Philosophy Weekend: The Happiness of Adam Yauch

Eastern Existential Hiphop Music Religion Tributes

It's hard for me to describe how big an influence the Beastie Boys have had on my life. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found lifesaving inspiration in records like Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head that I could not have found anywhere else. If it were not for the Beastie Boys, I'm pretty sure there would have never been a Literary Kicks.

I know a bit about the Beastie Boys. I've seen them in concert several times, though the live format didn't play to their strengths. The best way to listen to the Beastie Boys is with earbuds in, the world shut out. Their recordings were dense, complex and sophisticated, their rhymes expertly crafted for maximum effect. Each of the three had a highly distinct voice; you can listen to any line in any Beastie Boys song and immediately know whose voice you're hearing:

Horovitz: Some static started
Yauch: in the pool hall
Horovitz: Hit a motherfucker's face
Diamond: with the cue ball

I could not possibly tell you which of the Beastie Boys I related to most; they maintained a Tao-like perfect balance among the three. Adam Horovitz was the expressive one, a grimacing method actor, always mugging for the cameras. He was the rocker of the group, with a nearly un-musical Jerry Lewis whine to his voice. He was also the Beastie Boy most likely to drop a literary reference into a song:

You slip, you slack, you clock me and you lack
While I'm reading 'On The Road' by my man Jack Kerouac

Mike Diamond was the funny one, and the one with the most skillful lyrical phrasing, though his voice had less distinctive character than the other two. But he understood hiphop, and he could scat:

Jump the turnstile, never pay the toll
Ding ding ding doo-wah diddy, busting with the b-roll ..."

Adam Yauch had the most memorable voice in the band, menacing, gravelly, instantly recognizable. He appeared to be the most intense and serious of the three. He rarely smiled, and on the early records he sometimes came off downright scary:

Roses are red
the sky is blue
I got the barrel at your neck
so what the fuck you gonna do?

When he wasn't scary, he was often highly despondent, and always made you believe he was feeling it, as when it's 4 am and he's got the Hassenpfeffer ale:

I got nothing to lose and so I'm pissing on the third rail

As a rapper, he was slow but had superb timing. "The Sounds of Science" would have been a great track even without him, but listen to what his weird drawl adds:

An MC ... to a degree ... that you can't ... get in college.

Yauch appeared at first to be the least charismatic of the three Beastie Boys, but he would gradually emerge as the George Harrison of the group, the spiritual one, and he came out as a Buddhist and a pacifist sometime between their third and fourth records, suddenly dropping references to the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King into lyrics, writing songs with names like "Shambala" and "Boddhisatva Vow", and coming up with rhymes like this:

I want to say a little something that's long overdue
This disrespecting women has got to be through
To all the mothers and sisters and wives and friends
I want to offer my love and respect to the end

Yauch's transormation was a surprise, though in retrospect the philosophical, otherworldly sensibility had always been there:

Diamond: I once was lost
Horovitz: but now I'm found
Yauch: The music washes over and you're one with the sound.

Quickly after revealing himself to be a Buddhist, he kicked off a series of activities including the Tibetan Freedom Concerts of the late 1990s, and founded an organization called Milarepa. Adam Yauch's level of energy was amazing; he was also an adventurous filmmaker, and a skillful and inventive bass guitarist (note that the Beasties' best rock song "Sabotage" has a bass solo, not a guitar solo).

When I heard the news that he had throat cancer back in 2009, I felt terrible for the suffering I knew he'd be going through. I tried to post a cheery joke on Twitter:

@asheresque: they say Adam Yauch's voice won't be harmed during cancer surgery, but it might get raspy

The news was pretty unbelievable. Yauch appeared to be one of the most admirable and truly successful figures in the musical business, not in financial terms, but on the level of greater achievement. Like Bob Geldof (and, arguably, Bono) he was one of only a few rock stars who managed to transcend the limits of the scene and reach a higher stage -- translating thoughts into action and actually stepping out to try and change the world.

In June 1997 I went with my daughter Elizabeth to the Tibetan Freedom Concert at Randall's Stadium in New York City (she was 11, and mainly wanted to see Alanis Morissette, who wasn't very good). During a break in the all-day show, Elizabeth and I were strolling around the tents outside the main stage when we spotted a bunch of orange-robed Tibetan monks off in a not very visible corner behind a trailer, looking like they were busy doing something interesting. "Let's go," I told Elizabeth, and we found ourselves in a small procession of Buddhist monks walking to the East River between Randall's Island and Astoria, Queens, under the Hells Gate Bridge, so the monks could bless the East River. COOL!

We were silently welcomed into the group. There were maybe twenty of us, half monks and half hipsters, the monks leading and us trailing behind. As we walked I spotted a familiar face and nudged Elizabeth. "That's Adam Yauch." Not surprisingly, he was part of the procession, walking behind the monks, eventually participating in the ceremony as we all blessed together the waters between Manhattan and Queens. I didn't talk to him; it seemed like a solemn moment and I couldn't think of anything significant enough to say.

