Armagideon Time

Staring in the early Nineties — on the heels of the “Superstar Artist” boom — department store began offering bundles of funnybooks in their holiday catalogs.

The stuff was never foregrounded among the most kid-coveted items of the year, but relegated to the back pages jumble of coin and stamp collector kits and magic sets. The comics weren’t marketed as reading material but as investment opportunities for the budding collector.

Sometimes the comics were offered as standalone bundles. At other, more heady times, they were offered alongside as part of an accessorized starter pack including abbreviated price guides, bags ‘n’ boards, and absurdly re-branded shit bought wholesale from a office supply store.

At the height of the craze, the Big Two released their own official “collector’s kits” gussied-up with fancy trade dress and packed with various extras. They also liked to toss the phrase “out-of-print” around quite a bit, in an attempt to twist a core aspect of periodical publishing into a selling-point.

Even with the “individual titles may vary” caveat, the comics displayed in the catalog were the same ones I passed over in the local quarter bins — unsold and otherwise unsaleable surplus inventory bundled up and marketed to a fresh (and less savvy) demographic.

The were they type of gift you’d get from a great aunt with vague memories of you reading an issue of Batman during a family gathering. The one set I do remember receiving was a random assortment of Comico books (but no Mage, Grendel, or Robotech) stuffed into a fancy slipcase that was worth more than the individual comics it contained.

A slightly better gift than a job lot Inhumanoids hoodie that was three sizes too small for me, I suppose.

A consensual hallucination

September 21st, 2017

“Cliches became cliches for a reason; that they usually hold at least a modicum of truth, and the following cliche is truer than most: You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

During the second week of my vacation last month, I got drawn into a discussion among friends about our favorite books. The top slots on my list vary depending on current mood and prevailing interests, but it’s a given that William Gibson’s Neuromancer will appear somewhere in that tier. It been a while since I last read the novel, so I pulled my (originally Maura’s) copy of the first edition paperback version from the shelf for my umpteenth re-read.

It was as good a read this go-round as it was the first time I read it oh-so-many years ago. There’s a lyrical beauty to Gibson’s prose, couple with a manic energy which he manages to focus with tight-beam intensity.

“His teeth sang in their individual sockets like tuning forks, each one pitch-perfect and clear as ethanol.”

Individual passages read like an electrified form of “word jazz” yet build to a greater purpose. His style isn’t a bolted on affectation, but an integral part of the work as a whole. It had originally put me off buying the book when I thumbed through a copy at the Booksmith in the Woburn Mall during my junior high days, but dug its hooks deep into me after I’d gained a few more years worth of sophistication as a reader.

The re-read left me breathless, as it did every other time. After finishing it, I contemplated following up with the other parts of Gibson’s “Sprawl Trilogy” but decided against it. The experience was complete in and of itself. While I love those other two books (and Gibson’s other work), there’s something especially compelling about Neuromancer. It has electrifying feel of a first album by a band with a promising streak of single releases. There’s an intensity to it that can be honed — and even improved upon — on a technical level, but never quite recaptured.

I instead opted to revisit some similarly-themed neighbors of Neuromancer‘s on my perennial favorites shelf, Walter Jon Williams’ Voice of the Whirlwind and George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails.

Around the turn of the millennium — when I was amped up by a previous re-read of Neuromancer and had access to a shop with a gloriously deep inventory of used sci-fi books — I accumulated a massive collection of “cyberpunk” paperbacks. The roadmap for my purchases was cobbled together from the Mirrorshades anthology, book reviews from old ‘zines, and the “recommended reading” sections of some RPG sourcebooks.

The scene had largely passed me by when it originally unfolded, mainly because its biggest evangelists in my social circle happened to be irritating wannabe writers who harbored big dreams for their thinly veiled Shadowrun fan-fiction. Their antics didn’t sour me on Gibson’s work or Blade Runner, but did throw shade-by-association over the subgenre in-general. That changed after they drifted out of my orbit and I started to seriously delve into the realm of retrology. My initial focus was the early Eighties, and the cyberpunk craze was a significant part of its overall zeitgeist.

Most of what I bought was utter crap, bog-standard potboilers and hard-man fantasies dressed up to pander to the prevailing fashion. At some point during Armagideon Time’s early years, I even considered doing an ongoing “Bad Cyberpunk Theater” feature to spotlight the worst of these efforts. I never got around to it because I’d started loosing my taste for “dur hur look at this garbage” flame-jobs and I really, REALLY didn’t feel like wasting any more of my precious time re-reading those cookie-cutter travesties.

It wasn’t all bad, however. There were a few books that stood out among the high and fragrant piles of trash-lit dross. Some were legitimately entertaining, and a couple were genuinely decent. Both Voice of the Whirlwind and When Gravity Fails fell into the latter category.

