Armagideon Time

Due to some weird quirk of my former high school’s scheduling software, the third period AP English class was standing room only while the sixth period one featured a grand total of five students. I lucked into the latter section, which was less of a class than an conversational bullshit session for college credit.

The teacher was an Irish ex-Marine who had been a notorious hardass when my dad as a student, but had since mellowed into a staunchly humanist liberal. I don’t know what caused that transformation, though I’ve wondered if it was a crisis of conscience over whether his old “gung ho” attitude led to some his former charges getting their names added to the small memorial marker on the edge of Woburn Common. In any case, he was a real soft touch who treated this fluke of enrollment as an opportunity to establish a genuine sense of rapport with each and every one of us in the class.

It did get a little weird and uncomfortable at times, like when he launched into an impassioned speech about Raskolnikov’s inner struggle between genuine feeling and affected alienation while staring directly at me. But he was also the man who taught me to appreciate The Great Gatsby and allowed me to blow off a ten page paper after my grandfather died. He was a good man. I wouldn’t say he inspired me to any loftier goals, but I was glad we crossed paths.

Among the students in the class, there was a low-key “Breakfast Club” dynamic going on — a handful of kids from different cliques and circles who wouldn’t have normally socialized with each other but became close within the confines of that one classroom. I spent most of my time chatting with a tough-as-nails glam metal chick from East Woburn and a Drama Club lass (complete with funky hat and a plastic flower pinned to it) who was a friend of another girl I’d briefly dated.

Mostly we just talked the kind of crap that teens talk when they don’t want to do schoolwork, but a few weeks into the semester the Drama Club lass asked if I was interested in going to a Pogues concert with her at the Opera House in Boston. The person who was supposed to attend the show with her had backed out for whatever reason, and her mother didn’t want her going into the city at night alone.

As absurd as it sounds (even to me), I had acquired a weird reputation for being streetwise about the perils white suburbanites projected upon Boston. I’m pretty sure the alpha and omega of it was because I frequently took the bus into the city to spend time with my father in South Boston. Whenever Johnnie or Janey Ranch-Home needed a protective “plus one,” my name was at the top of the list.

I didn’t know who or what the Pogues were at the time. The Drama Club lass explained them as “kinda, like, Irish music but also, like, punk and all the songs are about getting drunk and stuff?” Honestly, I didn’t really give a shit about the specifics. A girl had asked me out and all other details were trivial by comparison.

The show was great. I even enjoyed the opening set by punker-turned-folkie Phranc, despite it being astronomically distant from my hardcore/thrash metal wheelhouse. (I only found out a few months ago that future friend Jack Feerick was also in attendance that night.)

Awareness of ethnicity wasn’t really a thing for me growing up. While my North Woburn pals embraced their Irish and/or Italian heritage in various ways, the closest thing I had to that stuff was painted wooden horses and the occasional nauseating dinner handed down from my older Swedish relatives. My maternal grandmother was the daughter of Irish immigrants, but of the prim and anti-Papist orange variety. For her, Ireland was about glassware and Darby O’Gill and that fucking unicorn song.

The Pogues, though, were absolutely feral. There weren’t lace curtain tenors or mannered rusticism there, just the primordial pulse of an ancient song that veers manically between tragedy and celebration. Nothing since The Clash’s first album had grabbed me as forcefully and emphatically by the shorthairs as the Pogues did. Being introduced to them through a live performance only amplified the effect. I left the Opera House partially deafened and a fan for life.

The next time I hit the Newbury Comics store in Burlington, I picked up the cheapest (because I was poor) Pogues offering they had on the rack — a cassette copy of the band’s 1984 debut Red Roses For Me which had the same weird manure reek all Enigma tapes had.

Over the next few months, I obtained the rest of the band’s discography to date. The later albums were enjoyable, but plagued with a sense of diminishing returns and directionless drift that sent me back for another round with their first album. There’s a proof-of-concept purity to it that sets it apart from their later and more ambitious efforts — a Class of ’77 punk fanboy and crew directing that scene’s fierce energy into the realm of traditional Irish “folk” (as in “of the people”) music.

No disrespect to Rum Sodomy and the Lash or If I Should Fall From Grace With God, but Red Roses for Me is the Pogues album I’d take to a desert island with me.

