Music journalist Sylvia Patterson’s fantastic autobiography, by turns hilarious and heartrending, covers the glory days and decline of the British music press. From her charmed beginnings at Smash Hits in 1986 at 21, rescued from a dreadful entry-level apprenticeship at a Scottish magazine publishing house DC Thomson, to freelancing for the NME, Q, and Glamour, she saw thirty years’ worth of pop booms and busts, ‘90s boy bands, Britpop, hip hop, dance music, rave culture, and tightly wound, overprotected, sanitized stars of the ‘00s, many of whom quickly made their way to the refuse of forgotten pop history Smash Hits called the Dumper.
Sylvia’s time at Smash Hits, under the editorship of the legendary Tom Hibbert and Barry McIlheney, was the magazine’s period of highest sales and widest influence, which coincided with a euphoric, reckless period in music and an industry still awash in money. There were still pointless gluttonous feasts given by record labels in posh hotels, elaborate press junkets, and blow-out parties in warehouses dispersed by the police with tear gas. During the boisterous bouncy castle that was the late ‘80s and most of the ‘90s Sylvia interviewed, consoled, offended, and partied with walking ids from the Psychedelic Furs, the Housemartins, U2, pre-fame Blur, Black Grape, Oasis, Primal Scream, Pulp, and the Manic Street Preachers, among others. Later she repeatedly tried to shock genuine answers out of carefully taciturn stars like (a very closeted) George Michael, henna-sporting hippie Madonna, Prince, Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, Lily Allen, sneery Eminem, and Beyonce.
For all the rock, pop, and rap stars she interviewed, her stories feature plenty of misbehaving, a good bit of drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but not a lot of sex. She described the clean cut pop stars of ’87-’88 as “curiously ‘straight,’ a very young, very clean Stepford Pop conveyor belt of dutiful professionalism, given punishing schedules by whip-lashing paymasters, not only avoiders of fags, booze ‘n’ drugs but (on the surface at least) sex-free.”
Her first major cover story was an interview with her crush, Mick Hucknell from Simply Red. Making an admiringly terrible personal and professional choice while so smitten, she flew to Scotland to present him with a copy in person, thinking that this grand romantic gesture would be enough to seduce him right there in his hotel lobby. Instead she succeeded in confusing him before he fled to his room. “If he’d been up for it, I would have been,” Sylvia told The Guardian’s Barbara Ellen recently. “How embarrassing! But I was only 21.”
There is an amusing off-the-cuff interview with two rather funny young Los Angeles groupies in New Order’s Bernard “Barney” Sumner’s vacated Sunset Marquis hotel room, with the duo triumphantly displaying his abandoned khaki shorts and crowing about his sexual prowess. To Sylvia’s chagrin, Barney’s wife back in England – whom Sylvia didn’t even know existed – was righteously pissed off when she read this goofy revelation in the next Smash Hits. (“Barney,” of course, blamed Sylvia.) The only escapades involving Sylvia herself are a lasting lusting crush on Liam Gallagher at age 29 and an impromptu waltz with Stan from the Housemartins.
A few years later Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackay had nowhere to crash following a gig in Cardiff, Sylvia and her friend allowed the two to sleep in their room in a bed-and-breakfast. The story ends not with a boozy orgy but with Jarvis reading the others Russian fairytales while they sipped cocoa in their pajamas.
Despite the prevalence of variations of Ecstasy, rave culture’s main sacrament, and cocaine, Sylvia – describing herself as “always hopeless at drugs” – mainly indulged in alcohol, endless cigarettes, and expertly rolled spliffs. She describes drinking a staggering amount of gin with Paul “Heato” Heaton from The Beautiful South on a flight from Chicago to Seattle, mainly out of solidarity to calm his fear of flying. Besides gin he also employed a series of superstitions and talismans during flight, including a lucky watch, a trinket box, a badge that said “No Grapes,” and a “Magic Pixie” figure that faced out of the plane window (and whose blue eyes everyone was forbidden to look into). Heato’s “unmistakable truths” about loneliness soon had her in tears. During a vodka-fueled sobbing meltdown while on a junket in Iceland, Blur’s Damon Albarn (described elsewhere as “the actual era’s monumental pain in the arse,” uncharacteristically took her outside for a midnight seaside stroll to calm and reassure her. Mostly she witnessed others around her tumbling into addiction, hard drugs, and mental illness.
Despite the vicissitudes of trends and charts over the last three decades, Sylvia’s ongoing passion for music is tangible, with a lack of reverence for its creators. One of the book’s highlights is her merciless interview with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, the sexually narcissistic titans from “Led bleedin’ Zeppelin,” who look gloriously foolish within a matter of seconds. Her humor and whimsy harken back to a much-missed golden age of music writing that is in stark contrast to the plodding, joyless approach that dominates many music publications and websites today. To paraphrase Rebecca Solnit’s comment in Men Explain Things to Me about the art world, too many young music journalists love music the way taxidermists love deer.
Throughout Sylvia’s stories she consistently seeks answers to life, the universe, and everything from the often hungover or stressed-out musicians and comedians she interviews, albeit with irreverence and self-effacing humor. Her surreal questions, aimed at suddenly popping the egotistical bubble of self-important interviewees, were almost the equivalent of random Zen koans. The most sincere, heartfelt answers about enlightenment and the key to all reality seem to have come from the older and more down-to-earth stars she interviewed: comedian Spike Milligan (who invited her to stay the night with him and his wife – another chaste sleepover), Diana Ross, and Johnny Cash. However, with her doggedly independent streak, amazing work output, ability to somehow cope with poverty, a troubled alcoholic home back in Scotland, as well as jealous psychopathic boyfriends, everyone else should have been asking her about the meaning of life.