Armagideon Time

Drive in, nod off

May 26th, 2017

During the social media hub-bub surrounding the fortieth anniversary of Star Wars’ cinematic debut, some folks in my circle recalled the various venues where they first beheld the film. It was much more interesting than the discussions about the franchise itself, which has been all but talked to death at this point.

I can remember exactly where I fist watched Star Wars, because it was where I also saw Superman, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the cinematic release of Battlestar Galactica and every other non-televised movie I watched prior to 1980 — the Pinehurst Drive-In.

It was located off on Route 3A in Billerica, back when the town was still a honky-tonk fringe community and not the condo-clustered suburb it has since become. It was my parents’ choice of cinematic venue because it was cheap, because kept any required parental discipline as a private matter, and because no legitimate theater would allow my old man to keep a cooler full of brewskis at his feet during the show.

During my earlier visits, the audio system was strictly old-school — wired, door-mountable speakers attached to posts. In time they switched to a low wattage local radio broadcast, which was easier on the bodywork and dovetailed more sensibly with New England’s capricious weather.

The place had entered the terminal stage of its lifepsan by then, a haunting carnival of anachronisms which had somehow managed to slouch its way onto the doorstep of the Reagan Era. The act of going there was a Big Family Event in itself, but shabby decrepitude added an extra dose of spookiness to the excitement.

The snack bar was where I encountered my first arcade videogame machine, a solid black and banged-to-shit Night Driver cabinet with scores of cigarette burns on the steering wheel. The drive-in’s pre-feature playlist was also where I was first exposed to the commercial vanguard of “new wave” music which never would’ve penetrated my household’s soft rock bubble otherwise.

From the back seat of my father’s 1973 Thunderbird (with power everything and gas mileage that would make a Hummer limo blush), perched on a foam rubber booster chair, I watched the cinematic fantasies that enthralled a generation.

Sort of.

In truth, my younger self would invariably nod off during the second reel and not awaken until my mother lugged my out of the car after we arrived back home. It’s a side effect of my being a morning person since birth. If I recline past a certain angle after the far side of noon, I will crash out in a matter of seconds. It will happen whether I’m in the middle of a Destiny raid or enthralled by a book, and it’s why Maura ignores my request to turn the TV down a little when I turn in for the night. “Why bother? You’ll be dead to the world in a minute anyway.”

As a result of this circadian quirk, my actual experience of the endings to these films was almost entirely gleaned from trading cards, funnybook adaptations, and word of mouth — and that held true for years, right up until they managed to get an airing on TV or were released on VHS. I “saw” Star Wars in 1977, but I didn’t actually watch the ending until CBS broadcast the film in 1984.

The drive-in padlocked its gates in 1982, by which point the Redstone cinema in Stoneham had already seized the crown on the cheapness and “mid-century modern” dilapidation fronts. The big screen was torn down and an office park was built in its place.

To this day, hearing “Heart of Glass,” “Cars,” or “My Sharona” will trigger lucid flashbacks to the smell of butter flavoring and the patterns of the snack bar’s cracked tile floor.

If you haven’t been able to figure it our thus far, my younger self purchased a slew of role playing games which saw little (if any) actual play around our gaming table. I’ve delved into the various reasons for that in previous installments of this feature, so this time around I’d like to discuss the flip side of that adolescent over-exuberance.

I blew a lot of money on RPG crap at a time when my cashflow was limited in the extreme. While I may have experienced agonizing bouts of buyer’s remorse at the time, however, I don’t regret any of my purchases. Every item, no matter how obtuse, over-complicated, or downright unplayable, provided a valuable learning experience that has served me well over the decades since. The variations between systems, the approaches to edge cases, the relationship between setting and mechanics — together they shaped my awareness of what kids today refer to as “the meta.”

At the time was something I looked at through the lens of an starry-eyed gamemaster with designer hoop dreams. What lessons could I learn? What concepts could I pilfer? What pitfalls should I avoid?

As I grew older and gained a little more insight, however, I realized what I learned could be applied to a wider perspective. Between all the number-crunching and comparative stat-crunching, my not-quite-deep dive into the RPG realm stealthily served up some invaluable lessons about writing and the creative process in general.

It was more than the familiar desire to translate tabletop adventures into scintillating (and profitable) prose. It was about stepping back and considering the relationship between individual components and the narrative as a whole. Is a character fully formed enough to be convincing? Does the framework fit within the boundaries of the story I’m trying to tell? When does rigidity feel constrictive and when does fluidity feel like a cop-out? Does this work? Or, more often, why doesn’t this work?

The group activity aspect of role-playing narratives has loomed especially large in my collaborative work, where the work has been better served by easing up on a specific personal vision and trusting in the ingenuity of the other folks at the metaphoric “table.”

These were the sort of considerations that didn’t tend to come up during the one class per month my English teachers set aside for creative writing exercises, where the main focus was on getting from Point A to Point B with brutal efficiency.

Even though I don’t write much in the way of fiction these days, the notion of writing as a multi-part logic puzzle remains as valid as ever.

