Armagideon Time

Abridged too far

January 19th, 2018

Some friends and I were recently discussing the various books that hepped them to the whole reading thing when we were kids, and I had a little difficulty thinking of any specific ones at first.

Books have been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. My parents may have not been ideal in many regards, but they were avid readers who maintained a vast library. There wasn’t a room in our tiny apartment that didn’t have some space allocated for some form of reading material. The enclosed porch which functioned as the laundry room and my playroom had bookshelves running along every wall.

If my parents noticed a topic which caught my interest — be it UFOs, warships, or marine life — some new tome about the subject would mysteriously appear in our home shortly afterward, strategically placed somewhere I’d be most likely to notice it. Being “into” reading was a default state for our family, as much a past of the routine as my father’s drunken rages or my mother’s fits of psychological brittleness. It wasn’t a thing where I could pick out a singular thread and say “this is where it began.”

And then I remembered the “Illustrated Classic Editions” series.

I got my first one at school book fair in either second of third grade. It was Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and I was sold on it by the cover alone — a lurid depiction of the Nautilus caught up in the tentacles of a giant octopus, done in the style of an old time engraving and enhanced by a bright-yet-muted color palette. I read and re-read it at least a dozen times over the next few years, until the cover peeled and cracked and the pages were stained with countless greasy thumbprints.

The concept behind the Illustrated Classic line was cheap, squarebound paperback digests offering “abridged” (actually rewritten) versions of various landmarks of Western literature. To sweeten the pot — and hold the attention of easily distracted young readers — each text page was paired with a drawing depicting the action in a generic Bronze Age funnybook style. Though the books appeared fairly chunky for their size, the text-picture format and simplified language meant that a dedicated reader could polish the weightiest of the tomes off in a single rainy afternoon.

(This also made them perfect for book reports, with the added benefit of impressing one’s teacher for selecting something a bit more “highbrow” than Madeline or Make Way for Ducklings. Of such tactical decisions were inflated tales of child prodigyhood made.)

The books were pretty common sale items at places like CVS or Osco Drug, where they’d toss the entire lot in a bin and sell them for fifty cents a pop. Because they were books, and not some random plastic plaything that happened to catch my eye, my mom was always willing to scrape up enough change for me to buy a couple on family shopping trips. It didn’t stop her from encouraging me to read the authentic source material, but she also knew enough not to derail a good thing.

The uniformity of the Illustrated Classic trade dress — the cover layouts, fonts, shape, style, and color aesthetic — helped sustain my interesting in series. It appealed to the collector in me, especially after my library of them had grown enough to be given a proper display on the top of my dresser. I don’t know if that was an intentional move on the part of the publisher, but it did move me to keep buying — and reading — the books.

By the time my tweener years rolled around, I had around two dozen of the books. Though I began with pretty standard kid-appeal classics written by Wells, Verne, Poe (the cover to Tales of Mystery and Terror, with a crimson sun bleeding down through the jagged crack in the doomed House of Usher, still gives me the willies), I eventually gravitated to more “sophisticated” offerings by Kipling, Melville, Dumas, Dickens, and others. Between those books, and my mother’s enthusiasm about Classical mythology and fine art, I got a pretty decent survey course in the so-called “Western Tradition” before I finished primary school (and that in turn provided a strong critical foundation for when I eventually got around to broadening my cultural horizons).

In my teen and college years, after I moved onto the cheap Signet paperback line of “classics,” the first wave of titles I picked up to read were the unabridged editions of my old Illustrated Classics faves — A Narrative of the Mutiny on board His Majesty’s Ship “Bounty,”, The Time Machine, Kidnapped, and, yes, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (So mission accomplished, Ma.) The Count of Monte Cristo and A Tale of Two Cities have remained in my “top five” novels list to the present day.

The affection enkindled by the simplified versions carried over to the genuine article. When I was a kid, the plot mattered more than the wordcraft, yet having that basic narrative knowledge made it easier to appreciate and absorb the style and technique of the authors. It only got weird when I realized that the Illustrated Classics folks added several action-oriented chapters inspired by Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come to their edition of The Time Machine, either to pad out the length of the novel or offset the bleakness of the original’s ending. It made me wonder what other flourishes may have been inserted into the line and somehow managed to become a recurring in-joke between Lil Bro and me for a few years.

For all my attempts to reassemble the material culture of my childhood, I’ve never bothered to chase down any Illustrated Classics books. They have sentimental value and personal significance, but they’re also a bit irrelevant now that I own copies of books they bowdlerized. The gorgeous covers are the only remaining draw for me, and I can gawk at those on the internet without having to figure out where I’m going to store the damn things.

It might be different if there was a kid in the house, but probably not. We’ve got our own wall-to-wall collection of tomes to intrigue and beguile any young bookworm that joins our family.

It worked for me, after all.

