Daniel Johnston – 1990

Why do we even listen to music? For inspiration, relaxation, celebration. To remember, to mourn, to laugh, to honor, to dance. To cut loose. To peep in on someone’s darkest, most desperate, most vulnerable feelings that have been recorded and not feel so alone. None of these sacred rituals cover the experience of listening to Daniel Johnston’s 1990. This record transcends any notion of mass marketed music, then transports the listener to another dimension. The spirit world. Each track demands you to hold Johnston’s hand in order to pass the threshold.

Johnston spent much of the eighties pouring his heart and soul into homemade recordings, documenting his heartbreak, his fantasies, and his disappointments for anyone willing to listen. Johnson wasn’t making music, he was opening his veins onto cassette tapes. Strangers on the street would receive unique masters because Johnston didn’t know how to dub copies. A cult of supporters amassed, and eventually pushed this outsider artist working at a McDonald’s in Austin, Texas, to the apex of eighties relevance: an appearance on MTV.

1990 provided the opportunity for Johnston to leave behind the fuzzy boombox recordings and explore his muses within the confines of a real studio in New York City. The opening track “Devil Town” consists of only Johnston’s lisp dashed with reverb. Hell on earth materializes in the soft warble. All of Johnston’s friends are vampires. Turns out, he is one too. Johnston doesn’t seem too upset about it, with his vocal delivery carrying an air of acceptance. A smile might be cracking as he serenades the microphone. 

Johnston’s own private hellscape keeps billowing outward with “Spirit World Rising.” As Johnston strums a lone guitar, his home state of Texas turns into hell. The devil has Texas. Johnston later claims the devil is defeated, but it sure doesn’t sound like it. On “Lord Give Me Hope,” Johnston sings as if he is doing everything he possibly can to keep up with the piano, all while paying penance for his sins. Johnston abandons any sense of self-deprecating humor he once mastered in songs like “Story of an Artist,” and also shuns familiar characters like Joe the Boxer and Casper the Friendly Ghost who frequented prior recordings. Johnston’s very soul is on the line.

Much like Johnston’s unhinged creativity, 1990 can’t be contained within a studio, drifting into several live performances that blast from the stage like a fire hydrant.

Johnston cranks his playful charm to ten on “Tears Stupid Tears,” with a crowd cheering him on as he recounts his shortcomings. He lulls the crowd with a playful verse: How could you know that’s where the wind blows? / Out to the wind, that’s where my love goes. Later, Johnston drops the profound punchline: I was born in the body and right from the start / Those tears, stupid tears, been tearing us apart.

“Don’t Play Cards with Satan” finds Johnston impersonating a Pentecostal preacher making his case to the atheists and agnostics of the world. Johnston stages a haunting scene, softly singing about hearing the devil cry in the woods, followed by the vision of his own heart laying black with blood. Did I ever stop and tell you, I am a desperate man? he asks the crowd. Bedroom folk music soon explodes into fire and brimstone. A shaky, uncertain guitar riff dissolves into the ether, and Johnston screams out “Satan!” three times to end the song. You might think Lucifer himself is on stage, breathing down Johnston’s neck.

The moment Johnston quits screaming at the devil, an updated recording of his defining ballad, “True Love Will Find You in the End” begins. This tonal shift is either a dash of comedy or a deep breath to recover from what has preceded. The track remains an essential entry in the Great American songbook, even if the definitive version had already been released six years prior on Retired Boxer (1984). The original version portrays a fragile soul in a closet, singing to themself, crafting their own working class version of “I Will Survive.” Johnston simply recorded a perfect version of a perfect song, setting a standard that no other take could surpass.

Always in the shadow of “True Love” is one of Johnston’s most gorgeous compositions in “Some Things Last a Long Time.” Four shining piano chords lilt in the breeze on a summer day that stretches into twilight. Johnston reflects on a life of undying devotion in lieu of romance, oblivious to any other concern. Your picture is still on my wall, attests Johnston, the colors are bright as ever… some things last a life time. Johnston sounds blissfully lost in this moment, content to live in the key of C and unrequited love for as long as he can. Safe and sound, far away from “Devil Town.”

Johnston hams it up on a thunderous cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life,” slamming the low register of a piano and forging a crude tribute to the Magical Mystery Tour highlight. 1990 is full of moments that haunt and disturb, but here Johnston is having fun, singing with unfettered glee, holding tight to one of his trademarks – chasing the unattainable girl.

The studio walls melt away for good by the end of 1990, leaving Johnston in the big, bad world armed with nothing but a guitar. “With feeling! It’s gonna happen!” he shouts at a captive crowd. “It happens everyday. Millions and millions of people have died. You too will die.” Not exactly what you plan on hearing while out on the town. Johnston wants his audience to sing along with him: Funeral home, funeral home. Goin’ to that funeral home. Got me a coffin, shiny and black. I’m goin to the funeral and I’m never comin’ back. The spectators snicker and oblige, lifting up this dire nursery rhyme. Johnston keeps banging on an acoustic that can’t stay in tune. “Louder!” he commands mid-verse. Not content, the singer demands another round, another moment to relish in the spotlight. The crowd audibly gasps, with one spectator laughing out, “I can’t.” 