Of all the game systems that passed through my hands in those days, none stoked these meditations effectively as Toon did.

Designed by Greg Costikyan and developed by Warren Spector (yep, the future Deus Ex guy) based on an idea by Jeff Dee, Toon was created to simulate the frenetic and free-wheeling world of classic cartoon shorts. Its offbeat subject matter and approach to game mechanics made it a minor legend, which is why I sought out a copy of the slim yet comprehensive rulebook in the fall of 1987.

Toon’s mechanics revolved around what geeks — in their urge to murder via dissection — have codified as “cartoon physics,” where the improbable was encouraged. Catastrophic failure was an acceptable outcome and player “death” was handled by a three-minute “time out” before returning with nary a scratch. The rules reflected the anarchic and consequence-free source material, where players were expected to act before thinking and the gamemaster (or “animator”) should adhere or abandon the rules as the narrative circumstances required.

It wasn’t quite as informal as the more contemporary class of “casual” role playing systems are, as Toon did have a skills ‘n’ stats at its core. They did share the notion of RPGs getting away from number crunching and fixed ideas of “winning” in favor of using rules as a framework to encourage a player-driven narrative instead of hindering it. Echoes of Toon‘s revolutionary ethos can be be found in scores of current and more traditional offerings, where every every “advice to gamemasters” section includes a bit about “if a player’s action sounds cool and fits the theme, then let the rules be damned.”

Toon‘s radical (to my fifteen year old eyes, at least) take on RPG mechanics may have insinuated its way into my neural pathways, but the concepts involved were a little too out there for my gaming group to handle. For us, the hobby was still all about dispatching enemies and collecting loot. It also didn’t help that none of us were huge fans of the game’s inspirational source material, and my attempts to rework it into a Hanna-Barbera “Mystery Teens” or Alex Toth-type adventure thing failed miserably.

I did get a chance to witness a group of Sci-Fi Club upperclassmen and alumni run a Toon adventure in college. I lasted ten minutes before the Monty Python quotes and dogmatic regurgitation of old Chuck Jones gags grew to toxic to tolerate.

Perhaps WOPR had the right idea, after all.

The great achievements of western capitalism have rebounded primarily to the benefit of the ordinary person. These achievements have made available to the masses conveniences and amenities that were previously the exclusive prerogative of the rich and powerful. ― Milton Friedman

Even if The Rock Album hadn’t whetted my appetite for K-Tel compilation albums, I still would’ve sought out a copy of Chart Action ’83 for strictly sentimental reasons.

The collection dates back to a significant moment in my life, one that was further shaped by a cluster of serendipitous events. I was eleven years old in 1983, and had just entered the stage of early adolescence where pop music exposure transitions from passive exposure to active pursuit. I had my share of favorite songs and favorite bands before that point, but most were bits of appealing audio flotsam that just happened to drift within earshot.

That standard preteen process of developing one’s own tastes and preferences was kicked into high gear two concurrent developments — my dad’s acquisition of a Panasonic boom box and 103.3 WEEI-FM’s switchover to the “hot hits” format under the WHTT call sign.

My dad bought the boombox — a sharp-angled monstrosity cased in gray and chromed plastic — to listen to when he was out in the yard catching some rays. During the hours he wasn’t soaking up dangerous levels of UV radiation, the machine rested on my mom’s sewing table at the back of our apartment’s combined kitchen and dining area, where it was left on while my teenage aunt worked on school assignments and my brother and I played Atari on an ailing old color tucked under the sideboard.

While my aunt preferred the more rock-oriented programming of WBCN or WCOZ, the dial was most frequently tuned to WHTT. For starters, it was a “new” station, which counts for a lot when you’re young and seeking out things to claim as “your own.” My aunt was also fond of radio-dubbed mix tapes, which the station’s tight every-hour-on-the-hour playlist helped facilitate.

Mostly, however, it came down to timing. If these events had been bumped up or back by a couple of years, I’d have experienced the same process with an entirely different frame of reference. As it happened, my impressionable younger self found himself awash in the beneficiaries of MTV’s musical revolution. Cable — and by extension MTV — was still a rarity in my neighborhood, but its effects could be heard across FM spectrum. In 1981, the “new wave” had been pronounced dead. Two years later, new wave acts and adjacent artists were flourishing thanks to their videogenic aesthetics and MTV’s racially problematic approach to targeting its chosen demographic.

The result was a cultural feedback loop in which multiple manifestations of the zeitgeist tied back to and reinforced each other — synthesizer pop, phospor dot battlescapes, apocalyptic dread, and chilly techno-futurism. It was a weird era of terrors and delights, and it hit me at the moment of maximum impact. It doesn’t matter how much of the reality aligns with my nostalgia, as the experience has been internalized past any point of objective separation.

My parents had Chart Action ’83 on 8-track, which got infrequent plays in the tape deck of the family Cordoba. A few years later, after the moment had passed, I bought a cassette copy for three bucks from a discount bin at the Bradlees on Washington Street. In discussions with college pals about the Eighties, I referenced it as an essential and influential artifact. During the Golden Era of Filesharing, I scoured the dark areas of the internet for a rip and contemplated recreating it from the various slices of source material.

