(ed note: Aryeh Bernstein comes from Chicago, lives in Jerusalem, and works for NY’s Mechon Hadar; last summer, under the moniker The Branding Iron, he independently released his debut hip-hop album, “A Roomful of Ottomans” with DJ OFn TISh (aka Ori Salzberg). He’s a friend of the blog and I loved this piece and he offered to share it with us- Ruby K)
I’m a teacher. In both formal and informal settings, I’ve always had a soft spot for “problem kids”. Well, a certain kind of problem kids, anyway – kids who considered rules optional, who showed up at what they wanted to show up at, whose laughter became more rambunctious and free the more their teachers emphasized the seriousness of the rules. I’ve had several students who were written off by all the other teachers as impossible, but with whom I actually developed my most meaningful relationships – kids who have a lot to say, kids whose clowning in boring or conformist contexts is an expression of the same curiosity and creativity as is their engaged participation in contexts that challenge them. These kids are so threatening to us teachers because they expose the weaknesses, fallacies, and mysteries we gloss over. They expose the ways in which we cover up our limits of imagination and our intellectual laziness with assertions of power and authority. When they do that, we, so steeped in our vulnerability and shame, or in our power trip, mistake their mockery of our chimerical power for disinterest in ideas or knowledge. We couldn’t be further from the truth. Sometimes the class clowns have the most to say.
I’m trying to make sense of why I am so torn up by the premature death of Adam Yauch, MCA of the Beastie Boys, who succumbed to cancer a month ago at age 48. I am an adult, a reasonably accomplished person, a serious, socially conscious with priorities, and pretty distanced from the intoxications of pop culture. I’m not caught up in celebrities and I’m aware that I didn’t know Adam Yauch and he certainly didn’t know me. I have never felt the kind of grief I have been feeling for MCA for someone else that I didn’t know personally, and in my obsessive reading of every memorial and testimonial I could find during the first week after he died, I encountered numerous other people saying the same thing, trying to make sense of the extreme level of their grief for this musician they had never met. I barely went out that week. I could hardly get work done. It was like I was sitting shiva, going to sleep saying that tomorrow I’ll get back to my routine, only to find myself waking up even more grieved, numb, and choked up.
And all this for a member of the Beastie Boys. Aren’t they the wise-guy man-children of pop music? My sense is that for a lot of people out there who never really followed them, but remember with embarrassment singing along to “Girls” and “Fight for Your Right to Party” as kids, and who knew later, thankfully non-sexist, but still frivolous and ridiculous, party songs like “Intergalactic”, it is difficult to understand why aggravatingly serious and political people like me are so obsessed with them, why the most intense of the grief-stricken remembrances after Yauch’s death were from uber-serious and revolutionary artists such as Chuck D. (Public Enemy), Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), and Talib Kweli. Why were these guys, whose music seems so different from the light-hearted Beastie Boys, so devoted to them?
A lot has been written in the past month about Yauch and the Beastie Boys as remarkable exemplars of public growth and maturation, so unusual in show business, about the failed satire of their anthemic debut Licensed to Ill, about their realizing too late that they were becoming the drunken sexist jerks they were out to mock, growing into vocal opponents of sexism, Chinese oppression of Tibet, gay-bashing, anti-Arab/Muslim discrimination, and the Iraq war, about taking artistic risks, recognizing short-term commercial disappointments as down payments toward long-term commercial prowess earned through artistic breadth and genius, and of course, about Yauch’s growth into life as a Buddhist, which the band so interestingly documented in songs such as “Namaste”, “Boddhissatva Vow”, and “Shambala”. I don’t feel like re-hashing that.
I want to try to re-create just a touch of what it’s like to be a Beastie Boys fan. I’m not even going to get into the socially conscious lines scattered around, or concentrated more heavily on To the 5 Boroughs, because, even though I like that stuff a lot, I think that to understand the Beastie Boys, we have to understand the clowning.
Here’s an attempt at a taste of the Beastie Boys fan experience: Who the hell is Evan Bernard?! You’re listening to “Get it Together”, laughing, bobbing, enjoying the song, and Yauch spits, “I don’t think I’m slick nor do I play like I’m hard/But I’ma drive the lane like I was Evan Bernard.” I mean, he must be famous, right? MCA drops his name just like they do baseball Hall of Famers (“and I’ve got mad hits like I was Rod Carew”) and jazz stars (“I’m Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle”). But before the internet became widespread – Ill Communication came out in 1994 – it could drive you mad trying to figure out Who the hell this Evan Bernard is, who apparently was nice on the hardwood and hoops, but I can’t remember anyone with that name playing for the Knicks or anyone else.