A sense of existential dread pervades 1990, and Johnston attempts to exorcise the demons at the albums close, leading a church congregation through the gospel hymn “Softly and Tenderly.” Babies scream while pious worshipers envision Jesus calling home the sinners. Johnston, safe from the vampires and the spirit world, can rest easy in good company, under God’s roof. 

1990 lies in the middle of Johnston’s catalog in a precarious position. The warm tones of his home recordings are replaced with a larger sound, with Johnston’s dreams and desperation laid bare for all to listen. Freed from his work shifts at McDonald’s, emancipated from his parents’ basement, then let loose into the streets of New York – fire walks with Johnston wherever he goes throughout 1990.

Time Circuits On: Matt Sharp Interview Pt. 1

Let’s go back in time to late-2015 and revisit one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever conducted, thought to be lost and gone forever! Matt Sharp joined me for a ninety-minute conversation on my former podcast, covering nearly every chapter of his life in music so far. He is the leader of the power-pop rock group The Rentals, the founding bassist of Weezer (1992-’98), and also released an eponymous acoustic record in 2004. Don’t miss out on the stellar 2020 Rentals record, Q36.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview next week. Pssst – this was a backup raw recording, so please forgive the sub-par quality. Better than nothin’!

CHVRCHES – How Not to Drown (feat. Robert Smith)

The Glasgow electro-pop trio CHVRCHES are back with pomp and circumstance, touting their fourth album, Screen Violence, due August 27.

Screen Violence

The lead single “How Not to Drown” is bundled with a high-profile guest spot, featuring The Cure’s Robert Smith. After a wave of synths, CHVRCHES ditch their trusted arpeggiator and lay down a rhythm of drums and piano for vocalist Lauren Mayberry to surf over. “I’m writing a book on how to stay conscious when you drown,” she attests. Mayberry has never held back in her delivery, inimitably emoting like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, daring anyone to mimic her without embarrassing themselves. Like most CHVRCHES anthems, the verse climbs into the sky with the chorus, “Tell me how it’s better when the sun goes down.”

Robert Smith takes over the second verse, writing his own chapter for when his lover is dug up from the ground. Smith refuses to go over the top here, remaining in neutral with a deadpan delivery. The drama that Smith is known for in The Cure remains shackled behind a thick attic door, with pounding from the other side mostly muted. Smith’s voice stays buried deep in the chorus mix, refusing to break through and preventing one of CHVRCHES’ most memorable choruses from reaching another level of affect.

CHVRCHES never strays from their dependable formula of emo-synth with “How Not to Drown.” Smith rides shotgun to Mayberry’s vocals for rest of the song, echoing her verses. Smith finishes off the song by himself, wounded, refusing to give up on love, ultimately winding down to a whisper. With the reigning godfather of goth rock in tow, CHVRCHES emerge from the clouds of the last year-and-a-half with a shotgun blast of sugary synth rock, destined to spray from a festival stage soon.

MIA: Bandolé

Walk with me, back to 1998. A girl on a church trip had a boombox, which made her the de facto DJ for the weekend. The usual suspects of Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony, Nirvana, and Sublime cycled through, until an unfamiliar song hit everyone’s ears. In a scene reminiscent of High Fidelity, even the uptight adults seemed to perk up and nod their head to the groove. A slow acoustic intro of a girl and a guy chanting call-and-response odes to “drinking cold beer” “down in the valley” quickly broke loose into an upbeat verse, depicting a peaceful day in mother nature that required alcohol. The chorus of “River Cold Beer” kept hitting us captive listeners, charming us into a chipper mood. The track immediately felt both familiar and unforgettable — infectious enough to chart on the radio with enough publicity and word of mouth. I casually asked my friend who this band was after the fact, and later secured a CD-R with “Bandolé” scribbled on it.

Bandolé checked every box for fun folk rock of the era. Every other song reached into tomorrow, celebrating life, refusing to look back on one misgiving. The acoustic pop sensibilities of Dave Matthews and the drum circle rhythms of Rusted Root were dashed with some noodling riffs reminiscent of Phish, conjuring all the fun hippy vibes of the time. I don’t know how my friend got this music or where it came from — I’m just glad I ripped the CD-R to my hard drive, where I’ve managed to harvest the mp3s over multiple computers ever since. I’m even uncertain of the song titles, having to have named them myself from the lyrics. 

Aside from a couple of people on reddit trying to figure out more about Bandolé, who was in the group — or if they made any more music — there’s absolutely nothing on the internet offering any reliable intel on Bandolé. 

When I first got a computer in the late-nineties, I attempted to find more information about Bandolé, and I remember finding an advertisement for a live show in Athens, Georgia. Did you ever listen to Bandolé? Do you have any live recordings of this band? Were you friends with any of the people in this recording? I’d love to know! I’ve shared “River Cold Beer” above in efforts to find whoever recorded it, tell them how much I’ve enjoyed their music over the years, and hopefully get more of Bandolé’s music to the ears of the masses!

Beulah fans, rejoice!

