Armagideon Time

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

When I bought a cheapo turntable in the autumn of 2016, the purpose was to revisit old favorites from the stacks of albums that had been relegated to storage crates in my attic. I had no desire to get back into buying records on a regular basis, especially since the fire sale days of the early Nineties have given way to huge markups and insufferable trendiness.

I didn’t take into account, however, was how much the format shaped the overall listening experience. After a decade and a half of digital carte blanche and curated playlists, there was something soothing about tossing on a slab of vinyl and letting it spin from start to finish without cherrypicking via skip button. The lack of portability fixed me into a specific place and allotted times for listening, which sounds limiting but was actually liberating.

It made me want more. Two decades had passed since my vinyl collecting salad days and my tastes had shifted and broadened a good deal since then. There were countless cherished albums I’d passed over buying on record because of punk puritanism or the transition to compact discs or it never occurred to my twenty-something self that his 2017 incarnation would want a copy of Berlin’s Pleasure Victim on vinyl.

Once I started on that road again, the stack of LP’s on my entertainment center got thicker and higher and now brushes the bottom of the wall sconces on my living room wall. In my previous album-based features, I limited myself to a fixed theme based on “significance” or chronological order. As handy as those angles may have been in terms of focusing my thoughts, they tended to become restrictive and repetitive over the long haul. There’s only so much one can say about mid-Seventies K-Tel compilations or identikit Oi releases.

Things are going to be different this time around, with the only criteria being “records I’ve purchased since October 2016 that I feel like droning on about.”

With that in mind, I’m going to kick things off with the records that, well, kicked this whole thing off.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve spent a good deal of time reading and re-reading Google Books’ online archive of LIFE Magazine‘s original run. As someone whose areas of interest are the social fabric and culture — especially of the material variety — of 20th Century America, the publication is an invaluable resource on multiple levels. The weekly schedule and positioning as the nation’s foremost family magazine provide a running chronicle of events and aspirations as they unfolded in real-time. The articles, the ads, the editorials, the reviews — the archives are full of interesting leads and countless tangents to get lost within…and, believe me, I have.

I’ve kept a particular eye out for house ads featuring some of Time-Life’s ancillary offerings — expanded versions of material pulled from the periodicals, collated into book (and occasionally record) form, and became an on-approval staple of household, school, and community library shelves. Most are fairly easy to find cheap on the second-hand market, but there was one offering that both intrigued and eluded me for years.

The Swing Era was a series of handsome box sets covering the rise and fall of the Big Band era. Each volume covered a specific era and (somewhat iffy) theme in the form of three LPs and an accompanying hardback tome. They were just the type of omnibus package I love delving into, but the combination of format and release date made acquiring them an expensive hassle for someone who didn’t even have a record player. (I did manage to score low quality digital transfers of a few volumes off some enthusiast site, but they were pulled from different editions and were missing such crucial cuts as “In the Mood” or “Sing, Sing, Sing.” They did make for a nice custom GTA Online soundtrack, though.)

After years of writing the series off as one of those things to covet from a distance yet never own, Maura came home from an estate sale carrying a near complete set of The Swing Era. She had no idea that I’d been interested in them or despaired of ever finding copies. “They were cheap and I thought they looked cool,” she said as I looked over the stack in stunned silence. It was missing the first and final volumes, which was regrettable, but only a fool finds fault with such a fortuitous windfall.

In the absence of a working turntable, the collection ended up occupying a corner of the dining room table for a month before I broke down and bought a low-end Jensen with in-built speakers just to give them a spin.

The compositions included on The Swing Era were (then) modern-day recreations of the tunes based on the arrangements of their signature performers. While it means that you won’t hear Gene Krupa pounding the skins in his inimitable fashion, they did tap veteran bandleaders like Glen Gray and Billy May to deliver the high-fidelity goods. Besides, I’m not so much of a purist to sneer at the scope and scale on aural display. The only place it really fall short is on the handful of vocal tracks, where that certain songbird something of old got lost in the mix.

The Swing Era hasn’t become an everyday — or even every week — listen for me, but when I do indulge, I indulge hard. I gave the entire set a spin a few months back when Maura was away at a convention for a weekend, and let the hot sounds and smooth numbers wash over me as I went about my appointed rounds. When time doesn’t permit a deep dive, I’ll content myself with the 1940-41 volume and get the evening started on the most auspicious of notes.

“Tuxedo Junction” has become something of an anthem in our house, but I can’t figure out why.

Oh, right.

I am not a social creature by nature, but this time of year always makes me feel a little nostalgic about the holiday parties of my childhood.

Dealing with the crowds and noise was a vastly different affair as a kid than it is for an adult. Apart from the requisite, perfume-reeking “OH MY YOU HAVE GROWN” greetings from older female relatives, one could glide around through the throngs of oblivious (and usually tipsy) adults like ground squirrels scuttling across the loam of some primeval forest. Providing one was careful enough to avoid the gaze of That One Great Aunt, you could raid the hors d’oeuvres table with impunity and seek out whatever adventure could be found within garish confines of the hosts’ midcentury-modern-meets-mid-Seventies abode.

