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

"That type of music has such an effect on young minds," the boy's mother protested.

"I never really thought that television has that effect on kids," said his sister. "But now I know it does. . . . He was influenced."

That's all some anonymous Reg editorial scribbler needed to know. So, under "The Pearl Jam Schools" was a rambling screed that ran the entire length of the page, getting all the facts about the video wrong, calling it "violent" (though no violent acts are seen) and saying that the boy in it "takes a classroom hostage" (wrong again). Obviously, whoever penned the editorial hadn't seen the video.

The gun incident was great for the Reg. It was an editorial three-bagger: it gave them the hook for a sanctimonious harangue against the public-school system they've always abhorred; it let them deliver a page-length plug for Proposition 174, the school-voucher initiative on that November's ballot; and, of course, it allowed them to criticize pop culture.

I was so pissed I fired off a letter to the editor using a pseudonym, figuring the Reg would never print a missive from one of its own freelancers.

They didn't print it-that time. But in April 1994, I ran across a column about Kurt Cobain's suicide by cultural bluenose Marilyn Duff, a regular contributor to the Reg's editorial pages. Lamely written as an open letter to Cobain's daughter, Duff suggested that Cobain would still be alive if he had just combed his hair, taken up gardening, gone on a few brisk walks, and-oh, yes-found Jesus. I phoned Mark Brown, then the Register's full-time pop-music reporter, and asked him if he'd seen it.

"Oh, great," he groaned. "What did they print now?"

Duff's column was so insipid I couldn't let it pass. So, using another fake name but my real phone number, I faxed the Reg a letter about how full of shit Duff was, expecting to get a call from them so they could verify I was the author.

Nobody called, and I almost spat my breakfast up when I opened the paper a few days later and saw my letter-fake name and all-basically exposing how easily the Register's letters page can be manipulated. I flashed on a grand anarchist vision: I could write letters to the Reg advocating cocaine smuggling, zit popping, booger chewing, poodle screwing, turd eating and the use of aborted fetuses in hot-dog meat, sign them with names like "Bob Dornan," "Dana Rohrabacher," "Pete Wilson," "Christopher Cox," "Louis Sheldon" and "Ronald Reagan," and nobody from the paper would bother to find out if they were real. What a great idea!

After I settled down, I decided that probably wouldn't be a very nice thing to do.

A year later, Duff surfaced again with yet another clueless column, in which she called Beck "a group," took videos by Tupac Shakur and TLC out of context, and called for the removal of MTV from basic cable programming.

That moment was an epiphany: I finally realized why so many Show staffers always looked depressed.

TRASH TALK

The concert-reviewing routine was going well, but by July 1994, I was looking for something bigger, a meatier clip. When I found out that the Lollapalooza tour would be kicking off in Las Vegas, I pitched the idea to a Show editor, who green-lighted it.

All I needed was to borrow a laptop. I expected something like a spiffy Powerbook, but what I got-what all Reg reporters got when they filed stories from out of town-was this pathetically outdated Radio Shack portable, model TRS-80, which Show staffers unaffectionately nicknamed the "Trash-80s." The LCD screen only let you see four lines of your story at a time. The modem was one of those ancient phone-coupling things.

I lugged the antique to Vegas, drove my own car, got my own hotel room, went to the show, wrote up the review, called the Reg the next morning, dictated the story over the phone (the modem didn't work), and drove home-all at my own expense. For my exclusive piece-an article that Robert Hilburn covered in grand fashion for the Times, an article the Reg wouldn't have gotten otherwise-I was paid $75 and reimbursed for the $6 phone call.

In May 1995, out of pure, virginal goodness, I faithfully went on the road for the Register again, once more out of my own pocket. This time, it was to San Francisco for the opening U.S. date of R.E.M.'s Monster tour. I went to the Reg office expecting to borrow a Trash-80. But-oops!-an editor told me that it was "against company policy" to loan their crappy portables to freelancers and that I never should have been given one the year before for the Lollapalooza assignment. I still wanted to do the story, though, and the Reg still wanted me to cover it, if I could-they just wouldn't give me the tool I needed most.

I drove up anyway, crashed at a friend's house to save money, went to the show, wrote a rough draft longhand on a yellow legal pad, went to sleep, woke up at 5 a.m., went into my friend's room (waking him up, too) to organize my bleary-eyed scribblings on his e-mail-less computer, fine-tuned it, called it in, went back to bed, and woke up later that afternoon and headed home.

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