Armagideon Time

That feudal feeling

November 21st, 2017

The North Woburn apartment where I lived as a kid was cramped, but it didn’t lack bookshelf space. Nearly every room — with the exception of the bathroom — had at some place set aside for the large number of books my family owned.

The enclosed back porch which doubled as a laundry area and playroom had a low wall-length jobber which held the majority of my childhood favorites. The taller number in my bedroom was stuffed various Time-Life science and nature tomes handed down from elderly relatives (and doubled as an improvised Death Star and treacherous cliff face for my action figures and army men). My parents’ dresser was topped off with significant volumes from their childhood wedged between a pair of bookends and the sideboard in the combination kitchen/dining room hosted my mom’s collection of cookbooks.

The most significant and weighty (in a most literal sense) bookshelf in our home occupied the far wall of the family room, where its stained walnut bulk covered up a “door to nowhere” left behind from a previous remodeling effort. It was separated from one end of the garish family sofa by a single arm length, a decision driven by both convenience and limited space that also provided a cozy little niche for a skinny five year old to claim as a private hidey-hole.

This shelf, being centrally located, housed the Good Stuff. It was home to the family’s set of encyclopedias, American Heritage’s pictorial histories of the United States, and all the miscellaneous general reference books my parents picked up over the years. The coffee table Encyclopedia of Fishes was shelved there, along with a hefty tome covering ironclad warships (with technical illustrations and diagrams) and an college earth science text of my fathers which contained plastic overlays illustrating the gradual process of erosion and continental drift.

All loomed large in my formative years, but the most fascinating of the lot were the two “bookshelf games” residing on one of the upper shelves. Originally published by 3M before its sold that part of its conglomerate off to Avalon Hill, the games were intended to be upscale diversions for self-conscious sophisticates too high-minded for traditional fare. Each one came packed in a fancy-pants slipcase so they could be shelved alongside one’s copies of Marcel Proust, Robert Michener, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

I’m not sure where my father obtained them from, though they seem like the type of thing my maternal grandfather would give as a present. Pulling one the games off the shelf was a major event on par with setting up the slot car track or sifting through the collection of family memorabilia stored in the sea chest that doubled as a Christmas tree stand during the holiday season.

Facts in Five — a forerunner of Scattergories — was the one that actually got some play between my parents and their more erudite friends. I didn’t really understand it, though I was captivated by the art on the box and the miniature hourglass that came packed inside it.

I was more enraptured by Feudal, which had a distinctly toyetic bent.

The game was a more complex iteration of chess, played on a fold-out plastic pegboard into which tiny figurines representing medieval fighting men were inserted. I didn’t understand a lick of it, but spent hours upon hours playing “men” with its pieces and cursing how little nubs on the bases kept me from taking the action on the road.

Only one serious attempt was ever made at playing it, during my teens when my D&D buddy Scott and I tried to make sense of it and failed. We then tried writing up our own set of rules, but soon lost interest and went back to playing videogames.

Both the game and the bookshelf that held it fell into my possession after we moved to Hammond Square outside Woburn Center, and both were lost during the chaos following my mother’s death four years later.

I’d entirely forgotten about the damn thing until yesterday afternoon, when I had some time to kill at the end of my shift and spent it running eBay searches for various childhood treasures. For some reason I can’t explain, “1983 hot wheels cobra rubber tires” turned out to be the keyphrase which unlocked whatever mnemonic vault held my memories of Feudal.

There were a number of complete copies for sale on the site, and for pretty reasonable asking prices. I briefly considered buying one for the sentimental value, but ultimately decided against it.

It wouldn’t be the same. There’s no recapturing the old magic of squatting on a dining chair and peering across the abstract battlefield laid out on the kitchen table — while my father made sure none of the figures found their way into the mouths of my toddler brother or the family dog.