My relationship with the freshman sculptress lasted all of six weeks.

In hindsight, it was pretty clearly doomed from the start. There were too many irreconcilable differences between us, though my raging hormones and the exhilaration of a fresh romance kept me from noticing any ominous portents on the horizon. She was a Boston Latin grad, part of that weird exam school Mafia of extended social relationships and in-jokes that were lost on my suburban bumpkin self. She was devoted to that insular crowd, whom I happened to utterly (and irrationally) despise for being a bunch of pretentious pricks. Things were fine when it was us hanging out, or with a few close friends from the club, but it made any other form of social activity an exercise in futility.

More importantly — and relevant to the current cultural discourse — I was too immature and socially maladjusted to be proper boyfriend material. My…unusual…upbringing didn’t really prepare me for handling that kind of relationship. My primary influences on that front were my old man and Eighties teen movies, neither of which provided adequate guidance when it came to behavioral cues. I didn’t serve me well in my more ambiguous relationships in high school, and the problems were only compounded in the realm of a no-doubts-about-it romantic fling.

One of the reasons I became punk rocker was to reclaim my personal narrative after my family’s dysfunctions became a matter of public display. The problem was that I should’ve used it to work through my problems, rather than burying them behind an affected persona. Even worse, I kept up the pose long enough that it became second nature and it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy of obnoxious aggression. It was the persona I presented to the world, and thus I felt obligated to live up to it.

Once my relationship with the sculptress passed the “goo-goo eyes” phase, the nastiest parts of me came out in force. If I wasn’t subjecting her to passive-aggressive head games, I was cutting her down in front of her friends, or just failing to put in any effort as a supportive partner. On the few occasions where I did sense I “went too far,” I resorted to grand gestures or surprise gifts to “fix” things.

Yet even though there was a part of me that sensed the relationship was rotting on the vine, I still clung to the delusion that things would somehow work out for us. When she did finally kick me to the curb on the Monday before Thanksgiving break, I was completely floored.

(I was apparently the only one, because Maura confessed she had a crush on me to some mutual friends not long before the break-up and they told her “well, I don’t think they’ll be together much longer.”)

I responded to it as well as an immature idiot would. I begged her to take me back, and when she wouldn’t, I dragged my knuckles along the length of the Science Building’s wall until they bled. (It took months for them to heal, and the last vestiges of the scars didn’t fade until the turn of the millennium.) Then I took the Red Line to Harvard Square, picked up a copy of Machine Gun Etiquette on tape and every issue of Baker Street I could find at Superhero Universe, then took a bus back home to wallow in my misery.

I didn’t return to the campus for two days, and arrived to find almost everyone had already cut out for the long holiday weekend. I’d hoped to run into my pal Leech, a punk rock pal of Tim’s who had glommed onto me after they’d had a falling out over some student film project, but no one had seen him for a few days.

Lacking anything better to do, I called a friend from high school on a pay phone and offered to pick me up at Malden Square so we could talk and grab something to eat. I went to grab my stuff at the Sci-Fi Club office, at which point Leech stumbled in and I lashed out and accused him of abandoning me in my hour of need.

This being one of the rare occasions where the Orange Line actually ran on time, I ended up at Malden Square a half hour ahead of schedule and hiked over to Excalibur to kill some time. There wasn’t anything in particular I was looking for, but I did pick up a copy of the Champions in 3-D sourcebook as a futile attempt at retail therapy.

The book was a guide-slash-adventure supplement covering various alternate universes superheroic characters might stumble into. Of the four written up in extensive detail, three — Nazi World, Horror World, and “Backworld” — were apocalyptically depressing in tone, and did wonders for my prevailing mood. By the time my friend showed up, I was in a state of near total despair. She did her best to cheer me up, but not even the giant phone prop on top of the delivery van of the shitty restaurant we went to could make me crack a smile or a mean-spirited joke.

I sleepwalked my way through my family’s Thanksgiving dinner, excusing myself before dessert to “clear my head” by wandering aimlessly around Woburn Center. My buddy Jeremy spotted me kicking along the side of the road as he was driving by, and asked if I wanted to ride around with him for a while. He took us up to where he used to live in Wilmington, but I spend most of the time quietly staring out the passenger side window while slowly clenching and unclenching my fists.

Things didn’t start to turn around until Black Friday, when I picked up the NES port of Sid Meier’s Pirates at the Burlington Mall and proceeded to lose myself in virtual exploration and privateering for the remainder of the holiday weekend.

Back to Wax #6: If not for him

January 16th, 2018

2014 started with my car getting destroyed by a collision with a dump truck, and it only got worse from there. I was already grappling with various existential crises at the time. Then came nauseating whiplash between hope and despair that ended with a miscarriage, some truly grim epiphanies, and an extended stay in the emotional wilderness.

