Noah Baumbach is rapping. Or trying to, at least. Baumbach — a master of movies that make you laugh before you can question the shaky emotional underpinnings of your relationship with your mother — is in his corduroys and New Balances and suit jacket, seated under the grand ceilings and mirrors of the gilded Ritz-Carlton cocktail lounge. And he’s stammering his way through the Beastie Boys’ “B-Boy Bouillabaisse.” He mumbles something about the Beastie Boys hitting a train station, purchasing a hot dog, and making a visit to Orange Julius. “And then, uh,” he says, stumbling into his flow with a simulated on-mic eagerness, “it’s like ‘With WHO?! George Drakoulias!’”
George Drakoulias, it turns out, is a real person. A longtime record producer, Drakoulias served as music supervisor on Baumbach’s While We’re Young. He’s also been down with the Beastie Boys since the trio wove a trail of destruction through Rick Rubin’s Weinstein dorms at NYU. Baumbach is name-dropping Drakoulias now because a loop has officially been closed: Currently appearing in Baumbach’s latest — playing a sensible new dad gently chastising the youth-obsessed reinvention of his documentarian pal Ben Stiller — is Adam Horovitz, a.k.a. the Beasties’ King Ad-Rock.
Baumbach, 45, and Horovitz, 48, grew up in New York at roughly the same time. Crucially, though, they did so on opposite sides of the East River. Baumbach was in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was Brooklyn, and for him it may as well have been a suburb of Tatooine. “I was just envious of all the Manhattan kids,” he says. “Manhattan was a place that, if everything went great for you as an adult, you might someday succeed there.”
Horovitz was a feral Upper West Sider turned downtown hardcore kid. “I remember [in] junior high, my mom saying, ‘Whatever you do, just do it,’” Horovitz says. “‘So long as the school doesn’t call me — so long as I’m not in trouble — you’re not in trouble.’”
By 19, what he was doing was becoming a multiplatinum rap star wearing the smirk of the truly insouciant. “When the Beastie Boys happened, I remember thinking, That’s the best idea,” Baumbach says with a laugh. “Oh, man. This is just the best idea.”
Over the next few decades, the two would cross paths — through friends and family, over plates of birthday carbonara in West Village trattorias. Now they’re working together, at a moment of uncertainty for Horovitz: With the death in 2012 of his friend and bandmate Adam “MCA” Yauch, the Beastie Boys are over. That Horovitz and Baumbach finally came together after all of these years seems owed in part to a powerful and only slightly overrated force: New York City.
John Phillips/Getty Images for Icon Film Distribution
Baumbach was introduced to the Horovitz clan by Ad-Rock’s older sister Rachael. Nowadays, she’s an Oscar-nominated movie producer with Rushmore, About Schmidt, and Moneyball on her credit roll. Back in the late ’90s, though, she was a scrappy theater producer trying to get Baumbach paid. After his tiny, adorably talky debut, Kicking and Screaming, came and went,1 Baumbach needed a gig with a real paycheck. “It was the first time I got paid to do anything,” Baumbach says. “I had something I wanted to write, and she got me a little bit of money.” That project — about a college campus love triangle — didn’t work out. But, Rachael says, “now the world has him and I’m just a devoted fan.”
1. Only later was it dusted off and rediscovered as a cult classic.
In the years since, Horovitz remembers routinely running into Baumbach at Bar Pitti in the West Village. No surprise: Baumbach cowrote The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou with his friend Wes Anderson at Bar Pitti; they even recorded the DVD commentary track there. Baumbach’s most distinct memory of Horovitz is a dinner at the ritzy uptown Cipriani more than 20 years ago. “It was one of Rachael’s birthdays, I think. It was the first time I ever saw somebody actually get fitted with the jacket from the maître d’. It was whatever jacket they had behind the desk. And Ad-Rock got fitted with it.”
Rachael elaborates: “My brothers and I all have birthdays in the same week. In the ’80s, after our mother died, we took those celebrations fairly seriously. Noah and Owen Wilson were regulars — I think that’s how Adam met that circle of filmmakers. I was too busy to notice who became friends with who. But to his credit, Noah must have clocked Adam’s star quality back then.”
And the jacket? “I remember,” Rachael says. “[Although] I seriously doubt that’s the first time Adam was given a jacket by a maître d’!”
“I don’t remember that,” Adam says. “But I trust [their] memory more than I trust mine. I trust anybody’s memory more than I trust mine.”
Baumbach kept his eye on Adam Horovitz onscreen and onstage, too. Not many people recall Ad-Rock’s starring turns in 1989’s Lost Angels and 1992’s Roadside Prophets, but Baumbach does: “I thought he was great.2 And obviously … well, I shouldn’t say obviously … but the Ad-Rock character is a performance, too. I feel like we’ve been watching him perform, on some level, throughout.”
