Adam Yauch, R.I.P.
I found the death of Adam Yauch, also known as MCA, strangely upsetting. So on Saturday I got out all my Beastie Boys CDs, and played them back to back, following the group’s evolution from the brash and bratty pranksters on “Licensed to Ill” to the more thoughtful and mature (but still clever and defiantly weird) rappers of “Ill Communication” and “Hello Nasty.”
Then I went to the Palais Royal in Albany with some friends, and programmed songs from “Licensed to Ill” — “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” “Brass Monkey” and “Paul Revere” — into the jukebox.
It seems unlikely that the Beastie Boys can continue without Yauch, and his death signifies the end of a great band. With surprising swiftness, the Beasties moved from my List of Bands I Need To See Before I Die to my List of Bands I Can Never See Because Someone Is Dead, joining other favorite bands such as The Ramones, Morphine, INXS and Nirvana. This is excellent company, but it gives me no pleasure to place the Beastie Boys in it. Just 47, Yauch should still be making music. He didn’t self-destruct, like so many other great musicians. He got cancer.
The Beastie Boys scored their greatest hit early on, with the party anthem “Fight For Your Right,” but future hits demonstrated that they were sharp rappers and songwriters. Their follow-up album to “Licensed to Ill,” “Paul’s Boutique” is dense, witty, lyrically adventurous and often wonderfully bizarre; my favorite song off that album (and my favorite Beastie Boys song ever), “Egg Man,” is a pretty wild ride, full of offbeat jokes and cracked imagery: “You go through life with egg on your face/ You woke up in the morning with a peculiar feeling/You looked up and saw egg dripping from the ceiling.” What exactly are the Beastie Boys talking about in this song? Who knows? Who cares?
My friends and I spent a lot of time listening to the Beastie Boys in college, and their music was addictive. We played their song “Girls” constantly, and we loved it, even though it’s probably the band’s brattiest song, with lyrics that are blatantly sexist (though perhaps tongue-in-cheek). Another favorite was “Get It Together,” a twisting, reference-laden trip that could inspire a roomful of people to chant, “I’m like Ma Bell, I’ve got the ill communication!”
At times, the Beastie Boys’ music felt like a big giant in-joke that the band had invited the rest of the world to listen in on, but the group’s deft hooks, energy and cheerful irreverence made even its more inscrutable detours resonate with the masses. What distinguished the Beasties from so many other band was their unapologetic and playful strangeness. My friend Bruce and I burst out laughing the other night when the song “Rhymin & Stealin,” with its rowdy chant, “Ali Baba and the forty thieves!” came on the jukebox. Our feeling: You’ve got to admire a band that goes for broke in every single song. A groundbreaking hip-hop group, the Beastie Boys never forgot their punk roots, which could be heard on songs such as “Sabotage” and “Heart Attack Man.”
Adam Yauch will live on, of course — in humanitarian work (a practicing Buddhist, he was active in the Tibetan independence movement), in film (he headed an independent film distribution company) and, of course, music. In some ways, he was a model for all of us — an immature dude who developed a social conscience, but never lost his quirks or sense of fun.
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