Jason Becker: the man who could have been king

Jason Becker

The day begins early for Jason Becker. His carer arrives at 7am prompt and the four-hour routine starts: Up. Washed. Dressed. Hoisted from bed to wheelchair to prepare for breakfast – an unappetising blend of pureed fruit and omega oils fed through a tube into a hole in his stomach. From his living room window in Richmond, California, he sees each new day break over San Francisco before retreating to the back of the house, where he keeps his computer, beneath a small window which opens out onto the yard. This is where he sits, from 11am until late into the evening; by the back window, in front of the computer, composing new music (and answering our questions) by blinking exacting instructions to his father, Gary, note by painstaking note, Jason working his dad like a puppet.

“I’m just his mouse,” says Gary. “He tells me where to go and what do, and I do it. He can sit here, making his music, all day.”

They go out sometimes, but not as often as they should, says Gary. It’s a lot of fuss. “Besides, this is what he likes to do best. He likes to make music.”

Jason Eli Becker, 42, has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the most debilitating form of motor neurone disease. Jasoncan’t move. He can’t speak. He can’t swallow. He won’t get better, only slowly, almost imperceptibly, worse. There is no cure for ALS. He communicates by flicking his eye over an alphabet board made by his father, spelling each word a letter at a time. On the wall of his home are a number of guitars, a reminder of who he was and what he could do before the ALS changed everything. He hasn’t played guitar for the best part of 20 years.

“Seeing those guitars used to kill me,” he says. “But not any more. I like looking at them.”

Jason Becker, guitar genius, seems like a long time ago.

And yet that is the cruellest part of this continuing tragedy. This is not just a story of what is, it’s the story of what should have been. Of a brilliant young man scythed down in his prime, robbed of what was rightfully his.

In 1990 Jason Becker wasn’t just a guitar player, he was one of the finest guitarists in the world, Guitar Player magazine’s Best New guitarist of 1989. He was 19 when he auditioned for Dave Lee Roth’s band, stepping into the big shoes vacated by the Whitesnake-bound Steve Vai. He flew off for the audition in Los Angeles with his guitar, a bag of songs – and a troublesome limp.

“I remember dropping him off at the airport,” says Gary. “He was walking with a stick. We thought it was hamstring strain or something. I wasn’t worried.”

No one was worried. His mum, Pat, remembers thinking it was probably his trousers “His trousers were always so tight,” she says.

He got the job after just one audition. DLR and his band knew as soon as they heard him. It wasn’t just that he was flash and fast and cool and handsome and could replicate all of Vai’s fancy licks. He had soul, too. He had a musical heritage that underpinned all his flash and arpeggios. It was this combination of style and substance which set Jason Becker apart from all the rest, says Dave Lee Roth.

“There was a wealth of references in his playing,” Roth observed in his biography, Crazy From The Heat. “His parents had been Haight-Ashbury hippies. So instead of growing up listening to Eddie Van Halen and duplicating that, he had grown up listening to all the old classics I had – Hendrix, Dylan, Crosby, Stills And Nash.”

He wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about the appointment, but he rang home that night to break the news to his folks. “We were so pleased we danced in the street,” says Pat.

Warner Brothers gave him a cheque for $75,000, a $500 Christmas bonus and a promise of future royalties. He was on his way.

After rehearsals in LA, the Dave Lee Roth band – Roth, drummer Greg Bissonette, his bass playing brother Matt, who had replaced Billy Sheehan, keyboard player Brett Tuggle and Jason – flew to Bob Rock’s studio in Vancouver to record their new album, A Little Ain’t Enough. Meanwhile, Jason’s limp was getting steadily worse. And he started to lose his grip. Riffs and solos that he could peel off with ease just weeks earlier were tripping him up in the studio.

