Armagideon Time

The new millennium saw me getting back into anime in a big way. I’d been a fan since the Star Blazers days, but my interest began to cool after the space opera/giant robo craze gave way to other, less interesting-to-me fandoms.

The force that swung the pendulum came from multiple overlapping vectors. My forays into import gaming helped revive the old mystique (especially surrounding things like soundtracks, art books and other ancillary trappings), while the fast-developing emulation scene offered access to scores of retro-offerings inspired by favorite anime franchises. The DVD format’s ascendance over VHS led to a flood of box sets featuring complete localized series from the “giant robo” golden age, a multi-magnitude lead over the $30 per episode tapes which had been the previous norm. Meanwhile, fansubbed files of once-coveted rarities began to pop up on some of the shadier corners of the internet.

Availability and affordability had long been the primary obstacles to my fandom. With those no longer an issue, my two decades of pent-up demand went a little wild for a time. The vast majority of stuff I worked my way through was retro in nature, with the exception of FLCL. It was about exploring a moment, not anime in general. One of first (in not the first) DVD sets I picked up was the run of Bubblegum Crisis OVA series complete with the music video collection.

I’d originally discovered the series through an issue of the Animag fanzine which somehow managed to filter down the distribution chain to my local comic shop in 1988. The article describing the series was hyperbolic and haphazardly edited, but still managed to convey something straight out of my wildest adolescent fantasies — a cyberpunk future where a group of sexy professional women donned mecha-meets-Iron-Man “hardsuits” to battle synthetic humanoid “boomers.” It was Blade Runner, Streets of Fire, and The Terminator rolled into a single stylish package and capped off with a cryptically strange title. One of the leads is a Ellen Aim doppelganger named Priss who fronts a band called The Replicants. How could I resist?

My fandom stayed strong despite the fact that I had no means to actually see an episode. It wasn’t until I was in my freshman year of college that I finally managed to see the series in action, thanks to a punky but shy fellow Sci-Fi Club member who lent me an unsubbed VHS tape with a couple of episodes on it. After the summer break, she brought me back a Bubblegum Crisis t-shirt from AnimeExpo ’91 as a surprise gift whose “hey, I’m kinda into you” subtext was regrettably missed on my part.

I still own the shirt, by the way.

She and I did eventually become a couple, which only cemented the “Japanese animated cyberpunk classic” as a sentimental foundation stone of our relationship. When she made another trip to AnimeExpo in the mid-Nineties, she even bought me back another Bubblegum Crisis shirt as a commemorative in-joke. By the time I scored a hi-def, properly subbed copy of the series, we’d had been together nearly a decade, adding an extra touch of poignancy to the purchase.

That was the prevailing mood when I was browsing the stacks at Pandemonium Books in 2001 and came across the complete trilogy of official Bubblegum Crisis RPG sourcebooks released five years prior. My tabletop gaming days were well behind me, but I couldn’t resist picking up the lot for old times’ sake.

The game was an R. Talsorian product, which made perfect sense considering that they were also the publishers of the Mekton and Cyberpunk RPGs that already covered both halves of the anime’s source material. And the Bubblegum Crisis RPG is, in fact, a license-grounded marriage between stripped down versions of the Mekton Zeta and Cyberpunk 2020 iterations of R. Talsorian’s “interlock system.”

That said, I didn’t buy the game to play it. I bought it as fan wank, and it exceeded all expectations on that front. Even if you don’t give a shit about ability scores or range modifiers or construction points, the three sourcebooks are jam-packed the type of backmatter and fluff I’d have traded a kidney for when I was sixteen. Most, if not all, of the illustrations are pulled from the original cels or original production art assets. For all intents and purposes, the books are “Roman Albums” created for English-speaking markets that just happen to have an RPG folded into their pages.

When I was getting ready for the move to the House on the Hillside and deciding what stuff to bring and what stuff to dump into storage (which has now come back to bite me in the ass), all the Warhammer and Champions stuff I’d played and loved for years got packed up into a corner of my grandmother’s attic. I took the Bubblegum Crisis RPG books with me, however, to be shelved alongside the collection of import anime and videogame artbooks Maura and I have collected over the years.

Getting behind it

July 10th, 2018

I’ve picked up half a dozen entries in Time-Life’s Classic Rock series over the past year or so. The year-themed double LP sets serve up a well-curated roster of rock, pop, and soul hits from 1964 to 1969. The there’s very little filler on them and the recording quality is outstanding, making them a handy serialized survey course in the sounds of the Sixties.

The asking prices for the individual volumes tend to be all over the map. Vinyl copies of the later releases can command premium prices, thanks to the industry’s switch to compact disc as the dominant format during the late Eighties and early Nineties.

That said, nearly all of the best installments can be had under a tenner on the secondary market — providing that one isn’t too fussy about sleeve condition. Maybe the mail-order “on approval” crowd was a rowdier bunch when it comes to handling their record libraries, but the sleeves of my Classic Rock collections have seen some serious shit over the past thirty years. Extreme spine wear is common as are split seams and other inexplicable battle scars. It’s bizarre, but doesn’t bother me as long as the media itself is in VG (very good) condition and holds the asking prices down. I’m paying $7.50 to luxuriate in this…

…not to gaze at an Eighties airbrushed interpretation of a mythologized Sixties.