While K-Tel’s discography of pre-1985 compilations is deep and wide (and a confusing mess to wade through), it is a finite system. I’ve spent over a year sifting through it, adjusting and re-adjusting my search parameters, and trying to find a few promising grains of wheat among the massive volume of chaff. There have been times where I think I’ve hit a hard limit on discovering anything new and worthwhile, and will have to content myself with the lower tier stuff I marked down in the “maybe” section of my notebook wishlist.

And then I stumble across something like The Main Event.

The LP was released for the UK market in 1979, and it’s both astonishing and bewildering. The sleeve lacks anything resembling the label’s typical visual or written hype — just a modest title and some featured artists overlaid on a garish lens-flared-to-fuck shot of a soundstage. The copy I got (from a German seller) has some weird off-kilter lamination on the front of the sleeve that could either be from a less-than-meticulous industrial job or a previous owner’s preservation efforts. (The sleeves on UK K-Tel releases in that era tended to use a far flimsier cardboard stock than American albums got.)

In any case, there’s an aura of understatement about The Main Event‘s trade dress that feels at odds with what the package contains.

A1 Boomtown Rats – Rat Trap
A2 Blondie – Hanging on the Telephone
A3 The Dickies – Banana Splits (The Tra La La Song)
A4 Stranglers – No More Heroes
A5 Generation X – King Rocker
A6 Elvis Costello – Radio, Radio
A7 Jonathan Richman – Roadrunner
A8 Squeeze – Cool for Cats

B1 Blondie – Presence Dear
B2 Squeeze – Take Me I’m Yours
B3 Patti Smith – Because The Night
B4 Nick Lowe – American Squirm
B5 Generation X – Your Generation
B6 Buzzcocks – Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)
B7 Boomtown Rats – Mary Of The 4th Form
B8 The Members – Offshore Banking Business

The tracklist offers a stellar mix of cuts pulled from the “respectable” (for lack of a better term) side of the punk and wave scene — the type of material one might suggest to a dubious yet receptive person when making the argument there was more to the scene than spitting, cussing, and three-chord agitprop chants.

Elvis Costello’s finest (in my non-fan’s opinion) jam is on there, along with a Costello-backed cut by Nick Lowe. Crossover sensation Blondie contributed a pair of offerings, as did teenybopper punkers Generation X, pub-pop fellow travelers Squeeze, and the ever eager to please Boomtown Rats. Scene-adjacent and precursor artists Patti Smith and Jonathan Richman are represented with their signature — and UK-charting — efforts, and the Class of 1977′s more sophisticated vanguard show up to add a little safe-for-radio edginess.

Tonally, The Main Event reminds me a lot of Virgin’s Fun, Filth, and Fury and Rhino’s DIY UK Punk/UK Pop compilations from the early 1990s. That’s not a bad place to be, at least to my ears, as those efforts were instrumental in shaping my tastes at a time when louder-faster aggro fare had begun to lost its savor. It’s not the mix I would’ve made to represent that particular moment (needs more Rezillos and Lene Lovich and Tubeway Army) but it’s still a consistently solid listen devoid of any mood-derailing clunkers. (Contrast that with the New Wave collection K-Tel released in Scandinavia the same year, where the highs were higher but the lows were utterly abysmal.)

It’s about as close as I’ve gotten to my concept of an ideal K-Tel compilation — consistently listenable, strongly evocative of a specific moment, and featuring stuff that I’d never think to include if I’d compiled it.

And if it happens to include the 1974 Beserkley single version of “Roadrunner,” even better.

Sometime in the autumn of 1989, I stumbled across a glowing magazine review for the Dungeon Lairs. The box set supplement was a Games Workshop effort which followed up on the publisher’s previous sets of mix-and-match tiles aimed at bring ease-of-use and some visual flair to table-top RPG loot crawls.

As the title suggested, Dungeon Lairs focused upon (gorgeously rendered) set-piece habitations for monstrous adversaries instead of generic hallways and rooms. It was also specifically branded as a Warhammer Fantasy Role Play product, and a good portion of the review discussed the booklet packed in with the tiles and provided sensibly simple rules for solo play, random encounters, and balanced treasure generation.