I lent my original copy of the tape to the Drama Club lass, who never returned it. It was two years before I found a replacement copy at Planet Records in Kenmore Square, which itself was replaced by an expanded import CD version purchased at Newbury Comics in Harvard Square. The LP reissue was a birthday gift from Maura last year, and arrived just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

Weirdly enough, I used to have a mad crush on Cait O’Riordan — especially how she looked on the Red Roses for Me album cover — and then a year and a half later I met Maura who could’ve been her doppelganger. One of our earliest topics of discussion (besides anime) was a shared love of The Pogues.

And I never did

March 15th, 2018

The first Toys R Us I ever visited was the one at the North Shore Mall.

The mall also housed the only barbershop my grandfather trusted to cut his hair. On the third Saturday of the month, he’d load himself, my grandmother, Lil Bro and me into his oversized tan Chevy and make the long swear-filled journey up Route 128 to tame his jet black mane while the rest of us did some shopping in Peabody’s exotic temple of commerce. My grandmother preferred to stick to J.J. Newberry’s, whose basement toy department was a Sargasso Sea where Major Matt Mason accessory packs and Wonder Woman Presto Magix sets collected dust alongside other oddies of unsold inventory from the previous two decades.

Eventually, through the power of incessant pleading, we convinced her to take us into the Toys R Us store across the concourse. I was twelve at the time, and a little long in the tooth when it came to plastic playthings, but the place still filled me with awe. An entire aisle dedicated floor-to-ceiling to Star Wars merchandise. Massive endcaps devoted to Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe figures. A long wall of videogame cartridge boxes sealed behind plexiglass and purchasable through tear-off tags redeemed at a booth near the store’s entrance.

It put the anemic toy aisles at Bradlees and Zayres to shame. I was so bedazzled by the sheer volume of stuff that I equivocated about what to spend my grandpa-allotted five dollars on, but finally settled on the freshly racked Blowtorch and Mutt figures and used some on my own scraped-together pocket money for a deeply discounted copy of Vanguard for the Atari 2600.

After my grandfather found an acceptable barber closer to home, Lil Bro and I would cajole our grandmother to take us to the Toys R Us at the Woburn Plaza, across from the Osco Drug (now a Rite-Aid transitioning into a Walgreens) and Star Market (now a Whole Foods). My grandmother wasn’t thrilled about making the trip, because it involved passing through the nightmarish “Four Corners” intersection on the West Side, but its proximity to the local KFC made end-runs possible through my extra-crispy bucket-lovin’ grandpa.

On one of these visits, I was heading to the booth to pick up a 2600 Time Pilot cartridge when I tripped over a rope barrier set up to segregate the throng of Cabbage Patch Kid seekers from the general population. I landed hard on my kneecaps, kicking off the long and painful degenerative process that plagues that part of my body to the present day.

When I lucked into a geeky circle of pals in junior high, we’d make the trek to the Toys R Us on our bikes. The easiest and safest route involved cutting through the conservation area around Horn Pond (“Hahn Pahn”) and approaching the plaza through an slightly marshy area behind the store itself. We had to adjust that after the city erected a small dam at the pond’s outflow stream and raised the water level by six feet. We only found out about it after we screamed down the slope next to the marsh and found ourselves and our bikes mired in thigh-deep murk.

My first copy of Dungeon & Dragons Basic Set came from the Osco next door, but the ever-shrinking RPG display at Toys R Us was where I picked up my copies of Oriental Adventures, Unearthed Arcana, and The Temple of Elemental Evil.

I bought my Sega Master System at Toys R Us with Christmas tips from my paper route in 1986. I bought my Nintendo Entertainment System there (and a copy of Metal Gear) in 1989 with money made from working split shifts at the hospital. I blew most of my high school graduation gift money on a Sega Genesis there in the summer of 1990. It was also where Maura bought the Sega Saturn she gave me for Christmas in 1996 and where I bought my first Playstation and a copy of Persona: Revelations to celebrate landing my first steady “grown-up” job in 1997. When my grandmother was in the rehab facility next to the plaza in 2002, I swung by Toys R Us and bought a Gamecube and Metroid Prime on a whim.

