Armagideon Time

I’ve been working on Armagideon Time for slightly over eleven years. Over the course of that decade-plus, I’m certain there are at least of you out there who’ve wondered about what shape a romance story written by me would take.

Well, wonder no more. The second volume of the Strange Romance anthology went on sale today, and it includes (among other treasures) a tale written by me and wonderfully illustrated my Matthew Tavares.

The story is titled “It Means the World to Me” and here’s a first page teaser:

Purchasing the anthology with get you the whole shebang, plus sixteen other offbeat love stories by some very cool and talented folks.

If you dig that, might I direct you to some other fantastic projects I’ve had a hand in?

Write More Good (with the Fake AP Stylebook Crew)

The 2299 anthology (with Keith Pille)

Death Saves Volume One (with Matt Digges)

Boo! Halloween Stories 2016 (with Daniel Butler and Josh Krach)

Dang, put together like that, it makes me seem pretty prolific for a guy who claims he has no desire to change creative lanes.

My ninth grade year was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal junior high experience. It was the year I managed to hone my dorkiness and social maladaptation into something resembling a persona — a goofy pastiche of performative eccentricity and clearance aisle Hawaiian shirts. My delayed embrace of Dungeon & Dragons connected me with a new circle of like-minded friends while sympathetically indulgent teachers gave me extraordinary freedom to do my own thing without interference.

On the home front, the departure of my aunt and paternal grandmother led to a short-lived period of family stability and made it possible for Lil Bro and me to have our own separate bedrooms. I had a paper route that generated enough spending money to further explore my developing interests in comics and music.

I had it good and — more importantly — I knew at the time I had it good.

That’s why the notion of leaving it all behind for the vast and forbidding unknown of senior high school haunted me over the course of my summer vacation. I did my best not to think about it, and toiled mightily to distract myself from that impending feeling of doom — a new and much bigger campus, a whole bunch of unfamiliar classmates, and fresh roster of teachers and administrators lacking the rapport I’d built up over the previous three years.

There was no escaping it, though, and it wasn’t long before Labor Day weekend rolled around. My mother drove me to the Woburn Mall and gave me twenty bucks to purchase essential school supplies. After dropping five singles on the cheapest and most anemic notebooks and writing implements CVS had for sale, I took the remainder to Paperback Booksmith and used it to buy a copy of the AD&D Egg of the Phoenix “megamodule.”

It looked extremely promising at first glance, a follow-up effort to the similarly formatted Temple of Elemental Evil and just the thing to revive my group’s waning interest in AD&D.

In truth, Egg of the Phoenix was a slapdash attempt to fuse a quartet of unrelated tournament play adventures into a single extended campaign. Typos and formatting errors abounded, with obsolete references from previous drafts of the project left in to confuse and infuriate the readers. It was a hot mess, through and through, and the only thing else I remember about was a bit where an illusionist magicked up a bunch of zombies to sell as docile humanoid slaves in a Ye Olde Fantasy version of an oil boom town.

It was a crushing disappointment, but the money was already spent and so I felt obligated to discover some value in the damn thing. I stuffed it in my backpack for possible study hall reading before I headed off to the start of my sophomore year.

The first day of classes was even worse than I feared. My locker was located on the opposite end of campus from my homeroom. Some upperclassmen who remembered me from elementary school days decided to indulge in some physical humiliation and homophobic taunts for old time’s sake. Most of my teachers were no-bullshit tyrants and the administrators behaved as if they’d been briefed about me beforehand (which could’ve been the case, for all I know).

Lunch period was the nadir of the day. Because my fifth period class was in one of the “old buildings,” we were assigned to eat in the cafeteria in the bowels below the ancient administration building. Imagine the common room of a 19th Century prison given a Silent Hill makeover, and you’d still come short of its aesthetic atmosphere. To get there one had to trot — over industrial sheet metal plating — past the custodial facilities and boiler room, which which only gilded the infernal lily.

It was dimly lit, extremely loud, and grossly overcrowded. I didn’t bother buying anything to eat because the line wound around the room and I had no desire to put anything prepared in that hellhole into my stomach. There were no free tables or chairs to be had, nor any familiar faces to sit with, so I parked my bony ass on a steam radiator next to a window.