Both sides of my family threw holiday bashes, though I preferred the ones organized by my father’s people because my slightly younger cousin Jason would be there to alleviate the boredom. Otherwise, there weren’t many kids close to my age bracket at these events, leaving me in a restless limbo between the teenager and toddler sets where I had to amuse myself for five hours.

(My first exposure to Dungeons and Dragons came from one of the aforementioned teens. He was a distant relative whose name I’ve long since forgotten who spent the entire evening sketching an elaborate map on graph paper while I irritated him with an endless series of questions about what he was doing.)

There are several semi-lucid fragments I can recall about these parties — the haze of cigarette smoke, the murmur of political discussion peppered with occasional outbursts, the drone of discount holiday music albums purchased from Zayre’s or Stuarts — but none are as emblematic of those times as “stained glass cookies” were.

The confections were a specialty of my mother’s Aunt Dottie and the showpiece of her dessert display spread. They were a circular fudge-like mess containing a cross-section of colored mini-marshmallows — hence the “stained glass” thing — and I couldn’t begin to estimate how many of the things I tucked away over the course of my childhood.

My recollection of them remained even after the parties stopped being an annual thing, but I could never figure out exactly what they were or how they were made. My friends had never heard of them, or assumed I was talking about the sugar cookie constructs with a clear pane of sugar in the center. I had to assume it was a WASP white trash thing that propagated through that culture’s culinary grapevine while passing over more ecumenical means of transmission.

Eventually I did find an answer, and immediately wished I hadn’t.

The cookies were a no-bake affair, akin to a pancreas-killing sushi roll. Take some chocolate chips and a big gob of butter, melt them into an industrial grade form of fudge, lob in some colored mini-marshmallows, then dump it out on some waxed paper and wrap the mass into a cylindrical log to be refrigerated until it hardens enough for slicing. Thanks to the advent of the microwave, the entire process can be completed in under fifteen minutes with minimal skill involved.

In other words, it’s exactly the type of thing my mother’s family would consider high class eating.

There’s a part of me that feels compelled to make a batch of stained glass cookies for old time’s sake. It is currently engaged in a heated battle with the part of me that wishes to avoid an induced diabetic coma.

It’s the evening of December 7, 1991. I am sitting on a bench outside the movie theater in Copley Plaza, waiting for my date to arrive. I am terrified.

This is more than the typical first date jitters.

The woman I’m waiting for is a fellow member of the UMass Boston’s Sci-Fi Club. I’ve known her for almost a year. On the last day of classes before summer break, she handed me a note with her phone number and directions to her home. The word among other club members was that it was inevitable that the two of us would become a couple.

It’s probably why they were so thrown off when I passed her over for another woman instead. That relationship ended with my getting dumped two weeks ago. I more than deserved it, but the hit to the ego sent me into a melancholic tailspin.

What if everyone was right? What if the woman I’d passed over truly was The One? How could I even approach her after what I did?

In the end, I opted for the most cowardly approach. I pinned a folded note to club bulletin board. “Maura, would you like to see Beauty and the Beast with me this Saturday?”

The note went up on Monday and was gone by Tuesday morning. I crossed paths with Maura in couple of times since then, but she made no mention of it. I was sure I’d fucked things up beyond fixing.

And then on Friday afternoon, just as I was leaving the club’s office for the weekend — “Otto! So you still want to see that movie tomorrow?”

We picked a time and place, and now I am here. Waiting and fretting.

Before heading to the theater, I stopped and the Barnes & Noble in Downtown Crossing where I picked up a cheap paperback copy of King Solomon’s Mines to read. I have attempted and failed to get through the first paragraph a dozen times before Maura finally arrives. She’s wearing a biker jacket, plaid skirt, pointy boots and a red sweater. Her dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail and her bangs are streaked with gold.

She apologizes for making me wait. I lie and tell her I hadn’t been waiting long.

I consider paying for both our tickets, but my limited experience has taught me that some women get weirded out by what they assume that implied. We go dutch instead.

The movie is fine, though it cuts against the punk rock rude boy rep I’ve tried to cultivate. I spend most of my time sneaking glances at Maura, trying to read her reaction to it.

The end credits roll and we file out of the theater. On the walk back to the subway station I ask her what she thought of it.

“I liked it. It was cute.”

“Yeah, the use of computer animation was interesting,” I say while trying and failing to sound cool.

We decide to get some pizza at the Quincy Market food court. Maura shoots dagger glares and throws an insult at a fur-wearing Beacon Hill matron at the next table over.

Our chatter is nervous and guarded, small talk about the Go-Go’s, anime, and our one-community-removed Metro North hometowns.

She walks with me back to North Station. She sees me off with a kiss on the cheek before hopping back on the subway back to Medford.

I take the last commuter train back to Woburn and crawl into bed. Contemplating the evening’s events as I drift off to sleep, I am unable to determine if whether the date went well or not.

I was supposed to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I applied, got accepted, paid the deposit, and even managed to snag a dorm room despite the cautionary language about housing availability in the school’s admissions prospectus.

