I first met Adam Yauch in 1982, in Brooklyn, when I was fifteen. I was sitting on the red steps in the lobby of St. Ann’s, where I was a sophomore in high school. His bandmate, Michael Diamond, was a grade ahead of me. Occasionally Mike and I would talk about records and argue. We talked about doing a newsletter, but that was also just talk. His hardcore band, the Beastie Boys, was getting bigger in the very small pond of downtown Manhattan. (In the nineteen-eighties, folks didn’t play rock music in Brooklyn. You had to go to “The City” for that.) The Beasties had managed to open for the Bad Brains, which was about the best thing that could happen to a young punk in 1982. People sometimes made fun of the Beasties for not being real or hard enough or some other imaginary variable. I only heard Mike complain once, about their name being spelled as Beasty Boys, because it sounded like a pet food store.
Yauch walked up, into the lobby, wearing a dark trenchcoat, even though it was sunny out. He came up the steps slowly and asked me, in an impossibly low voice, “You seen Mike?” I hadn’t. He left.
The last time I saw Adam Yauch was in the early aughts, in a Lower Manhattan playground. He was walking under a rope spiderweb, holding his daughter’s hand as she pointed at things. My two boys, roughly the same age, were jockeying for positions on a maddening bicycle-powered carousel that inevitably made somebody cry for going too fast or not going fast enough. Adam’s hair was gray, mine was largely gone, and we waved to each other.
Yauch died today, at the age of forty-seven. In 2009, he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor he described at the time, in this interview with The Stool Pigeon, as “located in the perotic gland and the neighbouring lymph node.” He fought back, ebbing and strengthening and dimming, as the disease progressed. Friends exchanged messages. “Adam’s doing O.K.” “He’s kinda tired.” Minimizing the situation by using simple language felt like the least hysterical trick you could play on yourself. Sometimes, it felt like a memory might work. “Your remember when Tom and Adam went under the bridge with that car and they almost went into the river?” Nope. Just made it worse, recalling the skinny, loopy kid who took any dare and inflated it until it was beyond foolish. The kid who would think the only problem with cancer is that it wasn’t a good enough punchline.
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.
In the summer of 1986, I lived in Manhattan near Union Square with my first girlfriend in a duplex owned by a very trusting and foolish adult. In August of that year, my friend Tom Cushman gave me an advance cassette of “Licensed to Ill.” The liner was red letters printed on a white J-card, with either the Def Jam logo or Columbia’s or both. I was as obsessed with the fact of that cassette as the music. We knew somebody on a major label? And it was the Beastie Boys? This was a band whose 1983 single “Cooky Puss,” which is often described as the Beasties’ first “rap” single, is an extended, semi-capable funk vamp over which Adam Horovitz prank calls a Carvel ice-cream store and scratches a Steve Martin album (and the first Beasties E.P.), not capably. The single is about as commercial as a bag of dead spiders. It also represented the New York we grew up in, where a club like Danceteria would show loopy homemade videos on C.R.T. monitors and dance records were whatever records the d.j. decided to play while you were dancing.
But something happened to the Beasties, and New York. While we were off at college, the goofs had connected with the producer Rick Rubin. (Some Beasties momentarily attended college before deciding to drop out and accidentally change the world.) “Licensed to Ill” presented us with a can of question marks. When did they gain access to handguns? When did they start smoking angel dust? When did they start hitting girls? WHAT. (And you could just sample a Led Zeppelin record? That was O.K.?) When “Licensed to Ill” hit the world, at the end of 1986, it was like an April Fools’ joke that lasted a year. America apparently wanted to hear backward TR-808 drums and samples of Trouble Funk records. Or maybe they liked white kids rapping over loud guitars about partying. O.K.—hold on. Maybe it wasn’t a mystery. “Cooky Puss” was a joke for New York. “Licensed To Ill” was a joke for America. Or on America. It was hard to tell.
People believed that these kids meant what they said, that they were who they portrayed on TV. (Oprah did not approve, although Jello Biafra seemed to understand what the band was doing.) Rather than being perceived as the first draft of Ali G, the Beasties were taken at face value; many threads got tangled in one of hip-hop’s breakthrough moments. Rap is ridiculously profane and loopy and perfect and anybody can do it and you can use any music you want! Ok bye! And then, two years later, on “Paul’s Boutique,” they took the idea even further: maybe you could rap every word you knew over every record ever made. Sure, why not. And there was still this talk of beating people with aluminum bats and other alpha-male stuff that came from who knows where. Rap had now been coded by both friends and enemies as a violent form inspired by violence, a view which these three pacifists had unwittingly helped install.