How I Briefly Almost Became the Fourth Beastie Boy
It's true! RCL columnist Tim Sommer was tapped to DJ on band's tour with Madonna.
Hold your forefinger and your thumb thisfar apart. A paper clip turned sideways would fit neatly in that space. Raise it up to eye level for a better look.
That’s how close I came to being a temporary member of the Beastie Boys.
First: the new Beastie Boys Book is gorgeous, touching, and deep. It is not only one of the very best books ever written about life in a movable, musical gang, but it is also an amazing account of what it was like to stomp around on the pissy, faux-diamond sidewalks of New York City in the dark fun-times of the 1980s. Along with the work of Ned Rorem, Alfred Kazin, and Josh Friedman, I think Beastie Boys Book will be one of the absolutely fundamental books written about New York City as a place in time.
It doesn’t hurt my perception of the book that I am mentioned in the pages.
Those stories, however, are a subject for a future column. Today, I want to tell you a story about my connection to the Beastie Boys that is not in that book.
One of the magical things about memory is that it puts a pin in the unspooling film of time. Memory Stops the frame, and lets you look around.
Think about the moon landing (if you are old enough to recall that). You don’t just see a dislocated, free floating TV picture hanging against some grey fog of brain matter, do you? No. You see the heavy edges of the giant Zenith Console TV, almost as big as a refrigerator and the color of milky espresso, with all those edges that beg to be nicked, banged, and scratched at. You even taste the SpaghettiO’s you had for dinner that night. You can even still feel the burn on your fingertips from the Mattel Creepy Crawlers bug-making oven you and Gordon Platt were playing with the afternoon before. You think about Ron Swoboda and Jerry Koosman, who were in the news almost as much as Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins during those days.
This is the location pin of memory.
So I remember exactly where I was when Rick Rubin asked me to temporarily join the Beastie Boys.
In early 1985 I was working at MTV News as a writer/producer. I was almost 23, which felt terribly old. It was a fairly small department contained within one medium-sized room that was crowded word processors, monitors, and big old 3/4” tape machines.
John Norris and I had adjoining desks facing one of the newsroom’s sea-grey walls. I had known John for half a decade; we had been friendly when we both lived in NYU’s Weinstein Dormitory. Another friend from the dorms, Martha Quinn, was a popular VJ.
Our job was collecting entertainment news, and since a lot of it came out of the West Coast, both John and I almost always worked late. Every evening at 7, we turned our chairs around so we could watch Jeopardy!. Both John and I took Jeopardy very, very seriously, and much adamant fist pounding and shrieking was involved. On this particular evening, I had a slice of pizza in front of me. Mariellas, who produced one of the great sloppy, floppy, thick and greasy slices on the insular city of Manhattan, was just a few doors down from our office on Broadway and 58th.
My phone rang, interrupting both “Double Jeopardy” and my pizza. Rick Rubin was calling.
This was not a rare occurrence. Rick and I talked, often multiple times daily, and we had been doing so for years. Rick was another Weinstein alum. In fact, my roommate in Hoboken at the time (1985), Mike Espindle, had been the singer in Rick’s rather wonderful proto-stoner sludge punk band, Hose.
Like me, Rick trafficked in ideas, and conceived of surrealistic yet sensible seismic cultural events. Unlike me, he made many of these a reality (I mean, I am responsible for a few, but we will discuss those at another time.)
Around this time, Rick and I had been discussing a Beastie Boys television series. We wanted the show to utilize corny video trickery so that giant heads could appear on tiny bodies. “Sometimes these heads will pop off the neck, spin in the air, and land on someone else’s body, because that’s always funny,” Rick had noted. Rick was also going through a stage where he was earnestly studying the work of ultra-nationalist Jewish activist Meir Kahane, who advocated Jewish repatriation to Israel.
In that spirit, we were considering assembling an all-Hasid, Kahane-indoctrinated hardcore punk band to be called, simply, The Jews (note to self: this may still be a good idea.) Another time, Rick and I devised a cunning plan to release a version of the Led Zeppelin film, The Song Remains the Same, with all the music parts cut out, leaving only the confusing fantasy elements (note to self: this is a fantastic idea).
But this evening, Rick indicated that wanted to talk about something serious and timely. He asked if I could meet him immediately at a Chinese joint he favored on University Place.
Rick ordered General Tso’s chicken and got down to business.
The Beastie Boys, a band Rick worked very closely with (and whom I had been friendly with since their inception about three and a half years earlier), were about to embark on their first high-profile tour. They would be opening for Madonna on her first major arena swing, her Like A Virgin tour.
