Growing Up Beastly

In 1986 I became an international pop music recording sensation. I don’t mean that at the age of 15 I admired and tried to emulate Ad-Rock, a squeaky, strutting third of the fresh hip-hop phenomenon the Beastie Boys—I mean I was Ad-Rock. His band mates—Mike D and MCA—were my homeboys.

Sure, there had previously been a Tintin phase and then a Han Solo period (I was always more a Han man than a Luke), but this was different. Here were Jewish oddballs raised by bohemians who only wanted to be left alone with their punk rock, their Led Zeppelin, their booming beats, Bud tall boys and girls, girls, girls. Just like me, my older brother Asher, and many of our closest friends in our middle class suburb of Baltimore.

And so I bought a Volkswagen medallion in a Fells Point thrift shop and fashioned it into a gaudy necklace. I wore Sharpie-savaged jeans, high-top Adidas, sweatshirts, and—as a committed Oriole fan, this still haunts me—a New York Yankees baseball cap swung sideways.

It was amazing to us that the Beastie Boys were just a few years older than we were. And yet they were already doing exactly what they wanted to do, as they would later declare in a rap. Perhaps one day we, too, could turn our lives into a wild, raunchy goof and call it a career. “My job ain’t a job, it’s a damn good time,” the band chanted and we believed them.

After graduating from high school, Asher moved to northern California to live with our dad. An advanced social creature, he quickly fell in with a roving band of stoners, which led to a gig performing The Rocky Horror Picture Show live every Saturday at midnight at a theater near the Berkley campus. Eventually he found his way to Sonoma State University.

I left Baltimore a few years after my brother and drove straight to New York City to start my freshman year in college. This was the first stop in my accidental trailing of the Beastie Boys. The trio famously grew up prowling Village clubs, collecting sounds and images they’d soon scratch into their own sample-mad, post-modern party jams.

By the time I moved into a dorm overlooking Washington Square Park in 1989, the Beasties’ second album, “Paul’s Boutique,” was my university’s de facto soundtrack. The CD bounced and grinded at parties; the cassette ticked ceaselessly from Walkman headphones. My friends and I banged into packed rooms lustily quoting lyrics: “Hey, ladies!” As another sweaty Saturday night wound down, we’d summon strength echoing the “Paul’s” sample: “Right up to your face and diss you!”

I was deep in a teenage Bukowski funk and I’d wander Manhattan in a tattered sportcoat drinking 40 ounces of Colt 45 until the brown bag was empty. “Paul’s Boutique” was my constant companion: “You know you light up when the lights go down/ Then you read the New York Post, Fulton Street, downtown/ Same faces every day but you don’t know their names/ Party people going placed on the D train.”

This educational approach proved fiscally unsustainable so I left New York after one year. Asher convinced me to move to Hollywood to live with our cousin Aaron, take acting lessons and buy a motorcycle. Once he finished school, he’d join us in Los Angeles and together we would become, effectively, the Beastie Boys of the movie business. At the time we were about the same age the Beasties were when they released their first record—so why not?

Coincidentally, the actual Beastie Boys had also recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, shedding the fratty fooling of their early years for a more mature, socially conscious vision. MCA had even discovered Buddhism and become a vegan, while lyrically renouncing the group’s once-perceived misogyny.

And still their songs pumped at parties. I’d ditched my drunken poet pose back East and was once again rocking thrift store jewelry and questionable facial hair. Out West I grooved to the latest funkified iteration of the Beastie Boys.

Asher graduated from college in the spring of 1992 and a week later he pointed his Geo Tracker toward the apartment I shared with Aaron on Detroit Street, not far from the so-called Miracle Mile. There are photographs of us from that time taken at a poolside party in the Valley. Asher, Aaron, and I practically burst from the photos, chutzpah-propelled in outrageous sunglasses, mugging hardcore for the lens.

Then, on June 17, my brother was shot and killed during a botched robbery attempt. He and Aaron had been out that night working on a film script they were writing. After the work session, Asher was parallel parking on Detroit Street when a skinny dude approached the Tracker asking for spare change. My brother went for his wallet, the skinny dude stepped aside and behind him was a guy with a gun.

That fall Aaron and I, shattered, moved to San Francisco to begin putting our lives back together.

Among the many samples on “Paul’s Boutique” is one from the 1971 R&B hit “Mr. Big Stuff,” asking: “Who do you think you are?” The Beastie Boys’ MCA died of cancer in early May at 47 years of age. Asher would’ve turned 44 this month. I’m now married with two young daughters, living in Brooklyn where I sometimes play the Beasties while running Prospect Park’s loop.

On one of the Beasties’ early hits, “Brass Monkey,” MCA told us in his deep bark: “I’ve got a castle in Brooklyn and that’s where I dwell.” While I hardly live in a castle, it is a 3-bedroom apartment that’s quite large by New York City standards. But any sense of modern royalty I have is not due to where I live, what I do, or the music I listen to—though all those things certainly make life more appealing. No, the feeling that I have led a rich life to this point is most poignantly due to the people I’ve known, whether intimately as in the case of my brother or distantly as with MCA and the Beastie Boys. Asher and MCA both died far too young, but not before discovering precisely who they were, and helping me figure out what kind of person I want to be.

Maccabee lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife and two kids. He is the author of Jetpack Dreams, the editor of Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader, and he has written for the New York Times, New York magazine and Salon, among others. He is a News Editor for and at work on a screenplay, a coming of age story fueled by sex, drugs, rock n roll and Edgar Allan Poe.

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