Toys R Us was a regular stop during the years I hung out with my geek-pal Damian, where he would infuriate me by staring at the videogame section for an hour hoping something new and exciting would magically manifest. When rumors emerged about some hot new game hitting the shelves, I would ride there solo from the hospital after work in hopes of scoring the last copy and driving Damian mad with jealousy. (That was the case with the first Zillion game.)

One of my favorite articles of pre-punk clothing was red and white striped button-down shirt from L.L. Bean I found at Filene’s Basement. Every single time I visited Toys R Us while wearing it, some harried looking mom would ask for my opinion on some plaything or to pull something down for her from a high shelf. It always ended the same way, with an embarrassed “I thought you worked here” while gesturing at my shirt. Lil Bro and I had a similar thing happen a decade later when we cut out of my great aunt’s funeral and went — still dressed in our dark suits — to browse the store’s videogame section. From mistaken for a stockboy to mistaken for an executive — who says the American dream is dead?

After cashing my first excess check from my college scholarship, I went to Toys R Us and bought Herzog Zwei for the Genesis and Mission Impossible for the NES with a portion of that unexpected windfall.

I was on a first name basis with some of the staff there from the late Nineties up through the first couple of years of the new millennium, due to my weekly visits to check out the new videogame releases and pick up some interesting doll or action figure for Maura’s collection. I scaled back those trips after we got married and other priorities emerged, but Toys R Us remained the final stop on our “pizza and comics” dates at the (now shuttered) Papa Ginos in the plaza.

It may be ideologically suspect to get sentimental over the demise of a retail corporation, but it’s still truly bizarre that such a prominent entity in my life since the early Eighties is going to simply cease to be. The abrupt redaction of all things familiar and comforting has been my least favorite part of hitting middle age.


March 13th, 2018

I spent my twenty-first birthday snowed in by a massive nor’easter. Twenty-five years later history has repeated itself.

That’s about it, except to wish the happiest of birthday’s to good pal and fellow 313′er Mike Sterling and maybe remind you to check the first comment of this post before the week is up.

This week’s featured record buy should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following this site for a while.

I first got into Lene Lovich through Rhino’s Just Can’t Enough series of new wave compilations, which provided a handy backwards-gazing refuge during the commercial peak of the Nineties alterna-splosion. “New Toy” (written for Lovich by synth-maestro Thomas Dolby) appeared on Volume 3, which I bought as a secondhand afterthought at Disc Diggers during the autumn of 1994.

Maura was the one who pointed the song out to me, saying something like “oh, yeah, she was pretty great.” It was enough to get me to buy the comp, and a single play confirmed her endorsement.

It was enticing enough to seek out Rhino’s reissue of Lovich’s first album, which was fine but didn’t live up to the expectations set by “New Toy.” It wasn’t until I picked up a copy of her 1979 follow-up, Flex, to round out a “three CDs for twenty bucks” sale a few months later that my love affair with Lovich’s music truly began. (The other two CDs I purchased that day were Modern English’s After The Snow and The Monkees’ Head, in case you were wondering.)

Flex is an apex product of the “The Cusp,” that weird and wonderful transition zone between popular conceptions of the “Seventies” and “Eighties.” Like other transition zones, it was a freewheeling moment when all manner of niche cultural ecologies could find ephemeral purchase and occasionally rise to prominence. That was especially true in the music realm, where punk’s emergence and disco’s decline opened things up for the emergence of all manner of leftfield contenders for Next Big Thing mantle.

Thus it was that a dramatically garbed singer-songwriter who sounded like a sci-fi Marlene Dietrich and performed bouncy yet haunting pop songs about Planet of the Apes, ESP, and space travel could have a pretty decent run (in the UK charts, at least). While her music may have escaped my notice at the time, it perfectly slotted into my lingering impressions of that era.

This after the fact appreciation of Flex got a further boost from Maura, who embraced it wholeheartedly and turned it into the default soundtrack for a good stretch of our middle and late Nineties experience. Lovich’s “It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz)” (an EP track which — like “New Toy” — appeared on the Flex reissue CD but not the original album) became one of “our” songs and was featured on our wedding reception playlist. Before circumstances took the matter out of our hands, our plan was to name our first girl-child “Nina Marlene” in honor of both Lovich and her fellow eccentric musician Nina Hagen.

