Armagideon Time

One week without you

August 16th, 2017

I probably should’ve mentioned I’d be on vacation for a week.

Oh, well. Fresh content when I get back next Monday.

No more vrrrrooooom

August 10th, 2017

Slot Car Night was a big event, ranking somewhere between Christmas and network airings of The Wizard of Oz on the childhood anticipation scale.

Our apartment was too cramped to set up anything of a permanent nature and my brother and I were too young to play with the set unsupervised, so the box of HO scale delights spent most of its time warming the top shelf of my parents’ closet. That inaccessibility and aura of the forbidden only heightened the excitement when my dad decided to set it up for an evening.

The kitchen table was swept clean of domestic bric-à-brac, tangled wires were unfurled, and sections of plastic track snapped together into a semi-elaborate miniature speedway. In many cases, the event was precipitated by the old man bringing home a blister pack featuring a sweet new racing machine or novel stretch of track to add to the assemblage.

I’ve never been able to figure out my father’s involvement in the hobby. He’d been a gearhead since his teens, but also had a jaundiced views about grown men getting caught up in “kiddie bullshit” (hence the eyerolling whenever my brother and I discuss geeky crap in his presence). Based on what I’ve come to learn about the man over the decades, I’d wager it was a inter-sectional interest spurred by fatherhood and his love of being the bearer of grand gestures. After my poor mother suffered through the whining and feet-dragging about finishing our meals and taking our baths, my dad could swoop in with the Super Fun Thing and bask in our rapt adoration.

The excitement and novelty surrounding these occasions — the smell of ozone and the scraping noises of the throttle controllers — went a long way towards masking the underwhelming reality. No slick new car or jump or crash-begging intersection could full offset the herky-jerky movements and frequent derailments caused by my ham-fisted style, or the long stretches of dead time while my dad attempted field repairs on a horrifically abused speed machine. It wasn’t much different than dicking around with Hot Wheels cars, only without the portability and room for improvisation.

(For example, there was no way I would’ve gotten away with placing a slot car in the middle of Merrimac Street to see if it could survive an encounter with a real-life 18-wheeler.)

The bloom had already begun to fall from the rose by the time home videogame systems hit the scene, providing all the vicarious interactive thrills minus the headaches. There was nothing slot cars had to offer that I couldn’t find in Activision’s Grand Prix or Enduro minus the timing and logistic problems. The slot car manufacturers understood this all too well, pushing a slew of gimmicks and innovations even as their ad space in Boys Life and funnybooks got supplanted by breathy pitches for a new generation of digital diversions.

My last foray into the slot car realm was during the closing days of the 1980s, when my Lil Bro got a basic starter set as a birthday present. We set it up in my grandma’s living room a few times and tinkered around with it in a vain effort to make things more interesting. The best I could manage was using my Warhammer 40k paints to add Main Force Patrol livery to the yellow Ferrari that came with the set.

And then we went back to playing videogames, because why the hell would anyone want to pick bits of pet dander from a tiny wheel well when they could just play a half hour of the Master System port of OutRun?

The nostalgic sentiment surrounding Slot Car Nights still remains strong, however. Every so often I come across an old ad or catalog entry for the toys and think “I should…” before my more sensible side in me finishes the sentence with “…leave some things to the realm of fond memory.”

The autumn of 1988 was an oasis of calm before the impending shitstorm.

My family’s dysfunctions had metastasized into a weird state of equilibrium. My mother was still a basket case and my father was still out of control, but there was a sense that the situation had leveled out just enough for me to carry a faint and futile hope that better times were around the corner.

The abnormal became normal, and things like having no food in the fridge or the utilities getting shut-off for non-payment got lost in comfortable domestic rituals — watching Jeopardy with my dad, discussing comics and videogames with Lil Bro, or listening to my mother talk about Arthurian myths during her more lucid moments. Limited agency and the capacity to rationalize made the unbearable into something grudingly tolerable.

The beginning of my junior year also felt like a turning point. A not-quite-friend in my English class set me up with a part-time gig in the kitchen of the local hospital. The job paid well, had decent hours, and offered a welcome dividend in leftover and purloined foodstuffs. It left me with a decent amount of pocket money — even after forking over a significant percentage of my paycheck to my parents — which put new Sega Master System games and other such luxuries within my reach.

My fifth period class was chemistry, taught in the “new” (built in the 1960s) wing of the high school, which meant I didn’t have to spend my lunch periods crammed into the infernal dungeon across from a boiler room. Two of my classmates were geeky dudes, so I had folks to converse with in the far corner of the cafeteria.

Anthony was a soft-spoken burly fellow with massive sideburns and look copped from an Apollo Era NASA engineer. Steve — who also went by “Adam” — was a more contemporary geek, complete with Kevin Cronin mullet-perm and a pleather Members Only jacket. They were more fellow travellers than actual friends. Our association didn’t extend outside the campus or school hours, but was limited to talking about stupid shit before class and around the lunch table.

