October 31, 1979: Launching The Rocket

The Rocket’s second anniversary issue, October 1981,
featuring the staff in front of their apocryphal “headquarters.”

Nineteen Seventy Nine was a very good year for rock music, both internationally and in Seattle. Within the wake of the punk explosion a few years before, much innovative and inspiring original rock music was then being created, performed, and recorded. Evidence of that renaissance can be found on the many now-classic albums released that year, such as Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, and Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. In Seattle, many young rock musicians were greatly inspired by all this new musical activity coming from other, more prominent cities, and as a result, several new groups emerged in our city that year dedicated to playing original, cutting-edge music.

Meanwhile, at The Seattle Sun, an alternative weekly newspaper that began publishing in 1974, a struggle erupted between certain writers on the staff who wished to cover Seattle’s emerging new music scene in that paper and certain senior staff members who considered the new scene ultimately unimportant. Frustrated by the Sun‘s refusal to cover the new scene, the Sun‘s arts editor, Robert Ferrigno, and art director, Robert Newman, decided to start their own publication as a monthly supplement to the Sun. The new publication’s name was The Rocket, and its debut issue was published on the date in focus here.

As Ferrigno would later reminisce in The Rocket‘s 15-year-anniversary issue published in December 1994, the new publication was instigated by a rather comical (and possibly apocryphal) incident at a Sun staff meeting in August 1979. The senior Sun staff, clearly betraying their lingering hippie affinities, wanted to publish a cover story on macramé. Ferrigno and Newman both laughed out loud at the suggestion. According to Ferrigno, “The political editor of the Sun glared at us suspiciously, and warned us about our ‘negativity.’ The next day we started raising money for The Rocket.”

Thus, this tiny circa-1979 cultural clash of “hippies versus punks” gave birth to a newspaper that would grow to become vastly influential within Seattle arts and culture during the following decade. Ferrigno explained The Rocket‘s founding mission in its debut issue, writing, “We believe the local music scene to be vibrating with life, multi-faceted and responsive to a wide range of audiences. We will cover national acts like The Cars, but remain committed to supporting local music.”

According to writer Charles R. Cross, who joined the Rocket staff in 1980 and would later become its longtime editor and publisher, the initial idea was never to publish The Rocket as a separate publication. However, after one year as a supplement to The Seattle Sun, the new paper’s unexpected success allowed it to break away from its parent paper. The new monthly paper — distributed free of charge throughout the Puget Sound region, and eventually the entire Pacific Northwest — featured a striking array of talent among its writers, editors, and visual artists. Among other celebrated people whose careers were launched at The Rocket are cartoonist Lynda Barry, graphic designer Art Chantry, music biographer Gillian G. Gaar, Simpsons creator Matt Groening, comedian and television personality John Keister, Sub Pop Records co-founder Bruce Pavitt, and music critic Ann Powers.

The Rocket’s February 1991 issue, featuring Tad, mere months before “Grungemania.”

During The Rocket‘s early years, the editors and writers constantly sought to cover mainly local bands playing original music, such as the Enemy, Chinas Comidas, the Allies, the Heats, Visible Targets, Red Dress, and the Cowboys. A reciprocal relationship emerged between the paper and the local music scene during its first decade. Through that relationship, The Rocket became profoundly influential within the music and arts scenes in Seattle. Among other ways the paper helped set the stage for the early-1990s international explosion of the Seattle music scene, the Sub Pop record label — which launched the careers of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney — began as a column in the paper written by Bruce Pavitt. Also, the paper offered free classified ads for musicians seeking other musicians with whom to collaborate. Myriad Seattle-area musical combos — most now obscure, some later famous — were launched via this unique service offered by The Rocket to the local music community.

As the only local newspaper taking the Seattle music scene seriously prior to the grunge explosion, The Rocket held a unique position of local countercultural power. According to Charles R. Cross, “If you were a band in 1989 in Seattle and you put out an album, there’d be one place in the world that would pay attention to it, and that was The Rocket — and that meant something.”

While The Rocket continued to thrive during Seattle’s time in the global music spotlight during the early 1990s, things began to go south for the paper beginning in 1995. That year, Cross, while remaining on staff as a writer, sold the paper to BAM Media, a San Francisco-based company that published several music-related publications. That sale effectively severed the paper from its local roots, leading to a noticeable decline in quality during the next few years. By the late 1990s, the paper had become a shadow of its former self. It had by then also begun to be eclipsed by The Stranger, the Seattle alt-weekly founded in September 1991.

The slothful demise of The Rocket accelerated abruptly beginning in August 2000, when BAM Media shut down all of its failing projects and sold The Rocket to Dave Roberts, publisher of Chicago’s Illinois Entertainer. Roberts quickly downsized the paper’s operations while giving the superficial appearance that he was earnestly attempting to revitalize the paper. A few weeks later, according to Brian Goedde, a Rocket staff writer at the time, “almost everyone’s paychecks bounced,” and Roberts abruptly informed the entire staff that The Rocket was shutting down effective immediately. Thus, The Rocket vanished suddenly — literally “without warning.” The Rocket‘s final issue was dated October 18, 2000.

Sources: “White Noise,” The Rocket, October 1979, p. 3; Robert Ferrigno, “Love, Rage And Negative Macramé,” The Rocket, December 7-21, 1994, p. 8; Robert W. McChesney, “Balancing Things Left Of Center,” The Rocket, December 7-21, 1994, p. 12; Pam Sitt, “Rocket’s nose dive stuns music magazine’s staffers,” The Seattle Times, October 20, 2000, p. B1; Brian Goedde, “End of Flight, Please Disembark: R.I.P. The Rocket,” The Stranger, November 2, 2000, p. 25; Michael Hill, “Changing times contributed to crash of Rocket,” Puget Sound Business Journal, November 26, 2000; Leah Baltus, “Blast from the Past,” City Arts magazine, July 28, 2012.

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