I muddled through it as I’ve always muddled through rough patches — inelegantly and poorly — but something happened at the end of that shitshow of a year which would eventually help me claw my way out of that hole.

Daniel “Dee” Butler drifted into my social media circle, along with a slew of other cool folks, around the height of the Ultimate Powers Jam days (though he never contributed an entry). He weren’t particularly close pals, but did commission a very nifty portrait of myself for him (which I still use as my default userpic) and we chatted about the Dr. Phibes flicks and he’d make fun about my unwillingness to smile in photos. I knew he was having some tough of things, but I was still shocked when he abruptly shuttered his online presence and dropped off the face of the earth. (I did occasionally ponder if he had the right idea, however.)

Dee turned up again at the end of 2014, quietly making his presence known to a handful of folks including yours truly. It was good to have him back, even if he seemed a bit more subdued than before. Before his disappearance, he would fill his feed with a gallery of amazing sketches and doodles. After his return, he talked about his art projects in the part tense. I didn’t press him on it, because it wasn’t any of my business, but I did discover that he had been playing Destiny on the reg.

I was also a fan of the game, as its repetitive feedback loops of fun gameplay and (usually) shitty random rewards made for an ideal distraction from the real world shit that had been gnawing at my skull. Much of Destiny’s best content required having pals to play with, so Dee and I added each other to our PSN friends lists so we could tackle that stuff together. It soon became a shared obsession of ours, marked by long hours of raiding with pick-up groups found via third-party sites and boasting whenever one of us scored some coveted rare drop.

There was a stretch where the pair of us would wake up at six on a Tuesday in order to beat the super-hard weekly “Nightfall” mission immediately after the weekly game-world “reset” or grind the competitive “Iron Banner” PvP event until our fingers bled.

We were each other’s wingmen when we brought down the Kell of Kells in the Prison of Elders, which remains the most fist-pumping moment I’ve ever experienced in a videogame.

And while we were blasting our way through hordes of hostile aliens, we talked about shit — goofy shit, geeky shit, and sometimes serious shit. We discussed the crap we had gone (and were still going through), our creative anxieties, and other heavy topics. We couldn’t offer each other more than a sympathetic ear and some encouragement, but it was good to have someone to talk to as we worked towards more frivolous and achievable goals in Destiny‘s virtual world.

When we first met up in the game, Dee had given up on his art and I was on the verge of giving up on writing. A year later, a pitch of mine got accepted for Boo: Halloween Stories and Dee was the person I asked to illustrate it. It wasn’t a stress-free experience for either of us, but the final product was damn near perfect. I tend to be pretty ambivalent about my creative projects after the fact, but I have nothing but pride for what we accomplished with that story — and we followed it up with another Boo collaboration a year later.

After I got my turntable and started shopping around for items on my “essential favorites” list, I complained to Dee about the asking prices on used copies of certain multi-platinum releases. Even accounting for attrition, entropy, and the principle of supply and demand, it seemed bizarre that someone would ask upwards of thirty bucks for stuff that had shifted millions of units across multiple decades.

Dee, who works in a place that sells old records, agreed the prices I mentioned were ludicrous and told me to shoot him a list of albums I was searching for. None of them were currently in stock at the time, but he said he’d keep an eye out for them. I let the matter drop, because I don’t believe in leaning on folks where kind favors are involved.

Sometime near the end of the 2016 holiday season, Dee sent a message telling me to expect a package shortly. He wouldn’t say what it is, except that it was something I’d been looking for and he hoped that I wouldn’t mind if it was in less than pristine condition.

A few days later, I came home to find this in my porch.

Of all the items on the list I send Dee, All Things Must Pass was the one I’d least expected him to find. The 1970 George Harrison release was a triple-album box set by a former Beatle, all which presented multiple hurdles towards scoring an affordable secondhand copy. But Dee managed to make it happen, and it was the best gifts I’ve ever received.

No triple LP is fee of filler cuts. All Things Must Pass is no exception to that, but the ratio still leans overwhelmingly toward the killer side of the spectrum — a testament to Harrison’s talents given free rein after a decade of being hemmed in by the Lennon-McCartney juggernaut. Side two is utterly perfect, from the uplifting affirmation of “What Is Life” to the somber atonement of “Run of the Mill.”

It was a form of audio therapy I’ve returned to again and again in this absurd shitshow the world has become in the past few years. Listening to it never fails to buoy my spirits, warm my heart, and restore a glimmer of hope. That it was a gift from a friend, that particular friend only adds an additional layer of poignancy to the mix.

Lord knows I’m not the easiest person to get along with, which makes me all the more grateful I have a pal like Daniel Butler.

Everything old is older again

January 11th, 2018

While last Tuesday’s post gave me no small satisfaction, I felt convinced the formula could be improved by selecting a temporal window with a higher payload of reminders of my core demographic’s fleeting mortality.