In retrospect, I could have talked with him about happiness. Here's an interview with Project Happiness that was published just last month. I'll let MCA get the last word.

PROJECT HAPPINESS: What brings you fun in life? What’s fun for you, and what brings you peace?

ADAM: It’s such a simple question, I don’t know why it feels complicated. In terms of what brings me fun in life? Just goofing around with friends… laughing at myself. As for what brings me peace? Just trying not to do anything that’s destructive to anybody else, or trying to do things that are constructive in the world, that really brings me peace. The times when I feel unhappy, I can almost directly trace it to, oh, I shouldn’t have done that, or I shouldn’t have said this, or whatever. That’s what would take away my peace, or make me lose sleep or whatever. If I feel like I’ve done the best that I can or conducted myself in the most constructive way that I can in a situation, then I feel peace.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Ellen Pearlman on Buddhism and the Avant-Garde. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Ayn Rand and the Paul Ryan Budget.
12 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Happiness of Adam Yauch"

by KKizer on

Awhile back I was trying to recall why I first read On The Road in the early '90s and it might very well have been because of the Beastie reference. I was as enthralled as you were, Levi.

by Levi Asher on

KKizer, I think that track had a lot to do with me picking up the book too. I'm not kidding when I say, without the Beastie Boys, there would be no Literary Kicks!

by TKG on

My name is MCA I got a license to kill
I think you know what time it is, it's time to get I'll
Now what do we have here?
An outlaw and his beer
I run this land you understand
I made my self clear

,..,,..,,..,

It's not a deposition as you can see
I can blow you away or you can ride with me

.,,..,,..,,.

I got more rhymes than Phyllis Diller

::::::::::::

Those are all MCA rhymes from Licensed to Ill.

They are pretty darn easy to remember after all this time -- 25 years.  But I must say that Paul Revere gets played on the radio very so often still to this day.

After I heard Adam Yauch died yesterday it struck me that the Beasties were Americana.  

Usually Americana is considered country, or western themed, or folkish.

But there's also an urban Americana.  And a pop Americana.

Just naming a song about the horse of song Paul Revere (on this Derby Day) was Americana.  

Hey Lady Jerry Lewis squall.  Or how their first video was a 3 Stooges homage.  Just giving a shout out to Phyllis Diller.

by Levi Asher on

I love it, TKG. Never knew you and I had a Beasties obsession in common.

Interesting factoid, for whatever it's worth -- the horse named Paul Revere is an allusion to "Guys and Dolls", which opens like this: "I got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere." But I think their biggest Broadway influence must be "Gee Officer Krupke" from "West Side Story".

by Elliot on

It is so simple and yet like him, I can easily complicate the shit out of it. I saw them live once and thought it was incredible. A different aesthetic than a lot of their studio work and more minimalist, but I would say it was one of the five best concerts I've ever seen. Also they are the only band that I can honestly say I've been a fan of for almost my entire life, since I was maybe seven. I think I discovered them in the year or so after License to Ill came out.

longdayhotshower.blogspot.com

by TKG on

Hi Levi,

I loved the Beastie Boys. I listened to Licensed to Ill all the time. People I'd be driving around would hear it and say.what's this?". I tell em and they'd say, "I didn't think I liked the Beastie Boys -- this is good."

A few years later Paul's Boutique came out and it was even better. It didn't sell though -- it was too much for people, too different. It was a sound and word collage. These guys were true recording artists.

I didn't really follow them too much after that -- never bought or downloaded any other later stuff -- of course I heard various things on the radio. I found it amazing that they kept going. Maybe found it a little strange. I read one wag call them the Beastie Middle Aged Men -- and that was kind of funny.

One of my regrets comes from the time in 1987 I found myself in the same hotel as the Beastie Boys in New Orleans during Mardi Gras week. It was their first major tour. I heard the bellboys saying the Beastie Boys are up on the 7th floor. I had the idea I should go up and hang out with them. I figured I could gain entrez because I had green tidings of great joy from the redwood forests of northern California (it was easy to take things on planes back then). And we probably had mutual acquaintances or at least interests. I knew about Def Jam and Rick Rubin from way back because before he started that he was in this band called Hose that played songs that sounded just like Flipper -- he was so influenced. Later he dug them out and signed them to Def American.

But alas, I didn't bother to go up and see. I didn't regret it at the time, only later in retrospect do I realize how dumb I was.

I'm really sad that he would die so young. It's like Joe Strummer ten years ago when he died at only 50. Not young, but too young. But you, the image of the party hard wasted artist musician wasn't just an image -- it was real. I know from first hand experience and I am sure they were the same way. In our late teens and early 20's we were indestructible. I saw them at the time of release of Licensed to Ill on TV as hosts of Showtime at the Apollo -- and Yauch was so wasted -- these guys weren't pretending.

I'm glad he made it this long and getting past a certain age brings things to a newer level.

