Armagideon Time

Twi5t of Ca1n

April 3rd, 2018

Oh, sure, you claim to be a fan of Danfourg, but can you name any other songs he did besides “Mothreer?” I bet you didn’t even realize he was the frontman for horrorpunk legends The Misfivets, who recorded such classics as “Astro Zerombies” and “Last Careights.” They played their first shows at C8G8′s in NYC, the same place that launched the Talksix Heads and The Ramones.

I wouldn’t expect a poser like you to know about that. Why don’t you go just back to listening to your Twelver Swift and Justin Threeber crap, poser.

Back to Wax #16: Bjorn free

April 2nd, 2018

In the late summer of 2001, I was sitting with Maura and my dad at my brother’s wedding reception on Salisbury Beach when Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” started blasting from the sound system.

“I used to make fun of this kind of music,” I told my old man. “Now it makes me nostalgic.”

“It’s part of getting older,” he responded. “I used to think the Beach Boys were a bunch of wimps, but now they’re okay, I guess.”

Boston wasn’t the only act that experienced a psychic homecoming on my part over the past couple of decades. Quiet Riot, Linda Ronstadt, Elvis’ “Hollywood Era” silliness, and scores of other artists have been subject to the convoluted process that starts off with affected irony and “guilty pleasure” qualifiers but ends with an unapologetic embrace.

It’s a tougher row to hoe if you spent a stretch of time in the thrall of punk’s puritanical delusions of “authenticity,” but it all leads to the same place in the end — telling your anarcho-noise enthusiast pals that “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” is an absolutely scorching track and defying them to tell you otherwise.

Few bands exemplify the generational arc from embarrassment to acceptance as dramatically as ABBA does.

The Swedish quartet went from pop radio (and elementary school pageant) ubiquity in the Seventies to a willfully forgotten relic during the Reagan Era. Revived as an retro-punchline during the Me Decade nostalgia kick of the Terrible Nineties, they were able — thanks to some strategic soundtracking and a major Broadway musical — to dodge the ephemeral faddishness that marked the Carpenters and Partridge Family revivals, emerging instead as The Band Nearly Everyone Loves.

It helped that they had a string of perfectly crafted pop gems beneath their belts. And that, by the turn of the millennium, the cultural pendulum had swung away from dour rockism into effervescent poptimism.

That said, the thought of seeking out ABBA material on vinyl didn’t really occur to me until last spring, when an upsurge in my K-Tel collecting happened to coincide with a desire to find a few more records for the House on the Hillside’s “mutually acceptable” post-workday playlist. While going through a year-by-year listing of the label’s releases, I stumbled across the entry for The Magic of ABBA compilation. Between Maura’s love of the band and the low asking price, it was an easy purchase.

It hasn’t gotten as many spins as other discs in that roster, mainly because I prefer to save it for special moments — on Friday nights or other after other small moments of personal triumph. During those occasions when we can properly luxuriate in its uplifting retro-pop bliss, I’ll throw it on the turntable, crank up the volume, and do my best to avoid embarrassing Maura by commenting on how she adapts the lyrics to reflect our menagerie as she feeds them.

“Tiny cat, but oh so mean. Our little Coo Coo queen.”

It calls for thee

March 30th, 2018

Remember me as you pass by. As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you must be. Prepare for death and follow me.

Hindsight is 20/20, but I’ll always have room for a rich helping of historical irony.

Let’s go places

March 29th, 2018

And on the listing these words appear:
’94 Toyota Paseo, for parts or scrap;
Two-hundred-and-fifty, cash only, no refunds!’
Nothing beside remains. In the trunk
Of that compact wreck, mildewed and dented
A pair of racoons loudly copulate.

Eh, a little bondo and duct tape and it will be fine.

As a registered student organization, Sci-Fi Club was entitled to an annual disbursement of cash to buy “essential supplies.” The amount of the allotment was never particularly large. By the time of my second term as club president, it amounted to the grand sum of fifty bucks which could only be spent at “Boston-based” vendors.

It wasn’t much, but it was “free” money and we were entitled to it, so the club officers called a meeting to decide how to make the most of it. A few of us lobbied in favor of practicality, picking up some things that would see regular usage by members — dry-erase hex maps, the AD&D second edition core rulebooks, and maybe a casual board/card game or two. The lone dissenter was a kid who demanded we blow the entire sum on the hardback edition of the Shadowrun rulebook.