Turns out, Evan Bernard was just some dude they were friends with and played ball with on their long, prodigious “breaks” from writing and recording. If he’s some guy they know, he’s part of the landscape and could be referenced, just like the homeless guy Johnny Ryall, to whom Mike D. gave his official Def Jam jacket one cold day and who merited a whole song on Paul’s Boutique.
In that way, Evan Bernard finds good company with Tom Cushman, Dave Scilken, George Drakoulias, Matt Takei, Zoe Rogers, and Felicia – Beastie friends whose names show up in their songs right alongside Cezanne, Napoleon Bonaparte, Walt Frazier, Sadaharu Oh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Carl Sagan, Helen of Troy, Amadou Diallo, Jimmy Walker, Paul Bunyan, Minnie the Moocher, Wisk detergent, Yoo-hoo chocolate drink, skate boarders like Mike McGill, Chateau Neuf-de-Pape wine, Krispy Kremes doughnuts, the Mr. Belvedere tv show, and Jabba the Hut, as well as signposts of their NYC terrain, such as Ernie’s Cheese Shop, Albee St. Mall, Ernie Ernesto, Ricky Powell, George Whipple, Crazy Eddie, LeFrak City, Bleecker Bob’s record store, and of course, muthaf&%$in Yossi with his goddamned muffins.
But it’s better than that, because Evan Bernard was just some dude who was also a fan. He met them at the Lollapalooza festival where he was doing some video work, hung out with them, insinuated himself, and convinced them, somehow, to let him direct a video of theirs (“Root Down”), even though he really didn’t have much experience. Why did he become part of their world? Because he wasn’t wack. I recently read an interview with the band Luscious Jackson, close friends and protégées of the Beasties (drummer Kate Schellenbach actually was a member of the original punk/hardcore lineup) in which the interviewer asked them what advice they had received from the Beastie Boys along the way. Their answer was simple: “Don’t be wack.” Or, as Darryl McDaniels (DMC) put it in describing how all Black, southern audiences loved the Beastie Boys when they were opening for Run-DMC in 1986: “real recognizes real”.
The Beastie Boys celebrated their world. They say that they always went into the studio primarily to entertain each other. If something was entertaining to them, it would probably entertain other people, too. The artistic confidence that your world is real and counts. By letting their aesthetic be a real aesthetic, they, more than any band of their era, created – or maybe unleashed – a dominant aesthetic of an entire generation. Even the newspaper of record, the NY Times, now refers to the lower Manhattan corner of Ludlow and Rivington Streets as “the former site of Paul’s Boutique”. The Beastie Boys, exiled in LA, fabricated a NY commercial establishment into existence. The site was Lee’s Sporting Goods Store, and for the album cover, they didn’t even cover up the Lee’s sign. They just added a smaller sign that said “Paul’s Boutique”; 20 years later, people remember that a non-existent store (which the album’s interlude claims was in Brooklyn, anyway) existed on that Manhattan corner.
They never tried to “be cool” in the sense of matching some fashion, but coolness kind of followed what they did just because they enjoyed it. As much as the Beastie Boys defined a 90′s aesthetic, and that decade had some funny fashions we groan at in retrospect, you don’t cringe at pretty much anything they’re wearing or saying in any of those old videos and pictures. It all seems both of that time and also still edgy and relevant today. Don’t bother trying to be hip; just don’t be wack.
The Beastie Boys have been taste-makers. The following is a list of musical artists I got into after hearing them referenced or sampled by the Beasties: The Jimmy Castor Bunch; Rose Royce (the beat for my song “Toward the Vindication of Vashti” is a mash-up of two of their songs); Lee “Scratch” Perry; Richard “Groove” Holmes; Jimmy Smith; Curtis Mayfield; Incredible Bongo Band; Funkadelic; Cerrone; Spoonie Gee; Eugene McDaniels; and Yusef Lateef. And there are many more that I haven’t yet followed-up on but probably will, since, after all, everything I do is funky like Lee Dorsey.
?uestlove, of The Roots, remarked last month that the Beastie Boys are the most fully realized band in all of music of this generation. I think he mainly meant that no other band has done that many things that well (hip-hop, punk/hardcore, jazz-fusion, reggae, production, beat-making, live shows, video pioneers, concert film, magazine publishers, charity event curators…), for that long, with not a single dud, been so successful at bucking the pressures of the music business to conform to a niche, to change course so radically twice in a row from Licensed to Ill to Paul’s Boutique to Check Your Head – three masterpieces vastly different from each other – and to wind up where they started, at the top of the charts, but from a totally other angle. But what’s really behind ?uesto’s comment is that they were a band who listened to everything, who absorbed everything, and felt no limitations of genre or convention on what they could produce themselves.