Unfortunately, my weird legal status — where my grandmother had custody but my father still held legal guardianship — meant that my financial aid paperwork got fouled up. Realizing my hard luck case scholarship from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts wasn’t going to cover my expenses, I asked my (very disappointed) guidance counselor for a list of local colleges still accepting fall applications in the middle of June. She suggested the University of Lowell (now UMass Lowell) and UMass Boston.

She didn’t have an application for the former on hand, so I ended up taking copies of my transcript and handwritten admissions essay to the latter during a “WE STILL NEED WARM BODIES” walk-in event. The admissions officer did a double take when she scanned my paperwork.

Y’see, UMB was a commuter school aimed at serving up an affordable education on “non-traditional” students — veterans, inner city kids, and older folks who’d missed out on (or dropped out of) other, more prestigious institutions. A fresh-from-high-school, top five percentile kid from the suburbs was a rarity and a “get” beyond price in that (pretty problematic) context.

“So exactly why are you interested in coming here?” she asked with a not of disbelief in her voice.

“Because I have nowhere else to go,” I responded, and was accepted on the spot as true UMB material.

Despite the school’s reputation as a “high school after high school” (which it has spent decades and ungodly sums of money trying to shake), I had a lot of difficulty adjusting to college life. In Woburn, I had — for good and ill — a rep that dated back to kindergarten. At UMB, I was just another face in the crowd and had difficulty making connections with students who tended be much older (as in “mid-twenties”) than I was and with a different set of priorities.

I also had a tough time with my classes, thanks to an advisory who steered my into taking both Calc I and Fundamental of Physics in a single semester. I’d be introduced to some new theory or formula in the former that I was expected to be familiar with in the latter, with all of an hour between them to digest the material. My physics lab class — being a more empirical experience — went a bit better for me…until the instructor groped me while reviewing my notes. (Hashtag “MeToo,” I guess.)

Eventually I quit trying altogether, and spent my time reading shitty fantasy novels in one of the student lounges or wandering around Boston to kill time until the train ride back to Woburn.

Sometime around midterms, I saw a flyer posted for an open house held by the school’s funnybook fan club. I hadn’t realized such a thing even existed, and decided to check it out. The club turned out to be a single dude who spent the entire event hitting me up for contributions for his theoretical fanzine. It was easy for him to do so because I was the only idiot who bothered to show up for the open house.

As I was mumbling my excuses and beating a hasty but polite retreat, I got stopped in the hall by Student Life’s head work-study dude. He shot me a “sorry ’bout that” look, offered to introduce me to “the people I really need to meet,” and showed my the way to the cramped, windowless office of the campus Sci-Fi Club. There I met a flamboyantly scraggly punk rocker named Tim and a friendly kid named Mike who served as the org’s secretary. I introduced myself as “Otto,” in a bit of punk self-reinvention, a name that would stick with me through the dawn on the next millennium.

(In hindsight, I should’ve went with “Otis” as it had the same vibe and was my actual middle name and not some sad swipe from Repo Man. Live and learn.)

The Sci-Fi Club became my home away from home and the nexus of a new and exciting social circle. It also got me excited about role-playing games again. The office was the meeting place and staging area for numerous ongoing campaigns by current and former members, and had a deep inventory of rulebooks, minatures, and reusable hex mats available for members’ use. When I mentioned that I used to run Champions for my friends back in Woburn, half a dozen members responded that I should start a campaign for the club.

The run was an utter disaster. It’s one thing to play with pals who learned and help shaped certain house rules over the course of several years, and another to put together something for a group of strangers. I compounded the issue by over-complicating things right out of the gate, an understandable but unfortunate consequence of being desperate to score a home run on the first pitch. The players were exceptionally patient with my shortcomings, but the campaign ended after a single sloppy session and I went back to being a fly on the clubhouse wall.

During the closing weeks of my first semester, I got hit with a double whammy. I got dual notifications of academic probation (for dismal grades) and suspension for non-payment. The academic thing was easy enough to work out and involved promising to meet a minimum GPA target the following spring. The financial issue was a tougher nut to crack. I spent a week wandering between various offices, showing my scholarship award letter to a series of confused and unhelpful administrators.

I’d just about hit the point where I was going to say “fuck it” and drop out when I got a summons to the Bursar’s Office. When I got to the teller’s window, a Levar Burton doppelganger handed me a piece of paper to sign. He looked it over, dropped it into a tray, and slid me a check for fifteen hundred dollars.

“Is…this…mine?”

“Yes, sir. Have a good day. Next in line, please!”

I never stopped to consider that my scholarship extended to living expenses. Since UMB was a commuter school and Boston has a high cost of living relative to the rest of the country, the estimated balance was paid directly back to me. It was more money than I’d ever had at one time in my life, and a glorious bolt from the blue after a year of unemployment.

The first thing I bought was a copy of Herzog Zwei for the Sega Genesis. The following day, I went to a military surplus store near the Prudential Center and invested in a pair of leather Army gloves with wool liners and a surplus German rucksack, before hitting the Mystery Train on Newbury Street and bought a used copy of Bedtime for Democracy on tape and an original promo poster for The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat.