Personally, I thought Shadowrun was a steaming pile of nonsense aimed at sad souls who couldn’t accept the notion of “cyberpunk” unless it involved elves, orcs, and other comforting trappings of medieval fantasy wank. Its very existence irked me, but I would’ve supported buying a copy of the club if there had been a genuine demand for it by the members.

There wasn’t. The only person who wanted it was the dude who insisted upon buying a copy, a self-proclaimed “cyberpunk” fanboy who wrote find-and-replace fiction inspired by the last geek product he consumed (and would loudly protest “IT’S NOTHING LIKE IT” when someone pointed out his work’s similarities to, say, Highlander or Robot Jox). His demand was overruled by the other officers, who agreed that we should take a more pragmatic approach.

We settled on the Compleat Strategist as the vendor of choice (because Excalibur was in Malden, despite offering better deals) and sent off small contingent of the club with the money and a shopping list to complete the deal.

I should’ve been suspicious when the cyberpunk fanboy volunteered for the job, but figured that the other folks who went with him would prevent any funny business from occuring. I discovered how naive my assumptions were when they came back with a copy of Shadowrun and fuck all else.

Not only did the incident disabuse me of any illusions about leadership role in the club, but it also soured me on the whole concept of “cyberpunk” for years.

Yes, I loved Blade Runner and Max Headroom and Alien, but I never saw them as a distinct subgenre. They were simply “sci-fi,” doing what sci-fi has historically done — incorporating themes and aesthetics extrapolated from contemporary culture. I didn’t see the need to define that stuff through some goofy buzzword, especially one that pitted my defensive punkitude against a bunch of fanboys with feathered hair, patchy ‘staches, and threadbare Rush raglans. Those fires of contempt were further fuelled by the emergence of a “cyberpunk” splinter scene within Boston’s goth/industrial contingent, one helmed by targets of my irrationally tribal disgust.

I was irritated with the club and anything bearing the cyberpunk label. And then Cool Dude showed up.

Cool Dude was another example of the process where some quiet, unassuming social outcast uses a new social circle to build a larger than life persona. I’m familiar with it because I also followed that path, burying the pathetically tragic Andy Weiss beneath the colorful and intimidating punk persona of Otto Erotic. I never got completely over my introspective tendencies, though, preferring instead to mask them with a costume and posture which discouraged socialization from a distance. I was far more interested in cultivating a few close friendships than being a charismatic leadership figure.

Cool Dude, however, lived for the adulation of the crowd, even one as dubious as the Sci-Fi Club’s membership. He was full of epic tales of facing off against five — no TEN big dudes and martial arts classes and all the hot chicks he banged when he was an exchange student in Europe. As far as I could tell, he was a former Catholic school student from Medford and somehow managed to lose one of his front teeth, but he managed to project a blinding “alpha geek” aura. He gave the vicarious-living rank-and-file the personal access and line of bullshit I had refused to offer up. They adored him for it and he reveled in the adoration.

I was more wary of him than envious of the attention he received. The wariness was mutual to some degree, the kind that comes when two charlatans wander onto the community of marks. He scaled back the hyperbolic stories about his “psycho special forces dad” when I mentioned that I, too, had a special forces vet dad who’d spent a stretch in the bughouse. It found it a little creepy when he started dating my ex for a short stretch. It wasn’t possessiveness on my part, because I was in a (superior) relationship with Maura and put that debacle behind me, but it did make me wonder if the Cool Dude’s ultimate plan was to eat my liver and wear my skin.

The thing that really bugged me was the whole cult of personality thing, from both the worshipper and worshipped sides of the relationship. It was so utterly alien to me, pegging one’s self-worth to a grandstander or desiring that kind of needy attention from others. Ironically, my poorly disguised and inarticulately expressed disgust ended up only reinforcing the dynamic by adding a “fuck that hater” foil to the mix.

If that wasn’t enough, the Cool Dude filled the void left by my Warhammer campaign with a flamboyant and much-hyped Cyberpunk 2020 run. The Shadowrun fanboy was one of the first to sign on, naturally, followed by a good portion of the club’s core membership. I even sat in for a session, playing an amnesiac mercenary who woke up one morning in a burned out city bus. It wasn’t really my thing, but I could see why folks flocked to it. As befitting a grandstanding bullshit artist, the Cool Dude knew how to work a crowd and pander to the base.

