A killer bass line fed through one of the fuzziest pedals ever invented. A heavy dose of wah-wah on a two-note guitar solo. A powerful organ blast. A video riffing off Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii. And a bunch of lyrics straight out of Buddhist theology.
This is the same band that had burst onto the scene six years prior throwing pies, yelling about parents talking away porno mags, looking for girls to do the laundry and griping that one of those girls is “jacking (bandmate) Mike D to my dismay”?
Fast forward to 2017, long after the Beastie Boys have retired in the wake of Adam “MCA” Yauch’s death. We’re wrestling with our conscience as a lot of our cultural and political favorites — Louis CK, Al Franken, Bill Cosby — are exposed for their misdeeds. We wonder if we can ever again enjoy the good things they’ve done — and in Franken’s case in particular, we’re talking about a lot of good — knowing what we know now. And what can any of these people do to redeem themselves?
The Beasties’ legacy is mostly positive. But, as this even-handed Medium piece points out, it’s complicated. We don’t have an easy answer to explain why the Beasties were revered in the hip-hop community while other white rappers (think Vanilla Ice) were reviled.
Was it because Licensed to Ill, their mega-smash that dialed up the obnoxiousness to 11, was all just a joke? As Spinal Tap would say about the cover of Smell the Glove, were they making fun of that behavior? That’s one interpretation, but it’s not as easy to explain away the homophobia they expressed in interviews. And the problem with making jokes about treating “girls” as objects is that a lot of guys don’t get it.
So are the Beastie Boys revered today simply because they grew up and spent their later years fighting not for your right to party but for Tibetan freedom? Or perhaps because they built up an archetype and then gleefully smashed it?
Gratitude, the song with the killer bass hook (perhaps foreshadowing Sabotage, the unforgettable track released a couple of years later), certainly flies in the face of any negative stereotype we have of rap rock or hip-hop. This is spiritual rather than sexual, Buddhist rather than braggart.
“Good times gone,” Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz yells in the opening line. “And you missed them. What’s gone wrong in your system?”
They add a good simile of the streets next: “Things they bounce, like a Spalding.” (A brand of basketball, for those who don’t invest in a lot of sporting goods.)
It’s a short song with just two similar verses, each beginning with “Good times gone” and ending with the two key lines:
When you’ve got so much to say
It’s called gratitude, and that’s right
The sharpest line is in the middle of the second verse: “What you think? That the world owes you?”
We’re pretty far removed from the aesthetic of kids pumping themselves up with talk of their riches, real or imagined. Now we’re talking about serious spirituality. MCA was already taking up an interest in Tibetan Buddhism and thinking about whether our desires end up making miserable.
So while we might argue about whether the Beastie Boys’ early work is sexist or simply immature through a modern lens, we’d have a hard time coming up with anything but praise for this simple, effective shout to quit demanding more from the world and learn to appreciate what we have.
And if we can see good in the Beastie Boys, can we also see good in Al Franken? Or Eddie Murphy? Or anyone else who would do a few things differently if given another chance?
I don’t know. I can wish for easy answers, but the world doesn’t owe them to me. I’ll just listen to this song with gratitude. And that’s right.
And Happy Thanksgiving.