The Butterfly & The Breeze: Remembering Beastie Boy MCA.
“A butterfly floats on the breeze of a sunlit day
as I feel this reality gently fade away…”
~ Adam Yauch.
When those of us who are deeply touched by a person are put in the unfortunate position of sifting through memories of them far too soon, it can be difficult to put those memories in any kind of order or to grant any one of them sovereignty over the other.
Yet if I had to pick one memory of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, whom I was fortunate enough to work with for some years, it would be backstage at the first Tibetan Freedom Concert in Golden Gate Park in 1996.
Yauch had worked for months pulling together the seemingly impossible—a benefit show during the height of mid-90s cynicism, and not just a benefit show but one that would draw together hundreds of thousands of people and the biggest names in rock… all to help the people of a central Asian nation that—at the time—very few Americans had even heard of.
Former Tibetan Political Prisoner Palden Gyatso was the keynote speaker at the concert. Gyatso’s life was one of great tragedy and hardship—imprisoned for nonviolent protest in 1959, he spent 33 years in a Chinese prison in horrifying conditions. He was tortured with broken glass, starved, and beaten with electric cattle prods. Only his faith in the Dalai Lama and in the principles of nonviolence, he later said, kept him strong enough to endure those many years.
After the concert, we all stood in a circle backstage. Gyatso took Adam’s hands and offered him a ceremonial white scarf—or kata—and spoke.
He expressed his disbelief that Adam had managed to bring together tens of thousands of people together for the cause of Tibet.
He said that during all those years he had suffered in prison, he had dreamed that a day like this would be possible.
“Now, my joy is complete,” he said. “Now, I can truly die in peace.”
The two of them pressed their foreheads together in a traditional Tibetan sign of respect. I saw—through my own tears—tears well up in Adam’s eyes too, and beneath the tears, an expression of awe, followed quickly by a deeper bow of the head.
In that moment, as Adam felt the real magnitude of what he had managed to accomplish and still greeted that feeling with humility and reverence, I saw his heart. It was—and is—a noble and humble heart.
It was Adam’s vision, his insistence on the truth, his facility in a business that tends to wreck people rather than make them more whole, his quiet heart-knowing of the right thing to do and the right way to be, that allowed for so much positive change to be possible and for thousands upon thousands of lives to be transformed.
Through Yauch’s actions, Tibet as a vital issue grew in the collective consciousness, an entire grassroots movement was spawned, and is still thriving. As a result of this wave of awareness, that had as its seed his vision, political prisoners were released, harmful dam and mining projects were stopped, and a new generation of young Tibetans have been empowered to lead.
Through his example, thousands of young music fans also began to explore a different lifestyle, a conscious turn away from destructive tendencies into spiritual practice.
Seeing the posts on the yoga blogs today, I’m reminded of being approached by a young Hare Krishna devotee, during the height of the mid-90s Tibetan Freedom Concert hype. Rather than ask if I had heard of the Bhagavad Gita, he started with the unlikely: “Have you heard of the Beastie Boys?”
Few of us in this life know what it is to truly transform ourselves, or another human being, let alone to bring a measurable light of change to the world.
Yauch’s transformation from hard-partying bad boy rock-rapper to a practicing Buddhist and human rights champion could have left him open to much scorn in an industry that revels in calling out hypocrisy. But Adam neutralized such scorn by truly living his words. Buddhism was not, for him, a fad, or a passing interest, it became the focal point of his life. He gave up many of the trappings of the rock star life in favor of meditation. He genuinely sought to follow the words and teachings of the Dalai Lama, for whom he held a reverence that was beautiful to behold.
As happens with those rare souls whose presence in this life is as a true center point of centrifugal force — he drew others into his orbit and made them better for it.
Adam didn’t just transform himself. He quietly, softly, deftly insisted that we all be better people too.
I met Adam three years earlier in New Mexico through a mutual friend. Several of us went on a road trip to Chaco Canyon. I remember listening to a mix tape—yes, a mix tape—that Yauch had made. It was all Curtis Mayfield and the Ojays and the Whatnaughts and other 70s soul fare. We teased him over the fact that every track was more 70s than the last. He laughed and indicated that the 70s were about to come back in a big way.
Of course, it wasn’t that the 1970s were destined to come back; it’s that he was going to personally bring them back.
We went cliff-jumping at a local lake, drove through old Indian ruins, stopped and meditated in a kiva and skateboarded a one lane country road. That night, camping under the stars Yauc—the true New Yorker – gave us New Mexico hippies a tongue-lashing for putting avocados on a bagel. In his book, it was akin to blasphemy.
On the long drive back to town, Yauch was in the front seat looking out the window at the rolling New Mexico landscape, and I remember asking him what he was thinking.
“I’m thinking of kicking some rhymes on the next album about the nature of the bodhisattva.”
Who else but Adam could rhyme about Shantideva on a major label release and somehow make it cool? Who could plant such seeds of positivity at a time when rap was all hos and guns?
Who could move so deftly, float so easily?
Who but the butterfly?
Through Adam, thousands of people were connected to the validity of a positive life. At a time when many of us were hesitant to feel anything but cynicism or doubt, or were inclined to wear a veneer of disassociation and disaffection, Yauch showed us it was okay to care.
At the time, struggling with my own spiritual upbringing, finding my own balance – or lack thereof – between rock and roll and spirituality, between excess and introspection, there were times when I resented Adam his seemingly effortless levels of peace and dedication.
Years later, when at last the scales of my life have tipped deeply in favor of the spiritual and whole, I love and respect him greatly for paving the way. Not many of us can say that we have looked at all this world has to offer — all the immediate lights, all the bells and whistles and grand seductions — and chosen, simply, peace.
Adam Yauch did this, and the world is a better place because he did.
Let us rejoice in a life well lived, a heart well opened, a transformation complete. Let us rejoice in all that he did for Tibet, and for music, and for all those who are trying to transform positively in this life.
So the butterfly floats on the breeze, so this reality slips away…into the great Reality.
Love to you Adam.
Editor: Brianna Bemel