This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.
Who is the last famous person you can remember who died young? Not from a freak accident or an overdose, not from suicide or murder — someone who just got sick and died? For now, it’s hard to remember any further back than Adam Yauch.
At age 47, Yauch may not have been a teenager anymore, but when a conscientious, clean-living Buddhist with a fulfilling career is destroyed by his own body before he reaches 50, it’s hard to understand. The world may have changed, but cancer still sucks.
When I first started listening to the Beastie Boys, I didn’t know how to tell them apart. How could one guy go by the name ”Ad-Rock” if there were two guys named Adam in the band? I soon figured it out. MCA (Adam Yauch) was the one with the deep voice, the one who sounded like his balls had already dropped. He was also the bass player, and for me, the coolest.
Ill Communication came out when I was in junior high, and it was my first real introduction to the Beasties. Even then, what drew me to it were not the swag-centric and bombastic crowd-pleasers, but the diversity of the album as whole. The straight-ahead hip hop tunes built on Jimmy Smith samples, the hardcore punk songs, the anti-authoritarian anthem of “Sabotage”, the handful of pensive instrumentals – they all lived under the same roof.
The legend of the Beasties’ origin, that they switched from punk to hip-hop as a joke, had some truth to it: these were guys never wanted to sit still long enough for you to peg them as one thing or another. And they never took themselves seriously.
In high school, I got their first instrumental compilation The In Sound From Way Out and played it into the ground. The Money Mark-led “Ricky’s Theme” was my favorite song from any artist on the planet for several years (although “Subrosa” had the coolest bassline). But it was Check Your Head that made me a true believer. It was the precursor to Ill Communication, with the warts of their musical puberty still intact. The musical diversity was already there, but the songs were unpolished, some even a little sloppy; hey, I could do this, too. I listened to the song “Gratitude” three or four times before running out to Guitar Center to buy my first bass effects pedal, a Zoom 506, and fooled around with it until I found a reasonable approximation of the fuzzed-out, chorused tone that Yauch used for the song’s intro. I still have it today.
The Beastie Boys matured as musicians and as people in a very transparent way. In 1998, they released Hello Nasty!, their first album in four years, and the first since Ill Communication. In the interim, Yauch had become a Buddhist, created The Milarepa Foundation with the aim of fostering Tibetan independence, and organized the first of the Tibetan Freedom concerts.
The crudeness of License to Ill was a distant memory, replaced by polished musicianship and a positive message. The snotty boys had become thoughtful men, and on Hello Nasty!, Yauch sings, yes sings, a song called “I Don’t Know”, presumably about his own quest along the Eightfold Path. His voice strains and cracks to maintain a tunefulness he’s unaccustomed to. It’s forgivable, though, in its earnest message: I’ve learned, but I’m still learning.
With Yauch’s passing, the evolution of the man and the band has been cut short. My generation (whatever we are now called) has lost a cultural touchstone, a person and sound we grew up with, maybe one of the most important since Kurt Cobain.
Personally, I’m pissed off. Not only did the Beasties have more good music and good deeds ahead of them, but Yauch’s death reminded me of my mother’s (also from cancer) and so many others out of the cancer playbook: sudden, senseless, and evidence that our pharmaceutical companies could stand to focus harder on curing things other than flaccid penises and restless legs.
But anger has yet to resurrect anyone. I’m reminded of the comedian Bill Hicks, who suffered an eerily similar fate. Like Yauch, Hicks had put the wild days of his youth behind him, and was soberly enjoying the greatest successes of his career, before cancer took him unexpectedly at age 33. Also like Yauch, Hicks was spiritual, if not at all religious, and tried to live up to an ethos of non-violence, love, and compassion for his fellow man, independent of the raucous noise and turmoil he created on stage on a nightly basis.
Our cynical side might think these men died in vain, proving nothing but the randomness of life and death. But as a person who wants to pay tribute their lives, I’d say that the beliefs these men held dear would only be meaningless if their deaths proved them untrue. In the end, both men believed that they were merely passing through this world, perhaps on their way to another, that they could take nothing with them, and that they might as well give the good people a little laughter and entertainment while they were here.
Adam Yauch, the being of flesh and blood is dead. MCA, the mass of air particles vibrating out at 340 meters per second, will entreat us to Shake Our Rumps as long as recorded sound exists. The person that was Adam Yauch no longer wants, no longer suffers, and has built up enough good karma through his words, songs, and deeds, that he should have a great head start on the next life. Adam Yauch is home.