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The Many Lives of Adam Yauch

How the wildest Beastie Boy found his way from the streets of New York to the path to enlightenment

June 7, 2012
Adam Yauch
Adam Yauch
Marina Chavez

He had come so far, done so much, played so many roles along the way, but even in the final months of his too-short life, Adam Yauch kept it going full steam. Teenage punk; semi-malicious egg-tossing prankster; underrated bass player; world's first credible white rapper; beer-guzzling hell-raiser; pothead; acidhead; skier, skater and snowboarder; Buddhist; outspoken feminist; Tibetan activist; friend to the Dalai Lama; music-video and documentary director; indie-movie distributor; vegan; husband; father – he was all of these things, trading in outmoded selves like used vinyl when enlightenment beckoned. "If there was one word to describe Adam, it was 'evolved,'" says one of his oldest friends, Matthew Allison. "He always took things further, to a level you never expected."

It could have been enough just to be MCA, the most driven and musically proficient of the Beastie Boys – the New York trio who altered the course of popular music and defined cool for a generation or two worth of kids. "Yauch was in charge," says bandmate Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz, perhaps for the first time. "He had that extra drive in him, to see things through."

On the road for the Beastie Boys' first album, Licensed to Ill, it was Yauch who employed the trashy Led Zeppelin bio Hammer of the Gods as a backstage-decadence instruction manual – and then, says fellow Beastie Mike Diamond, "Yauch was also the first one to realize it was time to stop that."

There was always room for one more incarnation. Over the past couple of years, between treatments for the salivary cancer that spread and finally took his life on May 4th, Yauch started riding horses. If you're looking for a final image of Adam Yauch, you could do worse than this one: Thin, white-bearded, a cowboy hat on his graying head, Yauch would slip Western boots onto stirrups, take the reins and ride through vast, peaceful green fields in rural Tennessee.

The property belonged to Sheryl Crow, a cancer survivor who struck up an incongruous friendship with Yauch after he began calling her for advice on his illness (they had gotten to know each other on a 2008 get-out-the-vote tour). He found an advanced-treatment center in Nashville capable of genetically targeting his cancer, and he asked Crow where he should stay – she offered her own 154-acre compound, 45 minutes outside of town.

Crow has a vivid recollection of the first night he showed up there, after flying in from New York. "I was expecting to see somebody really weak and pale," she says. "But he looked so radiant, as light as the most awake person I've ever encountered. He was just hopeful to the very end, I believe. He was always on the enlightenment tip. He was always in line with his search for serenity and peace and understanding. And I loved that about him. Here he was, one of the Beastie Boys, and he was one of the wisest people I've known."

With his wife, Dechen, and daughter, Losel, often on hand, Yauch used Crow's ranch as a refuge. He cooked vegan meals (his pesto was always a hit); he brought Crow a copy of Country Mike's Greatest Hits, the infamous, never-released Beastie Boys country project; he hung out with her two boys; he even offered to play bass on her own upcoming country disc. In some of Yauch's final public appearances, he proudly rocked an oversize cowboy hat.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Beastie Boys

By last November, Yauch was feeling weak: He had long since stopped updating fans on the progress of his illness, and some friends weren't hearing from him. But he called up Horovitz and Diamond, asking them to join him in the studio for what turned out to be the last Beastie Boys recording sessions. "It was a good thing for him," says Mike D. "He was doing treatment that probably made him feel like crap, and by being active and feeling involved, it was something he could feel good about – and he could be around people who he was comfortable feeling or looking like crap around."

"He just wanted to hang out," adds Horovitz (who says they recorded "just stupid stuff, more hardcore rap songs, hardcore music"). "So that's what we did. We spent more time making fart jokes and ordering food than recording – which was true to form. That's why it always took us so long to put records out."

Even as a kid, Yauch had a fascination with wreaking havoc – and instinctive technical skills that were well-suited for the task. "He really had this talent for coming up with all these schemes and designs," says Arabella Field, a friend since childhood who imagined Yauch winning a Nobel Prize for some kind of scientific achievement. "He figured out how to take apart a flash in a camera and make a little bomb out of it, how to make the perfect dog-doo firecracker bomb, or the perfect water balloon."

"He and I booby-trapped his whole house one time," says old friend Allison. "We'd put rubber bands on the hose on the kitchen sink, so when his mom, Frances, would go to wash the dishes, she'd get blasted in the face. We also would cover toilet seats with Vaseline, put beanbags on top of the door. We'd basically sabotage anybody walking around."

Yauch's currently retired dad was an architect with an artistic bent; his mother worked for the New York Board of Education. They raised their only child in an elegant, modernist townhouse in the now-upscale, then-transitioning neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights – at a time when other families in their socioeconomic strata were fleeing a decaying and dangerous city. "Urban childhood exposed you to so many strange, funny things," says Field. "Weird people and bums and all classes of people and ethnicities. Later, he synthesized all that."

His parents played him Beatles and Paul Simon records when he was small, and there were other, more unexpected sources of inspiration around: Kate Schellenbach – onetime drummer for the Beastie Boys who went on to form Luscious Jackson – remembers a particular lamp in the Yauch living room. "It was a stainless-steel ball that was like a fisheye mirror," she recalls. "We spent hours fucking around and looking into the thing. He was obsessed with how funny that looked, to have a fish eye, how it looks when you look into a mirror that's round. And then, later, it was like, 'This is cool. How can I get this into my music videos?'"

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