I never did, though, and a glimpse at the track list is essential for explaining why.

A1 The Police – Every Breath You Take
A2 Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Come On Eileen
A3 Bryan Adams – Straight From The Heart
A4 Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing
A5 Golden Earring – Twilight Zone
A6 Thompson Twins – Lies
A7 Kenny Loggins and Steve Perry – Don’t Fight It

B1 Rick Springfield – Affair Of The Heart
B2 Greg Kihn Band – Jeopardy
B3 After The Fire – Der Kommissar
B4 Frida – I Know There’s Something Going On
B5 Pat Benatar – Little Too Late
B6 Peter Gabriel – Shock The Monkey
B7 Adam Ant – Goody Two Shoes

As memories faded and were replaced with mythic impressions, my mind began to substitute its own tracklist in place of the one that actually appeared on the compilation.

“She Blinded Me With Science,” “Electric Avenue,” “Mr. Roboto” — all were dearly loved by my eleven year old self, and so I subconsciously inserted them into the musical artifact I associated most closely with that era.

I did recall some of the tracks correctly. The Celt-ified soul of “Come on Eileen” and English language version of Falco’s “Der Kommissar” were two pillars of the pop trinity (alongside the previously mentioned “Mr. Roboto”) that had me waiting eagerly for WHTT’s playlist to cycle again. “Goody Two Shoes” and “I Know There’s Something Going On” also stuck with me, though my feelings about the latter have soured a little after learning that it was a stealth Phil Collins track.

I also remembered the inclusion of Marvin Gaye’s swan song “Sexual Healing” because of how embarrassed I felt if my parents were around when it started playing.

As for the rest? Apart from the Pat Benatar track, it all falls into the filler category for me. That’s not a blanket dismissal, but rather an admission that most of it does nothing for me on any level outside a nostalgic one.

Technically, that’s part of the appeal K-Tel comps hold foe me. They fascinate me because they present an aggregate musical snapshot of a given era. On those terms, my history with Chart Action ’83 tends to work against that effect. It makes great audio wallpaper to retrogame to, but it doesn’t live up to the legend I built up for it during the pre-internet times. The gap between what I remember and what I wanted to remember was a little too wide to bridge with a cheesy Kenny Loggins and Steve Perry duet.

Thanks to Discogs and other online resources, I knew this well before I picked a copy of the album last fall. It didn’t stop me from buying it, because it’s still a significant childhood artifact even after discounting for nostalgic inflation. I’ve given it a few spins and enjoyed it well enough, but it will never match record I misremembered it to be.

“Don’t turn around, oh uh oh.” Absolutely goddamn right.

Cooking with gas

May 19th, 2017

Peter was the morning shift cook at the hospital kitchen where I worked in high school. He had about ten years on me, though you wouldn’t have know from his looks and antics. He lived for stupid pranks and tasteless jokes of a type that made our supervisor wince before delivering a stern lecture.

In his younger days, Peter had been heavily into the punk rock scene. His anecdotes about the litany of shows he’d attended were the stuff of legend. He kept a copy of the Trouser Press Guide on the shelf above his work station and recite esoteric snatches of punk song lyrics while he prepped gallons of oatmeal in an industrial mixer.

If it wasn’t for Peter, I wouldn’t have become a punk rocker.

During the restless weeks following my mom’s death, I gravitated toward the (weirdly sizable) contingent of my coworkers who were thrash metal fans. The music was a far cry from the mellow Sixties soul and pop I’d been listening to since junior high, but its aggressive angst — and geeky undercurrents — found purchase in my damaged soul.

It was through the metalheads I fell into Peter’s orbit, as they were pals with him despite difference in musical tastes and overall demeanor. The metal kids were a bit on the dour side, their rebellious streaks wrapped up in blue collar conservatism and an aspiring musician’s fixation with technical flawlessness. Peter didn’t buy into any of that nonsense. He was a happy-go-lucky troublemaker and irritant and a big proponent of “whatever works” as a philosophy.

I knew jack shit about punk rock, but I realized that Peter’s attitude and buzzed haircut better matched my own aspirations than those of my metalhead pals did. He was an enthusiastic mentor, probably because I was the only other person in the place who’d ever seen Repo Man or bothered to listen to his semi-coherent evangelism on behalf of the Butthole Surfers (long before the “Pepper” years).

There was an hour-long gap between the end of his shift and beginning of mine on Fridays, so he’d drive us to the bank to cash our checks before making a quick stop at Newbury Comics in Burlington. He was unsparing in his criticism about my music purchases and quick to offer alternative choices. Peter was the reason I bought the first Clash album, which he put in my hands and told me I had no right calling myself a punk rocker without it. He was also the impetus behind my purchase of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and several other albums I would later use as evidence of adolescent hipness.

