What’s the best thing about celebrity deaths? The million little masturbatory orgies they inspire under the oh-so-respectable blankets of news and analysis. When Billy Joel dies of a heart-attack-ack-ack, we’ll be on it—not because we care about the father of Alexis and ex-husband of Christie, but because we will have just been given a free pass to mourn our lost youths in Massapequa, Long Island, where we slow-danced to “Piano Man” at the prom. The phases of the competitive mourning cycle are all equally loathsome: shock at the loss of an icon, retelling of the heroic career, ironic distance to show that we are now grown-ups, etc.
But Adam Yauch’s death made me feel sad. I didn’t go to high school with Adam, and the fact that I lived on the same block in Brooklyn as his mom isn’t really anything to boast about in the annals of celebrity shiva. I will gladly abdicate my responsibility to evaluate the cultural significance of the Beastie Boys and their place in the firmament of late-20th- and early-21st-century American jazz-pop-rock-rap. What I want said here is that Adam Yauch was a rare mensch in a world populated by natural-born assholes and egomaniacs and by people who are high or scared or both. I don’t mean to suggest that he wasn’t one of Brooklyn’s finest white rappers and a city kid to the core. But rap music will survive his death. What has been lost is a model of how to live as a humble yet active and entirely responsible citizen of the world and also, at the same time, as a rock star, which is something that few human beings have the emotional capacity—including the knowledge of their own uniqueness and also the tolerance for their own limitations, and the limitations of others—to manage.
I first noticed what made Yauch special on the one and only afternoon I ever spent with him, during the Tibetan Freedom Concert held on Randall’s Island in 1997. The event was the second in what became an annual series that lasted for the better part of a decade and was organized by Adam and his friend Erin Potts, whom he met in Nepal. Between 1996 and 2003, the Tibet Freedom Concerts raised millions of dollars for the Tibetan cause and spurred the growth of Students for a Free Tibet, enlisting the talents of a slew of famous rock stars including U2, Björk, Elvis Costello, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, Eddie Vedder, De la Soul, Sonic Youth, and everyone else who was cool and famous and halfway public-spirited during those years, along with Tibetan musicians and famous weirdos like Lee “Scratch” Perry. If you looked closely at the concert notes, you might have noticed that the proceeds from the shows were distributed by an outfit called the Millarepa Foundation, which was also Adam and Erin.
My assignment for the day was to shadow a Tibetan monk named Palden Gyatso who had written a stark and gripping autobiography that detailed the decades he spent as a political prisoner in China. I had read Gyatso’s book in galleys, and a Tibetan monk’s day at a rock festival seemed like a natural subject for a “Talk of the Town” piece, in addition to a chance to hear some of my favorite musicians play live. I wound up spending my afternoon in a stuffy tent with a monk watching Adam Yauch patiently deal with the details of sound systems and rock-star egos and crowd-control arrangements while giving interviews to the press and connecting with the Tibetan artists and activists whose presence at the concerts appeared to be equally important to him—no less important, and no more important—than the presence of Chuck D. He was interested in Palden Gyatso, and he wanted to make sure that everyone and everything was taken care of. His need in the moment was simply to have done his part in a chain of inescapable human connectedness to which he felt bound. Nothing about him, or the tent that he was in, suggested that he was a rock star, or that he was consciously eschewing the trappings of rock stardom in order to be a saint, or wanted to be anything other than what he was in the moment. Then at the end of the day he ran on stage with Mike D and Ad-Rock, all wearing orange jumpsuits, to perform a memorable punk version of Billy Joel’s “Big Shot.”
That fall, I spent a few days shadowing Rick Rubin, the bearded music guru who founded Def Jam Records and produced the Beastie Boys’ first record, Licensed to Ill, before selling his interest in the label to Russell Simmons and moving to Los Angeles. At the time, this looked like a dumb decision. Rick’s new label, Def American, wasn’t doing much business, which meant that Rick had to whore himself out doing a studio record with Mick Jagger, which for a genius music producer has got to be the single worst job on the planet. After one recording session, I went back with Rick to his house in the Hills, where we talked about, among other things, the Beastie Boys. It was his contention that Ad-Rock, not Yauch or Mike D, could have been the biggest star in rap if he had taken Rubin’s advice to leave the Beastie Boys and go solo. Ad-Rock’s lack of interest in mega-stardom, and his loyalty to what Rubin described as his comparatively talentless friends, his lack of personal and artistic push, would keep the group’s most talented rapper from achieving his full potential as an artist, which was a real shame, Rick said. His insistence on the obvious disparity of talent within the group was why the Beastie Boys had fired him.
I felt sorry for Rick Rubin that day. He was right about Ad-Rock’s music, but for all Rubin’s genius talent, and his hippy-dippy vibe and the collage of old Time-Life pictures of Woodstock plastered on his bathroom walls, he couldn’t see that Ad-Rock had stayed with the Beastie Boys, at least in part, for the same reason that every cool rock star in the world showed up to the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, along with Palden Gyatso, and young Tibetan student leaders from Dharamsala. They were there because Adam Yauch felt they should be there—which meant it was the right thing to do. Suspicious, often conniving people from all walks of life—rock stars, activists, journalists, and Tibetan exile leaders—trusted Adam Yauch, because he was sincere. He put good energy into the world and into his music. As he once put it,
It Feels Good To Play A Little Music
Tears Running Down My Face ’Cause I Love To Do It
And No One Can Stop This Flow From Flowing On
A Flow Master In Disaster With A Sound That’s Gone
I’ll Give A Little Shout Out To My Dad And Mom
For Bringing Me Into This World And So On
David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.
David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.