This was supposed to be a good day. I took an extra-long lunch break so I could take in The Avengers, a movie I’ve been looking forward to for the last 28 years or so. It was great, it met all my expectations and then some, and I left the theater euphoric and certain that the air outside the theater smelled just like the comic book shop I used to haunt when I was 12. I had a lovely bike ride up the west side bike path back to the office. It was a really nice day. And within a minute of sitting down at my desk, I’m in tears.
I don’t cry when celebrities die. Or, I never have before. Why should I? It’s not like they’re gonna cry for me. It’s not like I really know them. But this is hitting me hard. The death of Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys is sad — he was young, he has a young daughter, by all accounts he was a great guy in every way. He absolutely made an impact on my life: His music is literally the soundtrack to my high school and college years. But I never knew him, I never met him. It’s not like if a friend died.
I may not know the guy, but I do know the band. Everybody knows the band, especially those of us born in the 1970’s.
I think I saw the Beastie Boys more times than any other Big Famous Band. I saw them with Sonic Youth opening for them in some crappy little place, a wedding reception hall in Baltimore in 1992, right after Check Your Head was released, right before it broke and put them back on top — all four guys from Fugazi watched the show from the side of the stage. I saw them with The Roots and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion opening for them in 1995 — they brought out three full drum kits and all three played at once (which was awesome). I saw them at Lollapalooza in 1994 — they had Q-Tip join them on “Get It Together.” I saw them at the Tibetan Freedom Concert — Yauch’s baby — in 1996, in Golden Gate Park. That was a benefit show with two stages side by side and seemingly every great act around at that time. I couldn’t get in when they played a punk rock set under the name Quasar at the Bottom of the Hill in 1997, but I saw them in the round at the Oakland Coliseum in 1998 on the Hello Nasty tour — my brother flew out to go to that one with me. And after a long gap, I saw them one last time at Summer Stage in Central Park, front and center, in the summer of 2007, and it was probably the best I’d ever seen them.
They were always great — I never saw them have a bad show. I never left anything but sweaty, exhausted, and happy. And this has to be said: if you like cute girls, in particular the kind that don’t wear a lot of makeup, took a lot of art classes, and aren’t scared to get sweaty at a rock show, the Beastie Boys drew the cream of that particular crop. I remember watching their video compilation circa 1993, The Skills To Pay The Bills, on VHS at my friend’s apartment over and over and over and marveling at how effortlessly they combined music and humor, never bending one to suit the other and both coming out perfect. That tape was the blueprint for the next ten years’ worth of music videos in every genre, and Adam Yauch directed those video under his pseudonym Nathaniel Hornblower.
I sit here trying to think of how to explain how it feels to hear that the Beastie Boys are over, and worse, that they’re over because they lost their social conscience, their best rapper, their bass player, and their video director to cancer, all in the same day. But if you know this band, I don’t have to explain how it feels, because you’re feeling it too.
Because the thing about the Beastie Boys is that everybody liked them. I was living in a dorm at the University of Maryland when Check Your Head came out. Like everybody else, I’d loved Licensed to Ill and like everybody else, I missed Paul’s Boutique when it came out. I thought the Beastie Boys were a novelty act, that they’d had their 15 minutes, that they were done. Check Your Head was immediately coming out of every window and every doorway in that dorm. Everybody loved it, and they loved it because it sounded like a mixtape. Anybody remember mixtapes? A straight-up hip-hop song followed by a punk rock song followed by a funk jam followed by an instrumental.
Literally everyone I knew was listening to this record (and before long, going back to Paul’s Boutique), from sorority girls to Deadheads. It was a little of everything, but more than anything it was itself. It was unique. It pushed boundaries. Who says white kids can’t rap? Who says rap can’t have live instruments? Who says we can’t put a 90-second punk jam on a rap record? Who says we can’t sample 480 different songs to make one? Who says we can’t rap about Buddhism, over a backing track of Gregorian monks? Who says we can’t be nice to women?
But more than any of that, their music had a spirit. It communicated a feeling that, clearly, those of us at the right age to receive it at the time, all responded to. Listening to this band you felt like your best self. The most creative. The most open. The most positive. Closer to peace. I mourn Adam Yauch, and I mourn the Beastie Boys, because the band has obviously died with him. Because if there was ever an all-for-one-and-one-for-all kind of band, if there was ever a band that would never go on without one of its members, it’s this one, and that’s exactly as it should be.
This is the first celebrity death that’s ever made me cry. I’m going to stop thinking about MCA, and the Beastie Boys, and start listening to them, before I start crying again.