Both Anthony and Steve-Adam were heavily into Dungeons & Dragons, specifically the Dragonlance series of novels and modules. I knew of the franchise from my old gaming buddy Mike, whose initial explanation of it got lost in my newbie confusion about D&D in general. My lunchmates’ talk about “Lord Soth” and “Raistlin the Black” and the rest wasn’t any more lucid, but it was impassioned enough to make me pick up the first novel in only to see what the big deal was.

The story was fanfic as Tolkien-lite, right down to cosmetic change-ups to add the stamp of “originality” to the old familiar tropes. Swapping out orcs for hobgoblins and using trade metals as currency were largely superficial revisions, but ones that felt downright radical to the hidebound headspaces of D&D purists. The Dragonlance universe also gave the world the “kender,”
a non-legally actionable halfling analog which quickly became the preferred character race for players who habitually confused “amusing” with “annoying.”

I was a fan of D&D before I became a fan of the fantasy genre. As a result, my tastes tended to follow stuff that either hewed close to or directly inspired the game’s mechanics, namely The Hobbit, >The Lord of the Rings, and some Arthurian revisionist wank. The first Dragonlance trilogy, being the narrative transcript of a series of game modules, played perfectly toward that bias. It was boilerplate epic fantasy where one could hear the sound of d20s rolling with every paragraph. It was entertaining, engaging, and — most importantly — allowed me understand what the hell my Anthony and Steve-Adam were babbing about.

My mom, for whom reading was one of her few remaining comforts besides gallons of port wine, also enjoyed the novels. They were, in fact, the last books she ever read.

I read the Dragonlance books during a crossroads in my fantasy role-playing experience. My initial enthusiasm for Warhammer Fantasy Role Play had dimmed since the beginning of the year. Its system, setting, and grubby outlook appealed to my on multiple levels, but I had difficulty abandoning my emotional investment in Dungeons & Dragons. The best campaign I’d ever ran was an AD&D free-for-all hack ‘n’ lootfest, something that WFRP could never emulate. The Dragonlance novels and lunchtable talk only heightened my ambivalence.

My curiosity led me to buy a second-hand copy of the first module in the series from my old pal Mike (who had given up on the hobby and happened to sit next to me in algebra class) and the Dragonlance Adventures hardcover sourcebook from the sad remnant of Toys R Us’s once mighty TSR display. I browsed through both, made a few notes, and even considered starting a run with my group.

Then my mom took a drunken tumble down a flight of stairs and smashed her skull open, and all that crap went by the wayside.

The the sprawling ruined city map from the module ended up getting repurposed in bits and pieces for various college WFRP adventures, but the rest of it went to a storage crate where it has remained since.

I attempted to revisit the original trilogy of novels during a trash fiction binge ten years back, but was put off by the disjointedness of the plot and the college days discovery that the franchise was essentially a Mormon answer to the Chronicles of Narnia. Honestly, I don’t know enough about Mormon theology to pick up on it (and even devout practitioners of the faith have debated the extent of it), but it was enough to put me off it for good. It’s less about the specific details than the reflexive queasiness I feel whenever I realize some disposable diversion is trying to slip me a spiritual roofie.

It’s like finding out some catchy pop song is a Christian rock jam — and, honestly, Dragonlance wasn’t that catchy to begin with.

All geek things

August 8th, 2017

Even though I came to realize Damian and I were on different pages in terms of our fandoms, we remained close friends through high school and my early college days.

We continued to hang out on afternoons and weekends, hitting up the local arcades or roaming Boston’s northwest suburbs in search of some new-to-us venue for geeky shit. We drove out to Waltham to witness the last days of the legendary Mr. Big’s Toyland and lamented all the imported anime toys we couldn’t afford. We hit up the Newbury Comics in the strip mall across from the Burlington Mall, where I’d shop for records while Damian bought stacks of edgelordy indie horror comics from the discount bins, then eat like garbage kings at the Taco Bell next door. When my college gaming crew asked me to continue my Warhammer RPG run through the summer break, I invited Damian and my Lil Bro to join the pizza-fueled festivities, to great success.

These familiar routines couldn’t full mask the growing wedge between us, though. I was spending more and more time in Boston and Damian was content to stick around Woburn and the usual hangouts for kids who didn’t drift outward after graduation. I’d gotten into punk rock in a big way, while he drifted into persona that was equal parts glam metal and Diceman. As cool as Damian tried to be about it, the punk thing didn’t sit well with him. He took a (low-key and embarrassed) part in an ill-conceived “intervention” staged by some of my old North Woburn pals who’d thought I’d gone “evil Skinhead,” and would drop “friendly” quips that my spiky look was scaring away the cute chicks at the mall.

He thought I was turning into a snotty punk rock monster. I found his embrace of knuckledragging fandom irritating. Our sniping at each other grew from an occasional thing into a constant source of tension.

Things came to a head towards the end of 1991.

Damian got word of a game store two towns over in Arlington on Mass Ave. We decided to hit it up in hope that it had an untapped stash of offbeat or out-of-print treasures on the shelves — some old Citadel miniatures or a long-sought issue of White Dwarf or some small press superhero RPG from the early 1980s. Every hobbyist-turned-retailer over-purchased stock in his (and it was always “his”) own delusional way, so you never knew when you might strike the hantavirus-encrusted mother lode.

