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

Adam Yauch
Marina Chavez
Adam Yauch
By |

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?'"

Yauch was never an enthusiastic student, and at 14, he switched from the small, private Brooklyn Friends School to Edward R. Murrow High School, a huge public institution deep in Brooklyn. "I felt I was leading too much of a sheltered life," he said in 1998. But as one friend remembers it, the real issue was that the private school's combination of high expectations and loose structure had left him academically floundering.

As he entered high school, Yauch and his friends discovered punk rock – and he soon started dressing the part. He'd spike his hair (or, later, just shave it), put on combat boots and wear a trench coat with the Clash song title "White Riot" painted on it.

Yauch pulled off the look well enough that his future bandmate Horovitz was deeply impressed when he spotted him for the first time at a record store: "I was just looking at him, thinking, 'That's what we're supposed to look like, be like.' He was pissed off, this fucked-up kid." But the working-class, Italian-American students at Yauch's high school were less appreciative, harassing him with shouts of "Ey, rock lobster! Ey, punk rock!" In the face of that open hostility, Yauch eventually switched out again, this time to a lenient experimental school in Manhattan – but he based his real curriculum around the electric bass and hardcore punk, especially the frantic, Washington, D.C., act Bad Brains, an all-African-American band whose fuzzed-out low-end sound he would later put to use on "Sabotage" and other Beasties songs.

At one Bad Brains show, when he was about 16, Yauch met Michael Diamond, a younger, self-described "incredibly awkward punk kid" – they instantly became friends. "After that point on, every weekend, it was, 'What are the shows?' or we'd go dancing at Rock Lounge or Danceteria," Diamond recalls. "Adam actually taught me the ropes. He taught me how to make my own buttons for my jacket. He was really good at showing me how to fake hand-stamps to get into shows. That was an important skill! Even then he had this focus."

With their reggae chops and hyperspeed grooves, Bad Brains were intimidatingly skilled – it was hard for Yauch to imagine ever playing that well. But then he and Diamond attended a show at the Peppermint Lounge by California's far-more primitive Black Flag. "It was the first time we'd seen moshing and stage diving," says Diamond, who was already playing in bands with another friend, John Berry. "After that Black Flag show, Yauch came back to John's house and said, 'OK, we're starting a band and you two guys are in it.' It was the same energy of his – that focus and ability to never take no as an answer, to will something to happen."

Even as Yauch spent a couple of years at Bard College, two hours north of the city, the early, hardcore version of the Beastie Boys gained a local following and recorded an EP; eventually, their friend Adam Horovitz took over for Berry on guitar.

But the sound of early hip-hop was all over the downtown clubs, and the Beasties found it at least as exciting as punk. In their scene, the line between the two genres was oddly permeable: One night at a roller rink, the Beasties and other punk kids gathered to watch a screening of the Sex Pistols documentary The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle – and then stuck around to watch rehearsals by early B-boys the Rock Steady Crew at the same venue.

In his bedroom at home, Yauch would casually rap along to the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" – a song that grabbed him the moment he heard it blasting in a pizza parlor. When his friend Jill Cunniff heard him, she was astonished: "I remember him being able to really rap," she says. "Oh, my God, here's this punk bass player, and then he comes out with this gravelly voice and totally legit flow. That was a turning point in terms of what he knew he could do."

Adds another Eighties pal, Tom Cushman, "It came out of nowhere. All of a sudden it was just this other talent that just emerged." Yauch studied rap pioneer Spoonie Gee's rhymes the way he had absorbed Bad Brains' bass lines, and the band's transformation loomed. "We just grew up listening to rap records," says Horovitz. "So we just said, 'Fuck it, why don't we try it, see what happens?'"