2. The movies as a whole aren’t particularly necessary viewing, but Horovitz is an engaging screen presence. Roadside Prophets also briefly features a young Don Cheadle and John Cusack playing a Symbionese Liberation Army rebel with an eye patch.
Baumbach considered casting Horovitz in 2010’s Greenberg — also as Stiller’s best friend, in the role that eventually went to the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans. “I’d sort of just emailed Adam and asked him what he was doing,” Baumbach says. “He wasn’t available, but he expressed interest. So I thought, Well, good. I’ll find something for him eventually.”
“That was an audition,” Horovitz says. “And I said I didn’t want to.”
Baumbach said you said you were busy.
“Yeah. Busy. I was real busy. I’m really busy most of the time.”
Horovitz had occasionally sought out roles at the height of the Beasties’ fame. But most of the time, he’d show up super stoned to the auditions. And most of the time, those auditions went terribly. Luckily, Baumbach just handed him the part in While We’re Young.
“I was not thinking that was the type of thing he wanted me to do,” Horovitz says. “But it was cool! It was actually a role in, like, an actor movie. I thought I’d walk on and make some fart jokes and be like ‘Heeeey!’” Later, he adds: “I’ve fallen to make people laugh. Often.”
On set, Baumbach says, Horovitz was “totally easy to work with.” Except for one thing. “I don’t tend to call action. And he hadn’t been on a movie set in a while — he wanted an ‘Action!’”
“I made him say it,” Horovitz explains. “I was definitely nervous, and it’s my first day of shooting, and I’m at a table opposite Ben Stiller, and I have the first line of the shot. And Noah’s like, ‘OK, lights, camera, and … ’” He pauses. “I say to Ben, ‘Should I start acting now?’ So anyway, I got into it with Noah. ‘Dude — action. This is a professional business. This is what directors say. Maybe step it up a little?’”
“For him, I would call action,” Baumbach says, before flashing a wry smile. “And I would shout it, too. I would make him feel like it was a real movie. If I had a megaphone, I would have used it.”
Not much wardrobe or makeup was needed. “I had lunch with Noah to talk about the movie,” Horovitz says, “and I was disheveled. More so than usual. My hair was all fucked up. And he was like, ‘That’s the look! That’s exactly what I want you to do.’ I thought I’d be in a movie, I’d get, like, a cool wig or something.”
The joke behind Horovitz’s character — a happily neutered urbanite — is this: People assume it’s an inversion of his real self, the madman musician. In reality, as he’s become fond of saying, except for the Wilco CD, the character is basically him.
“It doesn’t seem that far off to me at all,” he says. “But it’s interesting how people see you. You know, I don’t ever get recognized on the street. But the rare times that I do, it’s people that only know our first record. And it’s like, ‘What’s up? What are you guys up to?’ ‘Well, that was a while ago. We’ve done a lot of other things since then!’ I was 19. Imagine if somebody only thought of you when you were 19.”
Baumbach’s and Horovitz’s lives even bleed together in While We’re Young. A vintage Carvel commercial featuring a bizarre cake character called Cookie O’Puss becomes a point on which the plot turns. Weirdly, that’s the same character that would inspire the prank phone calls that would lead to the Beasties’ ever-unlikely first club hit, “Cooky Puss.”3 “Even though I know that song very well, I was not thinking of it,” Baumbach says, recalling Stiller’s Josh and his relationship to the cake character. “It was a commercial I had a relationship with growing up. It was a non-nod that became a nod.”
3. Well, technically, Cookie O’Puss was the special Saint Patrick’s Day version of Cookie Puss. Also, while I’m this deep in the Wikipedia page: “According to Carvel’s backstory for the character, Cookie Puss is a space alien who was born on planet Birthday. … In his television commercials, Cookie Puss has the ability to fly, though he requires a saucer-shaped spacecraft for interplanetary travel.”
Baumbach resists the parallel vision of his life experience and Horovitz’s, circling back to the absolute, all-encompassing irrelevance of his ’80s Brooklyn upbringing.
He recalls his friend, the actor Josh Hamilton, telling a story of seeing the Beastie Boys open for Run-D.M.C. at the Apollo on New Year’s Eve, and then again that same night at a downtown club called The World. “I just thought, To be able to say that, that is cool forever,” Baumbach says. “I was never that cool.”
He recalls a conversation with Chris Rock — proud product of Bed-Stuy — about Baumbach’s Park Slope: “[Chris] dated a girl from Park Slope … Park Slope, to him, represented a bourgeois culture that he thought was interesting.” Respectfully, Baumbach disagreed.