The booklet interested me more than the tiles themselves, as it sounded like the kind of thing that I make good use of in my WFRP runs. Our regular gaming group had dwindled down to a trio by that point. The lack of players ruled out epic-level campaigning, but was perfectly suited to quick and dirty dungeon crawls.

Excalibur had Dungeon Lairs in stock, but racked next to a slightly more expensive and much thicker hardbound collection of all the sets in the series. It came down to ten bucks for a handful of tiles or fifteen for the whole shebang, and my value-conscious younger self opted for the latter.

It wasn’t until I tore the shrinkwrap off it during the walk back to the Malden Center subway station that I discovered “the whole shebang” didn’t include the Dungeon Lairs booklet. One of the best things about going into town to buy RPG stuff was the ride back to Woburn, which I spent skimmimg and digesting the contents of my various purchases. Even today, almost three decades later, I’ll drive past portions of the 134 bus route (hiya, Chelsea!) and immediate associate certain stretches or landmarks with passages from some old sourcebook.

I didn’t get any such satisfaction from my trip home with the Dungeon Tiles collection. There was no text to be had, just an expensive picture book of cut-out floorplans to resentfully flip through and gaze at with crushing disappointment. I did cut a few tiles out of the book — the one with the stairs and firepit on the lower left is still wedged between character sheets in one of my old folders — but can’t recall ever using them.

Our group didn’t make much use of miniatures in RPGS, except as mementos of certain favorite characters. They tended to slow down the proceedings too much and hobble my narrative discretion as a gamemaster. For complicated encounters, we got by with a quick tactical map sketched onto a scratch pad. Otherwise I’d just gauge the room and say something like “the beastman is in charge attack distance” just to keep things moving.

I never did score a copy of the Dungeon Lairs booklet. A friend offered me a .pdf version of it around the turn of the millennium, but I didn’t bother taking him up on it. The fire had long since cooled by then.

Howling wilderness

November 14th, 2017


For some reason, Mark’s comment got me to thinking about a very specific corner of my childhood landscape, one that now only exists in the realm of hazy memory.

A couple of blocks east of North Woburn Center, where Merrimac Street split off from School Street, began the undeveloped parcel of land known only as “The Woods.”

Its far eastern edge, bordered by Hall’s Brook, was right across Dartmouth Street from by back yard as was one of my earliest arenas for unsupervised play. We built forts, hacked away at rotten stumps, had crabapple fights, and chased monsters in its semi-wild confines. My friends and I parceled out our areas into distinct nations, complete with crudely drawn maps on Manila paper marking the borders between the “Weiss Republic” and the “Empire of Artie.”

Our realm was split off from the rest of The Woods by a sneaker-swallowing marsh thick with skunk cabbage and fiddleheads, walled off by a steep hill that extended from the backyard of a weird Victorian house that was the only residence along that stretch of Merrimac Street.

Crossing that combination was no mean feat. It gave the patch beyond it a mythic quality, borne out by the presence of a seasonal pond that served as the local ice rink in the winter months and a sturdy stone bridge which had outlasted the overgrown pathways on either side of it. The place marked the upper part of the brook’s serpentine path, where it had been cut loose from the Middlesex Canal across the road and served as an outlet for its sluggish waters.

When the freight operations ceased along the canal, the towpaths were repurposed as railbeds, then left as as a impromptu network of trails for horseback riders and dirtbike enthusiasts by the time I was a kid. The path along the western edge of the woods had dwindled into a thin sandy sliver hemmed in by a chainlink fence on one side and the edge of a steep retaining wall overlooking the brook on the other. In the winter months, my friends and I would fling ourselves off the wall onto the snow and accumulated leaves (and occasionally rocks) below.