For the remaining twenty minutes I made a go at flipping through Egg of the Phoenix, but mostly I stewed about how shitty the day had been and how I had three more years of it ahead of me.

The situation did improve over time, which is more than I can say for Egg of the Phoenix.

Do K-Tel #6: Rock 80 (1980)

June 19th, 2017

As my collection of K-Tel compilations began to grow, I realized my old assortment of platters included one of the label’s most celebrated releases.

Rock 80 was a two-time hand-me-down. An older cousin passed it on to a tween-age Maura, who in turn handed it off to me during the early days of our relationship.

Relocating the album was no easy feat. My musical tastes were a bit too punky to fully appreciate it at the time, and so it ended up on the bottom end of collection that has since been relocated, merged, sorted, and shifted multiple times over the past quarter-century. After my fifth or sixth fruitless deep dive through the crates, I finally noticed it had been on top of an ancillary stack of albums I’d put aside to clear a path to the bulk of our combined record collection.

(I am morally obligated to point out that have no grounds to complain about this, as I chose to be a lazy jerk who sat on the sidelines while Maura selflessly and courageously brought some semblance of order to our attic collection of crap.)

The album was in astonishingly good condition for its age, pedigree, and lack of a protective inner sleeve. Here’s the track list:

A1 Gary Numan – Cars
A2 The Pretenders – Brass In Pocket
A3 Sniff ‘N’ The Tears – Driver’s Seat
A4 Nick Lowe – Cruel To Be Kind
A5 Joe Jackson – Is She Really Going Out With Him?
A6 Pat Benatar – Heartbreaker
A7 Blondie – Call Me

B1 The Ramones – Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?
B2 The Knack – My Sharona
B3 Cheap Trick – I Want You To Want Me (Live)
B4 Ian Gomm – Hold On
B5 Blondie – One Way Or Another
B6 Pat Benatar – We Live For Love
B7 M – Pop Muzik

The song selection reflects the brief moment when the “new wave” made its initial foray into the mainstream pop charts. Maura refers to that era as “The Cusp” — the temporal phantom zone between what is culturally perceived as the “the Seventies” and “the Eighties.” It was a significant period for me, as it bridged the gap between childhood and early adolescence. It was further reinforced by the arrival of a musically hip teenage aunt to our household and a short-lived cable subscription which introduced me — thanks to HBO’s pre-feature filler programming — to the hauntingly fascinating world of pre-MTV music video.

As a result, Rock 80 is an almost-perfect musical core sample of audio-driven nostalgia to my ears.

The album was created to spotlight the “new music,” a term that has since been eclipsed by the more specific “new wave.” While the latter was coined as a means of divesting punk and punk-adjacent artists from punk’s social stigma, the former was a wider blanket term used to describe newer artists who fell outside then dominant camps of disco, AOR stadium-ready fare, and soft rock. Pat Benatar and Cheap Trick weren’t “new wave,” but they were marketed as “new music” (alongside Tom Petty and AC/DC, who did not make it on to Rock 80).

A good compilation can make you overlook the weaker material on it. A great one can make you believe you actually like the clunkers…as long as turntable is spinning, at least. I had my fill of “My Sharona” when I was eight and have never cared much for The Pretenders, but having those tracks bracketed by Gary Numan and The Ramones softened my attitude immensely. Individual songs matter less than the overall testament to a pop moment that still haunts me to present day.

I could even forgive the album’s dual instances of double-dipping with Blondie and Pat Benatar. On other K-Tel efforts, it comes off as lazy pandering (and usually involved the Osmonds in some way). Here it allowed them to showcase different sounds by a pair of artists that I happen to adore.

Of all the K-Tel offerings I’ve picked up over the past eight months, Rock 80 has gotten the most spins. There were a few weeks following its unearthing last fall when it never left the turntable. I played it non-stop while doing my weekend chores, and drop the needle down on it as soon as I got home from work.

It’s unbroken streak came to an abrupt halt on November 8. Maura and I were carpooling home from work when Sniff ‘n’ The Tears’ “Driver’s Seat” came on the space radio’s Seventies channel.

“Hey, that’s on Rock 80! Man, I cannot wait for this night to be over so that orange fuckwad can be kicked to the curb.”

