I might have wanted to become a rock critic when I was a teenager … if I had thought that was a possibility.
But I didn’t: You might as well have told me I could try to become the King of Spain. But I did, miraculously enough, become a rock critic — I’ve been in journalism for 32 years now, with 21 of them spent in that position for New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper, The Star-Ledger. And since I am occasionally asked to tell how that happened, I figured I might as well put it into print.
As I said, being a rock critic wasn’t something I ever focused on, until the opportunity presented itself. That’s what the “without really trying” in the headline means. (I’ve always worked really hard.)
So, to start at the beginning …
I was born in 1961, but though my father worked briefly in the rock business, he and my mother were more into Broadway musicals than rock, and I didn’t really become aware of contemporary popular music until 1974 or so, when I started listening to Top 40 radio. It was the era of Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” and Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods’ “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” and stuff like that.
Pretty soon, though, I found more substantial stuff, with the guidance of WNEW-FM, “The Rolling Stone Record Guide” and a music appreciation course I took at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in Ridgewood, where Mr. Thompson and Mr. Esposito had put together a very ambitious and forward-looking music program. I listened seriously to Bob Dylan for the first time there, and he became my favorite musician — really, my favorite artist of any kind — at that point, and remains so to this day. I listened a lot, too, to Bruce Springsteen, The Who, The Beatles, Patti Smith, Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. Elvis Costello was a revelation — the first concert I ever saw was by him and The Attractions, in 1979. Later, in college, I became interested in Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and The Clash.
I learned how to play piano as a kid, and played a lot, for my own pleasure, as a teen and into my early 20s. But I never had any aspiration to be a professional musician, or even to play in bands. I didn’t have that kind of talent, or drive, and hated being onstage. I just liked noodling around, on my own. I still do.
Some people like to say, smugly, that all rock critics are wannabe rock stars. I’m one, at least, who is not.
So what did I want to be? I didn’t really know. I thought maybe a literature professor — I was deeply into books, too, as a teenager — so I went to a good school (Swarthmore College) and studied Latin and Greek (I wanted a solid background in classical literature) and English.
By the time I graduated in 1984, though, I was soured on the whole academic world: Too many talented scholars jostling for too few jobs, and writing esoteric papers no one would ever read. I really felt pretty lost at this point, so moved back home, and tried to figure it out.
My mother saw that a local semi-weekly paper, The Ridgewood News, was looking for stringers, and suggested I give it a try. I had never studied journalism, or written for school papers, but I could write reasonably well, so it seemed worth a shot, until I figured out something better to do.
My first assignment was to cover some school board or town council meeting. I went and, I swear, nothing happened. I mean, nothing. It lasted, like, five or 10 minutes. They took care of some routine bureaucratic stuff, but that was it. I wrote up a pathetic little article about this non-event and handed it in. My editor, Lorraine Mullica (who is still a New Jersey journalist, under her married name, Lorraine Ash), gently explained to me that if nothing happened, I had to make it happen: Talk to the board members, or gadflies in attendance, or whatever, and try to pry out a piece of news.
She gave me a second shot, though, and at this meeting, miraculously, there were fireworks: people yelling back and forth over some controversial zoning matter. It was hard for me to understand, knowing absolutely nothing about zoning law prior to that night, but I introduced myself to the biggest yellers on both sides afterward, and they patiently explained to me what all the fighting was about. I wrote it up: It had to be edited heavily, but it made the front page, and I was on my way.
My part-time stringing at The Ridgewood News grew into a full-time writing and editing job in a matter of months. As is the norm at a small paper like that, you do a little bit of everything: I wrote obits and sports stories and edited real estate and business pages. I learned about headlining and caption writing and layout, and became fluent in newsroom jargon.
I discovered I liked writing features and reviews the most. I volunteered to do concert and album and book reviews, and the editors were glad to have them.
When I decided to try to move on, a few years later, I sent my resume around to a lot of different publications, and got hired by the weekly East Coast Rocker, then based in Montclair (it’s still around, but now known as the Aquarian Weekly, and based in Little Falls). I was 25, and it was the greatest break of my professional life. To this day, nothing compares to getting that call.
This was a full-time job — a real job — writing just about rock music. It didn’t seem possible that such a thing existed. But it did, and it was mine.
