Published on January 8th, 2019 | by Craig Silliphant0
The Beastie Boys Book
One of the best books of 2018 is also one of the best music bios ever; The Beastie Boys Book is imaginative, hilarious, and informative.
Many of us have a long and storied relationship with The Beastie Boys which makes it hard to know where to start when talking about our seminal experiences with them. Was it hearing ‘Fight for your Right’ on the radio in the 80s as rap made its way to white America in this strange form? Was it countless nights of binge drinking with friends in the 90s while blasting Paul’s Boutique or Check Your Head? Was it the revelation of some of their crazy music videos, from ‘Hey Ladies’ to Spike Jonze’s ‘Sabotage?’ Or was it later in their career, as they started to have families and settled into plumbing the depths of their sound, rather than pioneering as they did in their youths?
The truth is, it’s all of those things. It’s a more than 30-year career of demolishing boundaries and setting the bar for anyone crazy enough to follow. I can’t speak for everyone, but The Beastie Boys were huge in my circle of friends through high school, university, and beyond, even into my 40s. It was crushing news when Adam Yauch, aka MCA, passed away in 2012.
But even though MCA isn’t with us anymore, The Beastie Boys are still handing out revelatory work, this time in the form of The Beastie Boys Book, by the two surviving B-Boys, Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz and Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond. It’s worth noting that while his words aren’t captured, it feels like Yauch is also with you as you read; there’s so much love for him within the book’s pages.
If I didn’t know where to start with The Beastie Boys, I sure as hell don’t know where to start with this book. I read a lot of music bios and this is one of the best I’ve ever read. It’s not your standard ‘Elvis was born, he loved his mama, then he got famous, then he died,’ narrative. It’s a collection of back-and-forth stories and anecdotes from Mike D and Ad-Rock, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a showcase for some amazing photography and artwork. It’s voices besides theirs offering commentary. It’s filled with jokes and gags, a bouillabaisse of ideas, history, and hilarity. And while that might seem like a gimmick when I say it out loud, it reaches beyond that — it’s a brilliant tome that does its job as a biography. (As a side note, there’s also an audiobook that I haven’t heard, but features a lot of cool voices. It’s very cool that they seem to have crafted two different experiences, based on the medium, for the same material).
The Beastie Boys Book gives you impressions of The Beastie Boys through all their periods, with an intimate access. In fact, it’s like having a beer with them. They are open and honest. One story might be about something straightforward and expected, like making an album with Rick Ruben, and the next might be about the time they went to Dolly Parton’s birthday party and didn’t tell Mike D they weren’t wearing crazy outfits (Mike met Bob Dylan that night, wearing a crazy green jumpsuit and a furry white hat. Dylan wasn’t phased).
It’s written with that signature B-Boys sarcasm and goofiness, including hilarious asides to each other. It’s very cool to hear their thoughts on topics like ‘Licensed to Ill.’ It started out with their persona being a bit of a goof, but they soon realized that they were being asked to do things that they thought were stupid, which paved the way for doing things their own way. There are so many great stories about parties, drugs, industry bullshit, growing old and trying to stay relevant, and most importantly, their friendship and how it aided in the creation of their music.
There are also asides and pieces from other people, like critic Luc Sante, author Colson Whitehead, comedian Amy Poehler, the late DJ Anita Sarko, and fashion journalist André Leon Talley. These pieces often provide context or comedy. One of the best ones is from Kate Schellenbach, who was an original member that was booted out when they started to rise. Whether written by Mike or Adam, or these other writers, the book never whitewashes the story to make them look good. In fact, it’s wonderfully self-deprecating and honest, even delving into apologies for early lyrics that were decidedly misogynistic. The book also says a lot about New York (and LA), creating a time capsule for certain corners of rap history, at least, as rap made its way to Manhattan.
My only criticisms are sparse. I would have liked to hear more about ‘Paul’s Boutique,’ because it’s one of my al-time favourite albums. However, one of the best 33 1/3 books covers this album, so it’s probably time for a re-read of that. (I haven’t read For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: 25 Years of Paul’s Boutique, which is billed as a follow up, so I should grab that too).
The only other thing I’d do away with is the cookbook portion of the book. It’s a neat idea, and some people may like it, but it just didn’t tie in to the band enough for me to warrant its inclusion. Maybe if it focused on foods they famously ate or something, but it’s a pretty wide open interpretation.
The book is also a cornucopia of visuals and photos from all the different eras, some of the band, and some, again, just for context. It’s a cliché to say that when I put it down I wanted to read it again right away, but it’s true. I even left the book sitting on a table instead of putting it back on the shelf, just so I could be near it, see it, thumb through it, feel it in the room. This is not a quick coffee table read to cash in. This is a must read (sort of) oral history of one of the best groups of all time. It’s a book with as much imagination as The Beastie Boys themselves.