As a result, I was a little surprised when I saw a copy of Classic Rock‘s second 1964 omnibus listed for a very low price and sporting a sleeve in VG condition with a note clarifying “close to Near Mint apart from a little writing on the back.” Writing on the sleeve isn’t uncommon on the these types of comps, as the Classic Rock and slightly less upmarket Baby Boomer Classics series found favor with disc jockeys looking to save crate space. I have a few of these second hand jobbers that sport redlines, run times, and other bits of industry shorthand. If a few pen scribbles mean my saving a tenner or two, I have no issue with that. It was an easy purchase.

It showed up in my front porch a week later. I sliced open the protective mailer with my pocket knife, extracted the album, flipped it over to chose a side to spin, and discovered what was meant by “a little writing on the back.”

That “ANAL” with the courteous, context-providing carat underneath was the only ballpoint revision made by the album’s previous owner. The artiste, having channeled the raw stuff of genius, briefly considered the aesthetic merits of “Hey, Little Cobra(LESS)” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) IN THE ASS” but realized that one should never gild a perfect moment. Better to let it stand alone in its inspired majesty.

It took half a decade for burnout and backlash to do in disco. “My Sharona” managed to do the same for the nascent power pop revival in the space of six months.

Power pop was supposed to be the Next Big Thing, the commercial face of the burgeoning “New Music” scene with maximum crossover potential and demographic appeal. Skinny ties, striped shirts, hooky danceability that copped punk’s disreputable energy and the slick melodies of the British Invasion bands — just the type of recognizable branding the industry was looking for once the glitter balls stopped spinning.

Even better, the music was cheap and easy to record. A full LP could be cranked out for under ten grand, which wasn’t lost on record labels who’d hemorrhaged cash and missed viability windows during disco’s late-stage turn to the baroque. (Note that the two offshoots of the scene — hip hop and techno — which did survive and later thrive went for samples and synths over full orchestras of session musicians.)

The Knack were the anointed vanguard for the power pop revolution, the novelty giving them an edge over more established — and therefore suspect — purveyors of the style such as Cheap Trick or Starz. (The Jam got the gig in the UK, but couldn’t match the Knack’s mastery of the adolescent-aimed sleaziness which meshed better with American audiences.) The single hit like a bomb, blasting from the speakers of every car stereo in my neighborhood and echoed as playground chants during recess at my elementary school. The success of the single helped grease the rails for a small cluster of “new wave” chart hits, but its ubiquity also sucked all the oxygen from the room. Power Pop’s anticipated reign as the Next Big Thing ended almost as soon as it began, leaving the handful of “me too” signings with a solitary major label release and little support to speak of.

A rare few managed to snag some degree of national prominence and echoes of the power pop sound could occasionally be heard in early Eighties mainstream rock/pop acts like Rick Springfield and Pat Benatar. For the most part, though, the power pop mania stayed a strictly local affair, small pressing runs of material by bands whose “big score” was capped at strong club following or a spin on some provincial progressive radio show. The stuff has only started to emerge from the word-of-mouth (or blog) realm of collectors and dedicated scenesters who swoon rhapsodically over some undiscovered gem from the power pop/mid-tempo melodic punk/mod revival glory days — three sibling schools differentiated only fashion accessories, subject matter, and production polish.

It’s the bitterest of irony that the bulk of these obscurities are vastly superior than anything The Knack ever recorded, and were far more deserving of that ephemeral success. They put the truth to Greil Marcus’s statement about a good punk record sounding like the best thing you’ve ever heard, and elicit wonderment why they didn’t lead to more than a handful of hard-to-find singles.

It’s exactly how I feel about “65 Film Show,” a 1984 7″ release by California mod revivalists Chardon Square. The song is a hooky uptempo lament over the death of old fashioned romance, and it sizzles like a motherfucker despite some roughness around the edges. It captured my heart when I stumbled across it on the This Is Mod series of CD compilations and was exactly the type of thing I needed to have on vinyl.

Unfortunately, that feeling is shared by several other fans, driving the asking price for the single into the five-hundred dollar “oh fuck no” range.

Through the magic of Discogs’ search tools, I discovered the song was included on Idealistic Youth: Volume 1, a substantially cheaper 2011 vinyl collection of California mod revival tracks spanning the entire Eighties. I threw some money at reputable seller and waited for the package to arrive.

The LP has a decidedly bootleg vibe to it, blank labels and a plain inner sleeve loaded into a plastic sheath with a folded bit of printed paper passing as a cover. Despite the dodgy trappings, however, it is very much a labor of love, as attested by the included insert packed with liner notes and info about the featured selections.

