I remember reading some time ago about a brilliant guitar player in David Lee Roth's band who had to step out from a tour, a recording session or something like that, because he was diagnosed a disease.
The guitarist was Jason Becker, and the disease, as I've come to find out recently, was none other than the splendid shit sandwich known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. For those unfamiliar, it's a disease in which the neurons in charge of sending orders to your muscles start to die, one after another, until you get completely paralyzed.
I've been recently digging into Cacophony, the band mr Becker formed in his teens with the also supernatural guitar player Marty Friedman. In such early ages, and he was already doing incredibly technical stuff. I cannot imagine the horror that must have been for an extremely gifted player like him having to lose at first his guitar ability, and knowing what came next (and what a loss for music is this, too! Imagine what world would we have if Jimi Hendrix, Tony Iommi, Gary Moore or so many others had been deprived of the possibility of playing their guitar...)
In most of the cases, people who suffer ALS die in about two years (breathing is a movement, and the neurons in charge of it end up failing too). There is, however, a small percentage of people who survive longer, the best known case being Stephen Hawkin. And this has also been the fate of Jason Becker. He has endured this horrible torture of sickness for about 25 years now, if I remember correctly, and he's for a long time already been reduced to a state of no mobility at all, with the exception of his eyes, which he uses to communicate with the world using a system invented by his father.
And yet, Becker has managed to stay musically active, and in these days releases his new album "Triumphant Hearts". The first single, "Valley of Fire", is a beautiful and atmospheric tune, a celebration of beauty and love to life. It includes collaborations from a lot of famous players, "The magnificent 13", and, as it is to expect, they give the best of themselves, which is a lot to say, for this very special project.
Such gathering of talent is in itself a very special event too; I hadn't seen so many guitar luminaries together since the Guitar Legends festival in Barcelona, all the way back to 1992...
The song, besides being top notch (it's an unexplainable phenomenon how often, while I'm listening to it, I get specks of dust in my eyes... ;) ), has also become to me sort of a go-to mini-enciclopaedia of guitarists that I want to check out further. My favorite discoveries as I write are Mattias "IA" Eklundh (to whom I dedicated a post a couple of months ago, and it was a nice surprise finding him here again - besides ultrafast, a player of great sensitivity, punch, a healthy sense of humor and a killer tapping technique), and Richie Kotzen (what a distinct style this guy has, and it's not only about the fact that he plays without pick; what delicacy, what character, what expression...)
It's hard to say something about Jason Becker's story without sounding a bit trite. So I'll start by saying something politically incorrect: the guy's stubbornness is beyond my understanding. I for one know that, if I ever "won" this shitty ALS lottery (it seems it gets "awarded" to 1 out of 25,000 persons), I would have taken ASAP the necessary measures to take myself out of the picture. I wouldn't have wanted to stay around and find out if I'm in the group who, lucky me, survive to turn progressively into a living statue.
(Of course, that's what I think I'd do now, I hope I never have to find out!)
And yet, in interviews Becker says that he's alright with his fortune (from other sources I remember, Hawkins also considered himself a kinda happy person... wow). In this kind of extreme, stripped down situations, it's interesting to see what the person focuses on, and in the case of Jason it is clearly love. You can see it for example in the beautiful drawings that accompany the album and the video. He feels grateful because he is surrounded by people who love him. He speaks of peace. And he manages to put into this sad world of ours something new and wonderful, using tools as meager as this:
Just for fun, put the letter board in front of you, and spell one word with your eyes. And I used to pity myself for all the processing I had to do to get a passable emulated bass sound... This guy has turned making music, for all of us musicians with mobility, into a moral imperative.
At least, I guess being such a musical genius from early ages must help him to communicate his ideas quicker and more effectively to other fellow musicians; to "skip steps" and get to the point quicker, as you can do in any field only once you master it.
This brings me to mind something Leonard Cohen said in his last days, when he was finishing "You Want it Darker", besieged by disease, and lucidly aware that it was going to be his final album. In the 2000s he withdrew for some time to a zen monastery and became a monk (something that the press, of course, made a big fuss about in those days). He explained in an interview how that training in meditation was helping him now enormously to cope with the pain. (Here is the interview, in case you feel like listening to it):
The biggest connection between these two cases, I guess, is that they both are inspiring: you find courage out of watching them, they make your life better, and thus their suffering at least is not without meaning. Human beings mirror each other, we help each other cope or get into despair with the things we do or not do. In the latest days, it has happened to me, while I was in some bitching situations, to see Jason's face clearly, his expression that seems to be full of irony, like saying "this sucks but what you gonna do..." And naturally, the problem has lost quickly octanes and become relative. I don't think Becker does what he does to become an example, but he has become an example to me: just use whatever you have to do your thing, bring into this world something more than complaints and unease. Let's go.
I've looked a bit into the state of research on ALS. Luckily, it seems pharmaceutical companies have an eye on the disease, so advances are being made. Until now, all that was available was medication to slow down the decay. However, it seems that recently a new line of research has been discovered, and for the first time scientists are starting to speak, although still timidly, of the possibility of a cure some day. Who knows, in this age of prodigies and fast speeds of ours, what could happen in the upcoming years... I hope and desire intensely, which is my way of praying, that great advances and even a cure are soon available... :)
I have a guitar and I'm gonna use it