It has been ten years, a full decade, since former Beulah frontman Miles Kurosky released his debut solo LP The Desert of Shallow Effects. After a brief tour to promote the album, Kurosky disappeared off the face of the earth. Until yesterday when producer and former Beulah bassist Eli Crews casually dropped a stunning update on his personal Facebook account: “Further work on the new Miles Kurosky record.” Pics or it didn’t happen, you say? Welp, Crews posted this photo of Kurosky strumming an acoustic guitar, cozy in jeans and house slippers, surrounded by dusty amps and vintage keyboards.


photo by Eli Crews

Who knows when Kurosky’s second solo LP will find its way to your phone/turntable, but now is the time to officially get excited for more Miles in our life. Talk about long over due.

cindygod – demos

Andy Rauworth and Craig Nice, for better or worse, ’til death do them part, are a case study of the best and the shittiest aspects of the last decade’s music industry. The pair have been friends since childhood and made music together under a number of guises — making a splash on the indie scene in 2010 as Gauntlet Hair, then calling it quits and disappearing into the mist of 2013. All has been quiet, until now. With no label behind them, the duo are officially back as cindygod, self-releasing the new EP demos.

But before we go forward, we must go back.

One aimless night in 2010, I was driving my car, flipping through XM satellite radio channels. “I was Thinking…” by Gauntlet Hair stopped the spinning dial. Arena-ready beats and a sky-high guitar riff ran hypnotic circles around each other. A lone voice haunted the proceedings, echoing from the bottom of what sounded like a dank, abandoned wishing well. I still have no idea what the lyrics are about, and I don’t want to ruin the mystery by looking them up. I knew one thing that night – I loved whatever I was hearing.

Nothing about Gauntlet Hair has been so immediate since.

A self-titled debut followed soon after in 2011. The record was shiny and waxy, a board of finely grained wood set to surf the tide of bro-jam that Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion spawned in 2009. Guitarist and singer Andy Rauworth even channeled both ANCO vocalists, carrying the hyper nasality of Avey Tare and the sunny tenor of Panda Bear. Craig Nice was on the drums, providing a sonic boom over and under the clipping guitars. The band didn’t include the warmly-received single “I Was Thinking…” on the release, indicating a swagger and confidence that they didn’t need it. 

There is an inherent positivity in Gauntlet Hair’s debut album. If Rauworth is ever pissed off, dejected, or heartbroken, I can’t tell. Every channel in the mix feels like it is reaching for a higher purpose, the next step, or maybe a dystopian riff on “Good Vibrations.” Not until the last track, “Shout in Tongues,” can I understand Rauworth when he chants, “I want a child who breaks the rules, goes to school, and then gets the fuck out.” The shadowy image of a clothed man jumping into a swimming pool on the album cover spoke volumes.

We’re having fun now.

The hooks on Gauntlet Hair are tight, the melodies infallible, and while the record didn’t traverse the zeitgeist as I thought it might, it was enough to warrant the follow-up record Stills in 2013. Rauworth and Nice trashed their prior formula: the vocals more crisp and pronounced. The guitar was fighting for its aural space instead of obliterating it. The drums were still cranked to eleven, but in more quantized, robotic patterns. Two lead singles, “Human Nature” and “Bad Apple” had slow and sexy feels that were previously nowhere to be found. The melodic mission of the band remained true, striving for pop perfection. Instead of making a splash on the album cover, a baby doll was blindfolded this time. 

Everything was retracting.

More than the music on Stills, which I loved, the music carried another brand of desperation in my ears. A couple of weeks before Stills dropped, Nice tweeted, “Please BUY our album this time. I know it’s super easy to get for free but cmon… being broke all the time makes this infinitely harder.” Other tweets begged for places to crash while on tour. Two guys were making music that I absolutely adored, and yet were living hand to mouth.

A week or two later, the band called it quits and canceled a tour opening for Surfer Blood. Without any solid explanation, Rauworth and Nice vanished into the shadows of Denver, Colorado. The band’s self-mythology painted Rauworth and Nice as best friends who only wanted to make music together — and this is no bullshit. The disintegration of Gauntlet Hair didn’t break their brotherly bond. I had cornered both of them online in 2016 for a joint interview on my now-defunct podcast. The two were still roommates, working in bars and thrift stores, and apparently not releasing any new music anytime soon. It was a bitter feeling I carried about so many other bands over the years — Beulah, Rich Creamy Paint, Blue Merle, the list goes on — artists I loved that should be cashing in, not living in obscurity. The interview never materialized, and I kept wondering why the hell these two talented friends couldn’t just give the world some music and live off the fruits.

Three years later and better than never, we can all spin some new tracks from Rauworth and Nice. Further expanding the sound palette and distinguishing cindygod from Gauntlet Hair is bassist Anton Krueger and Eamonn Wilcox on guitar.


The title alone, demos, indicates a group of unfinished songs, lacking polish, but feels more like a proper evolution from Stills. No song is content to sit still, expounding on every sound that came before in Gauntlet Hair. The beats are faster, the white noise more aggressive, and Rauworth’s voice still emitting from a subterranean void. Each element invites the listener to wonder what message is presented. Anyone familiar with the backstory of the band can only guess they’re just glad to be back doing this.

In the first track, “Gosh,” gothic leanings of The Cure collide with early-Nine Inch Nails aggro-pop. Drums, buzz-sawing synths, and guitars all fighting for their place. Then the noise fades, leaving only a beat and the vocals to wind around the other. Every channel in the mix then comes back to life, sprinting to the song’s finish. “Disown” is a more mellow brand of thrash, leaning on airy synth pads and breakbeats, before resurrecting Rauworth’s guitar during the back half of the song.