Voice of the Whirlwind was the follow-up to Hardwired. Hardwired was a full-on attempt by William’s to write “A Cyberpunk Novel,” and its overly earnest efforts to out-Gibson Gibson bordered on the realm of unintentional parody. Voice of the Whirlwind, on the other hand, was a gritty space-opera about the clone of a murdered special forces veteran trying to complete the unfinished work of his “alpha,” where the cyberpunk aspects represented the incorporation of the subgenre into the mainstream sci-fi as a whole. As a result, it’s a much stronger work, despite some telegraphed plot twists and Williams’ tendency to occasionally lapse into some awkwardly Gibsonesque riffs.

When Gravity Fails hewed much closer to the Neuromancer template, but had the advantage of a unique (and regrettably still radical) setting — a future Earth where the Middle East has become the global center of economic and cultural power. The story itself is fairly engaging, an old school private eye tale retrofitted with cybernetic enhancements and fascinating fictional world. Subsequent volumes in the series pulled further away from the cyberpunk axis in favor of further exploring the culture and relationships which shaped its protagonist and supporting cast.

I have a good deal of affection for both Voice of the Whirlwind and When Gravity Fails, but reading them on the heels of Neuromancer got me to thinking about the concept of “cyberpunk” as a distinct entity. Neither of the books would exist in the current form without Neuromancer. Its tropes and themes and concepts permeate them — every other work of cyberpunk literature — from top to bottom.

Yet these were hardly new or unique to Gibson’s novel. They can be found in works of Dick, Ballard, Brunner, and others, dating back to the late Sixties and even earlier. With Neuromancer, Gibson synthesized and reworked these various parts into a personal vision reflecting a certain moment in time and hypercharged them with his unique voice and style. That latter part is the critical factor here, and what separates that novel from the genre tag that emerged in its wake. The collectively understood notion of “cyberpunk” puts an excessive emphasis on the window-dressing — cybertech, computer generated universes, and other easy to visualize bits ganked from Blade Runner and Tron — while lacking the style and vision which set its seminal work apart.

Neuromancer was a genre unto itself, removed even from the other two books the “Sprawl Trilogy.” Cyberpunk (and every subsequent “-punk” appended scene) is merely a marketing tag based on the most superficial surface elements.

Through the rest of the spring and early summer of 1989, I got into the habit of picking up stray issues of White Dwarf from Excalibur’s large inventory of cover-priced back issues. I tended to stick to the ones that included relevant material for Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, but ended up spending more time checking out the articles and ads dealing with Warhammer 40k tabletop wargame.

The notion of elves and orcs battling in some far-future dystopia of struck me as pretty foolish at first glance, but the models looked cool as hell and the White Dwarf writing staff sold the fuck out of the concept through the long bits of fluff that accompanied every new vehicle type or unit list. I was especially fascinated by the “Harlequins,” a wandering troupe of warrior-performers who dressed like punk rock jesters and got a big write-up in issue #105 of the magazine.

I was still new to the whole punk thing, which was pretty dead around these parts at the time. Seeking further knowledge about the scene, I chased down anything remotely connected to it. That was a big part of my attraction to the Warhammer franchises. While D&D kept itself confined to the realm of Rush and Jethro Tull, Warhammer embraced punk ‘n’ metal aesthetics and attitude. The Harlequins were an incredibly visually striking and overt manifestation of that, and I reflexively latched onto it.

My first official 40k purchase was a blister of Harlequins (back when five bucks would net you a set of four models) picked up at the Compleat Strategist. I was in the neighborhood because my old gaming buddy Scott was interviewing for some kind of internship at Northeastern and his parents didn’t want him to visit that “bad neighborhood” by himself. By that time, the weekend visits with my old man had done much to dispel my suburban apprehensions about “the city,” so for me it was an opportunity to get dismissed from school early and spend an afternoon dicking around Boston.

I cleaned the stray molding bits of the models with a pen knife and did my best to paint them with various acrylic craft paints my aunt had left at my grandma’s place. They weren’t the best models for a first-time figure painter — thanks to the intricate details and wild color schemes — but I did pick up a decent sense of the basics through the experience. They ended up on one of my bookshelves, where they collected dust until I gave them to Maura a few years later.

Encouraged by that effort, I started picking up other random Warhammer figures that caught my eye. These were mostly from the 40k line, but did include a number of fantasy-themed models as well. My crate of modeling supplies grew as I slowly honed my skills, experimenting with techniques such as ink washes and dry brushing. My pal Damian also got into the act, propelled by a weird and one-sided sense of artistic rivalry. We even went halfsies on a boxed set of plastic 40k Space Marines.

For us, it was an artsier spin on action figure collecting. We weren’t trying to assemble armies. The game itself didn’t really figure into it apart from stoking our interest in the models through various bits of White Dwarf fluff.

I didn’t get around to buying a copy of the expensive hardbound Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader rulebook until later that summer, and under some really weird circumstances.