The campaign was a bigger cauldron of “borrowed” ideas and unchained adolescent male Id (every character except mine had a cyber-peener) than a thirteen year old’s first Rifts run, but the Cool Dude sold it like a pro. It was the type of run where the players would stop the gamesmaster in the hall between sessions to beg for hints about their characters chances to seduce a balloon-bosomed vat grown ninja, and the Cool Dude was happy to lean into that with a few cryptic teasers. (I probably would’ve said “what the fuck is wrong with you” and trotted off to catch up with Maura, which is how things reached this point in the first place.)

In a moment of morbid curiosity (combined with the urge for a little intelligence gathering), I picked up a copy of the Cyberpunk 2020 rules at Pandemonium Books shortly after the Cool Dude’s campaign began. The game shared the same “Interlock System” as R.Talsorian Games’ Mekton RPGs, with a more detailed combat system and the same emphasis on pre-fab melodrama via its “Lifepath” tables.

What really struck me about it, though, was the emphasis — through campaign suggestions and associated bits of fluff — on trying to make a thing out of something that was fairly nebulous and scattershot to begin with. It makes a concerted effort to pin down what “cyberpunk” is, but only really succeeds in reducing it to a handful of cliches punctuated with painful-to-read slang and industrial grade archetypes. Its heart is in the right place, but it suffers from the fannish need to codify while proselytizing. That might be necessary in the context of establishing a workable RPG system, but the end result is a whole lot of thematic panel beating posing as canon.

The absurdity of such a task was highlighted in the rulebook’s list of suggested “cyberpunk” books and movies, which threw everything from John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider to Max Max into the mix. The only real throughline to the selections came from the shitty pot-boilers which were equally guilty of trying to hothouse a subgenre by working the lowest common denominators.

It did convince me to borrow Maura’s first edition Neuromancer paperback (complete with a faded receipt from the Waldenbooks in the Meadow Glen Mall) and give it a shot, so not a total loss.

Stale madeleines

March 27th, 2018

Ready Player One is a set of flash cards elevated into profitability by an audience eager to be pandered to in the most facile manner imaginable. It’s nostalgia at its namedropping laziest. It epitomizes everything I despise about retro-gazing culture, yet there’s a part of me that wonders if that isn’t a little hypocritical on my part.

Back in my teenage years, a pal told me that a “poser” was “any punk that isn’t part of your circle of pals.” While I didn’t want to admit at the time, there was more than a grain of truth to that assessment. Are my recursive retro-ramblings any better than a bald-faced grab for a backwards-leaning brass ring? After all, that fucker got a book and movie deal while I dick around in relative obscurity as content mill fuckers plunder my archives for content. My friends tell me what I do is “different,” which is something I can simultaneously appreciate and dismiss as the type of thing one’s friend’s feel obligated to say.

Nostalgia plays a huge part in my writing, but it’s rarely an end in itself. I fell into the this nonsense after my mother died, leaving a gaping void and an unceasing hunger to make sense of things. My concept of time was already out-of-sync due to the social isolation caused by a dysfunctional family. While my adolescent peers were grooving to Madonna and the Beastie Boys, I lost myself in the flood of Boomer-directed reveries about a mythologized Sixties — Easy Rider and Stax/Volt and The Ventures and the cinematic-sentimental redemption of the Vietnam debacle. (Even when I did get into more contemporary shit — such as Dungeons and Dragons — it tended to be well after its faddish phase had cooled off.)

My embrace of punk rock was just a semi-lateral move, a change in tunes and fashion sense but equally retrograde in nature. Punk was pretty much dead by 1989, but it also was — from my maladjusted perspective — The Last Big Thing. The whole trash-camp aesthetic was written into the scene’s DNA by acts like The Ramones and The Rezillos. Even as the Berlin Wall crumbled and the so-called End of History unfolded, I was walled up in my room listening to decade old chants about nuclear war, Reagan, and hippies.

This anachronistic aimlessness was what drew me to my punk rock pal Leech in college. He, too, was a tragic (and somewhat comedic) case who operated in a backwards-gazing bubble. We shared enough childhood touchstones kindle a common bond, and enough differences to keep things interesting. We fixated on the early Eighties because of the punk thing, because of childhood nostalgia, and because it had become the stuff of damnatio memoriae among the wider popcult scene. (No joke, I had people throw shit at me when I put the first Living in Oblivion comp into the Sci-Fi Club’s boombox.)

