May 10th, 2012

Belated Thoughts on Adam Yauch

For me, the pivotal Beastie Boys moment wasn’t when I first saw the video for “Fight for Your Right to Party” on a giant screen at a local Chuck-E-Cheese knock-off, or when I saved up enough change to make Licensed to Ill my first-ever cassette purchase. The video terrified me, less for what it sounded like and more for its wanton, idiotic cruelty. I may even have cried. But I also wanted to be it. The tape, copped at K-Mart with piggybank change, was played endlessly because I didn’t know what else to do with it.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Beastie Boys changed my life. But I’m pretty sure that this only really happened was when I realized that Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA, who passed away this week at the age of 47, was the best rapper in the group.

When their place in the genre’s history gets discussed, the Beasties are frequently referred to as a “gateway” act; my relationship with them, in a sense, a generational trope. The screwball collages of Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Heads skate-punk soul jazz are considerably more original and highly-regarded; The Beastie Boys made the greatest impact with their first album, a novelty record whose cultural pastiche was more memorable than its musical accomplishments, then spent almost two decades proving they were more than obnoxious rip-off artists. 

Except Licensed to Ill wouldn’t have worked if it had simply lead so many of us to rap music. Licensed to Ill didn’t just put the idea of hip-hop in our heads, it taught us the basics of how to listen to it. 

The Beastie Boys played their delinquent scourge to the hilt, and the bratty, smash-and-grab ethos that shaped their image may have suggested that they were subjecting pop music to random acts of violence. That wasn’t it; they were riding the coattails of a new musical language. Their ceaseless trolling, Oprah-baiting and parent-frightening belonged to a time-honored tradition of commodified rebellion. The music, though, was a primer for a new language. What’s more, it was a surprisingly effective introduction to “the real” of artists like Run-DMC, Slick Rick, and Rakim, not to mention the groundwork that allowed Public Enemy and N.W.A. to have an even more marked effect on many of us a few years down the road. The Beasties didn’t teach me to yell over samples, they lead me straight to the Panthers. 

The Beastie Boys, on the other hand, are mistakenly credited with making a rock-influenced album as if they had anticipated rap-metal. Yet Rick Rubin’s guitar-heavy production, including Zeppelin samples and an appearance by Slayer’s Kerry King, was part part of the sound he had already established with Run-DMC on King of Rock. To make their case to the mainstream, Run-DMC had to had to make a “Walk This Way” video in which walls were forcibly removed and Aerosmith joined forces with them in seeming violation of some musical natural law (note: Joe Perry has said that he intended the original song to be a Meters-style groove, which suggests that rap had the ability to reinforce racial barriers even where none had existed in the first place). The Beastie Boys, on the other hand, had tracks that were very much a product of rap’s avant-garde impulses. This was new, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it wasn’t also convincing.

Part of understanding hip-hop meant learning the difference between dope and wack, or whatever we said back then. Rubin provided the credibility but when it came to the actual rhyming, the Beasties walked a fine line between aspirants and outright parodists. That is, except for MCA. The reason why, for me, Yauch was always the most important Beastie Boy is that he made me realize that there were standards in rap; when I listened to him, I heard something that wasn’t there with Ad Rock and Mike D. It was part of the education; you might even say he was the first MC I ever heard who made me understand the importance of flow, breath control, riding the beat, and all those other things we expect of credible rappers.

Ad Rock seemed to relish sounding ridiculous, and Mike D could be wan and shaky, so the format probably. It was MCA’s booming voice that saved those composite, rapid-fire verses. The first voice you hear on Licensed to Ill is Ad Rock’s adrenal whine, stretching syllables in an unpleasant yammer: “Because mutiny on the bounty’s what we’re all about.” Then comes MCA, simpler, more composed, and vigorous: “I’m gonna board your ship and turn it on out.” In its wake, Mike D’s “No soft sucker with a parrot on his shoulder” barely registers. At some point in 1986, I could hear that. MCA was the one who seemed to actually get this hip-hop thing and in the process, allowed so much of us to figure it out with him. He wasn’t battle-tested or battled-ready, but it didn’t really matter. He was the hook. He was what got us in for life; we all carried some of MCA with us down through the years. 

April 20th, 2012

Rick Danko and pianist Richard Manuel had a tendency to blur their singing voices, seemingly the ultimate acknowledgement that their group, and the plane of the imagination they inhabited, required a certain amount of surrender even at the height of expression. But Helm’s growl, his twang, remained unmistakable and essential. It’s Helm who sings that first line of “The Weight,” and even if Nazareth is supposed to be both biblical and a stop on a long interstate drive, only Helm could sanctify the rest stop and cast the parables in roadside neon.

Remembering Levon Helm and The Band at Capital New York

October 6th, 2011

Why exactly did people take Steve Jobs’s death so hard? I don’t much care to argue over whether or not this was the appropriate feeling to have, or whether another death was more deserving of this emotion. The fact remains, they did. The easy answer: Steve Jobs was a Great Man whose influence over contemporary culture is virtually inescapable. Through brute force alone, and pressure exerted by the world around us, the heart responds. I wonder, though, if it doesn’t have to do with the nature of Apple products. The iPod’s triumph—and to some degree, that of the snazzy Mac before it and the nascent iPad since—was to create a singular, personal space by means of a technological vessel. This effect was transitive, if backward; the metal and plastic were imbued with the memories and associations that music, in digital, context-less form, bundled up in one place. Those were the rules of the game, the order of things, and they were embodied in the device—stylish, elliptical, and slightly frivolous—that made this sound-space possible.

