Armagideon Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were few guideposts for when I decided to “go punk” a few months after my mother’s death. It was a spur of the moment decision made during a fit of melancholy boredom and the need to regain control of my personal narrative. What remained of the scene barely generated any media heat, even among the local alt-weeklies, and the few kids in my suburb who had flirted with it had since moved onto more sophisticated forms of youth rebellion. What guidance I did get came from distorted word-of-mouth fragments, Repo Man, Return of the Living Dead, and the liner notes from some retrospective cassettes.

The rest I just sorta made up as I went along. You can’t get more authentically “punk” than that, but it didn’t stop me from seeking out any stray bits of related flotsam to help illuminate the process. Hell, I warmed up to Jack Kirby’s OMAC specifically because he rocked a mohawk and sideburns. The biggest/most influential/goofiest development on that front was discovering a copy of Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus at the Boston Public Library.

The 1989 “secret history of the 20th Century” was the first genuinely “punk” book I’d ever stumbled across. It didn’t matter that two-thirds of the jumped up master’s thesis dealt with unfamiliar and impenetrable heretical sects and radical movements — though I did already know about dadaism from that one episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not — what was in there still provided ample fodder for my ongoing will towards self-actualization.

As I’ve gotten older and crawled out of the bowels of that cultural history beast, much of Marcus’ connective leaps of consciousness come off as hyperbolic overreach. His thesis is intriguing but the threads he uses to tie the movements together were tenuous as well as insufferably pretentious. The only verifiable tradition on display in Lipstick Traces and the essays it has coalesced around is the pop music critic’s desire to find transcendent qualities in ephemeral objects.

That said, my seventeen year old self bought into that line of bullshit hook, line and sinker. What confused teenage trauma victim wouldn’t want to believe their fumbling attempts at rebellion were part of a ongoing cycle of anti-authoritarian subversion and not a dumb whim because you felt pissed at the world one weekend afternoon and thrash metal just wasn’t cutting it anymore?

It gave me a sense of purpose and a larger context to explore, which was no less fascinating despite its tenuous connections to the punk scene. The book also provided a intriguing list of punk bands to seek out. Besides the familiar Clash and Pistols, Marcus referenced new-to-me acts like the Au Pairs, Slits, Adverts, and X-Ray Spex, often through fanciful descriptions of specific tracks that kicked my interest into overdrive.

Unfortunately, most of the music cited was long out-of-print and had never been released on this side of the Atlantic. My quest to track it down eventually led me into the realm of record collecting (and thus this feature). Before my desperation turned to crate-digging, I made a fair effort at chasing down anything related to the book’s discography on audio cassette. That’s how I ended up with my original copies of Gang of Four’s Entertainment, Elvis Costello’s This Years Model, and a collection of Wire’s early singles — though it would be a few years before I was fully able to appreciate them.

It’s also how I ended up plunking down nine bucks for the dust-caked double-cassette Urgh! A Music War soundtrack at the Strawberries off the Middlesex Turnpike in Burlington. I knew fuck all about the film at the time, but I did know the label said it included an Au Pairs track along with songs I’d never heard of by bands I vaguely remembered from my grade school Top 40 days. I wasn’t thrilled about the live performance part of it, but beggars couldn’t afford to be choosers.

I started with side three, working my way through the oddness of primordial Devo and Echo & The Bunnymen cuts (“This sounds nothing like ‘Whip It’ or ‘Lips Like Sugar’”) to finally experience the Au Pairs’ majesty for myself…

…by way of “Come Again,” a caustic little ditty about bad sex in the era of the “sensitive male.”

Here’s a rough transcription of Young Andrew’s thoughts during that first listen: “Is she singing about? Oh, jeez, she is singing about that. Holy shit, I think Nana is coming upstairs! PRESS EJECT! PRESS EJECT!

The rest of tracklist was a bit less embarrassing but equally strange. Even when the band names were familiar — like Wall of Voodoo or XTC — the featured songs were much spiker and spookier than the material I knew from my pop radio days.

The one song I did know, The Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat,” was rough-edged and punky and light years away from the breezy version I remembered from the grade school playground. (Okay, I knew OMD’s “Enola Gay” as well, but only through a chiptune version featured on the C64′s “Synth Sample” program. I was startled to discover it was actually a “real” song.)

Some of the strangest entries on the soundtrack would remained inexplicable mysteries until my sophomore year in college. That was the first time I watched the movie, as a rental at my pal Leech’s apartment while we laying low and trying to avoid getting caught up in some drama with one of Maura’s more mercurial friends. It wasn’t until then I realized Klaus Nomi was one person and not a male-female singing duo and discovered what exactly Lux Interior was going during the middle part of “Tear It Up.” (Would that I could’ve remained ignorant on that latter one.)

While it didn’t become a favorite out of the gate, it did get quite a bit of play on the Walkman during the long early morning commutes from Woburn to Columbia Point. To this day, I still associate XTC’s “Respectable Street” with the southbound side of Wellington Station’s Orange Line platform. When the bottom fell out of one the side pockets of the Swiss Army rucksack I used as a bookbag, both Urgh cassettes ended up casualties of that spillage (along with my original Punk and Disorderly compilation tape and a thirdhand copy of Walk Among Us).

