Blast from the Past
The Rocket established Seattle’s musical character as much as the bands it covered. On the eve of its 33-1/3 anniversary, longtime editor and publisher Charles R. Cross talks to Leah Baltus about the newspaper’s trajectory and legacy.
Published from 1979 to 2000, The Rocket was a free alternative newspaper that covered music and culture in the Northwest. It started as a supplement, grew into an independent monthly paper and eventually went bi-weekly, with a circulation that peaked at 90,000 copies between Seattle and Portland. It maintained a dedicated following, but was eventually shut down after being sold twice—the last time only two months before its final issue. The Rocket had voice, purpose, vision. It broke bands and ideas. Through its wild journalism and ingenious visuals, The Rocket changed the way we see things.
The legacy of The Rocket is everywhere. What’s that like for you?
For years I was like the patriarch of this weird band of misfits and everybody had some kind of crazy dysfunction or they wouldn’t have been working for a music magazine. It was an odd situation to be in. My relationship with everybody who worked for the paper is unique in that I was the editor for the bulk of the years and the publisher for a significant portion of that time. I signed everyone’s paychecks, and at the same time I had to provide the editorial vision for where we were going. There’s not a single decision on where you’re going to put a comma that doesn’t have some level of controversy involved, so it was at times a very thankless position to be in.
When you first got started with The Rocket you were a writer. How did your role evolve to the point where you were both publisher and editor?
The paper began as a collective. It began as a supplement of the Seattle Sun, which was a competitor with the Weekly. The Sun was a more hippy-dippy weekly paper that sought to carry on the ethics of the ’60s. About the time punk rock began in the late ’70s, a bunch of people who worked at the Sun decided to separate and do a magazine within the paper. The idea was never to do it as a separate thing initially, but after 12 issues or so within the Sun, things split off. Then The Rocket existed as a collective for four or five years. The problem was that it was a very small paper, a very hand-to-mouth paper. I began writing for it I think by the 10th issue, but I was not one of the people who initially started it.
You were the editor for 15 years?
Yes. And we became a bi-weekly and much bigger, so it was an entirely different deal. Almost everybody moved to New York or some other place to get a real magazine job. There got to be a point where The Rocket was either gonna go out of business or it was gonna be sold. Somebody from Minneapolis wanted to buy it and turn it into the kind of magazine that would be at a record store, that would only promote records, only positive record reviews. At that point, I was the managing editor and I basically bought out the other people who were in the collective.
Everybody thinks I was able to buy the paper because I was rich. My dad is a professor! I’ve been a record collector for years and I was basically able to fund [the purchase] by selling and dealing in records. In any case, I became the publisher and I’m not sure that was a wise business decision. But my concept was that if the paper was run more professionally, it could be another great music magazine. The problem was that the Seattle music scene in 1985 was not cooperating with that vision. Nothing was happening. It was very difficult at that point to find good local bands to write about and to get advertisers to pay us.
[Laughs] I have no idea what you’re talking about.
You can never write your own history, so it’s not really my place to say how much The Rocket had to do with the Seattle music scene taking off. But to toot our own horn briefly: In researching Kurt Cobain for my biography of him, I found he had things in his journals about The Rocket—he bought it, he paid for it. At that point The Rocket was free in Seattle, but we shipped it to some of the outlying places.
We made the Aberdeen record store pay the UPS freight to have The Rocket delivered, so they charged a quarter for it. So Kurt Cobain paid a quarter for his copy, and in that day a quarter meant something to him.
What do you make of that?
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.
Just by being at outlet, not because you had an editorial agenda to grow the scene?
Well, there also was the editorial agenda. The editorial agenda was, if you do something creative or do something different, we’re going to give you a positive review. If you do something crappy, if you’re stealing people’s ideas, if what you’re doing is not unique, we’re not going to write about you. What people forget is that as late as 1989, the bands that were making money in Seattle and were successful were still primarily cover bands.