With that in mind, let’s take an existentially fraught trip through SPIN’s January 1998 issue — released twenty years ago this month.

(That last part works best if you imagine Vincent Price saying it.)

“Hello, Teen Andrew! I’m you from the year 1998, here to tell you that they’re going to make a sequel to your favorite movie of all time and you will run screaming from it.”

“What the fuck is up with your teeth?”

“Oh, yeah. You should probably brush and floss more regularly and shit.”

When you desperately try to replicate the rush of your first high.

Remember when that font style was used to sell everything from soft drinks to sex toys? If so, you have my deepest condolences.

“Daddy, what did you do in the Browser War?”

“Do you expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr Bond, I expect you to pay 23% interest compounded monthly!”

The saddest thing is I knew a dude back then who would’ve been a total mark for this nonsense.

The time difference between this ad and today — twenty years — is the equal to the span between the cancellation of Brother Power The Geek and this ad.

In weed-reeking dorm rooms and suburban basements, even death may die. Or continue to shift a staggering amount of merch, at least.

And by “tomorrow’s parties” they mean “yesterday’s parties,” unless you are a sad old fuck who still shakes it to the big beat sound in his suburban living room in front of his cats.

In hindsight, the whole submerged iceberg metaphor was probably a bad idea for Plymouth.

“These pants are a sign of the younger generation’s lack of morals,” says Bill Cosby as he adds a couple extra knock-out drops to the martini he’s preparing for his female guest.

When you spend almost — sigh — twelve years maintaining a site with a strong autobiographical slant, it’s inevitable that certain stories will receive multiple tellings over time. It’s the type of thing that would normally give me angst over the likelihood of auto-plagiarizing, but each new go-round with these old anecdotes offers a fresh opportunities for the (often harsh) introspection that comes with the weight of years.

With that in mind, it’s time to once again discuss the autumn of 1991.

Buoyed by the popularity of my Warhammer Fantasy Role Play campaign, I decided to run for the presidency of the campus Sci-Fi Club. Pure ego played a part in my decision to run, but my primary motivation was to sweep the organization clean of the “um, actually” old guard leadership who savored the power of the office and condescended to the rank and file members. My plan was heartily endorsed by my Warhammer pal Southie Dave, who ran for club treasurer on a similar “fuck those guys” platform.

We won handily, at which point we adopted a hands-off approach to actually leading. I didn’t want the gig for the dubious — and, quite frankly, pathetic — power it bestowed. My goal was to keep more problematic persons from occupying that throne by parking my own lazy ass upon it. The result was a clique-riddled form of anarchy.

It worked pretty well, all told, though I soon got it into my head to use that bully pulpit towards more constructive purposes. Thus my “get out of the musty clubroom for a bit” initiative was born. Using the members of my WFRP campaign as a core cadre, I proposed having regular outings for club members to socialize outside UMB’s brutalist rodent maze. The first proposed event was a group viewing of a “sick and twisted” animation festival being held at the Somerville Theater, which was met with a good deal of enthusiasm.

Before I get to that, though, some additional backstory is required.

Geek politics weren’t the only thing on my mind at the beginning of my sophomore year. An air of romantic desperation was also hung about be in a reeking cloud. In a new and frightening turn of events, I was faced with multiple prospects on that front. There was a girl from Iowa in my art class that seemed interested in my clumsy attempts at flirting. There was a freshman friend of a club member who looked like Ione Skye and was into sculpting. And then there was Maura, who I’d had a couple of halting phone conversations with over the summer and who brought me back a Bubblegum Crisis t-shirt from AnimeCon ’91.

In hindsight, Maura was The One, but things didn’t seem so clear to me at the time. I have a ferocious case of impostor’s syndrome when it comes to noticing romantic interest. I’m sure some low-grade self-esteem issues figure into it, but there’s also my unwillingness to assume intentions in that realm. I’d rather ignore those signals than misinterpret them and complicate things in an unpleasant way.

Maura, as I’ve since learned, is just as guarded about these things. She thought she was sending out pretty clear signals. (She named her pet rabbit after me, for fuck sake.) I couldn’t accept that such a badass older woman could possibly be interested in my suburban tryhard self.

The upshot of all this is that I asked the freshman sculpture girl out on the afternoon before the animation festival. And for my sins, I had to sit between her and slowly-realizing-what-happened Maura during the event. No Eighties teen flick ever prepared me for that level of discomfort.

The new relationship put a quick end to my group socialization initiative, despite rest of the crew trying to carry on without me. While they were all out being disappointed by Highlander 2: The Quickening, I was picnicking on the Esplanade with my new ladyfriend before catching a laser show at the Hayden Planetarium.