I’ve tried listening to the album a couple times since then, but that associative stink has been hard to shake.

A bit wobbly

June 15th, 2017

In the years before Lil Bro was born, both my parents held full-time jobs. My father worked a regular 9-to-5 gig doing quality control for a local defense contractor and my mother worked evening shifts as a nurse’s aide at an assisted living facility a couple of blocks away from her parents’ place.

This was before my school years, so my mornings would be spent watching TV or playing with my toys while my mom did housework. Then she’d drive me over to my grandparents’ place before her shift began. I’d stay there until my dad picked me up at dinner time and minded me until my mother got home.

That block of time I spent with my father was both strange and amazing, filled with memories of canned chili and English muffin pizzas and learning to play various card games and watching weird (and often nightmare-inducing) shit on post-primetime UHF TV. His restlessness and obsessive need to be the “cool” parent — which my mom resented ferociously — meant every night was adventure. One day he’d show up with a model ship or car to build with my grubby-fingered “help” and another he’d decide we should visit the observation deck of the Prudential Building at eight in the evening.

My memories of those days have gotten a bit hazy, but the father-son bond that emerged from the experience has proven astonishingly durable. It’s a good part of why I could never bring myself to hate or disown the man even when he was at his worst. Maura sees it as an example of how different my experiences were from her own as the middle child of a very Irish middle class immigrant family, and she’s right. It sums up my childhood as a whole, fucked up yet functional on a certain level.

There is one incident from that period that I can recall with perfect clarity. My dad and I were watching some kiddie special on TV and an ad for Playskool’s Weebles toy line came on. The Weebles were an attempt to one-up Fisher-Price’s line of “Little People” by adding weighted bottoms to the ovoid inhabitants of the Weebles’ world of whimsy.

Instead of toppling over, Weebles would rock in place if pushed, and navigate slides or similar diversions with upright aplomb. This characteristic was touted in the ad jingle, in which some cornball sang “Weebles wobble but they dont fall down.”

And my father, who’d already knocked back a few cold ones, responded “Those fucking Weebles.”

I’ve had a lot of giggles in my lifetime, but nothing has ever come close to the eye-watering, side-stitching, breath-shortening attack of unrestrained kid-laughter that followed my dad’s Weeble-hate. I let loose a couple residual chuckles when brought it up on Twitter yesterday, and unleashed a few more while I was explaining it to Maura afterward. Even as I type this, I’m trying to stifle a goofy grin.

Oddly enough, my mother was not amused by it at all.

Can the can

June 14th, 2017

In times of crisis, I have found it helpful to look back to an simpler equally chaotic and confusing time in search of answers bizarre shit to marvel at through fragmentary memory and a thick nostalgic haze.

Sure, things may look pretty grim on a global scale in 2017, but they still haven’t sunk to the levels witnessed in 1977, when a “can collector display rack” managed to become a marquee item in the Sears Wish Book.

I can’t tell you why America’s ever-increasing supply of empties became the stuff of lower-middlebrow folk art during that era. Did it grow out of the ecological awareness fostered over the previous decade? Was it it tied to the legal drinking age’s drop from 21 to 18 and the broader proliferation of beer-themed merchandise to minors? Could it have been a clever marketing push by container and beverage producers to evangelize the shift away from glass bottles while pushing folks to explore outside their beverage-based comfort zones?

I don’t know and I honestly don’t care enough to find out, but the phenomenon was real….much to the chargin of mess-conscious moms who lamented the steady stream of unwashed empties which flowed from the softball field’s parking lot to the dressers of their boy-children’s already untidy bedrooms.

My attention was initially grabbed by the assortment of brands featured on the pull-tab era wonders on display. Even discounting for regional offerings, it gave me lucid flashbacks to tagging along on one my old man’s many trips to the package store (that’s “liquor store” for you non-Boston types) in those days. The reward for behaving myself (never a certainty, then or now) was a Slim Jim and my choice of tonic (that’s “pop” or “soda” for you non-Boston types) from the store’s huge-to-my-five-year-old-self non-alcoholic cold singles case.

Picking the “correct” one was a big deal, and my favorite oscillated between grape Fanta and A&W Cream Soda (because MY INITIALS ARE A AND W, DAD, DAD, LOOK). I still drink the latter on the reg, despite the many disapproving looks I get from my dentist.