This particular place was a poorly stocked shithole that served as a storefront for a local live-action role-playing group. Half the floor space was given over to prop storage, and the shelves lacked anything but overpriced copies of crap you could find at a mall bookstore.

It took me all of two minutes to realize there was nothing of interest there for me, which was enough time for Damian to get into a passionate discussion with the dude at the counter (who was dressed like a cartoon wizard, I’d like to point out).

“We make our own costumes and use our own special rules and meet up in the park up the hill every other weekend. Our membership dues are quite reasonable,” he said as he slipped a sheaf of flyers and a membership application across the counter to a starry eyed Damian.

“Are we done here?” I sighed.

I knew what was coming before we stepped back out on the sidewalk.

“Uh, that – that sure was something, huh?”

It was a test, and I had already prepared my answer.

“Yeah, something really stupid.”

To make sure I got my point across, I spent the rest of the ride back to Woburn twisting the psychic knife in my buddy’s gut.

“Buncha fucking losers playing cops and robbers in the woods lobbing tennis balls at each other and swinging pool noodles. What kind of idiot would dig that nonsense?”

(The fact that I was a scrawny geek who’d buried himself in layers of punk regalia to reinvent himself did not come up.)

We hung out a couple more times after that, but the writing was on the wall. Any attempts on my part to keep the friendship going stopped after I began dating Maura a couple of weeks later, and Damian stopped trying as well.

He stayed in touch with Lil Bro through the high school’s AV studio, and it was from my younger sibling that I learned Damian wasted no time going all in on LARPing after we parted ways. He didn’t even bother hiding it during our handful of later encounters — once at a mall where he managed a Funcoland and another time when I was picking up my pre-order copy of Final Fantasy IX.

“You should see the shit we do with papier-mâché, man. I made this goblin king get-up that scared the crap out of everyone.”

I nodded and said “that’s cool” before making an excuse to cut out of there.

I still think LARPing is goofy and wince about Damian’s particular strain of fandom, but I’m glad he found something he enjoyed so damn much.

When I was in grade school, friends were determined by geographic proximity. In middle school and high school, it was a matter of broadly shared (geeky) interests.

Damian and I became friends because we were the two only kids in the school who dug Robotech and the Sega Master System. It was enough to forge a bond even though we differed on the specifics of our fandom (and so many other things). He was a good pal who saw me through some rough times, but we were both kids and on very different trajectories. If it wasn’t LARPing, it would’ve been some other irreconcilable difference that made us part ways.

Some friendships aren’t meant to last, even if they were important while they lasted.

Every K-Tel “current hits” compilation was disposable by design. Their contents were skimmed from the previous seasons pop charts, pressed to vinyl, and released under some ephemerally significant title and trade dress. They stuck it out in the midlist churn for a brief period of topical appeal before getting booted into the realm of deep discount bins.

They provided an affordable try-before-you-buy sampler for source material fence sitters and a cheap omnibus for folks whose tastes shifted in sync with the Top 40 radio playlist. Either way, the truncated songs and dodgy recording quality emphasized the ephemeral aspect of the product. No one expected them to have legs pasts a year or two, which is why so many of them filtered down to kids of my generation by way of hand-me-downs, garage sale crates, or curbside rubbish piles.

Saying something was “a product of its time” is speaking the obvious as a pseudo-profundity. K-Tel comps were products in their time. They appeal to me as old popular periodicals appeal to me, warts-and-all artifacts of specific moments made with little regard for historic reception. They serve as a reminder of what was as opposed to what we’d prefer to remember.

Of all the K-Tel comps I’ve picked up in the past nine months, none epitomize this as perfectly as 1974′s Dynamite does.

Sporting a title pulled direct from the realm of contemporary slang, the album served up a chopped and compressed core sample of a transition period at its most messy moment.

A1 Paper Lace – The Night Chicago Died
A2 Bachman-Turner Overdrive – Takin’ Care Of Business
A3 Nazareth – The Flight Tonight
A4 William DeVaughn – Be Thankful For What You Got
A5 Eric Clapton - I Shot The Sheriff
A6 Kool & The Gang – Hollywood Swinging
A7 Stealers Wheel – Stuck In The Middle With You
A8 Albert Hammond – I’m A Train
A9 George McCrae – Rock Your Baby
A10 Elton John – Honky Cat

B1 Terry Jacks – Seasons In The Sun
B2 Rick Derringer – Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo
B3 Peter Noone – Meet Me At The Corner Down At Joe’s Cafe
B4 The DeFranco Family – Save The Last Dance For Me
B5 Lobo – Rings
B6 Sister Janet Mead – The Lord’s Prayer
B7 Love Unlimited Orchestra – Love’s Theme
B8 Al Wilson – Show And Tell
B9 Gladys Knight And The Pips – On And On
B10 Stylistics – Let’s Put It All Together

The album’s twenty tracks span easy listening, proto-disco, soul, bubblegum, singer-songwriter, hard rock, and Eric Clapton’s coked out stab at reggae. It’s such a pure concentration of sheer Seventies-ness that handling the sleeve without protective gear can cause spontaneous hair feathering and a dangerous hot pants addiction.

