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Tome On The Range

Talking Drummers: Patty Schemel & Barrett Martin Books Reviewed
Ned Raggett , January 9th, 2018 12:38

Ned Raggett reads and compares the autobiographies of two grunge era drummers from the bands Hole and Screaming Trees

The truism is just that - time and perspective change things. It's incredibly easy for me to look back 25 years to 1992 and think about the 'Seattle bands' whether by recorded music or through the media or the live shows I caught. I did see Hole, but only a couple of times before Patty Schemel joined the band on drums. Never did see Screaming Trees, so I wouldn't've seen Barrett Martin drumming for them either. But it's a mere nothing to call songs like 'Nearly Lost You' or 'Violet' to mind, their respective performances on their chosen instruments as much a key part of the songs as Mark Lanegan's dark croon or Courtney Love's explosive snarl.

It was weird realizing this connection when I ended up with copies of Martin's and Schemel's autobiographies - two performers who were there, part of the 'scene', though a scene which was already diffuse enough in corners. I don't get a sense they ever crossed paths - Schemel mentions meeting a much earlier Screaming Trees early on in her story, if Martin mentions Hole it escaped me. But both were Washington state born and raised, born quite literally ten days apart from each other, raised on 70s rock & roll and beyond, both gravitating towards their chosen instruments when very young. Both tell stories of their youth, education, touring adventures and more besides in the course of their autobiographies - standard enough, you might think, but when you remember the stereotype that drummers are the 'slow' ones, it's more than helpful to get examples of two quite intelligent and thoughtful performers who, throughout, take their musical paths very seriously. Both teach now as well, Martin as a professor of music in Seattle, Schemel via tutoring and classes in Los Angeles, and both have partners in life they value heavily. You get a clear sense from the end of their books that they are happy to be on the particular paths and life courses they are now in.

But otherwise, Martin's The Singing Earth and Schemel's Hit So Hard are two very different stories of two very different people. They're among the most intriguing books I read in 2017, without question, but I would say that Martin informs while Schemel moves. That's a reduction, certainly - Martin is as capable of showcasing deep emotion in his recounting as much as Schemel demonstrates her sharp awareness and perception. But they serve different purposes and showcase very different voices, and if anything, serve as clear reminders that, indeed, being locked in the past and one's own memories of a time does nothing but lock everything in amber. Martin and Schemel both, clearly, don't simply want to be there in those pasts either.

In Martin's case, his book is the story of a continuing journey. He's very upfront about it, but it has to be said that it is good that he takes a chronological route, simply because The Singing Earth aspires to be many books at once. It is a personal memoir above all else, certainly, and it begins in easy fashion talking about his comfortable upbringing and musical encouragement, the story of a kid in a middle-class family doing well and finding a way to start pursuing his dream as he goes. There's a sense of cool but not cold confidence at work - and not a calculating one either. Rather, Martin gives a sense of being open to experience, and eager to consider and attempt new opportunities with his music as well as on the philosophical sphere as he goes.

So his 'grunge' years, however defined, turn out to be a very small element of the whole - he dedicates himself to knowledge and learning about percussive instruments around the world, their significance on a cultural and, often, a spiritual level, as much as on a technical one. He travels widely from South America to Africa to the Middle East to Indonesia, as well as throughout America, and records and performs with musicians throughout the world. It might be glib to say he is a later generation's Mickey Hart, but there's a bit of that spirit out there, and Martin's very open about his sense of connectedness to the world, an almost primal spiritualism found via nature and the natural world, percussion as the heartbeat of the earth -- the book's title is clearly not chosen casually. Combined with the CD that comes with the book, showcasing the many bands and performers he's worked with, there's an unforced enthusiasm at play.

At the same time, The Singing Earth's telling how much of the story reads like so many others where a lucky enough guy from a rich country - and a white guy at that - has the means to go on these experiences and to create his own collage of them. It should be said that throughout he places an emphasis on wanting to make sure those he learns from are properly compensated, and more than once he dwells on the fact that he is only a visitor in a place that he can leave where all around him clear poverty is the norm. It's a welcome awareness that flavours the book, keeps it from being mere travelogue, geographically or spiritually. Still, whether it's an experience with ayahuasca in Peru or earnestly speaking of the history of the famed poet and sage Rumi, sometimes there's a bit of 'let me blow your mind' that crops up, often in sudden fashion. At one point, in a discussion of a venture he made to Cuba along with other musicians in the late 1990s, he spends ten pages delving into the Afro-Cuban spirits known as Orishas. It's very informative, certainly, but turns the book into an encyclopaedia chapter.

