By Matt Blackett
"I feel lucky. I really do."
Those are the words of Jason Becker, world-class musician, guitarist, and composer from Richmond who recently released the amazing record, Triumphant Hearts, which showcases his beautiful compositions that are realized by hall-of-fame musicians such as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Neal Schon, Joe Bonamassa, Steve Morse, and many more.
Those words take on a deeper significance when you learn that they were "uttered" by a guy who suffers from ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's Disease — a horrible, degenerative condition that quickly robs those who are afflicted with it of their muscular, vocal, and ambulatory abilities and talents.
Those words take on a deeper significance still when you realize that Lou Gehrig himself said words to that effect in his retirement speech, when he, as one of the greatest baseball players of all time, was able to show gratitude even as his athletic gifts were being stolen by a disease that would eventually bear his name.
In that context, let's take another look at Becker's quote: "I feel lucky. I really do."
Becker was destined to take over the world of guitar. As a teenager, he possessed the ungodly technique of the '80s shred era. He could do the Eddie Van Halen swagger. He had the pop sensibilities, the bleusy swing, the classical composition smarts, and the show-tune pizzazz that added up to brilliant, timeless musicality. He was that guy.
Becker was bringing all of these gifts to a global audience when he auditioned for — and got — the most coveted gig in rock and roll: the job of lead guitarist in David Lee Roth's band, filling the huge shoes of Van Halen and Steve Vai. Becker recorded the DLR album A Little Ain't Enough and was on the verge of becoming the guitar superstar that he was born to be.
Cool. Cue the massive world tours, award shows, magazine covers, and immortality, right?
Not exactly. A nagging pain in Becker's leg led (after some nagging from his mom) to the diagnosis of ALS, a 100 percent fatal disease that gave him five years to live.
That was 30 years ago.
Yes, you read that right. Becker, as he is quick to remind people, is not dead yet, and is making the best music of his career. Becker — long since deprived of his ability to walk, talk, play guitar, and breathe on his own — is composing epic songs, cracking jokes, and inspiring people across the globe. How is that possible, you ask?
Unless you are Jason Eli Becker, that is. The Sexiest Man Alive, as he humbly calls himself. He communicates words and musical notes with a system that his dad, Gary, devised called Vocal Eyes — an "eye geometry" whereby Jason, who basically only retains control of his ocular movements, can spell out words (and, by extension, musical notes, chords, and phrases), one letter at a time, with his eyes. His caregivers translate those subtle movements into the very profound words and musical ideas that are in his brain, just itching to get out. This method of communication, which you can see in the award-winning documentary Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, has allowed Becker to keep in touch with friends and fans, write a monthly column for Guitar Player magazine, and compose deep, multi-layered music.
Most recently, Becker's eye movements have given rise to something big. Triumphant Hearts, his current album, is a fascinating glimpse into the past, present, and future of the Jason Becker Genius. It contains late-'80s and early-'90s recordings from an able-bodied Becker as well as many new compositions, and that evolution points to his continued growth as an artist. The record features the astounding guitar work of the aforementioned guitar heroes and many others, all of whom are gladly acting as Becker's hands to help him realize his unique musical vision.
"It's almost overwhelming for me to have these players on my songs," said Becker. "I remember buying Joe Satriani and Steve Morse records when I was in high school. Steve Vai has such a creative mind and heart, and he's been super encouraging to me over the years. I found out a while ago that Neal Schon was a fan of my music, and that made me feel great because I love his playing."
Schon's guitar work graces the astonishing "Valley of Fire," and he is instantly identifiable even in the midst of 12 other guitar stars. "I'm honored to have been a part of Jason's album," he said. "He's an amazing human being on top of being an outstanding guitarist and composer."
Satriani also holds Becker's playing and composing in high esteem, telling Guitar Player magazine, "Jason's combination of virtuoso and entertainer made him one of my favorite players. Over time, as his illness took hold of his fingers, he started to direct his talent towards composition. Today, his music shows a deeper understanding of melody, harmony, and structure."
Despite the mind-blowing collection of talent on display, the finest guitar moments on Triumphant Hearts arguably belong to Becker, as the album features early recordings plus two outtakes from the David Lee Roth era. The latter tracks show a 20-something Becker playing with the poise, maturity, depth, and funk of a world-class veteran. "The songs from the Dave sessions show the bluesy side of my playing as well as my Eddie Van Halen influence," said Becker. "I love the songs, but I understand why Dave didn't put them on the record."
Triumphant Hearts would be an incredible musical accomplishment no matter who made it. The idea that this beautiful record was conceived and created by a guy who can only move his eyes, a man who deals with more before noon than most of us ever will in a lifetime, a dude who somehow finds a way to make brilliant music and motivate others and tell jokes along the way … well, that is flat-out miraculous.
"I have a lot of struggles," he admitted. "These days more than ever. But I meant it when I said I feel lucky. I'm surrounded by people who love and support me, I get to hear players who are heroes of mine play on songs that I wrote, and I can still make music."
To purchase Triumphant Hearts, go to www.JasonBecker.com. To see a trailer for the award-winning documentary, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, go to www.JasonBeckerMovie.com.
Jason Becker was diagnosed with ALS 30 years ago.A Fuji apple tree, first cut. Photo by Paul Haggard.