So, yeah, obtaining a vinyl copy of Flex was a given.

The Warhammer franchises have always been about the “fluff,” those tantalizing snippets of worldbuilding used to spackle gaps in page layouts. Some of the most significant events in its fictional universes — such as the Horus Heresy and Age of Apostasy — grew out of these tantalizing bits of marginalia, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any Warhammer-related publication that didn’t include multiple examples of microfiction and lore scattered through its pages.

The strategic use of fluff has since become commonplace in role-playing publications across the board, but it was one of the things that set Warhammer games apart back in those dim and distant days of the late Eighties and early Nineties. The notion that the fluff-driven lore would end up eclipsing the games themselves would’ve sounded absurd to Young Andrew, but we live in absurd times. A bestselling licensed sci-fi series growing out of designer’s need to meet the minimum word count for a White Dwarf article is one of the least baffling things about our current era.

If it’s weird to me, it’s because I can remember the abortive early attempts by Games Workshop to turn their game-based fictional universes into things in and of themselves. The first major attempt came at the tail end of the Eighties, when GW tried to swipe a page from TSR’s popular line of game-inspired fiction with its own line of game-based paperbacks. Unlike the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels — which could be found for under a fiver at any airport spinner rack or mall bookstore — GW’s efforts were slightly oversized, could only be found at game stores, and ran about ten bucks a pop.

Most of the novels were adequately entertaining genre boilerplate, but were hobbled by the asking price and limited distribution (on this side of the Atlantic, at least). If I’m in a gaming store and faced with the choice between picking up a ten-dollar novel or a fifteen-dollar sourcebook containing ready-to-use material, I’m going to pick the latter. The few books from the line I did buy were purchased a couple years later at a book liquidator place that set up shop in the basement of the old Sears building in Porter Square.

The best of the lot were the ones written by “Jack Yeovil,” a pen name for future Anno Dracula author Kim Newman. Most of these were alt-history cyberpunk/horror mashups inspired by the (in-the-process-of-being-discontinued) Dark Future vehicle combat game, but it was one of Newman’s stabs at the Warhammer Fantasy universe that became the sole standout of the line.

Drachenfels was a gothic fantasy-slash-horror tale about an immortal enchanter (named — surprise, surprise — Drachenfels) who spend his time coming up with fiendishly sadistic ways to torture the denizens of the Warhammer Fantasy world. The story begins with the big bad getting put down by an adventuring party (including an early incarnation of the Vampire Genevieve) led by a young nobleman, who later decides to commemorate his victory with a theatrical re-enactment of the event held at the enchanter’s supposedly abandoned castle.

The novel is entertainingly trashy read which perfectly channels the terrifying lethality and omnipresent dread of Warhammer Fantasy. More than any sourcebook entry or officially published module, Drachenfels communicated what the whole Warhammer Fantasy Role Play thing was about and conveyed it in a way which resonated with fans.

GW, realizing that the book’s popularity could help the turn the fortunes of its somewhat stagnant RPG around, leaned heavily into its backmatter for material. The passenger boat and sanitarium briefly mentioned in the novel got detailed write-ups (alongside some pertinent NPCs) in Warhammer Companion, and the enchanter’s lair itself became the subject of an entire module-slash-sourcebook.

I was given my copy of Castle Drachenfels by a member of my WFRP group who had a connection at a some local gaming store. I offered to reimburse him for the cost but he turned me down, saying I could pay him back by running the adventure for the group. Unfortunately, that’s a debt I never repaid.

The sourcebook was an engrossing (and often just plain gross) read and true to the spirit of the source material, but it was fan service passing a product for practical use. In keeping with the novel, everything in the castle was deadly as fuck.

The bookshelf? Trapped with lethal poison blades. The overstuffed armchair? Possessed by an impalement demon. The novelty door-knocker? Touch it and you’ll explode in a shower of gore.

That kind of thing works in a novel, where the author can just queue up more victims characters as required, but doesn’t make for a fun gaming session after the umpteenth total party kill. It doesn’t challenge players so much as turn them into paranoid neurotics who quadruple check every aspect of their surroundings before taking a single step. The adventure was aimed towards more experienced characters, but that only made the situation worse. It’s one thing to watch a neophyte expire in a pillar of blue smoke after making a small slip-up, it’s another to witness the painfully arbitrary demise of a character you’ve grown attached to over the course of a campaign.