My WFRP campaign was another casualty of my raging hormones. We kept in going up through the first weeks of the new semester but it had already hit a ceiling in terms of returns. The core members of the group had effectively maxxed out their characters and loot potential, so I decided to end things with a bang in the form of a raging dragon guarding a tower full of treasure. It was the stuff of which total party wipes are made, yet somehow Lil Bro (who stayed part of the group after summer ended) managed to pull of a critical damage streak which laid the dreaded wyrm low. As far as final adventures go, it was pretty darn epic and made for a satisfying stopping point.

The end of the run left a small void between my final Friday class and my ladyfriend showing up for our date. Since the rest of the WFRP group also had a fresh opening in their schedules, I tried to fill it with an informal campaign based on the starship combat rules from Mekton Empire.

I picked up a copy of the sourcebook from the Complete Strategist after getting the semester’s “book allowance” advance against my scholarship money. Besides providing a galactic-themed campaign setting for Mekton II‘s anime-based RPG system, it also introduced new rules for psionics, alien races, and starship combat and construction. That last item was of the most interest to me, as Star Blazers was my introduction to Japanese animation and its epic battles between capital starships dug its hooks deep into my youthful imagination.

The rules were short and simple, and the club was well stocked with hex maps and models leftover from previous members’ Star Fleet Battles campaigns, so we decided to give it a test run with each player fielding a single capital vessel in a free-for-all engagement. It only took ten minutes of play for us to figure out how unbalanced the mechanics actually were.

While I opted for a classic Yamato/Argo type ship and the other players did riffs on Star Wars/Star Trek vessels, the group’s token math major was quick to exploit a loophole and create a battlecruiser with a mass of micro-lasers that functioned as an armor-stripping cosmic sandblaster. He managed to cripple or destroy every other ship on the map until the last few survivors ganged up on him and disabled his engines. I finished him — and the session — by ramming him with the riddled hulk of my once-proud flagship.

It was a fun time, despite (or because of) that meta wrinkle, and we informally workshopped possible revisions to improve the experience. Nothing ever came out of it, however. It worked as a one off but lacked the novel “hook” that the Warhammer campaign had.

It also didn’t help that I spent the last half hour of the session sweating through my Agnostic Front t-shirt as my date stood over my shoulder and sighed loudly.

X lost the plot

January 9th, 2018

Fun fades fast in the fallen world, but sins are eternal.

That’s why random happenstance put me on this planet — to delve into the putrid muck of ages past in search of reeking reminders of that which others so fervently wish to forget.

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my mouse sleep in my hand:
Till I have shattered every rose-tinted lens,
In this mean, unpleasant Land.

Anyway, here’s a steaming pile of regret pulled from the pages of the April 1994 issue of SPIN. I picked that specific one because it represents the high water mark of the early 1990s “alt-splosion” in all its co-opted and embarrassing glory. I know it won’t put the myth of generational superiority to death, even if it damn well should.

Somewhere at this very moment, a balding middle-aged dad is using the tattered remnants of one of these shirts to buff the trim of the family’s Subaru Outback.

From Wikipedia:

In 1998, Wolfgang Joop and his estranged business partner sold 95% of their Joop shares to an investor while Joop remained the brand’s creative director. In 2001, Joop sold the remaining 5% and left the company. The conglomerate company, Wünsche AG of Hamburg, itself heavily in debted and unable to turn the Joop! brand into a Global player as it had planned, declared bankruptcy in the end of 2001. In 2003, Joop was sold by Wünsche AG’s liquidator to three of Joop’s former licensees in equal shares and business units (fashion, accessories/leather and fragrance/cosmetics). In 2006, the fashion licensee, Swiss-based Holy Fashion Group, paid off the accessories/leather licensee, Egana Goldpfeil, and now owns Joop’s clothing and accessories business. The fragrance and cosmetics business remains with Coty, Inc. of New York. The Joop! Jeans and kidswear lines were discontinued in the late 2000s. Holy Fashion Group, whose owners are descendants and former owners of Hugo Boss, is based in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland.

To a bankruptcy court, you were a carcass to be sold for parts.

Before social media, folks had to rely on bootleg t-shirt makers to get their message of retro-inflected irony across.

Apparently “teen spirit” smelled like a dollar store citronella candle dipped in tear gas. Just looking at the ad is making my eyes water and my bronchial passages constrict.

The only authentic thing about this is that one of the alt-bros became a rabid right winger when he got older.

Too cold to start a fire/I’m burning diesel burning dinosaur bones/Yeah, I’ll drive my BMW down to Urban Outfitters and charge it to my parents’ Mastercard.

I’m sure all three Game Gear owners were thrilled by the news. Although I’ve never played NBA Jam, I know all the famous catchphrases from it because I apparently need to hang out with a better class of people.

Don’t feel bad, I also completely forgot about this ubiquitously pitched part of pre-cellphone Nineties life. Just goes to show that a $160 million per year ad budget means jack shit when put up against the march of technological progress.