Flouting that un-hipness became a mark of pride, whether it involved buying fifty-cent copies of used Duran Duran LPs while the Second Coming clerk sneered at us or slamming back Mello Yello while watching John Hughes flicks on basic cable. It was great fun while it lasted, but eventually ran afoul of our divergent goals. I was seeking an after-the-fact resolution of childhood traumas. Leech was looking for a roadmap to a version of Never-Never Land which conformed to the previous decade’s fantasies (which is why he made an unsuccessful play for Maura inspired by Pretty in Pink).

Even after we went our separate ways, I stayed in that comfortable lane for a good stretch of the Nineties. It wasn’t as if there was much else going on, certainly nothing as enticing as the steady trickle of out-of-print, reissued, or collected media from the dawn of Reagan Era which started to show up on shelves towards the middle of the decade. Why the hell would I care about the Goo Goo Dolls when I could pop Namco Museum into my Playstation and crank up the fifth volume of Just Can’t Get Enough?

I walled myself up in nostalgia to an absurd degree, trying to summon a long-dissipated zeitgeist in vain hope it would somehow heal those old psychic wounds. Looking back, it makes absolutely no sense to think that my pain could be salved though perfectly conceptualizing the world as it existed I remembered at age ten, but sure felt like I was damned close at certain moments. I could feel it just beyond my fingertips, like a curtain I could pull back and achieve retro-apotheosis.

Failing that, I turned toward books, scores upon scores of them pulled from the stacks and read during my ghost town Saturday shifts at the campus library. I pulled them because of subject matter — Eighties television, nuclear war fiction, horror flicks, teen movies, post-WW2 American pop culture — but the critical frameworks they offered were more educational than the specific topics. It was the type of stuff typically covered by fan wank publications, but discussed using the tools and methods associated with “serious” history and literature scholarship.

Even if the writers got some of the details wrong or indulged in critical overreach, just knowing this type of interdisciplinary analysis existed was a mind-blowing concept. “Hey, remember that thing” gave way to “hey, did you realize that thing ties back to this other thing as a part of a longer cultural trend.” Understanding the bigger picture made it easier to place my personal perspectives in context. I got hung up in nostalgia because I was looking for a way to make sense of things, and here was a methodology for doing just that.

It didn’t cure me of that ol’ nostalgic itch, but it helped channel it towards more constructive ends (though your definition of “constructive” may vary from mine). I’ll still chase that quick hit when the urge strikes me, but it’s more interesting to see where it eventually leads. It’s the underbrush that obscures a far more extensive set of ruins to explore. I started reading the Billboard archives because I was curious about the rise of punk rock and the Eighties videogame industry, but ended up dwelling on the legal battles surrounding home video technology and the emergence of the classic rock format as a response to labels pushing “college rock” acts as the “new mainstream.”

Nostalgia lives in the flashy guitar riffs, but the truly significant shit resides in the bassline.

As a result, a lot of the familiar nostalgic touchstones have lost their hold on me. There was a time when I’d drop everything to catch an airing of Ghostbusters or Back to the Future or The Breakfast Club, but now I’m more likely to skip over them unless there’s fuck all else on at the moment. Part of it comes from a sense of familiarity that makes watching it feel redundant, where the only parts that still register a response are the problematic ones. For me, “too much of a good thing” leads to “discovering it’s actually a pretty mediocre one.” I’d rather watch some less familiar shitty knock-off or period obscurity instead.

The same applies to music, comics, and retrogaming. It’s possible to stay rooted in the past without confining oneself to an established canon of artists and offerings, to fixate on the consensually “correct” shit that you’ve experienced countless times already. It’s why I fixated upon K-Tel compilations, as they exist in a particular moment where Devo rubs shoulders with Rick James and REO Speedwagon and revisionist narratives be damned. Would I consider myself a fan of Genesis or the Commodores? Not really, but in the context of the Retro Active collection they fit just fine.

The Proustian concept of nostalgia was defined by small, deeply personal triggers that carried one back to particular moment or flash of sentiment. There’s nothing wrong with that, and sometimes it’s healthy to be periodically reminded of one’s roots or departed loved ones. The current incarnation of nostalgia, however, is less a meditation and more a marketing scheme where one can entomb themself in an echo chamber of perpetually regurgitated IP. It’s not just retrograde, but highly revisionist — based on a selective and reductive interpretation of the past which omits crucial (and discomforting) details as a shoddy form of insulation against an uncertain present and future. In doing so, it encourages a host of ugly behaviors — from defending problematic parts of revered icons to obnoxious gatekeeping.

That shit didn’t save the world when it was new. It’s not going to do jack now.