We were constantly railing against that. We put bands on the cover and gave wide exposure to bands that 200 people had seen in a tiny dive tavern.
When that happened, was it really the first time that the readers had heard of the bands?
In almost every instance it was the first. How many people had ever seen a Tad show in person? Maybe some people had heard about it, but we were constantly promoting bands that were not very well known. That shifted by 1991—then our problem was almost that some of those bands were slipping away from us. But we still covered them. The Rocket was never only a local music magazine. In the first five years, when I wasn’t running the show, local music was only on the cover 20 percent of the time. In the next five years it increased to 30 to 40 percent, and in the next 10 years it increased to 75 to 80 percent. But it was never exclusively that. We put, you know, Iggy Pop on the cover and people would be pissed because they would say, “Our local band is playing the coffeehouse to 50 people—why aren’t you promoting us?”
What did you say to them?
We said we intend to write about all great music that’s happening in Seattle, and if that’s a touring band coming through, we’ve got to write about it. Also, by the time we became bi-weekly, finding two great bands every month—that’s 24 great bands a year.
That’s not easy. How big was the staff?
Not big. At the height of the paper, we probably had a staff of 16 to 20 people. And we had a lot of freelance writers and a lot of freelance photographers and occasionally freelance designers, so roughly a group of 50 people regularly worked on the paper. That’s a lot of work for a bi-weekly publication.
What was it like in the office from 1985 to 1989, before grunge took off? Were you guys scratching at the dirt a bit more?
One of the things I’m most proud of is we got a lot of great writers to write for us for $100. Susan Orlean, Tim Cahill. We got R. Crumb to do a cover, we got Don Martin from MAD Magazine. We did everything we could to find really talented people, promise them nothing and convince them that what we were doing was some kind of pure version of journalism—somewhat punk rock, somewhat DIY. We wrote a lot of stories during that era that weren’t just music.
There was a religious cult in Seattle called the Love Israel Family that kind of took over Queen Anne and The Rocket was solely responsible for the downfall of it. One of our writers, Dennis Eichhorn, wrote a story on crack cocaine. Love Israel read that, became fascinated by crack cocaine, started doing crack cocaine, spent all the money and ruined the entire cult because of his obsession with crack cocaine, all because of a story we did. We did political things.
There was an issue that got banned because it had a picture of President Reagan with nuclear warheads coming out of his head. A local artist named Carl Smool had done it and the government was after us because they claimed it was seditious, which is a felony. We always had crap like that happening. I wrote a massive—I think it’s a 12,000-word—story on the Dick’s hamburger chain. It’s the whole history of Dick’s. That’s the kind of thing we could do that no one else in town was doing. No one would even imagine. The Weekly was the only real competition and they were unbelievably staid in that era. The Stranger was still a dream in someone’s eye.
Did the dynamic for The Rocket change once The Stranger started to get a foothold?
It really didn’t. Our advertising base remained strong. It’s clear what The Stranger is against. It’s never been clear what The Stranger is for.
In terms of editorial focus, I think stuff we were writing toward the end of the paper was just as strong [as at the beginning]. The music scene had started to shift by 2000, but there were some great stories we wrote toward the end. My role also shifted. I became less hands-on because eventually I sold the paper.
That was in the late ’90s?
It was. I wrote more for the paper in those final years. Again massively long stories.
You were gearing up to be a book writer.
Yes. We had a very eccentric art director, Art Chantry, who was brilliant. He worked for The Rocket on, I think, five different occasions—and he says that he was also fired on five different occasions. His focus was, let’s always make the art as big as possible. My focus was, let’s always make the stories long.
The Sonics were the classic proto-punk Seattle grunge band from the late ’60s and no one had ever done a story on them. So I tracked all those guys down and wrote the first piece that had been done on them in 25 years. We made it the cover and I think the story was 5,000 words—and Art Chantry’s technique to fit the story in the paper was to run a gigantic photograph and then to put my story into 8-point type. You literally need a magnifying glass to read the story. That was typical of the kind of conflict that happened at the paper.
