug-addled Grunge music that was seminal for so many. Even Eddie Vedder once said, “Any generation that would pick Kurt or me as its spokesman, that generation must be really fucked up.” But in Hit So Hard, Schemel proves herself a survivor  and well worth looking up to.

Why did you shoot all that footage?

My music and my band were taking me around the world and I wanted to document what I was seeing—something I could show my friends and family. And maybe I was also thinking I’m not going to remember a lot of this ,considering the state I was in, you know. So it was something to look back on.

You admit in your interviews some things that are very brave, and I was struck by how your time on camera seems like one giant share. Why did you choose to reveal so much so publicly?

I was really conflicted at the beginning. When David and I decided to do something with the footage, I was going to share my story but not in such a detailed way. But when there were things I was apprehensive about, he explained that what happened is such a big part of how my life is today. And since I trusted him and knew he wouldn’t exploit it, I felt like I had to go for it.

I also felt like my story really isn’t that unique, except maybe the part of being in a rock band. So I wanted to share something that lots of people could connect with.

So much about recovery and sobriety is about grief whether or not people die. But for you, there was so much grief—the loss of your friend Kurt Cobain, band mate Kristen Pfaff, your career. How do you cope with those losses today?

That grief was also a reason I wanted to tell my story. Yes, I have a lot of friends from that time who I miss and love. They died and I survived and I had a real need to talk about my perspective of that time.

Even being able to feel anything was such a slow process for me. I really didn’t even know what I felt until I was clean and sober for a few years and unpacked the whole thing and began to understand. But having been sober for the last seven years, I’m grateful that I can actually now identify what I feel, which is something I never could do when I was using.

Another big loss was in 1998 when Michael Beinhorn, who was hired to produce Celebrity Skin, did everything in his power to break you down and get you to quit so he could hire Journey drummer Deen Castronovo for the studio session. No one in the band had your back at all. It seems like that was a turning point and not in a good way.

For me, being an addict and an alcoholic, that cut right down into the disease where it lives: that I’m not good enough. It just triggered all the negatives that pop up. Those same feelings are why I started drinking and using when I was 12. It validated everything I thought I knew about myself, and I felt completely betrayed by my band.

I found out later that it wasn’t even about me: That’s what this producer does, and this was going to happen no matter who I was. But at the time it was my entire world blowing up.

So I was like, screw you guys, I’m done and now I have the biggest reason to get loaded and drop out of the world.

How long did it take you get sober after that?

It took about seven years. It wasn’t like in the film, where I woke up one day clean and sober. I went to dozens of rehabs and detoxes. But what worked the last time is what you hear in meetings all the time—“You are going to end up losing everything”—and I did. This time it wasn’t about going to rehab because I had an intervention or getting clean because I had to get back on the road or to please someone else. It was real surrender.

"Courtney got me into rehab a lot. She has her own pain around addiction, but I don't know why she was always willing to help me."

What were your drugs of choice?

Heroin and crack cocaine. Sexy, yeah. I just kept experimenting by trying more and more drugs that led me to this combination, which eventually led me to the street.

You’d think Courtney was the ultimate qualifier but she was also someone who saved your ass on many occasions and kept track of what you were up to. There’s even a scene in the film where she describes playing a phone trick on you that busts you for scoring while you were living on the streets. What do you think is her motivation?

She did that kind of crap all the time. We always said she should work for the CIA or something. She helped me get into rehab a lot. Of course she understands addiction and has her own pain around it, but I don’t know why she was always willing to help me. Even that day I left the studio she said to me, “You can allow this to happen and then come back to the band and tour. Or you can go and score and go down that road.” I chose to score.

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Stacie Stukin is a Los Angeles journalist whose work has appeared in publications like the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Natural Health. You can read other musings on her blog, L.A. Mandala: Living la vida yoga.  You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.