Rauworth recently told Stereogum that demos comprises the first songs that were written post-Gauntlet Hair, an attempt to see if that dormant musical spirit could be prolonged. With that preface, the songs carry a literal fight for life. Instead of reaching for the sky a la Gauntlet Hair’s debut, cindygod’s demos goes wherever it may roam, changing tempos, dropping out, and fading in. “Rabbit” begins as one rolling drum beat and collects individual sounds along its way. Just like in Stop Making Sense, it all builds to an apocalyptic anthem.

More sounds of the eighties are turned on their heads during “711” and “DD-11,” then covered with the ashes of Gauntlet Hair. The songs on demos began as a seance, and seem to have resurrected an old friend into a new body, right before our very ears.

It remains to be seen if Rauworth and Nice are getting certain songs out of the way before a proper cindygod album, or if larger and louder versions of demos will comprise a future LP. Either way, fans of Gauntlet Hair have something to finally celebrate in this new year. You won’t find demos on Spotify or Apple Music, only direct from the artists via bandcamp, on wax or digital download.

Please support independent music, and please give a warm welcome to cindygod.

Beastie Down, Part 6: Punky Reggae Party

Nooowwww, here’s a little story I got ta tell about three bad… wait. Scratch that.

King Ad-rock was lying in “Paul Revere.” There wasn’t once three. There were four. Sing along to it all you want, but here’s how it really went. The Beastie Boys formed on MCA Adam Yauch’s seventeenth birthday in August of 1981. Yauch held bass duties, Mike D was on lead vocals, John Berry was on guitar, and Kate Schellenbach was on drums. Teenagers banging out chords and screaming over them, as they always will. A clever acronym for B.E.A.S.T.I.E. turned out to be a helluva lot more than a juvenile joke. It was the guiding mantra for the band for the next thirty years.

Boys Entering Anarchistic States Towards Internal Excellence.

Anarchy did reign, at least creatively. The foursome didn’t last, but the name and modus operandi did. Berry got hooked on drugs and quit the band in 1982, and a sixteen-year-old Adam Horovitz was waiting in the wings to replace him. Horovitz played guitar and had his own band, The Young and the Useless, and joined the ranks, immediately shaking up the formula.

By now, the Beasties had released one hardcore EP, Polly Wog Stew, but the rich, creamy musical palette smeared across the city blocks of New York was drawing the band toward hip hop and reggae. Instead of Bad Brains, the Beastie Boys wanted to be the white man’s Treacherous Three. As Horovitz tells it, he went to the guitar shop one day with an envelope of money, and instead of a Rickenbacker, bought a drum machine. The fork was in the road, and he took it.

With Horovitz’s new toy, the Beastie Boys forsook hardcore music and made a song that is as unclassifiable as much as their catalog. It wasn’t hip hop. Not rock n’ roll. Not like anything I’ve ever heard. It was called “Cooky Puss.” More like a squirt of jism; an embryonic cluster of cells holding the DNA of everything the Beastie Boys would produce afterward. A silly, catchy, offensive inside joke — worthy of being examined endlessly. A breakbeat plays throughout. There’s no rapping, just bored teenagers dialing up a Carvel ice cream parlor, harassing the person at the other end of the line and trying to find “Cooky Puss.” 

The beat doesn’t sound like a Roland TR-808, or any other notable synthesizer. The four-note riff that plays on a loop might be a guitar, might be a keyboard. (Beastie Boys Book confirms this is actually Yauch playing bass!) There isn’t even a chorus. Anarchy reigns throughout with samples of Steve Martin, and the prior Beastie releases “Transit Cop” and “Beastie Boys” chopped up and mixed in. When a record starts scratching, it sounds as if a teenager has gotten a hold of a turntable for the first time — eager, naive, oblivious as to what might happen to move the needle back and forth in the groove.

“Cooky Puss” is a record that only could have been made by kids with nothing to lose. I can picture them all laughing their asses off as they put the song together, entirely not caring about what the world at large would think of it. At least they were amused, and so goes much of the three-decade story of the Beastie Boys.

After “Cooky Puss” was released, Schellenbach was kicked out of the band, right as the three about-to-be emcees befriended one Rick Rubin. Rubin was digging “Cooky Puss” and cozied up to the band, and began producing their records and deejaying their gigs. Epic feature films couldn’t properly dramatize the next string of developments, and the scope of their impact forevermore on the pop music landscape. The foundation of Def Jam Records was laid in Rubin’s NYU dorm room, and the Beastie Boys dressed the part, walking around town and showing up to gigs in Queens with matching jumpsuits and do-rags. A wonder they didn’t get killed.

The Beastie Boys reintroduced themselves to the world in 1984 with a 12” single for “Rock Hard.” A colossal rudimentary drum beat lays the groundwork, and then the riff for AC/DC’s “Back in Black” comes in. The rhymes are nothing to write home about. Mike D, Ad-rock, and MCA claim they can play the drums and play guitar. They make a ton of tall claims, with no prior hip hop resume to back it up with. There’s little substance, but this passable track gave the band style and three voices to expound upon. 

The Beastie Boys were also failing to imitate the Treacherous Three by doing something entirely unheard, undone, untried. Were Run-DMC and Aerosmith following in their footsteps in 1986 with “Walk This Way?” It’s a fair question.