The double LP set was a common enough sight in used vinyl crates, but I didn’t feel any pressing need to replace my lost copy. I valued the Urgh soundtrack as a springboard more than as an entity unto itself. It was a concert recording crash course in the weird and wonderful “lost period” (in the States, at least) between new wave’s initial crop of novelty-driven chart hits and the bigger successes it experienced in the immediate wake of MTV’s debut. It was a time when art-damaged oddness still held a strong sway over acts which would later jettison any traces of post-punkiness in favor of a more marketable “Big Pop” sound.

That era is one of my musical “sweet spots,” and the Urgh soundtrack played a big part in shaping. (Well, along with grim nostalgia for the terrors that lurked on the periphery of a world otherwise bounded by action figures and Tangy Taffy and Billy Squier.)

A grainy dupe of a rental copy of Urgh became fixture of our lazy Sunday afternoons from the mid-Nineties through the turn of millennium. It was an easy way to avoid the dreaded “I dunno, what do YOU want to watch” discussion loop. Over the course of time, Maura and I would add and subtract from the list of bands we’d fast forward through, while later seeking out the studio versions of particular favorites. This was how my copy of Wall of Voodoo’s utterly sublime Dark Continent was obtained, as one of the final purchases of my original round of record collecting.

I made some modest attempts for score a CD version of the soundtrack during the early days of eBay, mostly for sentimental reasons but also because Maura was partial to the live versions of Gary Numan’s “Down in the Park” and Toyah’s “Danced.” The asking prices were extortionate, however, and I soon stopped bothering to look. A direct high-quality digital rip of the film’s audio eventually percolated down through the usual graymarket channels, which had the bonus of including tracks — such as a Carter Era early draft of the Dead Kennedys’ “Bleed for Me” — omitted from the official soundtrack.

When I got back into record collecting at the tail end of 2016, Urgh made it onto the lower half of my “essential albums” wishlist. I didn’t pursue it intently, because there were far more compelling prizes to score and I remembered the absurd prices the CD version had been going for. The joke was on me, as my first search turned up a still-shrinkwrapped copy of the set for just shy of a tenner.

Sides one and two of the soundtrack have gone on become an infrequent (but much enjoyed) selection in the post-evening commute, pre-dinner chillout roster of mutually agreeable LPs.

There few clunkers in there are vastly outweighed by the number of outstanding gems, and even the rough patches get a pass thanks to sentimental value.

The purpose of this feature was to reconstruct a timeline of events through the lens of a hobby I adored through most of my teens and early adulthood. As we start to enter the final stretch, that timeline — and the personal connections that drove it — becomes a bit unraveled. For all intents and purposes, my active involvement in roleplaying games ended when Lil Bro’s and my Necromunda campaign did. Anything past that point was entirely a matter of morbid curiosity and force of habit.

Unlike, say, my copy of Oriental Adventures or the fourth edition Champions rulebook, there’s little nostalgic resonance in the stuff I picked up after 1997 or so. That mnemonic locus shifted to the various funnybooks, videogames, and music that supplanted RPGs as a major vector of interest. There’s no flood of lucid memories to be triggered via memorable passages, illustrations, or penciled-in marginalia, just a vague “oh, yeah, I forgot I bought this” when I spot it in the upper strata of the storage crate.

Even the few exceptions to this rule are lean on the anecdote fodder front, as is the case with the Realms of Sorcery supplement for Warhammer Fantasy Role Play.

The most notable thing about the tome is that it actually exists. WFRP’s magic system had been one of its weaker points since the game’s release in 1986. The “came with the frame” rules featured in the original hardcover edition were intended to be a placeholder that would be expanded on in “the upcoming Realms of Sorcery supplement.” Years went by, Games Workshop lost interest in the franchise and farmed it out to second-party affiliate publishers, and the chances of the promised sourcebook ever materializing grew increasingly unlikely.

To compensate for this, I decided to take matters into my own hands by going over every 1st edition AD&D spell, plucking out ones with useful non-combat applications, and adapted them for use alongside the WFRP’s wargame-influenced roster of enchantments. These hand-written loose-leaf notebook pages constitute at least a third of the material in my “Warhammer crate” by volume, and deciding their ultimate fate has given me no small amount of angst as I try to clear out and consolidate the stuff I stored in my grandmother’s attic.

Rumors swirled in the lonely little corners of the remnant WFRP scene about a Ken Ralston-penned draft of the tome getting rejected for publication by GW, which was tantalizing but fundamentally useless information from a fan’s side of the equation. Meanwhile, the Warhammer Fantasy Battle magic system continued to expand and revise the lore laid down in its unloved sibling, pushing it even further from WFRP’s rudimentary framework.

It wouldn’t be until 2001 that Hogshead Publishing, WFRP’s then-current licensee, finally managed to deliver the tome fans had been waiting for since Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” was at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

I’m not even sure how I found out it had been released, since my Warhammer fandom had fallen to a low ebb by the start of the new millennium. Either some old acquaintance from the Sci-Fi Club told me in order to make (awkward) conversation or I stumbled across it during a fit of boredom-induced Yahoo searches. Whatever the case made be, I chanced an order through some RPG mail-order place’s Geocities online storefront and waited the four to six weeks for the book arrive. (It’s bizarre to think those delivery times were once the norm, though it was quite appropriate in Realms of Sorcery‘s case.)

