Interview with Guitarist Jason Becker Two decades After His ALS Diagnosis
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One this past summer's biggest crazes was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, as hundreds if not thousands of people poured buckets of icy water over their heads, then posted video clips of the stunt to YouTube, all in an effort to raise awareness and funds for ALS research.
ALS stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, often known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease,” which the ALS Association describes as a "progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord...With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed."
Despite a minor furor over water wastage from concerned citizens of such drought stricken places as California and Texas, the ALS Bucket Challenge was a huge success, raising well over $100 million dollars (and still counting) for the cause thanks in no small part to the participation of Beyoncé, James Franco, Lena Dunham, J.J. Abrams, Kate Upton, Russell Brand, Drake, Dr. Dre Matt Lauer, Miley Cyrus, Ben Affleck, Anne Hathaway, David Beckham, Lady Gaga, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and even former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
One of the most poignant challenge videos came from Jason Becker, the former flash guitarist who was struck down with ALS on the cusp of becoming an international guitar hero when he replaced Steve Vai in the David Lee Roth Band in 1990. By 1991 Becker was told that he likely had only five years to live, yet today, at age 45, he continues to defy the odds just by being alive.
Now completely paralyzed by the illness, with the sole exception of his eyes and eyebrows, Becker nonetheless took the Ice Bucket Challenge in his own unique way, having his caregivers place two sealed bags of ice cubes on his head while calling on his friends (and heroes) David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen and John Mayer to take the challenge.
Mayer accepted almost immediately, but before he did, he played along to a recording of Becker's 1988 instrumental "Air" from his pre-ALS solo album, Perpetual Burn, and spoke of the courage and inspiration he draws from this "phenomenal musician." And, according to Becker's Facebook page, while Eddie Van Halen opted out of the ice bucket, he nonetheless made a private and reportedly generous donation.
As anyone who has seen Jesse Vile's 2012 documentary, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, will attest, Becker's life is simultaneously one of the most heartbreaking and inspiring stories that real life could ever dream up. And not only is Becker not dead yet, he's as alive and vital as anybody could be, under the circumstances.
Growing up in Richmond, California, in the same East Bay region that gave rise to both John Fogerty and Sly Stone, young Jason Becker found music early on. His father Gary was a classical guitarist and his uncle Ron loved the blues and, as early as five years old, he was exposed to the music of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix, and began dreaming of becoming a guitar hero like Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eddie Van Halen.
Becker was a driven young man, no stranger to working hard to attain tough goals, so he practiced hard and never took his eyes off the prize. By grade six, he was playing at school functions and local coffeehouses, and by 16, he was earning a regional reputation as a prodigious lead guitarist, teaming up with another guitarist Marty Friedman under the moniker Cacophony. After a pair of albums with producer Mike Varney, Becker made the solo statement, Perpetual Burn, and was soon embarking on a hot solo career. (Friedman also found success with Megadeth).
When Steve Vai announced he was leaving David Lee Roth's band, Becker tried out for and won the coveted lead guitar spot in Diamond Dave's band, effectively joining a club whose only other members included Vai and Eddie Van Halen. Relocating the L.A. area, he began rehearsing and recording what would become Roth's gold-selling A Little Ain't Enough. He was only 20, and on top of the world.
Then it all came crashing down.
While preparing to record with Roth and producer Bob Rock in Vancouver, Becker began to complain about having a "lazy limp" in his left leg. When he began stumbling, he knew he could no longer avoid a visit to a doctor. Immediately, Becker was diagnosed with ALS.
The disease is progressive, incurable and moves fast within its victims, attacking their muscles and organs until they finally succumb. At first, he kept the diagnosis to himself, and went about finishing the album. But by the time the A Little Ain't Enough tour rolled around, Becker could barely hold a guitar. His brilliant career was over before it began, but his life with ALS was just beginning. Where once he was driven to succeed on the guitar, he now had to fight just as hard to stay alive.
Eventually, he lost the ability to walk, or move any of his limbs. He breathes with a respirator and is fed intravenously. He has since lost the ability to speak, and now communicates only with the assistance of something called the Vocal Eyes Becker Communication System, an alphabet-oriented spelling and communication tool that his father Gary Becker developed for those with severely impaired motor and speed capabilities. By moving his eyes around a board with letter groupings on it, he can indicate words to his caregivers, who speak out the words for him. It's a tedious system, but Becker makes the best of it and is grateful to be able to communicate the thoughts in his incredibly sharp mind.
In the early days of his paralysis, Becker had enlisted the help of his music producer Mike Bemesderfer who helped design a computer program he could trigger with the movements of his eyes, enabling him to continue to compose music. While no longer uses that system, Becker is still composing music by having an assistant input his musical directions into ordinary Logic Audio software.
Early on, he and his caregivers eschewed the nutritional advice of some medical professionals. On his website, Becker has some harsh opinions about the doctors he dealt with early on, even insisting that some of them had wanted to "teach me a lesson for choosing to get a tracheotomy instead of politely dying."
"This was actually told to my mother," Becker maintains on the site, "plus many more horrible things she can't even talk about. The doctor almost insisted I be put in a hospital for life. My Mom realized that she was dealing with a person who had forgotten the heart. Mom fought with love, confidence and peaceful determination. Of course, she won and I went home."