There was always a little trepidation about poking around that end of the woods. It was the realm of the Teenagers, the feather-haired, acne-marked, denim-rocking crowd of high schoolers we simultaneously feared and admired. They tended to be more nocturnal than my gaggle of pre-teen pals, but evidence of their passing was wasn’t hard to find.

Sometimes it turned out pretty well, like when we found a rope swing they’d built that let you launch yourself out over the brook before arcing back towards a massive oak tree at bonesnapping speed.

Other times it ended with white knuckle terror, like the time we pulled an ill-considered daylight raid on “Dead Man’s.” Located on the spit of ground where the brook curved back on itself, Dead Man’s was a informal campsite walled off by an open-ended square of fallen tree trunks. It was the preferred place for local adolescent bacchanalias, which also made it a great place to scoop up various “treasures” left behind in a drunken-stoned stupor or manic stampede from the cops the night before.

On this occasion, my friends and I found the teens had left behind a honkingly huge cooler. It was massive enough to for a pair of us to sled down the hill in or use as a makeshift rowboat on the pond, both of which we did before dragging it back and storing it in my buddy Brian’s backyard clubhouse.

Our glee at pulling one over on the hesher set was short-lived, as the teen’s soon sussed out who swiped their goods and started spreading threats of retaliation through the grapevine. (I suspect my pal Artie let it slip because he felt compelled to brag about his bullshit to anyone within earshot.) We spent a harrowing week glancing over our shoulders and fearing every dinged up muscle car that rolled past us on the walk home from school.

The dread about our anticipated stomping was so thick that we were thrilled when the teens limited their payback to trashing Brian’s backyard shack and retrieving their stolen cooler. (Artie was the most indignant about it, which bolsters my theory that he was the one who brought attention to us in the first place.)

Woburn being Woburn and regional property values being what they are, the entire east half of the woods was razed about twenty years back to make room for a massive apartment complex. The seasonal pond was filled in, the old bridge was torn down, and Dead Man’s was finally laid to rest.

I’ve driven past the place a few times since then, but my brain has difficulty registering the changes. No amount of pastel vinyl siding and prefab design can erase the topographical contours etched into my gray matter.

Do K-Tel #20: Rock ’83 (1983)

November 13th, 2017

As I mentioned last week, my current method for sniffing out comps I may have overlooked involves plugging a favorite band name plus “K-Tel” into my search bar and seeing what turns up.

My first attempt at this featured the Stray Cats, who were nowhere to be found on the fairly comprehensive stack of early Eighties K-Tel releases I’d already acquired. The rockabilly revival stalwarts and music video channel staples were a Big Deal to my younger self. Their “Sexy + 17″ single was one of the first pop records I purchased with my own money and a ragged-ass Built For Speed raglan (pulled from a flea market remainder bin) was the first bit of band-themed apparel I owned.

For a brief window of time, the Stray Cats were my favorite band ever, and the residual affection has never truly waned over the years. That’s how my dear departed feline companion got her name back in 2005.

Even allowing for a degree of significance-inflating nostalgia, it felt weird that the Stray Cats didn’t have a significant presence on the K-Tel offerings of that era. Contrast that with The Police, Rick Springfield, and Pat Benatar, who seemed to show up on every comp released between 1981 and 1984. Heck, even A Flock of Seagulls were represented by no fewer than three tracks during that period.

The Stray Cats, on the other hand, were limited to the inclusion of “Sexy + 17″ on 1984′s Sound System, alongside a cluster of cuts whose overall appeal has kept me from agreeing to the absurd (as in “more than five bucks”) asking price. That was it as far as domestic releases went, but it was a whole ‘nother story north of the border.

Rock ’83 was part of a series of Canadian attempts to follow up on the “Rock” plus “last two digits of the year” naming formula pioneered by the sublime Rock 80. Where the first entry in the series was compiled to spotlight the “new music” phenomenon, the later installments were more general purpose jobbers which followed K-Tel’s standard “last season’s hits” model as optimized for the Maple Leaf market.

