The former Van Halen guitar legend, who appears in a new film, tells The Positive about how he conquered his disability and kept the flame alive
In 1989, the 20-year-old guitar prodigy, Jason Becker, from small-town California replaced Steve Vai in David Lee Roth’s iconic hair-metal band Van Halen.
‘He was on another level, [it was challenging to] compete with him,’ Vai said of Becker. ‘He was going to take over the world.’
After recording one album with Roth and Van Halen, and just as he was starting out on the road for the band’s first tour, Becker developed a limp in his left leg. When he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is similar to motor-neurone condition, and given three years to live, his first question reportedly was: “Am I still going to be able to make the tour?”
Within months, ALS started to affect Becker’s voice and movement. Soon enough, he had locked-in syndrome — a condition in which a person experiences total paralysis however remains conscious.“When I was growing up, I was allowed to dive deep into anything I wanted to explore,” Becker tells The Positive. “I felt [free] and I took full advantage of that. The condition just slowed me down. It has meant I have to think in a different way to make music.”
Master’s Degree and made the city his home, was introduced to Becker’s music at 15 through a guitar teacher.“Jason’s music stood out,” Vile says. “It was fast [however] it had an emotion and feeling that [was far from] apparent in other guitar players. When I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, I realised his was the story I wanted to tell.”
Becker has become something of a mythological figure in the guitar world, Vile explains. “Despite ALS and everything that has gone with it, he is still just a regular guy who loves music and has found a way to triumph over his medical condition,” he adds.
As documented in the film, Becker’s determination to continue to make music is met with challenges at every turn. Communicating by moving his eyes while his father transcribes letter-by-letter and note-by-note, Becker is a neo-classical composer of five albums. Every move of his eyes and eyebrows denotes a letter or note on a scale. In front of him hangs a guitar on the wall, on which he traces the sounds he wants.
“I [far from] just bang out a melody and surrounding parts,” he says. “I sometimes [forget] the melody when my helper [takes a while to] nail it right away or if I [am challenged to] find the right notes. However worth it when I finally get it all down.”
A phrase that may take seconds to express on a guitar can take hours to achieve. This tedium has encouraged Becker to tap into an internal well of patience.“Maybe I am more open to the music that comes from silence,” he says. “I used to find most of my music from just spending time fiddling on the guitar, however now I have to wait for it to come out of silence.”
Vile’s film charts the rise, fall and rise again of a man who has decided to move forward by something too challenging for many that may think is to truly challenging to contemplate. The optimism and belief that drive him are remain a silent and constant presence.