Friday, May 18, 2012

Trapped Like Sardines In A Tin

In the days after his death, I kept looking for the definitive article, the one that would make me feel okay about Adam "MCA" Yauch's death at the age of 47 - 47! - from cancer. I read online and magazine memorials, watched videos and listened to covers, but nothing captured the tenor of my grief. People talked about the snotty punk kids the Beastie Boys had been back in their NYC hardcore days, or how they had transformed themselves from punk rockers to frat-boy hip-hop impresarios (in the process, opening the door for hip-hop of all stripes and colours to that vaunted suburban record-buying audience), and how Yauch had become, against all odds, kind of a decent dude: Buddhist, father, Tibetan freedom fighter, inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Adam Yauch was one of my first celebrity crushes. Oh sure, there had been Jonathan Taylor Thomas, who was cute, but MCA's gravelly voice and chilled-out vibe was one of the first times, at the age of fourteen, when I felt acutely aware of wanting to hang out with someone because I thought he was cool. Yauch was undeniably cool: the Beastie Boys were everywhere in the summer of 1998, and the videos for "Intergalactic," "Body Movin,'" and "Three MCs and One DJ" were blowing up. I got into the Beastie Boys in a big way.

Hello Nasty was a touchstone: I remember sitting next to my high-school crush (hi Jon-Erik!) in class. When he started humming "Intergalactic," I, in what is probably in my top-ten awkward moments with the opposite sex, started humming "Body Movin'" twice as loud while avoiding direct eye contact. It was like some fucked-up one-upsmanship, or a mating dance, I guess, for suburban white girls with less-than-zero skills with boys.

MCA was possible to love as a kilt-wearing punk, a house-party-crashing douche, and a silver-fox rapper who was fighting the good fight. It was possible, because I didn't grow up with the Beastie Boys, to love all of those guys at one, in one package. It was possible to discover tiny awesome pockets of MCA-ness, back through the ages, and to hear his gravelly voice in my headphones 24/7.

So his death a couple weeks ago left me feeling lurchy and sad. It has become, in a very short time, de rigeur to hash out the whole chronology of MCA and the Beastie Boys - their evolution from punks to hip-hoppers and beyond - but that isn't how I feel about them.

I met the Beasties at their zenith - I know most people will say Paul's Boutique is their best album, and they might be right, but Hello Nasty was my first date with Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D, so I hold it in high regard. They had settled into being thrift-store-shopping, basketball-playing, hilarious-video-making examples on how to age gracefully into early middle age. They had gone from the rebellious mailroom party animals to thoughtful, stylish, humble CEOs who were game to take on cartoonish photoshoots. Media at the time focused not on their journey, but on how good Hello Nasty was - and it was, and remains, very good indeed.

Other parts of their oeuvre became important to us as well: License to Ill, which was all about the hellraising that shitty teenagers get up to, was a great soundtrack for us to get up to shit. Like right before prom, when I went over to Jo's house to get really high and dance around with a bunch of women to "Girls," that 1986 joint that spells exactly why the Boys love girls (laundry and boobs, mostly). It was a tiny, well-dressed, estrogen-drenched mosh pit, made up mostly of lesbians - girls who love girls loving "Girls"! - and we knew all the words.

But for the most part, their beer-flinging past was a curiosity to me: it was like finding out your biology teacher used to start fights in the parking lot after last call. In order to go to the License to Ill days, I had to go go back through the Milarepa days, the Nathaniel Hornblower days, back through Tibet and "Sure Shot" and "Sabotage" and Buddhism, to find a 22-year-old dude who fucked up and then got right. I'm way more interested in the getting right than I am in the fucking up, and against the odds, Yauch ended up getting really right.

I'm going to miss the Beastie Boys, and MCA. They've been in my ears for 14 years - literally half my life - and the loss of MCA's distinctive voice, both as a rapper and as a man, will be hard felt for a long time.