“I remember trying to play Drop In The Bucket, he says. “I’d written it. It was my song. I should have nailed it.” But he couldn’t nail it. In fact he could hardly play it. His fingers were so weak he could barely make the chord shapes. When Bob Rock finally got a decent take – and only then after Jason had changed his guitar strings to the lightest gauge he could find – a frustrated Becker skulked off to the toilet. He locked the door and put his head in his hands. That’s when he noticed his hand. “I looked at my left hand, and noticed that the muscle between my thumb and first finger was a lot smaller than before. It was concave.”

His left hand – the main tool of his trade – was withering away.

He locked the door and stayed in the toilet, hoping no one could hear the sound of a grown man crying. Just weeks after joining the band, he was diagnosed with ALS.

“Yeah, we call that the heaven and hell period,” says his father, matter-of-factly. ALS. Lou Gerhig’s Disease. Jason didn’t know what it meant. Even when the doctor said it was terminal, that he had three years to live, five if he was lucky, he shrugged his shoulders and announced bullishly that he would beat it. He’d change his diet. He’d run further. He’d run harder.

“I never did drugs, drank or smoked,” he says. “My only weakness was junk food. So I thought if I changed that I would be perfectly golden.”

At home in San Francisco, Pat and Gary knew it wouldn’t be quite that simple. Unlike Jason, they knew about ALS. They knew the doctors weren’t exaggerating. His parents were heartbroken.

In a recording studio in Vancouver, so was Dave Lee Roth. “Man, I cried when that verdict came in,” he said. “Trying to hire genius is damn near impossible, but I came close with Jason. You could feel the heat coming off him.

“That kid could move air. He had such a full, substantial sound, played through the simplest equipment. And the kindest, gentlest, absorbing, want-to-learn spirit I’ve ever worked with. The world was waiting to paint his picture, man. And he got struck down way too fucking early.”

Jason Becker learned to play guitar at the age of eight. Dad Gary had tried to teach him all the right notes and scales when he was five, but he wasn’t interested. But when he showed him the chords to As I Went Out One Morning, by Bob Dylan, something changed. It all made sense. He never looked back.

At the age of 12 he played in front of the kids from school. At 13 he could play along, note for note, with his uncle Ron’s Eric Clapton records. One day, Gary brought home a battered old cassette called Van Halen I. Everything changed again. The bar was set higher. And, within weeks, Jason was reaching it.

At the age of 16, Jason graduated from school early so he could concentrate on becoming a professional guitarist. There was never any doubt, says Pat, that he wouldn’t make a living playing the guitar.

Jason sent a home made recording to Mike Varney, the record company impresario and writer whose monthly Spotlight column in Guitar Player magazine showcased new guitar-playing talent.

Varney paired him with the older, more experienced guitarist Marty Friedman. They formed Cacophony: virtuoso guitar players in tight pants; heavy metal Paganinis riffing away furiously on guitars with pointy headstocks. Jason’s thing was to widdle with his left hand, his fingers a blur of pink, while casually tossing out a yo-yo with his right hand. The kids loved it.

Cacophony lasted for three years. Friedman went off to join Megadeth, Jason linked up with Dave Lee Roth. There was no bitterness, no acrimony, it was just time to do their own thing. “I learned tons from Marty,” Jason says. The two are still friends today.

Looking back, the first symptoms of his ALS were back in the Cacophony days. He remembers a persistent pain in his left calf, an itch he could never quite scratch, no matter how hard it was massaged or how hard he tried to run it off. He didn’t go to the doctor. “I wasn’t worried,” he says. “I was 19. I felt invincible.”

Even when the diagnosis was made, he refused to believe it. “You ask me when I accepted it and I don’t know if I have ever accepted it,” he says. “I have gone through anger and hopelessness, but I love life.”

Work on Roth’s A Little Ain’t Enough finished and a band meeting was called. Jason played every solo, every riff on the album, with rhythm guitar player and pal Steve Hunter helping out on the backing tracks. But it was obvious Jason couldn’t go on.

