What's running through my mind comes through in my walk/ True feelings are shown from the way that I talk. — Beastie Boys, "Pass the Mic," Check Your Head, 1992
Let me just say this, right off the bat: I am tired of penning tributes to pop stars who have died way too young. This is the third time in 2012 that I'm writing of the death of a musician whose path crossed mine in very real and significant ways. Each time, the musician in question has been just a little bit closer to my heart.
In February, I wrote of my identification with Whitney Houston's struggles with addiction. Just 18 days ago, I paid tribute to Levon Helm, who died last month; he was a childhood hero and a big inspiration on a book I wrote about Southern music and culture. And today, after agonizing over the weekend about what I might say, I'm looking back at Adam Yauch, who was one-third of one of the most important groups of the modern pop-music era: the Beastie Boys.
Yauch died Friday at 47. No cause of death has been announced, but he had battled cancer since 2009. (Update: sources have since confirmed cancer was the cause of death.)
In truth, I didn't know Yauch from Adam, although in 1994 I got to know his band mate, Mike D., pretty well for a short time. Mike wrote a review of A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders for Option, an L.A.-based magazine I edited in the early '90s. He also was part of a cover story we published called the Sonic-Beastie connection, in which I had Mike and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore interview each other. During that time, Mike would do things like drop by my house to deliver a not-yet-completed version of the Beasties' Ill Communication to my then-girlfriend, who also wrote about music. I talked to him a lot back then — about T-shirts, Sun Ra records, about the Beasties' new fanzine, fashion line and record label Grand Royal. But I never ran into Yauch. He seemed quiet and elusive, although he may not have been. I wouldn't know. If this were a tribute to Mike D., my words and feelings would flow like soy milk.
And it is, in a way, as Mike himself seems to have had a hard time coming up with words to express his feelings over the past few days. "I know, we should have tweeted and instagrammed every sad, happy and inspired thought, smile or tear by now," Mike wrote Monday on Facebook. "But honestly the last few days have just been a blur of deep emotions for our closest friend, band mate and really brother. I miss Adam so much."
What this is, then, is a tribute to the Beastie Boys. After all, when we lose someone we love, it's the survivors our hearts go out to. They are the ones who are suffering the most. When I think of Yauch's authentic devotion to Buddhism, I'm convinced he's doing just fine now. He's at peace. Mike and third Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz — I suspect they're not doing so well. They all grew up together. They were buds. I can only imagine the pain they're in right now — it must, in some way, feel similar to how I felt when my 25-year-old nephew died two years ago. And that feeling sucked.
Born and bred in Brooklyn, the U.S.A./ They call me Adam Yauch but I'm M.C.A./ Like a lemon to a lime a lime to a lemon/ I sip the def ale with all the fly women. — "No Sleep Til Brooklyn," Licensed to Ill, 1986
The Beastie Boys were not supposed to get old, much less die. Their whole shtick, at least in the early days, was about being terminal juvenile delinquents, beginning with their very first hit after they crossed from hardcore punk into the early-'80s hip-hop scene, landed a big role in the hip-hop movie Krush Groove and released their 1986 debut album, Licensed to Ill. They were rapping about righteous partying in Manhattan and about taking the subway back home to Brooklyn, all teenaged tired and bleary eyed.
Just as soon as the Beasties established themselves with rap's first No. 1 album ever, they moved on, releasing the 1989 masterpiece Paul's Boutique, one of the most adventurous works of dense, layered sampling up to that time. This was not the sound of Licensed to Ill, which had basically put the Beasties' rapping over turntable scratching and heavy metal guitar riffs. Paul's Boutique found the Beasties creating avant-garde art, although from a juvenile delinquent's point of view. And then they moved on again, putting down their mics and picking up instruments (as they'd done during their hardcore years) but style-hopping to deeper funk-rock this time for their 1992 album Check Your Head. From there, the Beasties would go on to explore lounge music, jazz and electronics.
The Beastie Boys never stood still — from the time they started bashing out hardcore as teenagers until last year, when they sludged up the grooves on "Make Some Noise," from Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2. They always changed, always made their next album different from their previous one, even when they brought nostalgia to the plate, as they began to do on their phenomenal post-9/11 New York City tribute, To the 5 Boroughs. And yet they always were unmistakably the Beastie Boys.
I want to say something that's long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end. — Beastie Boys, "Sure Shot," Ill Communication, 1994
As M.C.A., Adam Yauch may not have been the most recognizable Beastie Boy, nor even the pioneering group's best rapper, but his place was absolutely essential. He was the gruff-voiced foil to Mike D's brattiness and Ad-Roc's whininess. It was Yauch who first apologized for the trio's early sexism and obnoxiousness. It was Yauch who brought the Beastie Boys to the Dalai Lama. It was Yauch who broke into video and filmmaking, directing the critically acclaimed 2008 documentary Gunning for That #1 Spot, about high school basketball players, and forming a film company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, that's released numerous adventurous titles including the stunningly original Exit Through the Gift Shop. In a way, Yauch was to the Beasties what George Harrison was to the Beatles. He was the group's creative conscience.
Many have offered their thoughts on Yauch over the past few days, but the perspective of one man perhaps best sums up the significance of the life of this Beastie Boy who grew, in public and in so few years, from such a quintessential child into such a quintessential man. Through his spokesman, the Dalai Lama himself announced on Monday: "Adam had helped us raise awareness on the plight of the Tibetan people... He will be remembered by His Holiness and the Tibetan people."
Without Adam Yauch, the Beastie Boys could never again be unmistakably the Beastie Boys. Our hearts hurt for Mike Diamond, Adam Horovitz and the friends and family of Adam Yauch. And here's expecting that the surviving Beasties will continue on, pushing boundaries in whatever ways they can — but hopefully never again under the name Beastie Boys. They've grown up now. They're men.