As seen in the film, his former girlfriend Serrana is still one of his closest friends, and one of his inner circle of constant caregivers, along with his parents Gary and Patricia, his brother Ehren and his current girlfriend Marilyn, who acted as translator when we caught up with Becker on the phone recently. In conversation, such as it is, Becker remains charming and funny, betraying no overt bitterness about his fate, choosing instead to use the borrowed time he has to live as full a life as possible.
We wondered if he approved of the Ice Bucket Challenge as an ALS fundraising and awareness tool.
"Yes," Becker replied, "at first I thought it was a little silly, but overall I loved it."
An audience with Jason Becker is humbling for people with full use of their limbs. Hearing how he manages, it's hard not to feel like an underachiever, and yet Becker isn't trying to show up anyone, or shake people out of their complacency. He's too busy loving his life, his family, his friends and, always, his music. Not only does he keep going in the face of dismal prospects, he appears sunnier than most fully-abled people.
We asked him if his positive mental outlook was one of the keys to his longevity?
"That's a great question," says Becker, thinking it over before admitting, "You know, I'm not always positive. I have hard times too. I guess more than being positive is being able to have passion for things in life. I feel lucky more than positive."
According to many around him, including Becker himself, another secret to his survival is his organic natural diet, which not only gives his skin a healthy glow, but also helps to keep his mind and spirit strong. Initially, Becker's doctors had insisted that his diet wouldn't make a difference, and on the one hand, that's true; the disease itself is not deterred by what you eat. And yet, here he is, still rising and shining 22 years after receiving his supposed death sentence.
The diet consciousness began early in his ALS story, while he was rehearsing for the A Little Ain't Enough album in Glendale, when David Lee Roth's nutritionist sister Lisa introduced him to an all-natural diet. While he can no longer eat solid foods, his diet today continues to be made up of healthy and organic foods. Only now, Serrana will put these into a blender and feed them to Becker through a G-tube.
In Not Dead Yet, Serrana shares her view that this diet may have been a key factor in his longevity. Becker agrees that it has,and adds that he gets a lot of questions about this from ALS sufferers, fans, nutritionists and doctors alike.
"Mostly," says Becker, "from fellow ALS people who want to ask me what my recipes are."
And while he says he hasn't felt any backlash from the medical community, who are typically skeptical about holistic or naturopathic treatments, they don't exactly endorse it, either.
"But then again," he adds, "they are always positive about me."
It is at this moment that Jason's girlfriend Marilyn breaks from translating to politely ask Becker if she can add a few words about his diet. With his encouragement, she elaborates.
"There isn't anything magical about his diet," she adds. It's what anybody would do who's trying to do healthy meal plan for themselves. This diet has been tweaked over the years, to add various supplements that we found out about, or if Jason was having particular issues. So it has evolved over time, and anybody could do the same."
Despite having atrophy and the usual ravages of ALS throughout his body, save for his eyes, Becker does maintain a regular exercise routine. In the evenings, his caregivers perform what is known as a 'range of motion' program.
"Other people," Marilyn explains, "will manipulate Jason's arms and legs in different circular patterns and so forth so that, even though he can't move his arms and legs, they get stretched and moved, which is good for circulation and overall health."
"I think," adds Jason, "that my eyes are still strong because I use them constantly to communicate. I like to think my mind is as sharp as ever, but I am starting to get old."
He notes the irony that he is even getting old at all, when doctors had said he'd be dead by 25. We asked him if his long life is a source of inspiration to other ALS survivors, or if he even knows of any other long-term survivors like himself.
"Yes," says Becker. "I had a couple of friends who lived a long time. And of course there is Stephen Hawking, who has survived for 50-something years with ALS. We met briefly. I went to a lecture in Berkeley and we got to say hello afterwards. Well I was able to give him my communication system, because he gives fast lectures when they are prepared beforehand, but for normal conversation he is a little slow. In this situation, my system works faster than a computer. It's more immediate."
Jason Becker still listens to music all the time; only today many of his former heroes and peers are now friends. He refers to guitarist Steve Hunter, with whom he played briefly in the David Lee Roth band, as one of his brothers. And of course, there's his friend John Mayer, whom he has high praise for as a friend and guitarist. We asked him what else he's been digging lately.
"I go through phases where I don't like anything new," he admits, "but I really like the new band Maragold, with Greg Howe. Great guitar and playing! I also love The Winery Dogs and Michael Lee Firkins' newest album, and I always listen to Peter Gabriel, and Trevor Rabin."
And while the composition process is slow going at times, he still makes his own music.
"It's mostly kind of modern classical music," says Becker, describing the music he makes using Logic Audio, "and a couple of things that sound like Pink Floyd. Maybe this music could be soundtrack music, but unfortunately it just hasn't been put in films, yet!"
His albums are available through his web site, where you can also make a donation to Becker and his family. And, if you haven't already seen it, do yourself a favor and see Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet. You can buy it on DVD from his site, and Becker gets a portion of the proceeds from every download and rental on Amazon and iTunes, with Netflix coming soon.
Asked for a parting comment, Becker doesn't hesitate. "I guess," he says, "I just hope that people will check out my music."
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