It was "Cooky Puss," an amusing novelty single built around a beat, a bass line and a crank call to a Carvel ice cream parlor, that opened the door – even though it was closer to proto-Jerky Boys than actual hip-hop. NYU student Rick Rubin, an acquaintance from the hardcore scene, heard possibilities in the single, and began nudging the Beastie Boys to drop their instruments and focus on becoming the first white rap group. "Hip-hop, in that moment in time, sounded fresher than the punk rock that we were all listening to," says Rubin – who briefly became the Beasties' DJ, and helped push drummer Kate Schellenbach out of the group in the process.

The Rubin connection would lead to a record deal with his burgeoning label, Def Jam. Label employee Andre Harrell nicknamed Yauch "Black Rap" because his voice was so authentically "black" – while the other two sounded high, nasal and unabashedly Caucasian. "Horovitz and I could be a little more interchangeable, a little harder to distinguish between the two of us," says Mike D. "Yauch was coming from this other place, this gruff thing. When we were 19 or 20, he sounded like a gruff 40-year-old. He was kind of the Bobby Womack of rap."

Label co-founder Russell Simmons' strategy was to win over black audiences first. "Breaking them as rappers and crossing them over as rockers was absolutely key to their early success," says former Def Jam publicist Bill Adler. "It's why you've got Chuck D and LL Cool J inducting them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

Rubin became their producer, and beginning with the "Back in Black"-biting single "Rock Hard," they started sliding loud guitars and rock-drum tracks underneath their increasingly nimble rapping – with Yauch imitating Jimi Hendrix's studio trickery by creating the reverse drum machine sound on "Paul Revere" and personally assembling tape loops of John Bonham drum parts.

It all worked better than anyone expected: Licensed to Ill, released in November 1986, was the first hip-hop record to hit Number One, selling 4 million units in a year, far more than any rap or punk album had managed by that point. Their videos were inescapable, especially the gleefully loutish "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" – in which these three ultra-urbane New Yorkers played the part of white-trash party-crashers.

By the time they were done touring for the album, their success left Yauch feeling like he was trapped in a cage – much like the girls they had dancing onstage every night.

An officially released backstage video from that tour captures the kind of behavior that Yauch would spend years putting behind him: He hurls full cans of beer against a dressing-room wall, and gets grabby with one fan after signing her torso. It wasn't his finest moment. But by 1987, the Beastie Boys were so lost in their new personas that they immortalized the incident – along with the sight of other girls being drenched in honey, whipped cream and beer. "Everybody goes through those phases when they're in college and they act like a drunken fool," Yauch said in 1997. "But ours happen to be on sale at the video store."

Rubin received much of the blame and credit for that Beasties phase – Schellenbach once called him "a meathead sexist asshole." The producer acknowledges pushing the bandmates to adopt pro-wrestling-style outrageousness, but says they took the whole thing further than he could have imagined. "It was almost like their interpretation of what they thought I liked," says Rubin, noting that he found the giant hydraulic penis the band used in their stage show to be in bad taste. Plus, he adds, "I've never had a beer in my life."

The latter-day Beasties said that their bad behavior was role-playing that got out of hand. "We actually became just what it was that we'd set out to make fun of," Yauch said in 1999. "It wasn't some art project," retorts Cushman, who was onboard for some of that tour. "It was like, 'How many girls can we fit in this room?'"

Yauch enjoyed himself at first – possibly even hooking up with Madonna during the Beasties' ridiculously mismatched opening slot on her arena tour. "Five years from now, I might be selling used cars on the lot," he told an interviewer. "I really don't give a fuck, 'cause I'm having so much fun now." But not for long.

Back home in New York, Yauch had a teenage girlfriend, Aura Walker. (They met at the Palladium when she was 17 and he was 22. At high school, a few days later, she was called to the nurse's office, where an important message awaited her from a Dr. Yauch. She called him back on the school phone, and he asked her if she wanted to go get some falafel.) She ended up trying to sustain a relationship with Yauch during the band's first burst of fame. "He was just so beyond exhausted by the end of the tour," she says.