You get the sense that this all comes from an honestly good place -- that he's not so much wanting to lecture people who would know about all this already on the obvious, but trying to convey much to those who would never think about it otherwise. Even the occasional repetition of stories or events feels conversational more than a big glitch. He wears his politics on his sleeve throughout, understandably grieved at 9/11's impact and how the Bush White House's invasion of Iraq in response just made everything worse, and finishing the book with unsettled thoughts after Trump's election and what that would mean for the world's environmental health. And ultimately, he doesn't want to seem to make his story about him - he eschews details of past romantic partnerships except in passing, quickly notes debates between him and his father on various matters, but prefers to spend more time remembering his Mad Season collaborator Layne Staley or his LA landlord - and noted percussionist himself - Milt Holland, for instance. And it's not a bad approach, but you do need to get used to his flow.

If Martin is the earnest bro with a degree who earnestly really does want to take you on a trip, though, then Schemel is the reformed partier who will happily talk up some stories of the wild past, sure -- but will also tell stories to chill the blood along the way, not so much for entertainment as for an accounting. It is interesting to contrast Martin's blissed out vibes with his own drug experiences to Schemel's, because if drumming is one anchor of her story, addiction is the other, and it's not a pretty sight. And unlike Martin's personal-but-depersonalised approach, Schemel, with the assistance of Erin Hosier, is all about telling her own story from start to stop, a personal testament to life, joy, the absolute dregs, and survival. Hit So Hard, in sum, is simply not a book one should approach lightly or 'just' for the behind the scenes tales. If you want them, you'll certainly get them, but they're not why you should read.

Even if Schemel's story didn't take the terrible series of turns as it did, though, it would be an engaging story in its own right. Schemel's depiction of growing up lower-middle-class in the seventies in suburban Washington, with parents who themselves were alcoholics and who would eventually divorce, as she grappled with understanding herself as a lesbian as well as first having drinks when she was still a pre-teen, has parallels among those of her generation which has underscored any number of novels, films, personal essays - a shared experience of awkwardness, struggle and self-medication shot through a seventies-into-eighties background. But Schemel's love for rock & roll and for drumming is just as powerful if not more so, another kind of fascination that gave her a further identity and sense of self. Her voice is an engaging one throughout, honest but not tendentious, often vivid in her sense of exact detail.

Her story about how, like Martin, she found her way to Seattle and got to know many of the personalities there in the years before the big explosion is a great one. She recounts how she got to first know Kurt Cobain and then through him Courtney Love - he was the one to recommend Schemel to Love when a new drummer was needed in 1992 - and everything that resulted from that. There's any number of warm stories about Kurt, who she knew from 1986 on, and Love is clearly one of the most influential people in her life - the whole arc about how she joined the band, the crushing sorrow of Cobain's death and Hole's subsequent fame, and how she parted ways with them in a strained atmosphere (her last formal appearance was the Celebrity Skin cover, an album she in fact didn't perform on at all) makes for compelling reading, with plenty of anecdotes along the way. But beyond that, there's a real sense that, much like how Martin feels, Schemel feels a connection to drumming that is almost transcendent, a pleasure and an anchor all at once that she does not take lightly.

But three other things take as much precedence in Hit So Hard. There's the story of her family -- her parents as she keeps in touch with them over time, most especially her father, a key voice of support and a person who can provide a bolt hole for her as needed, even as his own health begins to fail, as well as her brother, also a musician and also plagued by his own addictions. There's her romantic encounters and especially her longer-term partnerships, a careful and detailed accounting of those women who were with her in good times and bad, and more than once were catalysts for changes in either direction, sometimes both. Towering over it all, however, is her addictions: she first tried heroin in the late eighties, speaks of any number of drink and drug-fuelled stretches of her life and those of others, and at the book's blackest and bleakest, in the years after she left Hole, details a hardscrabble life on the fringes of society in Los Angeles, homeless, addicted, doing anything to get the next fix, conquering everything else she had ever loved or relied on. If this too seems a 'familiar' story now, that shouldn't mean simply dismissing Schemel's own accounting of it - it's a truly moving, cathartic account.

That there is a happier ending is obvious enough thanks to the simple fact that this book exists, and by the end Schemel has found her way back, through her own will and through the help of others. It's glib to say it's a fairy-tale ending, but her discussion of how she met her now-wife Christina, the birth of their daughter Bea, her reflections on her parents and her mother through this lens and the fact that she and her brother continue to play together give a sense on how things can turn reasonably all right in the end if and when it all comes together. The final chapter especially gives a sense of how fragile it can still be when recounting how the terrible passing of Chris Cornell impacted her, and it underscores the sense of hard-won - and continual - work to come so far as she has. If Schemel's is the more heart-wrenching of the two books compared to Martin's, just because of the real pain she had to quite literally live through, then it's not to say that both aren't quite thoughtful reads at their best, portraits of artists as not-so-young people, and reminders to those of us who grew up 'with' them that they were always their own voices - and that those are good to hear, now, not simply then.