Then I walked home from the train station with a 103 degree fever and was bedridden for a week.

After the projectile vomiting and hallucinating ceased, I paid a visit to Excalibur Hobbies and purchased a copy of Kingdom of Champions. It was one of the first major sourcebooks for the 4th edition of the Champions RPG, and covered the ins, outs, and other important details for including the UK as a campaign setting. Much of it reads like a stripped down tourist’s guide, clearing up common misconceptions and covering specialized areas of interest such as regional slang or the basics of the British legal system as it would pertain to superheroic crimefighting.

The back half of the book contained a pretty diverse roster of pre-generated heroes and villains to incorporate into UK-themed adventures, including Brit-ified analogues of the Bronze Age Avengers and Defenders teams. Most of the characters were well-designed and compelling as far as Champions NPCs went, although their in-game stats demonstrated that the designers’ hope of abolishing the absurd power level creep from previous editions of the game was a vain effort.

Kingdom of Champions had little practical use to me at the gaming table, but it still made for some fascinating reading. It was a perfect companion for the trade collection of Alan Davis’ post-Moore Captain Britain stories, which I was utterly obsessed with at the time.

For that and other sentimental reasons, Kingdom of Champions remains my favorite Champions supplement of all time.

Life’s what you mech it

December 5th, 2017

It doesn’t matter that my interest in anime faded a decade ago or that I don’t need anymore fragile plastic constructs collecting dust on my shelves. Put a little mad money in my pocket and a an idle hour to browse eBay listings, and I will eventually fall down a rabbit hole filled with Japanese robot toys.

The fascination is pure nostalgia, through and through, honed and cultivated by a childhood that ran alongside Star Blazers, Force Five, and Robotech. The aesthetics of the designs are as much an integral part of my conception of that era as any pop song, ad jingle, or questionable fashion choice might be.

There was also a mysteriously exotic quality to the mecha-mania which briefly spilled onto these shores. What we did get felt like the shadows in Plato’s metaphoric cave, imperfect and incomplete fragments of something much grander. This was reinforced by the material artifacts which flooded toy aisles Transformers‘ becoming the top toy line in the country, a bewildering display of imports and bootlegs sporting bizarre names and existing outside the smallish circle of localized familiarity.

No part of the Mekton II rulebook captured my attention as the campaign ideas section did, as it was liberally sprinkled with references to Aura Battler Dunbine, Super Attack Speed Galvion and other nonsensical-yet-evocative titles. That tantalizing taste filled me with a burning desire to know more, but world of bootleg VHS rips and imported “roman albums” was well beyond my suburban sphere and modest means. I had to content myself with the occasional fanzine that filtered its way down to my local comic shop.

My interest in anime and manga has waxed and waned over the years, but my love of mechs has remained fairly constant. There’s at least three crates of Japanese robot toys in my attic (not counting the remnants of Maura’s long and abiding Robotech fandom), and a dozen or so “most favored” examples scattered around the rest of the house. I already own nearly every figure of interest to me, have tapped out the lines and franchises with the greatest personal appeal, yet it continues to be a default “what should I check out” mode for me.

I’m also really fussy when it comes to mech designs, being a hardcore partisan for the Eighties-style “real robo” aesthetic. I’ve got nothing against the Getter Robo/Shogun Warriors style, but it lacks the intricate detail and illusion of plausibility of later mech franchises. (It’s also why I never got into Transformers as anything but a means to get localized copies of appropriated mecha toys.)

The pinnacle of that “look” is Robotech’s “Alpha Fighter” (aka the “Legioss” from Genesis Climber Mospeada). It’s a hefty and visually striking war machine that can convert from a futuristic space fighter to a badass battlesuit, and the design is damn near perfect.

It’s exactly the type of thing I’d seek out…if I didn’t already own one. It was originally one of Damian’s prize possessions, which he traded to my little brother for for a guitar strap (don’t ask) and was handed off to me when my sibling went off to college. I also have G1 versions of Roadbuster (re-purposed from the Special Armored Battalion Dorvack anime) and Dinobot Sludge from Transformers, the top-hatted Tux from Go-Bots, and a “masterpiece edition” Veritech fighter I got from a Funcoland clearance bin for twelve bucks (which I’m sure was a mistake on their part, but I didn’t bother correcting them). There aren’t many Holy Grails leftfor me in the mecha realm.

The only thing I do regret missing out on were the Dougram toys. The series never got a stateside release, but the mech designs were used in Revell’s pre-cartoon Robotech Defenders line of model kits and pre-assembled toys collected dust on the local TRU’s shelf for years. They were decidedly upscale compared to the other imported trendhopping merch. Not only were they solidly constructed from die-cast parts, the came packaged in a spiffy slipcase along with a host of accessories and armaments. I wasn’t crazy about the designs at the time, but have since come to regret not picking a few up when I had the chance.

