Saturday, May 05, 2012

Adam Yauch Remembered: A Tale of Two Bassists

The last time I saw Adam Yauch was at a Beastie Boys concert in August, 1998. Mike D. had offered me tickets partly because we were old friends and partly because he knew I could use a good night out as my 19 month old son had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor just five months before. And the time before that likely had been in 1989 when I photographed the Boys for the Paul's Boutique album cover. So we were not close, but we had a history, and when I walked into the cinder-block backstage area at what is now the Izod Center, he greeted me warmly, introducing me to his wife and making me feel welcome. My sister had been to Nepal recently so we talked about Nepalese tea and I wished him well with his quest to help the Tibetan people. Onstage, they rocked the house and lifted my spirits. Adam had become an accomplished bass player by then and I couldn't get enough of his raspy voice and witty words.

Our history, if presented in a manner appropriate to Behind The Music could consist of me railing at the camera that Adam had wrecked my band (The Young Aborigines) and helped the Beastie Boys rise from its ashes. But it wasn't like that. The Abs consisted of myself on bass, Mike Diamond (drums), John Berry (guitar) and Kate Schellenbach (percussion). We played an un-categorizable mash-up of post-punk, dub, and what we called "primitive" music. It was mainly for fun but we had some ambitions. My journal from 1981 mentions contact with the manager of the Bad Brains and a constant attempt to play in front of people. In the end, we only played two shows, and the joke was they were both on the same night.

Adam came to our crowd through the NYC hardcore scene, which Mike, John and Kate had grown increasingly attracted to. Though we were a tight-knit bunch of (mainly) upper-Manhattanites, the guy from Brooklyn with the wicked sense of humor and a wild streak was soon one of us, he fit right in. Adam respected what I was trying to do on the bass and was open to suggestions about the instrument. At the time I was taking lessons with a guy called David and Adam considered learning from him as well. My diary also notes that I brought Adam to David's loft to buy his first Fender bass.

While I was blown away by the Bad Brains (I must have listened to their ROIR cassette every day for a year), I was not much of a hardcore fan and the idea of playing that kind of reductive music did not fit with my omnivorous musical appetite. This led to to an unusual situation, with Adam and me playing in completely different bands with the exact same people, sometimes even rehearsing on the same day. Mike would get up from the drums and move to the mic; Kate would leave her hodgepodge of percussion and slide in behind Mike's kit; I would unplug my bass, and Adam would plug his in. John would keep his guitar, likely watching with a crooked grin and running his hand through his excessively pomaded hair. Sometimes I hung around and tried to add something but usually I would cut out home. My biggest contribution musically was probably the time I showed Adam how to use his thumb to slap the bass, a la Larry Graham. It had taken me almost a full summer to refine the technique and he was impressed.

The B. Boys and the Abs continued their parallel lives until around May of 1982, when the latter, without a thriving scene to support it and a confused musical approach, faded away into the ether. However, now that Adam is so tragically, heartbreakingly and unbelievably GONE, I find myself thinking more about the spaces in between. Like the hilarious night a passel of us crashed at Adam's Brooklyn brownstone, getting no sleep at all as we tried to fit five people in one bed. He was obsessed with the phoniness of advertising and kept us in stitches with his impressions of how poorly the media portrayed the way people behave.

In September 1981, a few days before I took the pictures included here, Mike and I headed to Central Park to go boating. No doubt this excursion was prompted by the fact that Yauch had a job at the concession and could hook us up. We might have put his job on the line as I tried to teach Mike to row, something for which he showed absolutely no aptitude. The three of us just broke out laughing after we finally got the boat back to shore.

We all had a lot of energy, and watching Adam bounce around on stage in old clips on YouTube reminds me of the night he got "nicked for acting like an ape on [the] subway," as I wrote in my diary. The cops gave him a warning and we continued on to see the Bad Brains at A7. Soon the Beasties were opening for the Brains and headlining their own shows.

Then came Pollywog Stew, Cooky Puss, Adam Horovitz, and, most improbably, global super-stardom. When the Licensed To Ill era was happening I was sort of amused by the whole thing, but also disgusted by the casual misogyny and bored by the brutish, frat-boy friendly beats. The success of that album kept Mike and the boys out of town for quite a while but we reconnected after things died down, leading to my agreeing to use my photo skills to make their dream of a 360-degree album cover a reality. While we careened around the city between locations, they played me some rough edits of the Paul's Boutique material and I turned to Mike and said, "Now, this I like!" The smorgasbord of sounds took me back to our listening sessions, when the Gang Of Four could be followed by Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and some old record from the 1920's.

They were on their way to becoming the hipsters hipsters as the world knows them today, and while I didn't always go for everything they did, I knew there was no compromise in their pursuits, within the Beastie Boys or otherwise, and I respected and admired Adam's work as an activist and filmmaker.

Even though I spent a lot of time with Adam in 1981 and 1982, we were really only acquaintances. In the end, I think his death felt like such a crushing blow to me for the same reason it did to many who never even met him: he was one of us, he fit right in.

My heart goes out to his wife and daughter, his parents, and his brother Beasties.

Note: All photos, and photos within photos, copyright 2012, Jeremy Shatan

1 comment:

  1. Jessica Shatan Heslin11:32 AM

    Jeremy, this is a beautiful, personal, honest remembrance. My heart goes out to all of Adam Yauch's loved ones and especially to you, since you are my brother.