I felt my heart sink when I saw Adam Yauch was a trending topic on Twitter yesterday, knowing it was only a short time ago he was diagnosed with cancer.
The many ways in which the world has changed in my lifetime still sometimes takes me by surprise. I held out hope he was trending because it was his birthday or for some stupid, random, Twitter reason. To my dismay, I learned gossip web site TMZ was reporting he passed away.
I held out hope this was a tasteless internet hoax and TMZ had jumped the gun; it wouldn't be the first time someone got a story like this wrong but it turned out to be true and my heart has been aching ever since. I was moved by the lovely tribute Heather wrote to MCA yesterday because of her personal story and also because from galaxies far away, our stories with the Beastie Boys share so much in common. You should really read hers, and here's mine...
There will be no revisionist history here. You are not hearing the thoughts of the foremost authority on The Beastie Boys or their biggest fan. I remember when License To Ill was a controversial record and the kids couldn't get enough of it. I was a teenager in Iowa, which is pretty far removed from the world of Brooklyn and hip hop but in some ways I think that's why it made sense to me.
These were three Jewish kids rapping at a time when rap music in a mainstream sense was still novel, especially where I was living! No one knew what the hell to make of them! What were a bunch of white kids in nowhere Iowa doing singing along to every word of that record? What did we know? On the other hand, The Beastie Boys were outsiders in a musical genre just coming into its own and people were asking them the same question.
I remember the hype and furor about their antics and lyrics. I remember when they became something of a punchline and the novelty wore off. I remember watching them emerge with their first live performance of "What'cha Want?" and the stunned, confused look on the masses. I didn't know if I'd just witnessed one of the worst or coolest things I'd ever seen but I still remember! They confounded us all, again, and youth culture and the music mainstream was ready to embrace them, again.
Their legacy is an important one; they dared to enter the rap game and brought punk and rock sounds and attitudes to the genre. They opened doors and minds with their music and commitment to social causes. The created some of the most inventive, clever videos in MTV history and put themselves on a map where they were a legitimate hip hop act as well as an alternative music band. They were fun and funny but edgy and innovative. They championed social responsibility and helped shine a light on the brutal oppression of Tibet by the Chinese government. It's one of the most amazing and unexpected second acts in music history and one that landed them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past year (where they were overshadowed by the preposterous Guns 'N Roses sideshow).
Adam Yauch's legacy begins with music but like so many of the greats, it doesn't end there. I've slowly learned a few things in life, among those lessons is you can learn something from everybody. Sometimes you find inspiration and enlightenment in the words and actions of another while other times take me, for example you are shining example of what not to do.
Yauch brought increased spotlight to the plight of an entire nation to our attention. Tibet's struggle still isn't the focus of American diplomacy it should be but I am convinced Yauch's advocacy was integral in giving the issue the prominence it has today. I wish he'd lived to see his dream of a free, flourishing Tibet come true. I hope his death renews that conversation and hope our current administration and those that follow embrace the opportunity to help lift and liberate an oppressed people with greater resolve and urgency. That would be a mighty tribute and legacy, indeed.
Art is a high calling and Yauch should be remembered for the music he made and the ground his band broke. We should also take this time to celebrate a life and a commitment to the best parts of our humanity at the time of his passing. Adam Yauch didn't lose his battle with cancer, he claimed victory over it and left this world having made millions happier and better informed and stood for something whether it was popular or appreciated. His music will continue to bring us happiness and his life leaves many lessons worthy of a lifetime commitment for those of us who remain.