A1 Men At Work – Be Good Johnny
A2 Adam Ant – Goody Two Shoes
A3 Toni Basil – Mickey
A4 Kenny Loggins & Steve Perry – Don’t Fight It
A5 Rush - Subdivisions
A6 Missing Persons – Walking In L.A.
A7 Pat Benatar – Shadows of the Night
A8 Billy Idol – White Wedding

B1 Stray Cats – Rock This Town
B2 Dexys Midnight Runners – Come On Eileen
B3 The Human League – Don’t You Want Me
B4 Duran Duran – Hungry Like The Wolf
B5 Ultravox – Reap The Wild Wind
B6 Divinyls – Boys In Town
B7 Bryan Adams – Cuts Like A Knife
B8 Laura Branigan – Gloria

There’s a good deal of overlap between Rock ’83‘s tracklist and those of the various stateside comps released around that time. Half of the featured cuts appeared the Chart Action ’83, Hit Explosion, and Hit Express LPs I already owned, but that didn’t stop me from slipping a tenner to a Toronto record dealer in exchange for a copy of the comp.

As I’ve said before, my love for K-Tel comps comes from the overall experience, a complementary blend of historical core sample and nostalgic taste of “Hot 40″ format radio past. Individual tracks matter, but not as strongly as they would if I was compiling a playlist of my own. Even the clunkers don’t sound as clunky when they’re being streamed through a contextual sentiment filter.

If I can get the same experience without having to listen to Genesis or Hall & Oates, however, I’m gonna be all over that shit.

Neither Genesis nor Hall & Oates showed up on Rock ’83, although it did include several (very welcome) tracks that didn’t make the stateside cut. There’s the Stray Cats, for starters, but also signature tunes by Duran Duran, Missing Persons, and Ultravox which are in perfect concordance with my mytho-nostalgic conception of that incredible year.

It wouldn’t be a true glimpse into that singular moment without a taste of Rush, whose can-con contribution is the Rush-iest song the band ever recorded. “Subdivisions” could’ve leaned harder towards its target demo by offering a free bag of polyhedral dice and a subscription to the X-Men on the single’s sleeve. It’s the Rush song that makes parodies of Rush redundant.

Altogether, Rock ’83 is an almost perfect package. The Bryan Adams (because it was Canada in 1983) and Laura Branigan tracks make for a weak second-side closer, but the songs themselves are inoffensive enough and don’t offset comp’s white hot density of quality pop material.

In fact, the album was almost strong enough to pull off an impossible feat — being a K-Tel collection that passes Maura’s stratospheric standards. I generally tend to avoid throwing on a K-Tel jobber during our post-workday scrambles to get the animals (and ourselves) fed and on track for the evening, because her fires burn much hotter than mine and she lacks my capacity for nostalgic tolerance towards the AOR and soft rock standards of our childhood. Instead of earning my wife’s ire by inflicting a unwanted earworm upon her, it easier to toss on a collection of Fifties or Sixties rock ‘n’ roll jams and save the K-Tel stuff for when she’s out running errands on the weekends.

I was hoping Rock ’83 was going to break that streak, considering it included tracks by some of her favorite bands. During its inaugural spin, we listened to the first few songs with no controversy before I took the Rock Stupid Puppy out to do his business.

I returned to find the mood had shifted.

“I notice you decided to step out right before KENNY FUCKING LOGGINS came on.”

“Uh, yeah, it is kinda cheesy, but it’s the price you pay for Ultravox and Missing Persons.”

“I REALLY FUCKING HATE THAT SONG. IT HAS NO BUSINESS BEING THERE.”

I was fortunate enough to deflect her wrath with the story about Donald Fagen comparing Loggins to a trained seal, but it was a close call and I doubt I’d be so lucky next time.

In conclusion, Rock ’83 is an extremely solid snapshot of the year when I fell head over heels with pop music. Just check your housemates’ levels of Kenny Loggins tolerance before playing it.