It was the follow-up 1985 single, “She’s On It,” that truly set the template for next year’s Licensed to Ill. Huge, gritty guitars ring out, and the Beastie Boys start rapping about their ideal woman. They eventually turn on her, ticking off every list of their petty grievances. The hook is catchy, the guitar solo provides a scorching bridge, but singing along to it in 2018 carries some harsh contradictions to the future image of all things Beastie.

Even when I’m chillin’, she acts retarded.

It gets annoying, so high on the tip.

And later:

Her bedroom eyes, they start to twitch

But she won’t front cause she’s got that itch.

She’d drop to her knees, if we’d only say please.

It’s nothing that Kanye wouldn’t say these days, but difficult to contrast with who the Beastie Boys ultimately became. The video takes everything a step further. The three emcees crawl and grovel for a woman in a gold bikini, then after advice from Rick Rubin, they attempt to ply her with alcohol. Mike D, Ad-rock, and MCA look like kids in the video, because only one of them could legally drink. 

As the Beastie Boys incorporated into the Def Jam crew, they landed a spot opening for Madonna on her Like a Virgin Tour in 1985, with only a small handful of songs in their repertoire. The kids didn’t get it, the parents really hated it, and the Beastie Boys developed their bratty stage personas via trial by fire on a nightly basis.

The following year, the Beastie Boys’ debut album Licensed to Ill took every single characteristic from “She’s On It” and refined them further. The beats are louder, the storytelling is crisper, the voices are more confident and assured, and the guitars provide a hair metal sensibility. A white version of Run-DMC, two-timing as Motley Crue.

The production on Licensed to Ill wasn’t as predictable and formulaic as “Rock Hard,” either.

“Rhymin’ and Stealin’” kicks off the album with the drumbeat from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” smashing into the opening riff from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf.” The Beasties bum rush the show, claiming the world is their oyster, and they are pirates taking no prisoners. Sex, beer, four-letter words — every red-blooded American teenager was ready to cop this attitude. The Beastie Boys hit the road with go-go girls dancing in cages and a hydraulic penis onstage. They rode the wave of fame until the wave rode them, and they became caricatures of what they once parodied. 

The legends of the Licensed to Ill tour know no limits, and brought every fantasized scenario of the record to life. Girls were doused in beer, then passed around. Holes were drilled through hotel floors, leading to a lifetime ban from Holiday Inns. Ad-rock was arrested for allegedly hitting a fan with a beer can in Europe. The band was nearly killed in the deep south after dropping an “N-bomb” on stage. Even Mike D was almost kicked out of the band for not being cool enough.

By the end of 1987, the Beastie Boys were set to drown in all the beer they had spilled throughout the year. They were sick of each other, the songs, and the method acting. The tour came to a close and Def Jam Records wanted Licensed to Ill Part 2, and the Beastie Boys wanted to get paid for the millions of records they had sold. 

Neither side budged.

Beastie Down, Part 5: Dear New York…

Hey! Wait? Did you read Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4? Ok then…

After the Rhyme and Reason tour with Rage Against the Machine was cancelled in the summer of 2000, the Beastie Boys went into hibernation from the public eye. The calendar turned to 2001, and Ad-rock released another record with Eric “AWOL” Amery under their side project, BS2000 (the final release from Grand Royal Records before it closed up shop). 

Then, the unthinkable, the unimaginable. Until it happened. 

The Beastie Boys’ home turf of Manhattan was attacked on September 11, 2001. The twin towers came down, and no one knew what to think, what to feel. A long list of perennial radio hits were declared unfit to air in the wake of the tragedy; “Sabotage” not excluded. I have memories of MCA Adam Yauch appearing on MTV — dour, dire, searching for words of hope for the future to a studio audience. The next couple of years seem like a blur, maybe I prefer them that way. The US went to war in Afghanistan, and instead of America coming together in the wake of a tragedy, we were split apart by fear, propaganda, and warmongering. Meanwhile, the Beastie Boys were for all intents and purposes inactive. They had aged into respected voices, yet absent, and needed more than ever.

The Beastie Boys emerged from a hiatus in March of 2003, releasing the track “In a World Gone Mad” on their website, right as the United States was about to attack Iraq. I could only listen to it once before wanting to forget it. The Beastie Boys were mad, fed up, and I guess, unwilling to sit back any longer without protesting. Like Phil Connors told the groundhog, “Don’t drive angry.” No other track in the Beastie Boys’ pantheon is as forced, wack, or forgettable. It’s a rare blemish in their three-decade playlist, but it does remain a moment of defiance when many other prominent voices remained silent.

Either way, “In a World Gone Mad” remains a political version of “Alive.” At least there wasn’t a video.

Just over one year later, the Beastie Boys officially returned from exile with a lead single, “Ch-Check It Out,” an augury of their sixth album, To the 5 Boroughs, to be released in the summer of 2004. Six years removed from Hello Nasty, the record lies far outside the heights of Beastie Mania, and functions as a snapshot of the latter-day Beasties who were about to enter their forties. With six years between albums, there was no excuse to not release a record on their own terms. For the first time since Paul’s Boutique, they fully invested in hip hop. No funky jazz cuts, no Biz Markie goofing off, no hardcore thrash. 

Just Mike D, Ad-rock, and MCA trading rhymes over beats, once again.

