Armagideon Time

Journalists and marketers love to emphasize generational tags for their own nefarious (or just plain lazy) purposes, but blanket descriptors such as “boomers” or “millennials” tend to be a whole lot of hogwash.

At best, these designations are useful in the way terms like “new wave” or “electronica” are useful — a handy little bit of shorthand to get the gist across in cases where nuanced breakdowns aren’t required. They’re simply not equipped to bear close scrutiny, no matter how desperately some folks want them to be.

I’m technically a middle-phase Gen X’er, old enough to have clear memories of much of the Seventies but young enough to have gotten into shit like Transformers and G.I. Joe. While I might share some historic or cultural touchstones with, say, a black woman from Chicago’s South Side or gay Latino from LA County who were also born in 1972, it’s absurd to ascribe any but the most general assumptions about our experiences and aspirations. “Gen X” is just a median derived from a vast pool of individuals.

Even though I fit the media-scripted Gen X stereotype — scruffy, alt-cult leaning, retro-obsessed, slacker mindset — in many ways, I never considered myself part of any larger demographic organism. I hated the folks in my peer group who leaned bought into the generalization. As a punk rocker, I was a willful anachronism. When that bastion was breached, I quit the field entirely rather than be associated with that image.

Most of stuff I appreciate about the Nineties was an after-the-fact deal, looking back from the new millennium and thinking “yeah, maybe that wasn’t so terrible.”

Going back over the archived record of the era has been a mixed experience for me, where remnants of knee-jerk disdain war with sentiments of nostalgic melancholy. The familiar feels contemptible while the unfamiliar might as well be the undeciphered transmissions from long-dead alien civilization. Nowhere was that as acutely felt than when I was going over the results of the Readers’ Poll published in the June 1992 issue of SPIN.

The results are a wealth of damning embarrassments, but none as damning or embarrassing as the “most racist” results. David Duke was an easy shoe-in, but do you notice…something….about the three runners up? In a year when Pat Buchanan was running for president and Daryl Gates was in charge of the LAPD and Jesse Helms held a senate seat?

It doesn’t shock me, because I remember this shit unfolding on the streets and in the campus hallways and around the family dinner tables. It was the test environment (or untreated canker) from which the current hyper-virulent strain of the “white persecution” myth sprung. Seeing it in print, from the present vantage point and with the benefit of hindsight, is just a reminder of how complicit the white segment of my generation has been in the process, no matter how hip or enlightened or ironic we thought were were.

A Many-Splendored Thing: Day 16

February 16th, 2018

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The close triumvirate of Leech, Maura, and me remained tight up until the final week of the Spring 1992 semester. There were plenty of signs that things were leading up to a regrettable outcome, but most were only clear in hindsight.

As Maura and I grew closer, Leech’s role transitioned from useful buffer to third wheel. It’s a shitty position to be in, but one he exacerbated by his deliberate obtuseness when it came to Maura and I wanting along time as a couple. We didn’t shut him out or push him away, and still spent an ungodly amount of time palling around on afternoons and weekends, yet he reacted to things by getting clingy to the point of creepiness.

Maura bore the brunt of these behaviors, where Leech would seek her out at times I wasn’t around and staging it to look like an accidental crossing of paths. Maura found it irritating but also pathetic and fairly harmless. I started to have other ideas about what was happening after I went to catch my bus home at Alewife Station and ran into Leech hanging around the concourse fifteen minutes before Maura’s shift ended at a hotel a few blocks away. He claimed he was waiting for me, but his nervous sputtering and expression of terror suggested otherwise. I made a point of sticking around until Maura passed through and saw her off on her train, sans Leech.

That incident (and the fact the three of us watched Pretty in Pink on cable a couple days before) spooked Leech into taking decisive action — by showing up on Maura’s doorstep unannounced a few nights later to profess his love for her. She shot him down, then had her sister give him a ride back to the nearest subway stop. She held off on telling me about it until after my last final, to make sure I didn’t wreck my GPA any more than I already had.

I actually found out from Leech himself, when he showed up at the club room after an unexplained-to-me absence. He had “something important to tell me,” so we stepped into the stairwell opposite the club entrance. I grabbed him by the lapels of his leather jacket and slammed him into the wall when he told me what happened. He started to blubber like a baby, looking so useless and pathetic that I let him go and told him to leave.

