Celebrity Sightings: Adam Yauch of The Beastie Boys
My first car was a yellow, 1976 Volkswagen Beetle named Elijah. The first tape I bought to play in Elijah’s ancient (and barely functional) tape deck was The Beastie Boys, Check Your Head. Even today, MCA’s opening bars on Pass the Mic take me back to bitter cold mornings in the driveway turning Elijah’s engine over to warm up before school.
If you can feel what I’m feeling, then it’s a musical masterpiece / If you can hear what I’m dealing with, then that’s cool at least — MCA, 1992
My fellow Gen-Xers bristle when I tell them Check Your Head is my favorite Beastie Boys record. Most people my age think the group’s second album, Paul’s Boutique (a commercial flop but critical darling) is sacrosanct. While Boutique is, no doubt, a seminal album and momentous in rap history for its breakthrough use of sampling, Check Your Head did nothing less than teach me how to be an artist.
After what were two, ostensible, party albums, Check Your Head was a new direction for the Beastie Boys. They learned to actually play musical instruments, for one, departing from the Puckish caricatures they invented in the 80s, spraying each other with beer and bouncing around the stage like lemurs. Instead, they embraced fashion and soberly returned to their New York hardcore roots in tracks like, “Time for Livin’” and “Stand Together.” In doing so, they drew a clear line between themselves and the frat boys who had coopted previous albums, by which to do keg stands.
Check Your Head taught me something no other album had. It taught me how to be an artist.
The video for, “So What’Cha Want,” directed by Adam Yauch, is indelible in my mind as the perfect example of early-90’s street punk aesthetic. It’s hard to believe, but no one had ever worn a stocking cap as fashion before Ad Rock, Mike D, and MCA. Set in a psychedelic forest, they rapped in slow motion down, toward a camera that looked up at them, so they towered over the viewer. Archival footage of floods, fire, and catastrophe interspersed with the group’s marauding under a blacked-out sky declared, in no uncertain terms, the frat party was over.
Interviews reveal that MCA, AKA Adam Yauch was the George Harrison of the group. Quietly challenging the Beastie Boys creatively, he pushed the band towards global humanitarian consciousness. He supported Tibetan independence, the Dali Lama, and promoted the teachings of Buddhism by creating The Milarepa Fund and hosting Tibetan Freedom Concerts. He would later marry a Tibetan freedom activist.
Check Your Head was a symbol of change, of growing up and moving forward. It showed me that instead of taking the predictable route and trying to repeat successes of the past, an artist must take new chances and evolve. It showed me that capital-A, Art, is fluid, taking the shape of the vessel it fills. It’s probably for the same reason Rubber Soul and Revolver are my favorite Beatles albums. Seeing artists explore their craft is cool. Check Your Head was exactly that.
The New Yorker put it this way:
The band that had once embodied the reckless abandon of youth had now become a model for aging deliberately and thoughtfully.
That new model was, according to his fellow Beastie Boys, led by Adam Yauch.
Fast forward 13 years. After my senior year of undergrad at the University of Central Missouri, I moved back in with my mom for the first time in my adult life. It was a gap summer before grad school. I published my first chapbook of poetry, Plus, and was accepted to the creative writing program at City University of New York, Brooklyn College. Classes started in August in New York, so instead of hanging out on campus in Warrensburg, Missouri, I bided time, rent free, in Peoria, Illinois, where my mom and grandparents lived, until the move to the Big Apple.
My two months in Peoria were unremarkable. I spent days plucking around the internet on LiveJournal and AOL Instant Messenger. I walked back and forth to a gas station near my mom’s house, listening to my first-generation iPod on shuffle. One day, a song from Check Your Head came on and it hit me. The New York the Beastie Boys rapped about all these years was about to be my new home. After all the preparation, saving money, and excitement, it finally really dawned on me—thanks to my favorite album. Holy shit… I’m moving to the land of the Beastie Boys… I’m moving to… New York.
It hit me. The place the Beastie Boys rapped about all these years was about to be my new home
Fast forward to October, 2005. I was three months into my grad program at Brooklyn College and, after turning down better programs in DC and California, I was completely demoralized by the decision I’d made. I chose a lesser program to be in the city of my dreams, but my fantasy of NYC life was indeed fulfilled (New York always delivers). Regardless, my work suffered. My writing back-slid into a soup of uninteresting experiments and limp, neo-beatnik platitudes I assumed my professors would like. Before graduation, a professor back in Missouri warned me that the New York poetry scene was overrun by “charlatanism.” I tried desperately to prove him wrong, but never succeeded.
