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 month later, I made the Reg look pretty again by driving up to Sacramento to review one of Pearl Jam's few shows on their aborted summer tour. But this time, I made it clear that I absolutely needed a portable, so a sympathetic staffer actually had to smuggle me a Trash-80 out a side door of the Reg's Grand Avenue complex. He looked around nervously to see if anyone was watching. Apparently, Register busybodies were everywhere.

I made a not-very-whopping $75 each off the R.E.M. and Pearl Jam reviews.

But by then, I'd figured out where the Reg was spending its money. One night, looking for some mindless laughs, I flipped to the Freedom-owned Orange County Newschannel on the tube, which was always way funnier than Seinfeld. But when a commercial break came up, I stopped laughing. A spot for the Register flashed on the TV, screaming something like, "YOU CAN WIN BIG MONEY IN THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER'S NEW CLASSIFIED CASH GIVEAWAY GAME!" Then they showed a woman grabbing for a flurry of dollar bills swirling around her, falling from the sky.

BAD, BAD EDITING

One November 1994 morning, I noticed a review in the Reg of a Pretenders concert at the Wiltern Theatre somebody had written. It was horrible. Not because the critic didn't like the band-he gave them a good review-but because, in just a 6 1⁄2-inch write-up, he managed to make no less than eight punctuation typos, spelling errors, factual gaffes and grammatical tragedies. Among other things, he spelled the band's name "Pretender's," making it possessive, and he based his review on erroneous info, stating that "Joni Mitchell recently said we need Chrissie Hynde back" (um, actually, it was Hynde who'd been widely quoted saying the world needed Mitchellback). The review was such a sorry sight that I clipped it out, corrected it with a red Bic, and tacked it up on my bulletin board, a grotesque example of deplorable Reg editing.

I thought, well, that's the last time this guy writes for the Show section. Then I looked at the byline again; shockingly, the review was penned by none other than Show's main big-cheese editor.

CLOSE ASSOCIATE ENCOUNTERS

I didn't know the editor very well, even though I'd been writing for him for almost two years at that point. He was one of those unhappy-looking people I met on my first expedition inside the Reg building, all stone-faced and unemotional, like Spock in a dress shirt and tie.

I had more memorable encounters with other Reg "associates." There was the rent-a-cop who stood in front of my moving car-hell-bent on doing everything in the power the state had vested in him and backed by the full fury and authority of the Reg itself-to bar me from the Register parking garage (or, God forbid, the "Associate of the Month" space) because I didn't have the proper-colored permit, even though I'd been parking there since I started writing for them. Turned out that all that time, I was supposed to have been parking in the open lot just south of the Reg building, along with the other commoners.

One Sunday morning while typing up a review, my newsroom computer, a hopelessly out-of-date ATEX machine, froze. There was only one other person in the newsroom, someone I didn't know, and he looked really wrapped up in something. But I had a deadline, and I was desperate, so I nicely asked him for help. For some reason, he exploded, grumbled a bunch of naughty words, stomped over to my terminal, fiddled with some keys, took care of my problem, stormed back to his desk, and finished seething.

"Poor guy," I silently sympathized. "He's a prime candidate for a coronary. Must be a long-suffering staffer."

Call me Nostradamus: a few months later, he had a heart attack. And he died.

THE LAST WORD

Things began to change when 1996 rolled around. What had been a steady stream of assignments dried up considerably, mostly because the Reg had found someone in-house willing to write reviews for little or no pay, so the skinflints saved money. I only had six bylines that year.

I figured it was getting to be about time to move on, anyway. By this time, the Weekly was fully operational, and it was staffed by nicer, sexier people who actually seemed to enjoy their jobs. There were other signs, too, like when I found out that Times freelancers got paid more than twice what the Reg had been giving me all this time. Then I really felt like a slave.

What really did it for me, though, was the last photo-ID badge I was issued, which had a big, ugly "V" stamped on it. When I asked a security guy what the "V" meant, he said it stood for "vendor," since I was considered an "independent contractor." It made me feel like I should have been roaming the halls of the Reg wearing a striped uniform, hawking peanuts, beer and snow cones. I decided I'd do a few more reviews and then leave.

Then came the Marilyn Manson incident.

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