Apart from the grand get of “65 Film Show,” I was familiar with about half of the songs on the collection. The new-to-me ones were all solid tracks, and go to show how little of this popcult iceberg I’ve managed to actually survey, where I’m still finding exciting obscurities after twenty-five years of searching. The later stuff — stretching up through 1989 — was especially fascinating, as it tends to get overlooked on a lot of these “killed by death” style releases and speaks of the mod revival’s long, occasionally skeletal tail. When most of the other distinct scenes had evaporated or consolidated into punk’s remnants, these kids were still plugging away with their Vespas, parkas, and roundel patches for audiences consisting entirely of themselves.

The “Iowa Tests” were a big deal during my primary school years. The regularly scheduled public school programming was pre-empted by an anti-festival week in which recess and lunch breaks were rescheduled, a zero tolerance policy was enacted against tomfoolery, and the importance of CORRECTLY FILLING IN THE OVALS WITH A NUMBER 2 PENCIL ON THE RESPONSE SHEET was stressed with the same level of emphatic urgency used to warn about playing on train tracks or accepting a ride from a stranger.

It was enough to induce neurosis in the most laid back underachiever, never mind a kid already prone toward fits of anxiety. I fretted through every minute of these exam periods, save for the parts which involved map-reading. Something about the abstracted topography in the maps fascinated me — weird place names linked by imaginary roads and highways and bisected by the ++++++ symbol for railroad lines. These fictitious landscapes were plausible phantoms which evoked both the sense of dislocation I’d get on long family road trips and fascination regarding the terra incognita which lay beyond my small suburban Boston neighborhood.

In the weeks following the testing periods, I’d blow my entire student allotment of Manila paper on creating similar maps of my own creation, plotting out the spatial and structural relationships between imaginary communities and geographical features. Eventually I turned my focus towards plotting out the little fiefdoms my friends and I claimed for ourselves in the marshy patch of woods across from my apartment building, laying down the boundaries between the Weiss Republic, the Empire of Artie, and Scott’s Kingdom. My interest in make-believe cartography also manifested in the elaborate street grids I’d etch for my Hot Wheels cars with a fragrant green magic marker on sheets of cardboard liberated from some big ticket appliance box.

My interest faded after adolescence kicked in, only to come crashing back with a vengeance during 9th grade when I dived into the realm of Dungeon & Dragons. Mapping out imaginary landscapes was an essential part of the hobby, and one I genuinely relished. The other kids in my little gaming circle were willing to settle for the premade world-building products of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, but I insisted on crafting my own personal gameworld out of the lumpy stew of influences rattling around in my teen fanboy skull.

The fruits of those labors was a sprawling mega-map assembled from sheets of hex paper photocopied from the Expert Set and taped together in a two-by-three configuration. It has long since been lost to time, but I do remember most of the messy details — a crazy quilt arrangement of cliched kingdoms swiped from Tolkien and trash fantasy comics and movies, illustrated in colored pencil and magic marker. All the requisite cliches were featured. There was an ice kingdom, a desert kingdom, GOOD and EVIL kingdoms, and domains for all the major humanoid races thrown down without any concern for commercial or geopolitical logic. Every type of noble holding was included — “the Barony/Duchy/Empire/Kingdom/et cetera of” — suffixed with a name overloaded with apostrophes and tongue-torturing consonant combinations.

As things turned out, my group only ended up exploring a smallish section of the overall world. Fortunately it just so happened to contain the highest global concentration of dungeons, strange monsters, and high level treasure items. Funny that.

When I made the leap to Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, the urgency about preparing elaborate world maps lessened. The game had a fixed setting which was strongly integrated into the mechanics and overall tone, a doomed and grubby analogue of late medieval Europe. The leeway for tinkering with it and retaining the proper atmosphere was as wide as it was for D&D’s more open-ended approach to world-building, but I still couldn’t stop myself from trying.

The evidence can be found across multiple pages of the pad of graph paper I used during my high school and college years.

The general contours of the various maps are the same, attempts at re-working the game’s fantasy take on Europe while adding my own spin to the setting. Some of the city names remained the same, especially the ones from Bretonnia, which was (then) Warhammer’s equivalent to pre-Revolutionary France and my favorite section of the game’s world guide.

I didn’t really care much for Chaos as an external existential threat. In my revisions, the grim perilousness of the campaign world was more mundane in nature and based on the events of the Thirty Years War. After the elder humanoid races underwent their own internal conflicts and withdrew from the wider world, the human nations got caught up in a drawn-out sectarian conflict which led to decades of bloodshed and devastation. It was a handy way to explain why monstrous beasts were able to roam unchecked and lair in “civilized” lands, while providing ample ruins and lost treasures for interant sell-swords and other opportunists to plunder. To justify the scope of the strife, the map was expanded to include more geographical analogues pulled from history.

And again, the actual range of the adventuring parties’ travels ended up restricted to maybe a half-dozen contiguous squares on the map.

World-building, man. It always comes down to cooking a feat fit for thousands, then serving it to a party of six.

Spirit of ’97

July 3rd, 2018

I love transitional periods in pop music history. The Last Big Thing is dead or dying and The Next Big Thing hasn’t taken shape yet. In the absence of their hegemonic shadows, a host of niche ecologies emerge in a mad scrum for the public’s attention.