What happened was the full-time dude who ran my workstation at the hospital kitchen during the day shift somehow managed to rack up over ten grand in phone sex bills. In an attempt to extricate himself from the situation, he had himself committed to a psychiatric ward. Our supervisor asked me if I would fill in for him, and I foolishly agreed even though it meant pulling multiple split shifts for a couple of weeks.

Thus I found myself operating a industrial dishwashing machine for twelve hours a day during one of the worst heatwaves in New England’s history. The machine was the size of a panel truck, blasted skin-blistering gouts of steam, and was tucked into a poorly ventilated alcove. Even better, the job also involved dumping a staggering amount of food waste into a long metal feeder trench leading to a garbage disposal with periodic delusions of geyser-hood.

I was a skeletal hundred-and-thirty pounds when the two week stretch began. I was one-twenty when it ended. The stink of rancid milk and institutional gravy mix embedded itself in my pores and no amount of soaking of scrubbing could get make me feel clean afterwards. It was the reason I lost any enthusiasm about eating and why I started buzzing my hair short as a habit (though it did dovetail nicely with the whole punk rock thing).

It was an incredibly disgusting and shitty job and why I have nothing but contempt for those assholes who think service workers are overpaid.

When it was done and the checks were cashed, I had myself a grown-up sized wad of cash with none of the associated obligations. The responsible thing would’ve been to deposit my roll in my savings account, but fuck that — I’d spent half a month in the bowels of food service hell, dammit. I deserved to treat myself.

The bulk of the money went toward a NES and copy of Metal Gear, along with a copy of Rogue Trader picked up at Excalibur. (The rest went toward a Circle Jerks t-shirt and — at the behest of an audiophile ex-punk prep cook — the first three Clash albums on cassette.)

It’s weird looking back at Rogue Trader in light of the licensed behemoth Warhammer 40k has since become. While the basic mechanics and foundations of its fictional universe are contained within its pages, the most familiar components — the Horus Heresy, primarchs, traitor legions — of the franchise were later additions doled in White Dwarf, various supplements, and subsequent editions.

In its original incarnation, Warhammer 40k was designed to be skirmish-based wargame with strong role-playing elements. The game was scaled for a dozen or so units per side, with a high level of customization and emphasis on character advancement and campaign play. It lacked the canonical rigidity of later editions, embracing instead a tongue-in-cheek and darkly humorous vibe akin to 2000 AD comics which inspired it.

The game is much closer in spirit to what would become the Necromunda spin-off franchise, though far more open-ended. The rules allowed for crafting and conducting small-scale engagements at tech levels running from the Stone Age to the far future. In fact, the two times I actually played games with the Rogue Trader rules involved a medieval fantasy village raid and a test run where I tried to adapt the system for use with H-O scale WW2 figures and vehicles.

I primarily used Rogue Trader as a resource to mine ideas and concepts for various other games. By the time I started warming up to the idea of assembling proper armies to battle it out on the tabletop, the second edition of the game dropped. That revision formalized and streamlined what 40k had become since its initial release, jettisoning the hybrid messiness for an ever-escalating (and purchase-driving) power creep with codified army lists.

It was a logical step to take and I enjoyed the hell out of it, but it lacked the wild ambition of its predecessor.

Its confusing, nigh unplayable but eminently fascinating predecessor.

Treasures buried

September 19th, 2017

My grandma celebrated her 90th birthday last weekend, so I stopped by her place with a card and some candy.

In previous years, I tried to keep these visits as brief as possible — “hi/how are you doing/that’s great/gotta run.” My family isn’t really known for its sense of closeness in a physical sense. We tend to touch base every so often and just assume everyone is content with doing their own thing. I speak to my brother every month or so over the phone and couldn’t tell you the last time I saw my father in person.

In my grandmother’s case, there’s also a long and complicated relationship — with her and the immediate members of that side of my family — to consider. We generally get along, but there’s a history of bad blood and ugly confrontations that can make entering that realm feel like walking over a minefield.

At the same time, my grandmother is the person who took and brother and me in after my mother died, and has done so much for us over the years. That’s been on my mind a lot lately, as I’ve been rehashing those memories for the adoption paperwork and on this site. I’m the only reliably independent relative she still has in Woburn, which means I’m the one who gets called when she needs help shopping for a new lawnmower or TV set. ”

“Your brother said she raves about you,” my dad (who my grandmother has despised since he starting dating my mother).

“I don’t get why.”

“Because she always thought the world of you. When we first brought you up from North Carolina, she and your grandfather acted like you pooped sunshine.”

The bottom line is my grandmother is a very old woman and the occasional visit or phone call means the world to her. It’s the least I can do, plus I’m one of the few people she knows who can still remember things like the Woolworth’s in the center or Bucky’s Hill or the Donut Kitchen.

