Seattle’s Flaming Telepaths

Ze Whiz Kidz circa 1974 L-R: Rick Pierce, Kenny Kennelly, Cha Cha Samoa, J. Satz Beret, Rick Nelson Far West Entertainment

Ze Whiz Kidz circa 1974
L-R: Rick Pierce, Kenny Kennelly, Cha Cha Samoa, J. Satz Beret, Rick Nelson
Far West Entertainment

Seattle in the 1970s: when no other major port city would ever dream of being Seattle, which then dreamed once again of becoming New York City, which then was equally destitute (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”) and thus equally pregnant with myriad countercultural possibilities.

That decade began here with the infamous Boeing Bust, a local economic crisis drastic enough to inspire a mischievous roadside billboard that legendarily read, “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE – Turn out the lights.” That crisis commenced in January 1970 when The Boeing Company, the Puget Sound region’s largest and thus most economically dominant employer, entered a 17-month period without a single new order from any domestic or foreign airline, and thus laid off 65,000 employees — nearly two-thirds of its workforce.

While economically painful for many longtime local residents, the Boeing Bust would ultimately prove to be a boon for Seattle and the Puget Sound region in terms of quality of life due to the affordability it would bring to the city and region as one ironic local consequence of the resulting employment exodus. That affordability would also crucially catalyze a local cultural renaissance by attracting myriad members of the creative class — people whose ultimate personal ambitions were artistic rather than financial. Seattle thus then remained a city that both birthed and attracted a gaggle of glorious weirdos.

Among such avatars was David Xavier Harrigan (1948-2000). Born in upstate New York, Harrigan traveled as a teenager across the United States towards the West Coast and, after adopting the pseudonym Tomata du Plenty in San Francisco, crucially arrived in Seattle sometime during 1969, where and when he co-founded the legendary countercultural theater troupe Ze Whiz Kidz.

While the troupe’s name remains absurdly obscure today, much of the past five decades of Seattle’s counterculture can be traced back influentially to Ze Whiz Kidz — especially within our city’s music scene. Among other brazen trails they blazed during their brief time here, they paved the way for punk rock in Seattle, and thus they ultimately set the stage for grunge and other more recent countercultural developments within our city.

Providing a precise date for the birth of Ze Whiz Kidz is an apparently elusive goal, given the infamous wildness of their time. One possibility would be the third and final Sky River Rock Festival, held near Washougal, Washington, during Labor Day weekend 1970, where and when they first performed for a large audience. Yet it seems most appropriate, given their fundamentally flamboyant nature, to nominate October 31, 1970, when the troupe performed the second of two Halloween weekend shows at the Eagles Auditorium in downtown Seattle.

At the time of the Kidz’ concerts there, the Eagles Auditorium was the premier rock concert venue in Seattle, our city’s contemporary countercultural counterpart to San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium — and the 1970 Halloween weekend shows were the Kidz’ first on a large indoor stage. Prior to Sky River, they had performed clandestinely around Seattle: on the street, at bus stops, at an A&P grocery store, and several shows in the basement of Smith Tower in the Submarine Room, a lesbian dive bar run by the local mob where it was rumored that one could buy authentic Tommy Guns from the bartender.

Gay subculture was obviously the milieu within which Ze Whiz Kidz were created — and they were thus yet another historical example of Seattle following where San Francisco once boldly led. Prior to co-founding Ze Whiz Kidz, du Plenty was a veteran of the Cockettes, a San Francisco hippie-glitter drag musical theater troupe founded in 1968. The Cockettes created flamboyant stage shows that predated both David Bowie’s glam rock and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Ze Whiz Kidz similarly staged nearly 100 mini-musical revues in Seattle with an amorphous cast whose many wild stage names included Gorilla Rose (Michael Farris), Satin Sheets (Dennis Weikel, later known as J. Satz Beret), Melba Toast, Rhina Stone, Palm Springs, Co Co Ritz, Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen), Daily Flo, Benny Whiplash, Michael Hautepants (costume designer Michael Murphy), Leah Vigeah, and real, actual women Louise Lovely (Di Linge), Valerie Allthetime (DePonty), and Cha Cha Samoa (Cha Davis).

