If you’ve read more than a handful of posts on Life in the Vinyl Lane, you’ve probably noticed that when I write about a specific album that the focus is either on the album itself, or some personal experience of mine that is somehow connected to it. This post about Paul’s Boutique will definitely be the latter. It’s not like I’m going to tell you something about this album that is in any way new or fresh. I mean, hell, KEXP radio did a 12 hour show that broke down the entire thing and played, in full, every single song sampled on it (which you can listen to HERE, broken out into a number of different segments). There have been multiple books written about it. It’s been dissected and pored over and broken down countless times.
So I can’t bring anything to the table in that regard.
What I can do is reflect on what a brilliant album it is and how pivotal it was to me and my group of friends when it came out.
In October of 1987 the stars aligned and for some reason a group of five high school juniors went from being casual acquaintances to inseparable life-long friends. We thought of ourselves as a unit, so much so that we even referred to ourselves collectively as “the posse,” (♠) which probably sounds ridiculous if you’re not one of us, but nevertheless is still how we refer to group today. We got into petty trouble together, partied together, have traveled together… we’ve supported each other through break-ups, and we’ve been best men at each other’s weddings. While we’re spread out over four different states today, there’s still a sort of cosmic connection that will always in some way tie us together.
King of the town
Always got my windows
Ready to throw,
You know I’m the egg man.
Now that I’ve waxed poetic, what does any of this have to do with Paul’s Boutique? Well, it came out in the summer of 1989, that magical summer after we graduated from high school but hadn’t yet started college and/or the military. A time of minimal responsibility as we balanced on the precipice between being kids and adults. When whether to throw the frisbee in the park or take the ferry to Whidbey Island was the biggest decision you had to make for the day. No bills to pay, just basketball and video games (♣) and skateboarding (♥) and music.
I actually reached out to the posse to get their individual recollections about Paul’s Boutique. I had my memories around it, but I know that memory is a fickle thing. I was fortunate enough in college to take a course on cognitive psychology by arguably the most well-known expert on the psychology of memory, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, and if there’s one thing I came away from that class with it was the understanding that our memories are highly inaccurate and in fact can change significantly over time. So I wanted to test my recollections of this album with those of my closest friends, people I experienced it with when it first came out.
I’m like Sam the Butcher
Bringin’ Alice the meat,
Like Fred Flinstone
Drivin’ round on bald feet.
Somehow we knew the day that Paul’s Boutique was scheduled to drop. That sounds like a ridiculous statement on the surface, but remember kids, this was before the internet was an actual thing. We probably read about it in Rolling Stone, because most of the local radio stations sure as hell weren’t playing the Beastie Boys, and chances are better than average that we also saw it on the “Coming Releases” wall at the Tower Records in Bellevue. I remember Mike and I going to Tower that day to buy our copies – mine on CD (which I still have) and his on cassette, then going back to his house and shooting hoops in the driveway while playing it on his boom box. Brent may have been there with us at Tower… or he may not… while Brent remembers the surprise of discovering that his copy of the tape was red while Mike’s was gray, it’s tough to say exactly when this happened. Was it that day, or later?
What I do remember is this – I didn’t particularly care for Paul’s Boutique when it first came out.
The cop knocked on my window and said,
“Boy, where’s the fire?
You got a mailbox on your bumper
And a bald front tire!”
Paul’s Boutique is an odd album in a lot of ways, but what I find most strange is that while it’s widely praised today as being groundbreaking and incredibly important, it was far from being the most popular release by the Beasties. Consider this. Their first album, License to Ill, went 4X platinum (four million copies sold) in the US in the first 12 months of it’s release… but it took Paul’s Boutique six years to sell it’s first million copies. In fact, the two albums that followed it, Check Your Head and Ill Communication, both made it to platinum before Paul’s Boutique. Of the band’s first five seminal albums, it remains one of the two biggest commercial disappointments from a sales perspective. Yet everyone seems to agree it’s their most important album.
But back to our story.
John recalls recognizing the greatness of the album right away. Norberto insists that Brent did as well, yet Brent remembers not being particularly impressed with it. Mike liked it, but I didn’t care for it much. We were all over the place with it, at least initially. The bottom line is it was a major deviation from License to Ill, which I think threw all of us off. It’s hard to comprehend just how game-changing this album was at the time, with it’s massive use of sampling and seemingly disparate yet somehow connected songs. It’s easy to see that now, but I won’t pretend I was able to understand it’s genius until a number of years later.
I got more rhymes
Than Jamaica’s got mangos.
I left for college about a month after the album came out (♦), and the rest of the posse came together over it during some late summer parties after my departure. It was at one of these gatherings when John’s older brother Dave, who we all looked up to because (1) he was older than us, (2) he had great taste in music, and (3) he could do way better tricks on the half pipe than we could, surprised everyone by coming into John’s room, asking what everyone was listening to, and giving it the Dave seal of approval. A couple of times the posse even ran tape in John’s bedroom during parties and sent the recordings to me, which was sort of like being in the room with them and helped me cope a little with the fact that I was about 3,000 miles away from every single person I knew. I suspect they never knew how important those tapes were to me, with each of them sitting down next to the recorder at various points and talking directly to me.
Brent and Norberto continued to listen to Paul’s Boutique in their shared dorm room, but it was quickly replaced by Straight Outta Compton, which actually came out the year before. Much like me, Norberto put Boutique on the shelf and more or less forgot about it for a number of years. And again, like me, discovered when he re-listened to it that in fact it was a completely brilliant album. I don’t know why it took us so long to recognize that, but it did. It was the first album he and I played when we drove down to Portland last year to visit Brent, cranked up not he stereo with us going back and forth doing the vocals.
Don’t touch the mic, baby
Don’t come near it!
I’m not sure what all of this means today, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all five of us still listen to this album today, and three of us put it in our “All Time Top 5” lists. It makes sense given when it came out and that we all listened to it, though at the same time we only had a limited amount of time listening to it together. Yet there it is, an anchor point in our collective memory, one of those things that has come to define our friendship experience. Even though none of us quite remember it the same way, it’s there, and we all agree it was important. Maybe that’s why I was so bummed when Adam Yauch passed away in 2012. It was sort of like losing a piece of that last summer of freedom with my friends.
When I got back into vinyl, I told myself that I wasn’t going to start buying a bunch of stuff on wax that I already had on CD. Despite that, on that very first re-introduction to vinyl shopping trip over at Easy Street Records’ Queen Anne story (RIP) one of the albums I bought on wax was Paul’s Boutique. I just had to. And I don’t regret it for a minute.
(♠) We chose this term, of course, due to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s song “Posse On Broadway,” which was in heavy rotation in our bedrooms and cars.
(♣) Mostly Ninja Gaiden, Contra, and Blades of Steel on the NES. I kicked ass at Blades of Steel… though John was definitely the better fighter in that game.
(♥) John’s mom moved overseas to take a job during our senior year, leaving him and his older brother living in the house. The first thing they did was build a half pipe in the backyard. It was awesome.
(♦) Missing the two big Metallica shows at the Coliseum by days…