To the 5 Boroughs isn’t a bad album. It’s mostly laid back fun, but hardly as intriguing as anything that came before in the prior five records. There is no huge radio hit here, no wanderlust, no epic music video that reincarnated them before the eyes of the audience. For the first time in fifteen years, the three emcees had to fill an entire album with non-stop knowledge. “Triple Trouble” was the second single off the album, riding on the strength of a chopped up sample from the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” and the turntable chops of Mix Master Mike. Elsewhere, the rhymes are mostly overtly political or silly. The chorus hooks are merely passable. The beats are entirely underwhelming. Throughout the first five Beastie records, I commonly ask myself, “How the hell did they come up with this stuff?” and that question rarely poses itself at any point during To the 5 Boroughs. 

At the very worst, they sound like three guys trying to be the Beastie Boys. At the very best is “An Open Letter to NYC.”

This centerpiece of the record exposes most of the other songs for what they are: harmless, hammy fun. It is here the Beasties open their veins and release the trauma, the hope, and the defiance of New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11. Musically, lyrically, emotionally – nothing else on the record compares to it. “An Open Letter” champions the same spirit that instilled itself in the Beasties as they turned from boys into men, and filled their music with the versatility that could only be found throughout the city blocks of New York.

Personally, selfishly, I was just glad to have the Beasties back in 2004. Their presence on late-night television and magazine covers was a thrill after a long, uncertain break. And they were touring again. My six-year dream came true when I caught the Beastie Boys (with Mix Master Mike!) live in the fall of 2004. I couldn’t convince any of my friends to make the three-hour road trip with me, and I didn’t care. I got to the arena at noon and basically rushed the doors when they opened. Talib Kweli and a dog show functioned as the opening acts, and there was zero tolerance for moshing. I was right on the rail all night, watching the Beastie Boys live and in-person from six feet away. If I wasn’t rapping along with them, my mouth was agape, or smiling with pure, dumbfounded amazement. They were intent on putting on a show — there were costume changes, baby-blue tuxedos for the jazzy tunes, and a little side stage in the middle of the crowd where they performed a fiery take of “Intergalactic.” Mix Master let the beat of “Paul Revere” play while the crowd rapped the lyrics in unison, while the boys jumped around, chiming in at opportune moments. They closed the show with “Sabotage,” in full costume from Spike Jonze’s video, sending everyone home happy.

It had taken six years for me to see them, and I knew it was entirely possible I wouldn’t see them again for years to come. I never took one second of it for granted.

The Beastie Boys returned in 2004 with something that most people likely wanted from them — a straight up hip hop joint — but time had not made the hearts of fans grow fonder. Those six years between records instilled a separation from their audience, and for the first time in a long time, the masses didn’t hoist the Beastie Boys upon their shoulders and carry them around the field. They were still Mike D, Ad-rock, and MCA, but they had not done anything with To the 5 Boroughs they hadn’t done before.

Still, I can’t call To the 5 Boroughs a failure. Perhaps it’s most significant shortcoming is it does not bring the impassioned reactions from myself, or anyone else for that matter, that came with every preceding Beastie album. Fans don’t hate on it, they don’t seem to love it. I’ve never heard much of a sniffle about it. Regardless, I consider it a vital snapshot of the band at a strange, mournful time where they may not have known what else to do other than vent their feelings en masse. I’ll gladly take this album in place of nothing.

For any lack of innovation on that record’s part, Adam Yauch donned his alias of Nathaniel Hornblower to direct a concert film, Awesome! I Fucking Shot That… enlisting dozens of audience members to film an October 2004 gig at Madison Square Garden with handheld Super 8 video cameras. Yauch’s film does more than capture the band’s live experience, he puts the viewer in the crowd’s shoes for almost two hours. Even in the toilet stalls.

2004 was a wonderful time for a hardcore Beastie Boys fan to reconnect with their favorite band, but it felt like no one else did. Mike D, Ad-rock, and MCA promptly receded from the stage, and wouldn’t return with another album for three more years.

Beastie Down, Part 4: The Sounds of Science

Four and three and two and one….

It was easy, exciting to be a Beastie Boys fan in the wake of Hello Nasty. The B-boys were popping up everywhere, making animated cameos in the primetime cartoon Futurama, debuting a batshit crazy video for “Body Movin’” on MTV’s Total Request Live, and performing “Radio, Radio” with Elvis Costello for Saturday Night Live’s 25th anniversary special. 

I came home one day after school and MTV was airing a Beastie Boys performance live from Glasgow, Scotland. I was hypnotized, green with envy of those Scots moshing and slamming with the Beasties on stage, live and in person. A couple of dreams were born that day. I had to see this band perform live. I also had to get a pair of my own turntables. Whatever Mix Master Mike was doing behind the decks – I wanted to do it! He was making 12” vinyl discs make sounds I’d never heard before. He was also rocking a party like I’d never seen. 

If I could do half of whatever Mix Master was doing, I figured I’d be pretty cool, too.

Later that year I got my first job, working in a mail room of a school supplies office with one of my friends everyday after school. I saved every penny I made. My eyes were on a DJ starter kit that came with two shitty Gemini turntables, a mixer, and an instructional VHS cassette. I had no fucking clue what I was doing. I was also way in over my head. I had no proper stereo receiver and was running my mixer through an auxiliary cord into a big screen TV. I didn’t burn down the house or blow up the TV, but I got inspired to start making some music of my own. The Beastie Boys were doing more than making great records to listen to, they were inspiring me to get out of my own insecurities, start believing in myself, and try something scary.

