Diamond and Horovitz chronicle the band’s colorful history with excitement, flair and, contrary to the band’s early braggadocio, a dash of modesty.
Spoiler alert: it’s a cookbook! Korean-American chef Roy Choi, who contributes a chapter of drool-worthy themed recipes, is just one of the voices that takes the mic in the sprawling doorstopper Beastie Boys Book. Giving plenty of props to fallen Beastie Adam Yauch, who succumbed to cancer in 2012, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz chronicle the band’s colorful history with excitement, flair and, contrary to the band’s early braggadocio, a dash of modesty. It’s a Bildungsroman by arty New York teens who satirized frat boy misogyny and became what they hated before they found enlightenment – and maybe lost a bit of their edge.
For most of its nearly 600 pages, the Beastie Boys Book narrative shifts with a genre-jumping energy typical of their best albums. Weighing in at nearly three and a half pounds, you might want to opt for the audiobook version. But you’d miss out on a book as well-designed as it is vividly written. That mini-cookbook is the most unexpected example; it comes late in the volume and marks an abrupt change from the heavy matte paper that makes up most of the book to a slick magazine stock.
Design-wise, that new-style Gutenbergian tip is like a third-act plot revelation that builds up throughout the book. Mike D and Ad-Rock trade off chapters along with guest writers like Amy Poehler and Wes Anderson. While Diamond and Horovitz’s chapters are in one font, each guest essayist gets their own font. It’s like a mix tape in movable type, and the inventive visual strategy sells the Beastie saga in a way that a conventional coffee table book could not.
Another thing that makes Beastie Boys Book more than just a pop music puff piece is its cultural history of a pivotal time in New York music. Friends since they were teens, Diamond and Horovitz came of age when hardcore punk was starting to bloom and giving rise to a DIY fever that led to their first record. Reminiscing about those frenetic times, the Beasties write with a sense of gratitude at their great luck to spend their adolescence in the midst of such a legendary creative playground that was about to transform into something completely different. Luc Sante, in his early chapter, captures the New York moment when hip-hop became the musical language of the streets.
Beastie Boys Book is the rare illustrated rock tome where you might skip past the photos to get to the text. There are plenty of dynamic images, lyric scraps and other reproduced ephemera, but the main event is the boys’ oral history. And the chapters really do feel like a conversation; if, say, Diamond takes issue with a detail in a Horovitz chapter, there’s a little commentary offset into the page with his take. Without getting heavy-handed about it, the Beasties also confront their own flaws; they candidly admit that, after they met Rick Rubin and moved from punk to hip-hop, they dissed original member Kate Schellenbach. Time healed any friction, and she contributes her own chapter.
For that matter, the surviving Beasties look back on Licensed to Ill with some embarrassment. The meathead lifestyle the album seemed to endorse did not reflect their lives at all; the lyrics were fantasy, but millions of fratboys took “(You Gotta) Fight for your Right (To Party!)” as a clarion call. The band’s decision to have a giant hydraulic penis as part of their hit stage act is one that haunts them to this day, as they’d have to pay storage fees on that thing for decades.
The Beastie Boys story is most engaging on the way up to their debut album, an arc of innocence and experience that levels off after Paul’s Boutique and drags a bit with the story behind the less essential albums that followed. But they find their voice again with Hello Nasty, and the boys eventually grow up. On their final tours, their wives and young children were in tow. They couldn’t have called this book Licensed to Mature—who would read that? But that’s what it finally amounts to. Life isn’t all one great story after another, and neither is Beastie Boys Book. But for the most part it’s a page-turner, so get your forearms in shape; you’ll be using them a lot.