Finding them at a reasonable price is next to impossible, though the “related items” sidebar did end up pointing me to the next best thing…

…a slipcased-packed “Walker Galliar” from Combat Mecha Xabungle.

I wasn’t that familiar with the series, apart from catching a couple fansubbed episodes a few years ago and the fact that it’s “cute” character designs were at odds with the series’ grimly violent overtones.

The Gailliar figure is aces, though, and has the heft, accessories, and articulation of something from the mid-Eighties golden era. My lack of knowledge about Xabungle actually works in its favor, as it channels that old familiar vibe of knowing fuck all about the franchise while marveling at the merchandise.

It also set me back all of seventeen bucks, which was also nice.

We regret to inform you that today’s entry marks the end of this feature as a weekly thing.

I started buying K-Tel collections because they were cheap and readily available nostalgia fodder. After a year of steadily mining that vein, I’ve pretty much tapped it out. There are still about a dozen K-Tel offerings on my vinyl wishlist, but all of them are lower tier jobbers containing one or two songs of interest padded out with excruciating soft rock dross. If a cheap of one in reasonably decent condition happens to cross my path, great, but I’m not going to aggressively seek them out or pay a premium for them.

While it’s a little sad to part ways with something that has occupied so much of my psychic real estate for a year, I don’t have any regrets. It has been a fun experience and a springboard for other lines of inquiry and exploration. It would’ve been nice if it hadn’t involved lethal doses of Hall & Oates, but that’s how the big bam booms.

At least we’re going to close things out with a super-sized doozy of a compilation, one that — GASP! SHOCK! HORROR! — isn’t actually a K-Tel release but a product of their rival Ronco.

I’m very much ride or die with K-Tel in the vintage midlist compilation wars, but the House that Ron Popiel Built truly outdid the Winnipeg Wonder when it came to branding and trade dress. I would’ve bought 1982′s Raiders of the Pop Charts based on the title and sleeve art alone.

What does it have to do with the movie it so shamelessly cribbed its name from? Absolutely nothing, apart from a ludicrous attempt to draft on the branded zeitgeist! That’s precisely what makes it a next-level artifact of in-the-moment ephemera.

Raiders was a UK release and consists of two separate parts sold together to create the value-added illusion of a BOGO bundle deal. This ended up being the biggest stumbling block to acquiring a copy of it, as most sellers only offered one of the two component records from the set and my level of interest couldn’t justify the logistical hassles of tracking both halves down and dealing with the exorbitant shipping rates from the UK to the States. (Seriously, it’s almost triple what I’ve paid to have stuff sent to me from Germany.)

As luck would have it, I eventually found a domestic seller (in Oklahoma, of all places) who was selling both records, in near mint condition, for twenty bucks plus media mail postage.

Part One:

A1 Madness – Our House
A2 Modern Romance – Best Years Of Our Lives
A3 Haircut 100 – Love Plus One
A4 Clannad – Theme From Harry’s Game
A5 Raw Silk – Do It To The Music
A6 The Chaps – Rawhide
A7 Incantation – Cacharpaya
A8 Fat Larrys Band – Zoom

B1 Culture Club - Do You Really Want To Hurt Me
B2 Pretenders – Back On The Chain Gang
B3 Japan – Nightporter
B4 Heaven 17 – Let Me Go
B5 Tight Fit – Fantasy Island
B6 Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin – Johnny Rocco
B7 Toni Basil – Mickey

Part Two:

C1 Kid Creole & The Coconuts – Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy
C2 Yazoo – Only You
C3 Lene Lovich – It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz)
C4 The Beat – I Confess
C5 Toto Coelo – I Eat Cannibals
C6 Precious Little – The On And On Song
C7 Whodini – Magic’s Wand
C8 Pale Fountains – Thank You

D1 Shakin’ Stevens – Give Me Your Heart Tonight
D2 Simple Minds - Someone Somewhere (In Summertime)
D3 Robert Palmer – Some Guys Have All The Luck
D4 UB 40 – So Here I Am
D5 Gregory Isaacs – Night Nurse
D6 Morrissey Mullen – Bladerunner
D7 Kids From Fame – Starmaker

The collection contains and embarrassment of riches — and some just plain embarrassments — from a singular and personally significant moment in pop music history. It’s also yet another reminder that, despite the new wave hype, the British Top 40 could be just as bafflingly awful as its American counterpart was at the time.

Side C is the hands-down high point of the comp, containing a mix of tracks that you’d never find on any domestic K-Tel offering. “It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz)” was one of our wedding songs and “I Eat Cannibals” is a favorite of my hard-to-please better half, and their inclusion went a long way towards sealing the deal.

The initial post-workday spin of Side C went atypically well as far as these things go — up until it hit the sugar-blasted nightmare of Precious Little’s “The On and On Song” and the familiar “what the fuck is that crap” echoed from our kitchen. It was even more excruciating than previously objectionable Loggins or Hall & Oates jams because of the lasting trauma inflicted upon my generation by folk-loving Boomer educators.

