Monday, May 7, 2012

Friends, Growing Up and the Beastie Boys

Friday afternoon after lunch I came back to my desk and emails containing condolences and asking if I’d heard the news that Adam Yauch, MCA from Beastie Boys, had died. The emails were from people who know that I’m a Beasties fan.


I was eight or nine years old when I first heard the Beasties. I lived in Wichita, Kansas and I was playing at my friend Livie’s house. We listened to her License to Ill tape and jumped and danced around her living room. Apparently it made an impression:

Check out item #4 - from 1987
 In the summer after 8th grade, my friend Bonnie showed me her new CD called Check Your Head with three skater-looking dudes on the front. Beastie Boys? Oh hell yes, let me listen to this! Raised by my parents on classic rock, oldies and r&b, I had now expanded my musical tastes to include hip hop (“rap” back then) and “alternative” music (remember when alternative was really alternative?). CYH blew my mind: it mixed different music styles, it was more mature than License to Ill but not so mature that my almost-in-high-school self couldn’t relate to the lyrics/attitude. It set the standard for “cool”.

I eventually picked up Paul’s Boutique. I liked it, but it didn’t knock me out the way it did for so many. *gasp* I know, I know. What kind of Beasties fan am I? When I listened to it, it felt like they were regressing (though I might not have been able to articulate that back then). The album was all samples, no instruments, ridiculous topics. They were still kind of caricatures. But (and this is a big but) (shut up) – the exploration was exhilerating. If I’d gotten to know Paul’s Boutique before Check Your Head I’m sure it would have rocked my world, too.

By 1994, I had a number of friends who were also Beasties fans. I’m sure we all dutifully ran out to buy Ill Communication as soon as it was released. Check Your Head and Ill Communication became, for me, my life soundtrack. Sure, there was other music. There was lots of other music. No matter what other music there was, though, there was always Beastie Boys.

Me on the right at pom camp - "Beastie"
The Beasties were so cool. They were style and attitude trend-setters. The obsession my generation has with pop culture and snark was encouraged and often informed by Beastie music and interviews, yet they weren’t concerned with being cool. Which is, of course, part of why they were cool.

I remember hearing “I’m shopping at Sears, ‘cause I don’t buy at the Gap” for the first time and thinking, Crap. I love the Gap. Should I stop shopping there? I then thought, Isn’t the point to not try to be like everyone else, but to follow your own instinct? If I stop shopping somewhere just because a Beastie told me to, isn’t that the opposite of what they’re are all about? The opposite of what makes them so great? Though I didn't stop shopping at the Gap, I did start thinking about my impact as a consumer. I've never forgotten that lesson.

Beastie Boys impacted me musically, culturally. I’m young enough that hip hop was already mainstream when I began listening to the Beasties, so they didn’t open that door for me. They did, however, teach me to seek out the history of the hip hop I was listening to, and to search for music that wasn’t on the radio. They name-dropped so many people! I loved spending time scouring magazines, books and liner notes, trying to figure out who they were talking about. Oh yeah, I was a liner notes nerd (still am, though I rarely buy real CDs anymore). I loved noticing a connection between a producer on one musician’s album, and a songwriter on another, that sort of thing. When I’d come across the name of someone that had an obscure mention in a Beasties song – in a magazine, newspaper, book, etc. - I got such a thrill. I also loved knowing about something and hearing it mentioned, like when Ad-Rock says, “I’m not James at Fifteen or Chachi in Charge” in Hey Ladies. I watched those shows! I knew who they were talking about!

Throughout my high school and college years, I remained close with overlapping groups of people who were major Beasties fans. We played their music constantly, discussed lyrics, went to concerts, explored the music of other artists that the Beasties introduced us to. Being a Beasties fan was a part of our identity. Not our whole identity, but a part of it.

My dorm room door on my birthday, 1997
Hello Nasty came out just a few months before I began dating my husband, got pregnant and left college. After that major transition in my life, I was “on hold” with music (and, well, everything that didn’t involve surviving young parenthood & marriage). I didn’t have the money to buy music or go to concerts and I didn’t hang out with my friends that much any more – I was a mom and wife, they were still partying college kids. I listened to Hello Nasty a lot but not the way I did with Check Your Head and Ill Communication – and from that point on, I didn’t immerse myself in their later albums. I purchased them, gave them a couple listens, but only pulled them out occasionally (though I still listened to CYH & IC often). I felt guilty about this, as though I was a bad fan for not devouring and loving everything they did. It took me a while to get beyond that and realize that no one ever asked me to be a “superfan” – the Beasties certainly never did – and again, the perspectives they shared reminded me that life must be balanced. I watched them evolve, should I not also be allowed to evolve?

