Tales from the Jugular

"Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet" --Documentary Review

By: Greg Watson
Published: Friday, October 11, 2013

"The diagnosis that was given to Jason however, left both he and his family bewildered, stunned and full of more questions than the ones they initially had--ALS. Those three letters changed Jason's life forever."

Jason Becker. Does the name ring a bell, fellow shred-heads? I'm sure there are many who are familiar, some who have forgotten and others who have never heard of him. This recap of his career is more for the latter of the group, but those of you who know Becker will enjoy this as well. Recently I caught a documentary about Jason. The film, which bears the same name as this article title, was released in 2012 and chronicles Jason's life from his childhood through the present period of the documentary. I could give every detail from the documentary, but I feel that a brief review is more appropriate.

Watching the documentary has given me a new level of respect and new found admiration for this man. The evolution of Jason's guitar playing is truly amazing. When he received his first guitar for Christmas his father sat him down and attempted to teach Jason some basic chords. Becker could not maintain his focus and soon abandoned the teaching session after learning two or three chords. A few days later he heard an Eric Clapton song on the radio, went out, bought the record and set out to play the song by ear. Upon hearing him play, his father said to him "Jason, I've been trying to learn that song for years. How did you do that?" After Becker responded, his father said "You are the teacher now; I am the student."

From that point on, Jason's days were filled with nothing but rigorous practice and honing his ability to play his beloved instrument. In middle school, Becker started doing Dylan-esque one-man shows and by high school he had graduated to playing his own songs in talent competitions. His song writing skills definitely showed the influence of one of his idols--Mr. Edward Van Halen. To be able to see this evolution unfold through the magic of cinema is one of the most fascinating things I've ever witnessed.

During his talent show-filled high school years, a little known record company called Shrapnel Records was just starting to get its feet on the ground. Their aim at this point in their early existence was an extensive search for the best guitarists in the metal world that not many people had heard of. Jason Becker was selected after the head of Shrapnel Records heard a demo that Jason had sent in. After agreeing to work with Shrapnel, the label paired Becker up with another up and coming guitarist by the name of Marty Friedman. Together the duo was known as Cacophony and they recorded several albums, toured all over the world and taught each other about life and guitar.

Becker was ecstatic to be playing guitar to anyone who would listen but little did he know, an even bigger opportunity was about to present itself to him. Around this time in his career, Steve Vai announced his departure from David Lee Roth's band. Naturally, Roth was on the hunt for someone capable of filling the shoes left vacant by Vai. Becker's name was mentioned and he was brought in for an audition. After the audition, Becker had a meeting with Roth himself and was told the gig was his if he wanted it. Jason was elated and immediately accepted the offer. Finally, all his hard work and innumerable hours of practice had paid off.

He was on top of the world and his dreams were about to come to fruition. The future indeed appeared bright for Jason Becker. But during the recording sessions for the new Roth album, Jason's life came to a screeching halt. Mysteriously, Becker began losing his ability to stay upright and balanced, falling over without warning while just trying to walk around. Perhaps most disturbing to Becker though was the loss of dexterity, speed and functionality in his hands. After a few more episodes and the realization that this condition would not simply go away, Becker decided that it was time to seek a medical opinion. Jason's hope was for a diagnosis that would provide answers and allow him to quickly return to the world of music and his life.

The diagnosis that was given to Jason however, left both he and his family bewildered, stunned and full of more questions than the ones they initially had--ALS. Those three letters changed Jason's life forever. If you aren't familiar with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease as it is more commonly known, it is a disease that affects the nerves in the brain and the spinal cord. Over time, the nerves begin to deteriorate and eventually die. There is no known cure for ALS and in most cases it is terminal. Becker was left with little hope and no ability to play the music he loved so much. Music that was his life blood, his raison d'etre, if you will. After the diagnosis, his motor skills began to fade quickly and eventually he became reliant on the aid of a motorized wheelchair to get around. His voice and ability to speak also began to decline rapidly.

After a routine visit to the hospital, Becker stopped breathing and his friends and family feared the worst. But Becker came out of it, only to realize that he no longer had the ability to speak. With the aid of his father and some simple geometry, the two of them developed a language and a way for Jason to be able to communicate again. With simple eye movements in various directions and positions, his father was able to determine what Jason was trying to say. Going forward, this gave his father the ability under Jason's instruction to begin to create music. For hours they would sit together, Jason telling his dad what note to use and the phrasing of the note. His father would input the directives into a computer, play them back for Jason, and tweak them additionally as needed. The process became stressful for both father and son and they both realized that they needed to come up with another way for Jason to be able to write music on his own.

That way was given to them via the aid of a family friend. With their help, they developed software that Jason could operate on his own and was built for Jason's limited abilities. Jason would place his head in an apparatus similar to those at the optometrist's office that test you for glaucoma and scan your retina. With a simple flick of his eyes, a mouse was in Jason's control to select various musical notes from a vast library built in to Jason's computer. Once Jason found the note he was after, he could select the appropriate note by opening his mouth. This software gave Jason the ability to once again start creating his own music and gain some sense of control back for himself.

Becker to this day, is still continuing to make music and is able to do still prove that he can play some of the most beautiful music out there, even if he isn't able to physically play it himself. Becker's story has inspired so many people that are suffering from ALS as well as anyone who knows his story. This documentary lets people know how truly amazing the human spirit and will to succeed and survive truly is. May Jason Becker's story restore hope to those who feel that all is truly lost, remind each and every one of us how grateful we should be for each day we have and show people how truly incredible the power of music truly is.

God bless and keep rocking Jason Becker!

Link: http://jasonbeckerguitar.com

--Greg Watson

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