I picked it up for Rick Derringer’s “Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo” — the apex of boogie rock sleaze — with the funk-thumping “Hollywood Swinging” and the ahistorically infectious “The Night Chicago Died” sealing the deal. Most of the inclusions are solid — including the singer-songwriter stuff, which I generally despise but here serves as a counterbalance to any rose-tinted delusions.

It also continues the 70s K-Tel comp tradition of throwing in my least favorite Elton John out of all the selections they could’ve gone with at the time.

Dynamite is the platonic model of a K-Tel compilation in form, branding, and qualities both positive and negative — of the moment, in the moment, and forever sporting a slightly battered sleeve with “25 cents” written in magic marker on a label affixed to the top right corner. Its musical contents precede any pop music awareness my toddler self may have possessed, but are familiar nonetheless, thanks to a heavy UHF ad presence and the informal supply chain which flowed down from the neighborhood’s teenagers to us younger folk.

The rock version of “The Lord’s Prayer” still creeps the fuck out of me, and not just because I was raised Protestant, either.

A true marvel

August 3rd, 2017

It recently occurred to me that I haven’t posted any Captain Marvel Adventures material in a while.

Let’s rectify that with a sequence of panels that feels oddly….relevant.

So much for the tolerant World’s Mightiest Mortal.

(from “Captain Marvel Versus The World’s Wildest Man” by Otto Binder, C.C. Beck and Pete Costanza in Captain Marvel Adventures #88, September 1948)

While 1987 had been a non-stop shopping spree of (mostly ill-advised) game purchases, 1988 ended up being very subdued on that front.

My family’s dysfunctions had begun to enter their terminal phase, marked by violent outbursts which made me increasingly reluctant to have friends over.

Money became tight. My brother and I lost the paper route after my dad kept pocketing the receipts for beer money. (The fuckers had it coming, but that’s a story for another time.) I got a job as an assistant dairy manager at a non-chain supermarket in Woburn’s South End, but was laid off after the owner used the business as collateral on his gambling debts. (Also a story for another time.)

The money I did take in was subject to an initial 50% parental levy with additional surcharges applied as my parents’ stocks of booze and smokes ran low over the course of the week. Whatever remnant was left to me was carefully rationed between comics and videogames and second-hand books and junk food and music tapes.

Role-playing games ceased being a priority in terms of outlay. I didn’t completely abandon the hobby, but instead made do with the material I’d already accumulated. Holed up in my cluttered bedroom, trying to ignores the drunken roars of my old man downstairs, I rolled up characters and plotted scenarios for Champions, Mekton, and WFRP. Few if any ever saw actual use. It was therapy through geekery, and most of the documentary evidence still exists inside a dog-eared Ocean Pacific folder buried in my grandma’s attic.

As I surrendered the initiative on the role-playing front, my buddy Damian made a dedicated effort to keep the dice a’rolling. It was a welcome change, at first, an opportunity to step outside my default dungeonmaster gig and experience things from the players’ side of the cardboard screen. All the cool character concepts I’d brainstormed in the previous year and a half would finally see some action on the gaming table.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take a crucial factor into account. Damian were close pals who shared a number of geeky interests, but with radically different approaches to fandom. I labored under some serious anxiety of influence and a compulsion to distance myself from direct references. If a member of the group wanted to play Iron Man or Aragorn, I’d work with them to create an analog who possessed the desired traits but lacked the historical baggage and other aspects which could allow players to get devious by citing the published “canon.” It made the characters theirs to invest in, rather than crawling into the skin of some established IP.

Damian, on the other hand, wore his influences on his sleeve, frequently swapping them out for whatever was the Hot New Thing in fanboy circles. His fantasy worlds were places where players would run into the Predator, RoboCop, Eddie from Iron Maiden, Wolverine, Captain Picard, Batman, as well as the combined casts of Nightbreed and RobotJox — all depicted with the accuracy you’d expect from a sixteen year old boy on an enthusiasm high.

He was my friend, though, and so I did my level best to appreciate his efforts even as I choked back my dry heaves.

His first attempt at running a campaign involved Cyborg Commando. The game marked Gary Gygax’s return to the scene following his departure from TSR and the D&D franchise he helped create. It was hyped as the Second Coming of RPG Design Divinity, but the product itself was a lousy Gamma World knock-off featuring goofy-ass cyberwarriors battling the oh-so-original alien race of Xenoborgs.

Damian was especially invested in Cyborg Commando, as he was the first (and only, as it turned out) member of our gaming circle to score a copy. It was a matter of pride. He would be in the vanguard of a bold new world of gaming, one whose rules system somehow missed the playtesting phase. (I’m not joking. Because of the d10x10 resolution mechanic, characters with shitty ability scores had higher chances of success than their more experienced or exceptional counterparts.)

