“MCA was with it and he’s my ace”
Yesterday, Adam Yauch passed away. I heard about it, saw all the tweets and Facebook status updates, but couldn’t write anything that would really capture how I felt. There are a whole lot of people (for example, the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin, Grantland’s Amos Barshad, and the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones) who have already written excellent obituaries for both Yauch and the band. I’m just going to write about my relationship with The Beastie Boys’ music, which stretches back to 1987.
Licensed to Ill was the first album that I owned, on cassette. My mother bought it for me and gave it to me when I came home from a two-week sleep-away sports camp that I didn’t much like. And then she bought me Paul’s Boutique, also on cassette, when it came out. There is no chance that she knew what she was buying. For as long as I could find them, I bought subsequent albums on tape too … all the way through Hello Nasty, after which I couldn’t find tapes. When I was in college, I bought the CDs of those older albums and, still later, I burned those CDs so I could carry the MP3s around with me.
My neighborhood friends and I used to put Licensed to Ill in the boombox and then hang out in front of one of our houses, trying to learn skateboarding tricks; we were too young to really know what we were listening to, but we memorized all the words. I still know every word to every song on Licensed to Ill.
I saw The Beastie Boys live twice in the early 1990s, when I was in high school. The first time, at the State Fair Coliseum Detroit on New Year’s Eve 1992, is probably the best concert experience I’ve ever had. I went with a bunch of my new friends from high school; they were all at least two years older than me. I can’t imagine what I told my parents I was doing, but I’m sure I didn’t say that I was going downtown to see The Beastie Boys. I also can’t remember if I borrowed someone’s ID, but I can’t imagine it was an all-ages show and I’d just turned 15. At midnight, they played “Time for Livin’” and the place went crazy.
I chose the above picture because it’s the poster I had on the wall in my room in high school and in college. I’m pretty sure I still have it, rolled up in a tube in the attic in my house. The music of The Beastie Boys runs through my life, from my skating days in the mid-’80s to my contemporary political theory class, where I use “In 3’s” to illustrate a point from Foucault’s The Order of Things. Whenever I wanted to smile or sing or yell, I put on a Beastie Boys album from the ’80s or ’90s.
What was it about The Beastie Boys? They weren’t the best rappers — though I maintain that Check Your Head is still one of the best rap albums — or the best songwriters. But they were smart, funny, and pretty edgy. Their jokes and swagger appealed to the nine-year-old who first heard them in 1987 and then later their concern for the rights of others (and for those they’d disrespected on early albums) continued to appeal to the thirty-year-old who was passionate about human rights. And, of course, they were Jewish, a fact that was undeniably a large part of what drew my friends and I to them in the first place.
There’s a tremendous sadness at the loss of Adam Yauch that I didn’t really expect and didn’t know what to do with. It felt odd to mourn someone I didn’t know until I reflected on it for a day or so. It’s a sadness for his family and friends, people I hope are comforted in some small way by the obvious impact that Yauch and his music had on the lives of millions. But, selfish as it might sound, it’s also largely a sadness at my own loss, at the rupture of a connection with my childhood that had held pretty firm until yesterday.
Our childhoods disappear in such little pieces — Star Wars action figures given away to a neighbor, artwork lost in the move to a new house, stuffed animals packed away in boxes — that we often don’t really notice. This piece, for me, was a terribly big one.