After we were done chatting about the ghosts of Hammond Square past, I headed upstairs to survey my grandma’s attic. When I was a kid, the place served as my grandpa’s engineering studio and proto “man cave.” Later it became my aunt and uncle’s bedroom, which Lil Bro took over after they moved out and our adolescent egos grew too big to share living quarters.

During that last phase, the attic also served as a storage spillover for all the excess crap we accumulated. A good portion of it still remains up there, either because we didn’t have the space for it and/or didn’t care enough about it when we left the nest. Taking advantage of my new iPhone (yes, I finally joined the 21st Century), I snapped a few photos while taking a quick inventory.

The longboxes represent maybe a third of my comics collection. I’m not sure what’s in these ones, apart from some random manga floppies from the mid-Nineties and earlier. I consolidated my favorite runs into a couple of boxes I brought with me to the House on the Hillside in 2004, and Lil Bro has tried to sort through and catalog the rest when had the chance.

The various Warhammer and Necromunda boxes mostly hold figures that I couldn’t fit (or weren’t finished enough) to fit onto my display shelves. The 40k holds an entire semi-painted Black Legion army I was working on when I lost interest in the game.

The turntable and stack of records were recent additions, left behind for me by Lil Bro during an earlier visit. That’s my original turntable, by the way, the very one my mother passed on to me in 1987. Ideally, I’d like to incorporate it into a full retro sound system when I have a little extra money and time.

Despite appearances, this is not the “RPG box” I’ve written about. (It’s the plastic storage containers to the right of it.) I held on to my WFRP stuff well after I consigned the rest to perma-storage, then apparently dumped the lot into a old Hoover box filled with old college textbooks and notebooks. I’d hoped to find my old character sheets in the mess, but only succeeded in locating some campaign notes scrawled in a shorthand I’ve since forgotten how to decipher.

The (very heavy) box made it impossible to access the crawlspace behind it, which was a disappointment. Part of the reason I went up there was to see if I could locate the trashbag containing the t-shirts I wore during my early punk days. I have a vague memory of stuffing it into the crawlspace so my grandma wouldn’t toss them. The Exploited and Agnostic Front ones I wouldn’t miss, but I’d love to restore my 1989 New Order tour shirt to its rightful place of honor.

In the summer on 1993, Maura and I were walking past a framing place in Medford Square and discovered they’d put out a fuckton of stiff cardboard and foam core for the garbage truck. We grabbed as much of it as we could carry, and it ended up getting reworked and repurposed into all manner of Warhammer 40k scenery.

I might have loved designing these buildings and ruins more than painting figures or playing the game itself.

Hey, it’s my Drawing 101 sketchbook from 1991! No, it totally isn’t filled with half-assed doodles, lyrics from shitty punk songs, and embarrassing poems about hormonal angst! Nope! Nosiree!

The only thing in the sketchbook worth the faintest of damns is this self-portrait I sketched shorty before or after I started dating Maura. I hadn’t yet settled into a fixed punk ‘do, and was still trying (and failing) to cultivate a Jim Bob from Carter USM look.

Finally, here’s a photo of my grandpa’s secret stash of fantasy paperbacks, the same one I delved into to distract myself after my mom’s death.

On the plus side, the old man was apparently a huge fan of the legendary Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and collected a good percentage of its original run. On the other hand, the bottom third of the chest contains a whole lot of smutty pulp from both the “new wave” and knuckledragging sides of the genre aisle.

It didn’t exactly shock me, but it was a revelation I certainly could’ve done without knowing.

Do K-Tel #17: High Energy (1979)

September 18th, 2017

If you’ve been reading this site, following my twitter feed, or engaged in conversation with me, then you’ll be well aware about my long-standing fascination with the “death of disco.” It was a social-cultural shift wrapped up in musical one, whose impact still echoes through the present day. It was the culmination of multiple interwoven trends and events, resulting in scores of conflicting (and incomplete) narratives about what happened and why.

In short, it’s the type of event that I love to ponder and pontificate about. There are so many threads to unravel and myths to explode, and childhood memories to reexamine as well. After Star Wars, disco’s demise was the biggest cultural event I can still recall with any degree of first-hand detail — the bumper-stickers, t-shirts, mass media jabs, and playground taunts lobbed towards the few remaining Bee Gees fans.

Despite the high levels of after-the-fact hyperbole, the death of disco was indeed akin to a cultural extinction event — which makes High Energy a significant artifact in the historical record (no pun intended).

It also had one of the strongest first sides of any K-Tel release, ever.

