Adam Yauch and the Adolescent Sublime
Of all the Beastie Boys, I had the least attachment to Adam Yauch. It’s important to say this at the beginning because it’s impossible to talk about the Beastie Boys as individuals without talking about the group, and it’s impossible to talk about them as a band — to talk about their music — without being personal. More than any other group, their greatness is defined through affection: You love the Beastie Boys, or you don’t. You love listening to Mike Diamond (“Mike D”), Adam Horowitz (“Ad-Rock”) and Yauch (“MCA”) rhyme about their lives, or you don’t. There is no neutral.
For fans like me, the Beastie Boys are inseparable from the times in our lives when we listened to them most. As a teenager starting a non-Jewish high school after years in day school, I spent hours trying to divine crypto-Jewish messages in their music. I’m half embarrassed to admit it, but the first MCA lyric that came to mind when I heard about his May 4 death wasn’t one of his great expressions of social consciousness, like “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/ The disrespect to women has got to be through,” or his public apology in 1999 for the band’s early misogyny. That came later, when I had to think about Yauch and what he meant. The first thing I thought of was this line from “Get on the Mic”: “Mike … don’t be so selfish/ Get on the mic ‘cause you know you eat shellfish.” In what universe other than a Jewish one does that taunt make sense? They were already megastars when the song was released in 1989; were they really still worried about Jewish dietary laws?
Talking to other people about Adam Yauch, I realized that this experience is common. Other fans have other memories of other songs, but the memories are always personal: the time you spent goofing off and memorizing “Paul Revere” with a best friend; the older, much cooler kid you conned into talking to you because you both liked the Beastie Boys; the older, much cooler music writer I conned into talking to me yesterday because we both were trying to express how losing Adam Yauch made us feel.
Early on, their work was called “juvenile.” The better word is “adolescent.” Beastie Boys albums are miniature coming of age stories — stories of learning about the world and how to treat other people, but always fun, always about what it means to be young. It only made them richer that each song had three voices, three close friends who were finding the world together, finishing each other’s rhymes, cutting in and cutting the others down to size. You can’t imagine them apart.
As a lyricist, MCA didn’t speak to me as strongly as Mike D and Ad-Rock did. He seemed detached from the revelry, either as the band’s conscience, or playing the role of straight man. That role was necessary, though at 14 years old I didn’t understand it yet. Where I connected with Adam Yauch as an individual was in film. Yauch’s production company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, has released some of the most brilliant movies of recent years, like “Wendy and Lucy,” “The Messenger” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” He made his own documentary, the entertaining “Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot,” about a basketball tournament in Harlem’s Rucker Park. He was committed to supporting inventive, challenging, independent cinema at a time when almost no one else was.
As great as those movies are, they don’t compare to the Beastie Boys videos that Yauch directed under the name Nathaniel Hornblower. I’m not sure whether music videos are art; they are essentially commercials for an album, and most of them are interested only in style. The best video directors, like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, go on to make feature films and their videos are seen as the way they supported themselves before they became artists.
But Yauch’s Beastie Boys videos are something else. “Intergalactic” and “Body Movin’” are visual expressions of all the band’s madcap energies. “Body Movin’” is particularly strong, a parody of 1960’s spy movies that becomes so much more.
Harold Bloom once listed the ending of the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” as one of the most sublime moments in 20th-century American art. That’s how I feel about the video for “Body Movin’.” Why is Mike D dressed in a revolutionary war costume? I can’t tell you (nor, for that matter, why he switches between the Whigs and the Tories). Why does a bird make a plane explode? Again, I can’t explain. The components of the video are nonsensical, silly, and almost laughably ridiculous on their own, but together they rise into something magnificent. Draw a parallel to the band, if you will.
Wherever Mike D and Ad-Rock go next, I’ll be there. But they’ll never be the Beastie Boys again — that time in all of our lives is gone.
Watch ‘Body Movin’: