04 May 2012

Dropping Science Like Galileo Dropped the Orange: Personal Reflections on the Beastie Boys in Honor of Adam Yauch

To me, the Beastie Boys will always be the coolest band of all time. From their arrival as farcical frat boys on their drunken debut album Licensed to Ill, to the mash-up madness of their masterpiece Paul's Boutique, and the subsequent stylistic reinventions found on albums like Check Your Head and Ill Communication, the Beastie Boys were always one step ahead of the rest of us. Even when they stopped caring about being cool, around the time they appeared stuffed inside a sardine can on the cover of 1998's Hello Nasty, they became cooler for not being cool. Or something like that. And last year's triumphant return with the phenomenal Hot Sauce Committee Part II confirmed that whether they were busy playing pranks, punk rock, or basketball; whether they were fighting for human and/or party rights, or just sticking their dicks in the mashed potatoes; the Beastie Boys were always the coolest guys around. With the death of Adam Yauch today from cancer at the young age of 47, the world lost a major part of its awesomeness.

I always thought that Adam Yauch, whose nom de Beastie was MCA, would have made a fascinating subject for a well-researched biography or in-depth documentary. Yauch was the member of the group that went on the most transformative of personal journeys over his quarter century in the spotlight. Mike D has and always will be the goofball, while Ad-Rock was both the pin-up prankster as well as the most gifted musician, but Yauch started out as the aggressive one, a young man who was angry and confused, who took drugs and carried guns, only to find himself later in life won over by Buddhism, a lifestyle which saw him blossom into a peaceful, loving vegan. Through the years he would come to take on the roles of activist, filmmaker, and producer, all while continuing to push his music into wonderful new territories.

Obituaries will abound in the next several days and my goal is not to sum up a life but to show how much impact it had on one. I've known the Beastie Boys' music since before I was cognizant. Thanks to my older brother Shawn (who indoctrinated my toddler self into Star Wars as well) I was practically born into the Beastie Boys. One of my earliest memories comes from when I was five or six and living in Fresno, California. I remember lying on Shawn's bed with his big grey boom box nearby, cranking Licensed to Ill and... taking a nap. Ah the soothing lullaby of "No Sleep Til Brooklyn".

Also around this time I remember seeing an article in the Fresno Bee about the Beastie Boys coming to town on their worldwide Licensed to Ill tour. I don't know if Shawn made it to that show or not, nor do I remember anything pertinent in the article since I could barely read, but I remember the picture of the Beastie Boys so well. They were standing on a street corner that later in life I realized must have been some grimy spot in Brooklyn, but at the time I thought was taken right there in Fresno. How else could it have made it into the Bee? Who knows how accurate these memories are a quarter century removed from their occurrence. All I know is that I've carried them around all my life. For some reason they stuck.

A decade or so later, when I was first becoming interested in music myself, as opposed to aping the tastes of my hip older brother, I got hooked on the Beasties' 1994 album Ill Communication which spawned the massive hit "Sabotage" and subsequently the greatest video of all time. My first day of high school happened to fall on my 13th birthday and I wore my brand new Ill Communication ringer tee-shirt to commemorate. My father proudly took a photo of me wearing the shirt before I left for school that morning. I wonder where that photo is now...

My friend Mike Braida owned the VHS copies of the Beastie home videos, Skills to Pay the Bills and Sabotage (as well as a kick ass ABA/Aloha Mr. Hand shirt he got at Tower Records). We were really into skateboarding at the time and I remember freeze-framing the skate footage the Beasties edited in all afternoon long. I was really into hardcore too, mostly early Black Flag and Minor Threat, and I would play the hell out of songs like "Heart Attack Man" on my Walkman while skating the 7-11. To me, one of the greatest Beastie Boy records is the one-off Aglio e Olio EP which was released prior to Hello Nasty. It's eight punk rock songs in eleven minutes. My younger brother Christopher, who probably loves the Beasties most of all, hated it. He sold it to me for a $1.

I've always said that my mother, who passed away from cancer ten years ago this summer, heard Licensed to Ill more than anyone in our family because she had three sons who all went through their own personal Beastie Boys phases. I bet she could've completed the "Paul Revere" couplets my brothers and I whiled away car trips reciting. Once she and I were driving around our suburb of a suburb in her silver Subaru Loyale, listening to the Beasties, and she came to the realization that the Beastie Boys' style is basically that of nursery rhymes. She was very excited by this revelation and subsequently told my older brother. He was skeptical.

In the summer of 1998, my mom took me and my friend Mike up to visit my aunt in Seattle. (While there we saw a film at the theatre I would end up working at six years later, which coincidentally also left us this week.) Hello Nasty had been released earlier in the month and every record store Mike and I went into, or bar we passed, or car that stopped, was bumping that album. The release of Beastie Boys albums were massive cultural moments. The whole world would eagerly anticipate the Boys' latest transmission and upon release would thoroughly comb through its beats and rhymes for new catchphrases, jokes, and insight. The world has now lost a piece of that unity and while I hope that Mike D and Ad-Rock continue to make music and art, the Beastie Boys are no more. They gave us all a towering collection of songs, slang, and style, and for some of us they gave even more. They were there throughout our lives, commenting on and reflecting our world back at us.

Farewell MCA. Thanks for everything.

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