In the early fall of 1989, a bunch of us were gathered in the hospital parking lot around Peter’s hatchback. We were there to marvel at his ride’s newly installed CD player, which was still a luxurious novelty in those benighted times. To demonstrate the power of his new toy, Peter tossed a random CD, skipped to his favorite track, and blasted it at full volume for thirty seconds before ejecting it and repeating the process.

One of the CDs was Louder Than Love, a new release from an unfamiliar act named Soundgarden. As his car windows shook and the din echoed back from the exterior walls of surrounding homes, Pete shouted “IT’S FROM THE ‘SEATTLE SCENE.’ IT’S GONNA BE THE NEXT BIG THING, TRUST ME!” The metalheads and I rolled our eyes and humored Peter’s obvious delusions.

(Peter’s words carried enough weight, however, that I did pick up a white-label NOT FOR RETAIL cassette of the album at Mystery Train a few weeks later. I listened to it a few times, but it sounded too much like the marriage of 70s hard rock and badly produced indie-metal — two things I had made a conscious effort to distance myself from. Still, it did serve me well a couple years later, after the band broke big and my affectedly jaded self could tell folks that I was over them in 1990.)

The hospital closed up shop at the end of 1989, and I lost touch with Peter and the rest of the kitchen crew. I bumped into him once the early 1990s, when I was coming back from getting my hair buzzed and ran into him outside the unemployment office. It had only been a few years, but he’d aged a lot. He commented on the evolution of my punk style and cracked a couple of jokes like the old days, but there was oddly confused cast to his features, like he’d ran into a ghost.

I never saw him again. He’d be pushing sixty now, if he’s still among the living. I hope he is.

In the last installment of this feature, I talked about the giddy accumulation of stuff which comes when one dives head-first into a new hobby. This week, I’m going to discuss a regrettable adjunct to that strain of over-exuberant consumption — the signal-to-noise ratio which causes the occasional jewel to get lost amidst the torrent of crap.

During the golden age of p2p file-sharing, I knew many folks who gleefully jammed that hose of legally questionable content straight into their mouths and turned the tap to full blast. “I downloaded five hundred albums last weekend,” they’d boast. I’d ask if managed to listen to any of them, and get a polite shrug in return. Acquiring meant more than experiencing.

This is the reason why I have a few dozen never-played PS1 JRPGs taking up space in a corner or my attic, alongside two crates of Heroclix figures. It’s acquisition as an end unto itself, and novelty as a narcotic. Once the initial thrill is gone, the items in question become redundant space-fillers.

I’ve grown older since those days. My amount of free space has diminished in direct proportion to my fanboy enthusiasm. The number of geek-related purchases has shrunk, but my appreciation for each one has grown — be it a hardback edition of Queen Emeraldas stories or a vintage Japanese robot toy or a 1980 Pat Benatar album. I no longer chase the “AAA” videogame train, but have come to content myself with a handful of proven favorites (Destiny, GTA Online, MGS V, No Man’s Sky) supplemented with the rare bargain bin find. Whatever my experiences have lost in breadth, they’ve more than gained in depth.

It has been one of the more valuable — spiritually and financially — lessons I’ve learned, though it arrived twenty years too late to do right by Chill.

Chill: Adventures Into The Unknown was a horror-themed role playing game released as a spiffy box set by Pacesetter Games in 1984, at the tail end of the early Eighties RPG craze and a only couple of years before the publisher closed up shop.

I’m not sure where I learned about the game, though “Dragon Magazine” and “the Games On Call catalog” are both safe bets. The subject matter dovetailed perfectly with my own adolescent interest in spooky stuff, and Chill’s more generalist approach to the genre gave it a leg up over the Mythos-focused and better-known Call of Cthulhu RPG.

The game focused on a mysterious organized named S.A.V.E. which had spent the past two centuries researching and investigating supernatural phenomena. The group recruited incident survivors and witnesses from all walks of life to serve as investigators, which functioned as a handy mechanic to justify why a fashion model player character would be exploring ancient tombs alongside one with an academic background. S.A.V.E’s long history allowed the gamemaster — excuse me, CHILLMASTER — to set the game in any period between Victorian times and the present day, with equipment rules covering everything from flintlock pistols to sports cars.

Chill‘s mechanics were straightforward and easy to grasp. Characteristics and skill were percentage-based, with the latter including tiers of bonus-granting “mastery.” Combat was fast moving and utilized a simple chart to determine outcomes. It also included simple rules for “the Art,” a list of supernatural talents that allowed for the inclusion of psychic detectives or Tarot-reading mediums as player characters.

The system wasn’t “casual” by any reckoning, but it had a consistency and clarity of purpose which set it apart from its patchwork predecessors. It was an evolutionary leap for RPGs, though one that arrived a couple years too late to spawn a paradigm shift in the industry. For a relatively minor publisher, Pacesetter put together a pretty slick package for a game that was clearly built from the ground up as a labor of love. It shows up in little touches such having an EC-style narrator — “the Raven” — add a gleefully ghoulish tone to the rulebook as well as the stellar gallery of Jim Holloway art which illustrated it.