Says Cushman, "I'd talk to Michael and he'd be like, 'Yeah, this is going great! It's amazing!' And then I'd talk to Adam and he's like, 'This sucks! I fucking hate it. I just want to come home!'"

"What Western society teaches us," Yauch told Rolling Stone in 1998, "is that if you get enough money, power and beautiful people to have sex with, that's going to bring you happiness. That's what every commercial, every magazine, music, movie teaches us. That's a fallacy. Maybe there was some realization of that during that Licensed to Ill period."

As the two years of touring grinded on, they kept getting more famous, and everything kept going more wrong: A tour of England turned into a scandal-ridden disaster; Yauch came to see many of their fans as the kind of meatheads who bullied him in high school; they watched a proposed movie project fall apart, which helped lead to a catastrophic falling-out with Def Jam and extensive litigation. Yauch was drinking too much; he got hold of a gun on one tour stop and starting playing around with it.

Friends say that by the time the band finished touring behind Licensed to Ill in late 1987, Yauch was convinced that the Beastie Boys were breaking up. Says Cushman, "Adam said to me, 'I'm never going back to Beastie Boys – I'm done with that. I'm never gonna do that again.'"

Yauch went home and made a serious go at a rock band he called Brooklyn, with Cushman and members of Bad Brains and New York hardcore act Murphy's Law. Horovitz was off making a movie and hanging out in L.A. with his girlfriend, Molly Ringwald.

"The knee-jerk reaction was to get as far away as possible from this thing that was driving us crazy," says Mike D. "But then, somehow, we were able to get together." A few months later, the Beastie Boys reconvened in L.A., with a new record deal – and slowly began work on what would turn out to be their masterpiece.

Shortly after he relocated to Los Angeles, Yauch obtained a large quantity of liquid acid. He quickly set to consuming it, often while skiing, along with what Walker remembers as "huge amounts of chronic weed." For a while, Yauch's intergalactic journeys were working in his favor. First of all, his mind expansion left him wide open to the psychedelic possibilities of hyperlayered samples – which defined the sound of their astonishing second album, Paul's Boutique. Says Mike D, "The acid experience gave him the ability to see, like, 'Wow, this is great, press 'play' on everything at the same time.' It shifted his mind enough for him to see that – and that was an important influence on that album, for sure."

He also starting reading the Bible, and began to look seriously at spirituality. Yauch may have kicked off Paul's Boutique by saluting "the Upper East Side nubiles" – but the track "A Year and a Day" hinted at a new state of mind, which he explicitly links to his drug experience: "I am going to the limits of my ultimate destiny/Feeling as though Somebody, somewhere, were testing me/He who sees the end from the beginning of time," he raps, under the cover of heavy distortion.

Reader's Poll: The Best Beastie Boys Songs of All Time

Though it's an undisputed classic, Paul's Boutique was a commercial flop, shocking both the Beasties and their new label, Capitol, who had just given them a $750,000 advance.

Yauch met a new girlfriend, an actress named Lisa Ann Cabasa, and started to get into snowboarding, spending time in Utah's Snowbird Resort – where, circa 1992, he rented an apartment with a pro snowboarder named Mike Basich. To his relief, Yauch found that few people out there cared about his music career. "We'd go snowboarding during the day – he was pretty good, not very acrobatic," says Basich, who remembers Yauch as quiet and "good-hearted." "We'd do graffiti together at night – one time the cops caught us, which is a big deal in Utah."

The Beasties used what was left of their Capitol money to build their own L.A. studio, and as they noodled around on potential material for a third album, they found themselves reluctant to rap – partly because they felt out of place in a changing hip-hop scene. Instead, they returned to their instruments, recording endless jams for a year and a half. It was Yauch who pushed them to get on with it, quietly recording the rap song "Jimmy James" on his own with producer Mario Caldato Jr. "He was leading by example," says Caldato. "After that we went crazy, and tracks just started coming in."