Back to Wax #15: Draw blood

March 26th, 2018

When I started getting back in the habit of buying records again, I shot my pal-slash-occasional-collaborator Daniel Butler a short list of albums to keep an eye out for at the place where he works.

None of my requests were in stock at the time, though he did send me a copy of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass as a Christmas present and followed it up a few months later with another much-coveted selection…

…Warren Zevon’s 1978 LP, Excitable Boy.

(By the way, Daniel has just released a nifty new digital comic story with Adam Prosser titled Nightbeach you should immediately buy. It’s only 99 cents, so there no excuse.)

I got onto a Zevon kick a few years back, when his sardonic weariness and idiosyncratic subject material managed to bypass my deep-seated aversion to Seventies singer-songwriter set. “Werewolves of London” — the “dumb song for smart people” which has overshadowed Zevon’s wider body of work — was the key.

A six year old kid may not respond to odes to depression and diminished expectations sung by some Malibu-dwelling neo-folkie, but rampaging lycanthropes are something he could (and I did) get behind when the oh-so-familiar opening kicked in after a long block of James Taylor and Poco cuts on my parents’ stereo. Forget fire and rain, give me soft rock with a fangs, claws and a body count.

“Werewolves” aside, it took a couple of decades before I was able to get past Zevon’s connections to the rest of the coked-out SoCal Seventies rock crowd, drop my puritanical biases, and delve deeper into his discography. There were countless treasure to be found in there, but I took a particular shine to his eponymous 1976 album and Excitable Boy. There’s a joyously off-kilter vibe to both, which reminded me a lot of what Nick Lowe was doing in the context of the UK’s “pub rock” scene — spiking easy sentimentality with subtle yet mordant vemom.

It especially comes through on Excitable Boy, where the retro-rocking titular track manages to accomplish more in three minutes than American Psycho did in four hundred pages. (The “joke” premise of the song has also assumed additional relevance in an age where the bias-driven distinction between “terrorist/thug” and “troubled kid” has been vociferously called into question.) The song is bookended by two other slices of the melodically macabre — the mercenary ghost story of “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” and the happy hour horrorshow of “Werewolves of London.”

Beyond the brush war hauntings of “Roland,” the specter of geo-political nightmares raises its non-supernatural (but no less terrifying) head in both “Vera Cruz” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Even the more traditionally themed cuts on the album — love songs, introspective reveries, and a dance track — are delivered with a sense of world-weariness both comforting and slightly unsettling.

Excitable Boy is very much a “me time” spin, ideally on a weekend afternoon during the chilly season while Maura is out running errands. Drop the needle on side one, flop back on the sofa with a book, a warm throw, and (in a few minutes time) a living blanket of animals, and let the magic wash over my semi-dozing self.

Except for when “Werewolves of London” come on, because I have to sing the “AHH-WHOO” parts to the Rock Stupid Puppy while he tries to lick my face.

The end of my Warhammer campaign also marked the end of my direct involvement in Sci-Fi Club business. I still held on to the presidency to prevent some other joker using it as a bully pulpit, but I grew less interested in the day-to-day goings-on within the org’s social circle.

As much as I enjoyed the ego boost associated with a leadership position, I never particularly wanted to be the “alpha” for a bunch of geeks. Unfortunately, the club’s dynamics mandated such a role. I tried to channel that into a less basement-scented direction, but only lasted a couple of weeks before doing my own thing — first in the company of the Ione Skye lookalike and then with Maura. The only unifying force I continued to offer was the Warhammer run. When it ended, the club’s membership reconfigured itself to reflect the changing membership, internal factions, and the type of drama geeks get into if left unsupervised. (Drama that I was more than willing to stoke for my own amusement, I regret to admit.)

I still retained close friendships with individuals, though I had little time for the organization as a whole. One of these was with a goateed Army vet named Mike. I met him during the trainwreck of a D&D campaign that mutated — after a bloodless coup — into my initial Sci-Fi Club WFRP campaign, where his Zen-like calm and bizarre sense of humor had been a constant (and stabilizing) presence.

Mike would’ve been a better club president than I ever was, but he preferred to stay above the org’s internal politics and do his own thing. He was also a man of action, which set him apart from the typical “could’ve/should’ve/ought’ve” bullshitting common to the geek set. Someone would mention that there was a bungee jumping thing going on at City Hall Plaza, and the next day Mike would show up the next day wearing a “I MADE THE LEAP” t-shirt and a smirk on his face. Over the years I’ve gotten used to the weird postcards from Mayan ruins and photos of underwater caves in Yucatan he periodically sends my way, but back then his eagerness to seize the moment was unlike anything I’d encountered before.

