Friday, March 27, 2015

A Silly Beast

I once took a writing course where the instructor told us, "If you ever get stuck working on a piece, just write the sentence, 'The most important thing to know about this is_____', and then fill in that blank." He advised that, if we wanted to get really artful, we could rework that sentence to be less plodding and hacky, but sometimes, it works.

So. The most important thing to know about the Beastie Boys is: I still love them.

With Adam Yauch's death nearly three years ago, the Beastie Boys aren't really a band anymore, something that Adam Horowitz confirmed in a GQ interview this week. Horowitz was pictured wearing a baby and with manic, slightly tufted graying hair: it was Brooklyn-dad chic, and a still from the upcoming Noah Baumbach film While We're Young. It seemed very on-brand for a dude who has basically a professional New Yorker for the majority of his career.

I've written before about the impact that the Beastie Boys had on me when I was a kid. I was fourteen when the band released Hello Nasty, and for me, it was transformative. It was one of the first albums I became obsessed with, and it made me seek out music like it: first, other Beastie Boys albums, and then hip-hop in general. By the time Hello Nasty was released, the Beastie Boys were comfortable with their own weird brand of humour and production and rhymes. They weren't Nas, they weren't Talib Kweli—although they collaborated with Nas on their last album, and toured with Kweli in 2004—but they did have the effect of raising my consciousness. I spent the majority of my high school years obsessed with hip-hop, and with New York, and with the Beastie Boys.

I can't explain why they spoke to me so clearly. I was a white girl, feeling a little bit out of sorts in the small town I had just moved to. They were these thirty-something Jewish dudes who had come up through the punk ranks and then become these utter assholes—inflatable penises? Spraying people with beer?!—and then, somehow, become bored with being jerks and turned into real live awesome hip-hop artists. It was radical, in the way that Sonic Youth was radical: they were basically these normal people making groundbreaking music in a scene where it was insanely difficult to get buy-in for "normal."

Their brand of silly fun was accessible as a teenager. They didn't rap about women (I mean, they had rapped about girls, but that was old news), they didn't rap about the ghetto. They rapped about shit I knew about: sandwiches, swimming with your friends, Boggle. They didn't cover themselves in gold chains or flash diamonds. They wore suits they found at the Sally Ann, or janitorial uniforms. And, to be clear, there's nothing wrong with rapping about the ghetto, or growing up poor, or wanting diamonds. But for me, when I was fourteen—and even now—I personally identify more with the desire for sandwiches than for bling.

Most of all, they just seemed to be buds. I know a couple guys who still hang out with friends from their teenaged years, and it always impresses me. They shotgun beers, or they go mountain biking, or they goof around and watch horror movies. Sometimes, they dig deep and talk about religion—echoing Yauch's Buddhist turn—but often, it's the inconsequential surface stuff that keeps them together. They write for each other's zines. They turn on the barbecue. The fact that it's almost always casual doesn't mean it doesn't matter. It matters more, in a way: people with whom we can be our goofy, teenaged selves with well into our thirties shouldn't be dismissed. Those versions of ourselves are often the most vital versions.

The interview with Horowitz underscored just how much Yauch had mattered to the Beastie Boys. That project, that band, can't continue without him. There might be B-sides or remixes, but the Beastie Boys are over. I feel a little silly mourning a band, but then again, the Beastie Boys celebrated silliness. They loved it. For them, it was as much a touchstone as New York City, or basketball, or their own storied past. Feeling silly is often something we have to do in order to be authentic.

So: the most important thing to know about the Beastie Boys is that I still love them. They still make me feel good. And I think they're still important.

Image by Eric Tan via Cruzine