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

A few weeks later, it was time for me to formally visit the Reg compound in Santa Ana, grab some face time with the editors who mattered, and get an important-looking photo-ID badge.

Some months earlier, I'd quit working at the LA Weekly, which had a decidedly laid-back atmosphere, where people had tattoos and piercings and weren't shy about showing them. The Register, by comparison, was a surreal world of suits and ties, the sartorial embodiment of the phrase "quiet desperation." As an editor led me around the crypt-like halls, I couldn't help but feel that this was what life must be like working for one of those other No-Fun-Allowed, zombiefied corporations that advertise in OC Metro.

The cavernous, third-floor Register newsroom was pockmarked with that telling sign of corporate culture-perfectly aligned, neat little cubicles, where employees ("associates," in Orwellian Reg speak) tacked up personal mementos to remind themselves that they indeed had other lives outside the office.

Some apparently had other lives inside the office, too. During a men's room pit stop that day, I noticed some tiny writing on the caulking between the ceramic tiles: "Meet here for B.J., 11:30 p.m."

Despite that intriguing bit of graffiti, though, there never seemed to be very many happy people working there, just lots of long faces connected to people who slogged along day-to-day, taking up space and biding time until that glorious moment when they get a better job at another paper. Everyone I met who worked on the Show section had odd, glazed looks, like they'd just been to the front, and this wasn't Santa Ana in 1993, but the Somme in 1916.

As an attempt to lift away this depressing miasma, someone had tacked on a newsroom wall an altered banner from an old Register ad campaign. "What's the hot play in town?" it asked and then answered, "Show knows." Some rebellious Reg urchin had covered the "p" in "play" (you can figure the rest out). It remained up for most of my stint as a Register rock critic, a pointed, pained cry for help from a desperate worker seeking to breathe life into an eternally moribund existence.

The pressure was apparently too much for one Register associate. A few months after my first visit, I was told that an ex-employee had made "a threat"-what kind, I never found out-and everybody, including freelancers like me, had to come in and get new ID badges made as a security precaution.

Clearly, the Register compound was not a place I would have wanted to work in five days a week.

OF BUTTHOLES AND BROKEN LEGS

In July, I was assigned to review a Stone Temple Pilots/Butthole Surfers concert at Castaic Lake, a good 80-mile drive. I took the gig because the distant locale meant more money-$75, as opposed to the usual $50 (the Reg also paid $75 for daylong festival reviews; if you're curious, the answer is no, I can't retire off the money I made writing for them).

Things got interesting even before I left for the lake. A Show staffer told me that some editors had a meeting to discuss a very serious matter about the write-up I was doing: whether they'd allow me to write the Butthole Surfers' full name in the review. In the end-so to speak-"Butthole" won out; I assumed the controversial word wasn't "Surfers." It was a landmark moment in the Register's slow slouch toward cultural enlightenment.

On Monday, when the review ran, I got a call from an editor who wanted me to explain why I failed to mention anything about a girl who had broken her leg in the mosh pit-something the Times reviewer thought was a very big deal.

Not me. If you mosh, you know that shit can happen. Though I remembered the event, I thought it was insignificant, especially since I only had so many inches of space to pen my review of the actual music. But because the Times guy opted to go nuclear over someone's stupid busted leg 80 miles away, the Reg editor thought I should have, too. With priorities like these, it's no wonder the Reg-following the Times-would totally miss the OC bankruptcy story a year later.

The Broken-Leg Incident, I'd eventually learn, was indicative of the Register's pack-mentality approach toward competitive journalism, an Ür philosophy that continues to this day: if the Times prints something, then the Reg must follow up on it, no matter how trivial.

SPIN CITY

In October 1993, I was assigned to review a thing called Orange Jam, a music festival at UC Irvine's Aldrich Park. It was obviously an event cooked up by wags in the Register's marketing department who had gone so far as to subtitle it "The Orange County Register Jazz & Blues Festival." I was leery about having to basically serve as a cog in the Register PR machine, but I needed the $75 badly enough to be their whore for an afternoon.

The show was pathetic-a disaster. Area blues fans had been sated by no less than three major shows the month before-a B.B. King/Buddy Guy bill at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, the annual Long Beach Blues Festival, and the debut of the Orange County Blues Festival in Dana Point. That-and rainy weather and mostly B-level talent-kept crowds away. Some artists who were scheduled to play never even performed.

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