Media conglomerates and self-appointed tastemakers thrash about in search of new narratives to plug the gap, elevating small regional scenes or obscure subgenres into global prominence. Everything sounds like a novelty track yet carries the (likely unfulfilled) promise of a Future That’s Coming.

Singles become the everything, released in wide-spread salvos where the hits will determine the contours of entire careers. The catchy outlier reluctantly added as throwaway album filler breaks the Top 40 and thus fixes the brand for all eternity, justly or otherwise. Meanwhile, the surviving remnants of the ancien e├ęgime attempt to surf the zeitgeist in hopes of retaining some shred of relevance.

It’s the reason I keep getting drawn back towards the 1979-1983 era, a catch-as-catch can moment where any bit of flash had a chance to join the conga line over disco’s unquiet corpse. German rap and synthesized Northern soul, robotic rock operas and weird western noir, countrypolitan crossovers and Celtic soul brothers — the wheel didn’t stop spinning until a clear winner was picked, the novelty wore thin, or both.

It also happened to coincide with my early adolescence, those furtive first stabs at defining identity by laying claim to some compelling patch of ephemera. The Beast with Phosphor Dot Eyes was backlit my a mushroom cloud and I will never fully extricate its hooks from my flesh.

That lingering itch is what drew me to the whole retro thing in the first place, seeking a trace of the old scent from long emptied bottles. The closest I’ve ever gotten to it was in the 1996-1998 transition period, when grunge’s deathgrip on the market receded and the “alternative” scene went wide and shallow. It’s easy to mock stuff like the swing revival or third wave ska or deseperate crossover branding of the “electronica” tag, but it was far more exciting than what preceded it.

I didn’t read too much into it because I was older and wiser and knew none of it was built to last. It was a passing breeze, and best appreciated in the moment.

(images from the January 1998 “Year in Music” issue of SPIN)

Although “hip” pop music was a crucial (MTV-driven) component of the Eighties’ “teen movie” craze, it didn’t really materialize in soundtrack form until the middle part of the decade. The licensed songs from Fast Times At Ridgemont High managed to score a double LP release in 1982, but the majority of the music came from the likes of Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne, and Stevie Nicks with the Go-Go’s and Oingo Boingo thrown in as a token nod to the changing times.

Both Valley Girl (1983) and Sixteen Candles (1984) included fairly deep rosters of interesting “new wave” tracks in the films themselves, which were pared down into disappointing “mini LPs” featuring a disappointing handful of songs. The Times Square (1980) and Repo Man (1984) both got outstanding soundtrack releases, though the films were cult cinema faves only tangentially associated with the teen flick scene.

The genre’s potential for cross-promotional merchandising only gained steam after the soundtrack to The Breakfast Club (1985) generated some sales heat, mainly due to Simple Minds “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” becoming a relentless overplayed staple of MTV and Top 40 radio. The unexpected success spurred A&M and John Hughes to up their game with the Pretty in Pink (1986) soundtrack, which contained an unprecedented roster of college radio all-stars and memorable material (and a note on the sleeve telling consumers how important the music was to the overall experience of the film).

It was a paradigm shift, but the immediate consequences were limited to a handful of imitators. It wouldn’t be until the early Nineties until the strategically sculpted soundtrack would become a cornerstone of the studios’ multimedia full court press. (And while the “hipness” of Pretty in Pink‘s song selections figured into the template, the phenomenon owed just as much — in not more — to the concurrent audio/video synergy of The Big Chill, Platoon, Stand By Me, and so forth.)

Even after soundtracks grew into a requisite part of the teen movie package, most followed The Breakfast Club‘s model over Pretty in Pink‘s — a couple potential hits serving as an anchor for a bunch of forgettable jams by session musicians and club circuit strivers. As a nostalgia-damaged Gen X’er, the dearth of consistently decent soundtrack releases is disappointing (especially in cases such as Real Genius where they could’ve assembled a pretty decent one). As an armchair cultural historian, though, it makes the handful of outliers that much more fascinating to me, and few are as intriguing as the official soundtrack to The Last American Virgin (1982).

The film was the remake of a 1978 coming of age story set in 1950s Israel, updated and transplanted its writer/director into early 1980s Los Angeles. Like Fast Times At Ridgemont High, it’s a transitional artifact of an emerging subgenre that tries to triangulate between sex farce “low comedy” (Animal House/Porky’s) and true-to-life adolescent angst (Breaking Away/ABC Afterschool Specials). Unlike Fast Times, it is depressing as hell and indulges in the “nice guys get fucked over” trope which has become a virulent vector for some truly hateful ideologies. Maybe the lesson was supposed to be “you can’t make someone love you” and “sometimes you’re going to get hurt,” but any nuance was lost in the haze melodrama and stilted gender politics of the era, where “DAMN THESE DUPLICITOUS HARPIES” was a lower hanging bunch of sour grapes.