Among other highlights of their local countercultural career, Ze Whiz Kidz opened for shock-rock icon Alice Cooper on July 9 and 10, 1971, at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, where they performed an original 1950s-themed show titled “Puttin’ Out Is Dreamsville.” Apparently, their collective flamboyance then intimidated even the infamous Cooper. According to J. Satz Beret, “Who else would you put on the bill with Alice Cooper, except the Whiz Kidz? Alice said at the end of the show — being as outrageous as he is — he said to us, ‘You scare me!'”

Tomata du Plenty’s birth state of New York played a reciprocal role in the Whiz Kidz tale when he and kindred ex-Cockette Fayette Hauser left Seattle to move to New York City in 1973. After arriving there, they witnessed the nascent punk rock scene at the now-legendary club CBGB, where they would eventually open for Blondie, the Ramones, and other such then-obscure acts as “guerrilla comedy” performers along with Gorilla Rose and other former Whiz Kidz. Catalyzed by the CBGB scene, du Plenty and Rose returned to Seattle in 1975. During their NYC sojourn, Ze Whiz Kidz had become a relatively conventional rock band, similar to the New York Dolls, for whom they opened at Seattle’s Moore Theatre on March 14, 1974, before finally drifting apart during the following year.

Several early West Coast punk rock bands emerged from the demise of Ze Whiz Kidz. Tomata du Plenty, Melba Toast, and Rio de Janeiro went on to form the Tupperwares, who famously played at the May 1, 1976, TMT Show, generally considered Seattle’s first true punk rock concert, about which more follows below. Meanwhile, circa 1977, J. Satz Beret formed the Lewd, who would soon move from Seattle to San Francisco, where they would eventually record and release the now-classic 1982 punk rock album American Wino. Ze Whiz Kidz’ ultimate legacy continues to thrive locally today, since certain former members of the troupe would eventually go on to join One Reel (for decades the organizer of Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot arts festival), Teatro ZinZanni, and other crucial Seattle-area arts organizations.

Shelly Bauman (1947-2010) circa 1974

Shelly Bauman (1947-2010) circa 1974

What best defines the word “counterculture”? Originally coined by historian Theodore Roszak in his influential 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture, the word is most often associated with the hippie movement, which crested that same year. After that movement devolved in the 1970s, the word would eventually become associated with the punk movement, which crested circa 1979. Between those two countercultures, what was the historical bridge? For Seattle circa 1973, the gay nightlife scene best qualified for that distinction — and that scene acquired a crucial haven on November 13, 1973, with the debut of the legendary Shelly’s Leg, Seattle’s first discotheque and first openly gay nightclub.

Shelly’s Leg was crucially located in Pioneer Square, which was Seattle’s de facto epicenter of gay nightlife before the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood acquired that distinction in the early 1980s. Where previous gay bars in Seattle had all been clandestine establishments, Shelly’s Leg was brazen in its ambition to be a genuine safe space for the city’s gay community. It would quickly become a popular spot in town as one positive local consequence of the gay liberation movement that emerged nationally in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. At the height of the venue’s local popularity, when it attracted as many straight patrons as gay clientele, a huge, hand-painted sign above the bar declared to all who entered, “Shelly’s Leg is a GAY BAR provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.”

The bar’s intriguing name revealed a life story as tragic as it was briefly triumphant — namely, the life story of its co-founder, Shelly Bauman, a straight woman. Her bar was indeed named after her leg — which she lost in a bizarre accident in Pioneer Square three years before the venue’s debut. And that accident would lead directly to the venue’s creation.

Shelly Bauman’s life was poignant even before that fateful accident. Born in Illinois on July 23, 1947, she grew up in Chicago, where she studied classical dance as a young girl. After her family moved to Florida, her innocence was shattered at the age of 16 when her father committed suicide. Her mother then told her that that man was in fact not her true father — and then kicked her out of the house forever. Bauman then spent several years living as a homeless drifter, traveling around the country and supporting herself by working as an exotic dancer. She arrived in Seattle in 1968, where and when she initially lived in Rainier Valley in the home of a black family.

The accident that transformed Bauman’s life occurred on July 14, 1970. On that truly fateful date, she and a group of friends gathered in Pioneer Square during Seattle’s first Bastille Day parade. What began as a festive night out for Bauman abruptly became a life-changing tragedy.

“There was a cannon in the parade loaded with gunpowder, held in place by a wad of wet papier-mâché,” Bauman would later recall. “Someone lit the fuse and the cannon fired into the crowd, hitting [me] in the pelvis. It was the son of the owner of the cannon showing off to a friend.”

