Since Beastie Boy Adam Yauch lost his lengthy battle with cancer last month, I've resisted the urge to pen some sort of memoriam. That's mostly because, to be perfectly frank, I've lost some people I love recently, and Yauch's death triggered a lingering depression in me.
And yet, he's been on my mind these several weeks, and my favorite Beastie Boys tracks keep popping up in my head at random points throughout the day. Though I've tried to avoid dealing with whatever feelings this untimely passing dredges up in me, I've failed. Yauch represents something to me, and I feel the need to get it off my chest.
MCA, his nom de plume within the trio of hip-hop/punk rock/art-rock New Yorkers known as the Beastie Boys, was by all published accounts a man who evolved at a remarkably brisk clip from the moment the group arrived on the scene in the late 1980s. He was the finest musician in the band, and the catalyst for its eventual groundbreaking fusion of real, live instrumentation and hip-hop. It was Yauch who pushed the band away from the frat-boy party-till-you-puke anthems that earned the Beasties initial success, and toward a radical, progressive amalgamation of modern urban dance-based music, all of it played with a punk edge and a mad scientist's glee.
Yauch was also the finest Caucasian rapper of his generation and, for my money, of the generations that have followed. His voice was rich, deep, guttural, gruff and completely convincing. Yauch understood groove, phrasing and the often incredibly fine line between what's cool and what's cloying.
All of this makes him an icon in the world of hip-hop. But that's not why he keeps popping into my thoughts since he passed on. That reason is best summed up by a photo of Yauch accompanying a wonderful cover story by Brian Hiatt in Rolling Stone. In the photo, Yauch holds his young daughter, Tenzin Losel Yauch, in his arms. The look on his face is positively beatific. On the opposite page, a shaven-headed Yauch bows and touches his forehead to the forehead of Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso during the first of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts he organized beginning in 1996.
These two images drove home my feelings for Yauch, a man who had developed, by the age of 48, from a beer-guzzling, drug-munching party animal into a practicing Buddhist, an activist, a musical progressive, a film director, a humanitarian, a father and a husband. He had achieved a heightened spiritual state. He sought to be a decent man and seems to have achieved as much. He earned fame, looked it in the eye, saw right through it and realized it was meaningless.
He left us way too soon. But when he left, he did so as he lived -- as a searcher. Yauch was MCA, yes, and he should always be remembered for the work he did as a Beastie Boy. But as a man, he managed to transcend himself. And that should be an inspiration to us all.
Young at heart
Neil Young and Crazy Horse have released "Americana," their first studio album together in some nine years. It is an incredibly crushing collection, an irreverent, joyous, loud, scrappy, guitar-heavy, distortion-soaked bacchanal, taking as its raw materials songs that the revered, iconic songwriter Young didn't even pen.
Instead, "Americana" is a collection of older-than-the-hills folk songs, including "Oh! Susannah," "Oh My Darling, Clementine" and "Gallows Pole." But here's the rub -- these songs are not approached with the faux, po-faced reverence that can make them cringe-inducing and Hallmark greeting card-like. Instead, the songs are hit from behind with a wallop to the back of the head, and then stunned into sublimely supersonic submission.
What a hoot, particularly the Crazy Horse take on "This Land Is Your Land," which returns to this way-too-often-covered American chestnut its original defiant, angry, "I will not be reconstructed" stance. Like Jimi Hendrix turning "The Star Spangled Banner" into a blistering mega-watt assault at Woodstock, Young, Poncho Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina radicalize a body of time-worn songs, in the process introducing us to them as if for the very first time.
Buy this bombastic slab of "Americana." And play it loud. Very loud. It's your patriotic duty.
The Crimson Projekct has pulled off the current leg of the Dream Theater tour and will not be opening the latter band's Sunday evening show at Artpark, according to event promoters. Sigh.