By Ashley Deckert
Some people say that it takes a wrong turn in order to get on the right path. For alumnus Walter O’Brien, J/MS 2005, his wrong turn consisted of not completing his degree while at Rutgers in the 1970s.
But this mistake just happened to lead him into his dream career of managing multiple rock star bands. And, it was a fabulous career by any definition. O’Brien managed some of the biggest rock bands in history, 17 in all, including Anthrax, Pantera, Ministry, Metal Church, and Jimmy Buffet.
Ultimately, though, this was not a satisfying path for O’Brien. After more than 30 years in the music field, degree-less and at age 53, O’Brien sought change.
“I wanted to focus on my personal life out in New Jersey and on my own creative energy, instead of someone else’s,” he recalled. “That, and the fact that the rock star lifestyle isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
O’Brien returned to Rutgers to get his journalism degree and is now a breaking news reporter at NJ.com, covering Somerset County.
No longer focusing on channeling the unique energies of others, O’Brien is currently exercising his own at NJ.com. The only difference apart from the years of yesterday, he said, is the idea of no longer calling the shots. Most of his work revolves around the reporting of breaking news — fires, accidents, road closings and anything that applies to the general public.
When asked about preference on which news to cover, O’Brien stated, “I think the best stuff for me is anything that tells a story that reaches people, especially those in need or in a bad situation.”
Given the bumpy ride he took while traveling around the world in his music management days, O’Brien is beyond content to be stationed in the Somerset County and Morristown areas, which are closer to home now.
Sometimes when he’s reporting the breaking news of the day, the music business years seem so far away — especially the 18 years dedicated to running his own artist management company, Concrete Management & Marketing Inc.
Managing “the lifestyles of the rich and the famous” wasn’t always smooth, O’Brien acknowledged. “Near the end, I used to describe my job as waiting around in the backstage of a big cement concert venue, waiting for the band to be drunk enough that they wouldn’t notice me when I made my way back to the hotel to try and sleep,” O’Brien said.
While growing up, O’Brien said that the Beatles’ music was in rotation, and everyone his age wanted a glimpse of fame as a musician.
“Everybody wanted to play guitar and ‘be’ Paul, John or George, or play drums and ‘be’ Ringo,” he recalled. “I wanted to be Brian Epstein. And, on a much smaller scale, I made it happen.”
There were moments derived from his musical years that will never compare to his present days. But, looking back now, he is happy to be no longer living them. “With Pantera, they would be upset with me if I wouldn’t drink with them every night, all night long,” said O’Brien. “It was one long party to them. While I did what I could to keep up, I never could quite party as hard as they did.
“Here I am now, a journalist, and the first thing I had to do was take a drug test. It couldn’t be more opposite! But yes, I passed,” said O’Brien.
As far as finishing the long delayed degree, he claims it was at first just the desire to complete it, but now he’s appreciative more than ever for the knowledge it has bestowed upon him. “My degree from J/MS was a direct link to my second career,” said O’Brien. “I always did a lot of writing, but news writing is different in many ways — style and content wise.”
Networking while at J/MS eventually made way for O’Brien to score the reporting job he had hoped for. He worked for the Courier News and then went on to NJ.com.
“Second dream career accomplished,” O’Brien said.