There was no way to really make it work in a way that fit this particular gaming group. Scale back the lethality, and all that’s left is a typical (if slightly convoluted) dungeon crawl. Leave it in place, and the week’s gaming session would be over in fifteen minutes and a whole lot of angry glances. It made me wish the guy had let me pay him for the sourcebook, because my guilt over not living up to my end of the bargain only compounded my angst.

Fortunately, the problem resolved itself when the campaign just sort of disintegrated under the weight of individual schedule conflicts at the beginning of the Fall 1992 semester. The kid who gave me the book never mentioned it again, and I made a point of not bringing it up in his presence. Maybe it was assumed that I’d start up a fresh campaign down the road, which seemed like a safe bet until other circumstances arose.

Drachenfels and his lethal lair would go on to occupy a curious place in Warhammer Fantasy’s ever mutating lore. Though the novel helped establish many of the fictional universe’s signature elements, its place in the “canon” was called into question by subsequent publications. That sort of revision churn isn’t unusual for the franchise, where old loose ends and contradictory bits get chucked down the memory hole and never referred to again. The popularity of Drachenfels, however, made such a move difficult. Not only did it loom large in the imagination of the fanbase, but it was also crafted by a writer who’d moved on to the big leagues.

The novel remained popular enough to net a mass market paperback re-release when GW launched its current push into the realm of multi-media licensing, followed by a new collection of Vampire Genevieve stories by Newman. Instead of being jettisoned from Warhammer continuity, Drachenfels became encysted within it. This led to a weird state of affairs in the official game publications where places/characters/events from the novel were passively mentioned but any discussion about their relationship to the rest of the fictional world was meticulously avoided.

It’s a moot point at the present time, as the Warhammer World has since been destroyed and replaced with some bizarre nonsense designed for maximum trademarking. You can still visit (a really underwhelming rendition of) Castle Drachenfels as a bonus map in the Warhammer: Vermintide videogame, but don’t expect any killer armchairs or anything.

The last starfighter

March 6th, 2018

For the better part of two decades, my retro holy grail was a complete SSP Smash Up Derby car with its gyro-revving “t-stick.” They were a beloved artifact of my early childhood, when I’d send the battle-worn VW Beetle screaming across the linoleum so it could explode in a shower of spring-loaded plastic pieces when it hit the baseboard on the other side of the dining room.

I missed them even before I understood the concept of nostalgia. Pop-off panels and other bits from the set somehow managed to survive whatever fate befell the actual vehicles. When an excavation of the lower strata of the toy box unearthed one of these fragments, I’d feel a twinge of sadness over a cherished plaything lost.

As I grew older and succumbed to the retrograde melancholy ascribed to my generation, the SSP Smash Up Derby set took on a mythical significance. It wasn’t so much a toy as a totem, one that evoked a primordial swirl of hazy and distorted memories from my earliest days of self-awareness. That’s a lot of epistemological weight to throw on a plaything, but the trauma of my mother’s death did things to me that I’m still trying to untangle after three decades.

Many things went missing and unaccounted for in the aftermath of that event, including the bulk of the material culture I’d surrounded myself with up until that moment. It was just stuff, but it was stuff that functioned as a distraction and escape from a less-than-pleasant reality. My Smash Up Derby cars were long gone before the storm hit, but they came to symbolize that odd notion of restoration by re-acquisition that governed me through my early thirties.

I never seriously acted upon obtaining a set, however. They functioned as an aspirational end goal as I worked towards reconstructing myself, one shitty Bronze Age comic or vintage robot toy at a time. It helped that any Smash Up Derby car complete and intact enough to meet my minimum threshold was well out of my price range, as you’d expect from a decades-old toy designed specifically for the roughest of play. I was content enough with occasionally scanning the eBay listings, shrugging my shoulders, and telling myself “eventually.”

This backward-looking form of self-therapy started to fall by the wayside around the time I got married and bought a home. I didn’t abandon my interest in all things retro, but the restorative impulse faded under the realization that the highs were short-lived and the crates of plastic crap were taking up a lot of a space in our attic.