What other stories stick in your memory?
It certainly made a difference that we were the first magazine to ever put Nirvana on the cover. Soundgarden were playing consistently at a place called the Ditto Tavern in Belltown, which was this little tavern where there would be 25 people. The Ditto Tavern’s shtick was that they had typewriters there and you were supposed to type a poem. And that was the venue Soundgarden was playing, and we wrote the first story on them.
Alice in Chains, we wrote the first pieces on them. All of these people grew up reading The Rocket. Not only that, they advertised for other band members in the paper. Nirvana advertised on five different occasions looking for a drummer. That era was pre-Internet; if you were looking for a drummer or bass player, there was no way to find it except for The Rocket. I know several people who advertised for a musician and met a spouse.
Courtney Love came into our office once, smoking. We had a sign—no smoking allowed—so I went up and told her, “No smoking allowed,” and she threw down her cigarette and rubbed it out on the carpet. She was placing an ad for, I think, a bass player because her bass player had died. She wrote a check for a classified ad that was signed by Kurt Cobain, who was in the car outside waiting. The check was for $27 or something and we had a big debate in the office about whether or not to cash it. We did. That was maybe the dumbest financial decision I’ve ever made in my life.
Did you guys have personal relationships with the people who were actually making music in town at the time?
Absolutely. I mean, the reason that the typeface of Bleach is in Bodoni Extra Condensed was because Lisa Orth designed it, putting out the type for the album cover. Everyone of those albums was typeset at The Rocket.
How has music journalism changed? What’s missing?
The Rocket at its best was a curatorial publication. When we made a local album the lead record review, we wrote 800 words on it. That’s unheard of nowadays. The lead review in Rolling Stone might be 400 words and a record review in Rolling Stone might be 50 words, if that. We gave space to something that we thought was important.
What about Massive Tape Reviews? Didn’t you do short reviews of everything people sent to you?
Some of those were a sentence long. Some of them were 15 words, some of them were 25 words.
Why did you do those?
The joke answer is that we all wanted more Maxell tapes to record over. But really it was a way to write about stuff that hadn’t broken yet. In that era, you could put a cassette in the mail and put 33 cents on a stamp and there was a good possibility someone at The Rocket would listen to it and maybe write a few lines about it. That was very encouraging to bands.
So you guys were cheerleading in a way.
Right. Though we were also incredibly sarcastic and smarmy in many of those reviews. But entertaining at the same time. If we were promoting music, we felt strongly about it. It wasn’t wishy-washy. People cared what we said. Today, if you get a bad review in the paper, there’s Amazon.com, there’s Pitchfork, there’s 50 million bloggers. In our era, there was one place your record was going to get reviewed, one place in the entire fucking world. And it was The Rocket.
Twelve years have gone by since the end of The Rocket and there’s still this reverence for the work that was done.
I think there’s a nostalgia for anything that’s gone. I think The Rocket isn’t just about the publication, it’s also about an era—and it represents a more freewheeling world of rock ’n’ roll where everything was possible. The capacity for a band to come out of nowhere and then to dominate pop culture. I don’t think that exists anymore. In Singles, Matt Dillon reads his review of his band in The Rocket. That represents an era.
What I miss the most is the group of people. The connections. The, “What have you listened to? What are you doing this weekend?” That’s the stuff I miss the most about The Rocket’s office. There was a community around that.
The nutcases, the crazy people, the people trying to stab me with an X-ACTO knife—I don’t miss that. But I miss that sense of community.
Are you looking forward to seeing everyone at the anniversary party?
I am. I put something on Facebook and within five minutes, 100 people said they were coming. People from out of town. Enough time has gone by. Everybody’s welcome. It’s not just my history, it’s everybody’s history.
The Rocket’s 33-1/3 anniversary party is Aug. 5 from 2 p.m. until early evening at the Feedback Lounge. Many thanks to Jesse Reyes, Jeff Kleinsmith and Robert Newman for their help in compiling the Rocket cover images for this story.