Levon Helm (1940-2012)
Within the last few weeks, we've lost two musical treasures, and two guys I have admired for many years, Levon Helm and Adam (MCA) Yauch. Both men died of cancer: Levon at age 72 and MCA at the ridiculously young age of 47. The loss of these two great musicians has led me to dig out their discographies--thankfully I have a lot of their stuff--and listen to their music with fresh ears and also consider my personal relationship with their respective musical groups, the Band (Levon) and the Beastie Boys (MCA).
My parents had copies of the Band's self-titled "Brown Album" and Stage Fright. I have memories of hearing the Band when I was a kid and just not getting it. It just wasn't music that had any impact on me as a youth. Plus, the five guys glowering on the cover of the "Brown Album", unsmiling and with big beards, just looked mean and scary (except, perhaps, for Garth Hudson. He could have passed for Santa Claus's younger brother). It wasn't until the early nineties, when I was getting heavily into Bob Dylan and learning more about Zimmy's relationship with the Band, that I dug out my parents' old albums and truly heard their music for the first time. I finally got it. The rustic earthiness of their music finally made sense to my maturing musical sensibilities. I quickly snatched up CD's of "The Brown Album", Music from Big Pink, Stage Fright, and several others. I can still remember finding Music from Big Pink at Harmony House in Okemos (yet another record store that has died in the dwindling landscape of brick-and-mortar record shops) and being simultaneously blown away and mesmerized by it.
Adam (MCA) Yauch (1964-2012)
I was a freshman at Michigan State when the Beastie Boys burst upon the scene in late 1986. My first impression of them was that they were louts: obnoxious, bratty white boys riding the coattails of the burgeoning rap scene. Yet, there was an undeniable catchiness and fun to tunes like "Fight for Your Right" and "No Sleep 'til Brooklyn". I wonder how much of my early opinion of the Beastie Boys was pressed upon me by my peers. I remember studying at the MSU Union on a Sunday during finals week, December 1986. One of the older guys on my dorm room floor swung by the Union to pick up and take me to dinner. The tune on his car radio was "Fight for Your Right" and I was really getting into it, probably due in large part to a stressful afternoon of studying. He turned and looked at me with a look of disapproval. I shouldn't have bowed to the peer pressure, but when you're eighteen and an older guy--one whose approval you seek--does that, it can make an impression. I now feel bad for letting someone else's opinion sway me, but so it goes.
The music of the Beasties made an absolutely indelible impression on me a few months later in about May of 1987. A friend of mine, Bill, had somehow hooked up with a gaggle of high school senior girls who lived in the toney suburbs of Detroit (West Bloomfield, if I remember correctly). It was a bright, warm spring Friday afternoon and Bill was looking for someone to tag along with him with these girls down to West Bloomfield to party at one of their houses. Looking for some adventure, and with nothing else to do, I decided to join them and Bill and I soon became bemused passengers among two or three of the most free-spirited girls I'd ever met. The girl driving took the speed limit as a mere suggestion, and blasted Licensed to Ill the entire way to the Detroit 'burbs. It was "No Sleep 'til Brooklyn" and "Brass Monkey" at high decibels, with the girls gleefully singing at the top of their lungs, all the way down I-96. This hedonistic, celebratory, and just flat-out fun music was the perfect soundtrack for this road trip. It's one of those mental snapshots that is permanently filed away in my brain. To this day, I can't hear Licensed to Ill without thinking of that crazy Friday afternoon on the road. (For what it's worth, the weekend did not turn out to be too terribly decadent--perhaps I'll elaborate further in a future post).
In 1989, the Beastie Boys released the seminal Paul's Boutique, but I was oblivious, as I was when Check your Head came out in 1992. I incorrectly dismissed the Beastie Boys as one-hit wonders and had no idea that they were creating their best work--and had matured in the process. I don't think it was until Ill Communication and the amazing "Sabotage" song and video that I decided to look back at what I'd missed. I quickly picked up every Beasties album and took it all in pretty quickly. I found it remarkable how much the guys had changed from the snotty buffoons of 1986, none more than Adam Yauch, who discovered Buddhism, apologized publicly for his youthful misogyny, and did so much to publicize the plight of Tibet.
On the surface, Levon Helm and Adam Yauch had little in common. They were from different generations, completely different backgrounds, and played much different styles of music. But there are a least a few things they have in common: first of all, they were deeply influenced in their youth by African-American music (Levon--the blues of the rural South; Yauch--the hip-hop scene in New York). Secondly, they were arguably the heart and soul of their respective bands. When Levon sang, you came away with the impression that he lived these lyrics--he'd seen it all. This also comes across in his appearance in The Last Waltz documentary. I've always felt that Levon was the real star of that film. Robbie Robertson tried hard to come across as the world weary traveler, but he wasn't entirely successful--he seemed to be acting to a certain extent. With his colorful description of F.S. Walcott's Rabbit Foot Minstrels, the traveling musicians of his youth in Arkansas, to the effortless and completely smooth way he lit Robbie's cigarette in one of the interview segments, Levon had an air of authority unmatched by anyone else in the Band. Levon's simultaneously soulful and country vocals, sung in a Southern drawl, stood out from the singing of fellow Band-mates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. The same can be said for Yauch, whose gravelly voice stood out among the high-pitched, nasally wails of his comrades Adam (Ad-Rock) Horovitz and Mike (Mike D) Diamond. As one writer somewhere has already stated (I read this somewhere and I'm paraphrasing), Yauch's deep growl made him seem older and more mature than the other two Beasties.
In conclusion, I found one actual concrete connection between the Band and the Beastie Boys. On "High Plains Drifter" from Paul's Boutique, the Beasties actually make reference to the Band's "Up on Cripple Creek" with the lyric, "I bet on one horse to show and another to win/and sure enough that nag came in". (The actual Band lyric is "She bet on one horse to win and I bet on another to show/The odds were in my favor, I had 'em five to one/And when that nag to win came around the track/Sure enough she had won".
So, so long Levon and Adam. You will be sorely missed but your musical legacy will live on.