The point is that I had a difficult time watching The Last American Virgin even before painful hindsight soured me on most teen flicks of that era. The soundtrack, however, was exceptional in multiple senses of the word. Where Fast Times leaned heavily on material by SoCal “Cocaine Rock” artists, The Last American Virgin went all in on the “new music” sound that still hadn’t gained a firm foothold in American markets. Tommy Tutone and Oingo Boingo both threw in made-for-the-movie compositions that well and truly kick ass (while unfortunately channeling that self-pitying vibe mentioned above), which are accompanied by killer cuts from vanguard waver acts Devo, The Police, and The Cars. The Gleaming Spires and The Waitresses provide a dollop of cutting edge weirdness, with U2′s “I Will Follow” serving as a sad reminder of the days when the band were big-haired purveyors of radio-friendly postpunk anthems. (Island must have been trying to make a push on their behalf, because the song also turned up during the final season of WKRP around this time.)

The only iffy cuts on the record are a Phil Seymour AOR effort and The Fortune Band’s inelegant stab at new wave arena rock, but they’re both listenably mediocre. It’s certainly a better killer to filler ratio that one normally finds on most mass market comps.

What makes the album especially interesting is a quick scan of what didn’t make it on there. While the music selections in the movie leaned heavily towards new wave sounds (including Blondie, Plimsouls and Human League tracks that were omitted from the LP), there’s also a sizable contingent of AOR and contemporary soul jams from the 1981-1982 chart window — REO Speedwagon, Journey, Quincy Jones, The Commodores, and, uh, KC and the Sunshine Band. That’s the sort of material one would expect to find on a soundtrack like this, stuff with a proven audience and broader-based appeal. That they didn’t is pretty remarkable.

Maybe they assumed potential buyers already owned a copy of K-Tel’s Radio Active and wanted to avoid the redundancy. Whatever the reasoning behind it, the The Last American Virgin soundtrack has seem ample play on my stereo these past few months. It’s consistent, it’s quirky, it hits all the nostalgic sweet spots, and it provides a nice snapshot of a strange and mythic era.

My first “real” PC was a Celeron II eMachine purchased during the wild and wooly dot-com salad days of 1999. It was sold as part of a incredibly cheap bundle (including monitor, scanner, and printer) by Value America, who subsidized the too-good-to-be-true sale price with its rapidly shrinking pool of investor capital. (This was probably the only time in my life where I got a windfall and venture capitalists got the shaft.)

The desktop was a modest low end model with a whopping 4 GB hard drive and 16 MB of RAM, pitched as a starter box for average schmoes looking to cruise the INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY. Under the tutelage of Southie Dave (who’d resurfaced as a tech wunderkind half a decade after dropping out of UMB) and my former boss, I quickly learned how to upgrade and finetune the stock chassis into a lean, mean, adequate gaming and media machine.

The archeological record of those days is currently scattered across the floor of my grandmother attic — a receipt for a Voodoo2 graphics card from some long defunct online retailer, a stack of dead secondary hard drives and a quad-speed CD-RW burner, plus countless diskettes, CD-ROMs and user manuals. I had justified buying the computer by telling myself it would be the first step in my creative rebirth. I’d return to my writing. I’d learn how to compose my own sonic loop collages. I’d use graphics editing software to hone my atrophied artistic skills.

Or I’d promptly forget all those lofty goals and just spend my time burning mix CDs and playing games.

Not to excuse my inveterate laziness, but it was hard to resist the allure of the computer gaming scene. It had been a few years since I dabbled with that stuff on Maura’s old Packard Bell, and PC gaming realm had undergone multiple geometric leaps since then. Not only was there a vast trove of retrogaming treasures available through the emulation scene, but there was also a sizable roster of quality offerings which had passed my console-centric self by and were now available at a discount.

The original isometric Fallout game was at the top of list, as it combined my adoration for nuclear armageddon, retro-aesthetics, and role-playing games in one very affordable package. It had been one of the few games that made me want a PC when it hit the selves, and was one of the first games I bought when that finally happened. The free-roaming post-nuclear adventure was more than worth the wait, and I played and replayed it at least a dozen times over the following months. (It was the first program I installed on the machine, even before I had proper workdesk to house it. The beginning of my initial playthrough was done while sitting on the floor of my room with the monitor precariously perched on a rolling chair.)

Soon after, I obtained a copy of Fallout 2, which was had a much larger scope than its predecessor yet lacked much of its charm. It was enjoyable enough and I beat it a couple of times, but felt unfocused and spent too much time trying to push the “mature audiences” envelope with a lot of adolescent potty humor and other performatively transgressive nonsense. The first game had its share of goofy in-jokes, but the sequel overplayed that angle to an embarrassing degree.

The two Fallout games did leave me with a hunger for this new generation of computer-based RPGs, one that kept steering me towards the then-current apex of the genre, the much ballyhooed Baldur’s Gate.

I actually held off on buying Baldur’s Gate for months, despite recommendations from multiple friends and creepy-looking game store clerks. Even though I knew it shared kinship with the Fallout games through Black Isle Studios, I wasn’t clear exactly what the heck the game was. Descriptions of the game weren’t exactly helpful (and I’d already learned to mistrust such hype by then) and the frequent comparisons to the Warcraft strategy series made me wary about whether it actually was a role-playing game or not. This was, after all, still an era where anything featuring elves and axes was tagged as an RPG by lazy default.