Afterward, my dad would park his current domestic dinosaur of a family car at the far end of the New Boston Street industrial park, where we’d sip from our cans and watch the trains on the Lowell line roll past.

That recollection is like a polished piece of amber among the broken glass that constitutes most of the contents of my internal memory box. It’s weird that it took this catalog image to shake it to the surface again, but the human mind wanders in unexpected directions.

In any case, my carbonated answer to Proust’s madelines got shoved aside when I noticed that one of the item’s “custom decorator ideas” for displaying one’s can collection included “your van.” You can’t say Sears didn’t know the products target demographic.

Another Monday, another truncated ‘n’ squished collection of pop hits from the polyester apocalypse of the early 1970s.

The album is the creatively titled 22 Explosive Hits, Vol 2, released by K-Tel in 1972. I purchased it for the same reason I purchased the thematically similar Believe in Music compilation — to cheaply acquire a smattering of killer cuts scattered among a veritable ocean of period-setting filler.

Here’s the track list:

A1 Sammy Davis Jr. – The Candy Man
A2 Gallery – Nice To Be With You
A3 Lobo – A Simple Man
A4 Olivia Newton-John – If Not For You
A5 Osmonds – One Bad Apple
A6 Fortunes – Rainy Day Feeling
A7 Pop Tops – Mammy Blue
A8 Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds – Don’t Pull Your Love
A9 Daddy Dewdrops – Chicaboom
A10 April Wine – You Could Have Been A Lady
A11 Hot Butter – Popcorn

B1 Derek & The Dominos – Layla
B2 Flash – Small Beginnings
B3 Giorgio – Son Of My Father
B4 Danyel Gerard – Butterfly
B5 Sugar Bears – You Are The One
B6 James Last – Wedding Song
B7 Detroit Emeralds – Baby Let Me, Take You
B8 Chi-Lites – Power To The People
B9 Millie Jackson – My Man, A Sweet Man
B10 James Brown - Honky Tonk Part 1
B11 Joe Simon – Power Of Love

The main draws here were Hot Butter’s Moogtastic instrumental “Popcorn,” the Wrecking Crew driven soft rock of Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds’ “Don’t Pull Your Love,” and the musical equivalent of a smiley face that was Gallery’s “Nice to Be With You.”

On the collateral value-added front, there are ONJ’s cover of Dylan’s “If Not For You,” the politically charged heavy soul of the the Chi-Lites’ “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People,” and Derek & The Dominos’s “Layla” (which actually benefited from K-Tel’s no so subtle snips to its runtime).

The rest I can take or leave (sorry, Godfather Brown), but the overall quality is still head and shoulders above the sophomore slump material that padded out Believe in Music‘s runtime. As a result, 22 Explosive Hits, Vol 2 offers up a more listenable snapshot of a chaotic pop era in search of a singular, salable sound.

The record came out the year I was born, and most of the featured tracks date to the year prior to that. Technically, that should rule out any direct nostalgic association on my part, but the window for such bonds to be forged was bumped up a few years. Thanks to an early childhood spent parked in front of a TV set, the music of my primordial period got drilled into me via a medley of three second snippets used by K-Tel’s compilation crafting rivals to hawk their mail-order wares.

The commercials for these albums and sets (also available on 8-track) were in heavy rotation — alongside tractor trailer driving schools and ecology-themed PSAs — during the syndicated Gilligan’s Island and Monkees repeats that constituted mid-morning UHF fare in those bygone days. So deeply did those ads burrow their way into my impressionable gray matter that my middle-aged brain still braces for specific transitions between tracks.

To this day, my subconscious assumes the follow-up line to “Bend me, shape me, any way you want me” will be “WON’T COME BACK FROM DEAD MAN’S CURVE.”

Sold for sixty-six

June 7th, 2017

I had a few hours to spare yesterday. While I considered writing up something on the fly to celebrate that rare occurrence, my pre-post research led me down a rabbit hole which burned away an entire afternoon.