As featured on the Mallrats soundtrack, playing a cover of “Build Me Up Buttercup” that used to get tagged on Napster as a Save Ferris effort from the There’s Something About Mary soundtrack.

I’m saving any pithy remarks I have on this subject for my upcoming monograph, “The Emperor’s New IPA: The Symbiotic Evolution of Hip Culture and Hooch.”

I threw this one to mitigate any shame induced by previous images…though, to be honest, I outgrew any interest in the band after Pretty Hate Machine.

Towards the end of 2016, near the end of my first burst of K-Tel bulk purchases and after I’d integrated record listening into my domestic routine, I decided to chase down various beloved albums which I never owned as LPs.

Even at the height of my vinyl collecting days — which, honestly, has since been surpassed by my present iteration of enthusiasm — records were my format of last resort. It was for material that couldn’t be found on cassette (or, after 1993, compact disc) or not worth the expense of picking up on a more preferred format.

As a result, there are scores of essential favorites which I never bothered to pick up on vinyl. It wasn’t really a concern until my new turntable dragged me back from my post-music blogging burn out and rekindled my excitement about actively listening to albums again. Spinning the stack of essentials I did happen to own on vinyl further whetted my appetite.

“This is nice. I wish I had a copy of *insert album name* to throw on.”

The first LP to fill the above placeholder was Gang of Four’s 1979 debut album Entertainment!

I purchased my original cassette copy of it during the summer of 1990, on the heels of my first read-through of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces. After finishing that sprawling and magnificent mess of historical free-association, I jotted down a wish list of the artists and albums cited to hunt down. Most of it was unavailable in any format, though I did find both Entertainment! and a collection of early Wire singles in a Strawberries bargain bin.

(This search is what spurred me to dig out my mom’s old turntable and start cratedigging in those days, with my earliest purchases being singles and LPs by The Adverts, Au Pairs, and Kleenex.)

It took me a good while to warm up to Entertainment. I was still locked in an adolescent aggro mindset, and Gang of Four’s abrasive minimalism strayed far from the Pistols/Clash sound that I’d enthusiastically embraced. It sounded artsy which was the kiss of death to someone who saw the term as a mark of the dreaded “poser.” Knee-jerk tribalism is a wellspring of regrettable yet unavoidable idiocy.

I rediscovered the album during my brief pre-Oi fling with industrial and experimental music, but it wasn’t until 1994 that Entertainment truly clicked with me. My angry young punk thing had mostly fallen away (thanks to Maura’s moderating influence) and my tastes had drifted more towards early new wave, gothic rock, and what had since been classified as “postpunk” music. Bands like the Au Pairs and Joy Division, which I’d turned my nose up at just a few years earlier, suddenly sounded like the most compelling shit ever recorded.

This was especially true of Gang of Four, because they slotted perfectly into my evolving musical and political sensibilities. I’d graduated from the affectedly callow “smash everything” of vulgar anarchism to a (slightly) more sophisticated form of radical leftist thought, one that dovetailed nicely with Entertainment‘s unapologetically Marxist perspective. The songs covered consumerism, sexual politics, imperialism, media complicity through a lens that flipped constantly from micro to macro levels yet remained compelling and coherent.

It was the graduate seminar to the freshman intro class of the Clash’s first album, and more dancable to boot. The album even managed to make a fan of Maura, who thinks most postpunk music is frustratingly atonal or simply “too weird.” She was the one who specifically requested “I Found That Essence Rare” be added to our wedding reception playlist.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years at UMass Boston saw me in a better place than I’d known in, well, most of my nineteen years.

I’d switched majors from physics to English, and pulled myself back from academic probation to make it onto the Dean’s List. There was money in my pocket, thanks to my scholarship’s living expenses allowance. My punk rockerhood settled into a comfortable groove and I discovered a slew of hep places for clothes and records around the city. There were a few women who’d expressed some degree of interest in me and I’d also stumbled into a new circle of friends on campus.

And then there was my Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, which went from a small “why not” thing with a group of disgruntled AD&D players to the flagship gaming event of the campus Sci-Fi Club.

Because UMB was a commuter school, we were able to keep the run going through the summer break. Every Friday, our group would gather at the club room on the fourth floor of Wheatley Hall and game for most of the afternoon, pausing only to devour the sweet Greek pizza we ordered from one of the few places that would deliver to the campus. When we were done dungeon-crawling for the day, we’d pile onto a northbound Red Line train and hit up the shops on Newbury Street or Harvard Square for the current week’s funnybook or the previous decade’s record releases.

I bought the first of what would be too many Oi! compilations on one of these excursions. More’s the pity.

(This was also how I kept abreast of Marvel’s immediate pre-Image Era, even though my pull list was down to Legion of Super-Heroes, Justice League America, and Zot at the time. A guy in the group we dubbed “Father Flynn” would buy a huge stack of X-books and Spider-Man titles and hand them off to me to read and return “whenever.” I wasn’t given a choice in the matter.)