The sourcebook took some heat from critics for failing to live up to fifteen years’ worth of expectations, but that we got it at all was a borderline miracle exceeding any enchantment outlined between its softbound covers. For an overdue expansion to a game that had been suffering a protracted heat death, Realms of Sorcery was a weighty and robust attempt at closure. All the Old World’s existing schools of magic were given their relative due, alongside additional rules covering the color-themed Colleges of Magick from Fantasy Battles and various foreign and non-human arcane traditions. Rules for crafting spells, rituals, and familiars were detailed and expanded lists of spells and magic items were provided. The book also tried to clarify the role of magic and spellcasters in a world in which such things were viewed with intense suspicion (often followed by execution at the hands of secular or religious authorities).

Yet despite all of this, the meat and bones of WFRP magic retained its nigh-singular focus on battlefield enchantments over “practical” spells. The additions to players’ grimoire were either lifted from or inspired by WFB, meaning a slew of direct damage, incapacitating, or buff/debuff spells with little use outside of combat. I don’t know how much of the blame for that should be laid on Hogshead, though. They were merely coloring within the lines established by GW, which crafted and curated the lore in which magic-users were little more than leashed weapons used to turn the power of Chaos back upon itself.

When every spell channels energy from some demon-infested hell dimension, any mundane applications of the craft simply aren’t worth the risk. If you’re going to chance possession or spontaneous combustion by casting, you probably want to save that for incinerating an enemy regiment instead of helping you grab a book from a high shelf. It works fine in a wargame environment, but is limiting in the context of a role playing game, especially one where magic-users face severe social sanctions as well. Sure, the non-combat skills and talents such characters acquire can be useful, but the overall trade-offs don’t balance out in a way that makes playing a spellcaster worthwhile.

“My powers might kill me if the authorities don’t, but at least I get to cast some spells of very limited utility with a high risk of friendly fire!”

It might appeal to the edgelord crowd, but I’d rather have a WFRP equivalent to Tenser’s Floating Disk instead.

Where the heart was

June 13th, 2018

Yesterday’s post got me to thinking about my grandmother’s duplex, particularly the side where my family resided for not quite half a decade. There are a lot of not great memories associated with it. It’s where our domestic dysfunctions entered the final downward spiral culminating in my mother’s death. It’s also where I struggled through the waking nightmare of junior high and some of the dumbest episodes of my adolescence. The place feels cursed to me. I haven’t set foot in it for over thirty years, and shunned it even after I’d relocated to my grandmother’s side of the building. That chapter of my life had closed and I felt no need to revisit it.

It wasn’t all bad, though. Few things ever are.

The place was located off a small cul de sac a few blocks north of Woburn Center and weird on multiple levels. It was oddly sited on the lot, with my grandparents having a backyard the size of a postage stamp while the other tenants had a sprawling expanse big enough to fit another entire unit. (When my grandfather redid the fence between the two after the closing, he pushed it another ten feet or so into the other side in order to have more space for his rose garden and chicken coop.)

My grandparents’ side of the house had been fully midcentury modernized by a previous owner who planned on moving in before passing away shortly after the work was done. The side my family would be invited to inhabit looked like it had barely been updated since the Coolidge Administration. It didn’t even have a shower installed in the bathroom, just an ancient claw-footed bathtub where I took my daily soak for the bulk of my teen years.

My mother didn’t mind the archaic fixtures. In fact, she loved them because they dovetailed perfectly with her own retro obsession with pre-WW2 decor. (So now you know where I got this shit from.) My parents did update a few essential things like the wiring and some of the plumbing, and added a half-bath opposite the cellar stairs to accommodate my father’s mother, who still lived with us and had limited mobility after suffering a stroke in the mid-Seventies.

Across the street, a former big band conductor/record producer lived in a bungalow that had been festooned with a warren of additions and infested by multiple families of raccoons. Abutting my grandparents’ side of the property was an abandoned home where two elderly bachelor siblings had once lived and it remained vacant from the tail end of the Carter Era to the mid-Nineties.

The lead-up to the move from North Woburn was electric. It was the first time since infancy that I’d be relocating to a new address. Instead of six people crammed into a tiny apartment, I was going to be dwelling in a genuine half-house. No more sharing a open plan “bedroom” next to the living room with my grandmother and Lil Bro, my sibling and I were going to have our own room with a door that closed and a swanky new set of bunkbeds. I’d be in walking distance to my school, the handful of places that stocked new comics in Woburn, and the arcade rooms at the pool hall and bowling alley. And I’d be living right next door to my overindulgent grandparents, to boot.

Being a surly adolescent, I wanted our bedroom painted dark. My parents forced me to settle for royal blue, which went nicely with the orange shag carpet we got my from grandparents and the faded crimson drapes repurposed from the master bedroom in North Woburn. My dad sprung for a new TV for us, a Magnavox pushbutton jobber I managed to hold onto until 1994. It was joined by an overpowered stereo system bought on installment at a steep discount through my mother and a succession of electronic gaming platforms (2600, C64, Sega Master System).

