Existential Stuff

How did this column get its name, and what does THAT have to do with the Invention of The Beastie Boys?

June 27, 2014

Now, there is a reason these piles of sad, frightened, adamant, arrogant, deeply opinionated and frequently dilettante-ish words are called NOISE, THE COLUMN.

When I was merely 19/20, a wee pup of staggering pretension, I hosted a somewhat notorious radio show called Noise, The Show.  My kind peers at WNYU provided me with thirty minutes a week to play classic punk, hardcore, and noise music.  I played lot of demos – local and otherwise – on that show, too, and was very engaged in the local New York City punk scene, and that’s kind of what today’s story is about.

People seemed to really like Noise, The Show, which was on the air for exactly a year – 52 episodes, to be exact.  Maybe 53.  Maybe 51.  Does it matter?  No, it doesn’t.  It was quite popular during its brief but exceedingly loud and volatile run, and 33 years later – 33 YEARS the lifespan of JESUS, for the LOVE OF THE SIX-ARMED MAHAKALA, who wears a crown of five skulls and is the “fierce” side of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion (much in the same way that Roger Waters represents the angry, vengeful side of compassionate Dave Gilmour, the Bodhisattva of the gently persuasive arpeggiated guitar) – people still seem to recall Noise, The Show quite goddamn fondly.   You can find scraps of it on YouTube, on sundry download sites, and there’s even a facebook group or two commemorating it.  What can I say?  People like punk rock, and it was a bit more of an exclusive club in 1981/82, and the tribes needed someone/something to gather around.

The following happened during the salad days of Noise, The Show. I was 19 ½.  When you’re that young, half-years matter.

In the Autumn of 1981, Two high school students, both barely 17, had requested a meeting with me, and now these two wiry young men, both with hair shorn to the closeness of suede, sat on a low bed in my NYU dorm room (the legendary Weinstein dorm, a locale sure to crop up again in my tales), looking up at me with expectation of the wisdom of experience I would most surely dispense.

The difference between 19 and 17 is enormous (or 19 ½, as the case may be). Do you recall?  And not just that, we’re talking almost 20 and barely 17.

They had found me through my radio show.  As explained, I frequently went out of my way to play, book, promote, and assist local bands.  It was not at all uncommon for young bands to seek me out for advice, or to needle me for a favor.

For a few weeks prior to this meeting, someone had been calling the studio during my show shrieking a request.  That wasn’t unusual; I would normally get fifty or more phone requests per half-hour.  What was unusual about this request is that none of us in the studio – not me, not my engineer, not anyone else hanging around the little WNYU radio studio on the 9th Floor of an utterly pedestrian bird-shit colored building on LaGuardia Place — had heard of the band.  But these calls kept coming, no matter how many times we countered that the band being requested apparently didn’t exist.

There was something else different about these calls, too.  Whoever was yelping and screeching on the other end of the line was funny. Not hostile, or pleading, or supplicating, as song requesters usually were, but genuinely funny.

I was usually too busy spinning records to actually speak to the people who called in, but something about this felt different, so after my show one evening, I called one of the these persistent mystery callers back (I gathered there were two of them who had been making the calls).

When I reached them, I quickly got them to admit that there really was no such band as The Beastie Boys (for that was the name of the band the callers kept on adamantly requesting). The band was, shall we say, in development.  But whoever these kids were, they had a relentless charm, some kind of underlying sweetness, and it made me want to meet them and offer whatever wisdom an almost 20-year old college DJ who was spectacularly full of himself could offer.

(Now seems a good time to mention that Mahakala is also usually portrayed holding a cup made out of a skull, out of which he is drinking blood drawn from the hearts of his vanquished foes.  But this was far, far from my mind when my 19 ½ year-old self spoke on the phone to these so-called Beastie Boys, who were imploring me to give them some drops of advice.)

So I summoned Adam Yauch and Michael Diamond to my dorm room.

I explained that there was one absolutely sure-fire way for a band that was almost­ a real band but not quite a real band to actually become a real band:  Book a gig.  Even if you’re not ready, even if you don’t think there’s any way you can be ready, if you actually book a show, you get yourself ready. So I volunteered to book them a gig.  If I did that, I rationalized firmly, they would actually have to get their act together.  Because, surely, once you saw your name in a newspaper ad, with a date and place attached to it, you then had to show up and play, or we would all look like asses. 

Michael and Adam nodded respectfully.

I picked up the phone.  There was a strange little place on 6th Avenue and 9th Street called The Playroom.  It wasn’t an A-list club, it was barely a B-list club, but they did punk rock shows, and I knew there was one coming up that I was promoting on the radio show.  So I easily talked the club into allowing a new band called the Beastie Boys to play third on a bill, opening for the far-more battle-tested Reagan Youth and the legendary Bad Brains.

There were two halves to the Weinstein Center for Student Living, on University Place between Waverly and 8th Street. My room was in the back half.   My 6th Floor window overlooked a courtyard, through which all manner of reasonably happy, reasonably horny, reasonably stoned, occasionally studious young scholars and lovers and drug addicts and music geeks passed, hurrying from class to room and room to cafeteria and cafeteria to date.  It was a perfectly normal late afternoon in New York City.  Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the Los Angeles Dodgers were about to beat the Yankees in the World Series; MTV had been on the air for three months, and far away in Sweden, just two weeks earlier, the first public cellular phone network had gone into service.  If anyone had told me that with this little meeting in my little dorm room, a tiny cog in the great timepiece of music history had just turned in a significant way, I would have said you were high, then I would have asked you where I could get whatever it was you had smoked/sniffed/swallowed.

Slightly to my surprise, the band got their shit together and showed up to play the show I booked for them at the Playroom.  They climbed on stage, and Michael Diamond stepped to the microphone.  “This is for Timmy Sommer,” Michael snapped, in that weird yapping voice he used on stage, “who doesn’t believe we exist.”  These were the first words the Beastie Boys ever said on stage.

Did I mention that the President of Weinstein Dorm was a gawky lefty named Warren Wilhelm, who later changed his name to Bill DeBlasio?  I think I was too distracted by all that Mahakala stuff to bother with that info.  Oh well out of space.


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  • http://www.remissionimpossible.com harry

    Fantastic story. I will always respect the beasties for never forgetting their roots, no matter how big they got or how far in the past their “punk days” became. That show must’ve been awesome. Reagan youth are one of my favorites (and a favorite of the beasties) and don’t really get the attention they deserve.