The cannon blast knocked Bauman unconscious and critically injured part of her pelvis, along with a kidney, some of her intestines, and her left leg. Gushing blood, she could easily have died at the scene. Luckily, a doctor was nearby who intervened and saved her life by pinching an artery to stanch the bleeding. She was rushed to Harborview Medical Center, where her left leg was amputated upon arrival. She then underwent nine months of operations and recovery before finally leaving the hospital. She would then spend the rest of her life confined to a wheelchair.

Rather than passively accept her fate, Bauman decided to sue the people whom she considered responsible for the accident: the parade sponsors, the man who brought the cannon, and the city for ignoring the loaded weapon at a public event. Three long years of legal battles eventually led to a $330,000 out-of-court settlement, awarded in April 1973.

What she did with the money was directly determined by her closest friends. Some time before the accident, Bauman had met Joe McGonagle and Pat Nesser, two gay men who lived in a large house in the Central Area with several other gay men. The house, known as Villa Mae, was a magnet for the local gay party crowd, and Bauman moved in soon after meeting McGonagle and Nesser. Crucially, McGonagle was then co-owner of the Golden Horseshoe, a Pioneer Square gay bar that had thrived during the 1960s, and where Nesser once worked as a bartender. After the accident, the three housemates talked about opening a new gay bar with part of Bauman’s settlement money — and very quickly, that dream became a reality.

Strategically located at the intersection of South Main Street and Alaskan Way, Shelly’s Leg featured Seattle’s first professional DJ sound system, with two turntables spinning vinyl records non-stop, when that now-standard set-up remained an innovative nightlife novelty. Also featuring 1940s-inspired lounge décor, including fake palm trees and neon lighting, the venue quickly became hugely popular, with lines that stretched around the block seven nights a week. Ken Decker, Shelly’s Leg acting manager, explained the disco’s popularity in an August 1975 Seattle Times column by Erik Lacitis:

“Straight discos don’t have the capability or sensibility to put together something like this. We’ve been crowded the past nine months. Every night about 9:30 p.m. it’s like three Greyhound buses full of people descending upon us. The word is just out this is the place to come and dance.”

Shelly’s Leg DJ Mike Higgins added, “It’s gotten to the point that you can’t tell who is straight and who is gay.”

Shelly’s Leg brought a glamor to Seattle that was rare for our infamously repressed city. John Otto, a Shelly’s Leg regular, recalled the venue’s unique character in a September 2014 City Arts magazine interview, where he discussed the associated glamor, comparing it to other cities’ nightlife scenes:

“It was a different sort of glamor . . . because Seattle had this earthiness, this grittiness, this subliminal nature that places like [Los Angeles] have never had. [Los Angeles] has a dark underbelly but it’s a bright, shiny, superficial place. Seattle gets deep. So even though glamor is what we strived for, there was depth to it as well.”

Shelly’s Leg’s massive popularity would unfortunately be destroyed in much the same manner as its creation: by an accidental explosion. On December 4, 1975, at approximately 1 a.m., an oil tanker was driving on the Alaskan Way Viaduct — directly above the club — when the tanker collided into a guardrail, unhitching the 4,800-gallon trailer, which then exploded, pouring fiery gasoline onto a passing freight train below and more than 30 cars parked in front of Shelly’s Leg, shattering the front window and torching the front of the club.

Miraculously, no one inside was injured, and Bauman, McGonagle, and Nesser were able to renovate the club using insurance money. Nevertheless, the club’s popularity was permanently damaged by the incident. Ultimately, the club’s final demise was caused by a financial dispute among the three co-proprietors that led to the club being padlocked by the Internal Revenue Service, and Shelly’s Leg thus abruptly closed sometime circa 1979 — just when disco music and culture had finally achieved national mainstream popularity.

After the demise of Shelly’s Leg, Shelly Bauman’s life would continue to be as difficult as it was before her namesake bar’s brief heyday. Although confined to a wheelchair, she would insist on maintaining the life of a bon vivant, insatiably moving and partying here and there until she finally settled down in Bremerton, Washington, where she spent the final eight years of her life. She died at home in Bremerton on November 18, 2010. The sign declaring Shelly’s Leg a gay bar is now on permanent display at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry.

