So, the other day I put down some thoughts on the passing of Adam Yauch and I want to follow up with a small collection of some of the ‘MCA-driven’ songs I mentioned. This isn’t exhaustive, but it follows a thread through his work.
In the time since Adam’s passing I’ve been re-reading about the Boys, including books such as Alan Light’s The Skills To Pay The Bills and Dan LeRoy’s “Paul’s Boutique”, and its been fascinating to reconsider MCA’s development as an artist.
As I mentioned the other day, one of the most interesting things about Yauch’s life was his journey from obnoxious rabble-rouser to a deeply spiritual activist. This could be traced in his music, and you can see him growing in confidence on each record. The first sign of this on record was probably “A Year And A Day” from their ground breaking second album “Paul’s Boutique”.
This was a remarkable album, being such a departure from the uproarious brattishness of “Licensed to Ill” and this song even more so. It was tucked away at the end of the album, lumped in with the multi-song medley “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”. In it, Yauch in addition to the usual b-boy brags and pop culture, makes references to hope, prayer, dreams and destiny. In an interview with the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun, Yauch spoke about it:
there’s a song where I am starting to say what I’m feeling spiritually. It’s called “A Year and a Day,” but the lyrics to that song aren’t on the lyric sheet and I’m using a real distorted mic, so it’s not really clear. And I got a lot of positive feedback from people. I was kind of taking a big risk for myself doing that, just in terms of my own confidence, but I got a lot of positivity on that.
For their next album, “Check Your Head”, the Beasties changed course again, bringing in live instrumentation and more of a punk-rock sensibility to the mix. On this album were a couple of Yauch-driven songs, including “Stand Together”, which for me is the spiritual successor to “A Year and a Day”. Here, over a similar mix of rapid drums and a electric guitar line, Yauch is much more upfront about his new outlook on life and emerging spiritual practice
I don’t see things quite the same as I used to
As I live my life, I’ve got just me to be true to
When I find that I don’t know about just what to do
I turn and look within to see what I should do
There are references to Yauch’s meditation practice and its positive effects
Yeah, as the earth spins into a brand new day
I see the light on the horizon’s not fading away
Gonna shine from within, like a bright white sun
No need to hide and no place to run
Also on “Check Your Head” is “Namasté”, a trippy, laid back psychedelic tune, featured Yauch reciting a surreal poem which culminates in:
My fear was just a shadow
And then a voice spoke in my head
And she said dark is not the opposite of light
It’s the absence of light
And I thought to myself
She knows what she’s talking about
And for a moment I know
What it was all about
If you can trace Yauch’s growing confidence in expressing his spiritual side from album to album, it came to full fruition on “Ill Communication”. On “Bodhisattva Vow”, Yauch leaves no one guessing as he talks about the Buddhist vow he has taken.
As I develop the awakening mind
I praise the Buddhas as they shine
I bow before you as I travel my path
To join your ranks, I make my full-time task
For the sake of all beings I seek
The enlightened mind that I know I’ll reap
As he explained, a Bodhisattva is:
someone who has decided to strive to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all other beings, to better assist all other beings in avoiding suffering and attaining happiness — following the spiritual path to end the cycle of death and rebirth, learn whatever lessons need to be learned on this planet.
The general concept behind the song was to take the meaning of Shantideva’s text, at least on the level that I understood it, and compress it into a modernized, three-verse rhyming song. In retrospect, it was rather a bold move. People who write Buddhist texts generally spend most of their lives studying them beforehand. The idea that a person could read a couple of books, go to one teaching, and then attempt to write an updated abridged version of the Bodhicaryavatara is presumptuous at best.
The song represents Yauch’s full ‘coming out’ as a Buddhist, a clear statement of intent. It was at this time that he also become heavily involved in the Tibetan Freedom movement, that was to become a huge part of his life.
Yauch’s desire to contribute solo positivity-centered contributions to Beastie records continued on “Hello Nasty” on “Flowin’ Prose”
But I’ll remain sane making gain without pain
Staining trains with names and driving lanes to the refrain
And keep it positive as painstaking as it is
I’ll never turn back cause that’s the way I’ve got to live
But on “Nasty” Yauch also contributed a rare moment of softly spoken melody, with the acoustic Bossa Nova flavoured “I Don’t Know” which was an oasis of calm in between the smashing breaks that populated the 1998 album.
On the Beastie’s last 3 records there were no real ‘solo’ tracks, as the group shared mic duties on all songs, but Yauch continued to supply a positive mind frame, but becoming much more political in the post 9/11 era, but as always was committed to, as he once described it:
striving for […] integrating the ability to only put out positive energy toward all other beings. I want to integrate that into having fun and functioning in the band.
He certainly did that.
Previously: Adam Yauch (1964 – 2012)