Yet for all that, we ended up only running a single scenario. It involved zombies and demons taking up residence at a derelict house on 666 Main Street in our hometown of Woburn. The players loved it, and helped collaborate on a campaign setting based in and around our familiar haunts (no pun intended). I even wrote up a follow-up adventure where the players were snowbound at a northern New Hampshire rest stop that had been savaged by a Wendigo, but it never made it to the gaming table.

Part of the blame can be laid upon scheduling problems and a plethora of other distractions, but most of it fell on the steady influx of new games. There was a new purchase every couple of weeks, which made it impossible to develop an attachment to any of them. You read the rules, rolled up characters, ran a single adventure bogged down by a fresh learning curve, then moved on to the next game.

In hindsight, we should’ve stuck with the ones that seemed to work for our group, but that notion was utterly alien to our adolescent fanboy brains.

Chill has since gone through multiple editions and publishers, with the most current version released under a revived Pacesetter imprint. I haven’t bothered checking any of them out, though one of the college Sci-Fi Club kids once attempted — without any prompting on my part — to explain the 2nd edition’s setting changes to me.

I remember none of it because my brain activated its emergency protocols for dealing with geeks and began looping The Facts of Life theme to down him out.

(Go season one or go home.)

My decision last fall to pick up a turntable had nothing to do with audio fidelity or “warmer” sounds or affected hipness. I got back into records because Maura scored a near complete set of Time-Life’s Swing Era compilations at an estate sale and because I thought it would be a nice way to get back to basics in terms of how I listen to music.

The digital revolution of the past two decades has been invaluable for broadening my tastes and discovering otherwise inaccessible treasures, but it turned my listening experiences into something scattershot and disposable — a cherry-picked parade of one-off favorites and random oddities strung together with little in the way rhyme or reason. What used to be a meal turned into a bowl of party mix upon which I’d gorge or nibble at as the urge for instant gratification moved me.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a far cry from the days when I’d place a record on the turntable, let the needle drop, and soak in the entire thing as I burned the midnight oil on a term paper or struggled to get the latest addition to my Warhammer 40k army primed and painted in time for the following week’s tabletop throwdown. Those were the moments that built up the knowledge base behind this site’s music blog days, and fueled its fires until I burned myself out.

My life has no shortage of distractions on the entertainment front, which is why the notion of spinning full sides without interruption held a certain nostalgic allure — to hear the full Unknown Pleasures or After the Snow or Ocean Rain without an easy means of skipping over “weaker” or less favored cuts.

When it came to pulling selections from our shared stash of old records, I avoided compilations (apart from out-of-print, non-CD version oddities like the Enigma Variations) for that reason. The point was to rediscover the album as a format, not rehash my digital listening habits in an analog format.

It was a lofty idea, but it only lasted a couple of weeks.

The pursuit of my vision involved hunting down choice albums by artists I’d mostly experienced in single-track or “greatest hits” form. In the old days, that would’ve entailed dropping a couple bucks per LP at one of the numerous used vinyl shops Boston was blessed with in the early Nineties. As most of those stores have long since been shuttered, I had to make do with the realm of online retailers and internet auctions.

I had the good fortune to stumble across an eBay storefront for a dude who was selling off a massive collection of records from the mid-Seventies through mid-Eighties, also known as “Andrew’s Nostalgic Sweet Spot.” The deal was twenty bucks for five selections from a lengthy and unwieldy list. My first four picks were easy — Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion, The English Beat’s What is Beat, The Cars’ Shake It Up, and Rant n’ Rave with the Stray Cats.

I had a heck of a time picking a fifth to complete the order, however. My eyes scanned over the list of offerings again and again, with nothing really grabbing my attention until I saw a listing for a 1979 K-Tel called The Rock Album. One quick check of Discogs later, and it became the final item in my order.

Here’s the track list:

A1 Electric Light Orchestra – Don’t Bring Me Down
A2 Foreigner – Dirty White Boy
A3 Eddie Money – Two Tickets To Paradise
A4 Robin Trower - Too Rolling Stoned
A5 Blue Öyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
A6 Cheap Trick – Dream Police
A7 Robert Palmer – Bad Case Of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)

B1 Styx - Renegade
B2 Boston – More Than A Feeling
B3 Jethro Tull – Something’s On The Move
B4 Journey – Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’
B5 The Babys – Isn’t It Time
B6 Kansas – Carry On Wayward Son
B7 Toto - Hold The Line

K-Tel’s compilations fall into one of two categories — multigenre grab bags of current pop hits or jobbers built around a specific theme. The Rock Album falls into the latter, with an assemblage of AOR staples of what would eventually become known as “classic rock” pulled from the previous half-decade. That said, a whopping eight out of the fourteen tracks were released in 1978 or 1979, so the LP didn’t quite abandon current Top 40 topicality.

The big draws for me were “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “Too Rolling Stoned,” and “More Than a Feeling” — favorite cuts that either replaced the need to score them separately (or deferred it in Boston’s case as it has been absurdly difficult to locate a reasonably priced used album that sold SEVENTEEN MILLION GODDAMN COPIES GLOBALLY.) “Don’t Bring Me Down” would’ve fallen into that category if I hadn’t already splurged on a bunch of ELO LPs.