The time-wasters in question were scanned copies of the 1966 Sears and J.C. Penny holiday catalogs. My original intent was to find supporting documentation for a thing I was going to do about housewares and consumer capitalism, but things got messy in a way that required me to rethink my entire approach. (This lack of Procrustean rigidity is why I will never be allowed to sip from the sweet clickbait revenue stream.)

Instead, I contented myself with poring over a thousand-page testament to the material culture of a heavily mythologized era. The “London Look” was in that year, with mass market stabs at “Carnaby Street” fashion attempting to dispel the last vestiges of drab, buttoned-down sobriety. Color TV sets were the new standard in home luxury, while 8-track cassette decks offered a (quite overstated) glimpse into the future of home audio. Everything was cleaner, sleeker, and more colorful as befitting an age of front-facing futurism untainted by the pan-spectrum cultural crisis to come.

1966 was also the year when TV-fueled “Batmania” broke wide, and the both catalogs contained ample evidence of its merchandised popcult footprint.

There were costumes, of course, ranging from the sedately functional…

…to the hyper-accessorized stuff of childhood dreams (and more than a few nightmares, I’d wager).

A number of Batman-themed playsets also made it to the shelves in time for the holiday…

…and play-related destruction shortly thereafter.

In case the text is too difficult to read, the villains featured in the Justice League playset included Joker, Brain Storm, Thunderbolt, Kaltor (a minor Aquaman frenemy), Key Man, and “Mouseman.”

Though I was born about a decade too early to encounter this stuff on store shelves, I’m amazed that I never came across any of these sets at the flea markets, church sales, or curbside garbage troves I frequented during my youth. They were exactly the type of thing Lil Bro and I would’ve kept an eye out for as kids, but none of it filtered down into our grimy hands.

Maybe the production runs were too small to ensure any generational spillover. Maybe the quality of the product was so shoddy that none of it survived into the mid-Seventies. Or maybe we were too caught up in the action figure buzz that we tended to overlook such primitive diversions. (Whatever the case was, I can guarantee you my sibling is going to hit up eBay as soon as he reads this post.)

Another item of Bat-merch we never spotted in the wild was the “giant size” Batman doll…

…and honestly, I’m kinda glad about that. The dolls were an odds-on favorite for the the most inexplicably nightmarish artifact of the Batman ’66 fad, but were beaten out by unexpected (and unwanted and unholy and unnerving) contender from the distaff side of the vintage toy aisle….

I supposed it could viewed as the birth of “two things” culture. And proof that it should’ve been strangled in its crib.

After realizing the value of K-Tel compilations as historic-nostalgic core samples of my wayward youth, I decided to dig a bit deeper into that vein, past the hazy recollections of pre-adolescence and into the primordial murk of my early childhood.

When all is said and done, I am a child of the Seventies. The eight years I spent drifting through that era of glittery, earth-toned excess left an indelible imprint that successive decades have failed to erase. When I was younger and still concerned with things like “punk credibility,” I would attempt mask my affections behind a mask of sneering irony. Now that I’m older, I’ve quit trying to hide my Me Decade damage.

Like classic rock, muscle car fetishism, and an insatiable appetite for processed comfort food, that inward-directed gaudiness of that decade is an undeniable part of who I am. It’s not the whole picture, but its a big enough component of it that there no point in pretending otherwise.

And, honestly, “empathy fatigue” and backlash be damned, I’m thankful the first epoch of my existence was shaped — no matter how imperfectly or incompletely — at a time where consideration for others and liberation from traditional gender roles was given such emphasis.

Alongside the liberal attitudes of the decade, the pop music of the time worked its way into and shaped my impressionable neural pathways. That’s especially true of the material released during the first half of the decade when the bubblegum, glam, folk-rock, pop country and singer-songwriter blended together and emulsified into the uber-mellow blanket genre of “soft rock.” I won’t make an impassioned argument about its historical significance — this ain’t Pitchfork or the AV Club — but my love for it is utterly sincere.

That affection is utterly lost on Maura, who is three years older than I am and just as much a product of those times as I am. The difference, I suspect, is that she was the child of Irish immigrants whose youthful soundtrack tended toward the Clancy Brothers. I was the domestic product of a blue collar neighborhood in an outer ring suburb, where cock rock and schmaltzy pop were white trash anthems.