After Woburn High’s school year ended, I invited Lil Bro and my pal Damian to join the campaign. Part of me wanted to show off my (debatable) new-found campus big shot status to my parochial peers, and it was an easy way to fill out the party roster with some familiar faces. They took on the roles of a squire (Lil Bro) and servant (Damian) who ditched their knightly lord in favor of freelance work, and quickly integrated themselves into the group.

Lil Bro had an easier time fitting in with my college pals. He got teased a little over his extreme discretion when it came to combat, but took it in stride and was quick to gloat that his was the only character who didn’t sport some form of permanently debilitating injury.

Damian had a tougher time adjusting to the group, and some of that was deliberate on my part. We’d been friends for almost half a decade. I’d changed quite a bit — by both happenstance and design — during that time, but Damian was still the same media-damaged fanboy I knew from junior high. Whatever “cool” bit of entertainment flotsam he was into at the moment would manifest, with zero nods toward originality, in his current RPG character.

I really didn’t want him pulling that shit in front of my college pals, so I…fudged…things a little to ensure it didn’t happen. When it came time to roll up a character for the run, I lied and told him that everyone had to use the random career tables instead of picking from the list. I also may have tinkered with the dice roll so that he wound up as a humble servant instead of a bounty hunter or vehicle for his affected bad-assitude.

Broadly speaking, it was a good call on my part. The restraints encouraged Damian to take a considered approach to his character’s development, which each step from servant to hunter to targeteer feeling logical and earned. There was no derailing Damian’s ingrained behaviors, but he was better off in having worked toward it instead of assuming it out of the gate.

The only problem was the other players nicknamed his character “Sniggles” during his first session with the group, and it stuck — along with “I say, Sniggles, fetch me my slippers” taunts — no matter how many tough sounding compound nouns he tried to re-brand his avatar with.

Although the campaign occupied a huge part of my psychic space that summer, I didn’t buy much in the way of new supplements for it. To be honest, there really wasn’t much to buy. The system had already surrendered whatever meager space it had occupied in White Dwarf, with Games Workshop opting to spotlight more current (and profitable) offerings in its house propaganda organ. The small amount of official support the game did get came in the form of expensive paperback supplements released under the Flame Publications imprint.

The first and most significant of these for my campaign was Warhammer Companion, which did see moderate use during the summer of 1991. The book was a grab-bag of forgettable pre-made adventures spaced out between supplemental rules covering additional character classes, expanded rule mechanics, magical and mundane gear, and new spells. I had the article covering expanded medical treatment for severely wounded characters bookmarked for quick reference, but the rest of the stuff was incidental or outright irrelevant for our group.

Its biggest impact was to goad me into pulling out all my old AD&D sourcebooks and mining them for anything worth carrying over into WFRP. I spent an absurd amount of time adapting various non-combat spells to add more utility to the system’s rudimentary and combat-focused magic system, despite the fact that spellcasting barely figured into our party’s adventures around the gaming table. I also attempted to carry over selected magic items from Dungeon Master’s Guide and Unearthed Arcana before realizing that it was far simpler to just add a skill modifier to an existing object — such as a scalpel or a jeweler’s loupe — before giving it a fancy name and tossing it in some loot pile.

My handwritten notes for the above are collected in a three ring binder somewhere in my grandma’s attic, where they serve as a testament to the ungodly amount of free time I used to have back then.

Back to Wax #4: A right treat

January 2nd, 2018

My quest to bring my record collection into alignment with my current listening habits brought me to eBay, where I browsed listing after listing in search of the right combination of physical condition and asking price. Eventually I stuck gold in the form of a bulk lot jobber offering a choice of five albums from a massive list of Seventies and Eighties rock LPs for a flat twenty bucks.

The collection was evenly mixed between classic rock and radio-friendly new wave. It was exactly the type of stuff I was searching for, and so I dropped the dough on a quintet of gems including The English Beat’s What Is Beat, Rant n’ Rave with the Stray Cats, The Cars’ Shake It Up, K-Tel’s The Rock Album

…and Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion.

My appreciation of Pat Benatar’s music is a perfect example of the shift in musical taste that took place once I let go of any pretense of puritanical. punk rockerhood. Her songs (and looks) loomed large in my early adolescence, despite the shade cast her way from the macho rockist types in my social circles. She also got a lot of flak — then and in the irony-damaged Gen X era — for leaning into the whole concept video gimmick, despite the fact most of it was label-driven and she was hardly unique when it came to that silliness.

At some point around the mid-Nineties, I heard “Heartbreaker” on some classic rock station (or maybe a VH-1 retrospective thingee), and thought to myself “wow, this track really rocks.” Maura, a huge fan of The Legend of Billie Jean, encouraged my rekindled interest with a birthday gift of a Pat Benatar’s Greatest Hits CD and my devotion has not wavered since.

