Kurt Cobain died when I was in 8th grade. For those of us straddling Gen X and Gen Y, it’s an understatement to say his suicide was formative. Even amongst us 14-year-old kids, blame got pretty evenly divided between heroin and Courtney Love. For most of us, Love provoke the same intense polarization as Yoko Ono did for the generation before us. We blamed her for monkeywrenching Nirvana, for enabling Cobain’s drug abuse, but none of us ever doubted how much he loved her. Looking at the two of them together was like looking at the sun, so bright was their connection, even when enfeebled by opiates.
Some of the best footage of the two of them together can be found in the documentary
Hit So Hard, directed by P. David Ebersole and filmed mostly by Patty Schemel, the drummer for Hole. As a teen, I never got into Hole the way I got into Nirvana. I wasn’t ready to understand the beauty of a feminist vulgarity or the power of confrontational performance art, and like I said, the high drama of Kurt and Courtney blotted out a lot of the rest of the subculture. Cobain’s death blotted out a lot of others, including the fatal overdose of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff and the quite constant near-deaths of Schemel. The film purports to be about Schemel’s life, about the long list of follies stemming from her addiction to heroin and crack. But Kurt and Courtney often steal the show.
A half-decade later, Schemel’s memoir of same title is now available. The content entirely overlaps that of the documentary, and I admit that I went into it looking for more of the first family of grunge, but quickly found myself able to focus on the intense delight of Schemel’s own story. Cobain is dead by page 75.
Hit So Hard is one of the most honest — but moreover, one of the most useful — addiction memoirs in recent history. Most books like this operate as tell-alls, where the reader gets to indulge in juicy gossip and ridiculous rockstar antics for two hundred pages, followed by three pages of some kind of hazy but harrowing rock bottom moment, followed by fewer than 50 pages about getting cleaned up and the assurance that the author has definitely put those days behind him. And I’m using “him” deliberately because there simply aren’t that many books like this where the rockstar is female and they’re usually focused on alcoholism — they don’t hit so hard.
Hole’s drummer is descended from alcoholics, but
Hit So Hard spends most of its time on heroin and then adds crack about halfway through the story. Schemel is not only an apt explainer of drug culture, she’s also a gifted humorist in that fine tradition of blackness that can really only emerge from the depths of such despairing pursuit of death by overdose. Her description of the nature of the highs is much clearer than any of Lou Reed’s compositions. Her explication of how to buy hard drugs from strangers in strange cities and get them on the airplane is reported with a level of detail that does more to examine junky psychology than any straightforward testimonial could. Her analysis of the comparative merits of various rehab and detox procedures is deeply wise to the nuances of how best to kick, and why these programs are not one size fits all.
Hit So Hard pulls no punches. It’s an unvarnished and unsensational account of how Schemel survived — how she outlasted her addiction, but also how she coped with coming out, with the sudden fame and chaotic demands of Hole, with the prolonged agony of Cobain’s legacy, and so on. She admits that relapse is always a possibility, that the baggage of addiction never fully leaves no matter how long one has been clean. She admits she literally and metaphorically sold off everything that Hole had given her. She admits that she glossed so much of her chemical dependency by harnessing the power of dysfunctional romantic relationships.
Regret and shame are useless feelings in the context of Schemel’s noble effort to carry on. Far more valuable is her ability to look the facts in the face and her knack for landing bleak punchlines. This type of humor is often found amongst successful 12-steppers and may be the best weapon Schemel has in the ongoing daily management of her sobriety. She’s not joking around to minimize the real consequences of her failings, or to strut her ballsy rockstar stuff. Jonesing for crack and going on the hunt for it is an extremely serious business; a heroin junky finds it impossible to laugh because the pain and emergency are just too overwhelmingly depressing to be funny.
Forget about picking up the pieces of the life she once had; Schemel’s memoir is proof of something much more foundational: that through a committed combination of clarity and wit, even the most enabled and damaged rockstar might get a second chance at both love and music. Courtney Love should probably read it.