My mom was admitted to the hospital on the day that MCA announced he had cancer. I’m tempted to say that it was nothing serious, but did I mention that she was admitted to the hospital? She had been sick for a week, but she felt like she was on the mend. Her appointment with her doctor that morning was supposed to be a check-in. I live in New York, she in Missouri. When I spoke to her on the phone, she was going through the admissions process. She said, “I’m OK, Kirb. Don’t worry about me. Gotta go.” And she hung up.
An hour later I received an email from BeastieBoys.com. The subject read, “HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM”. The body said, “hey all, there’s been a change in plans. please click this link to see a statement from me. thanks, yauch.” I clicked the link. There was MCA, sitting to the left of a bearded Ad Rock. It took me a minute to identify Ad Rock. In the video, they are in a studio, but in front of the soundboard rather than behind it. Something seems amiss from the beginning. They aren’t clowning. “OK. Um. So,” they start. Then they laugh. “It’s not funny.” “It’s not.” MCA starts by preparing us for “some pretty heavy news”. They have to cancel their upcoming shows, delay the release of their new album. But that’s not the heavy part. The heavy part is that two months ago he felt a lump in his neck, MCA did. Thought nothing of it. A swollen gland like when you have a cold. But it persisted, so he had it checked out. Turns out it’s a form of cancer in a gland over here (he points with his index finger to just below his left ear). He’ll have surgery the following week, radiation treatment to follow. But it’s localized, not in the rest of his body. They checked. His voice should be fine. Ad Rock keeps his head bowed during most of the announcement, pipes in with a “that’s good” at the part about his voice. Ad Rock says that Yauch didn’t tell him why he was coming down and that he’s usually dressed real tight. “It’s a little bit of a setback and a pain in the ass,” MCA says. And to all of you who were looking forward to seeing us this summer, “I apologize.”
I was at work. I sent the link to my friend Mike. I said, “Everything about this is weird.”
Then I IM’d my wife: “This day is not going very well.”
There’s a version of this discussion that says I was more moved by MCA’s announcement than I was about my mom being admitted to the hospital. The Beastie Boys are more like family to me than my own family and that kind of thing. But don’t worry. This is not that conversation. Line up my mother and Adam Yauch and tell me to choose and that’s no choice at all. If the situation were reversed, he’d do the same. You would too. You should.
This is more about the surprise I felt when an hour after my heart ached for my own mother it ached again in a similar way for someone whom I have never actually met. So I’ve spent days probably months listening to his music. So what? This gives me the right? The short answer is “Yes. Yes, it does.”
I admit the distinction is fine, but it’s the difference between knowing how important someone is in your life and realizing it.
The real surprise is that I was surprised at all. When I was 12 years old, I stepped into Blue Meanie Records in El Cajon, California. I’ve known the importance of pop culture in my life since that day. It’s why I’ve spent a lifetime underlining passages in books, insisting that an album’s first listen is uninterrupted, and crying during the movie when I know how it’s going to end.
But my reaction to MCA felt different. In those other instances, the emotion is inspired by a phrase, a tune, an image, and in many cases all three. It’s a goddamned conspiracy of influences, and it’s no wonder I respond the way I do. I can’t help it.
With MCA, though, it was so stripped down, so emotionally open. There were no production values; there was no manipulation; he didn’t hide behind a press release.
It was one take. Lights up, lights down.
With MCA it felt personal. Just me and his millions of fans.
* * *
The Beastie Boys have long been a fan-friendly act. The Criterion release of a DVD of their greatest video hits (through Hello, Nasty) includes enough goodies to more than justify the $29.95 sticker price. Their Web site maintains a truly communal space, one that not only connects fans but also encourages them to create and share remixes of their favorite songs. They recently released two free audio recordings of them listening and commenting on Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head (think of them as kind of DVD commentary tracks for CD’s—or, I guess now, MP3s).
Of course, their most famous and ambitious foray into fan involvement occurred when they distributed cameras to 50 lucky fans and asked them to film their triumphant concert at Madison Square Garden in 2006. The result was a feature-length concert film, Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!, which was ostensibly “directed” by “Nathan Hornblower”, AKA MCA, AKA Adam Yauch.
In recent years, their relationship with their fans has been conducted primarily over electronic mail. They’ll send out information about upcoming (re)releases or presales for shows. Granted, email is tricky. A name like “Nine Inch Nails” or “The Strokes” under the “sender” column doesn’t necessarily mean that you are corresponding with Nine Inch Nails or the Strokes. In all likelihood, you are corresponding with their representatives. Not so with “BeastieBoys.com”, or at least I think not so. The emails from BeastieBoys.com feel authentic. I would come home from work and say to my wife, “Guess who I got an email from today?” She’d say, “Who?” I’d say, “The Beastie Boys”. She’d say, “Yeah, right. And I got an evite from Eminem.” I’d say, “I’m serious.”
Yauch seems to be more involved than the others with these messages, probably because he has more to plug. He’ll see a movie like The 11th Hour and then send out a message urging everyone else to go. Or he’ll remind us all to see Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, a movie he directed about high-school basketball players and their spot in the NBA draft. In fact, the message about Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot was one of his more memorable missives. Tell me this isn’t Yauch himself: “this friday i’ll be at a couple of the screenings at the AMC Loews Village 7 to do Q and A’s, so if yr into that kind of [sic], thing, come and hang out with me. and if you are one of those turrets people that screams out things at a Q and A like ‘i love you dude, remember when we smoked a bowl up on the roof of the defjam building?’ that’s ok too. see you there!”
At the beginning of the summer they sent out a message that outlined their five-point plan for world domination. It included a reissue of Ill Communication; festival shows at Bonnaroo, All Points West, Lollapalooza, and Outside Lands; the release of their new album, Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 1; and a culminating concert in September at the Hollywood Bowl. A subsequent email suggested that the plan was well under way. It was the Summer of the Beastie Boys.
Then, on July 20th, 12:12 PM: “HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM.”
* * *
I’ve had the opportunity (and fortunately the money) to see the Beastie Boys four times in the past two, maybe three years. For a band whose individual members are pretty much indistinguishable from one another in the public consciousness, I’m amazed at how their distinct personalities emerge onstage.
Ad Rock is clearly the leader of the band; he plays guitar when they switch to their instruments. Mike D and his ‘fro bouncing behind the drum kit are by far the coolest of the three. And MCA watches his fingers when he plays bass. He’s the least ostentatious. With his salt and pepper hair (mainly salt) he looks like the oldest of the three (which is just as well because he is). Just like Dylan’s voice shot itself out sometime before Time Out of Mind (and many would say long before), MCA’s voice went before they recorded To the 5 Boroughs. But like Dylan, he uses it to great effect. He features rather than hides that raspiness. It’s a perfect complement to Ad Rock’s nasal and Mike D’s bravado flows.
When MCA takes the mic, he’s low the ground, his arms loose at the elbows and the wrists. He looks like he’s perpetually on the verge of falling down. A standing-eight count. Yet he keeps on going.
* * *
At All Points West, Jay-Z filled in for the Beastie Boys as the headliner. I had a hunch that he might throw an homage their way. He did not disappoint.
He and his full band opened with “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn”. He didn’t even change the lyrics. “Born and bred Brooklyn in the USA,” he rapped. “They call me Adam Yauch but I’m MCA.”
I wasn’t there. I sought it out the following morning. The YouTube clip is grainy as shit. It gave me chills.