Among the extraordinary people within Seattle history who have come here from elsewhere and made our city a better place than it was before, Anne Focke surely deserves high ranking. A California native and visual artist, Focke (b. 1945) traveled northward along the West Coast in pursuit of a formal arts education and arrived in Seattle during the mid-1960s. After earning an art history degree from the University of Washington in 1967, she founded a local arts organization and gallery space that would become vastly influential during its ten years of existence from 1974 to 1984. The organization’s unique name was and/or, and its inaugural exhibit occurred on April 21, 1974.

Located at 1525 10th Avenue in the historic Odd Fellows Temple building on Capitol Hill, and/or was established to provide an alternative space for avant-garde visual art exhibits, musical and spoken word performances, and other experimental art forms that could not be experienced elsewhere within the Pacific Northwest. Along with Focke, several other local artists helped establish and/or as an arts collective using money from their own pockets, which gave the new organization crucial creative independence during its first year of operation. It would soon attract attention and funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which allowed it to eventually expand its influence while maintaining its independence.

The inaugural exhibit was strategically scheduled on the twelfth anniversary of the Space Needle’s 1962 debut. Titled The Space Needle Collection of the Seattle Souvenir Service, the exhibit displayed several hundred Space Needle-inspired artworks and souvenirs, including a six-foot-tall Space Needle replica made of fruits and vegetables.

During its brief lifetime, and/or would attract an astounding roster of avant-garde visual artists, musicians, writers, and other such countercultural cognoscenti. Noteworthy Seattle-based artists who either exhibited or performed at and/or included Walt Crowley (1947-2007), Paul Dorpat (b. 1938), Larry Reid (b. 1953), Elizabeth Sandvig (b. 1937), Norie Sato (b. 1949), Michael Spafford (b. 1935), and the aforementioned Ze Whiz Kidz. National touring artists featured there included Kathy Acker (1947-1997), Laurie Anderson (b. 1947), Philip Glass (b. 1937), future Seattle Public Library architect Rem Koolhaus (b. 1944), Meredith Monk (b. 1942), Nam June Paik (1932-2006), and Terry Riley (b. 1935).

The founders of and/or never wanted it to become an institution, and so they gradually let it evolve during its decade of existence. In 1981, and/or closed its gallery space and became an umbrella organization comprising four parts: NX Library, a center for contemporary arts materials with an emphasis on periodicals; Soundwork, a composer-oriented new music organization; the Philo T. Farnsworth Memorial Video Editing Facility for artists and independent producers working within the emerging new medium of video; and Spar, a contemporary arts magazine.

After a profoundly productive and influential decade, and/or officially ceased to exist in October 1984, when its board of directors, following Anne Focke’s request, discontinued the organization, leaving the various programs it had sponsored to continue under independent legal status.

The Meyce in 1976 L-R: Paul Hood, Jennie Skirvin, Lee Lumsden, Jim Basnight photo credit: Neil Hubbard

The Meyce in 1976
L-R: Paul Hood, Jennie Skirvin, Lee Lumsden, Jim Basnight
photo credit: Neil Hubbard

Once upon a time, the term “punk rock” remained obscure to most Seattleites. On May 1, 1976, a small coterie of young local musicians conspired to make local music history by introducing that volatile term to our sleepy little working-class town.

These musicians gathered that evening on Capitol Hill to present a three-band concert of original music at the aforementioned Odd Fellows Temple building. The event was advertised as the TMT Show, an acronymic reference to the trio of participating bands: the Telepaths, the Meyce, and the Tupperwares.

While still somewhat obscure within mainstream Seattle music history, the TMT Show is now generally considered the first true punk rock concert ever held in Seattle — as well as the first concert of any kind in Seattle organized and promoted by the performers themselves. Thus, it sowed the seeds of DIY (“do it yourself”) culture in the city and the region — a culture that would flourish much more fully during the ensuing fifteen years, culminating in the surprise global success of Nirvana in late 1991.

At the time of the TMT Show, Seattle’s music scene was dominated by cover bands, and thus, bands playing original music were generally shut out of opportunities to play for large, paying audiences. The bands on the TMT bill, all frustrated with playing exclusively in basements and living rooms, sought to change that equation. In order to bring legitimacy to their efforts, the show was promoted as a benefit concert for the Telepathic Foundation. This “foundation” did not in fact exist. Neil Hubbard, a Seattle writer, musician, and friend of the bands on the bill who helped organize and promote the event, conceived the “foundation” as a means of convincing local media outlets to publicize the show.

“This one radio station, KILO, gave us free public service announcements,” Hubbard remembered years later, “’cause we had this nonprofit group that we just made up out of thin air called the Telepathic Foundation. We were just pretty resourceful about things.”