Both “Heartbreaker” and “We Live for Love” were included on the Rock 80 comp which got frequent spins on my turntable in the autumn of 2016. (In fact, she made numerous appearances on K-Tel collections from that era, right up there with Rick Springfield and The Police but slightly behind Hall and Oates.) So when I saw a copy of her 1980 sophomore release on the seller’s list of offerings, it was an easy selection to make.

While Ms. Benatar does get props from right-minded folks these days, I’m still shocked she doesn’t get more acclaim in rockist circles. In terms of range and power, she outdid nearly all of her peers and her shift into Big Pop excess was less egregious than what more “serious” rock acts indulged in during the mid-Eighties. Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” is a prom-ready embarrassment, while Benatar’s “Invincible” was — and still is — a fist-pumping masterpiece.

(By the same token, Neil Giraldo deserves to be hailed as the true guitar god of the early Eighties. Not only for his work with Benatar’s band but also for recording one of the most recognizable hooks in power-pop history.)

For all the hard-hitting anthemic jams on Crimes of Passion — “Treat Me Right,” “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” “Hell Is for Children” — the biggest draw for me was Benatar’s cover of “Wuthering Heights.” Look, I’m not going to make a case for it vis-a-vis the Kate Bush original, but it still takes my breath away.

The Warhammer Fantasy Role Play campaign I started for my new college pals continued to build up steam through the spring of 1991.

In addition to the core group of players — Mike (human pit fighter), Eugene (human apprentice wizard), “Father Flynn” (herbalist-turned-druid), and “Southie” Dave (halfling thief) — several other Sci-Fi Club members took part for a session or three before some scheduling or personal conflict got in the way. None of the players had any previous experience with the system, so I kept the adventures as simple as straightforward as I could. Most were basic dungeon crawl variants staged on re-purposed AD&D module maps and scaled to fit WFRP’s more lethal combat mechanics.

It worked well, and required little in the way of preparation. All I needed was a treasure list, a map with some basic notes, and pre-made roster of sample archetypes (mercenaries, warlocks, outlaws, et cetera) and the rest would sort itself out around the gaming table. The players seemed happy enough with the formula, but there were moments when I felt the urge to be slightly more ambitious with the scenario plotting — which is why I ended up snagging a copy of Warhammer Campaign.

The supplement was a hardbound collection including the first two installments of “The Enemy Within,” the flagship (and — for a long stretch — only) officially published WFRP campaign. While it got (and still gets) rave reviews in the gaming press, I never really figured out what the big deal was with it. It wasn’t awful by any stretch, but it also didn’t strike me as particularly exceptional. A lot of the narrative pieces were pretty convoluted in terms of the mechanics, and had the feel of an experimental novel rendered in RPG module form.

Mistaken Identity was the introductory adventure where a meet-and-greet coach ride leads to an ambush by mutants and the discovery of a corpse bearing an uncanny resemblance to one of the player characters and a bloodstained note referring to a large inheritance awaiting in a nearby city. It was an ingenious goad for a bunch of avaricious PCs with dubious morals. Unfortunately, the dead person was a cultist, the note was a ruse from a bounty hunter, and the adventuring party had unwittingly entangled themselves in a whole mess of trouble.

The second adventure, Shadows over Bogenhafen, was set against the backdrop of a town festival where a member of the merchant guild and his demonic familiar were secretly planning an arcane ritual with potentially apocalyptic consequences. It’s interesting and atmospheric as heck, and makes for some great bathroom reading, but was far too involved to spring on my novice players.

(I know that sounds like I’m selling them short and not allowing for the fits of player inspiration that occur around the table. I’m not. They were very clever folks to a person, yet had a tendency to turn even the smallest tasks into the stuff of cascading catastrophes. It was a big part of our enjoyment, but also why I kept things simple.)

I ended up using the contents of Warhammer Campaign the way I used most pre-packaged scenarios, as something to cherry-pick individual encounters and adventure seeds from. The introductory scenario was far more useful on this front because of its episodic structure and supplemental sections outlining various bits of the Warhammer world. At the very least, the modules helped me pin down the correct scope to keep in mind when crafting challenges for the group, which had been a problem for me since I first switched to WFRP from AD&D.

The run was still in full swing when the semester ended. UMass Boston was a commuter school, and the members of the group were all local folk, so we agreed to keep the campaign going through the summer break. We were working out the logistics of it during the last day of finals when a dark-haired, kinda punky girl handed me a note before exiting the club room.

We’d had a few halting conversations before, where I learned she lived a couple towns over from me and was a big fan of anime. She was a couple of years older than me, wasn’t shy about cussing, and was pretty intimidating. I only learned her name after she left an envelope full of old punk pins for me on the club bulletin board.

It took a while and a few hurdles before I acted on it, but I’ve kept the note in my wallet since that day.

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