After my father’s mother and sister moved out, Lil Bro was shifted to their room in order to reduce the frequency and intensity of our fraternal dust-ups. (My parents were big fans of the “BOTH OF YOU, SEPARATE” school of conflict resolution.) I had the bedroom to myself, and proceeded to make my stamp on it with an wall collage of magazine clippings (Twilight Zone, Fangoria, Nat Geo) and strings of Christmas lights around the windows. My buddy Scott put his electronics savvy to use by wiring up the TV and game consoles to my stereo receiver for maximum volume (and minimal fidelity).

For some reason, I ended up without a mattress for my bed. Instead of attempting to sleep on a box spring, I started using my bed as a writing/drawing desk and proceeded to cover it with art supplies and role playing game materials. I slept on the foam mattress from a trundle bed, which I slid under my actual bed during the day and dragged onto the middle of the floor at night. (One of the minor but significant adjustments I had to make after my mom died was getting used to sleeping in a real bed again.)

The room was hideous and messy and cluttered, but it was a genuine refuge when things got dicey. A hundred Watts per channel of thumping Stax soul was almost enough to drown out the drunken rants of my old man. Almost. (Even then there was the risk he’d decide to kill the power to my room in order to teach me a lesson. Maybe you can finally explain what that lesson was, Dad, since I know you read my posts.)

Enough darkness. There’s a lot of that I can never forget, but there were also many good moments I want to remember. A lot those are small joys, ephemeral fragments of contentment during troubling times. The action figure sagas. Lil Bro perched up in the pear tree in the corner of the yard. The backyard bashes with my parents’ bizarre friends. Hot cider after the city’s annual Halloween parade. Lounging the tire swing my father helped me set up and reading the latest issue of Dragon Magazine. The marathon D&D sessions in my room, punctuated with videogame breaks and midnight junk food runs to a nearby convenience store. Feeding my grandfather’s chickens blueberries from the garden. Sitting with my parents out back on a warm summer evening, listening to the crickets and distant strains of a band concert at Library Park. Working my way through a thick stack of Bronze age back issues while V66 (Boston’s music video channel) played in the background.

On the day my grandmother passed away, I paced around the yard while the rest of my family talked about immediate matters. It bears little resemblance to what it looked like thirty-five years ago. The pear tree and tire swing tree are long gone. The rock garden has become indistinguishable from the gravel driveway. The center plot where my mom used to plant her vegetable garden is now covered by overgrown and misshapen ornamental trees and shrubs.

It was no longer the place I had known so intimately. Any ghosts it held had moved on, surviving only as echoes in my own skull.

It was depressing, but also liberating. I still wouldn’t set foot in that side of the duplex, though.

Oh, Joe…

June 12th, 2018

Lil Bro and I were fairly industrious kids when the mood struck us, and one of the manifestations of it was the “piece-together” phase we went through with our G.I. Joe figures. With the help of an eyeglass repair kit purloined from the family medicine chest, we set about “improving” our favorite figures by swapping in neat bits from less favored ones.

The results were well worth the effort, though the process did leave us with a pool of disassembled cast-off parts. There was always room for cannon fodder, though, so we used these leftovers of cobble together an assortment of gaudy plastic abominations like a pair of toy aisle Dr. Frankensteins. Some of these afterthoughts ended up assuming a narrative backstory of their own, and one inexplicably became a particular favorite of Lil Bro.

His name was “Safari Joe,” and was pieced together from Dr. Mindbender’s head and Dusty’s body. I’m not sure what the rationale was there, apart from the combination evoking some cartoon-seeded echo of big game hunters of Ye Olden Days.

He operated in his own corner of our shared toyetic universe, serving as a touch of comic relief alongside his nephews Bazooka and Leatherneck who’d been reimagined as a Franken/Davis pair of lovable fuck-ups. Joe also accreted his own convoluted backstory, inspired by and extrapolated from The Surfaris’ 1963 hit “Surfer Joe”…

…which got ample plays on our bedroom stereo at the time thanks to JCI’s budget Surfin’ Sixties compilation.

The gist of it was Safari Joe was the middle aged Surfer Joe, who’d completed his tour in the Marines and moved onto the lucrative field of mercenary work. This eventually led to him being placed on open retainer by Cobra, who funded his freewheeling lifestyle and kept his extended family supplied with mustache wax. For the most part, the trio stuck to the type of insular absurdity a geeky nine year old would generate for his own amusement.

The Safari Joe thing had all but slipped from my memories until pal Keith Pille brought up the weirdness of Dr. Mindbender the other day. The heavy duty memory dump Keith triggered — along with the whole “Surfer Joe” connection — got me to ruminating over other aspects of the action figure universe my sibling and I crafted during our youth. We had always colored outside the franchise lines when it came to playing with “our guys,” but things kicked into high gear in the fall of 1984 after we moved from North Woburn to the other side of my grandparents’ duplex outside the city’s center.

The separation from our old neighborhood peer groups and the guardedness caused my our family’s dysfunctions meant Lil Bro and I spent a lot of time as best friends as well as siblings. It’s one of the reasons — alongside the fact that Lil Bro was four years younger than me — that I continued to buy figures and stage these plastic pageants up through my early teens. It was a improvised alternative to role-playing games, which explains why my interest on that front faded fast after I obtained a copy of the D&D “Red Box” Basic Set a couple of years later.

