Helen Brown enjoys Sylvia Patterson's memoir, I'm Not With the Band.

One afternoon in 1988, Smash Hits' 23-year-old senior staff writer sat down in her lime green leggings to interview the German synth-pop duo Milli Vanilli over the phone. Sylvia Patterson giggled her way through the music magazine's silly questions: "Have you ever grown parsnips in a gumboot?" "What's your favourite vegetable?"

It didn't matter that the two hapless hunks on the other end of the line would soon be unmasked as male models who mimed to the music. Smash Hits treated everybody the same, from Bono to Big Fun. It was all meant to be a bit of a laugh. Looking back, Patterson marvels: "It seemed that we all liked each other. Well, apart from Jon Bon Jovi."

In her brilliant account of three decades in the music press, Patterson contrasts this merry climate of neon-yore with the industry today, in which Taylor Swift has anxiety dreams about being filmed by the paparazzi while she sleeps and Ed Sheeran admits that he can't live for the moment because he's too busy worrying about his property portfolio.

Even Lily Allen, one of the most outspoken stars of the Noughties, tells Patterson in 2014 that she has been so hurt by the media twisting her words to sound racist and sexist that she's "gonna have to button it". A little bit of Patterson's soul dies in 2012 when nu-folk star Marcus Mumford tells her that he's "not into" being influential: "I don't want people to listen to what I say, really."


Patterson grew up craving pop idols who rock her world. Like most young music obsessives, she was running away from real life. Born "raw" in the Scottish city of Perth in 1965, she spent the first six months of her life in an incubator looking like an "uncooked meringue", waiting to grow some skin.

Her mother, a psychiatric nurse and an alcoholic, was the more problematic of her parents. "I didn't feel like I ever knew her, not really, a spectrum of opposing personalities - either a detached, busy presence in sobriety or a volatile stranger with a bottle behind a locked door. When I came back from school and she was standing at the cooker - I could tell she'd been drinking just by the way she stood, completely motionless, in a loaded silence."

Patterson escaped into pop: Abba, the Who, Iggy Pop, Cocteau Twins, Joy Division and the Smiths. She spent the early 80s leaping around nightclubs wearing a bracelet she had "fashioned from an enormous coil of pulling chain pinched from a public loo". At 16, she started writing music reviews for the school paper; by 1983, she had a real job in journalism.

But her parents' legacy of addiction made itself felt. She was so nervous before her first interview (with 80s death rockers Alien Sex Fiend) that she downed two pints of lager and lime around the corner beforehand and was soon in the pub every lunchtime. When her father died, a colleague gave her Joni Mitchell's Hejira album and a "substantial square of dope". Patterson became a "chaotic, consistent, deeply ill-suited marijuana enthusiast for the next 16 years".

It was all part of "the lifestyle". I'm Not With the Band includes recollections of benders with the Happy Mondays and the Beautiful South as well as heartbreaking snatches of her meetings with those who succumbed, like Amy Winehouse and the Manic Street Preachers' Richey Edwards. He told her he started the day with a shot and kept going. He had loved his childhood, but felt life became unbearable once you grew up and started "desiring things".

In the 90s the NME even commissioned her to get wasted, in the style of Blur's baseman Alex James: giving her "an unlimited booze budget, one packet of Kraft cheese slices (for doormen bribery purposes) - and one Duty Free bag from Bangkok for that well-travelled pop star illusion". She ended up at home, passed out in front of television, having spent only 170.20.

I think most people might need a little dutch courage to ask the kinds of questions Patterson put to her interviewees. She asked Madonna if she'd eaten her first child's placenta (even in her hippy phase, Ciccone was appalled at the thought, and later insisted that all her interviewers be male) and wondered out loud to Beyonce if she'd ever been sick down her cleavage ("Nooooo! What are you sayin'? With drink?")

There are joyful, funny and sweet moments. Patterson recalls her cameo in the video for Blue Pearl's 1990 novelty house single Naked in the Rain, "wearing ripped up sheets as loincloths (and indeed boob cloths), our unexpectedly exposed bodies smeared in chalky Aboriginal clay, limb-flailing behind the Amazonian Durga McBroom in an abandoned carpark up the back of Kings Cross while being liberally hosed in a torrent of freezing water". She ended up chastely sharing a b&b room in Cardiff with, among others, Jarvis Cocker, who handed around hot chocolate, then, "from his bed in chocolate-brown pyjamas, specs in place", read to them from a book of Russian children's fairy tales.


I'm not sure music journalism was ever as pure and good-natured as she believed it to be in her youth. And I'm not sure the whole industry's any more cynical than it ever was. She may sigh at Adele's preoccupation with her tax bill, but the Beatles were just as angry about theirs.

She's right about one thing. Real life does now matter to us all more than pop. Patterson's account of her miscarriage -- which she endured during an interview with Mariah Carey -- is written with unflinching bravery. Now in her 50s, she is finally able to buy an ex-council home after years of dicey flatshares and bailiffs; she has seen some of her friends die. "And to think," said one, "some people thought it was the end of the world when the Smiths split up."

by Sylvia Patterson
Hardback, $60
Hachette NZ