Monday, August 17, 2015

Onstage And Off At MCA Day 2015

The Beastie Caddy
It's been three years since Adam Yauch aka MCA was felled by cancer in his prime, ending the active career of the Beastie Boys and breaking the hearts of friends and fans. Since then it's become clearer that I'm on the periphery of two tightly knit but exclusive groups - that of the band's inner circle and that of their dedicated fans. 

In the case of the first group, I know where I was and what I did in relationship to the rise of the Beasties. Even though I did not continue a professional career in music or photography - the two fields that tie me to their trajectory forevermore - the fact remains that I was present at the creation and even had a small hand in what proceeded. But even so, it's not as though I've broken bread with Ad-Rock or Mike D in this decade, or even this century. 

In the case of the second group, though I've loved a lot of their music, I will never be as big a fan of the Beastie Boys as some of the wonderful people I've met (mostly online) in the last four years. For one thing, it's hard to be a "fan" of someone you know as well as I knew Mike D. For another, I grew up in the same cultural milieu and have a shared affection for much of the music and some of the pop culture detritus that provided the foundation for the Beastie universe. While I didn't really feel Licensed To Ill, when I first heard Paul's Boutique I felt a certain familiarity with all the pieces they were pulling together and its genre-blending style jibed with my own listening habits.

While this betwixt and between feeling can be confusing at times, I have never felt ambivalent about attending MCA Day. I'm deeply offended by what happened to Adam even though I know cancer has no agency. I feel the same way about my son and my close friend Stephen, who both died in 1999. So I've wanted nothing more than to show my face at the event that sprang up spontaneously in Adam Yauch's memory the year he died and that has continued ever since. Even so, due to scheduling conflicts I was not able to get there until this year, the fourth annual. 

I don't know what the earlier years were like but what I found at Littlefield this year was a complex and heartfelt day of events run by Mike Kearney and a group of dedicated volunteers. There was already a good crowd when I arrived, some milling around outside, admiring the extravagantly decorated Cadillac parked out front, and some inside looking at MCA-inspired art and listening to a Nepalese hip hop duo. 

I had just greeted a few familiar faces when artist Andy Katz grabbed me and introduced me to Kearney. I had agreed in advance to say a few words to the crowd about the early days and apparently my time slot was coming up. I followed Mike backstage and met Jim Shearer, who was doing video of the event. He filmed me answering a few questions about the Young Aborigines and the Paul's Boutique album cover shoot.  

While the Nepalese rappers finished up, Mike asked me add my signature to some posters that would be given out to volunteers. Though this kind of request is always strange to me, I complied for the same reason I always do: maybe it will make someone happy. 

Then it was my time to go on stage. I spoke off the cuff so what follows is a paraphrase of what I told the audience. 

"Every universe has a Big Bang so maybe the Big Bang of the Beastie Boys universe is when I introduced Mike Diamond to John Berry." Then I showed them the visual aid I had with me, which was a  Pete Frame-style "Rock Family Tree" titled Young Abs & Stims. John Berry and I had drawn this out together in 1981, trying to wrap our heads around all the interconnected bands and side-projects in our circle of friends. 
Apologies To Pete Frame
I pointed to the top, where the Walden Jazz Band resides on the tree. "This is where Mike and I first played together. I played piano (not well) and he played drums. We had two songs. When John Berry told me he played guitar, I put them together. At first, they didn't like each other much but I told them to stick with it. I was planning to learn trombone [the Ska-revival was in full effect] but soon realized it would be too hard to play. They already had guitar and drums so I took up the bass and we formed the Young Aborigines."

I then described the 100th St. loft where John Berry lived with his father. Since his father wasn't around much it was the perfect place to rehearse and hang out. "Gradually," I continued, "We sort of began to collect people. Even though John's loft was far uptown, it became the place to hang out after a night at the clubs. There were some people who stuck around, though. People like Kate Schellenbach, who became the percussionist for the Young Abs, and Jill Cunniff, who ended up forming Luscious Jackson with Kate and others.

