Monday, June 4, 2012

One Month Ago Today....Remembering Adam Yauch A.K.A. MCA of Beastie Boys

It's been exactly a month since word broke that Adam Yauch of Beastie Boys had lost his battle with the Big C at age 47. Yauch started off as a wild and crazy rap star and, in the end, became a Tibetan activist and a distributor of Academy Award-nominated films and documentaries (not to mention a family man). 

Anyway, to mark the 1-month anniversary of his death, I thought I'd run the original longer, more personal and anecdote-filled version of the article published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles a few weeks back. That tribute was the article that brought me back into the Journal's fold about nine years after I left my position there as a staff writer (1997-2003).

MCA, circa 1986, "Fight for Your Right (to Party)" video.

Beastie Boys, circa 1986.

Cover art of their debut album, LICENSED TO ILL, a twist on the "Led Zeppelin IV" cover art. Note the little backwards "Eat Me" message on the fuselage of the plane.

Requiem for a Beastie: Remembering Adam “MCA” Yauch

by Michael Aushenker

So how was your Cinco de Mayo? Yeah, well, mine kinda sucked, thanks.
Blame the morning of May 4th. “Avengers” fever was in the air on this beautiful San Francisco day as I prepared for the weekend’s Latino Comics Expo, an annual convention at the Cartoon Art Museum, where I was invited up to sign copies of my “El Gato, Crime Mangler” comics (about a dimwitted, banana-phobic luchador).
That’s when I got this text from an amigo in San Diego: “I’m so depressed right now. I know u know Ad Rock passed away, right?”
I was stunned. I mean like, WTF?! Adam “King Ad-Rock” Horovitz (the wise-ass with the nasal flow) was always my favorite Beastie Boy, followed closely by Adam “MCA” Yauch (the husky voice), and Michael “Mike D” Diamond (the shrill one).
You have to remember that, in the mid-1980s, to awkward teenage boys like myself, Beastie Boys, the first all-white (and Jewish!) rap group was huge. When I bought “Licensed to Ill,” their 1986 major-label album debut, I was a Fairfax High School student missing my native Canarsie, and the Beasties wore their New Yawker attitude on their snotty, beer-stained sleeves, dropping East Coast references to delicatessens and White Castle. Brash, obnoxious and irreverent, yet stupid-dumb clever in the Three Stooges/Cheech & Chong tradition, the Beastie Boys were liberating. I looked up to these teens, a scant few years older than me. Like the best rock, they represented sex, booze, drugs, mayhem, anarchy, and all the other things I couldn’t indulge in myself. “Licensed” was like why Jews dig “Inglourious Basterds”; a visceral, vicarious fantasy.  
Seconds after reading that text message, I realized my friend had probably gotten it wrong. After all, it was Yauch, not Horovitz, whose well-publicized battle with cancer had delayed the release of their last album, “Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two,” by two years. Beastie Boys dropped out last minute from performing at Jersey City’s All Points West festival in 2009, and Jay-Z filled in, opening with his cover of “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” (Even Chris Martin of Coldplay, tickling the ivories, sang an oxymoronic, sensitive rendition of their infamous signature single, “Fight For Your Right [to Party].”) And yet, it was announced upon “Hot Sauce”’s May 2011 release that Yauch had beat the cancerous parotid gland and lymph node he had contracted.
In today’s postmodern ADD world, where “Fight for Your Right” can become elevator music worthy of your local Ralphs (YouTube Martin’s version if you don’t believe me...), many have forgotten how truly notorious the Beasties were “back in the day.” Originally formed at Yauch’s 17th birthday party, Beastie Boys caught the ear of producer Rick Rubin, who, with Russell Simmons (brother of Joseph “Run” Simmons of Run-DMC), formed Def Jam Records out of Rubin’s NYU dorm room. They started out as a punk rock band until scoring with underground novelty singles such as “Cookie Puss” (Yauch’s prank call to a Carvel Ice Cream store set to a shuffling groove).