The other cuts are either incidentally enjoyable (Toto, Kansas, Cheap Trick) or work as mood-setting filler (Foreigner, Jethro Tull, Styx). If I had assembled the compilation, I’d have swapped out the The Baby’s track for Heart’s “Barracuda,” went with “Come Sail Away” in place of “Renegade” for the obligatory Styx jam, and dumped “Dirty White Boy” for “Hot Blooded.” That has more to do with nostalgic hindsight than the mercenary factors that went into the The Rock Album‘s creation — to offer twenty bucks worth of 45 RPM single content in a handy $5.98 package. With that in mind, it’s a wonder “Don’t Look Back” didn’t bump “More Than a Feeling.”

The Rock Album is a perfect snapshot of a time when RAWK existed as an article of faith and its overproduced cheese could be digested with utmost sincerity. Listening to it uninterrupted — clunkers and all — is like stepping through a portal to a specific moment of my North Woburn childhood when teenage heshers blasted the stuff out the windows of their dinged up muscle cars and custom van conversions, when these tunes were the intermission playlist of the local drive-in, and could be heard echoing from the entrance of the strip mall record store.

In short, it provided an experience as evocative as any single-artist album could provide, its patchwork assortment of tracks coming together into a greater whole. I didn’t anticipate that happenening but it whetted my appetite for more.

Figured it out

May 10th, 2017

I was five years old when Star Wars hit theaters, which also means I was at ground zero for the action figure craze of the late Seventies. Though the unholy alliance of Kenner Toys and George Lucas reigned supreme in the hearts and minds of covetous tykes, they were joined by scores of bandwagon jumpers across a bewildering array of genres and licensed IPs.

I took to action figures because they took my existing love of plastic army men to the next level. They were colorful, had distinct visual identities, and could be kitted out with all manner of accessories both official and improvised. Not only were they generally sturdier than the Mego dolls which preceded them, but the newcomers’ smaller scale meant that they could integrate with Fisher Price “Little People” playsets and the various plastic vehicles cranked out by Marx and the like.

Despite the licensed branding which hung over most action figure lines, my little brother and I never adhered to pre-existing scripts. Chosen figures became good guys and bad guys based on how much we liked them, with names and backstories folded in afterwards. It was a rudimentary and improvised form of role-playing game in many respects, which is probably why I lost all interest in action figures shortly after picking up a copy of the D&D Basic Set in junior high (because “getting to old for that crap” certainly wasn’t the reason).

Our early action figure adventures tended to be a derivative and nonsensical mash-up of things pulled from our popcult sphere — comics, Creature Double Feature flicks, cartoons, and kid-oriented sci-fi and horror fiction. All of it went into the pot, resulting in a lumpy stew thick with grade school melodrama and the laziest of cliches. Fortunately, notions about “the anxiety of influence” are utterly lost on young children. It wasn’t about creative originality. It was about having a blast channeling our favorite things into action-packed narratives.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a little information about some of the major players in my childhood fantasy realm (with photos ganked from a Google image search because my original figures have been lost to time).

Clawtron was a Fisher-Price creation, part of the company’s attempt to have its Adventure People line keep up with the Skywalkers. His noggin betrays his humble origins, re-purposed as it was from a decidedly terrestrial race car driver figure.

Clawtron’s brief ascendance had more to do with timing than anything else. My mom bought him for me not long after my classmates stole all my “cool” Star Wars figures on the last day of kindergarten. While a poor shadow of what I had lost, he still had enough of a mysteriously sinister vibe to serve as an adequate consolation prize. He began his career as a hero, before taking a heel turn to sub for the missing Darth Vader.

After experiencing some initial success leading a criminal band of broken Micronauts, some Zee Toys’ “Metal Men” and a one-footed Stormtrooper, poor Clawtron was eventually demoted to minor minion status.

Clawtron’s primary nemesis was Boba Fett. Though he shared the name and appearance of the famous bounty hunter, this Boba Fett was actually a bona fide superhero. He has super strength, could fly through air and space, shoot beams from his hands, and was immune to everything except the deadly element “argonite.” When he wasn’t slamming evil with his best pal Pocket Superhero Batman, Fett and his entourage would roam around the countryside in a Tonka Winnebago in search of new adventures and beer.

His death did not come from a fanged space-anus, but from the jaws of our family dog.

Every hero needs a sidekick, so Boba Fett had “Teegs.”

Why “Teegs?” Because that’s how my three year old brother’s brain processed “Luke Skywalker in Bespin Fatigues.”

Teegs was okay, if a bit boring to be around.

Captain Decker was not a single character, but rather a continuum of beings who served as Chief Pathos Officer to our heroes.

One Decker was killed when Space Hitler (a Black Hole Ernest Borgnine figure) and Clawtron crashed his wedding to Fisher-Price Scuba Team Lady, giving Boba Fett and Batman a reason to seek some payback. Another sacrificed himself to some spinning blades in the Bookcase of Doom so that the survivors could warn others about its perils. If someone had to remain with an exploding spaceship or get eaten by a Wampa for wandering too far from the Winnebago, Decker would rise to the tragic occasion.