Baldur’s Gate was also tagged as an “authentic adaptation of the 2nd edition AD&D rules,” which also gave me pause. I’d played — and enjoyed — the “Gold Box” PC games on Maura’s computer and the handful of licensed D&D RPGs that had managed to make it onto the console scene, but still suffered the old biases that had driven me from the system’s stodginess and into the flexibly visceral realm of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play. The official TSR stamp wasn’t a kiss of death, but did heighten my reluctance when added to the existing vagueness I’d encountered about the game.

Eventually, though, my boredom and curiosity (and a sale at Electronics Boutique) got the better of me, and I took the plunge. After undertaking the long, multi-CD installation process (which filled most of my primary HD), I booted up the game and discovered it was indeed a genuine RPG — albeit one with some RTS mechanics married to the AD&D core rules. It was rough in places and downright brutal until your character had a couple of levels under their belt, but it was utterly engrossing. There’s an incredible thrill to shepherding a freshly-rolled neophyte through a realm of extremely fatal hazards, surviving by the skin of your teeth until you get the first taste of actual power via a certain spell or enchanted item. It spurs you on to greater risks and greater rewards, taking chances and basking the satisfaction of pulling off the near-impossible.

It’s the “new car smell” that wafts forth the first time you crack open the D&D Basic Set box, but fades over time as players immerse themselves in the deaded “meta.” A good group can revive some of that excitement, but rarely to the extend where it blots out the probability analysis streaming through one’s skull. The first half-dozen hours of Baldur’s Gate, however, manages to emulate that old magic perfectly. By hiding all the number-crunching behind the hood and turning it over to a pitiless AI dungeonmaster, it evoked my favorite parts of the old D&D experience while minimizing the stuff that chased me away from the system.

Well, most of those irritations. The game’s selection of playable classes was pretty thin and the initial round of stat-rolling could be tedious for folks unwilling to settle for subpar scores. It’s easy to say you’d run with a negative ability bonus, but not as easy to accept when that perfect 18 STR/DEX/CON combo might be just ONE. MORE. CLICK. AWAY. The scattershot utility of recruitable party members could also be frustrating — especially since a good percentage could only be taken on as paired companions — but it did replicate the tabletop experience of having to deal with whatever goofy characters your campaign pals happened to roll up.

A decade of dedicated Warhammer fandom couldn’t erase the nostalgic thrill of reconnecting with coveted treasures and dreaded beasties. Stumbling upon a cave of carrion crawlers or unearthing a pair of Gauntlets of Ogre Power in Baldur’s Gate would trigger a flood of stats and strategies from the darkest recesses of my brain. The D&D system was my first proper role-playing game. It had been an all-consuming passion during my junior high years, and Baldur’s Gate rekindle a bit of that old affection in digital form and appreciate the system for what it was.

It was enough to convince me to make a day-one purchase of Baldur’s Gate 2, a sequel that truly realized the rough promise of its predecessor with countless refinements, new character classes (including my beloved Monk and Cavalier), and a tighter narrative flow. It established the template for “Bioware RPGs,” the emphasis on compelling character interactions and high-stakes melodrama which the current incarnation of the developer seems hellbent on whizzing down their leg.

I spent more time plumbing its depths than I had with the original game, mastering the buff/debuff/counterspell intricacies of its combat system, seeking out hidden treasures, and working my way through every possible sidequest. Baldur’s Gate 2 is reason I’m more fluent with Paint Shop Pro than with Photoshop, because PSP’s compression/resizing presets worked better for creating custom character portraits from MAME and ZINC emulator screencaps. (Gato from Mark of the Wolves as male monk, Blair from Street Fighter EX as female monk, and Siegfried from a Soul Calibur fan page as male cavalier, if you were curious.) Funny how passing obsessions can have long-term impacts.

The games have been mandatory installs on every PC I’ve owned since, from the Pentium III Dell (what a gloriously customizable machine) which replaced the eMachine through the Acer Aspire laptop I currently use at home. Both Baldur’s Gate titles have been since been given “enhanced editions”, but I’ve opted for digital downloads of the original versions along with a fan mod that imports the entirety of the first game into its sequel to provide a mostly seamless experience (with the additional character classes, an improved interface, and higher resolution options). It lacks the additional bells and whistles of the enhanced versions, but I prefer how it feels whenever the inevitable urge resurfaces to boot it up and gather my party like it’s 1986 by way of 1999.

Maura and I used to do an in-house “date night” thing on Thursdays during the late Aughts. We’d pick up Chinese takeout from the Fen Yang House on the way home from work, take care of our critter-related obligations, then settle down in the living room for rich helping of MSG and NBC’s prime time sitcoms.

On one particular night in late September, I leashed up Addy the Big Red Dog for her evening stroll. We barely made it down the back steps before we encountered a slightly perturbed skunk rifling through our rubbish barrel. It initially seemed liked we’d avoid any unpleasant confrontation, but no sooner did I utter “everyone be cool, okay” than Addy let loose one of her ear-splitting half-beagle bellows, prompting the panicked member of genus Mephitis to deliver a blast from his or her (I wasn’t in a position to ask) stink glands.

