I’m not skilled at writing obituaries, but I can’t let the sun set without acknowledging the death of Beastie Boys frontman, humanitarian, and filmmaker Adam Yauch. I could compare his death to the death of a Beatle. For me, they were comparably skilled, trend-setting, multi-talented, dynamic, and their music–and especially the skull-breaking “Cookie Puss” and “You Gotta Fight” was generation-defining. I open my book with an anecdote about winning a cassette copy of Licensed to Ill because winning it and loving it and finding myself in it was the first step on the path that led me to become a music expert and writer. I have years of my life…YEARS…that have a Beasties album as a soundtrack. There are at least three albums I can recite, word for word. I saw them play live once, but it was worth a thousand shows.
Knowing this music, this band, and its fans as I do, there are a few things I think you’ll read and hear about them in the next few days. (And I can point you toward some very nice remembrances, catalogued by AOL music.) First, you’ll hear about their transition from horny, irresponsible, sexist teenagers, to mature, feminist, responsible men. Second, people will describe them as the “first white rap group.” [This, in my opinion, misses the point and mis-locates their achievements. They lived in a multi-racial community of artists and musicians in New York, and never, to my knowledge, made racial politics central to their music or public lives.] Third, you’ll read about Yauch’s active participation in the movement to spread awareness of the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet. You may also read people talk about his work in film, including his important contributions to the iconic music videos the group created. Surely, someone will talk about his diet, and turn to veganism. Hopefully, the stories will also focus on his capacity to love–he stayed with the band he formed on his 17th birthday until he passed away at age 47. He was also married and has a beautiful young daughter.
As I said, I’m not skilled at writing obituaries, so I’ll leave the rest to someone better. What I do want to do before I sign off, is say one simple truth: there are a small number of public figures that have inspired me in concrete and lasting ways–that have directed the course of my life. Now there is one fewer. RIP MCA.
UPDATE: As I had hoped, there are a number of touching and comprehensive tributes to MCA on the interwebs today, my favorite of which is Sasha Frere-Jones’s postscript on the New Yorker blog.
The ideal memorial is written from distance, a generous calculation of merit that proceeds honorably without abandoning accuracy. I have to apologize right now for being unable to give you that—Adam Yauch was a part of my childhood, an ambassador to America from our New York, which is now gone, as is he.…And this is the Yauch people remember: a man who could say he was sorry and not feel lessened by it; a man living within the principles of Buddhism and committed to broadening awareness of the political situation in Tibet; and a genuinely quiet person who had become more likely to make a joke at his own expense than anyone else’s. Yauch’s is one of the voices that can signify hip-hop within three syllables—rough, low, and strained. He got a lot done with that voice.