A1 Blondie – Heart Of Glass
A2 Amii Stewart - Knock On Wood
A3 Gloria Gaynor – I Will Survive
A4 Peaches & Herb – Shake Your Groove Thing
A5 Instant Funk - I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)
A6 Chic - Le Freak
A7 Foxy - Hot Number
A8 G.Q. - Disco Nights (Rock Freak)

B1 Pointer Sisters – Fire
B2 Foreigner – Double Vision
B3 Orleans – Love Takes Time
B4 Pablo Cruise - Love Will Find A Way
B5 Farragher Bros – Stay The Night
B6 Captain And Tennille - You Never Done It Like That
B7 Gino Vannelli – I Just Wanna Stop
B8 Styx - Renegade

The one-two electrodance punch of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Amii Stewart’s spaced-out cover of my favorite Sixties soul track was reason enough to buy a copy. Throwing in the apex disco of “I Will Survive” plus the party jam combo of “Shake Your Groove Thing” and “Le Freak” bumped High Energy into the stratosphere.

That power frontloading came at a cost, with a flip side that’s all over the place yet never manages to hit anything close to a sweet spot. In a broader context, disco’s death was a single component of a wider extinction pulse across a bloated and complacent music industry. Even when the effects weren’t immediately lethal, they heralded a looming shake-up of the status quo. Hard rock, soft rock, easy listening pop, mellow soul, jazz rock — all would stagger into the new decade of diminishing returns and increasingly fractalized formatting and marketing practices.

Punk’s contribution to the process is, again, one of those aspects prone to inflationary mythmaking, but there is a severe cognitive dissonance to be found in a year that produced Pablo Cruise’s “Love Will Find A Way” or “Stay The Night” by the Farragher Brothers…

…and Magazine’s Real Life.

That awareness adds to High Energy‘s fin de siècle vibe, where the only tracks that exhibit any form of evolutionary momentum happen to come from the scene that would take the biggest hit in the catastrophe to come.

All the reminiscing about the “good” old days lately has set my thoughts wandering into some weird and uncomfortable territory. Dredge a stagnant pool and all manner of stink is going to surface. In my case, it’s a lot of painfully embarrassing crap reeking of ancient regret. It’s stuff had been resolved — for better or for worse — a quarter century ago, yet still aches when prodded.

It’s not a huge deal, and there are still some lessons to be learned by revisiting these experiences. The process began, after all, when I had to rehash my personal history as part of the pre-adoption process. A heightened awareness of my own adolescent traumas will be invaluable in approaching those of a kid who has gone through similar ones.

Some of these rekindled embarrassments have been more goofy than horrifying in nature, like “was my punk rock style sufficiently cool?”

I didn’t have an extended peer group in the subculture. The folks I did hang with tended to be of the same DIY reverse-engineered mindset, where you threw together or tried to replicate bits and bobs gleaned from various conflicting sources. In hindsight, that was probably truer to the original punk spirit than falling behind some established script, but I never managed to pull off the look I actually wanted — especially on the hair front, where I really wanted to copy the shaved sides and long forelock sported by Carter USM’s Jim Bob. (No barber understood what I meant and no friend felt confident enough with a razor to make it happen.)

I find myself wondering if I looked sufficiently outlandish. Did I truly convey a proper rejection of prevailing norms? It shouldn’t bother me, but it does.

And then I flip through the 1990 JC Penny catalog and all my doubts are instantly dispelled.

Do you remember?

September 14th, 2017

Hüsker Dü filled the same niche for me that Depeche Mode or the Cure filled for other alt-leaning Gen X teens, a vicarious vehicle foe the sentimental side of adolescent angst.

I discovered them through an episode of 21 Jump Street, where a promo poster for Zen Arcade hung prominently in a safe-for-TV “punk rock” kid’s bedroom. The punk scene at the time was utterly moribund, especially in my suburban neck of the woods. The artsier and hipper crowd had moved on to more pretentious scenes, while the lowbrow aggro types embraced the mosh-friendly sounds of thrash metal. What remained of the punk scene up here was confined to small pockets of mutual mistrust, and gravitated to local knuckle-dragging hardcore acts or equally meat-headed import Oi nonsense.

When I drifted into punk in the first half of 1989, I was largely on my own. It wasn’t unmapped territory as much as a post-apocalyptic landscape, where one had to deduce the contours of a dead era though random scraps and de-contextualized artifacts — Repo Man and its soundtrack, “Nice Price” copies of Sex Pistols’ and The Clash’s albums, a syndicated re-run of that WKRP episode with “The Scum of the Earth,” and whatever meager remnants remained in stock at the hipper record stores in the area.

It didn’t matter that 21 Jump Street was a pretty stupid show to begin with and grown more painfully so by the time I caught that particular episode. Every new lead was worth chasing, even if it resulted in a dead end, and every new discovery felt like a revelation from Punk Rock Heaven. Even better, the tiny punk/hardcore/metal section at Newbury Comics in Burlington was well-stocked with Hüsker Dü material.

I started at the bitter end with Warehouse: Songs and Stories, mainly because I was fascinated by its hypnotically garish sleeve art. The music was not at all what I expected, more melodic than the other stuff I was listening to at the time yet rougher-edged than more radio-friendly alt-radio acts.