When something caught Mike’s attention, he’d dive into it in a way that was both understated yet infectious. He wasn’t evangelical about it, but would eagerly discuss the subject with anyone who happened to share his enthusiasm. For some reason, his interest turned toward the realm of “giant robo” anime between late 1992 and early 1993. Because he knew it was something I was into, I became his discussion partner on the subject and agreed to lend him my copy of the Mekton II rulebook.

I was hoping that this would eventually lead to Mike helming an anime-themed campaign, but his plans were much more modest. Instead of a full RPG run, the two of us created pilot characters and some low weight class mechs to run short gladiatorial battles against each other on the club’s dry-erase hex mats. It was a lot of fun, especially because Mike insisted we do our own sound effects, and a great way to pass the time between the final class of the afternoon and the next bus back to Woburn.

It did leave me wanting a bit more, however. Since Mike didn’t have the time or inclination for that, I took it upon myself. Plus I was eager to put my latest RPG acquisition –

– the Mekton Techbook to practical use.

The sideways printed sourcebook was created to flesh out Mekton II‘s adequate-but-limited mech construction rules in a way that covered all permutations of the animated source materials. The result was an incredibly comprehensive and detailed tome which covered everything from psy-amplifiers to disposable “command armor” to transformable/combinable engines of mechanized destruction. Each system was introduced by a couple of paragraphs of Gundam inspired fanfic and the back end of the book included a roster of sample machines “inspired” by the technical sections of Japanese “mook” publications.

From a fan’s standpoint, it was utterly sublime. For someone who had to create and referee that stuff around a gaming table, it was the stuff of stat-crunching nightmares. It took a system that was fairly straightforward and turned it into something approaching Champions levels of algebraic complexity. (Somewhere around the turn on the millennium, the two systems did actually merge for a while, pleasing no one.)

It didn’t help that my idea for the campaign was a Gundam-inspired space opera epic involving massed battles and far more moving parts than my brain could ever hope to manage. I knew this was the case going in, and tried to mitigate things by relying on prepared photocopy roster sheets with enemy mechs pulled right from the book’s examples section. No advance planning, though, could deal with the amount of work involved with even running a “simple” 4-v-4 skirmish with cookie-cutter suits and some ambivalent players pulled in from old my Warhammer group (but not Mike, oddly enough).

Our first session wasn’t a complete disaster. The players were okay with it and I was able to fudge away some of the more onerous bits, but it didn’t click for me in the slightest. My original conception for the run was fast-and-furious mecha melodrama, but what played out was watching a fansubbed episode of Macross run at quarter speed. I couldn’t figure out a way to reconcile that disconnect, so I decided to shelve the campaign after the first adventure. (Knowing what I know now, I would’ve probably went with either a Getter Robo mech-monster-of-the-week or a low-weight/limited armament Robotech: New Generation scenario instead.)

Despite all this, the Mekton Techbook remains a thing of wonder. I stopped being an active participant in the RPG scene long ago, but just cracking open that sourcebook will send my down a rabbit hole of mecha design and optimal loadouts and reverse-engineered re-creations that can last for weeks on end…

…as long I don’t entertain serious thoughts about putting them to use around a gaming table, that is.

Due to some weird quirk of my former high school’s scheduling software, the third period AP English class was standing room only while the sixth period one featured a grand total of five students. I lucked into the latter section, which was less of a class than an conversational bullshit session for college credit.

The teacher was an Irish ex-Marine who had been a notorious hardass when my dad as a student, but had since mellowed into a staunchly humanist liberal. I don’t know what caused that transformation, though I’ve wondered if it was a crisis of conscience over whether his old “gung ho” attitude led to some his former charges getting their names added to the small memorial marker on the edge of Woburn Common. In any case, he was a real soft touch who treated this fluke of enrollment as an opportunity to establish a genuine sense of rapport with each and every one of us in the class.

It did get a little weird and uncomfortable at times, like when he launched into an impassioned speech about Raskolnikov’s inner struggle between genuine feeling and affected alienation while staring directly at me. But he was also the man who taught me to appreciate The Great Gatsby and allowed me to blow off a ten page paper after my grandfather died. He was a good man. I wouldn’t say he inspired me to any loftier goals, but I was glad we crossed paths.

Among the students in the class, there was a low-key “Breakfast Club” dynamic going on — a handful of kids from different cliques and circles who wouldn’t have normally socialized with each other but became close within the confines of that one classroom. I spent most of my time chatting with a tough-as-nails glam metal chick from East Woburn and a Drama Club lass (complete with funky hat and a plastic flower pinned to it) who was a friend of another girl I’d briefly dated.

Mostly we just talked the kind of crap that teens talk when they don’t want to do schoolwork, but a few weeks into the semester the Drama Club lass asked if I was interested in going to a Pogues concert with her at the Opera House in Boston. The person who was supposed to attend the show with her had backed out for whatever reason, and her mother didn’t want her going into the city at night alone.

As absurd as it sounds (even to me), I had acquired a weird reputation for being streetwise about the perils white suburbanites projected upon Boston. I’m pretty sure the alpha and omega of it was because I frequently took the bus into the city to spend time with my father in South Boston. Whenever Johnnie or Janey Ranch-Home needed a protective “plus one,” my name was at the top of the list.

I didn’t know who or what the Pogues were at the time. The Drama Club lass explained them as “kinda, like, Irish music but also, like, punk and all the songs are about getting drunk and stuff?” Honestly, I didn’t really give a shit about the specifics. A girl had asked me out and all other details were trivial by comparison.

The show was great. I even enjoyed the opening set by punker-turned-folkie Phranc, despite it being astronomically distant from my hardcore/thrash metal wheelhouse. (I only found out a few months ago that future friend Jack Feerick was also in attendance that night.)

Awareness of ethnicity wasn’t really a thing for me growing up. While my North Woburn pals embraced their Irish and/or Italian heritage in various ways, the closest thing I had to that stuff was painted wooden horses and the occasional nauseating dinner handed down from my older Swedish relatives. My maternal grandmother was the daughter of Irish immigrants, but of the prim and anti-Papist orange variety. For her, Ireland was about glassware and Darby O’Gill and that fucking unicorn song.

The Pogues, though, were absolutely feral. There weren’t lace curtain tenors or mannered rusticism there, just the primordial pulse of an ancient song that veers manically between tragedy and celebration. Nothing since The Clash’s first album had grabbed me as forcefully and emphatically by the shorthairs as the Pogues did. Being introduced to them through a live performance only amplified the effect. I left the Opera House partially deafened and a fan for life.

The next time I hit the Newbury Comics store in Burlington, I picked up the cheapest (because I was poor) Pogues offering they had on the rack — a cassette copy of the band’s 1984 debut Red Roses For Me which had the same weird manure reek all Enigma tapes had.

Over the next few months, I obtained the rest of the band’s discography to date. The later albums were enjoyable, but plagued with a sense of diminishing returns and directionless drift that sent me back for another round with their first album. There’s a proof-of-concept purity to it that sets it apart from their later and more ambitious efforts — a Class of ’77 punk fanboy and crew directing that scene’s fierce energy into the realm of traditional Irish “folk” (as in “of the people”) music.

No disrespect to Rum Sodomy and the Lash or If I Should Fall From Grace With God, but Red Roses for Me is the Pogues album I’d take to a desert island with me.

I lent my original copy of the tape to the Drama Club lass, who never returned it. It was two years before I found a replacement copy at Planet Records in Kenmore Square, which itself was replaced by an expanded import CD version purchased at Newbury Comics in Harvard Square. The LP reissue was a birthday gift from Maura last year, and arrived just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

Weirdly enough, I used to have a mad crush on Cait O’Riordan — especially how she looked on the Red Roses for Me album cover — and then a year and a half later I met Maura who could’ve been her doppelganger. One of our earliest topics of discussion (besides anime) was a shared love of The Pogues.

And I never did

March 15th, 2018

The first Toys R Us I ever visited was the one at the North Shore Mall.

The mall also housed the only barbershop my grandfather trusted to cut his hair. On the third Saturday of the month, he’d load himself, my grandmother, Lil Bro and me into his oversized tan Chevy and make the long swear-filled journey up Route 128 to tame his jet black mane while the rest of us did some shopping in Peabody’s exotic temple of commerce. My grandmother preferred to stick to J.J. Newberry’s, whose basement toy department was a Sargasso Sea where Major Matt Mason accessory packs and Wonder Woman Presto Magix sets collected dust alongside other oddies of unsold inventory from the previous two decades.