It was banal and broken and stupid as hell, but we were still strong-armed into rolling up characters out of deference to our friend. Fortunately, Damian sobered up from his hype buzz before we got a chance to play the game. There was no formal announcement involved. He just stopped mentioning it one day. The rest of us counted our blessings and didn’t bother asking him why.

For his follow-up effort, Damian tacked into the prevailing winds by picking up a copy of TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG box set.

The group had been considering the system as a simpler and better-paced alternative to Champions‘ tedious complexities, but nothing had come out of it until Damian made the leap for us.

From the beginning, he made it clear that the campaign would be set in the Marvel Universe (albeit one where there was a good chance of meeting an Alien or Hans Gruber as a killer cyborg or whatever). I wasn’t thrilled about it, but the other players were and it seemed like the established universe might constrain Damian’s excesses.

I opted to go with an original character named “Tech-Warp,” a jet-pack boosted humanoid alien who could transmute machines by touching them. For my character sketch, I copied an action shot of Adam Strange from an old issue of JLA.

Tech-Warp’s first battle pitted him against the Maurauders, because they’d just gotten a write-up in Dragon Magazine and Damian thought the Mutant Massacre was “friggin’ badass, man.” I went to touch that one dude with the Fu Manchu ‘stache and single-strap onesie made of broken motherboards (or whatever the hell John Romita Jr. was getting at) in hopes of converting his big-ass cannon into a pair of manacles, and scored the MSH equivalent of a critical hit.

If I had been running the show, I’d have declared that Tech-Warp’s lucky hit transformed the villain’s outfit into a full body restraint which incapacitated him for the rest of the fight. It was a easy call that fit with the tenor and tone of the source material.

Damian, being the type of fellow who had a different Punisher shirt for each day of the week, decided that the critical success meant that my character had punched through the Maurauder’s body and ripped out his spine.

The worst part was the look he shot me as it said it, a smirk of beaming expectation. In his mind, he’d given me most incredible gift in the world and couldn’t wait for me to praise him for its unbridled awesomeness. The best I could muster was a confused “ooooookay, then,” after which I made up a bullshit story about needing to get home for dinner.

In truth, I ended up sipped an oatmeal gruel milkshake* from an old beer stein in my room and read old issues of the Avengers, the stereo turned up loud enough for Booker T & The MGs’ basslines to drown out my father accusing my mother of cheating on him.

*A small handful of instant oatmeal and a lot of water, microwaved for two minutes. Let stand for a minute, and add cold milk, a drop of vanilla extract and a fuckton of sugar. You can live for months on the stuff. I know this first-hand.

Into the chasm

August 1st, 2017

Apart from some import punk compilations, nearly all of my early 1990s vinyl purchases were secondhand copies of older albums. New releases were purchased on tape and (later) compact disc, which had the advantages of greater portability and ease of use. Records were an easy way to build up a library on the cheap, thanks to the massive influx of inventory caused by folks dumping their collections after upgrading to newer, sexier formats.

The CD reissue thing was only starting to pick up stream at the time and individual CDs were still pretty expensive. When it came to scoring out of print essentials or broadening one’s horizons on the cheap, records were the only game in town. The full-to-bursting crates were the only places to find a copy of Wall of Voodoo’s Dark Continent or pick up a full LP to obtain a certain favorite track for a quarter of what the CD release would set you back. The most recent non-import in my collection was a copy of The Breeders Pod, which I bought because it was five bucks (and slightly warped) when cassette version was going for ten.

The triage of formats made sense when I was a college student on a fixed income and had easy access to the corresponding technology. It didn’t really become an issue until last autumn, when I purchased a budget turntable and dusted off my old records. My renewed interest in vinyl isn’t about mythologizing the artifacts or audio fidelity. I enjoy it because the act of listening to a record fixes me in place. The digital revolution and flood of material widened my musical interests but at the cost of their depth. I got into a habit of picking at or scarfing down material, skipping around or binge listening without really savoring the experience.

Throwing a record on the turntable is a commitment to cruise those grooves until the side ends. That’s why my every-growing pile of front room favorites consists of full LP favorites or K-Tel comps that channel the ghosts of Top 40 playlists past. My subsequent purchases have followed that pattern, vinyl versions of cherished albums that I owned on some other format. Most have been pretty easy to locate with a minimum of sticker shock — Tubeway Army’s Replicas, Gang of Four’s Entertainment, Lene Lovich’s Flex — but there are quite a few that have proven extremely elusive or too rich for my blood.

These tend to be albums released during the period of my initial record collecting days, back when vinyl was first (and prematurely) declared “dead.” It makes sense, as the pressing runs reflected the diminishing demand of the day. They are legitimately scarce, and thus subject to sellers’ market pricing boosted by the present fad bubble. Rather than play that speculative game, I’ve contented myself with occasionally scanning marketplace listings for Spooky or House Tornado or 101 Damnations in hopes of finding an affordable outlier.

Every now and then, I freshly remember some auditory fragment of those years and add it to the wish list. On rare occasions, I discover a vinyl version of something I’d assumed to be a CD-only offering.

The was the case with the 1992 Gothic Rock compilation, a musical companion piece to Mick Mercer’s print omnibus of the same name.

