Thursday, February 09, 2006

I listened to too much Beastie Boys as a child

There's a scene in Stephen Frears' 2000 romantic comedy for music snobs, High Fidelity, in which self-effacing record store clerk and Moby look-alike Dick (Todd Luiso) enters his boss Rob's (John Cusack) apartment to discover Rob's gargantuan vinyl record collection scattered across the floor. Agape and intrigued, Dick tries to decode the madness.
"It looks as if you're reorganizing your records, what is this...chronological?"
"It's not alphabetical."
"No fucking way."
"Yup...I can tell you how I got from Deep Purple to Howling Wolf in just 25 moves. And if I want to find the song 'Landslide' by Fleetwood Mac, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the Fall of 1983 pile, but didn't give it to them for personal reasons."
"That sounds..."
"Comforting. It is."

This scene absolutely nails my feelings towards music. When I listen to a song - "Siberian Kiss" by Glassjaw, for instance - the first thing that comes to mind is not its pummeling guitars, the Tazmanian Devil-like unintelligibility of the lyrics, or its debt to New York City hardcore and the vocal style of Faith No More‘s Mike Patton. Instead I am immediately reminded of the time I first heard it - at a poker party in the basement of a high school friend. The imagery is indelible - the card table was here, two couches there, while so-and-so was sitting in front of the TV playing Nintendo 64 and "that guy" was laying down on the floor because he had taken too many Sudafed. In cognitive psychology this phenomenon is known as spreading activation - one bit of information (song) reaches associated bits (when I heard it, who I heard it with, etc.) through the neural network, bringing to conscious awareness a plethora of associated memories.

In this manner music serves as a sort of index of various scenes in my life. I always associate Foo Fighters' "The Colour and the Shape" and Blur’s self-titled album with my 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C., during which I bought the first album and listened to both non-stop on the Birnie Bus. The Flaming Lips' "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" conjures memories of leaving New York City in the wintry nighttime on a similar bus, while "Psychocandy" by the Jesus and Mary Chain will forever be associated with mowing greens at Monroe Golf Club at 6 a.m. But perhaps my strongest song associations are intertwined with the first album I ever listened to completely through, over and over, until I had memorized every lyric and could anticipate every note.

In 1994, my older cousins lent me a copy of "Check Your Head" by the Beastie Boys to go with my first CD player. Their gift was prompted by my remarking to them how much I loved watching the Spike Jonze-directed video for "Sabotage," and even though "Sabotage" wasn’t on "Check Your Head," I was overflowing with glee when they handed me the album.

At the time, I enjoyed rehearsing the comedic elements of "Check Your Head" almost more than listening to the songs. "Professor Booty’s" opening - "Professor, what’s another word for pirate treasure? Why I think it’s booty!" - was a riot to recite with friends. The fatigued off-key crooning of keyboardist Money Mark in "Mark on the Bus" and the opening dialogue to "The Maestro," set over an upper-crust party ambience, were our other favorites. These humorous portions of "Check Your Head" immediately bring to mind the faces of my childhood friends, crowded together with me around a CD player and laughing hysterically as we endlessly rewound the tracks to hear them again.

The standout songs on "Check Your Head," such as "Pass the Mic" and "So Whatcha Want?", were what ultimately stapled the album to my brain. The opening track, "Jimmy James," which samples Hendrix’s opening feedback to "Foxy Lady," provided me with a fun soundtrack to playing video games like "TIE Fighter" and "Sonic the Hedgehog." The feedback sample warps from the familiar cacophony into a scratching passage that sounds like a schizoid dentist’s drill before Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D storm in to take control.

I could recite every word of "Pass the Mic" with the shortest notice. From the trumpets-blaring, dawn-is-arising-so-take-heed! opening, this third song on "Check Your Head" flows seamlessly, amalgamating threatening guitars with titanic drums and an indecipherable sample of some guy’s panicky voice. Even though the Beastie Boys are not commonly considered the most prolific rappers - their flow falls far below that of the Jay-Zs and MF Dooms of the world, even Eminem - their verses on "Pass the Mic" are gorgeous and intimidating. They sound like gangly white Jewish monsters standing atop the highest perches in their native Brooklyn who should be filmed from menacing low angles as they spit boastful rhymes about rocking block parties and exploding on sight like Jimmy Walker ("Dyn-o-mite!"). It’s the type of song I’d listen to before stepping on the field for a lacrosse game - one that made me feel that I, like the Beastie Boys, was purely untouchable.

Although I also enjoyed "So Whatcha Want," its one of those songs whose personal value has depreciated in light of its hijacking at the hands of the masses. Though the sentiment is silly, it’s one few music fans can deny experiencing. We just don’t like to share. "So Whatcha Want’s" hammer-on-the-anvil rhythm and fragmented vocal filters (a Beastie Boys tradition) are tied together by an organ sample that sounds like it should play between batters at an afternoon baseball game. It’s another song I recall listening to prior to lacrosse games, but for a different reason - it’s aggressive, but the music just makes you want to enjoy yourself.

My undying love of the Beastie Boys‘ "Check Your Head" and its irreplaceable connection to my late childhood can best be illustrated by one fact: I still haven’t given the CD back to my cousins.

(photo courtesy of

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