In my college and post-college years, I had been getting more and more deeply into music, expanding my record collection and going to lots of concerts. But now I was immersed: Getting free records in the mail daily, going to whatever concerts I wanted to, interviewing all kinds of big names. I worked nonstop and rose to the position of co-managing editor.
It was such an intense experience that I wondered, a few years later, if I should try something else. But then I got an offer I couldn’t refuse: To become the first full-time pop/rock critic at The Star-Ledger (George Kanzler had been doing that, as well as jazz, but he really wanted to focus on jazz, and so The Star-Ledger decided they would hire someone to do just pop and rock). It was 1989, and I was 28.
Again, I thought I would just do it for a few years, until I figured out something better. But I really liked the work, and years grew into decades.
I thought I knew it all, after the East Coast Rocker, but, as it turned out, I really knew very little. At the East Coast Rocker, I could theoretically write about anything, but mostly focused on indie-rock, classic-rock and singer-songwriters. At The Star-Ledger, I was responsible for all forms of music except classical and jazz, and so I found myself writing about hip-hop and country and R&B and heavy metal and world music, too.
The Star-Ledger was a great place to work. There was job security, and decent pay, and editors who cared. When Jim Willse took over the reins of the newsroom, in 1995, the paper became much more ambitious, and its staff size grew greatly. I felt I was climbing up the ladder — working for a paper that was now really trying to do great things, every day — without having to move anywhere.
I remember going to parties where people would be bitching about their jobs, and thinking that even though I had some minor gripes, I really couldn’t join in, since (1) I had the job that so many people considered a dream job and (2) I loved it so much, overall.
The 2000s were difficult in many ways, not just for The Star-Ledger, but for all newspapers, with the rise of the Internet making print products increasingly irrelevant. We used to have great benefits and annual raises; now we got cuts instead of raises, benefits were deteriorating, and job security had vanished. With the staff shrinking, everyone had to do more, for less pay.
In 2010, I moved over to the editing side of things, and in 2014, I finally left the paper — which was undergoing a massive restructuring — and started NJArts.net, while continuing to do some freelancing as well.
That’s enough for now. Perhaps this post can be the start of a series, with each post touching on a certain aspect of my experiences in journalism, so I can get into some of this stuff more deeply.
One more thought, though: Whenever I meet a young journalist, I’m tempted to say, “Run in the other direction. This road is too hard. There are no good jobs left.” But then I think that it did work out for me, for a while at least, in ways I never could have foreseen or predicted. Who am I to say that the impossible can’t happen, again?
My first professional writing gig was at The Aquarian too (before it morphed into East Coast Rocker), writing film and theater features. I got to interview a bunch of b-list movie stars (including a young Harrison Ford and the hilarious Dom DeLuise, the Wizard of Oz’s Ray Bolger, and sex kitten Pia Zadora.) When that fizzled out, I started writing for my best friend’s fanzine, and when that folded, I started my own zine (and kept writing – for free – for other zines with bigger circulations, like The Bob and Matter.) The exposure I received got me noticed and eventually led to freelancing opportunities at places like Request (Sam Goody’s house magazine, and 2nd largest music mag in the country back in the 90’s,) Guitar World, Rolling Stone, and – thanks to Jay – the Star-Ledger, as well as a weekly music column in the Jersey Journal. So my advice to young writers today is to just start publishing yourself, even if it’s online (which is WAY easier than publishing a print fanzine was back in the days before personal computers and hi-quality copiers.)
Yes, it’s much easier to start publishing yourself these days. Not necessarily easier to get paid, though. It cost me virtually nothing to start NJArts.net. A year and a half later, though, I’m still making very little money from it.
Thank you for posting, Jay! I just shared this with my friend Lucas, an aspiring journalist in Scotland.
Jay, your story on becoming a rock critic was interesting, beautifully written, and peppered with enough humor to sustain my attention for the more serious lines about the decline of the newspaper biz, and the challenge you faced.
I appreciate this!
Wonderful piece, Jay. I remember that 20-something!
Hi Jay – I interned at the famed Ridgewood News in 1985-86. Call it the John Breunig/Evan St. Lifer Period. I tell my students not to have too much of a plan, to be open to unexpected paths. Give my regards to my home state – I hope we can touch base at some point.
Ron Bishop, Drexel University