by Wil Forbis
When I was a kid I was into the guitar. Actually, I should rephrase that, I'm still into the guitar, but when I was a kid I was into the "world of the guitar." Specifically, heavy metal guitar. I knew the history (the term "heavy metal was first used in Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild", but they were borrowing the term from a William Burroughs novel) I knew the heroes (Hendrix is generally considered the first heavy metal player, though nitpickers might chose Richie Blackmore or Tommy Iommi) and I knew the favorites of the day. Guys like Angus Young (AC/DC), or K.K. Downing and Glen Tipton (Judas Priest) were pretty much-established masters with young guns like Steve Vai and Slash quickly making a name for themselves. And when I was 16 or so, shred metal was enjoying the height of its success. Shred metal was a sub category of heavy metal consisting of one thing: speed. It was about playing fast, no, faster than the next guy. Rock was quickly transforming from a genre that anyone with three chords could play, to something that required a degree from Berklee to master (we all know how long that lasted.) Shred metal and its cousin, Neoclassical heavy metal, were offering an endless series of shredmasters, each of whom would record numerous instrumental albums, all of which owed more to the trails blazed by Bach and Pagannini, than the Beatles or the Sex Pistols.
Any guitar aficionado of the day like myself knew the names: Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, Greg Howe, Richie Kotzen, Paul Gilbert, and too many more. One of the names floating around in the netherworld of neoclassical metal was a young cat by the name of Jason Becker. Signed to Shrapnel Records (What Stax was to Soul, Shrapnel was to shred) Becker had a band entitled Cacophony with another metal prodigy, Marty Friedman. They released a couple of shred meets Debussy albums together, and then Becker went on to output a couple solo albums that had more of a baroque flavor.
What did I think of Cacophony
and Jason Becker? Frankly, I thought they were pretty fucking boring.
Even in the height of shred, I tended to have bluesier guitar tastes
and only Yngwie Malmsteen with his "me against the world" attitude and
Vinnie Moore with his talent for actual songwriting really managed to
keep my ear. Becker's stuff, with or without Freidman, was just a little
too masturbatory to grab me. Most of his songs were endless streams
of extremely fast scales, variated in differing patterns. As far as
technique, there was no doubt, the guy was a master. But good music
requires something more than technique, and it was hard to find that
something in Becker's output.
When the early nineties
hit, shred metal was looking at the axe (no pun intended) and most of
the shreddmasters realized they had to poop or get off the pot. This
meant: stop releasing self-indulgent "look what I can do" albums and
sign with a legit band, or your career was finished. Richie Kotzen joined
Poison (briefly), Marty Friedman went to Megadeth, and Jason Becker
got tapped to replace Steve Vai in the David Lee Roth band. (Yngwie
Malmsteen got fat.) These were tough shoes to fill, Roth's original
guitar player had of course been the ultimate guitar hero, Eddie Van
Halen, and Steve Vai's contributions had helped establish Roth's post
Van Halen career. I remember thinking that this was a test for Becker.
Could he come into a band than valued song over shred (though just barely)
and make a legitimate contribution?
The result of the Roth/Becker collaboration was just one album, entitled "A Little Ain't Enough." A mildly entertaining gem, it was a commercial let down, though in fairness, the blame for this fell upon neither Roth or Becker, but Kurt Cobain. Alternative/Punk hit big time in 1991 (when "A Little Ain't Enough" came out) and with one fell swoop, David Lee Roth's scatting "party all night" lyricism and Becker's million notes a minute solos fell out of favor with American youth. Truthfully, "A Little Ain't Enough" wasn't the greatest David Lee Roth album. While earlier Roth solo albums had expanded beyond the expected Van Halen style, incorporating Dixieland horn breaks and keyboard powered ballads, ALAE landed squarely in the world of Power Rock. The songs were… all right… but you couldn't escape the feeling that you'd heard them before (even during your first listen.) Becker showcased the fact that he could play in other than a minor key, in fact his bluesly flirtations were pretty commendable, but there was something predictable about the riffing and stringy guitar fills (though the wild atonal guitar break during "Drop In The Bucket" is worth noting.) The album limply offered one single, "Sensible Shoes," and then wisely sank from site. (However, recent experience has shown me that the album is perfect for racing down Interstate 80 at 90 miles an hour.)
At this point, the safe bet would've had Jason Becker fading from site, along with Kotzen, Howe, Michael Lee Firkens, and all the others. One would've expected the 20 year old guitarist to blow whatever money he'd made on coke and broads and spend the rest of his life teaching guitar in the back room of Tiny's music store, off L.A's Sunset Boulevard. Instead, Jason Becker did something totally unexpected. He developed Lou Gehrig's disease.
If you don't know, Lou Gehrig's disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is one of the scariest fucking diseases on the planet. Its cause is unknown; there is no cure. It starts out with a feeling of weakness in a limb (in Becker's case it was a lazy leg, while he was recording "A Little Ain't Enough.") and that spreads throughout your body until paralysis ensues and you're left quite literally, a drooling vegetable. Except, that's not really true, you aren't a vegetable. As the disease spreads, you mind remains alert, sharp as ever, until you are trapped in an unmoving, unapologetic body. Death comes somewhere between 2-10 years.