We could all use a pal like Decker.

No more for your life

May 9th, 2017

In 1995′s The Brady Bunch Movie, Mike decides to reward the family for a valuable lesson learned by taking them to Sears.

On one level, it’s a facile gag by way of product placement. The uber-square department store was exactly the sort of place the perma-retro Brady clan would shop. For folks of a certain age, however, that campy call to retail pilgrimage hits like a multi-megaton nostalgia bomb.

My slice of post-war suburbia did not lack for department stores. Growing up, there were half a dozen within three miles of my North Woburn doorstep. Most of these — such as Zayres, Caldor, Bradlees, Stuart’s — were either standalone locations or tethered to one end of a strip mall. Despite minor differences in decor and inventory, they were nearly interchangeable in practice. “Downmarket” is probably too strong a word to describe those places, but they operated on the principles of value and convenience. When you needed something fast and cheap — be it a new floor mat for your Vega or a pair of plaid chinos for a school recital the following day — they were a short hop away.

Going to Sears, however, was an event.

My grandma would talk about going to Sears the way jet setters talk about to nipping off to Paris to check out the Fall fashions. It wasn’t the distance (our closest one was right across the street from Bradlees and nearer to our home than Caldor was) or its higher mark-ups on items. It was about the venerability of the name and grand sense of scale on display — an all encompassing retail environment which sold everything from drill bits to washing machines to dress shirts. There was a lunch counter and an optical center and multiple floors of offerings that could be accessed by escalators.

Sears was the platonic ideal of what a department store should be, the middle class market gold standard which other chains strove to emulate. If your parents (or grandparents) took you there, it was for a Big Reason — to pick out a new fridge or get snow tires for the family car or to get sartorially kitted out for the upcoming school year. Sears was the place with official Boy and Girl Scout uniforms and gear, and one of Maura’s cherished childhood memories is of picking our her Brownie cap and sash with her mom there.

Our local Sears served as the gateway anchor to the Burlington Mall, the wide gateway by the ladieswear section opening out onto a dimly lit nirvana of conspicuous consumption. My grandmother rarely ventured with us into its depths, preferring to stick close to the fountain and Brigham’s ice cream parlor just beyond the Sears entrance. I can speak for the rest of my generation, but my weird fixation with malls and mall culture began there, as a tyke begging my Nana for pennies to toss into the water.

If the floor displays weren’t magical enough, there were the phonebook-sized Sears catalogs hawking everything from patio furniture to decorative suits of medieval armor available for home delivery or in-store pick-up. The holiday season Wish Book loomed large in my childhood, the leaping off point for compiling long lists of coveted treasures in hope that maybe a couple would manifest on Christmas morning. Flipping through them now feels like examining a core sample of childhood covetousness, while simultaneously reverse engineering my family’s gifting and budgetary methodologies.

Beyond the toys, it was fascinating to realize just how much of our household bric-a-brac came from the Wish Book’s pages. When my parents returned to Woburn after my father’s discharge from the army, they went to Sears to furnish their new apartment.

Sears was where my first bike came from and where I bought my first Star Wars figure, a Stormtrooper whose left foot would eventually get gnawed off by our family dog.

My beloved Atari 2600 console was actually a “Sears Video Arcade” machine, rebranded and marketed under an OEM deal between the two companies.

The camouflage Chuck Taylors that became one of my trademarks in junior high were purchased — over the objections of my grandmother — at Sears. The yellow ones Lil Bro wore later in the decade came with a free Biz Markie cassingle that I’m pretty sure we still have in a crate somewhere.

The thigh-high lineman’s boots I wore at the height of my punk days came from the Sears catalog. The chain around the epaulet of my leather jacket was purchased from the store’s hardware section. The clerk that cut it for me was a unfazed older lady who insisted in helping me find the type of chain that would look best. “The brass finish weighs less and the color work better with your *squints* ‘DISARM OR DIE’ logo on the sleeve.”

I remember wandering around the mall with my high school buddy Damian while he waited for the Sears Auto Center to fit new tires on his hatchback. And I remember his cousin Vinnie complaining that my punk rocker style was “scaring away the chicks, man.”

The contact lenses I wore for a brief period were purchased at the Sears Optical in the Cambridgeside Galleria, as my pal Leech looked over the display of camcorders nearby and pondered selling his soul to acquire one.

Maura’s — and by extension my — first real computer was a Packard Bell jobber bought and financed through Sears back in 1993. Besides making it possible for me to play the AD&D “Gold Box” PC games, it was where I did the bulk of my comedic and poetic writing up until my big creative burn out in 1999.

To this day, whenever I need an item of hardware or a new vacuum cleaner or an AC unit for the spare room, Sears is the first place I turn to. It’s not so much loyalty as an article of faith drilled into me since early childhood. That’s where one goes for those things. If you can score a mass market Justice League or Misfits t-shirt while you’re there, even better.