We’re going to go a little out of sequence with this one, because I am an old man and sometimes things get lost in the mnemonic shuffle.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade hit theaters at the tail end of my junior year in high school. I was never a huge fan of the franchise. During the original cinematic run of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I convinced my parents to take us to see Clash of the Titans instead. My friends and I saw Temple of Doom twice on the big screen, but that had more to do with the glorious matinee binge we indulged in during the summer of 1984.

The decision to see Last Crusade essentially boiled down to my buddy Damian acquiring a car and the itch to break from our established patterns. He suggested we should check out the new Indiana Jones flick — on a school night — and I, having nothing better to do with my time, agreed to tag along.

Even the most mediocre blockbuster feels epic in Dolby-enhanced widescreen, and we left the screening in awe of what we’d just witnessed. And, being geeks, the overloud conversation eventually turned to “OH, MAN, THIS WOULD BE AN AWESOME ROLE PLAYING GAME.” Those wheels were spinning wildly when we parted ways, each of us already and independently committed to making the dream into a reality.

For Damian, that meant scooping up a copy of TSR officially licensed Indiana Jones RPG at the local Toys ‘R’ Us. For me, it meant an after-school trip to Excalibur Hobbies in Malden, where I bought the Justice, Inc box set.

The game was part of the Hero System which included the Champions superhero RPG, which was the main reason I chose it over the official product. Not only was I already familiar with the core rules, but the open-ended compatibility offered more opportunity to tinker around with things and fold in stuff from Golden Age comics and the Lovecraftean mythos. Plus, I’ve always been a bit leery about systems pegged to a specific IP, as they tend to fix expectations and channel the players into pre-set pathways.

I realize that there isn’t much daylight between playing Wolverine in Marvel Super Heroes and playing Wolverine-In-All-But-Name in Champions, yet the distinction still matters to me on some primordial level (and has irritated plenty of people in my various runs over the years).

The interconnectedness between Justice, Inc and Champions turned out to be slightly overstated. Despite sharing DNA on a mechanical level, there’d been a good deal of genetic drift in the years since the 3rd edition Hero System rules had been launched. It’s a fairly common problem with systems that strive to be a universal tentpole — the various conventions of the genres involved require specific modifications, exceptions or other refinements. Pulp adventure isn’t superheroes isn’t high fantasy isn’t space opera, and no “one size fits all” system is going work equally well for all of them. (The 4th edition Hero System rules were intended to tie all these strands together into a cohesive whole. It didn’t succeed, but the game did benefit from the effort.)

None of it ended up mattering in the end, anyhow.

The feverish fandom we felt while the projector was spooling cooled quickly, shifting from “utterly transformative” or “eh, it was okay, I guess” over the course of a week. It was difficult enough to maintain our regular campaigns, much less try to sell something new to the rest of the group. There was also the question of which of the two systems we’d actually play. I had no desire to subject myself to Damian’s erratic style of gamemastering again, while Damian wasn’t eager to dive into Justice, Inc after dropping fifteen bucks on the official Indiana Jones game.

Instead of forcing the issue — and, by extension, our increasingly strained friendship — we decided to quietly drop the whole thing and move on to the next point of future contention.

Do K-Tel #19: Hi-Energy (1979)

November 8th, 2017

Six weeks have passed since the previous installment of this feature, which was more than enough time to freshen up my pool of midlist compilations released by the Winnipeg Wonder.

Having exhausted the vein of direct nostalgic recollection, I’ve begun casting my net a little further from familiar shores. It hasn’t been an easy or intuitive task. The sheer volume of K-Tel releases makes navigating their back catalog a confusing chore, and that’s before taking into to account international product with altered content and recycled titles. It had led to situations where I’ve stumbled across something amazing — like a late Seventies collection of space disco jams — only to discover its either impossible to score a copy or is being hawked by a shady Discogs seller in Europe’s back forty where shipping costs end up costing ten times more than the record itself.