I also had a bullshit mic that was made out of plastic.

Before the millennium closed down, the Beastie Boys (or their label, Capitol Records) were intent on cementing the Beastie legacy, and announced the release of The Beastie Boys Anthology: The Sounds of Science. The two-disc set was to be packed with forty-two tracks, collecting their greatest hits, a few deep cuts, b-sides, select unreleased tracks, and [gasp] a new single, “Alive.” Plenty to be stoked about. 

Four years prior, the Beatles took the idea of an anthology mainstream with a multi-part prime time network special, accompanied by three separate volumes of demos and outtakes. The music provided an insight into how the band and their songs evolved from ideas and into final products. Not just over the span of years, but in the span of a song. The collection was loose, raw, unrefined. It put their entire previous output in another context. I remember waiting in line at a record store for the clock to hit midnight so I could be one of the first people to buy the Beastie anthology.

Somehow, someway, my unhinged fandom wasn’t inflated by the release.

I put on disc one as I drove home that night. I had already heard the greatest hits a million times. I knew the deep cuts inside and out. The handful of unreleased tracks were mostly inside jokes.  And then there’s “Alive.” 

The B-boys had forged their names on unabashed declarations. They had demanded their generation fight for their right to party, drink tons of brass monkey, and weren’t afraid to apologize on record for all the meathead behavior in hindsight. They turned from punks to pimps to skaters to monks before our eyes — never dropping their conviction that they were in fact the coolest three emcees to walk the earth. But this anthology feels like Mike and Adam and Adam taking their foot off the pedal, doing something that wasn’t 100% Beastie down.

The shortcomings of “Alive” sum up most of what is wrong with the anthology. The boys don’t feel fierce, the rhymes feel predictable. The beats don’t hit hard. Let’s forget about the vision of them each wearing a primary color, riding vespas, and wearing furry sherpa hoods in the video. The Beastie Boys had never tried to be cool before, they just were cool. Nothing felt cool about “Alive.” At the towering height of my Beastie fandom, I was never compelled to listen to the song on repeat, let alone the anthology.

The rest of the compilation feels as forced as “Alive.” All the album tracks I’d heard before felt out of place. “Sabotage” will never feel right without leading into the grunts and groans of Q-Tip on “Get it Together.” I was happy a couple of b-sides like “Boomin’ Granny” and “Skills to Pay the Bills” got some exposure to more casual fans – but for the devoted disciple like myself, there was little else to dig into. Aside from “Alive,” the most enticing offerings were the unreleased recordings, which, save for a couple songs, were hardly more than fluff. One solace was a booklet offering unseen photos and stories behind each song, straight from the band. 

I still don’t know what to make of the most audacious inclusions on the anthology — two tracks from the Beastie Boys’ shelved album, Country Mike’s Greatest Hits. Somewhere in the downtime between Ill Communication and Hello Nasty, Mike D fronted a country album recorded by the band, who enlisted the great Bucky Baxter on pedal steel guitar. Beastie lore indicates that a few copies were pressed for friends of the band, before it was widely bootlegged on vinyl. The pocket is tight on these songs, but Mike D sounds like a wounded bird crowing the frontier blues. Country Mike’s first and only album is funny, befuddling, and could have only come from a band that has no problem laughing at themselves.


Listening to the anthology now, almost twenty years later, it remains a missed opportunity to my ears. The compilation displays the wide swath of styles the Beastie Boys have approached over time, instead of how all of their singular ideas germinated. False takes, alternate recordings, and live cuts would have explored the true growth of the band instead of standing as a Spark Notes of all things Beastie. For all of my quibbles, The Sounds of Science stands as a feasible representation of the band for fans that aren’t going to dive to the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker for b-boy minutiae.

Looking at the cover of The Beastie Boys Anthology, Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA are dressed up as old men, as seen in the “Ricky’s Theme” video. The three were still firmly in their thirties, but perhaps comfortable with their place in the musical world for the first time. They had nothing left to prove, and I’m guessing didn’t feel the need to ever reinvent themselves again. Was this picture, this vision of them as spry elders a statement? Were they content to ride off into the sunset from here? Either way, they no longer needed validation, and never set about seizing it again. The Beastie Boys were going to be adored by their generation forevermore. Why fuck with that? (And why record and release “Alive”?)

The new millennium hit a month later and the world didn’t end. It would be too early to expect a new Beastie Boys album, but they announced a co-headlining tour with Rage Against the Machine. Rage and the Beastie Boys were the only two mainstream bands to respectably meld rock n’ roll with rap in the late-nineties. Yeah, Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit and others were doing it, but that “goatee metal rap” (as Ad-rock deemed it in “Alive”) was a passing phase. Rage was three albums deep into an enigmatic existence of their own and would pair perfectly with the Beasties every night. Two bands that nearly everyone respected. Can’t miss.

The good news: I could drive to the show with a number of my friends. I bought tickets, and days before the tour started, the bad news: Mike D broke his arm in a bicycle crash. Then, Rage Against the Machine broke up. The tour never happened, and the Beastie Boys wouldn’t embark on another tour or release another album for nearly four years.

A dark age began.

The saga continues in Part 5.