Obviously, there's an additional tragedy if you're a musical prodigy and can no longer make music. And there's also the tragedy of the disease striking someone at the prime of their life. (Indeed, while Becker was finishing the Roth album with a shaky hand, he "laughed about it" because he thought it would go away.) Nonetheless, the tragedy slowly became real in the case of Jason Becker. His body started to fail, he was unable to breath unless totally reclined, and he had to reluctantly get a tracheotomy and a gastrostomy. The prospect of a slow, painful death loomed over him. But as he sat underneath the shadow of this demise, Jason Becker did something.
Before I tell you what happened, I want to footnote a few points here. I'm hardly what you would call a religious person, in fact I'm regarded by many as one who scorns all religions and generally sees the world as an empty, soul-less place (not quite true, technically, I regard myself as an agnostic.) So as I detail what followed in the life of Jason Becker, keep in mind that I make no claim of understanding of what happened or how it happened, but I freely admit that Jason is still alive when quite a few people said he should be dead.
As Becker says "The first time I felt like I could die was when my voice got weak." (Most direct quotations are from the Jason Becker web site - www.jasonbecker.com.) At this point he did what many people do in similar circumstance. He turned to the Bible. But though the book gave him comfort, he still felt distant from the perfection with which Jesus was portrayed. So next he began reading the work of Paramahansa Yogananda, a teacher in the yogic faith called the Self-Realization Fellowship. From there he began contacting local members of the faith and doing the Yogananda's prescribes exercises, though being effectively paralyzed he could only perform them in his head. As I've said before, I'm hardly a believer in such things, but for Jason Becker they provided a degree of comfort.
Nonetheless, Becker's existence took a turn for the worse. While going in for the tracheotomy and gastrostomy Becker nearly suffocated because a doctor neglected to provide him with a breathing mask. He underwent the operations and basically spent a lot of time lying around in the hospital in pain. However it was at this point a sort of transformation occurred. What happened was… well, why don't I let Jason tell it:
One particular event in the hospital changed my life. I hadn't slept for well over 36 hours. Every hour or two a nurse came in to stick a tube down my throat to suction out mucous from my lungs. This made me violently cough which made my groin unbearably painful (due to excessive air from swallowing.) I felt that one more suction would literally kill me. I prayed to God very sincerely to not let me die without knowing the point of it all and learning more about Him. This night at 4:00 AM, my girlfriend was too exhausted to wake up. The nurse who then came in knew I was frantically trying to say no to suction, but she said, "I am just doing my job." She wouldn't wake my girlfriend up. When she finally left I lay in the dark feeling raped. I felt the life start to leave my body. My eyes were open but I couldn't even tense one muscle. I started to black out. All at once I heard distant voices of people I love. After all this hellish fear and confusion, the good stuff began.
While I was still dying, I heard the OM. I felt I was being cradled by something familiar. In one silly vibration - such power, love, infinite wisdom, everything to be known and felt if only I could comprehend one tiny piece of its all-encompassing perfection. During these most blissful moments of my life, something in my heart said, "Lord, I am not ready to go". Instantly I felt life coming back to my body. My eyes were uncontrollably lifted to gaze in my forehead. Without a body, clearer than "life", I went through a door with an eye on it. I believe God was showing me "heaven".
However, Jason Becker did not die. Instead, he used the experience to fling head long into the teachings of the Eastern master. He claims the experience provided him with several visions as well as the physical sensation of being tapped by God as he would drift off to sleep. Despite the admonitions of a doctor who wanted to keep Jason in the hospital (a doctor who reportedly wanted to punish Jason for getting the tracheotomy instead of "politely dying") Jason Becker went home.
And there he's has been since. Not only thriving spiritually, but musically as well. Early on in his battle against ALS, Becker developed a language for communicating with eye movements. In 1999 he was given a computer program called Quick Glance by the California Department of Rehabilitation. As his father explains "Quick Glance has an infrared camera that reads the way his eyeballs track. If Jason looks at the letter W, the computer knows it and prints that letter on the computer screen. In effect, his eyeballs are the mouse.1" He plans to use Quick Glance to record the three albums worth of music he has in his head. He is also awaiting the release from Warner Brothers of an album of his compositions including one played by the foe of his former band leader, David Lee Roth. The foe is Eddie Van Halen
And recently Shrapnel has released a collection of old tunes called "The Raspberry Jams." (the album cover features a picture of Becker with a halo around his head, combining a bit of spirituality with shred ego.) I'm not going to have claimed to have bought it, but I did listen to some streaming versions on the net. And I have to say… it wasn't bad. Perhaps it's just sympathy that softened my view, but the Raspberry Jams' music definitely seems more thoughtful… and bluesier at parts. Most of the music on this album was recorded before or during Becker's Shrapnel records tenure, but perhaps it was done with the assumption that it would never be released, and thus gave Becker the freedom to explore areas that would not have been accepted by shred devotees.
The obvious question in response to a story like Jason Becker's is "What would I do if it happened to me?" And familiar readers may wonder about the absence of my usual cynicism and general disdain for all things in this article. Why has it vanished, you ask? (Well, it didn't exactly vanish, but you have to admit that it's pretty subdued.) In truth, it relates to my answer to the question that began this paragraph. I don't know what I would do if it happened to me… but I'm pretty sure Jason Becker handled it better than I would.