To this day, I can’t listen to more than a couple of bars of Mary Hopkins or the Kingston Trio without having a stress flashback where I’m standing on the stage of my elementary school auditorium, desperately trying to avoid my third-grade teacher’s wrath by not fucking up the words to some song about flowers or world peace or some other subject that drove home the connotative dissonance of that particular moment. I can’t remember what my mother smelled like or my grandpa’s laugh, but the words to “Top of the World” have been permanently seared in my brain, thanks to Miss Grady’s beady-eyed stare of barely concealed rage.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. The rest of the compilation has seen only a couple of plays since it arrived. Most of the other bright spots appear on other collections in my archive, and among more appealing artists than the Kids from Fame or Shakin’ Stevens. It also doesn’t help that I hear most of them during my daily commute on First Wave’s frustratingly limited “classic alternative” playlist. This might sound like a bum note to end this series on, but I think it jibes fairly well with the overall experience — a handful of things I fondly remember, buried among a lot more shit I’d rather forget.

PARTING BONUS CONTENT:

Since this is the end of the road for this series, I thought I’d toss in a list of my top five K-Tel comps for those of you seeking to start a collection of your own.

1. Rock 80 (1980)
2. The Beat (1982)
3. Radio Active (1982)
4. The Main Event (1979)
5. Hit Machine (1976)

Honorable mentions: Modern Dance (1981), Hit Express (1982), and New Wave (1979)

I’m just counting the days

November 30th, 2017

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, nostalgia and I have a complicated relationship.

I’ve expended thousands upon thousands of words on the importance of distinguishing between “what was” and “what we want to remember.” I’ve made numerous attempts to puncture certain myths and have inveighed ferociously about the dangers of rose-tinted glasses. I approach the subject that way because of my academic background and a generally iconoclastic attitude, but beneath it all resides a deep vein of Proustian longing.

It most often manifests itself through material artifacts, because I grew up in a place and time where those were the prevailing cultural touchstones. Even music can be lumped into the category, by means of medium or by the inherently commercial nature of pop songs. It’s not a particularly unique set of circumstances, and testimonials along these lines are nigh ubiquitous. There is no object d’retro so obscure that one can’t find a book, article, or series of podcasts dissecting it in painstaking detail.

In my case, the driving impetus is a ongoing struggle between loss and restoration centering around specific events during my formative years. My mother’s death (twenty-nine years ago today, as it turns out) drew down a steel curtain between past and ever-shifting present. My family unit was dissolved, our physical possessions liquidated, and my world upended. The few token possessions I held onto were dwarfed by the amount of things that were discarded or went missing during the transition. My junior high yearbook has never resurfaced nor my lenticular Magnum PI poster or the most of my mom’s old Books of Knowledge.

I didn’t contemplate these losses much at the time. There were much weightier concerns that kept me preoccupied while I adjusted to the new status quo. As the years passed, however, and the pain and shock slowly subsided, memories of certain things began to haunt me at odd moments.

It started with a Super Powers Firestorm figure my little brother found at one of the comic shops he frequented. He knew I liked the character back in the day and had owned one of the figures in the Old Days. He asked if I wanted to him to pick it up for me and I handed over a twenty and told him to go for it. I was in my mid-twenties, had a steady job, and some cash to burn, so why not?

I wasn’t prepared for what I felt when I held that lump of plastic in my hand, hazy memories transformed into a psychic jolt of lucid recollections. It was if a puzzle piece fell into place, revealing a portion of a wider — yet still incomplete — image.

And I wanted more of it.

More pieces of that metaphoric puzzle have been placed in the two decades since then, though the initial contact rush has come up against diminishing returns – a minute (if even) of thrill followed by a deep sigh and another hunk of ephemera to toss into storage and never think about again. There were other ways of remembering, more constructive ones which involved reconciling the messiness of my past with a more mature understanding of what it meant to me and how it has shaped me, for good and ill. They didn’t require dropping cash and filling up valuable space, either, and so my purchases grew fewer, further between, and more selective.

I still kept a short list of significant and representative items to pursue when my finances and opportunity permitted, and I used it as a reference when a little windfall came my way recently. After agreeing not to go too wild, Maura and I decided to indulge a little and chase a few deferred retail therapy dreams. I hit up the eBay and scored some personally significant old Hot Wheels cars (including the military-themed ones from the mid-Seventies), a small model of Argo from Star Blazers, a couple of records, and twenty-piece lot of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures.

The M.U.S.C.L.E. guys hadn’t actually made it onto my list, but turned up during a search for some other desired artifact of my youth. That didn’t stop me from pulling the “buy it now” trigger as soon as I saw them.

M.U.S.C.L.E. — Mattel’s localization of the Japanese “Kinkeshi” line of manga-inspired toys — was a big thing among my circle of North Woburn pals. The little plastic wrestler figures were cheap, visually interesting, and were ideal collecting-trading material for kids who’d grown out of action figures but were too nerdy to get into sports cards.

