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The mystique surrounding Money Mark is that of a serious indie musician, but his mantra might as well be "stupid, lurid, brilliant."
Case in point: it's 1994, and Money Mark (real name: Mark Ramos-Nishita) is playing a gig in downtown LA. The people in the crowd are nodding their heads to the enigmatically titled song "Insects All Around Us" when part of Mark's keyboard breaks off and he jams one of his fingers into a sharp nail protruding from the busted apparatus. His only first aid is his shirt. He starts wiping blood all over himself, and soon he looks like an extra from a horror movie. Everyone pretends not to notice except his brother Mike, who was drumming in the band.
"He grabbed my shirt and pretended to beat me up," Mark says. "He was yelling at me. The rest of the band was playing along, playing poker-faced when they wanted to bust up laughing. But some people were stunned, thought it was a serious thing happening and we were disintegrating in front of their eyes."
The fake tussle stopped after a few moments, and the show continued, but this bit of impromptu performance art reveals the nerdy, spontaneous anti-celebrity of the multi-instrumentalist whose touring and session work with the Beastie Boys earned him the moniker of Fourth Beastie and whose post-Beastie career careened into crafting wild instrumental records for hip labels such as Emperor Norton and Mo' Wax.
Phony blood sports also shed a stark light on what makes Mark run artistically, though a lot of people might think it's a letdown. The muse who gives him the most juice isn't someone esteemed like John Coltrane or Woody Guthrie. Rather, it's widely despised dead comedian Andy Kaufman, that comic black hole who inexplicably sucked laughs out of the original cast of Saturday Night Live; not even Jim Carrey could make him funny. But to Mark, Kaufman is artistic license to try anything and everything—no matter how stupid, lurid or brilliant.
"It's like hip-hop; it's like Andy Kaufman," Mark says about his improvisatory style. "Let's try this. Let's try that. All we have is time."
It's a credo sure to not win him any Grammys. But Kaufman's aim to constantly test himself and his audience, no matter how exasperating the effort, inspires Mark to smile at such spontaneous stunts as the impromptu concert brawl. It's why he takes time out of his live shows to shove an air-filled balloon into his trumpet's mouthpiece and let the air blow out like a mighty fart. It's why A&M, the one major label he worked with as a solo artist, made a demand in his contract that he write easily accessible pop songs, not his typical hangdog instrumental astral travels. The muse also lets him try something beautiful, such as the gorgeously structured, easy-going Brazilian organs and guitars of his track "Use Your Head," a standout from the amazing 1996 AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Rio. Or the smoky, graceful, Latin-dance hybrid of "Pepe y Irene," which he recorded with Los Lobos.
Strangely, Mark claims to have had no interest in making music professionally before he met the Beastie Boys. But they invited him to jam after meeting him on his day job—fixing the front gate of the Beasties Atwater Village home, where they lived during their Cali years in the early '90s. His zaftig keyboard work on the Beasties' 1992 album, Check Your Head, helped transform the jokey white rap trio into serious artistes, the kind who could talk about crunchy esoterica like yoga and Tibet without setting people's bullshit detectors into overdrive.
The Beastie hookup changed Money Mark from a blue-collar beatnik with a jones for old keyboards into a beatnik with a record contract and regular gigs with Sean Lennon, Cibo Matto and Beck. Yet flying with trendy musicians hasn't changed him, according to longtime friend Eric Nakamura, publisher of Giant Robot magazine.
"Money Mark is humble," Nakamura says. "I think Mark simply makes music. Mark isn't one who would attach himself to a project to make a name for himself, hence his camera-shy periods of being the fourth Beastie Boy."
Although he denies avoiding rock stardom, he hasn't made much of an effort to become as big as the Beasties. His A&M stint ended with Mark buying out his contract just for the peace of mind.
"It was a little complicated to me," he says. "I had one lawyer at one time, but now I had three. Then I needed a manager."
Mark was also breaking out in rashes. That was 1998, and he's a lot healthier now. Since then, he has busied himself making music with such DJs as Kid Koala; fake Brazilian pop with Smokey & Miho; and wild instrumental compositions, like on 2001's Emperor Norton release Change Is Coming. His next album (working title: Love Stains) will be simple guitar pop. The one after that will be filled with electronic beats and freaky bass lines.
It's about trying everything, no matter how stupid, lurid or brilliant. Andy would have understood.
Money Mark performs with DJ Cocoe at the Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. Sat., 10 p.m. $10. 21+.