Friday, May 4, 2012

Going Out First Class

I'm gonna die gonna die one day
Cause I'm goin and goin and goin this way
Not like a roach or a piece of toast
I'm going out first class not going out coach
-- Beastie Boys, "The Sounds of Science"

The first time I heard the Beastie Boys, I hated them and thought they were a stupid joke.  Maybe it's because they made me feel old -- and this was half my lifetime ago.  I was reminded of this today when the band's Adam Yauch died at the tender age of 47.

A friend's girlfriend was so obsessed with them that when I was at her downtown apartment she insisted on playing me all of Licensed to Ill -- on a boombox.  On cassette. (I think it was the Pleistocene era.) [To learn what became of said cassette see comments.]

My reaction made me sound like my father when he talked about any rock music: to me, it sounded like a bunch of frat guys yelling. Many of the catchy melodies were literally stolen from famous records. 

Even though I worked at Rolling Stone at the time -- or perhaps because of it -- I dismissed them as a novelty act cobbled together by rap impresario Rick Rubin to cynically cross black music over to white kids in the age-old tradition of Elvis, Johnny Rivers, et al. 

The Boys: Adam Yauch, Mike Diamond, Adam Horovitz
Then the album sold millions, largely thanks to the single "Fight for Your Right to Party" which hewed to another age-old tradition, pandering to kids' anti-authoritarian impulses -- much more safely than the Clash - - and a crude funny video that actually featured pie-throwing [right] sealed the deal. 

And then -- because the gods have a sense of humor -- I was immediately assigned to go on the road with them and their prop: a jack-in-the-box inflatable penis. 

I could have predicted this. Though I had gotten my Rolling Stone job thanks in part to writing a cover story on Talking Heads, once I was hired, I realized it was a fluke, that I was the rookie who would never get assigned plum pieces on iconic legends in mid-career. Also, I tended to write funny, and the magazine tended to be reverential about those folks. So I got the newbies, the novelties, the comedians. 

Even though I hadn't been reporting very long, however, I already knew that if you approached a story with preconceived notions, you were doing it wrong. So I remained open -- and the boys won me over.
And I do mean boys. When I met up with them in Louisville, Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz, son of the off-Broadway playwright Israel Horovitz) was 20, Mike D (Michael Diamond) was 21, and MCA (Yauch) was the elder statesman at 22. (Mike told me they came up with their nicknames because "it's hard to find things that rhyme with Yauch, Horovitz and Diamond.")

I discovered that
not only were the Beasties in on the joke and decidedly not puppets, they were smart enough to have something to say and, as it turned out, to have staying power. As I later wrote: 
You probably knew kids like the Beastie Boys in high school: wiseasses who wore beat-up clothes, smoked dope, cut classes, and partied till dawn in grungy rock clubs -- too antsy to be studious but too upper middle-class and smart to be real delinquents. But how many of that bunch went from high school to opening for Madonna, scoring a number-one album, clowning at the Grammys, and dating Molly Ringwald (well, just Horovitz) all while thrusting a twenty-foot phallus in front of racially mixed crowds?
Elvis's Chai in use
Because the next stop was Memphis, I decided it would be a great scene to have the boys visit Graceland [see Moshe Brakha's photo up top].

Ogling all of Presley's gaudy jewelry, Mike D said: "Here's Elvis's biggest contribution to our career: he was the first person to sport B-boy gold." (After noticing that one piece was a diamond-encrusted Hebrew letter chai [right], the boys had a field day imagining Elvis hosting a seder.)

When the tour supervisor warned their guide, "These guys only went to school a little bit," Yauch shot back, "We went enough, though!" And when she told them that Robert Plant and Phil Collins were due to visit soon, Yauch said "Say hi to Robert for us -- and tell Phil we don't care about him."

When I came back to the Rolling Stone offices, I was so gung ho I wanted them to be on the cover, but it was not to be: the magazine had committed to a special issue on the history of "Rock Style" and put David Bowie on the cover. The piece was chopped up on lots of partial pages, diminishing the photos and the impact.

When they finished their next album, Paul's Boutique, editor David Wild asked me to review it. I took it on and was blown away. Not only had the boys not done a retread -- they had worked with new producers, The Dust Brothers, who gave them such a dense, layered sound that I was overwhelmed trying to decipher what I was hearing.  

So I did something I had never done before, and never did again: I asked for a conference call with them to try to parse out some of what I thought I heard, to make sure I wasn't getting things wrong. I wish I had a tape recording of that call, because they were entertainingly jaunty and oblique, but in the end probably didn't help my review one iota.

For whatever reason, that review is the only thing with my byline available for free on the magazine's website, so you can read it here. The lyrics I quote at the top of this post come from a hodgepodge song on that album that popped in my head today when I heard the news. (It's Yauch who growls "I'm gonna die gonna die one day...." over a guitar riff from Abbey Road.)

Yauch went on to direct many of the band's videos, built a recording studio, distributed movies, became a Buddhist, and started a charity to support Tibet. Here's a picture I grabbed of him off a 2007 Charlie Rose (!) interview. He cleaned up nice.
Hall of Famers Ad Rock and Mike D
And all those years after I first heard that noise coming out of the boombox, when I heard the Beasties had been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I had a weird burst of fatherly pride. Then when I heard Yauch, who'd been diagnosed with cancer in 2009, was too ill to attend the induction ceremony, I didn't even want to watch.

He leaves behind a wife, a teenage daughter, a treasure trove of music and positive vibes. He "went out first class."

I'll leave you with one last quote from the piece, when I asked him about people who thought they were a bad influence.

"We pretty much insult everything and everybody. Everything on the record is joking around. How's it gonna seem if we suddenly sing, "Drink a lot of beer, but don't drink if you're gonna drive, 'cause you might get in an accident and die?"

The one somber moment came when they went outside Elvis' house and saw his flower-laden gravesite. The three twentysomething badboys stood there somewhat awkwardly and then Yauch finally broke the silence:

"What was it the guys sang in Spinal Tap?"
The boys' imagined Beastie Old Men. So hard to fathom that it will never be. 


Robert said...

Wonderful post, David! Your honesty at initially not being a fan and growing into a big one was lovely, and honest. These guys were a large part of my college years. Very sad for his wife and daughter.

David said...

So don't tell me a story
Of a man who was killed
Now while I am falling away
I need you beside me
At the end of the day
Please provide

(just an idiosyncratic reaction to reading this story at this moment)

David Handelman said...

Here's a nice post by Sasha Frere-Jones who met Yauch in high school.

David Handelman said...

Rob Sheffield on Yauch as a force of conscience:

David Handelman said...

The owner of that original cassette tells this tale:
The cassette is no longer: When he was a toddler my oldest son would demand the Beastie Boys album in order to drift off to sleep. One day the cassette got left out in the sun, and melted a bit. We spliced it back together, backwards by accident. My son would happily listen to most of it, but when it was about to play the reversed bit, he'd start freaking out and cry "No Beastie Boys in sunlight, No Beastie Boys in sunlight!" We were forced to retire that particular pacifier, into the garbage can.

coolhandc said...

Amazing post David. I got chills just reading it. The Beastie Boys were such an indelible part of my youth and have a huge influence on my own artistic endeavors, however, I had no idea just how much this news would affect me this weekend. Clint

Wax said...

Not sure if you're aware of the existence of video, but are you the same David Handelman in this tour of the Rolling Stone Magazine office back in the late 80's filmed by the late Nelson Sullivan?