Eventually, through the power of incessant pleading, we convinced her to take us into the Toys R Us store across the concourse. I was twelve at the time, and a little long in the tooth when it came to plastic playthings, but the place still filled me with awe. An entire aisle dedicated floor-to-ceiling to Star Wars merchandise. Massive endcaps devoted to Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe figures. A long wall of videogame cartridge boxes sealed behind plexiglass and purchasable through tear-off tags redeemed at a booth near the store’s entrance.

It put the anemic toy aisles at Bradlees and Zayres to shame. I was so bedazzled by the sheer volume of stuff that I equivocated about what to spend my grandpa-allotted five dollars on, but finally settled on the freshly racked Blowtorch and Mutt figures and used some on my own scraped-together pocket money for a deeply discounted copy of Vanguard for the Atari 2600.

After my grandfather found an acceptable barber closer to home, Lil Bro and I would cajole our grandmother to take us to the Toys R Us at the Woburn Plaza, across from the Osco Drug (now a Rite-Aid transitioning into a Walgreens) and Star Market (now a Whole Foods). My grandmother wasn’t thrilled about making the trip, because it involved passing through the nightmarish “Four Corners” intersection on the West Side, but its proximity to the local KFC made end-runs possible through my extra-crispy bucket-lovin’ grandpa.

On one of these visits, I was heading to the booth to pick up a 2600 Time Pilot cartridge when I tripped over a rope barrier set up to segregate the throng of Cabbage Patch Kid seekers from the general population. I landed hard on my kneecaps, kicking off the long and painful degenerative process that plagues that part of my body to the present day.

When I lucked into a geeky circle of pals in junior high, we’d make the trek to the Toys R Us on our bikes. The easiest and safest route involved cutting through the conservation area around Horn Pond (“Hahn Pahn”) and approaching the plaza through an slightly marshy area behind the store itself. We had to adjust that after the city erected a small dam at the pond’s outflow stream and raised the water level by six feet. We only found out about it after we screamed down the slope next to the marsh and found ourselves and our bikes mired in thigh-deep murk.

My first copy of Dungeon & Dragons Basic Set came from the Osco next door, but the ever-shrinking RPG display at Toys R Us was where I picked up my copies of Oriental Adventures, Unearthed Arcana, and The Temple of Elemental Evil.

I bought my Sega Master System at Toys R Us with Christmas tips from my paper route in 1986. I bought my Nintendo Entertainment System there (and a copy of Metal Gear) in 1989 with money made from working split shifts at the hospital. I blew most of my high school graduation gift money on a Sega Genesis there in the summer of 1990. It was also where Maura bought the Sega Saturn she gave me for Christmas in 1996 and where I bought my first Playstation and a copy of Persona: Revelations to celebrate landing my first steady “grown-up” job in 1997. When my grandmother was in the rehab facility next to the plaza in 2002, I swung by Toys R Us and bought a Gamecube and Metroid Prime on a whim.

Toys R Us was a regular stop during the years I hung out with my geek-pal Damian, where he would infuriate me by staring at the videogame section for an hour hoping something new and exciting would magically manifest. When rumors emerged about some hot new game hitting the shelves, I would ride there solo from the hospital after work in hopes of scoring the last copy and driving Damian mad with jealousy. (That was the case with the first Zillion game.)

One of my favorite articles of pre-punk clothing was red and white striped button-down shirt from L.L. Bean I found at Filene’s Basement. Every single time I visited Toys R Us while wearing it, some harried looking mom would ask for my opinion on some plaything or to pull something down for her from a high shelf. It always ended the same way, with an embarrassed “I thought you worked here” while gesturing at my shirt. Lil Bro and I had a similar thing happen a decade later when we cut out of my great aunt’s funeral and went — still dressed in our dark suits — to browse the store’s videogame section. From mistaken for a stockboy to mistaken for an executive — who says the American dream is dead?

After cashing my first excess check from my college scholarship, I went to Toys R Us and bought Herzog Zwei for the Genesis and Mission Impossible for the NES with a portion of that unexpected windfall.

I was on a first name basis with some of the staff there from the late Nineties up through the first couple of years of the new millennium, due to my weekly visits to check out the new videogame releases and pick up some interesting doll or action figure for Maura’s collection. I scaled back those trips after we got married and other priorities emerged, but Toys R Us remained the final stop on our “pizza and comics” dates at the (now shuttered) Papa Ginos in the plaza.

It may be ideologically suspect to get sentimental over the demise of a retail corporation, but it’s still truly bizarre that such a prominent entity in my life since the early Eighties is going to simply cease to be. The abrupt redaction of all things familiar and comforting has been my least favorite part of hitting middle age.

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