I thought it was great that he became an advocate for Tibet and against the communists. He married a beautiful Tibetan American woman whose parents were refugees from the communists (like my late father - in - law who escaped to Taiwan in 1949 when he was 13.

The same time he was raising consciousness for Tibet I was doing the same thing in my own way with a web site about Chinese politics with an emphasis on freedom for Taiwan and Tibet and China itself. So I felt a long term kinship there as well. Old punk rockers who got cleaned up and try to do things to help.

Here's a link to a beautiful picture of their family.

And another .

Makes me sad.

by Catalyst on

I gotta disagree with you about their live show. I saw them in 2007 and it was great. They blended rock and rap seamlessly. And it wasn't corny like limp biz kit or linkin park. It was sincere. These guys paved the way for many artists and always stayed in their own lane, finding their niche. I saw an interview a while back with LLCoolJ and he said if it wasn't for the Beastie Boys he wouldn't have a career in music. Makes me wonder how many other artists they influenced. RIP MCA.

by Levi Asher on

Well, it's good that a couple of you disagree with me that they weren't at their best in concert. You know, I've been to hundreds and hundreds of rock concerts and hiphop shows. It sometimes seems to me that hiphop doesn't work as well in concert as, say, classic rock. What's best about hiphop -- the sharpness of the phrasing, the subtle touches in the beats -- often gets lost in live performance. So, my problem with the Beastie Boys live was really my problem in general with live hiphop. But the Beasties always did a rock set in the middle of their shows -- Sabotage, Time for Livin', etc. -- and these parts always worked for me. Glad you liked seeing them ...

by josh moore on

I understand that many people were greatly disaffected by MCA's death. Cancer is deadly and tragic. I guess it is better to celebrate a departed being's life then it is to regret their death.

Adam had terminal cancer. I saw my grandfather die of lung cancer when I was six. The amount of pain and suffering that comes along from terminal throat cancer I wish not to imagine.

At least Adam, in all the misery, had a period to look upon his life and say his goodbyes. Cancer does not kill instantly.

RIP MCA

I'd would like to address another death from last-Junior Seau. Much like own our idolized Jackie K--I love American Football and I love books of poetry. I see no cognitive dissonance with it.

I'm a half assed Buddhist myself. Until better medical technologies exist (which could be hundreds of years from now) cancer will often be fatal.

What happened with Junior was perhaps predictable but preventable. I hate to sound like I'm carrying the flag of some crusade---but we can address traumatic head injury and attempt to mitigate the effects. It isn't just football players--each I headed a soccer ball growing up (1000 times or more) I likely inflicted some minor brain damage.

We all are supposedly intelligent literary people--from what I know about the Buddha is it most important to attempt to influence the future instead pondering glories of the past.

Boddivista (from what I've read--there isn't exactly many Buddhist here on the upper prairies) is a being who forsakes their own enlightenment in order to help others still on this plane to beat samsara (too complex to explain w/o a book).

As a group of intelligent well written and spoken individuals we can address (at least increase awareness) of traumatic brain injury. Other then saying don't use tobacco products or drink too much there's is little we can do as poets about cancer.

Levi you as always are very well written. I think the most fitting tribute would be sharing the link to pirate all of the Boys records (they started off as punks). I'd like you to address Juniors death and how common traumatic brain injury is. We are not biologists or chemists (well I'm sure one of us must be) there's not many words we can use to fight cancer--but we can raise awareness for a variety of causes that should be addressed.

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference (1)"

Awareness is the first step to enlightenment.

RIP Junior Seau, Adam Yauch, and Robert Thunderhawk *

xoxo

josh moore ie pen name

by Milton on

Fact: "I'll stir-fry you in my wok" is the greatest threat in hip-hop history.

I'm pretty partial to "I got more suits than Jacoby & Meyers" too. And "I got more rhymes than I got gray hairs/And that's a lot because I've got my share."

Listening to hip-hop at a young age really was the catalyst for so much of my love for the English language, and the Beasties were the catalyst for my love of hip-hop. RIP to a good man, and a great writer.

by G-dub on

Wonderful article, Levi. The BBoys are a massive part of who I am and it's been a tough year to say goodbye to Adam. Great work.

by G-dub on

p.s. Although typically I'm pacifist & chill in regards to my appreciations of music, but I must submit here one of my favorite of their lyrics - taking the offense back to the gangsta rap stars who built careers out of misogyny and abuse:

Which of you schnooks took my rhyme book?
Look - give it back - you're wicky wack
With your ticky tack calls didn't touch you at all
I didn't touch your hand man, you know its all balls
You sold a few records but don't get slick
'Cause you used a corked bat to get those hits
Yeah you've been in the game, your career is long
But when you really break it down you've only got 2 songs
MC's are like clay pigeons and I'm shootin' skeet
I just yell pull and Mike drops the beat
You people call yourselves MC's but you're garbage men
Takin' out the trash when you pull out the pen

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