|Heaven looks a lot like New Jersey|
And has been ever since. My wife is the bearer of bad news. I've gotten used to it. "Michael Jackson died." "Oh, really?" "The Polish president's plane crashed." "Jesus." "Bon Jovi died of a heart attack." "That's weird. Last time I saw him, he was in pretty good shape." I spent half of that morning adjusting myself to a world without Bon Jovi, only to learn later that it was a hoax when a dated photo of the rocker surfaced holding a sign, "Heaven looks a lot like New Jersey."
I've gotten used to digesting bad news. I just sort of let it bang around my head like a pinball for a while. Then it dissipates or hides itself somewhere in the folds of my brain. I forget about it. Sometimes though it nags at me. It won't go away. After the 9/11 attacks, it took me a good week until I had a regular morning. When a childhood friend committed suicide, it took about three gray days of living his last moments vicariously in my imagination before I told myself it was his choice and I had to move on. But when I received news of Adam Yauch's death this week, it chilled me to my core.
A lot of this resonance is contextual. Yauch, as rapper MCA of the Beastie Boys, emerged from the barren, broken cultural landscape of the 1980s, a sort of Mad Max-like universe of passe musical trends and hairstyles. He was the scuzzy, uncouth youth with a two-day old growth on his chin, a "beard like a billy goat." His life apparently consisted of drinking "brass monkey" (a blend of orange juice and malt liquor), girls, skipping school, smoking reefer and playing video games. In short, he was like pretty much every person's older brother on the block.
When he experienced some kind of spiritual awakening in the early 1990s, the audience was perplexed. The inside sleeve of their 1992 album Check Your Head was a psychedelic pastiche of faces and objects. I would sit in my room and stare at it. All of a sudden, 13-year-old kids everywhere had to learn how to pronounce, "Namaste." (Is it 'nam-ast'? 'Nam-asty?') The Beastie Boys turned post-everything junk culture on its head. They sifted through the garbage, found precious relics and cleaned them off, restoring their meaning. By the time Ill Communication came out in 1994, we became used to samples of Buddhist monks chanting. One track on the album was "Bodhisattva Vow." Can you imagine, millions of American youths listening to a song called "Bodhisattva Vow"?
The West was no stranger to dabbling in Eastern philosophies but their local messengers were less convincing. At that time, America Gigolo actor Richard Gere was better known for awful rumors involving rodents than any search for enlightenment.Yet here you had a gentleman who wanted to call the Beastie Boys' first record Don't Be a Faggot! organizing Tibetan freedom concerts. And the people followed. One of the most active student groups on my college campus was Students for a Free Tibet. Ask yourself, would any of those people had been there if it hadn't been for Yauch's very public awakening? Would Estonian rocker-turned-activist Roy Strider be out there in the hills of Nepal surveying the hills of Tibet from afar?
I saw Yauch speak once. It was not what I had expected. While he was passionate about music and religion, he came across as aloof, even shy in a public speaking role. He was prematurely gray, of slight build. I had the impression that all the fighting he did for his right to party in his youth had worn him thin. Or maybe it was the vegan diet. People loved him though. At the end he came out and held his two-year-old daughter and waved to the crowd and smiled and everybody cooed. I recall I saw the late Senator Paul Wellstone speak around that time. He was passionate. Now they are both gone. One died of cancer, the other in a plane crash. Stupid deaths for inspiring people.
On its face, fate seems ridiculous. These are alternate futures that were not supposed to happen. It reminds me of a "choose your own adventure" book where you wind up facing almost certain doom at the end of one chapter and have the option to go back to an earlier chapter and start all over again. But we don't have that option. These past few days I have found myself pondering Yauch's untimely demise, and his spirituality, even more. It bugs me and it won't go away. Did he really believe in that Tibetan Buddhism stuff? I wonder. Can one really trust in the universe when it continues to bombard us with such awful news?