To the 5 Boroughs: A New York City Beastie Boys Tour
By Trevor Brightman
Warming up inside the Times Square subway station, my nose runs and my adrenalin is up.
Once onboard, there’s a guy wearing a clown nose on the A train. His clothes are completely normal; his friends smile and shake their heads. His arrival through the double doors is combined with the repetitive piano of girls in my ear buds; I’m reminded of a circus.
It is late fall in the city, most people are wearing black jackets. Some have a pair of thin white wires running to their ears like me, some have their eyes closed. But for me, there’s no sleep ‘till Brooklyn. Upon arrival at Jay Station. I follow the crowd up the stairs, and orient myself on the sidewalk. There’s a certain castle in Brooklyn, that’s where I’ll dwell.
The interior of the castle is lined with white and blue tiles. It’s dirty. At first there is a miscommunication between the woman behind the register and myself. I order two white castles, but she hears ten. I settle on a medium coke, but White Castle fries only come in one size.
License to Ill was the first Beastie Boys CD I owned. Actually I think I had it on tape. I can remember listening to it ad nausea during a field trip bus ride to Old Sturbridge Village in middle school, spending the day quoting from She’s Crafty and Brass Monkey. The album’s cover art pretty much sums up the message of their 1986 debut album – the tail end of a jet displays the ID tag: 3M TA3. Look at it backwards.
The standout song from their first studio album is the timeless teen anthem Fight For Your Right (To Party). The unmistakable guitar, Run-DMC style rhyme delivery, and MTV smash (literally) hit video launched the trio’s 30-year mainstream career.
Beastie Boys Album
Laced throughout the album are lyrics which can only be described as juvenile. Most of the album is devoted to praising a no-holds-bared party lifestyle of drinking, girls and guns. Breaking into lockers to smash eyeglasses, drinking Old English, skateboarding, getting high and getting girls drunk. Three teenagers from New York appealing to teenagers everywhere.
I’ve come to here to experience New York City with the Beastie’s albums loaded on my iPod; to experience the city through their music; and write about it. Based on their first album’s lyrical devotion to the borough of Brooklyn, the seven references to the fast-food chain White Castle, I’ve decided to make this my starting point.
“Could you buy me somethin’ ta eat?”
White Castle fare
“Could you. Buy me. Somethin’ ta eat?”
“ I’m sorry… not today,” I reply instinctively, immediately regretting it.
The brief exchange is sobering. It makes me question this whole endeavor. I think about the money I spent on drinks last night, and why I react so negatively, suddenly, automatically to her request. As I ponder, she wonders around, collects bills and change, and orders lunch. And in comes a guy asking for a dollar.
Using some hand sanitizer before his eating his meal, a well dressed older man at the next table turns to me and asks, “Would you like some direction?” Puzzled but curious, I accept, and he hands me a small religious paper booklet entitled “Will This World Survive?” We make small talk. He looks at the man collecting change, says, “They don’t ask for a nickel no more.”
Back on the pavement, I ask a stranger if I’m going towards the Brooklyn Bridge. He says he hopes so, because he’s looking for it too. The crosswalk changes and we walk together.
Walking around NYC
His name is Søren, and today the last day of his two month “touristing” trip, which has taken him around the world. We walk the bridge together; talk travel, sports, and architecture. We take pictures and dodge cyclists. Downtown at City Hall I explain why he should hate the Yankees, as city workers on cherry pickers pull toilet paper off the trees from yesterday’s World Series championship celebration. We split, I plug my headphones back in, and dive into the sampling smorgasbord of Paul’s Boutique.
The Brooklyn Bridge in New York City
As I walk past the Supreme Court, I take note of a van with a Secure USA Counter Terrorism Perimeter Protection decal, its crew working on a security barricade. Suddenly the chorus of Egg Man, with the shriek from Hitchcock’s Psycho and piano of Spielberg’s Jaws don’t sound so scary. Five blocks from Ground Zero, I notice how the kids skateboarding in Foley Square aren’t a big concern for the authorities these days.
Continuing north, I enter the motion chaos of Canal Street, the shops, the crowds, and the red, white and green of Little Italy. The energy of this place matches the tempo of the last 90 seconds of The Sounds of Science.
I continue uptown on Bowery, surveying wall graffiti and used appliances being hosed down in front of restaurant supply stores. Off Houston Street I turn right at Katz Deli, and I find my second waypoint: the corner of Ludlow and Rivington. Today, the corner is home to wraps, not raps. The Three Monkeys Restaurant occupies the space.
Twenty years ago panoramic photos of this corner became the album art of Paul’s Boutique. Their sophomore record, while musically miles beyond their first album, wasn’t much of a commercial or critical success upon release. But in the years that have followed, an appreciation for its innovative use of samples and beats (many courtesy of the Dust Brothers) has grown strong.
The song Shadrach, in which the Boys assume the roles of the biblical heroes from The Book of Daniel’s fiery furnace, best exemplifies the album’s high-energy, witty verses, and sample-driven beats. Cultural references, contemporary and old, delivered with on-point timing and spirit, here the trio are wise indeed.
The Three Monkeys Bar & Restaurant in Manhattan
Three Wise Monkeys
The three wise monkey’s proverb is more subtly depicted in another chapter of the group’s history. The cover of Check Your Head is a clever interpretation on the classic See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil image.
Gearing up to leave the Bargain District, I snap a photo of the brick building on the corner, start their third album, strap on my ear goggles and I’m ready to go. A few blocks later, and I need a bathroom break, and hop into the Bowery Whole Foods. It feels like walking into a scene of Sylvester Stallone’s futuristic action film Demolition Man. It’s huge, clean, vibrant, and full of energy, people and food. I could see myself committing an entire day to exploring this ode to culinary consumerism, but that’s an adventure for another day.
