January 9, 2022
The One Time I Wrote About The Rocket
Greetings from the Catskills where, despite the fact that the temperature is well below freezing, the stuff falling from the sky is rain, destined to become a sheet of ice. This morning I read an interview with Art Chantry, a graphic designer who was well known in 1980s Seattle for his posters. He eventually became the art director of The Rocket, where I’d been an editor. By the time Art joined the staff, I was gone.
Reading the interview, it dawns on me that the one time I’d actually written about my own time at The Rocket was in an introduction for a monograph about Chantry’s work, Julie Lasky’s Some People Can’t Surf. At the time I wrote the intro — 20-plus years ago and almost 20 years after I’d left Seattle — I was working in San Francisco as the editor of another start-up, Dwell where I tried, perhaps foolishly, to imbue that magazine, a shelter book, with some of the scrappiness we so cherished at The Rocket.
As it happens, I still have a copy of the intro sitting on my computer. I just reread it and realized that it’s as much about the culture of The Rocket as it is about Chantry. So I thought I’d share it with you. (Note that I’m not sure this is the final version, the one that was published in the book, but it is a very tidy draft.)
My Intro to Some People Can’t Surf:
The Art Chantry poster that I liked best 20 years ago was the one he designed for a 1981 Gang of Four concert at the Showbox, a shabby theater on a block of wino bars and peepshows in downtown Seattle that was once the city’s premier new wave venue. The poster featured a woman, an archetypal worker who was lifted, I think, from a Soviet postage stamp, printed to look like a woodcut. Tears rolled down her grainy cheeks as bombs dropped out of the sky beside her head. The poster meant a lot to me because my friends’ bands — 3 Swimmers and Little Bears from Bangkok — had been chosen to open for Gang of Four, a major label act from England. They were listed right there on the poster, just below the headliner. The record deals, we all believed, would inevitably follow. It was also one of the most sophisticated music posters of its day, subtle and controlled in a culture that placed a high value on barely articulated rage.
20 years ago in Seattle, the counter-culture heroes were the musicians who played in local bands and the designers ( I use the term loosely) who made the posters that represented the single best way of promoting indigenous music and other fringe culture events. There was no Internet, no www-dot-nothing. The local radio stations seemed entirely indifferent to the emerging scene. There were just these amazing posters, constructed out of plastic label maker type, pictures distressed by repeated photocopying, or crummy Letraset — just about anything — that appeared, as if by magic, in the dead of night, wheatpasted to walls and telephone poles all over town.
Seattle, circa 1980, was still a backwater. The term “Grunge” had not been coined. And there was no Microsoft. There was just this little pressure cooker orbit of clubs where you pretty much had to have your knees up against the stage in order to see, and theaters that were always on the verge of being closed by creditors or the fire department. It was a scene made up of band members who worked in record stores and espresso bars by day, who dreamed of record contracts that almost never materialized. And whose only route to fame — at least around town — were posters, crude, beautiful, and inventive.
In Seattle, during the long economic naptime that followed the Boeing bust of the 1970s, the posters were our websites. Each new poster was a discovery, a small event. At the University District record store where I worked, we would talk about the posters almost as much as we’d talk about the music. “Hey,” someone would say, “did you see the poster that Frankie from the Beakers made for the Showbox concert with Delta 5? She did something with the type…It’s like a ransom note, but much cooler.”
Toward the end of ‘79, I began working on a new magazine, The Rocket. It was a monthly music magazine, intended to cover national acts and promote the local scene. The design of The Rocket, from the outset, was directly related to poster culture. The Rocket’s original art director, Steve Bialer once collaborated with senior editor Robert Newman on a newsprint handout for a band called the Enemy. The poster, with its disarming photo of the customarily leather-clad rockers, naked and bashful in a swimming pool, was so cheap to reproduce that they were nearly able to do a Christo, gift wrapping entire city blocks with it. This guerrilla style is what we aspired to. It was what we loved.
The Rocket was shoestring operation. Our first “office” was a single desk at the headquarters of the Seattle Sun, a bankrupt counterculture weekly, in which each of us had a drawer. Eventually, we found deluxe digs in a part of Seattle known as Belltown that was just making the transition from sleazy to hip. Our neighbor across the hall ran a business called Al Croft C*A*S*H. He advanced his clients money against their income tax returns and charged 30 percent interest which he claimed as his fee for tax preparation. His customers, who had a way of drifting into our offices, brought an air of genuine desperation to our workplace.
At the time, Art Chantry was bigger than we were. He had a job designing posters for cultural events at the University of Washington. He might even have been on salary. I regarded him as a grown-up, a cool guy who had succeeded in the real world. My scruffy Rocket colleagues and I were all immersed in the rock’n’roll lifestyle that our magazine represented. As hard as we worked on every issue, we affected a kind of anti-professionalism, a bad attitude to set us apart from the newest arrivals on the cultural scene, the yuppies. But Art, whose posters often featured four colors and heavy paper stock, he was a pro.
My own memory aside, nothing about the design of Art’s 1981 Gang of Four poster indicates that it is two decades old. It is so fresh that it could, just as easily, have been printed last week. Today, when I look at Art’s posters, I can’t always tell which ones are from back then and which are more recent And that’s the strange thing about his work. Many of his posters are timeless. While most graphic design can readily be matched to an epoch –psychedelic, punk, new wave, decon — Art’s speaks of a funny, weird, iconoclastic counter-culture that, to an extent, still exists in Seattle; after all, Art continues to work there. And Seattle-based firms like Modern Dog have followed closely in his footsteps. But, today, this culture is perhaps most vibrant and alive inside Art Chantry’s head.
By the time Art took over as Rocket art director in 1984, many of the original Rocketeers had left Seattle for bigger and better things. Mark Michaelson went to New York to work for Bea Feitler on a prototype for the new Vanity Fair. Editor Robert Ferrigno became a feature writer at the Orange County Register. Art director Helene Silverman departed for a design job at Mademoiselle. And I accepted a job as an editor and feature writer at New Times Weekly in Phoenix, then quit and moved on to New York.
There were identifiable Seattle moments at a couple of New York publications. The Village Voice was so full of ex-Rocket designers and photographers in the late 1980s that other staffers grumbled about the “Seattle Mafia” and, at roughly the same time, Silverman, an art director named Jeff Christensen and I were putting our imprint a magazine called Metropolis. Eventually, we all split up and slipped into the mainstream as individuals. The traces of Seattle 1980 faded from our work.
But I still see that old, pre-Nirvana, pre-Windows Seattle in Art Chantry’s designs. I see the kind of idiosyncratic, emotive work you can do in a place that no one knows or cares about. Seattle is no longer that place, but Art still functions as if it is. Twenty years ago, he seemed like a grown up. Today — and I mean this as a compliment — he seems like a kid. By staying in Seattle and sticking to his guns, Art was able to become a singular presence in the larger world of graphic design. He was able to hang on to a spirit that the rest of us left behind.