New York is exactly what you make of it, so I explored every inch of the city I could, including every cemetery, park and museum. One day, a friend and I decided to play hooky and, instead of going to class, hit up The American Museum of Natural History mid-week.
We arrived at The Hall of Biodiversity, and as we gazed at the “The Spectrum of Life” and the work of Charles Darwin, my friend elbowed me and whispered excitedly, “I think that’s somebody. Who is that?”
I was still relatively new to the city, but I would later learn the celebrity sighting experience was one specific to New York—and it’s all about playing it cool. The elbow says, “Listen up. This is serious,” and the whisper means that a celebrity is near and like encountering a rare bird in the jungle, god forbid, we scare it away. (There’s a part of me that strives to be elbow-worthy someday and there’s an equal part of me that fears it.)
I looked up and what I saw practically took my breath away. It was MCA—a real-live Beastie Boy. He was holding a little girl’s hand, presumably, his daughter’s, gazing at the same “Spectrum of Life” display we were. Yauch out of ear shot, gestured to the exhibit and uttered something to the little girl, as she looked on, curious about the creatures depicted. It appeared to me to be a classic, fatherly, moment. The elder patriarch explaining the world to his inquisitive offspring. Darwin would have smiled.
I looked up and what I saw took my breath away. It was MCA, a real-live Beastie Boy.
The relationship I had with my own father was atypical, to say the least. Sure, I experienced the instructive piece of the father-child experience, but it was limited in scope and reliability.
My dad had a near death experience in 1975, so his version of pointing to the “spectrum of life” came in the form of a TV appearance on “That’s Incredible!” A short-lived and stupid blip in the history of 80s television programming. (Darwin would have had no part of it, I’m sure.)
My dad was famous for a second. Adam Yauch was famous, basically, from age 19 to the end of his life. Yauch tragically died in 2012, seven years after my friend and I encountered him at the American Museum of Natural History. When I sat down to write this story, I thought it would be interesting to recount the experience of crossing paths with one of my heroes — but then I remembered the fourth person in this story. There was MCA, me, and my friend, but Yauch’s daughter was there, too.
Today, the girl in this story is about the age Yauch was when my uncle Bob handed me a copy of Licensed to Ill on vinyl and said, “This is called ‘Rap.’ It’s going to be huge.” I won’t mention Yauch’s daughter by name, because a) it’s easily Google-able and b) maybe she likes not being famous. I know what it’s like to grow up in your father’s shadow and, despite what some people would like you to believe, Adam Yauch contributed more to the world than my dad.
No one knows what happens behind the scenes, but one thing I can say with certainty is both Yauch and my dad had a choice about what to do with the megaphone that was given to them. My dad decided to divorce his wife, leave his child, and buy a Camaro. Adam Yauch dedicated his energy to the freedom of Tibet, met the Dali Llama, and encouraged his band mates to try out new sounds that challenged human culture in meaningful ways.
It was a thrill to encounter Yauch at the AMNH and I’ll always cherish that memory.
Patience, gentle reader, but I have no less than three, additional, Beastie Boys stories. Here they are, real quick:
- 1997, I attended Lollapalooza ’97 with my friend Christa in record heat. In a panic, the promoters circulated water to the overheated crowd in thousands of Pepsi-branded wax-paper cups. Some ingenious teens realized the cups were easily flattened and spun in the air like throwing stars. Within minutes, tens of thousands of sweaty kids were flattening and spinning the cups in the air as The Beastie Boys thundered on stage. When the opening riffs of “Sabotage” ripped through the amphitheater, the sky was blotted out in a hurricane of giddy chaos. When their set was over, stagehands preparing for the next act had to clear cups from the stage with push brooms.
- 1999, I was working at a toy warehouse in Kansas. I had a shit day and snuck out to my car in the parking lot and eat a sandwich for lunch. On the radio, the DJ said something like, “Here’s the new one from the Beastie Boys.” Feeling defeated by life, I literally prayed to god in the moment before the opening beats of “Intergalactic” dropped. I clearly remember praying, “Please, god, let this track be good.” Then, holy shit, it hit so hard it rattled the speakers in my Honda Civic and brought tears to my eyes.
- Later that year, my friend Meghan and I bought tickets to the Hello Nasty tour at Kemper Arena. What we failed to realize was that it was the same night we had scheduled to drive 12 hours across Kansas to Boulder, CO. from Kansas City. The solution? Pack the car, drive to the Beastie Boys show and drive to Boulder overnight immediately after. At the show, I remember a guy passing out in front of us. I thought, well, now I have to drive 12 hours, which I did, and then went to a rave in Breckenridge the following night. Ah, youth.