I don’t regret the experience. It gave me something to focus upon during some rough times, it provided a framework for a good deal of self-knowledge, and it spurred a broader interest in socio-cultural history in general. You know how it is — come for that one limousine Go-Bot with the goofy top hat and stay for detailed critiques of post-WW2 American consumer culture.

My list of objects worth pursuing was pared down to a handful of significant and symbolic examples. The old sense of loss was still in play, but divorced of any delusions. It was all about the fleeting contact high of hazy nostalgia, baby. Not long after I adopted this new posture, I found myself (though a fortuitous series of events last autumn) in a position to actively seek out and acquire most of this much coveted crap. It didn’t take long to tick off almost every entry on the list and cover the top of the living room bookshelf with a fresh assortment of retro-evocative nonsense.

I did not chase down a Smash Up Derby car, despite having the means to do so. I did pick up a simpler and sturdier SSP vehicle with a t-stick, which gave a close enough approximation of the ol’ thrill without the anxiety of a dealing with a forty year old agglomeration of easily losable and breakable pieces — and for a small fraction of the cost, to boot.

It should’ve been a relief to let that long-standing obsession go. Instead, I filled that grail shaped hole with another one. This time it wasn’t about something I’d lost, but something which had eluded my grasp during the days of polyester and malaise.

I never cared for the original Battlestar Galactica series, even when I was a dumb kid looking for anything capable of replicating even a faint echo of that Star Wars magic. Galactica was Star Wars stripped of everything I loved about that franchise, and reduced to boring talky bits and cheesy production values on the small screen. The only parts of it that did grab my attention were the space battle scenes shot for the movie-length pilot and re-cut in various ways for the weekly series.

The Colonial Viper was the big attraction, with its sleek and distinctive design. It was Young Andrew’s platonic ideal of a kick-ass starfighter, head and shoulders above the X-Wing. It was also easier to draw, and was the default “good guy” ship in the videogame-inspired space battle tableaus I sketched on manila paper during indoor recess. My mom (a locally renowned artist) even did a poster-sized crayon rendering of one which I hung on my bedroom wall until the newsprint succumbed to a combo of gravity and entropy.

For all my love of the Viper, I never managed to ahold of the official Mattel-manufactured toy with the miniature pilot figure and the shooting missile that was deemed a mortal threat to the eyeballs and windpipes of America’s children. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, because I was the first kid on my block to own both the Millennium Falcon and X-Wing toys, but I still envied the classmates who brought their Viper toys to school for show-and-tell.

There was no parental malice or interference involved. It’s just that Star Wars was a bigger deal, and thus got priority when Christmas and my birthday and overindulgent grandparents came around. I don’t recall feeling disappointed over not getting one and there was no ferocious sense of longing after the toy — until the moment when I put my Smash Up Derby obsession behind me. The psychic traumas of my formative years have conditioned me to fixate on objects that are theoretically obtainable, but just slightly beyond my grasp. It’s absurd, but it’s true, and it transferred in force to another toy aisle relic of the Seventies once I lost interest in the previous one.

I assumed it would follow the same course as the last go-round — occasional window shopping with no real action taken, hunting for the sake of the hunt. That’s how it did indeed play out for all of two weeks, when I scanned the eBay listings and discovered some estate sale dude in Florida was selling a Viper and a couple of other Galactica vehicles in good condition with the pilot figures for forty bucks. A decent condition Viper alone typically sparks a bidding war upwards of a hundred dollars, and this lot was a “buy it now” jobber.

I jumped on that shit in a heartbeat, though I felt a bit stupid about it afterwards. I’ll be forty-six years old in a week. My wife and I are in the process of adopting a child. There’s a long list of other priorities I should be attending to instead of huffing the faint fumes of Carter Era nostalgia. It was an impulsive, stupid, and reckless thing to do and then the package arrived.

I carried it with me last night while I was doing household chores. I chased the Ollie the Rock Stupid Puppy with around the living room until Lucy the Chi-Weenie got scared and Maura made me stop. I looked up how to clean the bromide stains off the plastic. I named the pilot “Big McLargehuge.”

