Where the Beastie Things Are

They say  “celebrity deaths” come in 3’s, but over the last few decades, years, and months, we’ve made so many people famous that it’s hard to tell when the last 3 ended and the next 3 started. Fame used to only come to those who earned it through artistry or accomplishment, but now it’s handed it out to anyone pretty or scandalous enough to move the reality TV ratings (which just leads to more “celebrity deaths”). But that’s another essay.

This is about the recent deaths of two true artists, Adam “MCA” Yauch of the Beastie Boys, and Maurice Sendak, writer and illustrator of the legendary children’s book Where the Wild Things Are.

On the surface, it would seem the only thing these two might have in common is dying a few days apart.

When Sendak first published Where The Wild Things Are in 1963, critics and concerned parents thought it was too deep, dark, and angry for children. It received negative reviews and was banned by libraries.

The following year, Adam Yauch was born.

Yauch and Sendak were both born to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, NY. Incidentally, the man finally trusted to make the film version of Wild Things was Spike Jonze, whose Hollywood ascent was built from a music-video reputation highlighted by two seminal B-Boys videos: “Sabotage” and “Sure Shot.”

That might be where the obvious similarities end, but upon closer examination, a case could be made that the Beastie Boys and Where the Wild Things Are unlocked the same thing in all of us.

They both looked a bit scary on the surface, both alarmed some parents and critics, and most importantly both taught us that we could go up to our rooms and disappear into our own imaginations and create a whole new world. They both forced everyone to reconsider what was appropriate entertainment for our youth.

A lot has been written this week about Yauch and the Beastie Boys influence on hip-hop and pop culture in general, and most of it mentions the racial component in passing (or gets all post-racial by never mentioning it). While we might be much “color blind” and accepting in 2012, I put color blind in quotes because the fact is we can all see the Beasties are white. And the fact that these white kids making this crazy rap raucous were also Jewish? Silly as it might seem, that mattered to Jewish kids like me who were gravitating toward hip-hop. The Beastie Boys showed us that if we were good enough, we could make any type of music we wanted.

Wild Things:  Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch, and Adam Horowitz (left to right).

For those of us in bands on college campuses in the 90s, you wouldn’t even take a band photo with a fish-eye lens for fear of looking like you were biting the Beastie Boys. Instead you’d spend all your afternoons jamming every style of music you could fake your way through, dreaming about samples and someday making records like Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head, and Ill Communication.

Where the Wild Things Are, with its boy and its beasts, taught me that certain scary-looking monsters in the dark woods might not be so bad. They might even be fun. Maybe those teeth looked so big cuz they were smiling.

The Beastie Boys launched a cultural revolution, not just because they were successful white rappers who helped bring the fledgling hip-hop music to the suburbs. They also showed that it was okay to throw any and every type of music and fashion into a blender and just be whoever and whatever you wanted, whether you were a musician or just a fan. You could like punk rock AND hip-hop, and they would juxtapose those and many other styles right next to each other on their albums as not-so-subtle reminders.

The Beastie Boys were the wolf suit that Max would put on to cause trouble. When Max got sent to his room, and his walls turned into a forest, that was our record collection. Wandering in those woods was what we were doing in our rooms when we got lost in music, whether it was old Led Zeppelin albums or the B-Boys albums that sampled them. Where the Wild Things Are let the wild rumpus start, and the Beasties let the beat……. jaROP!

As we tend to do when musicians die, I’ve been rocking some Beastie Boys in my listening rotation lately. And, like the last line of Where the Wild Things Are, it was still hot.

Hey, why was Max’s dinner still hot when he got back to his room? Had he not been gone as long as he’d thought? Or had he never left?

I titled this column in the present tense, Are, and not Were. Because somewhere tonight, tomorrow, and in and out of weeks and almost over a year… some kid is making mischief of one kind and another, and his room is turning into a forest.

The Ultimate Super Bowl Book

If Bob McGinn hadn’t titled his book The Ultimate Super Bowl Book, everyone would have called it that anyway.

This fantastic book is not only a great resource full of facts and stats, it’s also very well written. It isn’t just a bunch of dates and results: it goes beyond those basics we all know and delves deep into each game and how and why it was actually won on the field.

There aren’t any glossy photos or filler in The Ultimate Super Bowl Book. McGinn doesn’t just rehash the most famous moments of only the best games. He retells the story of each and every Super Bowl through his own reviews of the game films and fascinating interviews with the players, coaches, and assistant coaches involved in the game.

Throughout the book, McGinn also mixes in several interesting Top 10 lists as sidebars. Another great aspect of the book is the fact that he lists the entire coaching staff for each team. We all know and remember the head coaches, but seeing and recognizing countless names among the coordinators and assistants is a useful football history lesson beyond the considerable information found in the text.

It’s incredible to hear the key players and coaches recount not only the big memorable moments but also the underlying strategies and perhaps unseen plays that swung the game one way or the other. Oftentimes they sound as if the game had just been won (or lost) last week and not years or decades ago.

McGinn, a longtime sportswriter for the Green Bay Press-Gazett and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has been a finalist for the McCann Award for excellence in pro football writing and was selected as one of America’s Top 20 Sportswriters by Men’s Journal. His expert storytelling and game recaps make this even better than just an exhaustive Super Bowl reference book, though it serves as that too.

I can’t recommend The Ultimate Super Bowl Book highly enough, especially at just under $15 at Amazon. Also available direct from the publisher, MVP Books.

Interview with Neal Casal

In 2010, singer/songwriter Neal Casal released his photo book chronicling his time with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, A View of Other Windows. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Neal after its release for an intimate conversation about music, photography, and the Cardinals.

Todd.Levinson.Frank: You’ve obviously been documenting the Cardinals for a while, when did you think it could and would make a decent book? If the Cardinals hadn’t “ended” in 2009, would this book have still come out this soon, or did the timing work out that this book would put a nice bow on the Cardinals era?

Neal Casal: I didn’t know these photos would make a decent book until the book was about 90% finished. I doubted the quality of the work until very late in the game. Once it was finished though, I knew it was up to standards and that we had achieved something special.

I didn’t start taking the photos with the intention of making a book, I was just doing it because I loved to take photos of my band mates. The idea of the photos being a book came much later.

Neal Casal shoots Ryan Adams and himself.

TLF: Both a guitar and a camera are instruments of art, tools of trades, and are dependent on their design and the technology utilized to bring them to life. But a song or a jam can be made up out of thin air, whereas a picture has to be taken of something. So playing music is creating (or recreating) something while photography is capturing and freezing something. What are some similarities and differences between how you approach the guitar and how you approach the camera?

NC: Music and photos are the exact same thing for me. A photo has to be taken “of” something, and a song has to be “about” something. A photo is a song and a song is a photo. They both come out of thin air, and they are both about capturing and freezing something.

There’s a dual action that exists in both of these mediums, and in all things when they’re operating at their best. If you look at the photographs I take, and the music that I make, you’ll see and hear very similar qualities in both. My individual aesthetic is applied to whatever instruments I’m utilizing at the time. Continue reading →