Now, this may be difficult to imagine, but Madonna was once considered fairly damn hip. She had taken the style and flavor of various deeply insular underground scenes in the fascinating night-land that was New York City, and she had moved them into the national mainstream.
Because she had her pulse on the paper-cut edge of the underground, Madonna had slated the Beastie Boys – who were still a year away from releasing their scene-changing License to Ill album – as her opening act. At the time, The Beastie Boys were a hot and innovative downtown rumor who were virtually inventing a new genre, some kind of mad, whining, dynamic cross between Brooklyn Friends School, the Paradise Garage, A7, and the Bowery Boys in Spook Chasers.
Even if they were barely known above 14th street, they were clearly one of the most charismatic and original bands in the world, and Madonna had noticed this.
The tour was going to start in a few weeks.
At the time, Rick was not only producing the Beasties, but also DJ’ing their live performances. Between bites of food, he explained that he would not be going on tour with them. He went on to say that the band was young and immature and needed someone on the road who could keep an eye on them and make sure they did not screw up this massive opportunity. It was also important, he explained, that this “someone” should be a person they knew, liked, and trusted.
I fairly quickly assumed that Rick was going to ask me to drop my MTV job for a few weeks and tour manage The Beasties. I figured I could handle that. By 1985 I had spent a considerable amount of time on the road as a member of the Glenn Branca Ensemble, and due to my work as a journalist, I had been hanging around bands, busses, and backstages since I was 16.
However, what Rick asked me next surprised me. Really surprised me.
“I usually would be the band’s DJ, but of course I won’t be there,” Rick stated. “So you’ll be doing that, too.”
“You mean I’ll be onstage with the Beasties, behind the turntables?”
“Rick, I’ve DJ’d in clubs, but I’ve never done the two-turntable/scratchy thing. I really don’t know if I can do that.”
“I can teach you everything you need to know in an afternoon,” Rick cheerfully assured me.
“Really? An afternoon?”
“Actually, an hour. Not a problem. And we will give you clothes to wear, and we’ll come up with some kind of DJ name. You are perfect for this. The guys like you but they will also listen to you, and I totally know you can handle the DJ thing.”
Every 23-year-old has a dream of going on a big rock’n’roll tour. I had certainly tasted a tiny bit of that with Branca, but the Like A Virgin Tour would be old-school Hammer of the Gods stuff! I virtually floated back to the PATH train station on 6th Avenue and 9th street.
Of course, I had no idea how taking six weeks off of work would effect my job. The head of MTV News was a very nice fellow named Doug Herzog. Since Doug had been kind enough to allow me a week or ten days off here and there to tour with Branca, I though he might be amenable to working something out, especially since Madonna basically was MTV at this time.
The next day, I spoke to Doug. His office was attached, via glass wall, to the main newsroom. Doug listened to my shpiel patiently. He then courteously but firmly explained that he simply couldn’t promise that my job would be waiting for me when I returned from the tour.
Now, I was making about 25 grand a year at MTV News — a lot of money for a musician living in Hoboken in the mid-1980s who paid $425 for his share of a railroad flat — and I quite liked my job. Doug, sensing my confusion, said, “Look…this sounds like a lot of fun, but I just cannot guarantee you’ll have this job when you come back. Maybe you will, but it’s entirely likely we will have to replace you. Plus, Tim, I want you to remember…”
Doug paused for effect…
“There are no Xerox machines on a tour bus.”
With exquisite timing, Doug then held up my most recent carefully honed piece of hoaxery, which I had produced on one of the office’s Volvo-sized copiers: A picture of a baseball team, each face deftly replaced by the image of porcine child star Mason Reese. This bizarre, hellish – why, almost Bosch-esqe – vision was accompanied by a fake memo asking people to join the MTV softball team. After creating this, I placed it in the mailbox of every MTV Network employee.
I did this sort of nonsense at least twice a week.
I called Rick and declined the offer to be a temporary Beastie Boy.
Although I never performed on stage with the Beastie Boys, I did appear on some of their recordings.
On “Heart Attack Man,” a track from their fourth studio album, 1994’s Ill Communication, at the very end of the song you hear someone shrieking, “What do we know about partying or anything else?!?”
That’s me, sampled from Noise the Show, my 1981/’82 punk/hardcore radio show which debuted the Beasties.
Also, on 1994’s Some Old Bullshit — the fascinating compilation of the Beasties’ early recordings and demos — they use excerpts from my show as a framing device.
So I was able to collaborate with the Beastie Boys, sort of, without having to wear the bizarre chinese-style pajamas and fur-trapper hat Rick surely would have put me into if I had actually appeared with them on stage.