“You should’ve socked him a few times,” my dad told me.

“But he was crying his eyes out.”

Especially then, because that’s when the message will stick.”

To be honest, I was more concerned with finding Maura and hearing her account of things. She was more disgusted than angry, and thus the fabled trio was dissolved.

With Leech out of my life and Damian off doing his own (LARP-ing) thing, my summer schedule was suddenly wide open. I needed something to do during the long hours when Maura was working or otherwise occupied, and playing videogames in one’s underpants while sitting in front a rotating fan loses its charm after a couple of hundred hours. Lacking anything better to do, I decided to run another Warhammer campaign. All the principal players from my previous run signed on, alongside Lil Bro and a kid named Sham Li who brought a fresh sense of energy and humor to the mix.

Most of the characters they rolled with were cosmetic variations of their previous ones. That was fine by me, since it let me salvage unused scenario ideas and hooks I had left over from the last campaign. The only adjustment I made was to bring the risks and rewards down to a more system-appropriate level. My indulgent approach was the major reason the previous campaign stagnated toward the end, and I wanted to avoid that this time around.

And then I made the unfortunate decision to run the group through the official Lichemaster campaign supplement.

The extended adventure was based on a popular Warhammer Fantasy Battle wargaming scenario, and that pedigree and sense of name recognition blinded me to some critical issues with its RPG adaptation.

The premise was fine — an ancient undead necromancer threatening a monastery and small community tucked away in a mountainous border province — but the scaling and rewards granted were utterly gamebreaking by the standards presented in the official rulebook. It did the very un-Warhammer thing of stating fixed rewards for specific actions, instead of leaving it to the gamemaster to decide. I would have jettisoned it from the start if I’d been smarter, but I foolishly assumed the adventure’s designers knew what the hell they were doing.

The group were mild experienced adventures in their starting careers and (in keeping with tradition) completely botched the entire thing from beginning to end. Potential allies were snubbed, advantages discarded, and the places they’d been enlisted to protect were reduced to smoking ruins. (The Lichemaster had ample fresh material for his dark magicks to reanimate, at least.)

The adventure was an utter failure, yet by the standards laid down in the sourcebook, netted the players enough experience to become high-powered veterans. The usual reward for an evening’s work ran somewhere in the 100 to 250 experience points range, enough to buy one or two characteristic advances or skills. Lichemaster gave out 1000 for three hours of non-stop fuck-ups. Even the players’ thrill about the absurd windfall was tinged with the regret of a five year old who just polished off an entire package of Oreos.

They barely protested when I suggested everyone roll up a new batch of characters for a fresh re-start.

A Many-Splendored Thing: Day 15

February 15th, 2018

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A Many-Splendored Thing: Day 14

February 14th, 2018

Recommended listening:

A Many-Splendored Thing: Day 13

February 13th, 2018

Recommended listening:

Marshmallows in the morning

February 13th, 2018

We live in an age where, for better or worse, decades worth of popcult flotsam can be revisited with a quick internet search.

That weird PSA you remember from grade school? The public television edu-program you watched while home sick from school? Some power pop song that was a regional hit for all of five minutes in 1980? All summonable with a few keywords and a little effort.

It’s a far cry from pre-millennium times, when some stray splinter of memory would remain lodged in your skull for decades with little chance for clarification. The best you could hope for was finding someone similarly afflicted to share notes with, and even then the individual errors and embellishments introduced over time would only result in further muddying the waters. Mostly, you’d just spend fruitless years asking folks if they recalled “that thing, you know THAT THING WITH THE THING” until the litany of confused stares made you wonder if you’d been imagining its existence all along.

Even in this era of archived retrological excess, however, some mysteries do remain. I’ve never been able to suss out the name of the short-lived Facts of Life rip-off about a girls’ boarding school that decided to go co-ed, or find a copy of the Lost in Space themed punk single that used to play on local college radio circa 1990, or locate a digital rip of a truly bizarre GI Joe story-on-tape thing Lil Bro used to have when we were kids.