The punk scene in Seattle in 1976 was microscopic, and the crowd at the TMT Show mainly comprised members and friends of the few other punk bands in the city at the time. Admission to the event was one dollar, and it was attended by roughly 100 people — just enough for the bands to pay for the room rental. Most of the audience, like most of the band members, were teenagers — and many of those people would soon go on to form their own bands.

Case in point: among those working “security” at the event was 18-year-old Penelope Houston, who would later move to San Francisco and become lead singer of the Avengers, the greatly influential American punk band of the late 1970s. Also in the audience was Damon Titus, guitar player for the Fruitland Famine Band, a country-rock covers-oriented act from Olympia. Inspired by what he witnessed that night, in December 1977 Titus would transform his band into the Enemy, one of Seattle’s most important early punk bands.

All the bands on the TMT Show bill were connected to the punk scene at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, now considered an incubator of sorts for much of what would later develop within the Seattle punk scene. The Roosevelt High punk scene was driven largely by Chatterbox, a DIY fanzine published by Neil Hubbard and Lee Lumsden, drummer for the Meyce. Although the TMT Show was promoted as a punk show, there was in fact some stylistic diversity among the three featured bands.

The Telepaths are now considered by many to have been Seattle’s first true punk band — although, truth be told, they were influenced as much by early-1970s progressive rock as by the likes of the Stooges and the MC5; after all, they took their name from an early Blue Öyster Cult song: namely, 1974’s “Flaming Telepaths.” Their amorphous personnel crucially included on guitar the legendary Homer Spence (c. 1941-1991), then a 35-year-old Seattle rock scene veteran, erstwhile University of Washington economics instructor, and spiritual mentor to the city’s nascent punk scene. As for the band’s transgressive disposition, according to guitarist Erich Werner:

“Our whole attitude as a gang was a perpetual state of anger about our environment. We opposed just about everything we felt Seattle stood for. We hated suburbia; we were completely opposed to complacent happiness, and we felt the world at large wouldn’t tolerate us. People constantly called us names because of how we looked, so we had a strong identity, a them-and-us polarity.”

The Telepaths would later evolve into the Blackouts, Seattle’s premier post-punk band circa 1979.

Homer Spence deserves more than mere passing mention here, since he remains today a genuine legend within Seattle’s countercultural community. A native son of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Spence came to Seattle to teach at the UW, but quit that gig to play music instead. He would then also work various common jobs to support himself, including cab driving and bartending at Belltown’s Virginia Inn. Spence died tragically of a heart attack on January 18, 1991.

The Meyce played what is now called “power pop.” On March 6, 1977, just before breaking up, they would open for the Ramones when the latter band played their debut Seattle show. The Meyce’s lineup crucially included singer-guitarist Jim Basnight, who would go on to form the Moberlys, a locally popular outfit who, in 1979, were among the first bands from Seattle’s early punk scene to record and release a full-length album.

The Tupperwares could best be described as “post-glam/proto-punk.” Led by the aforementioned Tomata du Plenty, they were a crucial spinoff of Ze Whiz Kidz who also dressed in drag onstage. In October 1976, frustrated with the stagnancy of Seattle’s punk scene at the time, they moved to Los Angeles, where, in early 1977, after receiving legal threats from the Tupperware trademark owners, they changed their name to the Screamers. With their new name and transgressive sound and style, they quickly became notorious and therefore very influential within that city’s early punk scene: among their contemporary admirers were X, the Weirdos, and Black Flag.

Not only was the TMT Show an important catalyst for Seattle’s mid-1970s counterculture, it also predated by several weeks the very first punk shows in England by the Clash, the Damned, the Buzzcocks, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, as well as the many Los Angeles punk bands that would soon follow — including, of course, the Screamers. Despite being ahead of London and Los Angeles in that respect, Seattle’s punk scene would not achieve wider fame until several years later, with the advent of the circa-1991 grunge explosion.

The Enemy in 1978 L-R: Paul Hood, Suzanne Grant, Damon Titus, Peter Barnes, George Gleason photo credit: Donn Leber

The Enemy in 1978
L-R: Paul Hood, Suzanne Grant, Damon Titus, Peter Barnes, George Gleason
photo credit: Donn Leber

Seattle’s music scene has not always been innovative, it must be said. While there has always been exciting musical activity in our corner of the world, prior to the grunge explosion, the music scene here tended to be derivative of scenes and styles from other, larger cities. During the late 1960s, our music scene was largely derivative of San Francisco’s, while during the late 1970s, a small group of Seattle musicians, writers, and visual artists collectively sought to emulate the punk scenes then revolutionizing rock music in London, New York City, and Los Angeles.