The easiest method I’ve hit upon for finding new-to-me material is to pick the a favored (or period significant) artist, add “K-Tel” to the search string, and let Google work its imperfect magic. That’s how I came across 1979′s Hi-Energy, with Lene Lovich being the key variable in question.

Not to be confused with the domestically released (and wildly uneven) High Energy from the same year, this is a UK market jobber pulled from that nation’s pop charts. While the transition period I’ve dubbed “the Cusp” transcended geographic boundaries, the compilation’s track list shows that its specific manifestations still adhered to local conditions.

A1 Ian Dury & The Blockheads – Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick
A2 Real Thing – Can You Feel The Force
A3 Edwin Starr – Contact
A4 Liquid Gold – Mr. Groovy (It Feels So Fine)
A5 Sarah Brightman And The Starship Troopers – The Adventures Of A Love Crusader
A6 Dennis Brown - Money In My Pocket
A7 Barry White – Just The Way You Are
A8 Frankie Miller – Good To See You
A9 Rachel Sweet - B-A-B-Y
A10 The Three Degrees – The Runner

B1 The Darts – Get It
B2 Violinski – Clog Dance
B3 Driver 67 – Car 67
B4 The Pretenders – Stop Your Sobbing
B5 U.F.O. – Doctor, Doctor
B6 The Skids – Into The Valley
B7 Leyton Buzzard – Saturday Night (Beneath The Plastic Palm Trees)
B8 The Members – Sound Of The Suburbs
B9 Generation X – King Rocker
B10 Lene Lovich - Lucky Number

Stiff pop and Virgin punk, leavened with a tasty sampling of disco and soul cuts, late cycle pub rock, a dash of rockabilly revival, and whatever the hell Violinski was supposed to be…

(You don’t have to tell me. I know it was an ELO alumni side project featuring the soon-to-be cut loose Mik Kaminski and the previously departed Mike de Albuquerque. That doesn’t make it any more explicable.)

The big draws on this one were “Lucky Number” (obviously, considering it’s what drew the record to my attention to begin with), “Into the Valley,” and “King Rocker.”

The rest of it is….quite fine, actually. It’s a very listenable, if oddly curated, window into an alternate world which ran parallel to the 1979 I hazily remembered. I’ve given it a couple spins over the past few weeks, but still haven’t found the right niche for it in my listening schedule where weekday evenings are given over Maura-acceptable selections and the weekends a time to indulge in more direct forms of musical nostalgia. Hi-Energy doesn’t really fit in either category, and thus gets passed over in favor of the Stand By Me soundtrack or Radio Active.

Or I’ve hit a point where I have too many records to give them all their just due –nNot that I’ve ever let that stop me before.

Cause and effect

November 8th, 2017


(The New York Times, 11/5/17)


(Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! #3, December 1983)

Says it all, really.

Home is where the chaos is

November 3rd, 2017

None of my family’s living spaces had a unified “design aesthetic” when I was growing up. My mother tried to impose a retro Thirties style on the duplex we moved into during the mid-Eighties, but the project got sidelined by the intensifying maelstrom of domestic dysfunction. Our places were decked in a catch-as-catch-can hodgepodge of furnishings acquired from relatives, flea markets, and from the murky network of connections which functioned as a off-the-books marketplace for our blue collar neighborhood.

The result was a temporal collage where a 1950s fridge shared space with a Victorian buffet table and Seventies’ mustard yellow carpeting. It was haphazard but cozy — “lived-in” as a lifestyle — and it still guides my approach to home decor.

(It may also be why I felt so comfortable around Maura and her people, who adopted a similar practice with a “thrifty immigrant” bent. Her love of estate sales is a lingering effect of this.)

