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Thursday, April 4, 2013
Caveman with a van: Money Mark

By Stefan Marolachakis
ESPN The Magazine

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Money Mark talks about his days as a Lakers ball boy.
Editor’s note: Drummer Stefan Marolachakis is traveling the country in a black van with tinted windows, touring for his band Caveman’s eponymous second album. Every week, Stefan will hunt the nation to gather musicians and athletes to discuss the link between the two clans. This week: Stefan talks to Beastie Boys maestro and former Lakers ball boy, Money Mark.

I grew up a very big Beastie Boys fan. Ever since that afternoon, watching MTV half-asleep on the couch at my mom and dad’s house when I caught the Buzz Clip for “So What’cha Want,”  I was in. That keyboard line, the Knicks shirt Mike D was sporting, the blown-out production -- it all drove me berserk. They were the only ones who could pull off all these seemingly disparate vibes and have it all make sense to me: invitingly bratty, aggressively cool, anti-establishment yet deeply invested in professional sports. “Check Your Head” lived in my Walkman until the labels melted away and the tape just turned blank.

Those guys were curators of cool, purveyors of all things urgently pertinent and hilariously unnecessary, and it was in their glorious, short-lived magazine Grand Royal where all of these contradictory sensibilities merged perfectly. It was there that I read tips on how to bet on the ponies from members of Pavement, read extensive essays on the origins of “the mullet” (as worn proudly by the likes of John Kruk, et al), and where I first discovered that their keyboardist Money Mark, the very man responsible for that unforgettably thick, bouncy, distorted line at the top of “So What’cha Want,” was once a ball boy for the Lakers.

This is all on my mind now because this past week saw the California stretch of our tour, including stops in Visalia, The Independent in San Francisco (where we also had the good fortune of playing with Grandaddy last year), San Diego, and legendary Los Angeles club the Troubadour on my birthday. Birthday cake happened, the singing of the birthday song happened … an emotional night, to be sure.

After all, the last time I’d played the Troubadour was two shows in one night way back in ’98 -- mere weeks after my Senior Prom -- when my high school band had been lucky enough to hit the road with a few homemade demo tapes in tow. It was my first visit to the West Coast, and that night I happened to cross paths for the first time with Money Mark, a.k.a. Mark Ramos Nishita, someone I would thankfully be able to count as a friend for years to come. Mark is not only a killing musician with a legendary résumé including work with the likes of The Rolling Stones and Beck, but he is also just one of the most fascinating and resourceful guys around. When he came by our show last week, I was reminded that he’d be the perfect man to talk to for this column for so many reasons, not the least of which being his brief tenure as a ball boy for the Lakers. Not just any Lakers team: the very one the Heat were chasing for 27 games this season.

“It was the 1971-72 season. That was the perfect year,” Mark told me. “I was there, man. It was Wilt, West, Goodrich, Jim McMillan; Pat Riley was on that team. It was like a Wooden team, a lot of UCLA cats on that team. Even Elgin Baylor was on that team, his last year. My dad would take me to Laker games at the Fabulous Forum in Englewood, California, the scene of the crime. I was just really into basketball. Another angle for me personally was how I tried to be part of something really American, being that I am half-Japanese, half-Mexican.”

How exactly did one go about becoming a ball boy back in ’71? “I wrote a letter to the general manager at the time, Pete Newell. I got to do 12 home games; it was exciting. During the game I would sit under the basket. The first couple games I wasn’t very good at it -- I was too busy watching the game and I’d forget to work.”

Talking of his giddiness about just being at the Forum reminded me of the one time I’d been able to go into the bowels of the World’s Most Famous Arena. I asked Mark if he remembered the occasion of the only time I’d ever been in the Knicks' locker room.

Mark: “When?”

Me: Visiting you!

“Oh, Beastie Boys. Madison Square Garden! That comes full circle because 71-72 is also the year I learned the song “Benny and the Jets,” and then I got to play that song at the Garden with Biz Markie doing the vocals.

I have to pause here to point out two things:

1. The second issue of Grand Royal came with a now-legendary 7” of Biz Markie’s rendition of "Benny and the Jets." Not to be missed.

2. Mark is responsible for me meeting Biz Markie in Baltimore a few years back, a meeting that resulted in one of my favorite photos of all time.
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Stefan and Biz Markie.


“Did you ever see our shoes, the Knicks shoes? All the Beasties got these adidas shoes for the tour.”

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Money Mark's custom adidas shoes.
Man, Beastie Boys’ loyalty to the Knicks has never ceased to move me. Anyway, back to ’71.

“I would do these Paul Westphal basketball camps, and I knew that I was going to be a professional basketball player. I didn’t grow past 5-foot-9 and a half so that kind of hurt my chances. I was not a very good 3-point shooter, but they didn’t have the three-point shot at that time, that came later -- wow, I’m an old dude now. But I can still pull it off on the court! Every now and then, I pull over to the local park and get in the pickup game. You know, I’m just wearing my beat-up orange canvas, schooling these kids.”

Mark and I got to discussing the panache of the NBA players of the 70s, and I asked him if he ever felt like there was a line in the sand between music and sports fans. “Back in the day, Dr. J., Clyde Frazier, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain … it was about the style! And music had that in it too: the way you walk is cool, the way you talk, the way you go about your whole life. It began to be ok to do both things. I think Flea would’ve been a pro basketball player had he been taller. He’s in shape, man. He’s a good old-school team player: ball movement and defense.”

Mark described to me a moment from a Beastie Boys recording session in ’93 where all of these elements crystallized during the making of a classic album. “Here’s where it all intersects: when we were making Check Your Head here in Los Angeles, we just had to have a half-court built into the studio. So I got a piece of plywood and a rim and just built a little half-court in the studio. The ceilings were high enough … it was awesome. We totally mixed this idea of recording while we were playing basketball. There was no separation.”

Beastie Boys always combined things in a way that made a weird kind of sense, like a crew of rascally young chefs way ahead of their time. “It totally made sense to us too, and it had a lot to do with the style. The way you went up for your layup was the way you were going to pose with your guitar; you could tell everyone had their own little funky style, like everyone would say I’m playing funky keyboards, doing funky sounds. I think it’s an attitude.”

CAVE DWELLINGS
Check out Caveman on tour: 4/4 at The Bottletree in Birmingham, AL // 4/5 at The High Wattin Nashville, TN // 4/6 at Drunken Unicorn in Atlanta, GA // 4/7 at Local 506 in Chapel Hill, NC // 4/9 at Black Cat inWashington, DC // 4/10 at Webster Hall in New York, NY