The new house also afforded more opportunities for vicarious adventure, with a basement play area, our own room (with bunkbeds and a door!), and a large yard full of spaces to explore. The specifics events of our ongoing saga are interesting on a nostalgic level, but I’m more fascinated by what they reveal about those days through context and a good deal of hindsight. Even the hazy assortment of fragments I can recall weave a negative space tapestry of Crap The Young Weiss Boys Were Really Into At The Time.

For all the idealized talk about children’s “powers of imagination,” the process is less about spontaneous generation and more about soaking up a host of external stimuli and spitting out an interpretation which combines, emphasizes, and spins the source material in personal (and often) weird ways. We were no different, and that’s a good thing because it allows me go back and check out the “spaces between the notes.”

To keep things reasonably simple, I’m just going to do a quick summary with the suspected source material in parentheses. Buckle in, kids. It’s about to get really goofy.

The start of the Hammond Square action figure era was an inexact follow-up of the North Woburn era. The cast of characters was still pretty diverse and ranged across multiple lines and scales. The core players were drawn from the Super Powers and Secret Wars lines, with some Master of The Universe figures serving as monstrous cosmic beings of varying intent (the cosmology as described in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe). My favorite figure was Storm Shadow, who went by some other name as a magical ninja (it was the mid-Eighties so take your pick) and could teleport by popping in and out of Hell (the Belasco/Illyana story in X-Men) ruled by Crystar’s Moltar filling in for Satan (a nightmare Lil Bro once had).

That world ended when Shield from the Mighty Crusaders line of crappy figures tried to populate his “Shield Dimension” by capturing other characters with a Secret Wars shield accessory (the Phantom Zone). In his arrogance, he angered Darkseid who set off an anti-matter bomb repurposed from some gardening thing and wiped out the Shield Dimension and altered the rest of the multiverse (Crisis on Infinite Earths).

By then, Lil Bro and I leaned almost exclusively into G.I. Joe. Because our favorites didn’t line up with the canonical factions, we decided that the Cobra and Joe Team high commands united to conquer the entire world. The only holdouts were a loose roster of rebels and defectors fighting against the totalitarian conquerors (Red Dawn, Dreadstar, Squadron Supreme, Eighties Cold War apocalypticism and the early wave of mass market grimdark funnybooks in general).

The rebels mostly hid out in a cave im Mom’s rock garden or an aircraft carrier assembled from a plastic sled and the Fisher-Price Sesame Street playset. The group included Tomax, who’d undergone a process to break his psychic link from his still evil brother (Byrne’s Alpha Flight run), a reprogrammed B.A.T. android (some sci-fi bullshit), and Quick Kick as Bruce Lee’s forgotten apprentice (Kung Fu Theater by way of Police Academy 2). There was also a “good” clone of Zartan’s brother (Deathlok) who had been given a corpse-paint makeover with a bottle of Testors (Hit Parader magazine), and a power armor dude (Iron Man) who was forced to kill his mentor/best friend after he threatened to destroy the world (the Dark Phoenix Saga).

While all that depressing stuff was going on, Safari Joe (a 60s surf rock song and Thundercats apparently) and his two sidekicks (the Three Stooges) fumbled their way from one comedic mishap to another (Lil Bro’s relationship with our two younger cousins).

Thanks to the current wave of reissues or general lack of interest in the older material that I’ve been seeking out, I’ve had pretty decent luck with assembling a library of favorite and personally significant albums that somehow escaped me in LP form. Even indie label oddities (such as King Missile’s early albums) or formerly pricey comps (such as the Atlantic R&B series) have managed to turn up in decent condition for under a tenner.

Barring a handful of always-in-demand favorites which tend to command premium asking prices (the US version of the first Clash LP, Floodland, Boston’s debut album), the only real chokepoint I’ve experienced has been with material from the tail end of the Eighties and early Nineties. No big surprise there, as it coincides with the major labels pulling back from records releases in favor of cassette and compact disc formats. What did get issued on vinyl tended to be of limited pressing runs or exclusive to overseas markets, and the folks willing to buy that stuff were also the type who’d hold on to it despite the march of technological progress.

Unfortunately for me, this era just happens to overlap one of the richest sweet spots in my music listening history. The bulk of my fandom may have been rooted in the not-so-distant past during those years, but what contemporary acts I did listen to, I truly adored. That was not reflected in my record purchases, which were limited to otherwise unavailable material or cheap retro material. For newer releases, I stuck with more Walkman-friendly or less fiddly formats.

Some of the material was otherwise available on recent greatest hits comps (Lush) or perfectly timed re-releases (Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting). Others popped up on eBay or Amazon to become the stuff of occasional self-indulgence. Eventually, however, I hit a place where “really wanting that thing” collides with “no way am I spending THAT MUCH for it” — and that’s providing a copy was even available for sale.

After a few months of desperate yearning (because I did indeed desire these overpriced treasures), I turned to the Discogs Marketplace. I held off as long as I did because I really didn’t want to create another account I’d have to keep track of, especially one that might tempt me into a slew of impulse purchases. Plus, the whole peer-to-peer retail model makes me a little anxious when there’s no overarching arbiter involved.

