My family sold my station wagon after I left for college, it was a good way to stave off some of my student loans and a symbolic gesture that I wouldn’t be coming back to live in California after my eventual graduation. I wanted to take every CD with me in my move, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I also knew I would forget the right albums when I come back on visits. I left behind two CDs, ones I knew I would never get sick of: Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved A Man The Way That I Love You and the Beastie Boy’s Paul’s Boutique.
I haven’t heard a Beastie Boys song I didn’t like. I am not a die-hard-know-and-own-everything-they-have-done-on-vinyl type of fan, but I am a fan nonetheless. Aside from enjoying their groundbreakingly funky music, I learned many lessons from the Beastie Boys; most of them, actually, from the recently passed Adam Yauch (MCA). Maybe it was his uncharacteristically gruff delivery, or his jagged stagger that brought balance to the nasal rhymes and permanently jumping and gesturing Ad-Rock and Mike D, that made me admire him. In any case I followed him for years with my ears and eyes, here are a few of the lessons:
You can always be a punk at heart
Part of the lore of the Beastie Boys is that they started out not as a hip hop group, but as a thrash punk band (and not all of them were boys, Kate Schellenbach was their original drummer). Dropping out of their respective colleges the boys (the Ad-Rock less Mike D and MCA) and girl released an EP, Pollywog Stew. This was before delving into crunchier experimental record Cooky Puss. I heard of this only after I had started to fade away from what I saw I as my punk roots. I listened to Pollywog Stew and loved it. I almost couldn’t believe it was them.
Yet in spite of this difference, I recognized the punk aesthetic was present throughout the years in their music: their drive to distort, their bass’ march forward, and their want reconstruct their music and retain control all the way through; punk style was made especially visible in the early years with Yauch’s appearance.
Everyone likes the dirty dude in the jean or leather jacket
I will go on record as saying I love wayfarers and dookie chains, but my personal style has never really jived with either of the other earlier Beastie Boys like it did with Yauch. Even though I had liner art in my Casualties, Green Day, Rancid and Nerve Agents CDs it was a while before I saw punks in action.
To watch someone walk, talk, and dress at least a bit like a punk was empowering. MCA looked like one of the cartoons of the Ramones came to life, got in a knife fight and won. MTV would play “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” as the first wave of their now constant conjuring of instant nostalgia; In MCA I could see through a semi-gloss of hair metal a punk anti-gentleman. Someone who gave no fucks, wore tank tops under his leather and swung sledge hammers at televisions. It was all of the liberation I wanted in my oppressively cheery heart dressed in something I knew I could relate to—rough, simple, individual without seeming to put too much effort in to stand out. It was a relaxation I craved; I had spent my life trying to present whatever I assumed others needed from me.
Even in the early 90s during his heavy flannel and beanie days and when the 00s brought suits, both Tyvek and dapper, MCA operated with boatloads more authentic punk swagger than anything Simple Plan could try to whine. And he was never uncomfortable in whatever he was wearing or doing, the mark of a true punk. This is something I don’t try and emulate, but I try find inside me.
You’re more than just one thing
MCA was a rapper, but Adam Yauch was an activist and film producer, a champion of human rights and the head of Oscilloscope Laboratories. Yauch’s side projects are truly a testament to the fact that you can have fun, mature, and find things in life that not only fulfill you but help better the world in the process. The Beastie Boys cut their teeth on being the loveably boisterous jackasses of the 80s, but by the time their fourth album Hello Nasty came out in 1998 they were already entrenched in the cause of fighting for the liberation of Tibet. In 1996 they organized the Tibetian Freedom Concert, which not only raised money for social justice efforts in the region but brought the struggle for the state’s sovereignty to a global foreground. In the early 00s the Beastie Boys organized the New Yorkers Against Violence concert as well as being ardently anti-war, releasing the song “In A World Gone Mad.”
Likewise Oscilloscope produced and distributed powerful documentaries and films from a wide array of nations and cultures, most dealing with prescient social issues and movements; the most recently acclaimed include Dark Days, Exit Through the Gift Shop and We Need To Talk About Kevin. With his money and notoriety Yauch worked to advance other peoples stories and perspectives, he saw in his own success the possibility of other people’s success, and he never saw himself as limited to just being one kind of performer.
Punks can like disco too.
The punk roots and core of the Beastie Boys has been stated, hopefully not overly so. It seems that by law punks can’t like disco, and by extension pop music in general. And even though I don’t like all disco/pop, I don’t want to feel bad for what I do like. If you’ve read this column you know that I have a soft spot for glossy europop, Barbadian songstresses and British semi-belters who wear leotards. And if the Beastie Boys can appreciate thrash and disco and world beat, why can’t I. Furthermore why is it okay for anyone to give me shit for this. They can’t. This philosophy of course extends outward, folding into any situation in which someone lords over their credibility. In short, you can like what you like and not be an asshole about it.
I was in clothing I haven’t worn in years, clothes I left in California and had no desire to wear since, athletic sort of stuff. Sweats, an old racing shirt, my battered running shoes and a Give Up The Ghost hoodie. My marked, dog-eared and dinged copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking poked out of my hoodie’s pocket. I was on my way to my first physical therapy session after being hospitalized for several days. The most authoritative answer as to why I had a worsening limp and had lost the majority of sensation in my legs was “We don’t know, but it’s more than likely not MS.” Partial paralysis was mentioned at least twice if not treated.
As one could imagine, being hospitalized and told I was losing my neurological grasp on my gams left me sour and scared and a little bit tired. And I was reading Joan Didion. I was not in the most optimistic of places. Because I was reading Didion I had this ethereal glare to my processes of learning I had a spinal inflammation and the subsequent rehabilitation. I presented as stoic. By nature I am not stoic. I couldn’t handle this newfound seriousness.
I was driving. I hadn’t noticed the low click and shift that ended Aretha’s last track and the ambient groan of a minute and forty six seconds. Kick and snare lead me into an upstroke guitar, fuzz bass and disco calls—skittering and stabbing in between were strange verses. The entire album of Paul’s Boutique is ridiculous, rhymes about doing whip its and egging passersby, it’s loaded with more samples than you can find in an audiophiles record crates; but once you get into it, everything become golden and rounded, you grow a cocky yet endearing sneer.
It’s fun to be critical, a cool customer, sometimes, but fuck all if that’s how I can live my life all the time. I drove around the block twice more and arrived late to my appointment, I need to be. I needed another track or two, I needed the lightness and ferocity.