First thing’s first in looking at the Beastie Boys’ second album, Paul’s Boutique: If ten people tell you they loved the album when it first came out or even the first time they heard it, nine of them are flat out lying. The tenth? Crapshoot. Paul’s Boutique was not a commercial success in any sense when it first came out, and was generally seen as the band ending not with a bang, but with a whimper. I myself (terrible confession ahead) didn’t like it, and it was my college dorm-mates at the time who got me to give it more than a one-time “where’s the funny punk-rap stuff?” listen. It just never occurred to me – like most people – that there was going to be anything to look for. It’d be like realizing a Dan Brown novel had an undercurrent metaphor for the delicacy of human relationships…it’s just not something you’d look for. And I didn’t. This is a dark confession because I was the hipster college-radio guy, and my roommates had – to put it simply – awful taste in music. Awful. One of them was moved to tears by Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun.” A huge point of pride was that they were totally at the concert where Bon Jovi filmed their “Lay Your Hands On Me” video and if you pause it at the right point you can kind of see them! Way! But they’re the one’s who said, “Hm, this album is really complicated. Everyone hates it because it’s not what they wanted, but it’s real hip-hop and it’s really well written.” I probably said something non-committal and mentally rolled my eyes… then listened to it again.
It’s practically impossible to look at the album purely on its own merits – watch, I’m not going to be able to do it! The mythos surrounding the album (not including the silly rumor that Mike Diamond had been murdered, or OD’d – referred to in the line “I’m Mike D and I’m back from the dead/chillin’ on the beach, down at Club Med”) plays its own role, but it’s easy to confuse the two. And the fact is that it is a very, very good album, an impressive achievement, beautifully written; but it is not a landmark in rock ‘n roll in its time and place of release; it’s, arguably, not even the band’s best album. But it’s quite likely the most important.
And this is how – finally – it connects to this concept of the band chronicling our collective growing up.
This second album is particularly daring because the obvious thing to do would have been to follow-up their commercial success with an imitation. One can only imagine the immense pressure from the record label to record another “Fight For Your Right (To Party).” But they didn’t do what we wanted – they did what they wanted. They, essentially, left home and started on their own path.
The recording of Paul’s Boutique is an assertion of adulthood in the most Emersonian sense (aaaaand here comes the myth-making hyperbole). If a child is one who defines himself by the rules and decisions of others, this album is their bold step into adulthood, even in the face of widespread dismay.
While the sampling on the first album betrayed a certain youthful ignorance, this is a group of people who clearly went out of their way to educate themselves. The samplings they use on this album are frequently so natural that they seem written for the album itself. They’re more sophisticated both in terms of using the beats and segments in new combinations and contexts, as well as the basic sophistication of the music they were choosing from. The first song of the first album began with “When the Levee Breaks” and “Sweet Leaf.” Here, the album begins with a quiet mumble, using a keyboard sample from “Loran Dance” by Idris Muhammad (hm, that’s a skosh more obscure), then launches into the intricately layered “Shake Your Rump” which uses – among many, many others – the drum beat from Harvey Scales’ 1977 “Dancing Room Only”, Alphonse Mouzon’s “Funky Snakefoot” several from The Sugarhill Gang, and even a couple form Afrika Bambaataa & The Jazzy 5.
These are people who decided to get to know their medium. These were boys becoming artists. Fast.
And this is where the album-proper and the myth become hopelessly intertwined – this album is everything we’d like to think we do as we set out on our own adult lives. To fearlessly and adamantly declare ourselves by our own standards. To recognize our path and throw off the expectations and idiocies of youth and embrace the people we want to be. There isn’t a single power-chord or shriek on the album. The misogyny is all but gone. Even the one single the label tried (and failed) to push as a hit, “Hey Ladies,” is misleading. A very good song, but most likely tagged as a single not because it’s hooky (though it is), but because it’s about girls! Yeah! Those crazy, naughty boys and the girls! But, of course, the title, and the chorus refer to Jerry Lewis’ catch-phrases. The song opens with “Hey ladies in the place I’m callin’ out to ya’/ There never was a city kid truer and bluer / There’s more to me than you’ll ever know / And I’ve got more hits than Sadaharu Oh.” Truer and bluer? More to me than you’ll ever know? Lines like “Your body’s on time and your mind’s appealing”? Where’s the overtly sexist objectification? Oh, Beastie Boys, we hardly knew ye!
The lyrics, while at times still simplistic, start making more focused references – more apt in terms of content, not just because they rhyme. (Did you get the “Sadaharu Oh” reference? Because I sure didn’t. He’s the all time home-run hitting champion, having even more than Hank Aaron. See? He has a lot of “hits”).
This assertion of independence is probably best captured by the final track on the album – the 12.5-minute long (!!!) “B-Boys Bouillabaisse.” Several tracks woven together, defiantly un-commercial, but utterly intricate and fascinating to listen to. The opening portion – “59 Chrystie St.” is a reference to the location they went to work on the album, in a conscious move toward independence. The pieces form a musical tableau that’s not always successful musically, but universally ambitious and within it are the standards they seem to set for themselves creatively.
The final portion of the track, “AWOL”, sums it all up. A short section, they b-boys call out to themselves, to the people who worked on the album, “What you gonna do?” and every time the call back is “Go AWOL!”
They’re going where they want to go, not where we want them to go. And we all resented it at the time, but that can’t stop someone from going. Maybe it succeeds, maybe it fails.
Next Time: Early Adulthood – Check Your Head