For almost twenty years, The Rocket not only reported on what was happening in the grimy clubs and basements of the Northwest -- it helped drive a scene that would eventually become known the world over. The Rocket would also serve as a launching pad for the careers of some major artistic and journalistic talents, notably former New York Times music critic Ann Powers, Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt, Seinfeld scribe Ron Hauge, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening. The Rocket was the first to cover Nirvana, the first to cover Sleater-Kinney, and the first to cover hundreds of once beloved and now long-forgotten local bands. Most important, the paper helped foster discussion and debate and create a cohesive musical community.
To look back over the covers of The Rocket from the '80s and early '90s is to watch a scene explode. The Rocket put Nirvana on the cover in 1989, when Bleach was released; years later, when In Utero was hitting stores, Kurt Cobain repaid the favor by granting one of only three interviews to The Rocket.
Nirvana was not the only band to be championed early on by The Rocket. They put Soundgarden on the cover in 1988, Sir Mix a Lot on the cover in 1989, Everclear on the cover in 1994 and Modest Mouse on the cover in 1997.
As grunge broke, The Rocket's circulation swelled, at one point hitting 130,000 (as a point of comparison, Spin today circulates 450,000). The Rocket had become required reading for pretty much every music fan in the Northwest. As the '90s continued and grunge fever cooled, The Rocket kept on covering a shifting scene until the paper closed in 2000.
After almost 20 years, The Rocket had crashed to earth. While the paper is gone, it certainly isn't forgotten, due in large part to the fact that it served as a farm team for so many talented writers. Everyone I spoke with in connection with this article recalled their time at the paper with great fondness.
One of the reasons The Rocket wound up producing so many well-known writers is the same reason it so often found great bands no one knew about. The paper was willing to take chances and give unknown commodities a shot. Former ad sales director Courtney Miller recalls that art director Art Chantry was constantly scouting new photo and illustration talent, thereby launching the careers of Peter Bagge and Matt Groening. It was not uncommon for writers with no clips to become part of the freelance team, or for high school students to be given major assignments. "We always had a policy that you didn't need a lot of clips or a degree, and that passion and quality were far more important traits," says former editor Charles Cross. "If you wouldn't have done the work for free, we wouldn't hire you."
My own personal experience certainly lines up with these principles. As a junior in high school, I wanted to write about music, but my school paper's editor wouldn't let me. With the bravado that only a teenage girl can have, I marched down to The Rocket's offices and told Portland editor John Chandler that I wanted to write for them. He didn't laugh or throw me out. He handed me some CDs and told me to write about them. If the reviews were good, they'd run.
The Rocket also engendered a level of comfort among musicians that seems to be missing today. It was not uncommon for pieces to feature stories of drunken and drugged debauchery, and for musicians to spout off absurd comments and start fights in the pages of the paper. Local musicians seemed to feel comfortable around the writers, and generally didn't hesitate to get smashed with them. Toward the end of the paper's run, Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols took an opportunity to spout off about heroin being "no big deal" (and, in fact, quite pass & eacute;). Art Alexakis of Everclear took predictable offense to that comment, and a mini-press war erupted between what were the two biggest bands in Portland at the time.
But beyond great writing, great art and doped-up rock stars shooting their mouths off, there was a great, intangible authenticity and sincerity to The Rocket and a spirit of genuine excitement in the writing. Even well into the '90s, the mindset was still "Hey, Nirvana did it. Why not [insert indie rock band]?"
Very few publications ask that question anymore. With the rise of the music blogger and the fall of the alternative weekly, the sense of "place" seems to have disappeared from music. I rarely know if the band being pitched to me is from Toronto or Topeka. On one hand, this can be considered a positive development; bands from the hinterlands don't have to relocate to Brooklyn or Minneapolis or Seattle to make it big. Local scenes, though, were vitally important to the development of most musical styles. The support a band got from fellow scene-sters was crucial to their development as musicians.
When I was 16, I had purple hair, braces, and a wardrobe of indie rock T-shirts. I was an outcast at my suburban high school, but at The Rocket's offices, I was part of the crowd. The Rocket made it possible not only for me to hear great music and see amazing shows; it made it possible for me go on to a regular gig at the Portland Tribune and eventually move on to New York. If it weren't for John Chandler's open-minded attitude, I never would have stood in the middle of Ludlow Street last May, staring at my first lead music feature in The Village Voice, screaming and jumping up and down as cabs narrowly missed me. The Rocket may have fallen to earth, but not before launching myself, and many others, into orbit.
Inlander contributor Cortney Harding will be presenting her unabridged paper "How The Rocket Fell to Earth" at Seattle's EMP on Saturday at 2:15 pm. She's smart. Go hear her speak.