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Capitol Hill Community Post | Tracing The Rocket’s Capitol Hill vapor trails

By Todd Matthews

The COVID-19 pandemic led many people to take up new hobbies—solving jigsaw puzzles, baking bread, or bingeing Netflix shows—to curb boredom and anxiety. As a longtime journalist and Capitol Hill resident interested in local history, I opted to collect and read old issues of The Rocket, the music and culture magazine launched on Capitol Hill in 1979.

The magazine occupies a special place in local music history. Sub Pop Records’ roots trace back to the label’s co-founder, Bruce Pavitt, and the column he wrote for The Rocket. Before achieving rock stardom with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain picked up The Rocket at a record store in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington. In the late-1980s, while searching for a drummer, Cobain placed a classified advertisement in The Rocket, and Nirvana scored its first-ever magazine cover with The Rocket‘s December 1989 issue. The band even used the magazine’s typesetting machine to design its iconic logo. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and MAD magazine’s Don Martin illustrated covers for The Rocket. In addition, The New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, best-selling author and National Book Award Finalist Katherine Dunn, and NPR music critic Ann Powers (while she was still in high school) wrote for The Rocket.

The final issue of The Rocket published on October 18, 2000. Flipping through 40-year-old issues with my ink-stained fingers, I felt like I was popping open time capsules and peering inside to learn more about a city and neighborhood that I thought I knew after living here for 30 years.

Capitol Hill’s cheap apartments (yes, that once existed on the Hill) and DIY spirit (that, too) were essential to The Rocket‘s creation. Before the neighborhood offered a trendy ax-throwing bar on Broadway, a cashier-less grocery store on Pike Street, and overpriced pints of ice cream in the Pike/Pine corridor, indie record shops (Mt. Olympus Imports, Bomb Shelter, and Fallout Records), inexpensive clothing stores (All That Jazz and Jazzola), and other small businesses (George’s Place and Storefront Press) populated the neighborhood and occupied advertising space in The Rocket.

While all these places are lost to the ages, you can still visit two Capitol Hill locations that were essential to the magazine’s early history:

  • The Patio Fine Thai Cuisine (524 15th Avenue East) — This two-story, wood-frame building served as the offices of The Rocket and its parent publication, The Seattle Sun, in the 1970s. The upstairs office space was so small that Cause Célèbre Café downstairs—open until 1 a.m. and serving sandwiches, coffee, and ice cream—was often favored as a roomier, alternative space for editorial meetings.
  • Lost Lake Cafe & Lounge (1505 10th Avenue) — In the summer of 1980, The Rocket moved into an empty storefront on 10th Avenue, between East Pike and East Pine Streets, around the corner from The Comet Tavern. The staff threw a party to celebrate their new digs, and the band Red Dress performed. Eventually, The Rocket left the Hill forever, choosing to relocate to an even cheaper space above The Rendezvous in Belltown. In later years, the Rocket‘s former 10th Avenue office was converted to the bathhouse Basic Plumbing. Today, it is home to Lost Lake Cafe & Lounge, which served as a setting for a Macklemore video, and is located next door to Elliott Bay Book Company.

Having spent most of last year reading old issues of The Rocket, I decided to share this experience with others via Reading The Rocket, a website I launched on January 1, 2021.

In addition to issue recaps, the site includes my interviews and oral histories with former Rocket contributors: co-founders Bob McChesney (publisher), Bob Newman (senior editor and editor-in-chief), and Danny “Ricky Cresciend’o” O’Brien (columnist); senior editor Karrie Jacobs; and associate editor Karl Neice. More interviews are in the works, and the website is updated every week.

“Seattle [and Capitol Hill] in the late 1970s and early 1980s [were] not the same as [they are] now,” Jacobs told me when asked about her experience working at The Rocket‘s Capitol Hill offices 40 years ago. “There wasn’t a lot of money around, and it was pretty seedy. [At The Rocket, we] could go around on our $100 a month and feel like we owned the place. The Rocket was a funny little cocoon.”

“It was a very rock ‘n’ roll neighborhood, ” added Newman, who recalled spending many hours at the magazine’s office on 10th Avenue. “At night, when we were working, we could hear the bad music and all the drunks at The Comet.”

Reading The Rocket has connected me to the magazine’s former readers and contributors. Some people reach out to me to loan or donate old issues, while others share how much they miss The Rocket and a period in Seattle and Capitol Hill that only exists in memories.

As one former Rocket contributor wrote to me: “I’m trying to decide whether [Reading The Rocket] makes me feel really important or just really old. I get enough reminders of the latter, and too few of the former, so I’ll probably go that way. In any event, thanks for doing this!”

About Todd Matthews
Capitol Hill resident Todd Matthews is a writer, editor, and journalist whose work has appeared in more than two dozen magazines, newspapers, books, and other publications over the past 25 years. Sadly, his work never appeared in The Rocket.

 

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Lairdo
Lairdo
1 year ago

As a bike messenger in the mid ’80s, we did business with The Rocket office and they gave us T-shirts to wear while riding, but didn’t go through our management. We all got in trouble for taking them, but we sure as hell didn’t give them back or stop wearing them! Years later I was wearing mine in Belize and made some friends who recognized it. Miss The Rocket… Thanks!

heidi
heidi
1 year ago

Lynda Barry also had some of her first comics in the Rocket.

Ryan Boudinot
1 year ago

This is incredibly cool. I’m glad someone is doing this. It should honestly be a book. I read The Rocket from around 1987 to 2000.The Rocket introduced me to so many bands and the only way to surmise what they sounded like was through the crackling prose of the writers. The first I heard of the Rocket was from the weekly local music show REV: Rock Entertainment Video, where John Keister, later of Almost Live, would file his Rocket Report. What a cultural treasure and lifeline this rag was. Looking forward to digging into your blog.

so not the present scene
so not the present scene
1 year ago

omg i totally still have wilum hopfrog pugmire poems cut out from the back pages !!! omg, so my youth, lolll

Marguerite Richard
Marguerite Richard
1 year ago

Hosanna Community Choir. Birthed right here in Seattle under the direction of Alfred Taylor who died from AIDS. Thank you for the article. I was attending Cornish at the time.

CHOP Supporter
CHOP Supporter
1 year ago

Old Seattle really ruled

Capitol Hill Marauders
Capitol Hill Marauders
5 months ago

I have fond memories of reading The Rocket in the late 70’s and throughout the 1980’s. My friends and I would head to the used record stores in the U District, buy some .49 cent records, grab a Rocket, then head home and browse the pages while we listened to our cheap lp’s.