I purchased the CD from Tower Records’ import section because it featured an unknown-to-me track by UK Decay. The band’s “For My Country” was an ambitiously theatrical aberration on the three-chord street-level crunchiness of the first Punk and Disorderly comp.

That haunting cut was a strong enough incentive to drop a twenty for the comp, despite my (no pun intended) grave reservations about straying outside my subcultural bounds.

“Goths,” you see, were one of the many groups held in sneering disdain by right thinking punk purists such as myself. We were aggro and anarcho. They were artsy, an unforgivable sin for reasons which make no fucking sense to any non-shithead past their mid-twenties. It was stupid but it was real, as was the moment of vacillation I had whether to buy the compilation.

I gave it a spin upon bringing it home, and absolutely loved it. From the graveyard chants of Bauhaus to the post-apocalyptic Spaghetti Western absurdities of Fields of the Nephilim to the buzzing electronic spookshow of Alien Sex Fiend, the album’s atmosphere seeped into my psyche. It reminded me of every New England autumn and every spooky story I’d read as a kid. It was the soundtrack I never knew I needed for the stuff I’d forgotten how much I loved.

It hit me at just the right moment, too. My punk puritanism had already taken a hit from the anarcho scene’s repudiation of caricature, and my affected spikiness had started to slough off under Maura’s steadying influence. I didn’t embrace the goth scene, but it did put a gleefully morbid spin on the changes already in progress. I hung up my leather jacket and replaced it with a black overcoat lined with red satin, let my bangs grow long, and started wearing white dress shirts with a vest and bolo tie (for a couple of years before my default proto-grunge aesthetic reasserted itself).

I got a job at the library, working the reserve desk during the weekend graveyard shift. To pass the time, I devoured every book on horror films I could find in the stacks. I then moved on to film history in general, eventually looping back to the social and cultural history material I’d also begun to study in earnest. I took out memberships at every indie video rental place on the Mass Ave axis to be able to watch every film referenced in my reading material.

It became an obsession that veered into insufferable pretentiousness, but my fandom laid the foundations for a critical toolkit and methodology that would remain after its intensity subsided. There are far worse test labs, I suppose.

It’s weird that an import goth music comp could play such a significant role in shaping one’s personal development and worldview, but life is full of little twists like that. Something else probably would’ve filled it place if I’d chickened out and put it back on the shelf, though I would’ve missed the the languid dread of Tones on Tail’s “Burning Skies.”

I didn’t realize that there had been a double LP release of Gothic Rock until I last weekend, when I found an eBay listing for it from a seller in Germany. The asking price was steep, more than double what I’d ever paid for any record ever. I did what I usually do during these bouts of equivocation, and mentioned it to Maura.

“Remember that gothic rock comp I had in college? Some German dude is selling a copy on vinyl for fifty bucks.”

“The album meant a lot to you, and there are worse things to spend money on.”

Sometimes true love is indistinguishable from enabling behavior.

So I bit the bullet and rejuggled my finances for near future and began to daydream about being able to chill out on the couch to the sounds of an old familiar friend.

Then, as I was writing this tribute to the album, I got a refund notice from the seller saying he’d somehow “lost” the item.

Oh, well.

It’s time for another dive into the howling vortex of the 1983 pop charts, as chronicled by K-Tel’s midlist compilation albums. In this case, the insanity is not merely implied…

…it’s directly stated in the title.

Honestly, the whole Dancing Madness angle doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It’s the type of title reserved for the thematic offerings K-Tel scraped together from various sources, not a general omnibus of recent Hot 100 tracks. Most of the tracks on Dancing Madness are indeed danceable, but that’s pretty common for pop songs. It certainly doesn’t rise to a level suggesting the abandonment of rational thought.

Perhaps it was backfilled justification for blowing a bunch of money on the skanking wireframe robot animation. If so, I approve wholeheartedly.

Here’s the track list, which utterly reeks of strawberry Tangy Taffy, Luv’s Baby Soft, and the pungent PVC reek of a freshly opened action figure.

A1 The Kinks – Come Dancing
A2 The Human League – (Keep Feeling) Fascination
A3 Naked Eyes – Always Something There To Remind Me
A4 Sparks And Jane Wiedlin – Cool Places
A5 OXO – Whirly Girl
A6 Musical Youth – Pass The Dutchie

B1 Eddy Grant – Electric Avenue
B2 Culture Club - Time (Clock Of Heart)
B3 A Flock Of Seagulls – Wishing (If I Had A Photograph Of You)
B4 The Hollies – Stop In The Name Of Love
B5 Mtume – Juicy Fruit
B6 Jeffrey Osborne – Don’t You Get So Mad

If you’re a fan of parentheses in song titles, this is compilation for you.

It’s an exceptionally strong line-up of selections, and arguably even more representative of my rose-tinted recollections of that year than Chart Action 83‘s tracklist.