I’m nostalgic about those years. My memories include driving around with Ebony, looking for our friends (this was the day of the pager, y’all, and we didn’t have one) and freaking out when the song switches up in the middle of “Do It” . . . Andy letting me climb up onto his shoulders at the Beasties/Tribe concert so I could see better – then he threw his hat onstage and one of them put his hat on for a minute before tossing it back . . . being given a onesie w/”Beastie Baby” embroidered on it when I was pregnant with our first child . . . driving 3 hours by myself to and from my first Beasties concert, alone because my friends couldn’t go at the last minute, sneaking into the expensive floor seats . . . hours upon hours upon hours of listening to their music – alone and with friends, usually at Elanor’s house . . . Dev asking Peter and I who was the bigger Beasties fan, and Peter said I was – and then I said I may have liked them longer, but he was the one who had all the concert bootlegs . . . debating with Joel, Drew, Josh, Mike and Matt about our favorite Beasties albums . . . performing a variety of Beasties songs in lip-syncs with Katherine and Carla . . . getting mad at some kid because he would not stop saying that Mike D’s brother is Dustin Diamond (Screech from Saved By The Bell) . . . Lisa suggesting that we change one of our pom routine songs to Brass Monkey, and it being a big hit . . .

I’d forgotten how much being a Beasties fan was a part of my identity back then until I went to my 10-year high school reunion. Person after person referred to my love for the Beasties. I was floored – I knew how special they were to me but I didn’t realize everyone else did (and crap, I hope I wasn’t obnoxious about it!).

I don’t know if I would be a hugely different person if there had never been any Beastie Boys. I do know that I felt as if I knew them, as if we could be friends. I felt as if they were cool and dorky and funny and smart and silly and serious, like me. Like my friends. It is impossible for me to remember those formative years in my life without also remembering the Beasties.

So now – Adam Yauch is gone. It hurts. It hurts because he was so young. It hurts because he had a family – extended and immediate. A wife has lost her mate and a daughter has lost her father. It hurts because he was an advocate for Tibet and who is doing that now? It hurts because the friendship and connection between the Beasties was so obvious and fascinating, and lasted for so long. It hurts to think of how hard it must be for all the people who knew him the ways fans never could. And yes – as a fan, it hurts. It hurts because I’m far away from the friends who also loved the Beasties. It hurts because I won’t ever get to see them together again. You know, they were getting older, who knows how many more albums or tours they would have given us? Possibly not many, or any. Maybe they were done. As a fan, I’m so, so thankful for all the memories and all the music, and I believe it will sustain me for the rest of my life. But I wanted more. I did. And it’s not gonna happen.

Since Friday, I’ve already dug back into To the 5 Boroughs and Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2 – and I’m listening with fresh ears. I’m hearing stuff I really like – how did I miss it before? Why did it take a loss like this for me to appreciate it? Why don’t I have The Mix-Up?

Thank you Adam, Adam and Mike, for creating the soundtrack to my formative years. I almost feel silly for saying that, but I think you will understand.

Side note, wasn’t sure where to fit it in the above:

Everyone talks about MCA’s verse in Sure Shot that mentions the Beasties’ change in attitude toward their lyrics about women, and women in general, I suppose. That’s great, no doubt! However, what I love about Sure Shot is that it’s funky. I mean, really. The entire song is just perfection. I think this word is overused, but it has swagger, you know? Ridiculous production and each Beastie shines on their verses. This song is sexy. All of these attributes are present in Ad-Rock which is a huge reason he’s my favorite.

Yes, I said I had a favorite. Look, y’all, this is what happened. I was at a high school church youth group retreat and there was going to be a talent show. My friends Katherine and Carla loved Beasties too, so we decided to do a lip-sync to So Whatcha Want. When we were deciding which verses we wanted, Carla said she wanted Ad-Rock before I said it, so she got him. And I was salty. Secretly, though. Katherine was an MCA fan so she was all good. I can’t remember if this was our first, or second, but we went on to do a handful of lip-syncs together: Hey Ladies, Sabotage, It Takes Two (Rob Base). For Sabatoge we wore suits, fake moustaches, sunglasses, carried paintball guns, ran through the audience, rolled around on the floor, jumped through doorways, busted in on a card game in the corner. So much fun.

Katherine is in Japan about to give birth. Maybe this is reaching, but it just seems kind of special that she really appreciated MCA, Beasties & Japan were tight, he died and she’s giving birth.

Anyway! In addition to what I’ve already said about Ad-Rock, I think he has a great sense of humor, and I think the way he talks, has conversations, is fascinating. I saw an interview of him on YouTube a while back where he’s talking about the tools he uses to write & record music. He’d create some sounds, and sit there, geeking out, chair dancing. I love that. That is me, that is my friends.

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