As the Beasties worked on what would become Check Your Head – their first album built around both rapping and live musicianship – Yauch and his girlfriend headed on a trip to India. "His curiosity told him he needed to go there," says Caldato. "He seemed drawn to it. When he came back, he started wearing different clothes, started growing a beard, and changed his diet. During Paul's Boutique, we ate at Lawry's Prime Rib every night, but then during Check Your Head, he became a vegetarian." He wrote the dreamy closing track, "Namaste," about the trip.

Yauch began seeing an L.A.-based holistic healer named Quentin Rodemeyer, who helped him quit drugs and alcohol, and to find ways of tapping into spiritual energy without pot or acid. "He was just ready to make some changes," says Rodemeyer, "and he jumped into it with this courage and this strength and dedication to changing his life. I think it was a feeling inside of him that there was a need to grow past where he was."

In 1993, Yauch returned to the Far East, visiting Nepal, where he met Tibetan Buddhists in exile who taught him about both their religion and their perilous political situation. Their beliefs felt congruent with the ideas he was hearing from Rodemeyer – and by 1996, Yauch started to consider himself a Buddhist.

Yauch was increasingly eager to make amends for the blatantly sexist lyrics and behavior of the early Beastie years. "He had some kind of personal change that had happened," says Cunniff. "He felt like he needed to redeem himself a bit. He was playing down any macho behavior, and became very sweet and gentle." Well before his conversion, Yauch had Caldato film him smashing his gun with a sledgehammer, and the scene appears in a 1992 music video – once the weapon is cracked beyond repair, Yauch offers a broad, relieved smile.

On Check Your Head and especially Ill Communication – the album that fully reestablished the Beasties' commercial clout – Yauch pushed the Beasties toward more positive messages. "Me and Adam Horovitz weren't entirely comfortable with it," Mike D says of Yauch's newfound mission (which led to a widely praised line on "Sure Shot," Ill Communication's opening track: "Want to say a little something that's long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through").

"It took a little getting used to," Mike adds. "But we also all felt it. It wasn't like he was on his own."

It helped that Yauch always kept his sense of humor intact. A skilled mimic, he admired Peter Sellers and the Monty Python crew as much as any of his musical heroes – and he saw no conflict between his new religion and his penchant for silliness. Says Mike D, "When we were running around smashing up cars, wearing disguises in the 'Sabotage' video, Yauch was like, 'Monks play tricks on each other all the time.'" It was a post-Buddhism Yauch who wore lederhosen and a fake beard to play his filmmaker alter ego, Nathaniel Hornblower – storming the stage at the 1994 VMAs in that guise to spout Swiss-German-accented complaints ("This is a farce!") when R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" beat the Beasties' "Sabotage" video for an award. "He had such a funny mixture of deep humility with deep absurdity and playfulness," says his "Sabotage" director, Spike Jonze.

When the Beastie Boys co-headlined the 1994 Lollapalooza festival, Yauch brought a group of Tibetan monks along for the two-month tour. Says Billy Corgan, leader of fellow headliners Smashing Pumpkins, "The initial vibe was like, you know, they're Yauch's monks – what's the angle? But he had a real reverence for them." Corgan was one of the only other musicians on the tour who actually talked to the monks – and, says the Pumpkins frontman, those conversations led to the spiritual awakening that would later save him from suicidal despair.

Yauch had sampled vocals from other Tibetan monks on Ill Communication, and he decided to direct royalties from the songs in question to the Tibetan cause. He formed a charity called the Milarepa Fund for that purpose – but it quickly turned into something much bigger. Yauch was soon putting together the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, which aimed to raise awareness of China's oppressive occupation of the nation. Yauch personally made the calls to recruit artists, and the lineups over seven years worth of shows were a tribute to his influence, with headliners including U2, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead and the Pumpkins.