A Star is Born

For the past ten years, Lady Gaga has been hellbent on proving that she is not the entertainer you think she is. Love or hate Gaga — her appearance, her music, and her personality has been impossible to pin down. Even her collaborators have run the gamut from R. Kelly to Tony Bennett. Now, she’s set to conquer another medium with another partner in crime, Bradley Cooper.

Cooper has arguably spent more time genre-jumping than Gaga since he emerged from Hollywood oblivion in 2005 as the alwayson yuppie, Sack Lodge, in Wedding Crashers. Cooper later broke into mainstream stardom with The Hangover trilogy and then parlayed that comedic notoriety into Best Actor Oscar nominations for his roles in American Sniper and Silver Linings Playbook. Cooper has little left to prove as a Hollywood leading man, yet seems intent on piecing together a career arc that could one day match the virtuosity of Tom Hanks.

Earlier this year, Cooper reprised his role as Rocket Raccoon for the third time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, Cooper is merely providing the voice-over for a cute CGI comic book character, but Cooper is so good at inhabiting this personality that it takes me out of the moment trying to reconcile the voice to his now very-familiar face. A similar feeling took over when I first saw the trailer for Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star is Born.

I was enthralled by the camera angles and the curated snippets of the film, and again, my brain struggled to make connections: “Wait, that’s Bradley Cooper in the lead? And he directed this? Is that really him singing and playing guitar? Wait, is that Lady Gaga?” The trailer advertised a powerhouse movie of romance, tragedy, music, and schmaltzy charm. Cooper’s film ultimately delivers on every point.

Cooper crafts two very separate worlds in the opening moments of A Star is Born, then slams them together and lets the dust settle throughout the film. Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a barrel-aged, road-tested blues rocker that has Coachella crowds eating out of his hand. Jackson’s world is a bubble of privilege and vice, only to be pierced by Ally, played by Lady Gaga. Ally lives with her dad, works at a restaurant, and performs at a drag bar while she fine-tunes her musical chops. Jackson enters the bar, mid-bender, and falls head over heels for her. By the end of the night, the two are sitting in a convenience store parking lot singing to each other. Sharing a love of song craft, possessing what the other doesn’t. He makes a living off his music, and she holds a grounded, sober view of the world at large. 

Together and separately, Cooper and Gaga weave steady doses of Americana and modern pop  throughout the drama, offering three-minute ditties that can please both snooty hipsters, die-hard fans of The Voice, and everyone in between. The accompanying soundtrack is as undeniable as the film, expounding Gaga’s dependable sensibilities across folk and bubblegum pop, and highlighting Cooper’s musical talents that materialized out of nowhere as he developed the role and his film. Acting is pretending, but with a guitar in hand and crooning into a microphone, Cooper has never felt so natural on the screen.

Cooper’s trademark suave demeanor is buried under a cowboy hat, long hair and a beard, a gravely voice, and weary eyes, while Gaga is a stranger without a traveling circus around her. By unplugging and stripping down, Gaga has never been more relatable as an artist who is insecure about her appearance, her musical abilities, and how they could ever fit into the big, bad music industry. For all of Ally’s doubts, Jackson has her by both hands, pulling her into the spotlight. The buzz of love throttles the first half of the film — Jackson is smitten with something besides booze, and Ally comes into her own. Soon enough, Ally has a major label contract, a hot shot agent, and a musical guest spot on Saturday Night Live.

Jealousy and success are at odds with the heat of passion in the back half of the film. When all else fails, Jackson and Ally hatch a shotgun wedding to claim each other from the rest of the world, only complicating their relationship further. When all of the glitz, glamour, and indulgence is stripped away, A Star is Born is the true test of any and every romance: a wrenching account of what love can survive, and what it can’t. 

Sam Elliott co-stars as Jackson’s road manager and brother, exposing the shortcomings of Cooper’s character and his inability to maintain healthy relationships. Jackson throws money at every problem, then tries to drink his denial away. Meanwhile, Ally sticks to her guns — keeping her father close, hiring all the right people, and refusing to give up on Jackson when everything and everyone tells her she definitely should.

Gaga is a consummate performer from beginning to end, but most endearing before her character seizes fortune and glory. Once Ally is at the top of the world, it feels a little too natural, a little too obvious. To see Gaga successfully portray humility and earnestness early on is to believe she can just about do anything. Cooper’s versatility speaks as many volumes, and the actor transcends his own being into another once more – embodying the talent, addiction, and presence of so many doomed rock stars that have preceded. The darkest of moments dosed with black humor and a shrug. In the skin of Jackson Maine, Cooper reminds us exactly why we put up with icons who are as entertaining as they are obtuse.

By the end of the film, Cooper and Gaga construct outsized personalities for their characters that are entirely secluded by the fruits of their labor. The viewer can only relate to both because Cooper’s direction never strays from these two converging yet separating paths. Aside from a premier cinematic experience, A Star is Born leaves viewers with existential dilemmas to address. How does success, passion, and vice effect us as individuals, and in loving relationships? Where do we draw the line with others and ourselves? When do we say enough? 

A Star is Born is Bradley Cooper’s first magnum opus — a big rock n’ roll gig drawing out every emotion possible from the audience. In the carefully placed moments of silence, Cooper invites us to stare into a mirror with Jackson and Ally as they question where true happiness, true contentedness can be found.