I didn’t give a shit about rassling and knew nothing about the Kinnikuman source material, but I was fascinated by the line’s high concept insanity and affordability. After a good deal of wheeling and dealing, I accumulated a set of “essential” cool-to-me figures which I kept inside a metal Land O’ Lakes recipe box on my dresser. Instead of wrestlers, I envisioned them as superheroes and villains, broke them up into teams, and gave them their own badass codenames like “Armor X” and “Jakk Manic.”

This was during the height of my comics-creating hoop dreams and the characters served as the foundation for an entire shared-universe setting. It was my personal variant of the “adolescent fanfic phase,” and I adorned my wall with sketches and rosters of the various characters. I did have enough anxiety of influence to file the serial numbers off the source material by making the kind of minor cosmetic alterations media-damaged fanboys confuse for originality. A few of these creations would eventually get incorporated into my earliest Champions RPG adventures.

I managed to hold onto the tin of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures right up until my mother’s death, at which point it went missing during the move to my grandmother’s place. Memories of it would occasionally resurface, and I did spring for a later-series blister of the figures I found at a local job lots place in the mid-Nineties. Yet there wasn’t anything especially urgent or poignant about the recollections. It was just part of a long list of “yeah, I had some of those” that would come up during typical Gen X’er conversations.

I sprung for the bulk lot because it was cheap, included a half-dozen of my old favorites, and wouldn’t take up a ton of space. The restorative impulse was there, but weak compared to, say, the G1 dinobot brotosaurus figure or a SSP Smash Up Derby car.

When the package arrived the other night, I opened it up and dumped the contents onto the coffee table. As soon as I picked up one of the figures, it hit me in a rush — the codenames, the backstories, the way the rubbery plastic felt and smelled, and the one figure (the Leopard Tank dude in the photo) I used to cart around with me in the pocket of my army surplus jacket and draw sketches of in study hall. It all came back to me, clean and clear like 1986 was yesterday. It didn’t spur any collector-completist impulse, but I did spring for a couple of other favorite M.U.S.C.L.E. figures from back in the day.

I also asked Maura to keep an eye out for metal recipe boxes during her estate sale runs. The proper protocols must be observed, after all.

This feature’s purpose was to chronicle my teens through mid-twenties through the various role-playing games I played or purchased during that timeframe. That product-plus-personal-anecdote formula breaks down when it comes to the stretch between the December 1989 and October 1990, when my interest in the hobby took a steep nosedive.

There were many overlapping reasons for this long hiatus.

A couple weeks before Christmas, the staff at the hospital where I worked (washing pots and pans) were informed that the place was going to close at the beginning of the new year. Some of us were given the option to relocate to a sister institution two towns over, but the commute wasn’t feasible for my car-less self and the single shift I pulled at the place (on the night Bush Senior invaded Panama) made it clear that management didn’t really expect anyone to take them up on the offer.

The job had been my primary source of discretionary income, and losing it necessitated a good deal of belt-tightening. Finding a new gig turned out to be more difficult than I assumed it would be, especially in an era where punk rock still held a degree of exotic menace in the suburbs. That, in turn, led to an escalating feedback loop — I couldn’t find work because of my punkiness, so I had nothing to lose by further embracing the style. What money I could scrape together or beg from my relatives went toward more pressing priorities like comics, music, clothes, and the occasional second-hand videogame cartridge.

Role-playing games probably would have figured into that economic calculus, but the interest just wasn’t there. The small group of hold-outs I played with had drifted apart by that point. Of the old crew, only Damian and I remained, and even that friendship had begun to show signs of strain. While I got more and more into punk rock, Damian embraced the hard partying vanity of the hair metal scene. Each of us thought the other was becoming a joke, and both of us were probably right. What time we did spend together was spent playing videogames, hitting the local arcades, and fighting over which movie to rent.

While my relationship with Damian continued to deteriorate, I started spending time with a new group of friends I was dragged into after my mother’s death. For some reason, my plight touched the hearts of my high school’s clique of bohemian types. They were nice kids for all their drama and pretense, and I repaid their kindness by being a nasty little prick to them. I also made a point of carrying over those underdeveloped social skills and unfocused rage into some pretty disastrous attempts at adolescent romance, both requited and otherwise. Not my proudest moment, for sure, but it was yet another distraction from the world of character sheets and percentile dice.

And that’s pretty much how things went through the end of my senior year through the first half of my first semester in college…when things took a turn for the life-changing, but that’s a story for another time.

The softest of ware

November 28th, 2017

The latter half of the Eighties is a weird dead spot in my cultural awareness. I’m sure the progressive deterioration of my family during that stretch had a lot to do with it, coupled with my general withdrawal into the sounds and fashions of two decades previous. I stopped paying attention to current music after V-66 switched from music videos to a home shopping format, and the only first-run TV I followed on a regular basis was Jeopardy, Robotech, Night Court, and (for some reason) the One Life to Live storyline set in the Old West. Otherwise, if it didn’t involve videogames, comics, or RPGs, I didn’t pay much attention to it.

That isolation complicated the efforts to re-socialize me after my mother’s death. My peers meant well by their efforts to draw me into their little circles, but most of what they discussed was moon language to my ears — names and titles and brands that had zero significance to me, and only made me feel more estranged from kids my age. It persisted right up through my early years in college when Maura, my punk rock pal Leech, and regular access to cable television helped bring me up to speed.