There was a sad wistfulness about it all that spoke to me on a deeply personal level. Black Flag sang to the person I pretended to be. Hüsker Dü sang to the person I actually was, a confused and resentful teen plagued by hormonal angst and desperately searching for a sense of community.

I took it extremely personally when a girl I was interested in called the band “Hunka Poo,” so there was also some self-fulfilling prophecy involved.

From there I moved on to Flip Your Wig and moved backwards through New Day Rising and Zen Arcade, charting the band’s evolution from hardcore noise to slightly less noisy pop music in reverse. I loved them all but Flip Your Wig will forever be apex Dü for me, everything I loved about Warehouse presented in its purest and most potent form.

In my forty-five years on this planet, there have been handful of albums that utterly astounded me on the first spin — goose-flesh raising, shorthairs-grabbing, heart-wrenching efforts capable of paralyzing me with their perfection. They’re records capable of convincing you that they have been recorded just for your ears, evoking a powerful (and unsettling) sense of intimacy. Flip Your Wig is one of those albums. (You can try and guess the others.)

The band was a done deal by the time I discovered them. I knew nothing about the politics of their break-up, but witnessed the division into rival Bob Mould and Grant Hart camps in the retail realm, where the successor act merch and releases were racked as a subsets to their progenitor. When I ran into other Hüsker Dü fans in college, I’d get asked “Sugar or Nova Mob?” I couldn’t provide an answer because that’s not how I ever considered the band.

Hüsker Dü’s magic was similar to that of The Clash — a single sound with two distinct voices. The creative tensions between Bob Mould and Grant Hart eventually led to the band’s acrimonious dissolution, but their collaborative rivalry resulted in the whole greatly exceeding the sum of its parts. From their first release to their last, Hüsker Dü was engaged in a continuous process of becoming. There were no creative plateaus or calcification there, just reaching for something just beyond their current horizon.

The same qualities that enraptured my teenage self have since turned into reasons I’ve distanced myself from their music in the years since. The songs haven’t diminished in power, but neither have the personal associations they possess for me. The connection runs so deep that it’s impossible to separate the two. It’s doesn’t matter that almost three decades have passed since then — as soon as I hear the opening bars of “Makes No Sense at All” or “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” all the hurt and angst I felt back then comes screaming forth as fresh as ever.

By the time the spring of 1989 rolled around, the post-traumatic shellshock I experienced following my mother’s death faded into a constant state of restless boredom. I welcomed the sense of stability living with my grandmother provided, but there was a part of me that had difficulty adjusting to a life where horrible shit didn’t happen on a daily basis.

Many kids with similar experiences tend to act out in these situations, channeling low self-esteem into destructive behaviors or other attempts to test the boundaries of their new environment. I didn’t do much of either, because I knew how fortunate I’d been (relatively speaking) and didn’t want to fuck things up. Plus, my grandmother already treated me as if I was an adult, so there were no boundaries to test.

I spent most of my restless moments roaming aimlessly around my little corner of suburban Greater Boston. Armed a cassette copy of Electric Sixties and one of the faux Walkmans I got for Christmas, I’d ride my bike around the trails circling the peat bogs and pine barrens on the far side of Horn Pond. Sometimes I’d climb up to the top of Rag Rock at dusk and catch a glimpse of Boston in the distance. And when the opportunity presented itself, I would tag along with my grandmother and aunt on one of their weird shopping excursions.

My aunt shared my mother’s all-in obsession when it came to her current interests. Most of the time, it entailed sudden trips to hole in the wall store which specialized in whatever artistic project she was elbow-deep in at the time. The specifics didn’t concern me, but the opportunity to wander around new-to-me locales did. One of these involved a twilight voyage to Reading Center, where I wandered off on my own in search of anything of interest.

I eventually stumbled across a dusty and disorganized shop which carried a selection of used paperbacks, current comics, and back-issues of geek-centric periodicals. The place wasn’t entirely new to me — I’d picked up a copy of Gumby 3-D #1 there a couple years prior while helping my pal Artie find a spare tire for his moped — but I wasn’t clear on the location or if it still existed. Nothing in the shop really grabbed my attention, so I settled on browsing through a stack of White Dwarf issues next to the display window.

I ended up buying a copy of issue #91 (July 1987), published during that sweet spot between the magazine’s adoption of a sturdy square-bound format and its full transformation into Games Workshop’s house propaganda organ. It was the first issue of White Dwarf I ever bought (or read) and I picked it up because it included articles on critical fumbles and advanced noble careers for my beloved Warhammer Fantasy Role Play.

The first thing I noticed while reading through the issue was how thoroughly British it was in tone, especially in the realm of cheeky wit. Where Dragon tended toward sober and serious takes on the subject matter, White Dwarf‘s editors and writers had no qualms about putting the boot in for the sake of a few laughs. Dave Langford’s book review column called out Orson Scott Card’s sequel to Ender’s Game for its problematic bullshit decades before folks on this side of the pond woke up to it, and the mag’s game reviewers had fun mocking the goofiness of Dragonlance fandom.

