Explaining MCA’s Death to My Mom: A Lesson in Ill Communication

Adam "MCA" Yauch (left) made his mark on a young Eric Spitznagel, despite never living in New York. Photo: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.

It was an unlucky coincidence that my mother’s birthday happened to fall on the same day that Adam Yauch died. The moment I got on the phone with her, she noticed that something was off. I seemed vaguely sad, and she wanted to know why. Which put me in the very weird position of having to try to explain to my mom why I was so upset about a dead rapper.

“I didn’t even know you listened to rap,” she said.

“Well no, not all the time,” I told her. “But the Beastie Boys were different.”

“Because they’re white?”

“No, no, no!” I barked a little too defensively. I couldn’t think of the right words to explain why that wasn’t true, because a part of me was terrified that it probably was. “They’re from Brooklyn,” I reminded her, like that somehow canceled out their whiteness. “And they’re Jewish.”

I don’t know where I was going with that.

“Well that’s fine,” she said. “I’ve just never heard you mention these Beastie Boys before.  I didn’t realize they meant so much to you.”

Neither did I, honestly. But for some reason it felt important that she understand what a big deal it was that Yauch was gone. I rehashed every cliché I’d read in countless magazine and online obituaries and tributes. The Beasties represented a New York City that didn’t exist anymore. A New York that, coincidentally, I never actually experienced firsthand. The closest I got to the ’80s New York rap and hardcore scene was walking around Lincoln Mall in the south suburbs of Chicago listening to “Shake Your Rump” on a Walkman. I’m not sure that the two things have anything in common, unless the ’80s-era New York that everybody over-romanticizes revolved around a Chess King and the mostly abandoned parking lot near JC Penny where everybody went to get handjobs.

I don’t feel stupid about this. My nostalgia for things that had nothing to do with me is pretty common. I’m not the only one who owns a CBGB t-shirt despite never having set foot in CBGB.

“They don’t make records like that anymore,” I told my mom. Which isn’t even an original observation. I stole it from a Slate writer who said exactly the same thing, and I’m pretty sure neither one of us was being ironic. I’m not suggesting that music should sound exactly like it did in 1989. That would be insane. They don’t make medicine or fingerless gloves like they did in 1989 either, and our world is better for it. When I say “They don’t make records like that anymore,” what I’m really saying is “I’m not 20 like I was when I was 20 anymore.”

“The problem I’ve been grappling with since Yauch’s death is this: I just don’t know whether to trust my own grief anymore. I can’t tell when I’m experiencing a real emptiness at an artist’s death and when I’m just a Pavlov dog for my Google news alerts.”

A few days later, after the dust of Yauch’s passing had settled, I got into a screaming fit with a female friend about whether a dead Beastie Boy was as big a cultural deal as a dead cokehead who sang about children being our future.

“Yauch’s death is sad,” she said after we’d polished off a bottle of red wine each. “But it’s not tragic, like when Whitney Houston died.”

If I’d been a little more emotionally mature, or at least less drunk, I would have acknowledged that we clearly had different feelings about and attachments to these particular artists. Whitney Houston had a bigger impact on my friend’s life, so she was more affected by Houston’s death. For me, the Beastie Boys made a more lasting imprint, so Yauch’s death seemed more significant. That’s not a value judgment, it’s just what happens when people co-exist in a complex and diverse musical landscape.

But I didn’t say that. I said something along the lines of “… a 47-year-old rap genius dying from cancer is not the same thing as a 48-year-old karaoke singer drowning in a bathtub because she did too much coke.” I think I threw a few “fuck you’s” in there too for good measure.

A Whitney Houston Memorial in Newark, NJ, which Eric Spitznagel doesn't get. Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

“You’re on the wrong side of history,” she hissed at me. “Twenty years from now, liking the Beastie Boys will be like saying Men at Work is your favorite band.”

“You’re a fucking moron,” I laughed. “Do you listen to any music that isn’t sold at the check-out lanes at Target?”

We said terrible things to each other, as people usually do when somebody tries to tell them that the music they love sucks. It’s an argument you can never win, although I’ve clearly never learned that lesson. I seem to have these arguments every time a popular music artist dies. I became especially irate after Michael Jackson made an early exit. I understood why his family and friends were devastated. But just owning the Thriller album doesn’t mean your world has been forever changed by his passing. All the public grief about Jackson’s death was puzzling to me. It was like turning on the news and the top story was “They’re no longer making red leather jackets with lots of zippers in them!” Okay. I guess I’ll put on a brave face and try to soldier on.

It wasn’t like when Clarence Clemons died. That hit me where it hurt. When I first heard the news, I stayed up all night getting drunk and listening to the sax solo in “Jungleland” over and over and crying. It wasn’t sentimentality. I go to Springsteen concerts, I watch his videos, I buy his new albums. Clemons’ absence haunts my current music listening experience.

Things aren’t as clear-cut with Yauch. I loved the Beastie Boys, but my affection is mired in the past tense. Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head will always hold a special place in my heart. The two albums after that, the ones with “Sabotage” and “Intergalactic,” respectively, I own them both but only listen to “Sabotage” and “Intergalactic.” And the new one — Hot Sauce something — well … I definitely bought it. It’s on my iPod. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I’ve been meaning to. It’s just, you know … it’s not the ’90s anymore. That New York rap scene/ Chess King in the Chicago suburbs is gone, and Beastie Boys music just doesn’t have the same magic for me anymore.

The hard reality is, Yauch dying hasn’t changed my life in any meaningful way. Nothing is missing for me because he’s gone. My musical memories weren’t fractured by his terminal cancer. When he shuffled off this mortal coil, he didn’t take Check Your Head with him. Everything is pretty much how he left it, and the future of my music-listening is pretty what it would’ve been if he was still around. It’s absolutely a horrible loss for his wife and girls and the people who loved him and the rest of the Beastie Boys. But that kind of loss happens every day. At least a dozen people gasped their last breath in the time it took you to read this sentence. So what of it? When my dad died and it felt like my heart was going to explode, I didn’t expect a call from Ad-Rock.

The problem I’ve been grappling with since Yauch’s death is this: I just don’t know whether to trust my own grief anymore. I can’t tell when I’m experiencing a real emptiness at an artist’s death and when I’m just a Pavlov dog for my Google news alerts. Some days I sign into Facebook and it seems like everybody I know has fantasies of being a obituary writer. For most of February, my news feed was cluttered with reports that Don Cornelius had died. Friends shared videos and told stories and wrote heartfelt eulogies. And I swear it’s the first time I’ve heard any of them mention Don Cornelius at all. When Levon Helms died and “The Weight” is suddenly your favorite song ever, does it matter that you’re full of shit? Or is it enough that Helm’s death gave you a reason to watch The Last Waltz on YouTube again?

My friend who loves Whitney Houston called me the next day, after we’d sobered up, and we both apologized for being assholes. “Never again,” we promised each other. And then we talked about American Idol, and how much we both hate the show, and how all the contestants are terrible, and  it contributes nothing of any value to the world, other than briefly distracting teenagers from having unprotected sex. My friend mentioned how Steven Tyler is looking especially hepatitisy these days, and I laughed so hard it came out like a trumpety snort.

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