“When I meet people not from New York, who came to New York” — like, he says, his friend Wes Anderson, who came from Texas, or his girlfriend and occasional cowriter, Greta Gerwig, who came from Sacramento — “I related very much to their concept of New York. You know, for me, Park Slope felt like I was on the outskirts of the world. I was looking at Manhattan like, ‘Can I get over there sometime?’”
Ask Horovitz about the common bonds, and he begs off, too. But his siblings see the link. “We speak the same language,” Rachael says. “The same ‘New York City, children of divorce, literary artistic struggle’ language.”
“He and Adam are from the same stew,” Horovitz’s brother Matthew, another veteran of the birthday dinners, adds. “Jewy, artsy, awkward Chinese food dinners with divorced dads. Kind of a mix of hanging out at Blimpie’s and being the broke kid at fancy private schools.”
The El Quijote Bar & Restaurant has survived nearly a century under the infamous Hotel Chelsea on West 23rd. The décor is dominated by figurines and life-size replicas and murals of the titular don and his windmills. There are chandeliers and oil paintings of charging bulls and brave matadors and proper high-class ladies. One panel, a monochromatic stained glass you might find in a Latvian mob hangout, depicts a happy lobster.
The waiters are white-haired men in mustaches, wearing dress shirts and bow ties, their bellhop jackets adorned with curlicues. Out front, a small sign states: “GENTLEMEN MUST NOT WEAR HATS EXCEPT FOR RELIGIOUS PURPOSES.” It’s an invitingly dim place to spend an afternoon. And in a back booth on a recent deserted Friday, Ad-Rock — in a gray sweater with the sleeves rolled up, his right forearm showing a city skyline with the Twin Towers still present — sits with his brother Matthew.
So, why here?
“Adam likes bad food?” Matthew suggests.
“I love this place,” Adam says. “My wife gets the king crab claw.4 I like the veal in almond sauce.”
4. Her name, Kathleen — as in Kathleen Hanna, the world’s foremost feminist punk and a hero to a generation — is represented on his right ring finger in a chunky early-’80s cursive that recalls the jewelry stylings of the Treacherous Three.
At this, Matthew perks up. “Like Mom.”
“I know. That’s why I like it here.”
They both order the veal in almond sauce.
Before the food arrives, Adam shares a Ben Stiller anecdote. Several years ago, the Beastie Boys were playing a show in “somewhere, America,” and Stiller was in their orbit. So the foursome went to Kmart, bought matching outfits — Dickies, a dumb shirt, a big hat — and worked him into the show. During their nightly customary weave, Ad-Rock weaved offstage, and Stiller weaved right on. “And then he does a verse of one of our songs.”
Did Stiller nail the verse?
“I didn’t say that. He’s good at what he does.”5
5. Horovitz is respectful enough about the other actors in While We’re Young, but when surly king Charles Grodin’s name is raised, he gets geeked. “I had no scenes with Grodin. I know. I know. Charles Grodin! Lonely Guy! So good.”
Adam is dismissive of his own return to the screen. He treats it like a fluke. But now that it’s happened, maybe there will be more?
“I guess. I guess. I was not thinking about getting into acting in any way. Now that I didn’t embarrass myself — I guess I could consider doing that again? I don’t like the hours. But it was all right. Hollywood hasn’t called. I got my ringer on. Turned all the way up.”
Apparently, Adam hasn’t even bothered to get an agent. “He waits by the TV with the Chinese food waiting for auteurs to call,” Matthew says.
“And it happens!” Adam stops and thinks. “You know, I’d like to be in an action movie.”
“Neeson’s kid?” Matthew volunteers.
“Kind of avant-garde.”
“Right. Or I could be Neeson’s, like …”
“Young protégé? Coworker?”
“Jewy neighbor. Just a guy that’s always popping his head out the door.” Adam drops into a high-pitched New Yawk nerd voice: “‘What’s going awwn down the hall? Come ahhhn!’ And then at the end, it turns out I’ve got a crazy cache of clips and guns and samurai stuff. ‘I didn’t know ya needed these! What’s going awwn?!’”
Adam has kept busy scoring movies like No No, a documentary about the pitcher Dock Ellis, who once threw a no-hitter while high on LSD. He’d like to do more of that kind of thing. “That music was punching way above its weight class,” Matthew says, when No No comes up, “and it makes me sad. That’s kind of like the lost Beastie Boys album.”
Adam shrugs. “I got plenty more. It’s all in here.” He strikes a pose, then leans over the tape recorder to narrate it: “Note that I’m pointing at my heart with one hand like I’m having a heart attack and I’m pointing at my head with the other like I’m having some sort of brain aneurysm.”