The Kinks’ “Come Dancing” was the biggest draw (and most likely inspiration for the comp’s title) and the most recursive bit of retro ever pressed to vinyl. It’s a British Invasion act from the 1960s performing a new wave inflected slice of 1980s power pop about nostalgia for 1940s British dance halls. Maura’s mom, an Irish immigrant who was fifty when the song was released, adored it. A couple of weeks after I bought Dancing Madness, Maura managed to score the 12″ single release of the track at an estate sale.

Joining The Kinks in the cross-decade chart appeal stakes were the Hollies, with an overproduced and underwhelming version of “Stop in the Name of Love.” It’s an interesting side note, but eclipsed by the apocalyptic funk-reggae of Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and Naked Eyes’ synthesized do-over of Bachrach’s “Always Something There To Remind Me.” Both are capable of opening a quantum tunnel straight to a moment in my life where I crushed heavily on Wolfsbane from the New Mutants and swiped quarters off my old man’s nightstand to play Mr. Do at the arcade at the Wilmington train station.

Below that flashback-inducing tier are a cluster of auditory nostalgia markers, significant but not necessarily singular. The Human League’s “Fascination” is most notable of the bunch, for somewhat mixed reasons. The song itself is perfectly enjoyable, but it was also an early warning sign of the new wave’s self-erasure. Synthesized horns and pseudo-Motown affectations replaced chilly futurism in the drift towards the pastel plastic pandering of “Big Pop.” The World That’s Coming was in the the process of becoming a past-tense proposition. While my terrified tweener self should’ve been relieved about the dialing back of existential dread, its successor trend was even more nauseating to contemplate.

I should also throw in a few words about Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit,” which almost caused a spit take the moment I realized it wasn’t a (possibly imagined) commercial jingle lodged in the remote recesses of my memory.

On content alone, Dancing Madness should be one of my favorite K-Tel offerings. And it is….in theory. In practice, it tends to get passed over in favor of other compilations where the high points are a wee bit higher and the low points are slathered in glorious cheese. “Consistently solid” isn’t a bad place to bee, but it lacks the delicious drama evoked by wild swings in quality.

By the beginning of 1988, my enthusiasm for Dungeon & Dragons had reached a low ebb. My group tried multiple times to change things up with unofficial house rules and other ancillary material, but none of was able to mitigate my frustration with the system’s limitations and overall clunkiness. We were still into fantasy genre roleplaying as a concept, but one that no longer aligned with D&D’s take on the source material.

Our attempts to tackle other genres and game systems resulted in a seemingly endless cycle of one-off adventures and aborted campaigns, with the sole exception of a ongoing yet infrequent Champions run. Space opera and gothic horror and post-apocalyptic survival was fun and all, but none of it could capture the thrills to be found in a small graph paper labyrinth stuffed with monsters and loot.

I considered making the leap to one of the other established systems, but most seemed like lateral shifts from D&D fiddly stodginess or required a dozen of so sourcebooks to properly enjoy. Then, right when I was about to give up on my quest, I spotted a copy of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play on the shelves during my maiden visit to the Compleat Strategist.

The book’s thirty-buck asking price — along with sensory overload caused by the store’s deep inventory — made me pass on picking it up during that trip, but the set the wheels in motion. The game was a recent offering from Games Workshop, a British based publisher I’d only known through the numerous full-color ads pitching the Talisman board game and various miniature lines in the pages of Dragon Magazine. Their stuff oozed character — a mixture of imported exoticism and an aesthetic exemplified by chunky-spiky “Chaos Warriors” sporting absurdly oversized weapons and a surplus of skulls.

I never imagined ever encountering this stuff in the retail wilderness, but now it was there for the buying. The following weeks were spent accumulating enough scratch to finance the purchase. In the meantime, I stoked the fires of anticipation by reading and re-reading Dragon Magazine‘s “good for a game that isn’t published by TSR” review of the WFRP (yes, that acronym does kinda look like “WKRP” and you are the first person ever to point this out to me, honest) rule book as well as the multi-page ad insert Games Workshop used to promote it in the mag.

The original plan was to make the voyage back into Boston on the Saturday before Martin Luther King Day, but fell though when I couldn’t find a wingman to travel with me. (I actually waited at the bus stop by myself for twenty minutes before I got cold feet — literally and figuratively — and walked back home.) The bus service to Woburn didn’t run on Sunday, so I had to wait until the holiday to make another attempt with my buddy Scott in tow.

My thoughts veered between pre-emptive buyer’s remorse and breathless excitement during the long ride into the Back Bay. Thirty dollars was a lot of money by my paper route funded, fifteen year old standards, yet I really, really wanted the damn book. When I got to the store, I flipped though the book for a minute or two before plunking it down with a wad of tattered singles next to the cash register.

Then I left the store and immediately dropped my new prize in a slush puddle. Fortunately, only a corner of the book got soaked.

We stopped at the Meadow Glen Mall in Medford for lunch during the ride home, where I bought the then-current issue of the pre-GMo Doom Patrol at Waldenbooks and pretended to pay attention to my pal’s chatter as I hungrily tried to absorb random passages of the WFRP manual.