Other record collecting friends spoke highly of it, though, and any remaining trepidations were washed away when I saw the top two items on my wishlist available for a fraction of what eBay and Amazon sellers were demanding. And because Discogs is an audiophile/collector venue, the fussiness about grading meant there was less chance of ending up with something that sounded like it had been stored in a sandpaper inner sleeve.

The first of my two initial purchases was 1992: The Love Album by Carter USM, the duo’s third full-length release which also happens to include three of my favorite tracks of theirs.

It was the biggest album in my world for a few months after it dropped and marked the peak of my college era Carter fandom. By the time The Love Album‘s (underwhelming) follow up hit the shelves, my tastes had drifted into the realms of postpunk and goth music, with Alien Sex Fiend taking over for the band on the electro-punk front.

The other longstanding “must have” I scored on my initial Discogs foray was King by Belly. Frankly, I was astonished it had even gotten a vinyl release, albeit a very limited import one. The band avoided the dreader sophomore slump by taking their creepy-dreamy strain of indie pop into a slightly heavier direction.

The results were utterly sublime, yet couldn’t escape the shadow cast by their first album’s massive success or the fickle volatility of the ever-mutating Nineties’ alt-rock scene. The band zigged, the zeitgeist zagged, and an incredible album got lost in the shuffle.

The vinyl versions of both these albums had been Holy Grails since I started buying records again. The average eBay asking price for either ran upwards of a hundred bucks. Thanks to Discogs, I acquired both for fifty dollars, total.

I basked in the glorious sense of closure for about a week, upon which my restless thoughts turned toward future conquests.

…and we’re back again for a look at another semi-contemporaneous “precursor” to Charlton’s age of “Action Heroes.” The focus this time around falls upon the mighty (derivative) Son of Vulcan.

The character was the brainchild of writer Pat Masulli and artist Bill Fraccio (with Joe Gill later assuming the writing chores), made his debut in Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #46, released a month before Captain Atom’s returned to active duty.

After accusing the gods of ignoring the evils in the mortal world, one-legged war correspondent Johnny Mann was whisked off to Olympus to answer for his blasphemous impudence. While the bellicose Mars wanted Mann obliterated on the spot, he was spared from Jupiter’s wrath by the intercession of by the empathetic Vulcan. Sensing a kindred spirit in Mann, who shared a similar physical disability and sense of justice with the forge god, Vulcan adopted the mortal as his own kin. He also granted Mann the ability to turn into a vaguely Roman superhero whenever some evil needed to be thwarted.

These sweet boons did not come without some obligations, however, and required periodic performance reviews by the staff at the Olympian head office. While Marvel’s mighty Thor was the obvious inspiration for Son of Vulcan, it’s interesting to note the dash of Captain Marvel Jr. that also got thrown into the mix.

The Son’s second appearance in Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds kicks off with an entirely healthy and not-at-all nauseating portrayal of domestic life.

Harried academic and henpecked husband Leonard Lambie finds himself dreaming of a more heroic life away from the poverty and marital misery. As an expert in ancient mythology, he is especially fascinated by news reports of Son of Vulcan’s initial exploits in the mortal realm and wishes he could obtain similarly supernatural powers.

Across town, a pissed-off Johnny Mann has had his shuteye disturbed by yet another summons from his Olympus. His divine overlords at least had the courtesy to arrange a ride for Mann in the form of a sneering Mars and his flaming war chariot. After making Mann sweat a little during his performance review, Jupiter declares him worthy-for-now and (presumably) goes off to sex up some mortal virgin as a swan or golden shower or something.

Mars is less than pleased with this decision and decides to mess with Mann by slipping Lambie a pair of transmutation gloves formerly owned by King Midas himself. Lambie uses the gloves to convert a garbage can into pure gold. When this fails to impress his wife, Lambie transforms her into a gold statue as well.

The pieces have been placed on the board, but how will they interact? By way of a third principal player, silly — the sinister Mr. Zoloto, a notorious precious metals broker who combines the looks of Silver Age Lex Luthor with the interior design sensibilities of Donald Trump.

Mann wants to interview Zoloto for an article about the gold shortage. He is promptly escorted out of the Big Z’s office, right past a waiting Lambie hoping to cut some sort of deal with the robber baron. Recognizing a (ZING!) golden deal (GET IT? GET IT?) when he sees one, Zoloto strings Lambie along in hope of making the magic gloves his own.

A suspicious Mann stalks Zoloto’s goons as they approach Lambie’s apartment. He confronts them as the Son of Vulcan, only to be transformed into gold by Lambie (who has since decked himself out in the most absurd yet plausible supervillian get up ever).

The helpless hero, along with Lambie’s wife and various household objects transformed by Lambie’s touch, are carted back to Zoloto’s lair. Lambie’s objections to this plan only result in some physical humiliation by Zoloto and a telepathic dressing-down by the still-immobile Son of Vulcan.

Fortunately, the demigod is the first thing loaded into the smelter and the flames free him from Midas’s magic. His surrogate pa beams him down a magical mace, which he uses to go sickhouse on both the furnace and Zoloto’s legion of goons.