No one else besides the Beastie Boys could have put on a recurring charity event such as the Tibetan Freedom Concert, with artists as diverse as Bjork, KRS-One, Richie Havens, Rage Against the Machine, John Lee Hooker, Cibo Matto, De La Soul, Sonic Youth, the Skatalites, and chanting Tibetan monks sharing a line-up and a stage, and for it to hold together and work. As a consequence, the greatest music festival of the year for several years running not only directly raised over $2 million to support the cause of Tibetan liberation, but also raised awareness and passion for this human rights issue to a degree difficult to measure. Suffice it to say that the entire Students for a Free Tibet movement is a direct child of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, which were a direct child of Adam Yauch believing that their cause was important, and should be supported and celebrated in this way.
I recently attended the alternative Israeli Independence Day commemoration organized annually by a number of Israeli human rights organizations whose work I consider heroic and urgent. The event made me despondent and annoyed at every minute I spent there. The entire evening was a parade of impressive human rights workers in different fields taking the mic to list the injustices they fight and how they do it, with periodic avant-garde artistic performances between honoree speakers. Though I agreed with everything said, I thought the event undermined itself. By spitting out heavy information in a ritualistic fashion, rather than in a way that can be useful to promote practical action, they dramatized that destruction and oppression are eternal, and that our lot is to be the caste of pure people constantly pointing it out ritually. Speakers droned on, fact-spitting from the podium, while the crowd of true-believers stood far away and chit-chatted, sinking deeper into jadedness. If you want to dramatize that we will prevail in liberating the oppressed, then you put on a Tibetan Freedom Concert where people are celebrating liberation as real, stand and dance close together so that emotional intimacy is forged between strangers, and have information booths where organizers can welcome interested newcomers, give them info, and help them find opportunities to get involved, while the illest concert party of the year makes them feel that they want to.
Laughter is at the very heart of liberation. All human celebration emerges from the pursuit and experience of liberation. That’s why the Torah constantly reminds us of our liberation from Egyptian slavery and why every Jewish celebration refers back to it as its point of departure. There are more and less mature ways to express celebration, and sometimes celebration goes wrong and hurts people. The more one is vibed into what that liberation is about, the more one can take stock of that, apologize, and grow into more responsible ways of celebrating, becoming all the iller because of it. That is what the Beastie Boys modeled for us, and Yauch was at the epicenter. The first time MCA met the Dalai Lama, in a receiving line, the Dalai Lama looked him in the eyes, grasped his hands, and broke into joyous laughter. Laughter is serious business, ever more so in a world in which human dignity is constantly degraded. No liberation can move without laughter and celebration, because they are liberation’s goal.
During the week of shiva for Adam Yauch, I experienced an intense contrast. On one hand, I was reading lots of articles about Yauch and Maurice Sendak, who also died that week: two American Jews with only the most threadbare of connections to Jewish life or knowledge of Torah, but who contributed so much art that was fundamentally relevant and not wack, and carried spiritual meaning to so many people, including a whole lot of American Jews. Meanwhile, I read lots of live tweets from rabbi friends of mine at their rabbinic convention that week – tweets that can best be described as “very wack”. They expressed excitement over being in the presence of celebrity, regurgitated banal points we all know, and recombined jargon to express new forms still devoid of content. It was so sad for me: folks who spent many years studying Torah – the most riveting, non-wack, liberation literature ever produced – talking loud and saying nothing, while these two American Jews utterly ignorant of Torah make me want to dance, laugh, imagine, be free. The artists are good; the clergy are well-behaved, the people are thirsty.
The world is darker with MCA’s departure, but his and the Beastie Boys’ artistic legacy reminds us that “darkness is not the opposite of light; it’s the absence of light” (“Namaste”, 1994), and points a way to laugh our way into filling the world with more of that light. Without their example, there is no way I would have had the confidence to go ahead and make an album of my own, and even had I done so, it would be so much wacker. I would probably burn out more quickly from social activism, because I would enjoy it less, and I would probably experience my Torah learning much more 2-dimensionally.
The Talmud tells of Rabbi Berokah running into Elijah the Prophet in the market and asking him whether there is anyone there who merits a place in the World-to-Come. Elijah points out two men. R. Berokah asks them their occupation. Their answer? “We’re jokesters [אינשי בדוחי]. When we see a person who is down-cast, we joke around for him” (Taanit 22a). I am so, so, so sad at Adam Yauch’s tragically premature death, but I’m that much more eager to live a life worthy of a place in the World-to-Come, so that I can track him down, chill with him, and ask him, “Yo, Yauch, who the hell is Dr. Carlton Brassiere, aka Joyce?”
May the memory of Adam Yauch, son of Frances and Noel, be for a blessing. Long live the class clowns.