Honestly, I hadn’t dusted off those albums in awhile, and I was surprised at how easily I remembered all the lyrics – my mental muscle memory proving just what is important in life. I couldn’t tell you what I ate for dinner last night, but I can recite “Pass the Mic” in a pinch if you need (not likely a skill that will save me in the event of, say, a bear attack).
My memories of the Beastie Boys reach back to my first days of actually owning music. I remember Run-DMC’s Tougher Than Leather and LL Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer as my first cassettes. But Licensed to Ill started an obsession. I wanted to learn every word. Do you know how cool it felt to rap along to “Paul Revere” as a 12-year-old? I’ll tell you: Pretty fucking cool. (Turns out I can still do it at 34.)
Though I know Paul’s Boutique is hailed as the Beasties’ artistic masterpiece – and it is incredible, as is the 33 1/3 book on it by Dan LeRoy – it was Check Your Head that really crystallized my fandom. The first thing I could think of after learning of MCA’s death were the countless high school days my best friend and I spent listening to that album (in between games of Tecmo Super Bowl). Where Licensed to Ill tends to sound cartoonish and dated in spots (“Girls,” especially), Check Your Head still feels funky and fresh.
And that’s just the thing: The Beastie Boys were still viable into the 2000s, up to last year’s release of Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. They looked older, yeah, but they never came across as a group surviving on nostalgia. My friends and I have often argued about who the top three American bands are. If you’re talking artistic integrity, talent, mass appeal and influence, you’d be a fool to exclude the Beastie Boys. Looking back on my high school days, it’s hard to think of a group that was loved more by so many disparate cliques. Stoners and jocks could at least agree that the Beastie Boys were the shit. (Beavis and Butt-head second that emotion.)
I’m rarely moved or shaken by celebrity death. It’s too distant to really comprehend. How do you grieve for someone you don’t know? But this one somehow feels different. I was a junior in high school when Kurt Cobain killed himself. I’d like to think I understood the impact of that, but in reality I was still too young, and the concept of his death was too foreign; as a 16-year-old, I couldn’t have possibly grasped why someone would shoot himself. But now I’m 34 – paranoid about every little ache and pain, of which there seem to be more each day – and Adam Yauch died of cancer at 47 years old. Forty-seven fucking years old. My family and friends have been affected by cancer, in all its hideous forms. This feels real. When someone in a band that you followed from your pre-teen years well into adulthood dies, it says something about where you are in life, too. Jason Woodbury said it perfectly at the Phoenix New Times: “Beastie Boys aren’t supposed to die.” A group that embodied and soundtracked the recklessness of youth – of my youth – has been quieted. I feel sad for MCA and the family and friends he left behind and I feel sad about the music we’ll never hear, but mostly I suddenly feel vulnerable.