Those genres — alongside funk/soul transitional stuff and eventually disco — were K-Tel’s bread and butter during its rise to the top of the compilation album heap. Their one-stop hit-shopping approach was as compelling to me in 2016 as it was to the masses forty-odd years ago, as it meant an efficient means of acquiring a collection of cherished tunes without chasing down scores of individual single releases.

My first purchase along these lines was a copy of 1972′s Believe in Music.

The album is pretty typical of K-Tel releases from this era and showcases why its compilations got stuck with such a bad rep. The sleeve is a masterpiece of generic insta-shabby chic. The emphasis on volume over fidelity meant a reduction in recording quality, exacerbated by truncations and edits to the included tracks.

(At least three versions of the album were released. I got the one without the Slade track. Damn it.)

A1 Looking Glass – Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)
A2 Daniel Boone - Beautiful Sunday
A3 Lighthouse – Sunny Days
A4 Mouth & MacNeil – How Do You Do?
A5 Hollies – Long Cool Woman
A6 Donny Osmond - Go Away Little Girl
A7 O’Jays – Backstabbers
A8 Raspberries – Go All The Way
A9 Andy & David Williams – Fly Pretty Baby
A10 Rod Stewart - Maggie May
A11 Bobby Vinton – Sealed With A Kiss

B1 Cher - Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves
B2 Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show - Sylvia’s Mother
B3 Donny Osmond - Sweet & Innocent
B4 Argent – Hold Your Head Up
B5 Eric Clapton - Let It Rain
B6 Brownsville Station – Let You Yeah Be Yeah
B7 Bulldog – No
B8 Five Man Electrical Band – Money Back Guarantee
B9 Rick Springfield – Speak To The Sky
B10 Albert Hammond – Down By The River
B11 Gallery – I Believe In Music

In some cases, the cuts are unnoticeable. In others, they’re an act of mercy. When they are obvious, however, they are agonizingly so.

I bought the album specifically for “Brandy” by Looking Glass, and was appalled to discover they chopped out the first thirty seconds of the song. That’s the best part of the song, for fuck’s sake — the audio equivalent of easing into a warm bath on a chilly day.

The version of Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” suffered even worse. The bulk of the pseudo-Celtic instrumental bits that defined the track got stripped away, leaving a two minute remnant worthy of a soup commercial jingle.

Apart from the Raspberries pioneering bit of power pop, the rest of the material works best as an aggregate mood-setter and testament to unyielding mellowness. It makes for an odd and somewhat sinister listening experience, simultaneously sleazy and sickly sweet like the era that spawned it.

It’s unsettling, but that’s not necessarily a negative from my perspective. There’s enough there to evoke demi-lucid flashbacks and the warm haze of nostalgia, but it’s also loaded with sharp reminders to dissuade me from lingering too long or getting lost in a labyrinth of romanticized myth.

I’m a child of the Seventies. Not a prisoner of them.

Bust and boom

June 2nd, 2017

Part of the adoption process in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts involves filling out a lengthy questionnaire covering the applicant’s history and personal life in minute detail. It might sound a bit intrusive, but it’s nothing I haven’t already tackled on multiple occasions and from multiple angles over Armagideon Time’s eleven year lifespan. The only real problem I’ve had with filling it out has been remembering to tone down my habitually salty language and avoid making too many references to All-Star Squadron #35.

Maura has also had to complete her own questionnaire, which has led to a number of recent discussions about various facets of our very different childhoods. The subject of my pre-punk “soul boy” days came up during one of these, and got me thinking about that odd half decade interregnum between two poles of heavy metal fandom.

It started with the Blues Brothers, watched as a network-edited Sunday Night Movie during the summer of 1985. It was the capstone of a perfect day in the middle on one of my family’s brief periods of stability. My parents took my brother and I on a drive out to the Berkshires, we had dinner at Thackeray’s Table and Tap in the Woburn Mall, then we went home and watched the movie together. There were no fights or yelling or drunken rampages — just my nuclear family in a rare state of equilibrium.

I loved The Blues Brothers. I loved it because the Elwood variant of Dan Ackroyd’s stock persona so effectively sold the same traits — gawkiness, shyness, a tendency to go on about stupid crap — I’d seen as liabilities in myself.