Yauch was getting deep enough into Buddhism that he was pondering a life of celibacy, but then he met a Tibetan-American Harvard student named Dechen Wangdu – and got married instead. In a joyous, cross-cultural ceremony that combined traditional Tibetan rituals with a wedding-band performance by Rancid. The couple had a daughter, Losel, in 1998. "The minute he met Dechen, I think his mind was made up that he was gonna spend the rest of his life with her," says longtime Beasties pal Cey Adams. "And if you ever want to see Adam Yauch at his best, look at a photograph of him with his daughter."

Yauch had been directing inventive retro-leaning Beastie Boys videos since 1989, and he became increasingly involved in film in the past decade. He directed Gunnin for That #1 Spot, a well-reviewed documentary about New York high school basketball players – and added movie arms to his company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, to make and distribute deserving movies. Among his distribution picks was 2009's Oscar-nominated The Messenger, whose anti-war message Yauch passionately embraced. "I really didn't know MCA," says that film's director, Oren Moverman. "I knew Adam, a film guy who was humble and low-key and very present."

When Messenger star Woody Harrelson won an Independent Spirit Award for his work in the film, he spaced out at the podium and forgot to thank Oscilloscope. Says Harrelson, "I came back to the table and he was just as nice and as cool as any other time. You didn't see even a hint of someone being slighted. There's just nobody else on the planet who would have reacted that way. He was still completely Zen about it."

The Beastie Boys played what turned out to be their final concert on June 12th, 2009, in front of tens of thousands of fans at Bonnaroo. Their last song was a cheerfully sloppy, near-train-wreck version of "Sabotage." On the way out of the festival, Yauch's throat was bothering him, but everyone blamed it on the dusty festival grounds. Within a month, he was on a conference call with Diamond and Horovitz, telling them that he'd been diagnosed with salivary cancer. "I'm gonna be OK," he assured them.

Some people in Yauch's life, including Harrelson and prominent Buddhist and activist Bob Thurman, urged him to avoid Western medicine altogether. But he underwent both conventional and non-Western treatments – and remained so optimistic throughout his three-year battle that it never occurred to his bandmates that he might lose. Even in the depths of his illness, he maintained his Python-esque enthusiasm for the absurd – writing, directing and producing a star-studded (Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen) long-form Beasties video in 2010 based around a deeply ridiculous battle between Licensed-era Beasties and a future version of the group.

Last April, Yauch was doing well enough that the Beasties went ahead and released a new album. Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. Two was a tweaked version of the LP they had finished just before Yauch's diagnosis, and their first full-fledged Beasties album since 2004. But another tour was never under consideration. "I just wanted Adam to get better," says Horovitz. "My hope was that we would just record when it was fun, and he would be a huge movie director."

"In the most beautiful way possible, he had us all fooled," says Mike D. "He really never considered dying from cancer an option, he really didn't. Because of that, we didn't consider that to be an option."

By this April, Yauch's cancer had spread. Around the time Mike D and Ad Rock traveled to Cleveland for the Beastie Boys' Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Yauch was admitted to New York's Cornell Weill Medical Center, where he would spend the last few weeks of his life, surrounded by his family. Soon after his death, monks in monasteries all over the world began chanting to ease his soul's passage – they would keep doing so every seven days, for seven weeks straight. Closer to home, after a small family service, friends including Michael Stipe, Ben Stiller and Jack White gathered on a downtown hotel rooftop for a nighttime celebration of his life.

Horovitz and Diamond have no idea about their musical future. "I'm totally confused," says Horovitz. "Totally numb. I'm walking my dog and I'll start crying on the street. I don't know what to do. It fucking sucks."

But Mike D can imagine their old friend pushing them forward, one last time. "I think Yauch would genuinely want us to try some crazy thing we wanted to do but never got around to," he says, sitting at home in Brooklyn, just six blocks away from Yauch's childhood home. He brightens, as if hearing that familiar voice once more: "He'd say, 'That's exactly what you should be doing right now.'"

This story is from the June 7, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1158: June 7, 2012