"Adam Yauch was another one who stayed. Right away I could see he was different. He was somehow more mature. A deep thinker. He could be a wild man but when you sat and talked with him, half the time your response would be: 'Hm. I hadn't thought of that.' We were both bassists in different bands with the same other people - an odd situation, but I never felt competitive with Adam."

Then I told the story of how I returned from vacation and was showing off my new thumb technique, popping my bass like an amateur Larry Graham. Adam came right over and said "Wow - you figured out how to do that! What are you doing, exactly?" He absorbed everything I showed him and saved it for a future that was at that time unknown. 

"We all know what happened next," I continued, "Global stardom, the number one debut album in Columbia Records' history, world tours, etc. Because  of that I didn't see any of them for some time. Eventually, Mike and I got back in touch and began having lunch regularly. It was at one lunch, at Jerry's on Spring Street, that Mike brought up the album cover. His brother and I were teasing him for not knowing who Gustav Klimt was when he told us that they had a great idea for the second album but had no idea how to make it happen. 'What is it?' I asked. 'We want to do a 360 panorama of an intersection on the Lower East Side,' he told me. 'I can do that no problem," I responded. 

"And so we did it. I rented equipment, hired an assistant, and met them at the appointed time and place. The most amazing part for me was after we had set everything up, taken a Polaroid for exposure, and it was time to take the actual pictures. I crouched under the tripod in the middle of the street with the cable release in my hand and called 'Action!' I watched in amazement as my friends began jumping, running, skating, just going nuts. I think that's when I realized they had become performers, and very good ones at that."

I felt it was time to finish so I concluded by saying, "I hate what happened to Adam, but if that's what had to happen I'm glad we can all be here together to deal with it. Thanks to all of you for coming and to everyone who made this day happen."

With Chris Whitaker
I left the stage, shook some hands, and realized I was starving. I went to get a quick lunch and returned to Littlefield, where I relished the opportunity to meet in person several people I only knew online. One of these folks was Chris Whitaker, who for the past year has been working on an incredible 16 foot long, four panel oil painting of the Paul's Boutique cover. He and his family had driven to Brooklyn from Detroit to display it. I heard other stories of long journeys as I mingled, like the man whose sister drove him from  New Orleans to celebrate his 50th birthday at MCA Day. 

Chris Whitaker's Incredible Painting
Over the course of the afternoon we heard from Unlearn, a Rage Against The Machine cover band who also did a smoking cover of Sabotage, and Cey Adams, who was the art director at Def Jam for years and has some stories. DJ Hurricane was in impressive form, both on the decks and on the mic, performing Elbow Room and Stick'Em Up, two of the best songs from his slept-on 1995 debut, The Hurra. Coming full circle, his DJ was the son of the late Jam Master Jay. Hip hop truly is forever. 

The performance highlight for me was when Darrell McDaniels, otherwise known as DMC took the stage. This is when I became a pure fan, reveling in his storytelling and nimble rapping. I shouted along to Walk This Way like everyone else and jumped around when he joined forces with Unlearn for It's Tricky, connecting to the anarchic spirit that had given birth to Licensed To Ill - maybe for the first time. 
Smartphone Pandemonium For DMC & Unlearn
DMC was gracious to all as he left the venue, posing for many pictures. When I got my chance, I introduced myself and said "Even though I was on that stage a few hours ago, when you were up there, I was a pure fan. I still have my 12" of It's Like That - that song blew our minds!" 
It's Like That - And That's The Way It Is
It was that kind of a day, where people gave me a high five for coming and bringing them closer to the roots of this thing, and where I had the chance to express gratitude to DMC, Hurricane, and others for doing the same. I was handed phones to take pictures of fans with Glen E. Friedman - a moment with at least a small freight of irony - and posed for photos with others. 

The ongoing vitality of MCA Day not only here but in Chicago, LA, Brazil, and elsewhere, proves that the legacy of the Beastie Boys is alive - and even growing, judging by the amount of kids at Littlefield. In the end, Yauch had the last word. As I walked back to the subway, trying to sort out all that had transpired, his wonderfully raspy voice echoed in my mind: "On and on and on and on and on..."

Gorgeous Artwork By Andy Katz
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Adam Yauch Remembered: A Tale Of Two Bassists
Still Luscious