I loved the sense of sibling solidarity.

And I loved that sweet soul music — at first because it reminded me of the movie, but then on its own merits.

My aunt dubbed me a tape of her copy of Briefcase Full of Blues LP. Soon afterward, I managed to locate cassettes of both the movie’s soundtrack album and the Made in America LP. I listened to all three incessantly on the factory discard stereo I forwent a month’s worth of allowance to buy from the Emerson subsidiary where my mom worked at the time.

They left me hungry for more music in the same vein, but mid-Eighties Woburn wasn’t exactly a hotbed of 1960s Stax/Volt soul fandom. My parents didn’t listen to the stuff. There was no internet to scour for leads and streaming audio of associated acts. The only lead I had to go on was the Best of Sam & Dave 8-track which spooled a couple of tracks before the Bluesmobile smashed its way through a suburban Chicago shopping mall.

I searched high and low for a copy of the album — or anything Sam & Dave related — for weeks, to no avail. Finally, while flipping through the discount bins at the local Lechmere, I came across a cassette copy of this…

….the Soul Sixties volume of the freshly launched (and regrettably named) “Baby Boomer Classics” series of midlist compilations.

The imprint was launched by a Warners affiliate to take advantage of the wave of Sixties nostalgia that arose in the wake of The Big Chill. Besides cashing in on the current of narcissistic nostalgia, the line was intended to give an affordably upmarket boost to the disreputable world of budget compilations. No more misleading copy and lossy or chopped edits on bargain grade recording materials — Baby Boomer Classics prided themselves on original masters released on chrome tape and “superior quality” vinyl while keeping to midlist prices. The tracks were proven favorites and the individual volumes were given up-front title branding — genre/vibe plus decade — and trade dress that put a slick Reagan Era spin on the retro theme.

Soul Sixties included “Hold On, I’m Coming” by Sam & Dave, which made it an instant purchase. When I got home and discovered it was indeed one of the tracks used in the Blues Brothers’ movie, I was over the fucking moon. It also included essential jams by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Eddie Floyd (whose “Knock on Wood” is the apex of the classic Stax/Volt sound), providing an excellent roadmap for future exploration.

The combination of quality, focus, and affordability led to further purchases in the series. I was a poor teen with limited spending money. My listening experiences had been dominated by the single-oriented radio and music video formats. Albums tended to be pricier and riskier propositions, and a solid compilation could offer far more bang for the buck as well as a more diverse playlist. If the oldies station played or my parents referenced a particularly intriguing song — like, say The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” — it made more sense to seek it out alongside a dozen other promising cuts on “More Electric Sixties” than to seek out a full album.

Plus they looked really impressive when stacked together on the shelf at the foot of my bed.

Surfing Sixties, a mix of killer instrumentals and so-so Beach Boys imitators, became the default soundtrack for the marathon sessions of the Master System port of California Games, where Lil Bro and I would spend hours trying to beat each other’s high scores.

Electric Sixties and More Electric Sixties were my preferred listening during my late afternoon bike rides around Horn Pond. The psych-tinged hard rock of Hendrix and Cream amped up my mood, while trippier cuts like The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” put me in a more meditative state. (It was also my first encounter with the Velvets, thanks to the inclusion of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”)

Electric Seventies got the most play during my rides to high school and back. To this day, I can’t make the trip between Hammond Square and Salem Street without hearing Sabbath’s “Paranoid” or Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” in my head.

They were easily the most played tapes in my collection from the summer of 1985 through the spring of 1989. They offered convenient one stop listening even after I began acquiring the source material.

Then I got into punk rock and (stupidly) decided I was too cool for that shit. All my Baby Boomer Classic tapes were given away, tossed out, or simply fell by the wayside. (It didn’t help that the boomer branding offended my Gen X sensibilities even though it was technically the music I grew up, too, thanks to its long tail.)

Up until last week, I hadn’t thought about them in almost three decades. Now there are vinyl versions of my favorite ones — unopened in the original shrinkwrap — en route to the House on the Hillside.

Getting old means no longer having to give a fuck about one’s punk cred…and thank heavens for that.

My next K-Tel acquisition followed right on the heels of Chart Action ’83, as it is inextricably linked with that seminal compilation in the twisted corridors of childhood memory.

