I try to make my every action for that highest good
With the altruistic wish to achieve Buddhahood
So I pledge here before everyone who's listening
To make my every action for the good of all beings.
— MCA and Beastie Boys, “Bodhisattva Vow”
Adam Yauch helped turn Beastie Boys into men, and for Beastie fans of a certain age, he was the example. The first time most people saw MCA, he beat himself in the head with his own shoe, kicked down the door to a nerd party, grabbed a beer out of a random partyer's hand, drank it, bounced the can off the guy's head, turned around and spit the beer into the next guy's face. That's the starting point for one of the great evolution stories in modern music.
My first copy of Beastie Boys' “Licensed to Ill” was a counterfeit cassette that sounded like it was about six generations removed from the original master and had been run over by a jitney on its way to the bogus tape store in the Philippines where I bought it. That was my pre-Napster, Pacific Fleet way of testing the waters: it was January 1987 and “Fight for Your Right” was blowing up back home. I needed to know, and two bucks was two bucks.
And I'm certain that every centavo went to some criminal in Manila running dual decks 24 hours a day, but I made it up to the Yauch, who died May 4 at age 47, and his bandmates, Michael Diamond and Adam Horowitz, by purchasing four distinct and legitimate copies of “Licensed to Ill,” including a digital version last year.
Each track on “Licensed to Ill” was designed to horrify authority, whether it was a parent, an early hip-hop purist or some uptight Led Zeppelin fan screaming, “Apostasy!” No other album in 1987 was played more at parties, and while “Licensed to Ill” is considered a fun but slight album compared to the ones that followed and the Beasties looked like the poster boys for future late-1980s nostalgia, with beer in one hand and a hot ticket to oblivion in the other. But the combination of tightly crafted smart stupidity and Rick Rubin's go-for-broke melding of classic rock with breakbeats makes it a classic.
Although my first “Licensed” was unlicensed, it became the foundation for rabid fandom — the foundation, but not the cornerstone. That status belongs to “Paul's Boutique,” a 1989 album that was such a colossal artistic leap beyond the bash-and-sneer punk-hop of “Licensed to Ill” that it still feels like a superhuman feat. Much is said and written about how the Dust Brothers' production created a kind of aural mosaic so brilliantly constructed from bites of vinyl that the form was practically outlawed within two years, but “Paul's Boutique” is a masterpiece largely because Yauch pushed his group to think bigger and deeper. It was like going from “Meet the Beatles” to “Abbey Road” in one move. They lost a lot of fans that they would have lost anyway, but they traded them in for loyal ones.
As they moved forward, Beastie Boys reclaimed the instruments they set aside before “Licensed” and Yauch became a Buddhist, a vegetarian, a human-rights activist and an entrepreneur. He renounced the misogyny of “Licensed to Ill” on 1994's “Sure Shot” and explored his new consciousness on “Bodhisattva Vow” and “Namaste.” And through it all, Beasties never stopped making great albums, all the way through to last year's “Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2.” Not many groups achieve such a constancy of excellence.
Yauch became a music video director par excellence under the name Nathaniel Hornblower and started Oscilloscope Laboratories, the independent film distribution company that released “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “The Messenger,” “Meek's Cutoff,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and scores of other great small-budget films. He was a multidimensional talent, a man who couldn't and wouldn't and didn't stop until the end.
And that's why dads all over the world were in such a bad mood on May 4, kids. Yauch did it all and did it right, lived a righteous life, and yet the cancer he struggled with for three years was too much for even a good man with a truckload of talent, instincts and money. I never got to talk to Yauch, but his personal evolution was an inspiration to me and many of my friends. He showed us how to grow up but not grow boring.
His death didn't only affect those of us who were there at the start: a good friend of mine who was probably conceived around the time “Paul's Boutique” began its initially underwhelming run on the charts was just as broken up about losing MCA. We all process differently. My baby boomer friends lost John Lennon in a different way than I did: They mourned his death based on everything he created and said during their lives, and it still hurts three decades on. I discovered Lennon's art after he was killed, and every time I bought a Beatles album for the next three years, I felt the sting of what was taken from us.
It might be the same for the kids my son's age when they discover Beastie Boys. If they work their way through the seven canonical albums, they will get to the end of “Hot Sauce Committee” and hate the fact that there are no more. And there will not be any more — I simply cannot comprehend the King Ad-Rock and Mike D running around on stage with a holographic MCA, like Tupac Shakur at this year's Coachella.
But the kids will know from listening, beginning to end and front to back, that MCA had the skills to pay the bills. Make some noise if you're with me.