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.
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.