The Forum, Kentish Town, November 29
It was billed as a book tour, marking the release of Beastie Boys Book, a meaty, word-heavy, picture-laden and weighty tome documenting the highs and lows of one of the greatest – if most improbable – rap groups of all time.
That billing conjures images of cosy chairs and reading glasses, and for a fraction of the two-hour show at London’s Forum, that’s what happens: the two surviving Beastie Boys, Mike “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz sit down with copies of the book and begin to read tales. Then Mike D breaks the fourth wall: “I’m not really reading this, I have it on the screen down here…”
What follows from that point is a strange evening of entertainment involving fake chat shows, daft outfits and a misfired in-joke about Phil Collins, but for all its strangeness, it’s a night that stealthily puts the audience through the emotional wringer. There were laughs. There was dancing. And there were tears – both on stage and off.
The third member of The Beastie Boys, Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch – fondly referred to as “Yauch” by his partners in crime – died of cancer at the age of 47 in 2012. Since then, The Beastie Boys have refused to perform together, arguing that with a member missing there is no Beastie Boys.
This short tour, stopping in a few key cities around the world, is therefore the nearest thing fans have had to a Beastie Boys show in six years. And with old mucker Mix Master Mike flexing his considerable turntabling skills, there’s music here, even if only in short spurts. Merch is snapped up by the bucketload, particularly Beastie Boys skateboards, which go for £50.
When the show starts, it’s perhaps not what anyone would expect. Part TED Talk, part SNL skit, it’s like a best man’s speech gone wild, full of lurid tales from their past. They were just teenagers when they started in New York, obsessed with hardcore punk band Bad Brains who, they said, they’d read about in the pages of NME and The Village Voice.
But their heads were turned by the burgeoning hip hop scene, and soon they found themselves rubbing shoulders with Run DMC, Russell Simmons, The Fat Boys and Rick Rubin, touring with Madonna and taking moral outrage around the world. Their stories present them as Forrest Gumps of hip hop, chancing into situations and opportunities. And while some things are glossed over – like them leapfrogging more talented black rappers, for example – others are not. There’s a moment of agonising on-stage contrition when they talk about their first world tour, on which the aim was to be the nastiest band on the planet. Performing with giant inflatable dicks and women dancing in cages, it was mission accomplished.
Mike D and Ad-Rock are no comedians, but there’s a warmth from the audience that wills them along through the clunky bits. The whole thing has the feel of being thrown together: two hours into the show, they’re only at 1998’s ‘Hello Nasty’, meaning the last decade and a half of their career are barely touched on, as if they realised they’d overrun and decided to cut it off rather than edit.
But for all its shabby edges, the evening did something few stage shows manage: it touched the audience on all emotional levels. While Mike D and Ad-Rock ribbed each other fairly mercilessly, not least for Mike D’s youthful mastery of a fuck-you attitude in archive video clips, MCA is spoken of with utter reverence. It transpires that the show is more than an attempt to flog books, it’s a eulogy for their friend. And you realise that, six years on, their grief is still raw. In the show’s most painful moment, Ad-Rock sits with his legs dangling from the front of the stage and begins talking about the final show the group ever played, at US festival Bonnaroo. He breaks down, unable to finish what he’s saying, and asks a young man from the front row to come and complete it for him. It isn’t the first time this show has been performed; you wonder if he’d ever be able to say it.
It was an unexpected punch in the gut in an evening that had rambled through knockabout laughs, silly costumes, old home movies and dad jokes aplenty. Mostly, it silenced any question about why The Beastie Boys refuse to perform without MCA. He wasn’t just part of the group, he was the group’s heart. He died too young, but someone growing up with friends like these was a lucky man nonetheless.
Beastie Boys Book is out now, published by Faber