The book was three-hundred-page-plus tome packed with all the info — character creation, combat mechanics, monsters, setting info — required to play the game and it took me the better part of a month to digest it all. In the process, I was elated to discover that it was exactly what I’d been looking for.

The game was set in an embryonic early version of Games Workshop’s (now destroyed) Warhammer Fantasy Battle wargame universe, a rough approximation of early Renaissance Europe where an analogue of the Holy Roman Empire was the dominant power against an array of enemies both magical and mundane. The fictional universe incorporated all the familiar fantasy archetypes, but adjusted to fit the tone of WFRP’s “grim world of perilous adventure.” Elves and dwarves were dying races bled white over centuries of conflict, magic was unreliable and viewed with extreme suspicion, and a extra-dimensional rift at the North Pole was spewing forth demonic energy which would eventually engulf the entire world.

The tone owed as much (if not more) to Moorcock and Lovecraft as it did to Tolkien, yet its grubby atmosphere of existential dread was leavened with a good deal of the sardonic absurdity in a similar vein to the 2000 AD comics. It perfectly matched my developing adolescent head-space, becoming the role playing equivalent to the Watchmen. My tastes in fantasy had already shifted from high fantasy The Lord of the Rings to the grimy viscerality of Boorman’s Excalibur and ITV’s Robin of Sherwood series that ran on one of the market’s lesser UHF channels at the time.

WFRP’s mechanics were far more streamlined and logical than D&D’s sprawling mess, but also offered far more options and detail. Combat and skill resolution were based on percentage checks modified by various perks and situational factors. You rolled against your Weapon (or Ballistic) Skill stat. If you hit, you reversed the roll numbers to determine hit location. Then applied damage based on strength and weapon modifiers against the enemy’s toughness and armor stats.

It was fast-moving by RPG standards and extremely lethal. Even the the toughest veteran characters had fewer than a dozen Wound (read “hit”) points, and then it was time to face the graphically gory outcomes of the game’s infamous critical hit tables.

During my college WFRP runs, it only took the players a month to memorize the various results and join me in reciting them. One of Maura’s earliest memories of me is of trying to study in the club room between classes when I led the group in a chorus of “your opponent’s abdominal cavity ruptures, spilling entrails across a wide area. DEATH IS INSTANTANEOUS.”

Yet she still said yes when I asked her out a few months later. Go figure.

Healing magic was next to non-existent, which meant treatment for injuries were handled by mundane and equally risky period-appropriate (i.e. leeches and a bonesaw) methods. Characters could (and most likely would) suffer a number of permanently crippling physical and mental traumas during the course of their brutal and short adventuring careers. To offset this, each player was given a small pool of “Fate Points” which could be burned to set up a life-sparing deus ex machina scenario.

“The blow leaves you unconscious. The bandit thinks you’re dead and strips your corpse before tossing your body in a muddy ditch. You wake up naked and bleeding in the dark six hours later.”

Apart from the joyously grimdark tone, the big selling point for WFRP was its robust and open-ended character creation and advancement system. Instead of levelling upwards in fixed classes, WFRP characters were able to progress through a path featuring scores of individual basic and advanced careers defined by gear, statistic advances, and skills. A provincial fisherman could — with some effort and enough experience points — become a powerful wizard over time, or a lowly serving girl could claw her way up into the ranks of knighthood.

The system was full of exploits and odd omissions (no farmer or peasant careers, for some reason), and wildly imbalanced. Some careers included upwards of a dozen skills and advances while others ended up with only a couple. Meta-minded players had a field day sussing out the optimal combination for in-game dominance (until their fate points ran out), but the system also gave less grasping player groups a responsive investment in the organic development of their characters — the grave robber turned surgeon or the alchemist apprentice turned assassin, and the stories about how they got there.

For all that it got right in a compact package, the game’s magic system was a rudimentary affair pulled right from its wargame precursor. It was supposed to be a placeholder, but one that remained in said place for over a decade. It was functional, but limited in scope and heavy on battlefield enchantments, which discouraged players from pursing the associated career paths. I tried to sweeten the pot by adapting a few dozen utility-minded spells from D&D for the game, but to no avail. (I think I had one wizard and one druid in all of my WFRP runs.)

Despite my evangelism, my group didn’t take an immediate shine to WFRP. Being able to play as a “pit fighter” or “bounty hunter” out of the gate had a strong appeal, but the lethality of the combat was a big hurdle the we had to overcome. On my end, I had to re-learn how to properly scale encounters to make things challenging but not impossible. On the players’ end, they had to figure out that rushing into a crowd of enemies would most likely result in a quick and gory demise.

Folks like my brother, who enjoyed playing a bit cagey, were able to adapt quickly. The kids who were still hung up on the adolescent power fantasy aspects of role-playing didn’t fare nearly as well. Those who were able to reconcile themselves with the game’s tone, however, absolutely adored it.

Of all the role-playing games I’ve played in the past three decades, Warhammer Fantasy Role Play is at the top of my favorites list. It is “the” game, the one I most associate with my experiences in the hobby. Its grimy, punk-inflected Britishness was both a revelation and a gateway into some weird and wonderful things to come.

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