Then svengali Rubin put some metal polish on their style while producing their abrasive 1986 debut “Licensed to Ill,” and, for two years, all hell broke loose across the U.S.A. The Beastie Boys blew up. For one hot minute, during those uptight Cold War Reagan years, they were the American Sex Pistols; anarchists guised as glorified frat boys, sliding on spilt Budweiser across stages worldwide adorned with strippers in cages and (until it was banned) a monumental phallus. All kinds of notoriety made headlines, some true, much of it fabricated or exaggerated: The Beasties were booed off stage while opening for Madonna, had supposedly mocked a group of disabled kids, and hit a woman in the face after winging a beer bottle into a crowd. Worst of all, Horovitz began dating America’s sweetheart, Molly Ringwald! (That was real...) “Licensed to Ill” (discarded working title: “Don’t Be a Faggot”) had so many controversial, outrageous, over-the-top songs (two penned by Run-DMC, including the raunchy Wild West-themed “Paul Revere”) intertwining sex, violence, and drug/alcohol abuse that, when the Beasties evolved from hipster icons into socially conscious activists throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, they spent the rest of their career apologizing for that anthemic album and refusing to perform their biggest “Licensed” hits in concert (as if its goofball, cartoony humor was lost on even them).
With “Licensed,” the Beastie Boys achieved what no rappers, not even genre pioneers Run-DMC could: top Billboard’s album charts. “Licensed” sold a massive 4 million records (and, since its heyday, the perennial classic, has gone, um, diamond).
Accompanying that success, a dispute with Def Jam over royalties sent them West to Capitol Records, where they recorded 1989’s “Paul’s Boutique,” a masterpiece so dense with samples (created before artists had to pay for song rights) that it would be impossibly, prohibitively costly to create such a record today. “Paul’s” was not exactly “Licensed” Part II” either, swapping out crunchy white-boy Led Zep and Black Sabbath riffs for black funk grooves and disco loops. Darker and grittier than its happy-go-lucky predecessor, “Paul’s” bombed hard, barely approaching gold. Yet within a few short years, this rambling, transmuting urban odyssey not only became regarded as a masterpiece for the Beasties, but for hip hop at large. It was a gigantic sonic leap from “Licensed,” a more compact, relatively minimalist adrenaline rush of teenage rebellion.
As they grew up from Boys to men, the trio became musically restless and confident enough to go out of character for a few tracks (sometimes for entire albums) and eschew their comfort-food tag-team style for their punk roots or lounge-y funk/jazz/rock tendencies. Personality-wise, they became reformed Beasties, more serious––even preachy––and Yauch led the charge, trading his Judaism (mother’s side) for Buddhism after marrying Dechen Wagnu and forming the Milarepa Fund, a 501(3)(C) supporting the Tibetan independence movement. Yauch also formed, with THINKFilm executive David Fenkel, the successful indie distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories, which released, among other movies, the Michelle Williams showcase “Wendy & Lucy,” and Oscar-nominated films “The Messenger” and Banksy documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
So upon learning of Yauch’s death, the memories and anecdotes started flooding out of me. Back in 1987, my best friend Rich and I already had tickets to see the Run-DMC/Beastie Boys “Together Forever Tour” at the Greek Theatre, where, in a cosmic coincidence, our Fairfax High graduation ceremony was being held just one week prior. It didn’t matter that Jennifer Zivolich, the unattainable cheerleader I had been lusting over in silent desperation, had, by some failure in alphabetical seating, been placed next to me during graduation rehearsals and rejected me after I slipped her a love letter. Rich and I had memorized our seat numbers and we were already salivating over our front tier seats. “Screw graduation! One week from tonight, we’re going to see the Beastie Boys!”
Needless to say, the concert lived up to its promised infamy. A year later, when I returned to the Greek for a Run-DMC concert (also featuring Public Enemy and EPMD in their prime), the headliners interrupted the show to welcome some surprise guests. The crowd went bananas as Yauch and company emerged to perform several songs, including one unrecognizable one with memorable lyrics about burgers and chicken and nose-picking which the Dust Brothers later musically reworked as “Paul’s” hyperactive opener, “Shake Your Rump.”
