Let me get this out of the way: I am not objective when it comes to The Beastie Boys. This book review is no exception. I have a long friendship with the Boys; they got me my first job in the music business and subsequently altered the trajectory of my life. To say I’m eternally indebted would be an understatement. But that doesn’t mean I loved all their records. For me, the later ones didn’t have the energy of Licensed To Ill or Check Your Head. Point being, I call it as I see it, regardless of our shared adolescence. I mean… I’m a lifelong A&R guy, right? If the book were bad I would say so (in as diplomatic of language as I could manage). The book isn’t, so you’re spared my corny attempts at exercising diplomacy.
I’m also not going to pull punches about my nostalgia for the time period prior to when the Beastie Boys blew up. The era helped develop my critical eye. The music of the time had a certain vitality, New York was in the midst of a massive cultural moment, and… life felt simpler then. In fact, one of the beauties of this book is that it’s a celebration of that period of time in NYC, circa 80-81 — a common ground for my peers and me. In every chapter, the Boys remind us of the aesthetic of that period. While they obviously became uber-successful as a sometimes-instrument-playing hip-hop act, there was an early-80s punk rock mentality embedded in everything they’ve ever done, on some level or another. Post License To Ill (more on that later) it was a strong component in how they approached making music, how they redirected their collective energy, and why they are (in my un-humble opinion) the greatest hip-hop band ever, and one of the greatest NYC bands of all time. Right there with The Ramones, The Bad Brains and Run-D.M.C. for me. Period, end of story.
The Beastie Boys Book is a comprehensive look back at the band’s storied career. It leaves no stone unturned. One of its many charms is the amount of gratitude bestowed upon their many friends; their musical and cultural compatriots, if you will. There’s a lot of space dedicated to the acknowledgment of their idols and the eclectic influences that shaped them. The fact they can remember all these places, shows, bands, tours, and people is a testament to Mike D and Ad-Rock’s impressive memory banks. The chronological order of such is brilliant. For the young reader, it’s a time capsule; for me, it was a chance to travel back through my own life. I remembered hanging at Rat Cage Records daily in the summer of ’81, the smell of TR3 where I first saw Madness and The Bad Brains perform, and the thrill of watching the Boys from their humble beginnings in small clubs during their neophyte rap period.
Watching them reminded me why I signed artists in the first place, and how satisfying it felt when they’d go on to be famous. That feeling of early success is filled with innocence — it’s wonderful, daunting and, at times, embarrassing. In the book, the Beasties look back at it with clear-eyed honesty and a little bit of discomfort. They also do it with an understanding that sometimes you become what you hate; moreover, you may just end up loving what you set out to destroy. This is chronicled in depth when they look back on their License To Ill days.
I love the admission of flaws that the book examines. There were mistakes made, in particular, the ousting of Kate Shellenbach from the original rapping Beasties. They own their bullshit and they also know that she wouldn’t have worked in the new Beasties. Rick Rubin is given a lot of love throughout, but he’s also held to his actions — including financial discrepancies and an encouragement of macho chauvinist perspective (which the Boys willing signed on for, hook and sling). They pull no punches in copping to the hydraulic penis and go-go-dancer-in-a-cage moments in their careers. They laugh at it, while admitting to being swayed toward becoming frat rock bozos only to get trapped in that persona. I mean… all they really wanted to be was Run-DMC and somehow it became this thing, only to find out that the thing wasn’t what they wanted to be.
Adam and Mike chronicle the redirecting of their energies, the escape from Def Jam, and how they kept it moving. This to me was so punk rock, as was the way they explained the move to LA, the new world they entered there, the making of Paul’s Boutique and all the charades that surrounded it. The record business also gets put on blast throughout the book. The anecdote about the then-president of Capitol Records, Hale Milgram (we called him Pale Pilgrim at Elektra), and his shelving of the Beasties for Donny Osmond is such a classic record biz story it would almost sound like a cliché… if it weren’t true. They chronicle the commercial failure of Paul’s Boutique, which is examined in full (my critique of it is in the book, embarrassingly enough) and how this commercial failure allowed for the career and game-changing Check Your Head. The building on mistakes is a recurring theme.
The sidebar sections of the book were worth the price of admission on their own. The Luc Sante portion of the book made me cry and smile at the same time. It reminded me of an NYC that’s long gone — one that felt inspiring and made New York the center of the whole music world. Jonathan and Blake Lethem’s chapter may be the best explanation of the perennial attraction of rap music to middle-class white boys. (Shout out to audio books too, by the way. The Cookie Puss history lesson was a laugh riot, as was Will Ferrell’s mock review of Hello Nasty.)
The sheer amount of information in the book is mind-boggling. How did the Boys remember so much shit while I can’t remember my girlfriend’s name from 1994 and we lived together for 5 years? It’s uncanny and completely wonderful for students of history like myself, even if I was around for some of the shenanigans.
That’s not to say that it’s all fun and games. I was seriously moved to tears several times while reading the book. Particularly in the chapter about our dear friend Sean Carasov AKA The Captain AKA Captain Pissy. His passing and distance from the Boys leading up to his passing was hard to read. The celebration of my teenage best friend John Berry and his ultimate departure from the band was insightful and honest. The tale of Dave Parsons — the person who owned the Rat Cage and released PollyWog stew and Cookie Puss — was something I didn’t know. We all loved Dave, but it took the book for me to hear of Yauch convincing the boys to pay for his sex change operation while he was in the last years of his life, so Dave could die as she. It’s also a testament to Yauch that he did this and kept it to himself, yet another reason we loved the guy.