In almost every way, the Beastie Boys' appearance at City Arts & Lectures Monday night was about the person who wasn't in the room.
Adam Yauch, the group's raspy-voiced MCA who died of throat cancer in 2012, loomed large over the proceedings, from the surviving members' opening story about Yauch's elaborate pranking skills to a bittersweet eulogy on his friendship and dedication that closed the two-and-a-half-hour show.
Out on the road to promote Beastie Boys Book, a massive 571-page retrospective, Mike D and Ad Rock did away with with City Arts & Lectures' usual orange-chairs-and-end-table setup and instead presented a theatrical series of vignettes, complete with costume changes, lighting cues and elaborate sets.
Flanked by two giant video screens and soundtracked by a stage-right DJ Mix Master Mike, the two drank espresso at a French coffee shop one minute, and sat for a late-night talk show segment the next. At one point, Mike D appeared in a smock and red beret, painting a giant canvas of himself nude in a bathtub and getting snacks from a nearby refrigerator.
In other words, Ad Rock and Mike D were the same jokesters who donned wigs and walkie-talkies in the "Sabotage" video and seared themselves into 1990s culture. Often, it was hard to tell when the two were being serious—especially with an ongoing gag of the two getting into tiny arguments, which stopped being funny after the first hour and routinely threw off the pacing. But when reading from the book—or rather, from onstage teleprompters—the reflections of the Beasties' genesis in 1980s New York and creative development in the 1990s came off as vivid and heartfelt.
Among the stories: Meeting Yauch at a Bad Brains show. Hiring Rick Rubin as their DJ because he had a bubble machine. Being asked to play a "pro-smoking" benefit concert by Bob Dylan at Dolly Parton's birthday party. Looping a reel-to-reel tape of the drums from Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks," the tape spooling around Yauch's kitchen, for "Rhymin' and Stealin'." Paul's Boutique getting the brush from the president of Capitol Records, who had the entire staff in 1989 prioritizing Donnie Osmond instead.
Most of the evening dwelled on the early years. Naturally, the group addressed their discomfort with the Licensed to Ill era, when they performed songs like "Girls" and kept a 20-foot hydraulic penis on stage: "It was toxic as hell," Mike D said. The group also kicked out original drummer Kate Schellenbach "because she didn’t fit into our new tough-rapper-guy identity,” Ad Rock lamented. "It was just shitty the way it happened. And I am so sorry about it.”
Despite the presence of Mix Master Mike on stage, the two didn't perform any songs; again, in apparent respect for Yauch. Outside in the courtyard before the show, however, a speaker played early hip-hop for a long line of fans eager to see over 100 pieces of group memorabilia on display: handwritten lyrics, drum machines, old sneakers, a card from Madonna, backstage passes, and yes, the walkie-talkies from Spike Jonze's "Sabotage" video.
The crowd was mostly over the age of 40. But within that age group were a variety of people: skaters, businessmen, punks, CEOs. People checking Slack in one corner, people sneaking a joint in another. Friends singing "The Biz vs. The Nuge" at the top of their lungs in line. Celebrity chefs like Chris Cosentino, and hip-hop legends like DJ Shadow. It drove home the idea that the Beastie Boys were a social network of their day, a way for disparate subcultures to connect under the unlikely banner of a hybrid rap-rock-jazz group from New York who seemed to know things the rest of the world didn't.
Which raises the question: could something like the Beastie Boys even happen today? No doubt they'd be tagged as appropriators exploiting their white privilege; even more of an obstacle may be the internet itself and its demythologizing effect.
It calls to mind one of the earliest web pages on the hip-hop internet, a complete list of sample sources and lyrical references from Paul's Boutique. Never before published in traditional media, it served as a Rosetta Stone for budding producers, and a treasure chest to fans. But it also took away a little bit of the Beasties' magic.
With this current tour, the massive book and their openness about their past, the Beasties are finally fitting into the information age, warts and all. And over and over again, last night, Mike D and Ad Rock repeated variations of the same thing: "I wish Yauch were here."