“Everyone was sad,” he says. “Dave was totally depressed. I tried to make him feel better by talking about football.” They were, he says, “the coolest bunch of guys.” Which made what followed especially hard to take.

When it was announced that Jason had left the band, Diamond Dave mysteriously decided to tell the press that some guitar players were good in the studio while some were better on the road – a cryptic reference many took to mean that Becker couldn’t cut it live.

At home, out of the band and facing up to life with a fatal and degenerative disease, Becker read Roth’s comments in a magazine. They hurt, he says.

“I wish Dave had told everyone about the ALS instead of saying that some people were good in the studio and some at playing live. I would have been great playing live. I felt ripped off big-time about that. I think he wanted to keep everything about his tour positive and upbeat. I get it. That was his whole scene. But it hurt because I was sitting at home. I wasn’t crazy about half of the songs on that album, so it wasn’t a total disappointment. I would have enjoyed doing my guitar solo, though. That would have freaked people out in a good way.”

His deterioration was rapid. At home in San Francisco, they dusted off an old air-hockey game they used to play. “He always used to beat me at that,” says Gary. “And then I started beating him. I remember saying: ‘Hey, I’m getting good’.” But it wasn’t Gary getting better, it was Jason getting worse. And they both knew it.

Jason had to surrender his driving licence and could no longer drive his car. He had so many accidents on his bike he stopped cycling. He went from walking with a stick, to crutches and then a wheelchair. He couldn’t walk. He was unable to hold his guitar. He lost his voice. Gradually the disease took it all.

“It was hell for everyone,” says Pat. “We tried to be positive. We’d sit together and talk and do things, and then I would have to go off, somewhere quiet, close the door and just break down.”

She remembers wondering if she would ever live another day in her life without crying. She cried every day for a year-and-a-half.

When Jason lost his voice, Gary designed a simple alphabet table that enabled his son to ‘speak’ with his eyes, building each word a letter at a time. It was slow progress, says Gary.

Caring for him is a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days- a-year job. It’s time-consuming. It’s also expensive. The Beckers have had to remortgage their home, and there have been times when they’ve wondered how the next bill would be paid, how they would keep the new wolves from their door. “And yet every time we get like this, something happens,” says Gary.

Eddie Van Halen nagged Warner Bros to release a Jason Becker solo album (Perspective, in 2001; it was originally released in ’96 on Becker’s own label). The family were genuinely worried they might go under before that happened, says Gary. The album saved them. For a while. A charity concert in San Francisco in March this year raised some much-needed funds. Another is planned in Amsterdam in November. Something always happens.

It’s a tragic story, says Gary. Everyone can see it is. Yet the one person who doesn’t see it like this is the man who is living it. “Jason sees it as how something positive can come from something so bad. He’s an incredibly positive person. He doesn’t want to be a poster boy for ALS. He wants to make music.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think you can ignore the dark side in all of this – and there have been times when it has been very dark – but there has also been this very positive side too,” Gary continues. “He has done more good and been more creative lying on his back, not being able to move, or talk, or walk, than most of us will ever do.”

And for that, says his dad, you can’t help but stand back and admire Jason.

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 165.

Not Dead Yet

Made by Jesse Vile, the documentary was a proper labour of love for the rock fan- turned-filmmaker.

Vile, an American who lives in England, says: “I did it because I loved his work. I knew Jason when I was 14 or 15 years of age. My guitar tutor showed me his work and it just blew me away.

“I’ve been waiting that long to make this film. His story needs to be told.”

The cost of the film – £45,000 – was raised by jason becker fans. Money came in from all over the world, says Vile. and, heart-warmingly for a cynical business, the film crew – sound men, lighting engineers, cameramen – donated their services for nothing. “It’s a low-budget movie, yes, but it’s filmed in HD and we were thorough. We wanted to tell his story properly – with respect and reverence, to show how positive he is, but to also show how this terrible disease blew his dreams away.”

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is available on DVD and on demand.

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