Every so often, I’ll take another look around for answers on these fronts, but more out of boredom than any hope of closure. It’s not as if the fate of the world depends on learning the truth, just a whiff of residual nostalgia and another useless factoid to file away. I’ve learned to accept that some things are simply lost to time and hazy memory.

And then, sometimes, Lil Bro texts a link with zero context on a Sunday afternoon, and another piece falls into place.

Lil Bro got the “Listen ‘n’ Fun” set as a birthday gift from one of our aunts. He was more interested in the Tripwire figure (whose garish re-deco would’ve been ideal for stealth missions in the warehouse where Cobra stored its traffic cones) than the tape which came with it. The cassette sat unplayed for a good while before we worked up the courage to listen to it — a decision we initially regretted but eventually grew to celebrate.

The cheapjack oddness and over-the-top voice acting became an inside joke between us that lasted up through the present day. The tape was one of the handful of items that managed to survive the upheaval following my mother’s death. It survived long enough to terrorize my brother’s high school friends and some of my college pals. I was absolutely convinced it was supernaturally indestructible right up until the moment it mysteriously vanished during the late Nineties.

Years passed, and the frequency of our references to it diminished. On the few occasions it did come to mind, I wondered if it was as truly dire as I remembered it being.

I made it fifteen seconds into the clip before realizing it was even worse.

A Many-Splendored Thing: Day 12

February 12th, 2018

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Back to Wax #10: Twinkle twinkle

February 12th, 2018

I got into the Throwing Muses because I was sweet on a girl in high school who was a fan of the band. Though it turned out her fandom began and ended with a copy of Hunkpapa she picked up on the recommendation of some music rag, my interest in the band managed to outlive both this revelation and the crush that originally inspired it.

The Muses (along with King Missile, the Darling Buds, Shonen Knife, and Carter USM) became part of the pantheon of outlier acts I remained devoted to even during the depths of my hardcore punk phase. The mix of surreal lyrics, creepy guitar pop, and female vocalists was compelling enough to stifle any misgivings about “excess artiness.”

I stayed faithful up until my late 1991 break-up with an art student who was also a fan of the band, and thus poisoned that well by unfortunate association. I removed their tapes from my library, gave my copy of the House Tornado CD to my pal Leech, and did my best to put them out of my mind entirely.

That willful suppression managed to stay in place until the beginning of 1993, when Maura and I were visiting one of her friends who worked at a hip boutique in Harvard Square. A new-yet-somehow-familiar song started playing on the store’s PA system. I mentioned how it reminded me a little of the Throwing Muses and Maura’s friend informed me that it was a new act named “Bellystar or something” fronted by “that other blonde girl” who was in the band.

Considering “that other blonde girl” was Tanya Donelly — the person responsible for several of my favorite Throwing Muses tracks — my curiosity was piqued enough form me to run around the corner and pick up a cassette copy of Belly’s debut album Star at Newbury Comics.

It did not disappoint in the slightest. Not only was it free of the ugly memories that had soured me on the Muses, but it channeled their esoteric weirdness into hauntingly ethereal directions. It wasn’t so much “dream pop” as “fever dream pop,” a honey-coated heart of darkness that still gives me gooseflesh a quarter century and countless plays later. That type of dichotomy isn’t uncommon in pop music, but it’s rare to find it so free of affectation as comes across in Belly’s material.

The album became the unofficial soundtrack for the first half of 1993, and certain stretches of the years following. I will forever associate “Full Moon, Empty Heart” with waiting for a bus at Copley Square and fiddling with the purple John Lennon glasses I wore to deal with the light sensitivity I got after switching to contact lenses for a year. I can’t listen to “Stay” without remembering a teary-eyed Maura asking me to turn it off after one of her pet bunnies passed away.

No other album is as intimately wrapped up in so many moments of my life as Star is, masking it an easy inclusion on the “essentials list.” Though it got only a token import vinyl release in 1993, I managed to snag a slightly more affordable double LP reissue (on “marbled white vinyl” because it’s all about the music, man). It’s a bit of a hassle to get up and flip sides or switch records after every two songs, but one I’ll bear for this particular slice of melancholy magic.

A Many-Splendored Thing: Day 11

February 11th, 2018

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