I don’t know how much longer that will be the case, sadly. Years of mismanagement and miscalculations have pushed the chain to the brink of extinction, with industry experts already declaring Sears to be the retail equivalent of a “dead clave walking.” Our local store has been getting by thanks to patronage of the area’s sizable South Asian immigrant population (who still view Sears through the old lens of the American Retail Dream), but it has given up its second floor — and signature escalators — to Primark. That doesn’t bode well for its long-term prospects.

It might seem odd for a self-proclaimed anarchist to harbor such strong sentiment towards a struggling titan of commerce, but it’s hard not to feel a bit sad about the impending demise of an institution which has been a consistent part of my life for over four decades. I’ll be sad to see it go,

There’s a stage in every hobby when measured fascination risks turning to into unquestioned obsession. The mechanic is similar to addiction behaviors, where users try to offset diminishing thrills by increasing the frequency and dosage of each subsequent hit. Geek pastimes are particularly prone to this pathology, due to their long-standing conflation between consumption and identity.

There are some folks who can keep the buzz going for years, jumping from one New Hotness to another in an endless dash of retail therapy bliss. For the rest of us, however, there eventually comes a harsh comedown. That moment is typically marked by a severe financial hangover and a gut-wrenching mix of confusion and remorse. All you can do is stare at the piles of crap you’ve accumulated and wonder “why?” — which is a question I’m still asking about my purchase of Traveller: 2300.

If forced to reconstruct the reasons (besides enthusiastic giddiness) behind by purchase of the game, I supposed I could chalk things up to the game’s heavy ad presence in Dragon Magazine and a previous bout of newbie confusion that induced me to buy the old school Traveller box set instead of its new-fangled spin-off. Also, Aliens was all the rage among my geeky peers at the time, and Traveller: 2300 drew heavily from the movie’s setting and plausible-future aesthetic.

Whatever the case may have been, my fifteen year old self did willingly drop twenty bucks on the original box set edition of the game, which included player and referee guidebooks, a raft of cheat sheets, and a poster-sized star map of earth’s galactic neighborhood.

The game was intended to represent a sophisticated marriage between Game Designers Workshop’s two flagship role playing games, marrying the name and thoroughly revised mechanics of Traveller with a 24th Century setting extrapolated from the post-WW3 world of Twilight: 2000. The fictional history was hashed out by the designers through in-house geo-political simulation game which produced a third French Empire as the reigning superpower and the Mexican annexation of the southwestern United States.

The setting was simultaneously the most interesting part of the game and its biggest handicap. In opting for a realistic, quasi-hard sci-fi take on the future, the designers merely doubled down on one of the original Traveller’s major problems — downplaying the potential of epic high adventure in favor of pedestrian busywork. Even frontier exploration and hostile alien angles were bled gray beneath the workaday realities of laboring beneath the aegis of massive entities which held a virtual monopoly on interstellar travel. It was internally consistent, but intensely boring for anyone who wasn’t thrilled about playing a Flemish diplomat tasked with delivering crop reports to a colonial administration office.

Even GDW came to realize the limitations of the setting after a year or so, opting to re-brand the game as 2300AD while gradually shifting the focus towards a more cyberpunk aesthetic and throwing in anime-style power armor “hardsuits” and small scale combat mechs. It was a step in the right direction, but too gradual and too late to compete with rival products which offered that content right out of the box.

Traveller: 2300‘s emphasis on realism also bogged down its game mechanics. GDW’s stuff always leaned toward the “advanced class” end of the RPG spectrum, but 2300 was particular hard for my teenage self to parse. I was able to appreciate certain concepts — such as eschewing hit points in order to simulate the lethality of the armaments involved — as I grew older and drifted away from the the AD&D paradigm, but most of the rest squarely fell into the “by designers, for designers” camp of needlessly anal-retentive complexity. The starship combat rules were a complicated wargame in and of themselves, one in which the designers considered everything except “how will this affect the pacing of the rest of the game?”

I can see how 2300 could appeal to a certain type of gamer, folks like the Sci-Fi Club alums who lived and breathed Rolemaster‘s hyper-complexities and mapped their entire earth-sized fantasy world down to hundred-meter hex-grids. For folks like me who preferred faster, action-oriented narratives, though, it exemplified every retrograde convention that RPGs had been in the process of abandoning.

My group never bothered with the game, apart from rolling up some sample characters to marvel at how the system could be so limiting and yet so robust at the same time. (“He’s a…Hanoverian….boat captain….who knows Zero-G combat….and speaks Urdu!”) It was pretty clear early on that we lacked both the interest and the will required to make a go at playing it.

Despite that early abandonment, however, I still picked up a number of 2300 sourcebooks and relevant issues of GDW’s Challenge magazine over the years to come. Most of them covered background and historical fluff or the game’s efforts to transition into the cyberpunk realm, the few aspects of the game that still held some residual appeal for me.

Eventually, I realized I could get more a satisfying fix from re-reading Walter Jon Williams’s Voice of the Whirlwind for the umpteenth time.

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