Even the articles covering games I didn’t play were worth reading just for the entertainment value. Marcus Rowland’s Paranoia scenario — featuring a race of alien teddy bears influenced by old Dr. Who broadcasts — is easily the most memorably and genuinely hilarious game adventure I’ve ever read.

It was the type of thing I loved about Twilight Zone Magazine back in the day, but had never seen it applied to the realm of role-playing games. It was informed yet irreverent, and fit my own attitude toward the hobby perfectly — sturm und drang delivered with morbid sarcasm and a sly smirk.

About a week afterward, I was laying in my bed and watching the sun set through the trees across the street. In the distance I could hear the Doppler-distorted strains of crowd chatter and shitty pop music bouncing over from some senior’s kegger on the other side of Bucky’s Hill. I never felt so completely lost and isolated, bubbling over with restless energy but with nothing to focus it.

As the last traces of light vanished below the horizon, I told myself that I needed something different, that I needed to reclaim myself.

A few days later, I bought the Repo Man soundtrack, and that missing piece fell into place.

Do K-Tel #17: Hot Tracks (1983)

September 11th, 2017

Chart Action 83 may not be my favorite K-Tel release, but it was the foundation upon which my irrational interest in mass market pop compilations was built. The album dropped right at the moment my eleven year old self became entranced by WHTT’s “hot hit radio” format and included several of the cuts I’d tune in every hour on the hour just to hear.

It was the soundtrack to that particular — and all-to-fleeting moment where I started to get a taste of adult independence without its corresponding responsibilities. Its songs are triggers for lucid memories involving The Fury of Firestorm, Tangy Taffy, the Golden Age of Videogames, and epic action figure battles waged in my backyard.

In short, Chart Action 83 is a potent nostalgia bomb to my ears, and one whose megatonnage has grown exponentially over the decades. It was such a potent artifact that my hazy memories of it took on a grossly inflationary cast during the stretches where I lacked access to a copy of the album. The tracklist somehow managed to grow and encompass every single favorite song from my fifth grade year.

The rational part of my brain knew that wasn’t possible, but had little say in the matter. That gap between nostalgic fantasy and practical reality left me feeling a bit let down when I did finally get a chance to listen to the genuine article again. It was only a taste of the old magic, yet it was enough to compel me to seek out other sources. Given K-Tel’s prolific output and selection of featured material, it stood to reason that the rest of “my 1983″ in music would be out there in some goofy-titled sibling release (or four) scattered across the late ’82 through early ’84 timeframe.

Some, like Dancing Madness, were easy enough to find among K-Tel’s sprawling list of releases. Others, like Hot Tracks, only caught my eye after multiple passes through the database.

The Hot Tracks cover aesthetic was odd, and a break from the text-heavy Reagan Moderne and airbrushed futurist styles common to K-Tel offerings from this era. It can’t even be classified as a throwback to the Seventies, because even in those days the label opted for techno-sheen or blunt force functionality in its trade dress. The Hot Tracks cover just looks like something inspired by the lurid murals spray-painted on seedy carnival ride. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it was really weird to behold.

Weirder still? The record’s inner sleeve was printed with a full-color ad for K-Tel’s short-lived “Xonox” line of double-ended Atari 2600 cartridges. It was a novel gimmick, but suffered from some bad timing and poor implementation. Offering two (lousy) games for the price of one a bit pointless when the entire home videogame industry was dumping excess inventory at fire sale prices, and other companies were exiting the business in droves.

Here’s the tracklist:

A1 Michael Sembello – Maniac
A2 Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)
A3 Rick Springfield – Human Touch
A4 Billy Idol – White Wedding (Part I)
A5 Styx - Mr. Roboto
A6 Chris De Burgh – Don’t Pay The Ferryman
A7 The Animals – The Night

B1 The Police – King Of Pain
B2 Bryan Adams – This Time
B3 Def Leppard – Rock Of Ages
B4 Wall Of Voodoo – Mexican Radio
B5 Naked Eyes – Promises, Promises
B6 Patrick Simmons – So Wrong
B7 Shalamar – Dead Giveaway

Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” was one of the reasons (alongside “Der Kommissar” and “Come on Eileen”) I tuned into WHTT, as the station’s tight-rotation playlist meant getting to listen to it at least once every couple of hours. The song was a perfect (and perfectly goofy) slice of the zeitgeist, and tailor-made for my younger self’s oversized geeky ears. Even better, Hot Tracks paired it up with the overwrought theatrics of Chris De Burgh’s “Don’t Pay The Ferryman.” The combined effect is nearly enough to summon a 1st edition Monster Manual from the ether.

Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” is one of the most bizarre songs to ever crack the charts, and a good example of why this period of pop history appeals to me beyond the usual nostalgic reasons. It was the apex of a transitional period amplified by the emerging medium of music video, which meant all manner of oddities could bubble up to mainstream audiences and leave a brief but memorable mark.

Blidol’s “White Wedding” and Rick Springfield’s “Human Touch” were welcome inclusions, and my grade school adoration of Def Leppard still holds enough sway to make “Rock of Ages” a fun listen (though I’d have preferred “Photograph’). The rest of the songs I can take or leave.

“Maniac” is one of those tracks whose former ubiquity has killed my capacity to hear it as anything but sonic wallpaper. I’ve never been particular fond of either the Eurythmics or The Police’s output after Ghost in the Machine. It’s not that I think they’re awful, but that they were the type of “new wave” music my parents would listen to — the ur-acts of the tedious “adult alternative” format. The Shalamar track is a solid jam, but suffers from getting wedged in at the end behind ex-Doobie Patrick Simmons’ soporific attempt at synthesized soft rock.

After a few listens, I’m still not sure what I think of Hot Tracks as an “experience.” In terms of content, it’s on par with Chart Action 83 yet it hasn’t grabbed me in the same way. I feel historical connections with individual songs, but not with the album as a whole. It’s close to my experiences with K-Tel’s other Class of 1983 releases but with a unsettling sense of “road not taken” added to the mix.

In other circumstances — a different commercial aired during a syndicated repeat of Barney Miller or a different 8-track at the top of Strawberries’ sell-though bin — Hot Tracks could easily have occupied the same place in my heart that Chart Action 83 does. It’s just a small epiphany about childhood nostalgia and the long tail of imprinted biases, made stranger by the presence of a Styx song about robots.

I spent early part of 1989 settling into my new routine of school, work, and visiting my father on the weekends. It only lasted about ten weeks, but it felt much longer because it was the buffer between a pair of big life-changing events. During that stretch, my interest in role-playing games became eclipsed by a rekindled love of comics (thanks to weekly exposure to New England Comics’ giant wall o’ new releases) and my growing engagement with thrash metal music. Both siphoned off a lot of the mad money I used to drop on RPG stuff, limiting my purchases to “might as well” consolation buys during low-volume or “skip” weeks.

What I did buy was almost entirely limited to Champions sourcebooks and adventure modules. They were six bucks a pop, Excalibur had a wide selection to choose from, and the superheroic subject matter dovetailed with my resurgent comics fandom.

None of the stuff in these supplements ever ended up in any of my campaigns. My interest in them was a matter of morbid interest than anything else, the same imp of the perverse that convinces me to consume a two-liter bottle of a store-brand Dr. Pepper knock-off. The material tended to be written by superhero fans with the faintest grasp of the genre’s conventions or traditions.

Their aim was to create something worthy of the Marvel Universe, but the results felt like something scraped from the pages of a Mighty Comics offering from the Silver Age — tracing the outlines while completely wiffing the all-too-crucial intangibles. The convoluted origins, overly-complicated powersets, and generically try-hard character names could’ve been pulled from one of my grade school notebooks in which I attempted to out-do the House of Ideas by turning a full-blast shithose against a borrowed canvas.

“HIS NAME IS POWER MASTER AND HE’S FIFTY TIMES STRONGER THAN SUPERMAN AND HAS CLAWS AND HIS FAMILY WAS KILLED BY CRIMINALS BUT HIS POWERS WENT OUT OF CONTROL AND TURNED HIM INTO DARK POWER MASTER AND HIS FRIENDS HAD TO KILL HIM.”

It also didn’t help that — by either tight deadlines or miscommunication — the art rarely reflected the text in the entries. A character described as a human demon hybrid with horns and a barbed tail would be depicted as a quick trace of a Hulk Hogan promo photo with nary a diabolic feature to be found. The illustrations weren’t terrible by the RPG standards of the era, but rarely did they fit the funnybook vibe with the exception of Patch Zircher’s work. It further emphasized the distance from the source material and heightened the off-register vibe.

Rules-wise, most 3rd edition Champions supplements were a hot mess. Throwaway adversaries on par with Marvel Team-Up’s villains-of-the-month would sport power levels that were double or triple what you’d see in an average player character. The writers’ commitment to a concept would override all other considerations, leaving the incredibly fiddly process of re-scaling encounters to the hapless gamemaster. Making a published Champions scenario fit for actual play took more effort than creating a homebrew scenario.

Yet for all the irritating flaws, I still have a great deal of affection for those sourcebooks. They’re artifacts of a fixed moment in time, and their goofiness is inescapably tangled up in other, completely unrelated recollections from that period. I have no idea why the Bolshevik Barracuda’s ability scores have become tidally locked to a certain memory about a high school crush, but I’ve long since resigned myself to it being the case.

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