What's it like to be a big-time music writer at a major metropolitan newspaper?

45 Months in the Life of a Register Rock Critic

IN THE BEGINNING

Conventional wisdom says it's not wise to rage against a former boss-a corollary to the don't-burn-bridges rule-lest you're forced to crawl desperately back someday, begging for work. But my former boss is The Orange County Register. I'd rather take back the old video-clerking gig I landed after high school, renting sticky porno tapes to lonely old men, than scrawl for the Reg or any other paper owned by the Register's misnamed parent, Freedom Communications, again.

So anyway, here's what happened:

In late 1992, armed with a wad of award-winning entertainment writing from my college paper ("clips," they're called in the biz), I set out to see if one of the local dailies might let me rant about rock & roll for them. I didn't try the Los Angeles Times, where I knew I'd be low on the corporate pecking order-stuck writing about crap bands with names like Psycho Crotch Monkey who, because they're from England, are deemed review-worthy.

But the Registerlooked as if it needed help. Badly. So I shot them some of my clips.

Growing up, I rarely read the Register. My dad worked for the Times; we were a Times family. Sometimes, though, he'd bring home the Register's Sunday edition so I could have the kid-geared Mini Page. Twenty-five years later, the Mini Page is often still the best thing about the paper.

A week went by, and an editor from Show, the Register's flaccid entertainment section buried behind the classifieds, rang me up.

He liked my writing!

He wanted to use me! I was about to get my byline in 350,000 daily papers!

Free tickets and CDs and notebooks and stuff!

Hmmm . . . maybe I better take a closer look at this rag and find out just what I'm getting into.

I had friends who worked at North County News in Anaheim, the Freedom-owned group of community weeklies the Register distributes. My older brother briefly worked there, too, before quitting in disgust over how disorganized and chaotic the place was. From them, I'd heard horror stories of life under Freedom: shitty pay, long hours, soul-killer workload, and the carrots of permanent Register employment that editors teasingly dangled before-but rarely fed-the slaves in the weeklies.

But, thank gawdamighty, I wasn't going to be a part of that scene. I was to be a freelancer at the Register proper, able to refuse or accept assignments at my leisure. That fact made me less comfortable, however, when I began to familiarize myself with the paper's editorial pages. There I discovered what a bizarre, right-wing mouthpiece the Reg was. The syndicated columns they ran were always by far-out, freak-boy conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Don Feder. Especially weird, though, was Talk Show, the paper's letters-to-the-editor section, where the most rabid Register reader could wildly spout off about anything.

"I have just read the story of a pair of multitalented criminals. . . . Where is Dirty Harry when we need him?" read one.

"Lord knows the people of Mexico would be far better off if our government had taken the whole country after we won the Mexican War," read another.

Through my years at the Reg, the letters continued, streaming in from some dark, secret place: "Black Americans [should] be grateful for the fact that their ancestors were rescued from the horrors of African tribal warfare [and were] brought here by our Southern states, albeit as slaves."

"Put women back into the home with their children, and allow men to remain king of the household."

"Homosexuals' only contribution as a group in society is the scourge of the worldwide spread of AIDS."

These fanatical diatribes were so much fun to read that I started clipping and saving them. I collected so many that, two years ago, using a pen name (since I was still freelancing for the Reg), I wrote a First Person piece for the Weekly about my stash of the freakiest Register reader bile. Now, at last, I can proudly out myself.

SHOW KNOWS

My first assignment as a rock critic for The Orange County Register was a Bob Weir/Rob Wasserman show at the Coach House, which was cool, since I was a pretty big Deadhead back then and probably would have bought tickets anyway. Not only were these tickets free, but I was also getting paid 50 bucks to write about the show.

Three days later on Sunday, when the review came out, I put $1.25 worth of quarters into a Register rack, took about five copies, flipped to the page, and stared at my story. I read it once.

And then I read it again and again.

I had made it into one of the 25 biggest dailies in the country.

With my second review, an Allman Brothers Band gig at the then-active Pacific Amphitheater, I got a taste of how overly sensitive some editors were. I wrote that the Allmans were "the greatest white-boy blues band ever." But when I saw the printed version, the word "boy" had been cut. Whoever edited my story was apparently afraid of offending the Register's vast redneck readership. I laughed it off-and laughed again last year when I noticed Barry Koltnow, the Reg's nightlife writer, using the "white-boy" term. After four years, even the Register can evolve.

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