Seattle’s punk scene took a big step towards finding its own voice when the city’s first punk club, the Bird, opened on March 4, 1978.

Located downtown at 107 Spring Street, the Bird was founded by Roger Husbands (1940-2015), manager of the Enemy (one of the few prominent punk bands from Seattle at the time), and the aforementioned Neil Hubbard. The club was named after the venue’s previous tenant, the John L. Bird office supplies company. Hubbard reportedly thought of the name during a brainstorming session involving members of the Enemy, Husbands, and himself.

The Bird was a dark, dank, and narrow space with a makeshift stage and a second-hand PA system. While the venue’s official capacity was ninety-nine persons, as many as 200 sometimes crowded into the tiny room. Before the Bird, local underground bands had nowhere to play within the city unless — as did the organizers of the TMT Show — they rented a hall and booked the show themselves. The Bird’s opening created a situation in Seattle where punk bands and their fans had a stable and thriving place of community — at least for the few crucial months when it remained open.

Local punk bands such as the Telepaths and the Enemy played at the Bird, as did bands from other West Coast cities, such as the aforementioned Avengers (from San Francisco, featuring former Seattleite Penelope Houston on lead vocals) and the Dils and the Zeros (both from Los Angeles). According to local graphic designer Art Chantry, the posters that promoted shows at the Bird were created by visual artist Frank Edie (a.k.a. “Franko”). Chantry has speculated that “the entire audience on opening night eventually formed their own bands.”

The Bird’s tenure at its original downtown location would last less than two months. The building’s landlord would soon order Husbands to vacate the venue, effective May 1, 1978. The closing-night party would exemplify the strained and confrontational relationship between the Seattle Police Department and our city’s punk rock community. Sometime after midnight that night, a small group of revelers, including members of the Enemy, exited the Bird and migrated to the roof of the building. According to Enemy drummer Peter Barnes, the aftershow party was “lame” until some people began throwing things off the roof.

“Somehow it ended up that the cops were called,” Barnes would recall years later. “And they showed up, and they sent the vice squad after us . . . I mean, the really heavy-duty cops . . . They slammed badges in peoples’ faces and they called us ‘faggots’ and they threw people on the ground. We had a rather diminutive woman lead singer, Suzanne [Grant], and they twisted her arm behind her back and broke it.”

Damon Titus, the Enemy’s guitar player, complained to the cops at the scene about Grant’s treatment and was rewarded by having his face smashed into the pavement. Unfortunately for the SPD, a partygoer on the scene happened to record the entire rooftop melee on audiotape. The band later sued the SPD and won a court-ordered monetary settlement. An audio excerpt of the confrontation later found its way onto an Enemy single B-side titled “Trendy Violence.”

After closing at the original Spring Street location, the Bird would re-open on August 12, 1978, on Capitol Hill in the Odd Fellows Temple building, where it remained until its final show on September 29, 1978, featuring the legendary Los Angeles punk band the Weirdos.

Seattle's official macramé antidote circa 1979

Seattle’s official macramé antidote circa 1979

The year 1979 was a very good year for rock music, both internationally and in Seattle. In 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 Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, 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 October 31, 1979.

As Ferrigno would later reminisce in The Rocket‘s 15-year-anniversary issue in 1994, the new publication was instigated by a rather comical 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 split off from its parent paper. The new monthly paper — distributed free 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 music biographer Gillian G. Gaar, Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Sub Pop Records co-founder Bruce Pavitt, graphic designer Art Chantry, cartoonist Lynda Barry, comedian and television personality John Keister, and music critic Ann Powers.

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 downhill for the paper beginning in 1995. That year, Cross 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 seriously 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 immediately. Thus, The Rocket vanished suddenly — literally “without warning.”

The final edition of The Rocket was dated October 18, 2000 — and thus, from within a city then increasingly dominated once again by economic fundamentalism, Seattle’s 1970s counterculture was also exiled during that madly millennial autumn.

–Jeff Stevens. Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.


About radsearem

Jeff Stevens is a Seattle native and author of the forthcoming City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle.
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