The fleeing Zoloto tries to asphyxiate the survivors with a hidden deathtrap, but is transformed into gold by a repentant Lambie before he can full activate the device.

Lambie turns over the magic gloves to Son of Vulcan, the transformed being revert to normal, Zoloto is carted off to prison, and Lambie is sentenced to a lifetime of domestic dysfunction. Upon returning to Olympus, Son of Vulcan presents the gloves to Jupiter, who praises the hero’s valor and cusses out Mars for his scheming.

The end…or is it?

Compared to Blue Beetle #50, the Son of Vulcan story in Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #47 almost flirts with competence. All the pieces of a good story are present. The hero is mildly interesting and poor Lambie rocking too-large crown over a bathrobe and pajama bottoms was a truly inspired concept as far as these things go. None of it really gels together into something which rises above adequate, though. Whether by accident or design, the story lacks that extra touch of self-aware panache that drove Marvel’s line of early Silver Age superheroes. Things like, well, the actual goal of Mars’ convoluted scheme are left unaddressed outside random panels of the war god gloating and summarizing the obvious from afar.

It’s a case of a miss being as good as a mile. Yet even if the tale landed square on the target, it still would’ve ranked as a second-rate knock off of a lesser Thor story. It’s something that would continue to dog Charlton’s Action Heroes line even during its brief glory days.

“The Golden Curse” from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #47 (July 1965); script by Joe Gill, pencils by Bill Fraccio, and inks by Tony Tallarico.

My purchase of the third edition Warhammer 40k boxed set was done more out of habit than anything else. I’m sure there was a part of me that harbored some vain hope of getting back to the gaming table with my miniature sci-fi armies, but the truth was that my interests had shifted away from RPG-related stuff and towards videogames and comic books by the time 1998 rolled around.

Warhammer 40k no longer rated that high as a diversion anymore, though I did retain enough residual interest to pick up a copy of the new iteration through Games Workshop’s mail order service. The bundled-in plastic models still possessed some allure — especially the ones for the “new” Dark Eldar faction — but mostly I was morbidly curious about what changes the design team had inflicted upon the game.

The revised rules were a pleasant surprise. The stripped-down set of mechanics jettisoned most of the loopholes and exploits of the increasingly bloated second edition rules. The third edition de-emphasized single-model “hero” models kitted out with a game-breaking array of custom wargear and instead focused upon balanced unit composition and squad-based tactics. Tweaks to the “victory condition” parameters encouraged players to do take the fight to the enemy instead of hunkering down in cover and racking up overwatch kills for easy points.

There was an ulterior motive behind these changes that went beyond improving end-user experience, however. The streamlining was carried out so that Games Workshop could upscale the scope of the action once again. Vehicles that had been one-off support units in the previous edition now became the stuff multiple-model detachments, while greater elasticity in squad sizes rewarded larger units. This was further reinforced by a switch from percentage-based army lists (“minimum 25% line troops, maximum 25% elite units”) to more specific and scenario-mandated army rosters.

The emphasis on “more and mandatory” was not-so-subtle nudge to convince players to buy more (increasingly expensive) shit from the publisher. It had been a facet of the game since the Rogue Trader days, but seeing it laid out in such a blatant fashion was a bit off-putting and led to me referring to 40k as “the Jenny Craig of wargaming.”

Old loves die hard, however. The novelty of a shiny new edition did briefly compel me to pick up a few new figures and models, mostly slick do-overs of older units or flashy new additions to my beloved Imperial Guard and Eldar armies. Only a handful actually got assembled and none ever received a proper paint job. (I found a couple of plastic bags containing most of this stuff in my grandma’s attic last weekend.)

That revived interest couldn’t sustain itself once the initial thrill subsided. There were too many other diversions (hello, Parasite Eve and Young Heroes in Love) on my plate, all of which delivered more bang for the buck in less laborious and more satisfying ways.

The A-W Boundary

June 5th, 2018

My current re-read of the SPIN archives started as a form of spiritual research for both the ongoing series of record and RPG posts. A good chunk of that mnemonic real estate was situated in the first half of the Nineties, so I thought it would be useful to sift through that psychic detritus, see how it tracked against my memories, and possibly unearth some angles which might have become clearer in hindsight.

The voyage began with 1989, the second half of my junior year in high school when the death of my mother was still a raw open wound. It’s the year I got into punk rock (by way of a brief flirtation with thrash metal) and attempted a wider engagement with contemporary popcult in general (if only to pick up the reference my new social circle were throwing out). I followed the thread from there, though the death of hair metal and the rise of grunge, the ephemeral adoration for Hypercolor and “ice” beer, and the earliest stirrings of the double-edged sword known as the Internet.

It was an enjoyable (and occasionally embarrassing) process at first, pegging the mass market music mag record of events to specific memories of those days. My senior prom date’s Deee-Lite ‘do. The culture war as manifested through the various student orgs on the fourth floor of Wheatley Hall. Reviews of tracks played at the New Year’s Eve party I attended with Maura a couple weeks after we started dating. Me wheedling Maura between mouthfuls of Mezzo Mezzo pasta about who she voted for on Election Day 1992. Shows I attended and videos I watched while hanging out with Leech or Maura.

