In Memoriam

My Patron Saint, Adam Yauch

Remembering David Bowie helped me reflect on the legendary Beastie Boy

Saint Adam Yauch

Illustration by Dan Redding

On January 11th, we lost David Bowie, a cultural revolutionary who redefined popular music, art, and even gender. Bowie’s death was followed by an outpouring of remembrance from those whose lives he touched. I loved Bowie too, and the profundity of his impact is startling to behold. His passing got me thinking – who was the cultural figure who has touched my life the most?

That artist was Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. If heaven turns out to be at all like it’s portrayed in memes, I’m sure the hip hop great will be right there next to Bowie and Lemmy in the house band.

Yauch the Renaissance Man

When I was fifteen, I picked up the bass guitar. For many bassists of my generation, the biggest heads on the totem pole were Flea and Claypool – flashy virtuosos who moved the boundaries of the instrument’s capabilities. Yauch was different. He was an everyman in a t-shirt – the antithesis of a strangely beautiful alien like Bowie. But under the surface, he was a musical chameleon – an M.C. and a bassist who flourished in a broad spectrum of styles ranging from jazz and rap to funk and punk. In fact, Adam Yauch embodied the inspiring, groundbreaking core ideal of punk: the idea that anyone can pick up an instrument, start a band, and express themselves. For a kid starting at square one, ‘ten thousand hour rule’ guys like Flea can seem daunting as hell, but Yauch can inspire you take the first step into a life of music.

Adam Yauch

Photo by Fabio Venni

He may not have been a virtuoso, but he was something equally impressive: a true renaissance man. Yauch’s microphone skills were central to a foundational hip-hop group, he was a killer rock and funk bassist, and he was a versatile producer whose creative palette was always expanding.

Yauch the Shapeshifter

America first got to know Yauch as a bad boy with a “beard like a billygoat.” In the early Beasties’ career, his persona was that of a druggy drifter who looked more like a construction worker than a rap star. He grounded the rap trio with his gravelly voice and stoic presence. His voice was the perfect low-end compliment to high-pitched Mike D and “original nasal kid” Ad Rock.

He grounded the boys spiritually, too. Around the time of Check Your Head, Yauch started to change. His growing interest in Buddhism was reflected in the band’s music. He smashed his gun with a sledgehammer, symbolically denouncing violence. He rhymed about it and filmed it (partial footage can be seen in the Something’s Got to Give video). Can you imagine a popular rapper doing that in today’s culture of gun violence in both hip-hop and America at large? It was a potent message of defiance both then and now.

By the time the Beastie Boys released Ill Communication, Yauch’s metamorphosis was complete: it appeared that he had transformed from stoner to monk. He launched the Tibetan Freedom Concert, denounced misogyny (in the lyrics to ‘Sure Shot’), and introduced Buddhist chanting and themes into the band’s ever-expanding musical palette. Mike D told Rolling Stone that Yauch’s new positive messaging “took a little getting used to.”

Yauch’s maturation went against the grain in a musical genre that celebrates youthful rebellion. On the microphone, he still had “more juice than Picasso’s got paint.”

Yauch the Monk

David Bowie showed generations of young people that an outsider spirit was something to embrace, not fix. Yauch’s impact was spiritual, too: he introduced millions of kids to meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhism. In a country plagued with clinical anxiety and depression, the positivity of his impact is immense.

At 16, I was a huge Beastie Boys fan. I rocked out with friends at the Tibetan Freedom Concert. I saw the Dalai Lama speak in New Jersey and started reading Alan Watts and Thich Naht Hahn. I started a meditation practice that helped ease feelings of anxiety that would take many years to fully comprehend. The exposure to Buddhism opened a door for me during a foundational stage of my development as a young man. Yauch introduced me to spiritual tools that would resonate throughout my whole life.

How many impressionable teenagers did Adam Yauch’s work touch in a similar way? The Beastie Boys’ music stands the test of time, but Yauch’s spiritual impact on generations of American teenagers transcends everything.

Yauch the New York Icon

When I was 17, my best friend Mark and I took a train from the Philly ‘burbs to New York City. The trip was a life-changer for me.

I was intoxicated by the compressed heat of downtown streets in the summer. New York in the summer can make you fall in love with anything. You fall in love with the constant feeling of urgency, of being on the brink of something. You fall in love with the way the streets are reflective with morning dew before the hot afternoon sun burns it off. Even the smell of hot trash – pungent and unavoidable on a hot day – can cause a pang of nostalgia after a few years of New York summers.

Mark and I walked from midtown to Chinatown. We ate pizza and smoked cigarettes. Mark bought a skateboard. The limitless scale of the city seemed to have no boundaries at all.

That’s when we ran into Yauch.

We were walking East of Broadway somewhere near Bond Street. Adam Yauch walked past us, carrying a skateboard. He stopped at a payphone and dug in his pocket for change.

Mark and I turned the corner. I grabbed Mark by his t-shirt.

That was Adam Yauch,” I said.

His eyes widened. “What do we do?” he replied.

We leaned against a storefront on Lafayette and deliberated: should we talk to him? What do we say?

Just then, Yauch zipped around the corner on his skateboard. He glanced over at us, already aware that he’d been scoped. We yelled what’s up to him, and he waved back.

A year later, I moved to New York City to study design and writing. It’s been home ever since.

Thanks for everything, Adam.

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