[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
A few days ago, I woke up to the sad news that Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys had lost his battle with cancer and passed away.
As the sun started to set in Hobart, Australia — where I was performing that night — I became sadder and sadder. I wanted to talk about him during the show but, not having had much time to think about what I would say, I didn't want to get anything wrong or in any way be misunderstood. So I said nothing about him and kept it all to myself.
Last week, I was in a gym and on the television was one of those endless “best of” music video marathons. The show played the Beasties' “Sabotage” video. I don't know how many times I have seen this mini-masterpiece directed by Spike Jonze, but it never fails to knock me out every time. The talent of Adam and his cohorts Mike D and Ad-Rock is a very large and deep pool.
I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to tour with the Beastie Boys and watched almost every set they played on all those dates. Why not? You do your set and then you get to see the Beasties play? Best deal in town.
Never was any show a letdown. The fact that they would break away from the rap material and actually play instruments onstage — sometimes to the dissatisfaction of some of their MTV-generated, ADHD-addled youth fans — made it all the more impressive. They were a real band, and if they had to test the patience of some kid at his second concert, all the better. The Beastie Boys were completely impressive and you could tell their love of music was the real thing.
Not to get too music critic on you, because those parade watchers are such a pain in the ass, but the Beastie Boys in my opinion pulled off quite an amazing feat years ago that bears mentioning.
The Licensed to Ill album made the band famous all over the world. The work, a sonic force to be reckoned with, combined humor, beats and enough politically incorrect material to repel and attract in equal numbers. They could have broken up after that album and their reputation would have been cemented.
Unlike so many other bands that have a successful first album, they did not attempt to re-create it with their follow-up. Instead, they released one of the most stand-out albums of the 1980s. Paul's Boutique is one of the best damn records of all time. Nothing at all like what came before it.
The level of humor, sophistication, arrangement and sheer brilliance of the overall album was completely mind-blowing. As far as a band totally changing the game, taking it to a different place and knocking it out of the park, only a few comparisons can be drawn. Immediately, the transition that the Velvet Underground made from their debut to the roaring clang of White Light/White Heat comes to mind.
Not everyone was as enthusiastic; the album got some tepid and less-than-great reviews. It was edifying to see how ill-equipped some of these pedants were to wrap their ears around something so different. Perhaps they couldn't conceive the same band that brought them “Fight for Your Right (to Party)” could also deliver “The Sounds of Science.” All of them, if they were worth their weight in the free records that were wasted on them over the years, had to come back around and admit they were caught flat-footed by the band, much like their corny ancestors had to concede that Miles Davis kicked their ass with his On the Corner album.
And from there, it was the Check Your Head album and breakout recognition for the band all over the world. As the albums and tours stacked up, audiences got a chance to understand that the Beasties were a very heavy and socially aware unit.
They were about so much more than music. They can be thanked, and Adam Yauch can be thanked in particular, for helping to bring young people in the Western world to an awareness of the state of Tibet and the draconian grip the Chinese government has on the good people there. My visit to Tibet was very much inspired by Adam. I thought of him every day when I was in Lhasa.
While it is incredibly saddening that he has passed away, one can be inspired by the fact that the man gave more than he got, and he got plenty. Beastie Boys albums will stand the test of time quite well. Adam's contributions to human-rights causes have no doubt not only improved the lives of countless others but saved lives as well.
Where music and activism meet is not always the most unmuddied water, but Adam's work to bring awareness to the plight of Tibet hits an altruistic altitude that in itself almost shoves all that great music to the other side of the room. So, while it is damn hard to take that he is gone, what he put into the time he was living occupies a very bright and beautiful place that will never dim or diminish. Adam's life is a standing inspiration.
Until next week.