MCA, growing up, and looking back
Last week, as many will no doubt know, MCA from the Beastie Boys passed away from a battle with cancer. The loss was one that took many by surprise; cancer may be a killer of many yet when it strikes someone down the fear associated with the illness comes on strong. Now by the time this is published the news will have been in the mist for close to a week. The initial shock will have worn off, the tributes will dilute and mean less than they did upon first discovering this terribly sad news. Anywhere you visited online had a tribute or another. And how long did it take for these tributes and news to lose any impact? 24 hours? 36? How long do we grieve for the famous nowadays? Maurice Sendak just died Tuesday at 83. How long until the name is just that, a name of a man who wrote beloved books that we all know? How do we grieve in the digital age? How long is it ok? If we vent into the echo chamber of social media does the pain diminish, does it fade sooner?
This is a music column. What the hell does this have to do with anything? I suppose I should pay tribute to MCA, the artist and member of the Beastie Boys. I’m 37, and I first heard the Beastie Boys the same time as everyone else my age: on MTV on the back of Licensed To Ill. I remember driving into Baltimore late one night as a kid on a family trip listening to the song “Girls.” I loved that tape, loved all the videos the band produced, loved the snotty personae. I was 12, in middle school. I remember hearing that tape in a science class, listening in the classroom. Unwittingly through this tape I began to lay an invisible framework for my future tastes in music. I recently heard “Rhyming and Stealing” for the first time in an eternity. I had completely forgotten that the intro sample is from Led Zeppelin’s killer cover of Memphis Minnie’s “When The Levee Breaks.”
Moving out of middle school I recall buying the cassette EP Love American Style at Record Land in East Lansing. I recall walking home with the tape and then listening to it (I didn’t have a walkman until I was a senior in high school). “Hey Ladies” makes me think of summer, it always will, yet the one song that stood out for me is called “33% God.” Basically it is the instrumental version of “Shake Your Rump.” I have to confess that I didn’t own Paul’s Boutique until years after it was released. When I finally got into that CD and listened I noticed that the big scratch break in “Shake Your Rump” was missing from the CD and was only in the video and on “33% God.” Strange but true.
Check Your Head is a classic, seminal release. Everybody knows this, and the CD to me IS high school. The sound, that sense of cool, that sense of dress. This CD opened up my eyes to Paul’s Boutique and soundtracked many warm nights in my own mind. I loved “So What’cha Want.” That beat felt oppressive and welcoming. Years later unpacking CDs at the bookstore I marveled at the cheek of Beck to sample the song on his song “E-Pro.” I had the CD single for the song, and on that disc was a lost gem from the band: “The Skills To Pay The Bills.” After (foolishly) selling that CD it took me eight years to get the song again, this time as part of the short lived MusicMaker CD burning service in conjunction with the band’s greatest hits. The song remains a fine piece of work.
Ill Communication was the last Beasties LP that I bought before I got my record store job. I was 19 and shopping at Flat Black & Circular. I don’t remember the circumstances (but I do remember the old location with no windows) of discovering the record had come out before the CD, but I do remember shopping and not seeing the LP on the rack. My brother asked and one was pulled from behind the counter. I took it home, opened it up, marveled at the green vinyl and began to listen to the disc. Over and over and over. I remember the smells of early summer, the first rays of late sunlight. When the CD was released I bought it, and I bought the release on tape. The cassette tape was green. By this point part of the appeal of the band was not only their points of reference but also the samples in their music. “Root Down” sampled “Root Down” by Jimmy Smith, a song I always opened my Afternoon Jazz show with some 11 years later.
Hello Nasty came out four years later. Wherehouse got our stock on the Friday before the release date. Most new releases arrived on Saturday, but not this one. I called my co-worker Doug and left him a message. He showed up within ten minutes, gigantic grin on his face. We exchanged a high five, maybe even a bro hug, as we both bought the CD and then started to play it over the store hi-fi. That is what you did; you drummed up business by word of mouth and by playing something during customer hours. If someone picked up on what he or she were hearing you talked them into coming back. At the time I remember listening and relistening to the references and samples, but also the styles of music on the disc. I had it in my head that the band had become futurists, and that music would eventually bend towards the styles on this disc. I don’t think I was right in that assumption but I do remember strongly voicing that point to whomever asked about the disc. As with each release there were more little things that I noticed within the music that piqued my ears and caused thrills. There is this little upwards horn sample loop on the song “Unite” that always makes me smile, as well as a wacky sample in “Body Movin” of “Oyo Como Va” which just destroys in such a short bit. And then the disc ends with a song that sort of haunts me: “Instant Death.” Adam Horowitz had suffered some loss and it showed on this song. It is slow, calm, gentle and powerful. When I read that MCA passed away it was the first song I thought about.
For myself and my ears the band stops with this music, fourteen years ago now (can that be accurate?). There have been releases since Hello Nasty (Sounds of Science, 5 Bouroughs, Hot Sauce Committee) that have come and gone but haven’t stuck in my head. This is not to say that I have been living in a Beastie-free world, only that at some point our paths diverged. And that is ok.
It has been a week now since the passing of Adam Yauch. The tributes have grown silent and the news has moved onwards, ever forward to the next story, the next loss, the next thing. The impact, if any, of the loss is already gone, already an afterthought, already yesterday’s papers. This is grief in this age of ours: the age of social media, of 24-hour news, of the Internet. Musicians pass away all the time. There will always be tributes. But those tributes used to feel as though they lasted longer. Maybe that is ok, the speed with which we move on from news like this. Maybe it is not ok. Why do we feel the need to eulogize the famous, to celebrate their own achievements that impacted our own lives? It is easier to do this, to cast warm thoughts and reflections on people we don’t know. It is safer.
Eddie Izzard commented once, in relation to Princess Diana, that his mum died when he was a child and no one gave a shit. My own family suffered a loss before Christmas, one that I am myself only slowly getting over and moving on. The closure or whatever that took me four months or so takes, what, seven days for the famous? Not even seven days, more like three or four. Is that ok? Are his band mates, friends and family for thirty years, doing ok? Are they going to be able to move forward? What about his wife? What about his child? We, the grand We, do not care about these facts, these family members. We only care about the art created and the memories generated. We take what we need and want from celebrity and when their time is gone we pay tribute and then we move on and we forget. I liked his band. I liked his causes. I don’t care that a musician died of cancer. I care that a father, husband, son, and friend of others died at 47. I hope that for those who now have this void in their lives that the epicenter of their grief is non-toxic and I hope that the grief lessens naturally and healthily. My hope is for Adam Yauch’s child to grow up with the memory of the love of his father in his heart and in his head. In the end no amount of music, no amount of celebrity can come close to what that means.
Mike Vincent is a teacher, dreamer, grouch, and runner. He lives in northern Michigan and his favorite Beatle is George Harrison.