It’s by baseline for how a “home” should look, and I always get a little weirded out when I visit a place where the resident do maintain a curated theme. That was especially true when I was a kid and had limited exposure to the wider world. I’d feel a vague sense of unease when I attended a classmate’s birthday party or scout meeting and the place resembled one of the floor exhibits at the home shows my mom used to drag us to — everything coordinated in terms of color and design, and lacking any evidence of day-to-day habitation. The kids’ rooms were the most unsettling, devoid of stray lego bits or scattered funnybooks or entropic decay normally associated with children’s interactions with physical objects.

My parents didn’t bother setting up “model” living quarters for Lil Bro and me because they knew what havoc two boys could wreak on a daily basis. Pretensions of opulence were a fools errand, so they settled for durable functionality.

My sense of unease was also heightened by the fact it was the 1970s–

–when children’s room decor took a sharp turn into the roiling realm of raw nightmare. I can’t even imagine spending those haunted and highly impressionable years surrounded by the gallery of leering, looming faces which dominated the period decor. How would that effect a kid, having the last thing they see at night and the first thing the see upon waking being a grinning minimalist clown head?

No wonder so many of my childhood pals went haywire as adults, while I — who grew up in an actually dysfunctional family — managed to stay relatively centered.

I got into role-playing games in the mid-Eighties, well after the hobby’s faddish push into mainstream culture had come and gone. As far as my peers were concerned, it was a done deal to be spoken of in the past tense and I considered myself lucky when I stumbled across a handful of hold-out enthusiasts in my freshman year.

As the fandom shrunk, so did the shelf space dedicated to the hobby by mass market retailers. Aisle-long displays contracted into endcap afterthoughts for whatever unsold inventory remained. My copy of the “red box” D&D Basic Set came from the clearance aisle of the local Osco Drug and my Dungeon Master’s Guide was a ten dollar discovery found beneath a copy of Axis & Allies in the boardgame aisle of a dying Child World store in Medford.

By the latter half of 1989, even these remnant efforts would be abandoned and the field ceded entirely to specialty shops and the occasional mall bookstore. Toys R Us claimed the space for the more lucrative and evergreen realm of VHS-based boardgames, while Kay-Bee opted to shed its left-over RPG-related stock in a deeply discounted mass dumping.

Regardless what it said about the health of the industry as a whole, it was glorious from the perspective of a cash-strapped teenager. I remember it like it was yesterday — bin after bin packed with various TSR products going for a buck or two.

I hauled off as much as I could reasonably afford before heading home and informing my buddy Damian about the windfall to be had. By the time we made it back there a couple of days later, nearly all of it — apart from a few Endless Quest paperbacks — was gone. My guess is that the owners of the local game shops got wind of the sale and rushed out to top of their own inventories on the cheap while removing a threat to their own profit margins. (The suspicious palimpsest of price tags I’d occasionally find on some modules — as late as the mid-1990s — supported my theory.)

For all the excitement about my big score, I remember very little about the specifics. The problem with bulk-purchase binges is that the awe-inspiring volume tends to drown out any detailed appreciation for the individual items involved. (See also: the P2P free-for-all of the previous decade or any given Steam sale.) The hoarding impulse isn’t conducive to savoring one’s fare.

I can only recall two of the items in any detail. One was Quagmire!, a basic D&D module about a trio of shell-shaped cities sinking into a swamp. The other was the Avengers Assembled! sourcebook for the Marvel Super Heroes RPG, purchased on behalf of Lil Bro.

There were also some other D&D modules (whose names I’ve forgotten) I picked up because they included cut-out cardboard models of buildings and ruins suitable for my early dabblings with Warhammer 40k.

None of it was bought with direct use in mind, which also explains why few of the details stuck over time. I was pretty much over AD&D at the time, but the dazzling effect of fire-sale prices and my ongoing search for inspirational material for my Warhammer Fantasy Role Play runs got the better of me. Many of the maps — and a few of the recontextualized encounters — ended up getting folded into various WFRP campaigns of mine for the next half a decade and my sheaf of notes contains several loose pages pulled from that titanic haul.

The Avengers’ sourcebook only saw use as a handy ipecac, thanks to the Starfox entry.

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