The Big Red Dog only received a glancing blow from the pungent cloud, but it was enough to impregnate her pelt with an eyewatering reek. By the time I was done trying to hose Addy down to non-vomitous levels of stink, I was left with the last fifteen minutes of Scrubs and an ice cold plate of fried rice and spareribs.

The incident did yield me enough material to whip up a fresh blog post. Armagideon Time was still in its mp3 blogging period, when I’d annotate some goofy off-the-cuff topic with a couple of thematically appropriate music selections. Sometimes I started with the music and molded the post around it. On other occasions, a suitable subject would arise and I’d search around for songs that supported the concept.

This post fell into the latter category, and inspired a quick keyword search for “skunk” in my digital archives. One of the tracks it turned up was “Funky Skunk” by Pete Thomas…

…a new-to-me dance instrumental buried in the folder where I stored albums I’d picked up somewhere but hadn’t gotten around to listening to yet. It came from an import comp titled Let’s Boogaloo, Vol. 3 that was probably pulled from one of dodgy pop-up blogs that used to dump chunked oddities and obscurities en masse during those lawless times.

The horn-heavy goodness of “Funky Skunk” intrigued me enough to give the rest of the compilation as listen, and was instantly rewarded by MOTHERFUCKING “BEATCOMA” –

– a previously unreleased epic stomper by library music maestro Alan Moorehouse and the only piece of music I would ever require from that moment onward.

“Beatcoma.” Goddamn.

There were other truly amazing tracks in that collection of vintage obscurities and retro-leaning recent efforts as well, including Fred Hughes’ Northern-Soul-Meets-70s-Anime-Theme “Don’t Let This Happen To Us” —

– and Minivip’s Italo organ jam “Miss Augusta” —

– which made for a satisfying listening experience from beginning to end, but nothing could rival MOTHERFUCKING “BEATCOMA.”

I did attempt to track down other entries in the series, all of which were quality stuff but unfortunately lacked the levels of MOTHERFUCKING “BEATCOMA” I’d become accustomed to. After knocking all the lower hanging fruit off my “essential records” wantlist, I performed a deeper dive into the Discogs marketplace to see what recent, non-reissue releases were available on vinyl. As a DJ-aimed import dance compilation, Let’s Boogaloo, Vol. 3 seemed like a safe bet and sure enough had been released on LP in Italy back in 2006. The only sellers were in located in Greece and the asking prices were a little on the high side, but love of MOTHERFUCKING “BEATCOMA” overrode all other concerns…

…except those of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agents, who were understandably worried about releasing such pure floor-shaking power on these benighted shores.

A somewhat long time ago

June 25th, 2018

During the process of sorting and disposing of the stuff in my grandmother’s attic, I unearthed my copy of West End Games’ Star Wars Sourcebook. The book and its core rules companion (as soon as I locate it) will both be spared the sad fate destined to befall scores of other less cherished articles from that high school era hoard.

West End’s “d6″ incarnation of the Star Wars RPG was a perfect marriage between form and function. The simplicity of the mechanics reflected the breeziness of the source material, while the writing perfectly captured its lighthearted-yet-epic tone. All of it was bundled up into slick hardback tomes packed with concept art and photos pulled straight from the movies and filled out by ancillary fluff that helped lay the groundwork for the “Expanded Universe.”

It was a remarkable effort, especially for something released in the middle of the all-but-forgotten “Star Armistice.” My buddy Damian picked up the first wave of Star Wars RPG publications when they dropped in 1987, and I remember flipping through them in his room while he loudly cursed out the NES Castlevania game of being “A CHEATING FUCK.” The production values of the books were impressive, but reeked of nostalgia. Star Wars? In 1987? Who the heck would get excited about that?

The first installment of the original trilogy debuted when I was five years old and the conclusion hit theaters a couple of months after my eleventh birthday. The bulk of my childhood was spent in rapt devotion to the franchise and its long, heavily merchandised trail. The action figure line was was the most prominent vector for that adoration, but was merely a one facet of an all-encompassing phenomenon that ranged from the bubblegum cards in the spokes of our bikes to the treasury-sized comic adaptations to disposable paperware to bedsheets to daily apparel.

Rumors about the upcoming films were the stuff of heated lunchroom speculation, as were the cryptic references to Krayt Dragons, Clone Wars, and the Kessel Run. The only other media property that even came close to that level of semi-religious awe was Happy Days, and neither Pinky Tuscadero nor the Malachi Brothers sported laser swords or spoke in some strange alien dialect. (No, “Hollywood Brooklyn Ethnic Tough” doesn’t count.)

The mania lasted right up through the immediate wake of Return of the Jedi, but then waned rapidly thereafter. Despite Lucasarts’ and its licensees’ attempts to keep the streak going, Star Wars had settled into a “past tense” vibe by the time 1984 drew to a close. The lack of information about the promised follow-up trilogies didn’t help, as it added to the sense of conclusive finality of ROJT’s ending, but the biggest factor behind the cooldown was the combination of oversaturation and the shift in the zeitgeist.