What’s really weird, I realized last weekend, was how MCA, towards the end of “Paul’s,” performed a rare solo freestyle titled “A Year and a Day.” I guess back in ‘89, he called it, because on May 4, Yauch died exactly “a year and a day” after the release of “Hot Sauce,” their final album.
While in San Francisco, I heard there was an outpouring of celebrity grief hitting the Twittersphere in the wake of Yauch’s passing. Justin Timberlake was crushed, Jay-Z saddened, and Ben Stiller (such a diehard fan, he appeared in the crowd of a Beasties concert film) devastated. Even Simmons, dissed on “Paul’s,” praised Yauch’s legacy.
Thankfully, Yauch lived long enough to see his group inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame last month (although he couldn’t attend).
Yet by far, the best MCA tribute came from Yauch himself. As “Nathanial Hörnblowér,” Yauch had, for years, been directing Beastie videos such as “Intergalactic” and “Body Movin’.” Last year, for “Hot Sauce”’s lead single “Make Some Noise,” Yauch shot a 30-minute long-form video, “Fight for Your Right (to Party) Revisited,” that doubled as cheap sequel and spoof of their teen hit. The video begins with Seth Rogen as Mike D., Elijah Wood as Ad-Rock, and Danny McBride as MCA (impersonating circa-1986 Beasties in their B-Boy caricature garb) and ends in a face off with futureshock counterparts John C. Reilly, Will Ferrel and Jack Black, emerging out of a “Back to the Future” DeLorean to challenge them to a dance contest. The video may drag in spots, but it’s a testament to the Beasties’ enduring popularity that joining those feature-comedy superstars are a who’s who of hip actors and hipster icons, from Rainn Wilson, Rashida Jones and Mya Rudolph, to Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci and Kirsten Dunst, to Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, and so on.
Two moments have, in retrospect, become poignant: a cameo by a skateboarding 13-year-old Lorel Yauch, the tall, lanky daughter MCA left behind...and the video’s punchline ending; breaking up that dance battle, dressed as cops, are the real Beastie Boys. While Horovitz and Diamond figure prominently, there’s only a fleeting, distant shot of Yauch, looking gaunt, frail and aged in a prematurely white beard (hiding surgical scars?).
So is there a silver lining after Yauch’s passing? Not ostensibly. Because Beastie Boys, as a group, are done––they were irreplaceable and not interchangeable. (You can’t just hire a new bassist like Wilco or something.) On the plus side, since celebrities die in threes, at least Horovitz and Diamond didn’t follow. (The guy who played Goober Pyle and Maurice Sendak count, right?).
Perhaps Yauch’s legacy is that others will be inspired by his activism and his support of independent filmmakers in an age when movie studios do not. And while one can argue those last two albums are relatively “meh,” the Beastie Boys aged gracefully, staying creative and commercially successful into middle age. In rap years, the Beasties were AC/DC. What other ‘80s rap act can you name that has topped the charts and stayed relevant for 26 years? (Answer: none). Even LL Cool J and Queen Latifah have become actors to survive in the ever-changing entertainment world while PE hype man Flavor Flav resorted to making out with Brigitte Neilsen in a swimming pool for cable ratings.
Back to Cinco de Mayo...Following the Comics Expo, my cartoonist buddy Jose and I walked a dozen blocks through the streets of San Francisco at sunset to meet our peers at an after-party. The Mission was like a Bizarro World Mardi Gras mash-up of season two of “Eastbound and Down” and Brooklyn circa 1986; awash with drunken non-Mexican males (Asians, blacks, gringos) in giant sombreros and scandalously dressed women partying to a Beastie Boys soundtrack blasting out of the cars cruising up and down Mission Street. It gave me goose bumps to hear chunks of “Brass Monkey,” “The New Style,” and other “Licensed” cuts––chunks of my youth––coming from every direction. It was also kind of cool. No apologies necessary.  

Michael Aushenker writes for the Malibu Times and is a cartoonist who has contributed to Heavy Metal magazine and Gumby and Pokey comics. His latest comic book, “Bart Simpson” # 70, is now on sale internationally at newsstands and book shops everywhere. Visit

An awesome tribute by the Wiltern Theatre in Koreatown following Yauch's passing. Ironically, to my knowledge, the Beasties never played this venue. Still pretty cool.

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