And the weirdest thing? I didn’t experience that familiar rush followed by a sense of ambivalence that typically accompanies these things. The need or desire to find something new to chase simply isn’t there anymore. I’m sure there will be other dumb retro purchases in the future, but that “white whale” feeling is entirely gone.

It feels like closure, and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.

There are some record purchases which require a bit of context to explain.

Can’t Stand The Rezillos is not one of them.

I can outline the process that led to the purchase of this 1978 punk-pop classic with absolute certainty, though I may not recall the actual moment:

1. I was thinking of Most Favored Albums I never owned on vinyl.

2. Can’t Stand The Rezillos came to mind, followed by “of course, how could I forget that one?”

3. I ordered a copy.

I lucked upon the CD reissue of the album (which appended most of the band’s live follow-up release) at the late, lamented Disc Diggers in Davis Square towards the end of 1993. Even though I’d begun my slow drift away from punk into more gothy and new wave shit, it rocketed to the top of my favorites pile. The Scottish outfit’s cartoony take on punk rock and their shameless embrace of Sixties technicolor trash was welcome blast of fresh air compared to the dour anarchopunk dirges and thuggish Oi chants that soundtracked my late-phase punk period.

The Rezillos were goofy, trashy, and wild — owing as much to Screaming Lord Sutch as the Sex Pistols — and they had the musical chops to realize that vision beyond the ephemeral piss-take of a novelty act. Can’t Stand The Rezillos is a goddamn treasure trove of boot-stomping originals and revved up Sixties covers, the delivery split between Eugene Reynolds’ ferocious rasp and Fay Fife’s thick Scottish accent.

“Flying Saucer Attack,” “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight,” “Top of the Pops,” “Can’t Stand My Baby,” “Glad All Over,” “(My Baby Does) Good Sculptures” — you’d be hard-pressed to find a Class of ’77 punk album (outside of the first Clash LP and Germfree Adolescents by X-Ray Spex) with such a all killer/no filler density of tracks.

If the Rezillos were a joke, it was a gag that has aged better than most of their more serious contemporaries.

It’s the trick of imagery

March 1st, 2018

Believe or not, but I’ve mellowed quite a bit as I’ve grown older. The white whales of old look more like guppies in hindsight, and the spite that once burned with the intensity of a blast furnace has dimmed in magnitude.

Maintaining grudges takes work, man, and that kind of exertion is better spent on doing shit that will make me and mine happier at the end of the day. It’s an ongoing process, and one that involves a great deal of self-reflection and re-evaluation of priorities.

I’ve abandoned old feuds and learned to let certain irritations slide. When some object of ancient and irrational ire crosses my path, I take a moment to decide if my disdain is still justified.

Did the alterna-splosion of the Nineties really deserve the amount of unmitigated disgust I felt toward it?


My third (and final) college Warhammer Fantasy Role Play campaign was cobbled together from a mix of homebrew and pre-published material. The bulk of the latter was drawn from the crazy quilt Restless Dead supplement, but I made ample use of Death’s Dark Shadow as well.

Death’s Dark Shadow was a down-to-the-last-floorboard sourcebook covering a remote frontier town, its various residents, and notable nearby locations. It was a bit like AD&D’s old Village of Hommlet module, but with the sprawling uber-dungeon down the road swapped out in favor of sinister secrets and skullduggery involving the locals.

I’ve never been much of a fan of detailed takes on fixed locations in role-playing supplements. Not only do they incentivized pinning down an adventuring party until every last stone is overturned, much of the included material tends to be superfluous in the extreme. Who cares that the village fishwife has a silver goblet worth five gold coins hidden in her straw mattress? If a situation involving it ever comes up, any gamemaster worth a damn should be able to improvise that kind of thing on the spot. I know there are gaming groups out there who do enjoy that level of single-point immersion, but every run I’ve refereed has been blessed (or cursed?) with obsessively wandering souls.

That said, Death’s Dark Shadow was densely packed with interesting bits which could be plucked out and thrown in the path of my group’s wandering heroes. I’ve always been a sucker for a good micro-dungeon, even if the context required a little repurposing to fit into a current campaign, and there’s always room for hidden cultists and treachery hidden behind a tranquil facade.

Unless Joe was also involved, that is.