Star Wars may have escaped the mood of damnatio memoriae the Reagan Years imposed upon anything associated with the Seventies, but it still entered the mid-Eighties as something of a Me Decade relic. Ironically, the very assets Star Wars brought to the table — an involved fictional universe, toyetic trappings, effects-driven excitement — provided an inspirational template for a new generation of works that jockeyed for its marketshare.

The first wave of GI Joes looked cheap as hell compared to the gold standard of Kenner’s Star Wars line, yet by 1984 the Real American Heroes’ refinements in design and Cold War zeitgeist made Luke, Vader and company seem quaintly stodgy by comparison. From Transformers to Masters of the Universe to Robotech, there wasn’t a single media-linked “boys” figure line of the era that didn’t take its cues — conceptually or otherwise — from Star Wars. And unlike Star Wars half-a-decade-plus saga, they had a sense of novelty on their side.

As someone on the younger side of the original wave wave of Star Wars fandom, the original trilogy spanned nearly my entire primary school existence. When Return of the Jedi wrapped things up (for then), my friends and I were on the edge of adolescence, with its big performative show of putting aside “childish” things. Some of pals graduate from speculating about Mandalorians to contemplating the contents of girly magazines swiped from their fathers’ tool chests and/or the magic of black light bulbs on an Judas Priest posters. Those of us who clung to a geeky trajectory drifted towards “edgier” or fresher material, be it in the film, funnybook, or prose fiction realm. Few of us ever actually turned against the Star Wars franchise, but rather viewed it as training wheels for our sophisticated appreciation of Ghostbusters, Aliens, Robocop, and Watchmen.

That’s why I could skim the Star Wars RPG in the late Eighties and feel befuddled nostalgia, or why folks in the college Sci-Fi Club would tease my punk rock pal Leech for his unstinting dedication to the franchise in 1991. Why linger on that old thing when there were Terminators and Highlanders to obsess about instead?

I have been spending my Friday afternoons helping to clear out my Nana’s house. There’s very little of my grandparents’ possessions I bothered to lay claim to in the “who wants this” scrum — an antique writing desk, a table my father’s uncle made as a wedding gift for my parents, a pair of porcelain Dresden ballerinas, some power tools, a few photos and one of my grandfather’s paintings.

The bigger task has been dealing with the collection of stuff I’d accumulated during the first thirty-two years of my life and later consigned to storage in my Nana’s attic. As times and my tastes changed from my late teens through my early thirties, I’d periodically gather up the relics of the previous cycle and dump them in one of many storage crates and repurposed cardboard boxes. It was easier — and less painful — than simply tossing it out or selling it off, and sidestepped any worries that “I might need that someday.”

The bulk of it consists of books, several crates of trashy one-shot paperbacks, undergrad textbooks I held onto for some reason, favorites that had fallen out of favor. These are mixed in with various RPG rulebooks and ‘zines, old college notebooks (kept for the sketch and poem marginalia I added during moments of boredom), sketch pads from my artist days, campaign notes and character sheets dating back to 1986, turn of the millennium PC components, and ancient financial aid award letters and registration forms.

There’s room for all of it at the House at the Hillside, which is why it’s still in my Nana’s attic. Even if I did have the space, I still wouldn’t want most of it. The problem is sorting the few treasures from the mounds of trash. Any notions I’d ever have to deal with the jumbled mess were purely theoretical when haphazardly tossed it into crates to make space for more recent acquisitions.

The selection process is easy. The sorting is the hard part.

Thus far, I’ve managed to trim by collection of trash funnybooks (mostly late Nineties/early Aughts superhero stuff) down to four longboxes, with the remainder converted into forty bucks in credit at a local comic shop. I’ve consolidated my sci-fi, fantasy and horror paperbacks (and the better parts of my grandpa’s collection of the same) into a couple of crates, rounded out with some “keepers” from my required college era reading lists.

My Warhammer 40k stuff will be making the trip, though I’ll have to pare down my four boxes of battlefield scenery into a single “greatest hits” crate. The rest of the RPG stuff will be sorted and saved, as well. I promised Lil Bro my set of AD&D 1st edition hardbacks, but will probably hold back my copies of Fiend Folio, Oriental Adventures, and Monster Manual II for sentimental reasons. The stack of gaming ‘zines will get narrowed to a handful of significant issues, and most of the character sheets and other ancillary material reduced to a few representative samples.

The same goes for a lot of my old college paperwork. Keep enough to conjure a snapshot of those times, and dump the rest. (My old term papers will be the easiest to trash because they put the lie to any worries I had about my writing skill diminishing over time.)

The entire project should be done by the end of July. Hopefully, I’ll have enough stuff cleared away in another couple of weeks to gain access to the storage cubbyhole my grandfather carved into the eaves and confirm whether or not the trash bag full of my old punk shirts is still hidden in there. It’s likely a vain hope, but it one that sustains me through the sweaty, dusty work of consolidating a huge segment of my life into a half-dozen plastic crates.

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