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The Many Lives of Adam Yauch

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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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

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