Monday, May 7, 2012

The Best of Beastie Boys (R.I.P. Adam "MCA" Yauch)

Beastie Boys was always a tricky act for me to follow. On one hand, Licensed to Ill (1986) defined my later high-school experience. It was a massive, band-breaking album, but for Beastie Boys, not quite definitive. Musically, it's primitive, a time-capsule effort that's representative of its era but hardly representative of Beastie Boys.

It barely hinted at the sophisticated direction the trio would take with its follow-up, Paul's Boutique (1989), which, more than anything, set the dominant tone of the Brooklynites' discography. Beastie Boys was the first white rap act to go platinum, yet nobody thinks only of rap when they think of Beastie Boys, and its been that way for decades.

But back when the guys were still mostly known as rappers (despite their roots in punk), the Licensed to Ill track that influenced me most wasn't their biggest hit single, "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)," which featured the most interesting use of parentheses in the rock era. Like so many other kids my age, that's precisely what I had to do, but once I acquired that right, it was a vile, lethal drink called Brass Monkey -- yes, an actual brand -- that made so many parties so unforgettable. "Brass Monkey" may have influenced my early drinking habits most, but it's the Licensed to Ill album track "Paul Revere" that's my second-favorite Beasties song.

On the other hand, I was usually more impressed by Beastie Boys than in love with its music, and its new releases were so sporadic, that it was too easy for me to forget about the trio and perhaps even underestimate what would be the eventual Beastie Boys legacy. When the guys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, I suggested that it was too soon. I stand by that assertion, although that's not to say that I don't respect their collective contribution to the rap and rock canons.

My mourning for the May 4 death of Beastie Boy Adam "MCA" Yauch at age 47 is, as it should be, less about the loss of a great band's seminal line-up than about the loss of a talented man who was still so young. When I first heard he'd been diagnosed with cancer of the parotid salivary gland, a condition I'd never even heard of, I had faith in the reported prognosis that it was highly treatable. It didn't occur to me to read anything into the group's recent inactivity, or Yauch's absence at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

His passing is devastating, but when I remember MCA, I won't remember him the way Coldplay did in its dirge-like tribute/cover of "Fight for Your Right" on May 4 at the Hollywood Bowl. I adore Coldplay, but the band's mournful musical approach robbed the song of it's joyful, iconoclastic spirit. Yes, the simplicity of Beastie Boys' version is deceptive, but the song demands some kick, and I suspect that's the way MCA would want to be remembered, alive and kicking.

And that's how I'd prefer to remember Yauch, and Beastie Boys, the way they actually were, with my all-time favorite Beastie Boys track, from the 1994 album Ill Communication.

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