He plays around with music almost every day, but not as much lately. He’s been focusing on the Beastie Boys book, a kind of experimental memoir of the band that’s already been pushed past its 2015 deadline.
Are you guys buckling down and trying to get it done?
“That’s a question you might wanna reach out to Michael Diamond [about],” Adam cracks. “Discuss with him. Talk about his work schedule. He’s buckling down on the leash that goes from your ankle to the surfboard. He’s buckling down on his grasp of a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”
Talk of the memoir sparks something. Now it’s on to a slew of stories — the picaresque life of a Beastie Boy. Cultural references are picked up and dropped just as quickly. Half-remembered anecdotes are told discursively, pinging fast. They almost feel like a verse on a Beastie Boys track.
A New Year’s Eve show that featured Keith Hernandez inexplicably showing up onstage. That time Ad-Rock almost had to step to Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices: “Me and Ricky Powell took mushrooms, and we were playing basketball against them, and I got real heated.” Another near-fight, this one with Axl Rose at a crazy Hollywood party in 1988. And yet another run-in with Axl, backstage at an arena show years later — he looked “full cyborg” and told Ad-Rock, completely unbidden, that “things are going really good right now.” The very next night, Guns N’ Roses canceled the next show on its tour, and Philadelphia rioted.
There’s more: workouts with Richard Simmons, crate-digging for Sandy Nelson records, spotting Red Buttons at a pastry place on Delancey in the ’80s. A friend who may or may not have once smashed up Anjelica Huston’s mailbox with his car. The exceptional work of Lou Diamond Phillips in the 2011 TV movie Metal Tornado.
At this point the food has arrived, and the brothers start reminiscing.
“How do you feel about the veal in almond sauce?” Adam asks.
“I think it’s amazing,” Matthew says.
“Not bad, right?”
“It tastes like we’re at dinner with Mom in 1977.”
“At Sevilla. In the West Village. The veal in almond sauce there was delicious.”
Their mother, Doris, died when she was 45, just a few years younger than Adam is now. She owned a children’s thrift store called Gee the Kids Need Clothes. She did much of the sewing and patching herself. Adam would hang out there every day after school.
“I remember my mom being like, ‘These two girls came in here earlier and they said they knew you from high school?’ I was like, ‘Girls came in here? Talking about me? And you didn’t get a name?’” Matthew remembers going through Doris’s stuff after she died and finding a bunch of small, cashed-and-returned checks to her favorite lunch spot, the Chownese Take-Out.
Their father, Israel, is a playwright who constantly dragged the kids to rehearsals and performances. “A lot of plays,” Adam recalls. “Really depressing. Inappropriate for children. Small rooms with like 14 people. A lot of crying and talking about death and sex.”
Parenting was perhaps a secondary concern: “There was never thought into anything other than ‘What are we eating tonight?’” Adam says. “[But] he was a hustler. He was on his grind. Not a lot of Off-Off-Broadway playwrights earn a living to raise five kids.”
Adam knows that, in some way, it rubbed off on him. “I remember being 14, 15, walking around to all these different clubs and bars with my seven-inch for my band the Young and the Useless trying to get gigs. And I wrote all the songs. ‘Hitler Was a Nazi,’ that’s my work. That’s when we got more political, obviously.”
You had the drive even back then?
“Ehh, maybe it was to meet girls. I don’t know. It was just to have something to do.”
For Adam Horovitz in 2015, a question looms: What next?
“When we were making the movie, he was saying it was nice for him to do something that kind of got him nervous again,” Baumbach says. “It was this new-old thing for him, and I think he really enjoyed it. I hope so, because I’d like to just keep casting him.”
“He’s in a good place, Adam,” George Drakoulias says. “It’s rough with Yauch gone, but I think he’s kind of starting to have fun again. I don’t know if it’s the spotlight. It’s just — he should be creative. He has a great mind. He’s got a lot to offer. It’s just — the world’s a better place when Adam Horovitz is contributing himself to it.”
Still, despite what he may have left to say, Horovitz has little to prove.
“[Yauch and Mike and I] did everything together,” Horovitz says. “Always. A lot of time together. If that’s it for me in terms of things people like on a bigger scale … You know, we sold out MSG in nine hours. Two nights. We had a round stage in the middle of the Garden that spun around. And there’s the Knicks numbers in the rafters, and we’re standing in the middle of the stage. Where are you gonna go from there? That’s … I don’t need to beat that.”
But that doesn’t mean that Ad-Rock is fulfilled.
“I don’t know if anybody’s ever felt that way,” he says. “When you work, you always wanna keep doing it. You always feel like you’ve got things to do. Things to say. Funny shit to make.
“I’m sure I’ll do something. I haven’t figured out what, but I’m sure I’ll do something. Yeah. Yeah. I think about it all the time.”