Things took a turn for the unpleasantly weird once I hit the tail end of 1996. Up until that moment, everything had been parsed through the nostalgic lens of the “Good Old Days,” a fuzzy mythological construct walled off into its own discrete compartment. After that point, however, there was a sudden and jarring jump into the realm of “recent memory,” stuff my brain acknowledged as happened over two decades ago but still feels as fresh as yesterday.

The Playstation and the Saturn and Goldeneye? Dig Your Own Hole and Squirrel Nut Zippers and third wave ska? That wasn’t that long ago, was it? It couldn’t be because a lot of it still inhabits my physical and mental space, which would be absurd, right? One of my earliest memories of working at my present job was hearing “Don’t Speak” playing on a co-worker’s radio and a student employee telling Maura that she “looked like Natalie Imbruglia.”

And there’s the crux of the matter. 1997 was the year I (finally) graduated from college and landed what would evolve into my current job. It also followed on the heels of the comedy troupe disintegrating and my old cluster of college friends moving on to their own separate tracks. Apart from getting married and moving up to the house on the hillside, the situation has been the prevailing status quo ever since.

It’s not unsettling because it makes me feel old or reminds me of roads not taken, because it does neither. It’s strange because I never really considered the existence of of clear demarcation line between my concepts of “then” and “now.” The closest I’d had was my mother’s death, which was a life-altering event on multiple levels and even still contained distinct strata of experience.

When the massive meteor strike ended the age of the dinosaurs, it left behind a layer of iridium-laced clay — which, to be honest, is a lot more dignified than the Reel Big Fish CD wedged into my temporal boundary zone.

I got back into vinyl because Maura picked up a near complete run of Time-Life’s Swing Era box sets at an estate sale. They’d been on my retro wishlist since I first stumbled across an ad for them during by first read-through of LIFE‘s original run and the happy occasion was enough to convince me to pick up a deck I could spin them on.

Money and shelf space were short supply at the time, so I settled for a low-end Jensen jobber with built-in speakers. It was garbage, but it fulfilled its primary purpose — so much so, in fact, that I started pulling old favorites down from the attic archives and began to seek out new acquisitions on the secondhand marketplace.

By the time the fall of 2017 rolled around, my modest assortment of “most favored” albums had grown into a precariously stack that brushed against the bottom of the wall sconces in our living room. I was in desperate need of a permanent storage solution, but also realized I ought to attempt something grander than a short term fix. If record collecting and listening was going to be “a thing” for me again, I should invest in a better sound system. And, if I was going to try and make the space for that, then I should probably reconfigure the hand-me-down jumble of shelving units that had passed for our living room’s entertainment center since November 2004.

The plan had begun to gel by last Christmas, but was hung up by several false starts and logistical dead ends. The dream was to either dredge up the set of components my mother gave me during my teenage years or recreate them with similar chrome-and-digital relics of the Reagan Era. Unfortunately, I discovered my grandmother had tossed out my old set of gear (with the exception of the turntable, which I’d passed onto Lil Bro) and my go-to consignment shops didn’t have much worth the risk or expense of purchase.

Maura found Magnavox cabinet model from the late Eighties somewhere, and I spent a month of two trying to figure out how to make it fit into a theoretical set-up before realizing its wired speakers had succumbed to years of abuse and neglect. I realized would never get the damn project done unless I stopped equivocating and just committed to it, so I ordered a current model Sony 100 Watt receiver and pair of bookshelf-in-name-only speakers along with some Ikea shit that seemed — after hours of measuring and re-measuring — like it would fit in the available space.

The last of the components arrived at the end of last week, so I spent the past two days doing the sweaty and dust-disturbing labor turning a long-harbored dream into reality.

“Are you happy with it?” was the first thing Maura asked when she saw it after arriving home from her Sunday errands. I am, for the most part. The weird open layout of the House on the Hillside’s first floor doesn’t leave much in the way of obstructable wall space, so a few compromises had to be made.

The original plan was to use my old H.H. Scott turntable, but it has apparently given up the ghost after thirty-five years. Fortunately, I had an Audio-Technica model lying around in storage since the late Aughts. (It was a Christmas present from Maura, back when I had grand plans about ripping some rarities in our collection to mp3.) It has been a while since I’ve owned an actual stereo system, having spent the past fifteen years getting by with boomboxes and digital files played via Winamp.

I knew exactly which track I’d use to test the rig…

…and was more than pleased with the window-vibrating, floor-rumbling results (which were satisfactorily repeated across multiple Sixties soul jams and side one of Crystal Method’s Vegas).

It was also nice to finally have the space to integrate my SNES Mini Classic console into the set-up without having to unbox and wire it whenever the urge to play Super Metroid overtakes me. I will have to invest in dust covers for the other game consoles, though that’s pretty much a must in our critter-packed abode anyhow.

The project gave my the opportunity to take an inventory of what records I had purchased over the previous eighteen months (most of which I did manage to recall while populating my Discogs page) and organize them in a logical-to-me fashion — K-Tel, compilation series, gothy stuff, ska, soundtracks, et cetera — with the top shelf…

…given over to especially cherished artists and albums.

Now that this project has been completed, I look forward to swamping it with even more shit I don’t have the shelf space to contain.

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