It makes perfect sense that Jobs himself would be, so to speak, taken personally. He was the one who allowed them to live more fully through technology. They created this version of Apple and its leader, but without the cues provided by technology, it wouldn’t have happened. Are we happy? Thank Steve Jobs. Does technology render us that powerless when it comes to matters of lifestyle and identity? Then thank Steve Jobs for that, too, out of a fealty that should leave an odd, acrid taste our mouths. Even if you’ve never owned Apple once. He’s gotten to you somehow. 

July 23rd, 2011

When news breaks, we respond. When someone dies, we produce sentiment. When it’s a celebrity, we draw up a verdict for history. When we do all of these things at once, and it falls flat, it’s called Amy Winehouse.

Let’s get the formalities out of the way: Amy Winehouse was tremendously talented, an “artist” with one, two, three, maybe size capital letters if you want. She could be hammy at times, and lent herself to insult in both the things she could control and those she couldn’t. As a singer, though, she was damn good. As a symbol—a crazy, nose-jobbed, Brit-JAP who recreated herself as blue-eyed soul’s answer to both Billie Holiday and Tina Turner—Amy Winehouse was indispensable. That she frequently pulled it off, and made listeners forget what a bizarre fantasy she constantly embodied, is the highest compliment we can pay her. Instead of being a celebrity merely acting out, or playing a role, she was able to convince us that her version of reality was not only worth our time, but maybe altogether natural.

However (and at 3PM ET, I’m hardly the first person to say this), there’s nothing surprising about her death. Unfortunate, sad, a shame that the curtain fell so soon. You would be hard-pressed, though, to find a public figure as blatantly, even smugly, self-destructive as Winehouse. Her big radio-friendly smash decried rehab, a stance that not even Pete Doherty would take that brazenly. He has bouts of remorse, moments of reversal. Winehouse, even if I’m glossing over a quote or two, was bad news 4 life. She was a junkie and a drunk, and made little attempt to hide it. She was slavishly devoted to a worthless man. And, well beyond the normal ravages of dope and booze, she seemed intent on seeing her body fazed out through eating disorders, and the corrosive mask of tattoos, big, wild hair, and a wardrobe whose scarred properties seemed to transfer straight to her actual skin.

Here’s that crucial breach, where I remember that we don’t really know famous people; that our relationship with them is fundamentally external, while the things that drive self-destructive behavior lurk deep within; and that, paradoxically, having any first-hand authority on these subjects might make us even less qualified to comment, since that just exposes us as observers with a personal stake in the perception of Winehouse and others. I don’t understand Amy Winehouse, and even if I choose to sympathize, it’s only slightly more dignified than her biggest fan bemoaning the end of the music. So all we have, as in life, is Winehouse as metaphor, whether for a certain kind of creativity, or the wrong way to live your life.

That said, I feel okay with the following: Being great did Amy Winehouse no favors. We can debate for days whether pain makes for better music, or simply makes people more likely to cry out somehow. I’m pretty sure that saying Winehouse did pain, and nothing else, is an insult. As a performer, she had far more range, and emotional texture; pain done well is almost never monolithic or one-dimensional, which is part of why Winehouse the person could be so clown-ish. She should have known better. She certainly sounded like she did. Of course, that presumes that the voice reflects life. Or maybe life makes the voice. Winehouse was dripping with affect; this much is obvious, whether you go by the records or the queen of the tabloids.

We may never know which one got closer to the real her, and which one was the noise. Maybe it’s best to leave it at this: There weren’t necessarily two sides to Amy Winehouse. But from the outside, she seemed torn between “Jimi&Janis&Jim&Kurt” or “Younger Than Jesus”, and being a vessel for a more mutable, less deliberate, and decidedly universal kind of angst—a proselytizer for what she had become.  She was busy getting rid of herself, while at the same time making perfectly happy people understand why self-destruction was an option. Sadly, it turned out these two goals were at odds.

April 20th, 2011

Tim Hetherington, 1970-2011
Our hearts are broken today over news of the death of GQ contributing photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed early Wednesday in Misurata, Libya, while reporting on the revolution. Shown above is a photograph from his most recent book, Infidel, a collection of images from his time as an embed with a U.S. military platoon in Afghanistan while making his award-winning documentary Restrepo, which he co-directed with the author Sebastian Junger. Click here to see a full slideshow of Tim’s work.


Tim Hetherington, 1970-2011

Our hearts are broken today over news of the death of GQ contributing photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed early Wednesday in Misurata, Libya, while reporting on the revolution. Shown above is a photograph from his most recent book, Infidel, a collection of images from his time as an embed with a U.S. military platoon in Afghanistan while making his award-winning documentary Restrepo, which he co-directed with the author Sebastian Junger. Click here to see a full slideshow of Tim’s work.

Reblogged from The GQ Tumblr