As much as I thrive on pop culture and the entertainment industry, I’m not usually affected by celebrity deaths. Sure, some are sadder than others, but for the most part, I just shrug them off with a sincere, but hardly sympathetic, statement of, “That’s too bad…” before adding them to my New Year’s playlist (if they were a musician.)
Even the tragic ones, like Princess Di, or the unexpected ones, like Michael Jackson, barely register on my emotions. I suppose I do spend some time reflecting on their careers and contributions, and might make an extra effort to watch their movies or listen to their songs, but I don’t feel a real sense of loss the way I would for a friend or family member.
The last time I remember feeling truly sad over a celebrity death was when Tim Russert died. And the weird thing was, I hardly knew anything about him while he was alive, other than his famous election night coverage with the white board. But after listening to the interviews, reading reflections from his peers, and watching all the tributes, I found myself feeling a keen sense of loss for a man I had never met, but from the sound of it, one I would’ve liked to have known.
Other than that, River Phoenix, Phil Hartman, and Jerry Garcia are the only others that come to mind as far as having an emotional impact. But even though I followed The Dead for years, and transformed my car into a mobile shrine to Jerry, I think I was mourning more for the loss of a lifestyle than for the man himself.
So when Adam Yauch, aka MCA, of Beastie Boys fame, passed away at the much too young age of 47, I was surprised by how much it affected me. Certainly the shock had something to do with it, as I was under the impression that his cancer was cured, but there was more to it than that. And from the posts of friends and fans on facebook, I know I wasn’t the only one feeling it.
I was 16 when License to Ill came out. The perfect age to buy into the whole fighting for my right to party and not sleeping ‘til Brooklyn mentality. And buy in I did! To this day, I can still recite every lyric on that album, and do the voices. But like most people at the time, I didn’t consider the Beastie Boys to be particularly talented. They were an entertaining diversion, more like the Three Stooges than a real band. They were a flash in the pan. A one hit wonder. And I never expected them to follow up the success of their debut album.
(Beastie) Boy was I wrong! Paul’s Boutique was released to great acclaim and much anticipation in the summer of 1989 - but I didn’t get to hear it until I was released from Basic Training a few months later. And as great as it was reuniting with my friends and family, hearing, “I’m Mike D and I’m back from the dead. Chillin’ at the beaches down at Club Med…” was what really welcomed me home.
It turned out that while Uncle Sam was doing his best to make a man out of me, the Beastie Boys had grown up as well. Granted, their lyrics were still silly (“Like Sam the Butcher bringing Alice the meat. Like Fred Flintstone driving round with bald feet.”) but artistically and conceptually, they had clearly stepped it up, forcing many of the critics who had dismissed them as a novelty act to take notice. And I couldn’t help but feel a kinship. When I stepped of that flight from Ft. Benning with my shorn head and sea bag, I looked to all the world like a responsible and respectable young man - little did they know I was pulling on a tie-dye and digging through a dime bag before we had even exited the airport parking lot.
By the time the hair on my head grew back, Check Your Head came out. I was 22, a full-fledged adult. And the Beasties were a full-fledged band, playing instruments on a studio record for the first time. It was like every time I took a step forward, they took a step forward. As my interests changed and matured, so did theirs. They were literally providing the soundtrack of my life – even if the songs themselves held little meaning for me.
I didn’t know Adam, from, well, Adam, but I feel sad about his death. He seemed like a good person who used his notoriety and influence to help others, such as his work with the “Free Tibet” movement. Artists as varied as Annie Lennox to Coldplay to the New York Mets have honored his passing with tributes and statements, and the rest of the world seems to have recognized the lasting contributions he and his band mates have made to music and culture.
In fact, the band was just recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Too sick to attend the ceremony, Adam wrote a message that was read to the crowd: “"I’d like to dedicate this award to my brothers, Adam and Mike, who’ve walked the globe with me. To anyone who’s been touched by our band, who our music has meant something to, this induction is as much ours as it is yours. To Kate Schellenbach. To John Berry. To John Berry’s loft on 100th St. and Broadway, where John’s dad would come busting in during our first practices screaming, “Would you turn that fucking shit off already!” To my loving and supportive parents, Noel and Frances Yauch, and to our home in Brooklyn where we used to practice on hot Brooklyn summer days after school, windows wide open to disturb the neighborhood. But most of all I’d like to thank and dedicate this honor to my smart, beautiful, loving wife Dechen and our sweet, talented, loving daughter [Tenzin] Losel. Never has a man felt more blessed than I to be able to spend my time with my two soul mates. I love you guys more than you know. I wish I could name everyone who deserves naming, but of course there’s too many names to name. You know who you are, and I sent my love out to all of you. Your friend, Adam Yauch."
I like how he signed it, because even though I never met the man, he was my friend.
"Well I got to keep it going keep it going full steam/ Too sweet to be sour too nice to be mean/ On the tough guy style I'm not too keen/ To try to change the world I will plot and scheme"- MCA, on Intergalactic