Joe was a red-haired business major who hailed from Hyde Park or West Roxbury or one of those other southwest Boston neighborhoods I’m not convinced actually exist. He resembled an oversized hobbit, had a blue Member’s Only jacket surgically attached to his torso, and spoke that weird variant of the Boston Irish accent that sounds almost Australian. Like most members of the Sci-Fi Club, Joe wandered into the office one afternoon and just kinda stayed there. Because my WFRP campaign was a big thing in club circles, Joe wanted to be part of it. I wasn’t keen about him joining, as he represented an unknown quantity, but I ended up falling into the same paradox that has governed my social interactions since childhood.

My experiences and upbringing have given me a strong egalitarian streak. I know how painful it feels to be excluded, so I make a point of including others in things, especially folks who strike me as being on the outside looking in. Unfortunately, those noble sentiments often come into conflict with my innate irritability and generally asocial tendencies. It’s the way I’m wired, not any fault of the offending parties (or, at the very least, disproportionate to their actual shortcomings).

My usual response in these situations is to step away and move on, but that couldn’t be done when I was the person running the campaign.

I wasn’t the only person Joe ended up rubbing the wrong way. In the space of just a couple weeks, he ended up alienating every other player in the campaign. None of it was particularly egregious. Most of it was typical gaming smack talk, but delivered incessantly and with the assumption of familiarity Joe hadn’t really earned. It’s one thing to mock a close pal, another to tell a vague acquaintance they suck and follow it up with a laugh that sounded like something that would emerge from a goat’s ass.

Joe brought these antics into the gaming world, mostly through a reflexive contrariness he confused for cleverness. Maybe he thought he was going to throw me for a loop, but the Warhammer rules were unforgiving enough that I didn’t have to go out of my way to push back against him. During one session, he decided that there was something fishy about the inn the other players chose to stay at, and decided to sleep in the rough outside the town. While he was napping, a bunch of snotlings (miniature goblins) stole all his valuables and painted his face with their leavings.

While I was trying to apply not-so-subtle pressure on Joe to mend his disruptive ways, he was finding new and unfortunate ways to piss off every other player in the group. He mocked Lil Bro for playing a “wussy physician,” even though Joe required the most medical treatment out of all the party members. He was convinced the group’s rogue was holding out on him, and would rush into hazard filled rooms to ensure he got his “fair share.” The players were already fairly hapless in their adventuring, and Joe made things ten times worse. Every effort to rein him in failed, and it became clear that — one way or another — Joe’s days with the group were numbered.

Joe’s final adventure involved a beached ship rumored to be carrying an extremely valuable treasure. The party, along with a number of rival adventuring groups, decided to stake a claim for it. Atypical for the players, they were the first folks to discover the wreck’s location. More typically for them, they failed every search check that would’ve clued them in that the treasure had been removed and buried on the beach a mile from the site. Instead, they spent a week of in-game time trying to excavate the buried section of the ship.

Joe was posted on sentry duty in case one of the rival groups happened to crash the party. Worried about not getting his fair share, Joe abandoned his post and walked back to the dig site. He made it a few dozen yards before a mounted member of one of the the rival bands rode up an decapitated him with a single scimitar stroke. I didn’t even have to fudge the dice roll. His last words were “Heh you guys bettah not be boosting the good st-.”

The rest of the group honored his death by leaving his body out for the crabs and gulls to pick over.

I didn’t see much or think much of Joe after he left the campaign. There wasn’t much of a reason to do so. About ten years back I was on campus, looking at the harbor from the balcony behind Wheatley Hall, when I did an abrupt double-take. Further on down the walkway, there was a hobbit-esque dude with beady eyes, red hair, and a blue Member’s Only jacket pacing in circles and animatedly shouting into a cell phone.

I thought “It’s been twenty years. Even I’ve changed my look since then. It can’t be him.”

Then, over the sounds of the surf and the highway, I caught a snatch of the conversation. “…said my name is JOE! JOE [redacted]!”

Two possibilities presented themselves to me. I was watching a for-real, no-fooling ghost or this was the authentic, flesh-and-blood Joe.

I wasn’t sure which prospect was more horrifying, so I fled back into the building before he noticed me.

A Many-Splendored Thing: Day 28

February 28th, 2018

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