The Beastie Boys’ Greatest Legacy: Unbreakable Friendship
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Beastie Boys died on May 4 in no doubt a staid and sterile hospital room at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where Adam “MCA” Yauch, only 47 years old, lost a three-year-long battle with cancer of his salivary gland and lymph nodes. An icon of youth—of my youth—died in the most adult way imaginable.
When I found out I was at work at my Midtown Manhattan office at Fuse TV, and I had to wrestle for composure as I reported the news on the website I write for and edit. It was the first time I was that moved by a public figure’s death. I wasn’t around for the lives or deaths of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Elvis, and others of that ilk. I was only 12 years old when Kurt Cobain killed himself. Music has played a large role in my 29 years, and Yauch was the first musician that I watched throughout the many stages of my life, and then I watched him die. When I called my lifelong pal Spencer to discuss the news, he said, “It’s like one of my best friends ever died.” That’s the effect the Boys, and in particular MCA, had on people, especially my group of friends as we grew up in suburban Seattle. The Beasties were the rock stars that made fame seem attainable, cool, and possible on your own terms—and that was empowering. But at the heart of it all, beyond the royalty checks, the girls, the booze, the record advances and parties in the Hollywood Hills, was their unbreakable, impenetrable friendship, and that’s the legacy Yauch and the Beastie Boys will leave behind for me.
I couldn’t say when, exactly, my two older sisters introduced me to the Beastie Boys, because it feels like they’ve always been there. But it was with my friends, in junior high and high school, that I really experienced their music and lifestyle, which were one in the same.
Starting freshman year my crew and I rocked house parties, crushed Budweiser tall boys and generally caused as much trouble as possible. Mailboxes were exploded, golf carts driven at high speeds and totaled, and houses egged. The snickering of a gang of high school kids fleeing the scene seemed like a sentiment central to the Beasties’ code. The connection between my core circle of friends was like Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and MCA’s—we were in tune with each other; we finished each other’s sentences. We rolled in a pack and always had each other’s back. We were skaters and rockers who held rap battles at house parties. We were a bunch of jackasses always trying to woo girls by making them laugh with our quick-witted banter. Our power was in numbers.
At first we obsessed over the Boys’ punk songs—“Heart Attack Man,” “Sabotage,” “Root Down”—and my respect for their music grew with their catalogue. One summer I “borrowed” Paul’s Boutique from my sister and bumped “Shake Your Rump” while driving my parents’ 1982 Honda Civic. We’d all rap in unison—“MCA’s got a beard like a Billy Goat—ooo-wah-ooo-wah!”—then we’d turn to face each other, freeze, and then mimic the chorus’ warped keyboard sound with a droning vocal buzz (try it!) and a waving motion of our arms.
Full disclosure: We were all bigger fans of bands like Weezer, Nirvana, the Pixies and Pavement, but the Beastie Boys’ language, perma-cool demeanor and smart aleck mouths became synonymous with my crew. I was known as Screamin’ Dreamin’ Goodman on both the basketball court and the microphone—we recorded our own rap songs, with one even making the rounds amongst our school’s student body one summer. During my verse the phrase “sexual surgeon” was used.
I remember seeing a photo of MCA, who at this point must’ve been around 30 years old, in a magazine and noticed he was tall, lanky—just like me. I saw him involved in the world of snowboarding (I even began hearing more and more Beasties’ songs in snowboarding videos) and I soon discovered that Yauch, under the Nathaniel Hornblower moniker, had directed the music videos for “So What’cha Want,” “Body Movin’,” and “Intergalactic.” The Beasties grew up and Yauch graduated to Buddhism, supporting Tibetan Freedom and denouncing the group’s earlier disrespect of women in “Sure Shot.” The band evolved and never stopped looking for what was next.
In 1996 they released their instrumental album The In Sound From Way Out, a collection of jazz-funk-fusion jams with the Boys at the top of their game as musicians, after years focusing their efforts on the mic. They were experimenting beyond the dumb-fun party rhymes that defined their career to date, and it made sense to my friends and I. It was an unexpected ace.
Yauch helped prove the Boys were insatiable culture omnivores, and during my high school years, when people were defined by “punk” or “preppy” or a “jock,” my friends and I weren’t closed off to any music, sport, or lifestyle. We traveled freely between clicks, and that’s something the Beastie Boys taught us. MCA wasn’t a larger-than-life rock star; he was a 5 foot 10 inch role model.
After work on May 4, I walked downtown to the Lower East Side, to the corner of Ludlow and Orchard—the former location of Paul’s Boutique, the bodega immortalized on the cover of the album of the same name. I was seeking a communal experience. As I headed south on 7th Ave, I envisioned Ad-Rock or Mike D with a bullhorn, on the steps of what is now a fancy salad wrap joint—a “wrap” business, I joked under my breath. How ironic. I hoped the surviving Beasties would be there to say … something. I don’t know what, but something. When I arrived I took a photo, then stood around for a few minutes watching the foot traffic pass. I examined the streets and noticed how much has changed in my eight short years in New York, not to mention since the Boys’ glory days downtown. I wondered what they thought when they visited the area. Was it even recognizable?
In the days following MCA’s death, I couldn’t shake a certain scene from my head. And every time the subject of MCA arises in conversation, it comes right back. I see MCA in his bed at New York-Presbyterian, surrounded by his wife Dechen, his 13-year-old daughter Tenzin Losel and his parents Frances and Noel. There’s a triple knock at the door and Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz enter the room. It’s a clear day; you can see the East River in the distance and beyond that Yauch’s native Brooklyn. Fully knowing that this might be their last time with their ol’ pal, Mike D and Ad-Rock are nervous, visually uncomfortable. The rest of the family excuses themselves for a moment, and Dechen puts a hand on Horovitz’s shoulder and grips Diamond’s wrist as she walks out. Then there were three.
“Stop it,” MCA says to their serious tone. Any tension is quickly broke up a responding joke about Yauch’s bedpan, then another and another. Soon there’s chatter of the old days of Chinatown loft parties, when the band was just getting their start. They’re finishing each other’s sentences again. It’s a whirlwind of talk and all three get lost in it. Hours slip by. The duo sits on either side of Yauch’s bed, and soon Diamond taps out a just-for-fun beat on the steel rebar of Yauch’s hospital bed and they do a half-assed rap. “You should sample that,” MCA jokes in his now-raspier-than-ever voice. They all laugh uncontrollably, alarming the nurses passing in the hall outside the door.
Soon there’s a knock at the door and all the three are silent. A doctor enters and says their time together is over; it’s time for some tests. Diamond comes in for a long hug, kissing Yauch’s bony face. Horovitz follows suit, the tears sticking his cheek to Yauch’s. They both give their old friend daps, bumping fists. “You’ll be fine,” one of them says. The other adds, “We love you” then after a beat fires, “ya deeeeeiiiiiccccckkkkk!” Mike D and Ad-Rock slowly back out the door as the nurses wheel in plastic machines around them. Yauch gives a half smile with the last bit of energy he can muster. The camera pans out and the door closes. End scene.
It almost certainly didn’t happen like this. As Rolling Stone notes, only Yauch’s immediate family were present when he died—his parents, wife, and daughter. And only few will know the condition he was in during his final days. For all I know he was unconscious. But this is how I want it to be. This is how I will always envision it. Because that’s how I want to die—surrounded by not just the love of your immediately family, but still protected by perhaps the Beastie Boys’ greatest legacy: their unbreakable friendship.