Even so, my awareness of the era tends to be an after-the-fact construct rather than something experienced organically. No matter how much I’ve read or researched over the decades, gaps do persist and reveal themselves in the oddest places. It happened recently when I was working my way through a run of Sears “Wish Book” holiday catalogs from the later Eighties and felt bewildered by the ladies’ fashions on display. Yeah, the topic would’ve been outside my wheelhouse even if I hadn’t spent those years in a psychic bunker, but at the same time I was an adolescent boy when this stuff was trendy.

Maybe Sears’ attempts at pandering towards prevailing tastes fell well short of the mark. Maybe my hormonally directed gaze passed over this stuff in favor of the more bohemian-minded lassies I tended to pine after. I honestly don’t know, yet I don’t think that knowledge would help me parse the weirdness of the 1988 Wish Book’s “Mainframe for Juniors” line of fashions.

Why “Mainframe,” a term that suggests a bulky-ass tape-driven hunk of circuitry secluded in an institutional “clean room?” What was the rationale there? Cutting edge and suggestive of the pink collar ghetto which awaited the young misses of the X Generation?

When I think “technofuture,” I think high cinched waists, floral prints, and pastels.

“Into her study hall slambook, a churning synaesthesia, where her boredom was the taste of Orange Julius, scent of Christian Dior’s Poison, huge lacquer discs hung from her ears.” – William Gimbels’ Mallomancer

Getting really hungry for those chalky mints my great-gran used to stock her candy dish with, for some reason.

“After the prom, Brice and Trent are going to take us to Straylight to unshackle a corporate AI.”

It’s all fun and games until you stand next to a curtain at the function hall and your date can’t find you.

The escalating arms race between big bows and giant shoulderpads threatened to engulf the world in a lace-frilled Armageddon.

I’ve seen the future and it looked nothing like this, thank providence.

During the course of my K-Tel research, I occasionally stumble across some oddity relevant to my musical interests. The overwhelming majority of these are international releases, which makes locating the items in question a nigh impossible task. The few that do turn up on the secondary marketplaces tend to be prohibitive expensive or include some alarmingly coy (and awkwardly translated) descriptions of the record’s condition.

Taken together, they present a bridge too far to justify indulging a mild sense of curiosity, but there have been a few occasions when the stars of availability, asking price, and condition align. That’s how I ended up with a copy of Die Neuen Spitzen.

The record — whose title roughly translates to “The New Edge” — is a sixteen-track collection of German-language new wave acts.

A1 Falco – Maschine Brennt
A2 Jawoll – Taxi
A3 Minisex – Du Kleiner Spion
A4 Spinning Wheel – Im Dschungel
A5 The Tanzdiele – Musik, Musik, Musik
A6 Clinch – Hallo Vater
A7 Relax – I Wui Schlafa
A8 Neue Heimat – Ich Bau’ Dir Ein Schloß

B1 ZaZa - Zauberstab
B2 Bärchen Und Die Milchbubis – Muskeln
B3 Pavian Band – Eigenheim
B4 Karl Und Seine Band – Nie Mehr Schule
B5 Spastic Elastic – Ich Kann Nicht Glücklich Sein
B6 Zeitgeist – Es Lebe Die Lebendigkeit
B7 Combo Colossale – Puppen Weinen Nicht
B8 Telefunk – Ta-Tü Ta-Ta, Die Post Ist Da!

All but the blessed Falco were unfamiliar to me, making this a fascinating romp into uncharted territory. I’m not sure what I expected from it, other than exploring a general interest in non-Anglophone punk ‘n’ wave that I’ve had since the days of the Back to Front collections and series of fan-curated “Flexipop” minimal synth anthologies. The Teutonic connection goes back even further, to my tweener Top 40 days when acts like Falco, Trio, Nena, and Taco (who was actually Netherlands-based, but whatever) scored a few hits and a decent bit of airplay on this side of the Atlantic. Their sound jibed well with the Cold War jitters of the day, technopop ditties from the fortified frontier of the impending Armageddon.

It’s the region that produced Can and Kraftwerk but also elevated David Hasselhoff to platinum-selling godhood, and Die Neuen Spitzen roster of artists span the spectrum from art-damaged minimalism to commercially packaged Limburger. These highs and lows are spread out between ample doses of synthesized dance-pop constructed along the Human League/Heaven 17/Depeche Mode model (but featuring more words ending in “ch”).

As a result, the tracks tend to blend together over the course of the album, especially for listeners whose knowledge of the language doesn’t extend past a single year of German in high school. That’s not a mark against the compilation. My K-Tel affection is based on holistic experiences rather than the strength of individual cuts, and Die Neuen Spitzen blend of arty-poppy-cheesy perfectly evokes a vivid conception of place and moment — somewhere between “sitting on the family sofa watching Mummenschanz perform on The Muppet Show” and “a West Berlin new wave club a couple of blocks from Checkpoint Charlie.

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