For a large segment of Generation X, the death of Adam Yauch, the Beastie Boy better known as MCA, will hit home in a way that Kurt Cobain's suicide did not. Cobain was an iconic rock star with an outsize life and outsize problems. Yauch, on the other hand, was one of us.
Like few other bands of the past 20 years, Beastie Boys mirrored the shifting interests, pursuits, tastes and larger life-phases of Generation X almost minute by minute. They began as a sloppy teenage punk act in 1979, but soon grew fascinated by this new genre called "rap." Their breakthrough single, "Cookie Puss," was a novelty item (it incorporated a crank call to a Carvel Ice Cream store), but the Beasties soon realized that hip-hop could be a bona fide art form. Their 1989 album, "Paul's Boutique," became a college-rock staple, a polarizing must-hear that spawned dorm-room debates about rap, rock and the legitimacy of sampling. It also had a nice, end-of-the-week stoner vibe. (Remember that lengthy sample of a bubbling bong?)
That was the late 1980s, and as rap became both safely corporatized and unrelentingly violent during the '90s, the Beasties carried the old-school torch, putting out freewheeling albums like "Hello Nasty" and "Ill Communication" that stuck to the la-di-da-di ethos. But by playing their own instruments, they also appealed to the growing legions of indie-rockers who valued musicality and intelligence as well.
Remember 1994, the year of Quentin Tarantino's postmodern, retro-sleaze, genre-mash up, "Pulp Fiction?" It changed Hollywood, and even changed popular culture at large, but the Beasties had already done it earlier that year with their cheesy, rowdy, '70s cop-show video for "Sabotage." In hindsight, that Spike Jonze video seemed almost "viral," a you-gotta-see-this phenomenon that was hip, funny and smart in a way that rock videos had long since ceased to be. "Pulp Fiction" was in some ways just the feature-length version.
During the 2000s, the Beasties were hitting their 40s and clearly coasting on their early popularity. But in some ways, this period was just as important, and possibly even more inspirational, to the "kids" who'd grown up with them. The great, driving fear of Generation X is adulthood, with its attendant disappointments and probable selling-outs, but the Beasties seemed to show another way.
The Beasties certainly weren't boys anymore, having entered varying stages of marriage (Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz was divorced) and parenthood (Yauch and Michael "Mike D" Diamond had children). That would normally spell the end of concert-going, late-night drinking, creative pursuits and any hope of remaining "cool."
Yet there the Beasties were, dependably putting out fun (if nonessential) albums like "To the 5 Boroughs" and the all-instrumental "The Mix-Up." They still sometimes dressed like B-boys; they still played concerts in Central Park's SummerStage. If rock was a young man's game, surely the rap game was even younger; nevertheless, the Beasties kept playing it.
Yauch, in particular, emerged as the coolest middle-aged Beastie. In some ways, he became the group's George Harrison, developing an interest in Eastern spirituality (he was a practicing Buddhist), founding a nonprofit group devoted to a free Tibet and putting on a giant fundraising concert in San Francisco. The analogy goes even further: Like Harrison, he also founded his own successful film production company, Oscilloscope Laboratories. (Call them, and you're likely to hear sitar music while on hold.)
All right, the gravelly-voiced rapper wasn't exactly the "Quiet Beastie." But Yauch followed his own muse, spent his wealth on things that seemed important (or at least meaningful) and he refrained from doing anything too crass, like putting his name on a flavored vodka or a BBQ sauce. If you asked any card-carrying member of Generation X what they'd do with millions of dollars and a substantial amount of fame, they'd probably come up with ideas very much like Yauch's.
In other words, if the Beasties can be responsible family men who also still make art, stay engaged with the world and wear cool sneakers, maybe there's hope for the rest of us aging slackers. Yauch's musical legacy is well established (the Beasties were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month), but he leaves another legacy as well. Yauch gave the much-maligned Generation X one of its few real role models. If only he could have stayed with us to an even riper old age.