By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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It's been quite a year for so-longs: Tangerine. Lo. Nadine. And just last week, Q95.5. '04 has seen the loss of many icons of the St. Louis scene. We're killing off characters faster than a Sopranos season finale. And now the Rocket Bar joins the rest of them on the night train to the Big Adios.
Unlike Q95.5, which is survived by The Beat 100.3, and Tangerine and Lo, whose best features were picked up by other (less interesting) Washington Avenue clubs, the Rocket Bar is irreplaceable. Sure, there are other rock & roll holes in the wall, but can any of them step up and fill the gap?
The Rocket Bar was the club in town that brought bands that made you ask, "They're playing in St. Louis?" The last concert I saw there was November's Elf Power show. It was a wonderfully typical Rocket show: a strange, great band with a cult following. The audience drank Pabstand staked themselves around the ill-placed island bar for a glimpse of the band on the tiny, high stage. The sound was dodgy. I watched a closed-caption scene from The Empire Strikes Back during a boring bit. Classic Rocket Bar.
The Rocket has also hosted some of the fiercest local regulars, who all must be wearing black right now. (Okay, the obvious: A lot of them wore black anyway.) Where else are they going to find a three a.m. bar that has Built to Spill on the jukebox? Of course, the Rocket Bar is going to miss you regulars, too. At least, that's what co-owner Jimmy Vavak says he'll miss the most: "The ones that come in at 9:30 on Monday or Tuesday and just genuinely loved to sit and have a drink with us at our place."
Vavak runs the Rocket with Jennifer Medeiros, who in 1998 went into partnership with Vavak and Pablo Weiss, who now focuses on Kitchen K on Washington.
"We wanted to have [shows like the ones at the old Cicero's] at Rocket Bar," Medeiros writes in an e-mail, "but we also loved some of the hangout bars we had visited in Austin -- like Casino El Camino and Lovejoy's -- so we wanted a mix between those Austin bars, but with the quality of bands that places like the Empty Bottle in Chicago and the old Cicero's became nationally known for."
They succeeded, which is one of the reasons people are so sad to see the Rocket close. But don't despair too much. Vavak intends to launch a booking agency called Dynamite Concerts, availing himself of the book-learning he acquired at the Rocket. "I'm looking forward to being able to be free of the bar-management responsibilities and completely focus on the rock shows," he says.
Bar management is a bitch, and that's pretty much what did the Rocket in, according to Vavak and Medeiros.
"Jimmy and I have spent a large part of our lives on the Rocket Bar for the past six and a half years," Medeiros explains. "We have had essentially the same staff for all this time, and we are like a family. But everyone involved in the day-to-day of Rocket Bar is moving on to other things. Some of us are finishing degrees and some are moving on to other business pursuits. We feel that we achieved what we set out to do; we loved our customers and the bands -- but I am ready to get out of the bar business."
It's not over yet. You still have until the end of the year to get your final Rocket Bar fix. In these waning days, the club is focusing on its favorite local bands, including Camp Climax for Girls; Ring, Cicada; Lost to Metric; Iron Doves; and Hell in the Cannon.
"Not to get all Actors' Studio, but it has been an honor and a pleasure to work with these people through the years," Vavak says. "And these last four nights will be the perfect ending to this chapter for me. All of this music and all of these people are the reason I wanted to do this in the first place."
There's another reason Vavak's been so involved in the local scene: his own band, Riddle of Steel. On New Year's Eve, the band will be playing the final show in the Rocket Bar, along with Traindodge. Tickets for the swan song are $10 -- and if you're thinking of making the scene, you're advised to buy in advance. Unlike Rocket shows in the past, it'll cost ten bucks to get in even if you show up after midnight. (And if you think you'll even be able to get near the door after midnight, you're sorely mistaken.)
And that will be that. Someone else will snap up the Rocket's sweet Locust locale (I wouldn't be surprised if the next-door Pepper Lounge couldn't use it to expand -- that place is packed). The Rocket crowd will disperse (Lil' Nikki'shas begun bringing in more indie-rock shows, making it a possible contender for the new rock & roll late-night stop). Auld acquaintance be forgot, and all that. So long, Rocket Bar.