Caught by the River

Rocking The Walter Matthau – Adam Yauch remembered

9th May 2012

Adam Yauch – aka MCA, one third of the ever-inspirational Beastie Boys – died last week at 47. Richard King remembers a life cut way too short. As one of the comments on the YouTube link posted below says: “MCA ain’t dead. Just hit play.”

On a hot Sunday afternoon in 1994 I was leaning against the wall opposite the Slam City Skates / Rough Trade shop window in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden. There were around forty of us loitering outside in the sunshine trying to maintain a veneer of detached indifference despite the fact that, in about ten minutes time, we were about to watch the Beastie Boys play a secret concert in the basement record shop. Inside DJ Hurricane had placed his decks on the sales counter and the band had set up for a full show. We witnessed an hour-long performance that was as close to being in the band’s Atwater rehearsal complex as any of us were likely to get. The concert had been organised by Slam’s Russell Waterman as a release party for the band’s fourth album Ill Communication. The show was also a thank you from the band to the skate shop for keeping the faith during the time between Check Your Head and their new album; a period in which the Beasties had launched a magazine, record label and clothing line.

The band started by playing their spacey funk numbers, moved through a few hardcore songs with their extra drummer, then started a glorious and electrifying MC set. Hurricane scratched and cut and Money Mark stabbed at his keyboard over which, even in the low ceiling of Rough Trade, he managed one of his trademark jumps. Throughout it all Mike D and Ad Rock were hyper and gesticulating, but in much the same way he as played the bass, MCA was altogether more relaxed. At one point he even managed to deliver his rhymes with one of his hands in his sweatshirt pocket. The instinct and chemistry between the three Beastie Boys in such close quarters was extraordinary, like being allowed in on a private conversation that nobody wanted to end.

A few nights later I was back in the West End in a heaving, sweltering Astoria. As the house lights dimmed and the shouts went up, the air of expectation intensified as Hurricane cued up the intro to ‘Time For Livin’’. Mike D bounded on stage shouting ‘It’s time to set the record straight!’ and the place went wild. By the encores of ‘Egg Raid On Mojo’ and ‘Sabotage’ the band’s families and entourage were on the side of the stage and the balcony had its own mosh pit. The performance had included just a hint of defiance. On the eve of releasing Ill Communication everyone in London wanted to be in the Beastie Boys.

The Grand Royal lifestyle was in full international effect but the inner logic that they had discovered as school friends ensured that the Beastie Boys were always one step ahead. You could read the magazine and follow the recipe for pasta sauce written by ‘the frugal Yauch.’ You could wear the clothes although the band’s own style remained unique: in an NME feature later that year, in which he appeared in a sweater, hat and overcoat, Yauch noted conspiratorially that he was ‘Rocking the Walter Matthau’. Perhaps most importantly you could draw inspiration from the Beastie Boys maturing into thoughtful and compassionate adults while maintaining their ineffable sense of humour. At the first epochal Tibetan Freedom Concert not only did the Beasties invite some Tibetan monks onstage to explain about their persecution, they played basketball with them backstage as well. Everything about them, from their hand-held videos to their humanitarian politics, felt effortless. And as many people have noted in the last few days it was MCA, especially in his lyrics and in his soft smile, who was at the forefront of their determination to mix seriousness with fun.

Three MCs and one DJ.