Clean, pure, fresh. Words that could also describe Check Your Head, the group’s 1992 studio release. Polished, musically advanced, here the group plays their own instruments on several songs. The album alternates between instrumentals and quick-witted rap/rock hits like So What’cha Want. Closing the album is the mellowed out Namaste, four minutes more likely to inspire the listener to light a prayer candle and meditate than light a joint and party.
Back on the sidewalk under what has become a late-afternoon cotton candy sky, East Houston becomes West Houston. I can hear Church bells ringing over the instrumental Groove Homes, its 5pm. The air is cooling down, my feet are getting tired. I wonder around, feel lost around the Avenue of the Americas.
I ask an art dealer in front of his shop for help and he directs me towards Sullivan Street, where listening to Namaste I find my next spot. I enter a small Tibetan store and, after an awkward pause, the old lady sewing near the front and I start chatting.
Subway Station in Brooklyn
She’s petite and sitting, I’m tall and standing. Also awkward. She tells me about growing up in Tibet, the Chinese occupation of ‘59, how it’s best to visit in the spring or summer. You won’t see the real Tibet any time of the year, she amends, Chinese are always spying. She tells me about refugees in India, the Dalai Lama. She plays a singing bowl for me. It oms. She encourages me to raise my hands and feel as the bowl’s seven metals vibrate, sending waves of air like a sub woofer.
Continuing into the Village
1994’s Ill Communication offers tracks to inspire a party and others to inspire enlightenment. The album’s penultimate track Bodhisattva Vow, accompanied by the echoing chants of Tibetan monks, sounds less like a rap track and more like a manifesto for peace, love and harmony.
“With the interconnectedness that we share as one, every action that we take affects everyone.” Certainly a far cry from the “Eat Me” attitude of Licensed to Ill. Around this time the Beasties took it upon themselves to use their fame to aid in Tibet liberation, going as far as to found the Tibetan Freedom Concert series. By doing so they raised millions of dollars and created awareness both domestically and abroad.
The album’s message isn’t all flower-power and hand-holding however. In the Sabotage music video, aviator and mustache donned detectives running amok. Despite the video’s popularity and a nomination, director Spike Jones wasn’t awarded the MTV music video award for best direction. In a precursor to Kanye West’s 2009 tirade, MCA proceeded to storm the stage during REM’s acceptance speech to protest. Unlike Kanye however, MCA yodeled his contempt as his lederhosen-wearing alter ego Nathanial Hörnblowér. All grown up? Not quite yet.
I continue west through a very gay-friendly neighborhood and find the Grey Dog Café in the village. I grab a Belgian Oktoberfest, take some notes and rest my feet. Inside are lots of young people, meeting, chatting, eating, drinking. The tunes in my ear buds are being drowned out by side conversations as my cousin Scott and his partner Peter join me for dinner and drinks. We talk about family photos, technology, religion, the city, travel. A few laughs, some turkey chili and a few bottles of beer later we say our goodbyes and I’m back on the street.
High Line Park in New York City
Night Fall in NYC
With a little buzz from the beer I pass below the buzz of neon lights to the smooth flow of Ricky’s Theme. It’s quieter on the sidewalks now, and I’m thinking about how sometimes serendipity just works.
I realize I can tie together dinner with my gay friends to the group’s musical evolution. License to Ill was rumored to have the rejected working title of Don’t Be a Faggot. The group’s attitude progressed quite a bit since then, illustrated by their letter of apology for past homophobic lyrics published in ‘Time Out New York’ in the late nineties.
It is dark now, and if I learned anything from Home Alone 2, it’s not to go into the park alone at night… especially without fireworks. But it appears well lit, so I make my way up the stairs at Washington and Gansevoort to the sound of a very un-serendipitous Sabotage.
Atop the next destination it is breezy, calm, and beautiful. The cold river is on my left, the city on my right, tall grass below and even taller buildings above. The instrumental Futterman’s Rule starts playing – that’s more like it.
I walk slowly along High Line Park, an elevated rail line near Chelsea once used for freight transport, then abandoned, only to be revived as a new walking park. New vegetation grows between new concrete slabs shaped as long narrow lines punctuated with gaps. They look like piano keys. It’s futuristic, neat, new. It’s like walking atop a massive Chia Pet.
Brass Money Bar located in The Meat Packing District in NYC
Chelsea Market & The Meat Packing District
Back on street level, I realize I’m low on time. I skip to 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs as I head south past a closed Chelsea Market. Serendipity strikes again I’m an iron chef when I slice and dice from the second track as I pass Morimoto’s restaurant. The music has a New York energy. Urban, fast, dynamic, eclectic, with a post-9/11 tone.
Political, patriotic, emphasizing international peace, but encouraging rap battles on stage, boasting as champions. Open Letter to NYC, an attempt to bring solace and consolation, a celebration of everything that makes the delicious melting pot that is the five boroughs unique, strong and united, here the Beastie Boys are at their best.
My feet are tired, it is cold, but I’ve finally found it. After walking all day I find the last stop, the Brass Monkey Bar. My last stop shares the name of the first Beastie Boys song I ever knew.
Situated in the meat packing district, the bar is just coming to life for the night. Outside, packs of girls in short skirts must be colder than me. Inside the first thing I notice is the bass through the speakers. I try their signature beer, the Brass Monkey, dark but not too heavy, it’s refreshing.
I follow a narrow staircase to the roof-top bar, and I’m surprised to fine no one else there. After walking all day through this city of over eight million people, I wonder why no one else is up here on such a beautiful night. I also wonder where I can find a local hot sauce shop.
Trevor Brightman has been seeking since 1983. He travels, volunteers, hikes, cooks, writes, invents trivial games, and takes photos. He is making up for a childhood of naps with a few thousand little adventures.
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