Sark it to me.

I wrote about Radio Active not too long ago, with a focus on how a specific half-forgotten track on the comp managed to blindside me with a heavy dose of long-buried existential dread. This time around I’d like to take a look at the album as whole, as both an artifact of a specific moment in history and my own embryonic relationship with pop music.

Radio Active — along with Chart Action ’83 — was one of the two K-Tel 8-tracks my parents bought to get some use out of the deck installed in the family Cordoba. The reasons why they picked these two albums in particular have been lost to time. Up until that time, my parents had been strictly soft rock and singer-songwriter people. Neil Diamond, Steve Forbert, James Taylor, Judy Collins, and the Little River Band were all in heavy rotation in our cramped little apartment through the dawn of the Reagan Era.

If I had to hazard a guess about the origins of this shift in listening habits, I’d lay even money on two significant events which took place shortly before it happened. My father’s youngest sister — who was only five years older than I was — moved in with us and brought a younger and hipper musical sensibility to our home. Not long afterward, my mom took an assembly line job at a stereo manufacturing plant to help make ends meet, which brought her hyper-impressionable self into contact with a bunch of twenty-something musician and audiophile co-workers.

Whatever the case may have been, Radio Active was a near-permanent fixture in the dashboard of the family’s richly upholstered ride for the better part of a year, racking up a dozen plays for every one thrown Chart Action‘s way. As the earlier of the two comps (covering the tail end of ’81 and early ’82), its selection of hot hits covered the murky, furtive moment when my relationship to pop music was transitioning between “overheard from older listeners” and “actively sought out on my own terms.”

From the perspective of oh-so-jaded middle age, the notion of a huge gulf in self-realization between ages the ten and eleven seems a bit comical and absurd. Kids don’t have the luxury of such a long view, however, and operate in a temporal realm where six months can feel like a lifetime.

Or, in the my case during the span between 1981 and 1984, multiple lifetimes.

Here’s Radio Active‘s track listing:

A1 The Police – Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
A2 The Moody Blues – The Voice
A3 REO Speedwagon – Take It On The Run
A4 Pat Benatar – Promises In The Dark
A5 The Who – You Better You Bet
A6 Rick Springfield – I’ve Done Everything For You
A7 Daryl Hall & John Oates – Private Eyes

B1 Commodores – Lady (You Bring Me Up)
B2 Carl Carlton - She’s A Bad Mama Jama (She’s Built, She’s Stacked)
B3 Rick James – Super Freak
B4 Genesis – No Reply At All
B5 Devo - Working In The Coal Mine
B6 Go-Go’s – Our Lips Are Sealed
B7 Blondie – Rapture

It’s a scattershot mix of genres and artists pulled from all over the pop spectrum in the odd transitional period between the death of disco and MTV’s impact becoming fully apparent. Bubblegum, soft rock, AOR, new wave, and post-disco funk and soul jams contending for chart placement as the music industry flailed about looking for the next big hegemonic scene.

To a younger set of eyes and ears, it seems haphazard as hell. If you lived through the era, it makes perfect sense — the ambient pop soundtrack that wove its way through the recessionary and apocalyptic hours before supply-side morning returned to America. That historical context — filtered through the eyes of and internalized by an anxious ten year old — has imbued the music with haunting overtones, with even the chirpiest tracks evoking ghostly whispers at the edge of my subconscious.

The experience is an aggregate one. Taken individually, my only reaction to “Private Eyes” or “No Reply at All” is to say “not this crap again” and flip to another station. As part of Radio Active’s overall playlist, they become integral chapters in an claustrophobic tale of childhood terrors giving way to uncertainties of early adolescence.

It’s a spooky and uncomfortable experience, yet fascinating to revisit — like running my tongue over a missing tooth or rubbing my index finger over an ancient scar. There’s an elusive tangibility to the mystery and hazy memories, rooted as they are in childhood’s larger than life and a dozen times more terrifying conception of events, which isn’t present Chart Action ’83 or other artifacts outside that temporal frame of reference.

Of all the K-Tel compilations I’ve purchased, Radio Active is the one I keep returning to.

“Why the fuck are you listening to Genesis?” Maura asks.

If I had an answer, I would need to.

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