By the time he was 19, Becker was on his way to worldwide stardom. Then, after experiencing tingling and weakness in his hands and legs, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and had to say goodbye to a dream job of touring in a well-known band. Now, 25 years later, he is still working, inspiring fans worldwide. He credits a healthy diet, persistent work ethic and close-knit team of family and friends with allowing him to continue to create world-class symphonies. He is a gifted genius whose destiny seems unstoppable.
From Prodigy to the National Stage
Born in 1969, Becker found his first guitar under the Christmas tree at the tender age of 5. His classical guitarist father, Gary, and blues guitarist uncle, Ron, quickly taught him notes and the pentatonic scale. “He got bored with lessons and never came back for lesson number two,” Gary says. “We realized if he could play a song, that was his drive, so we just fed him songs.”
“Bob Dylan’s songs, along with classical guitar music, is what I first heard,” says Jason, using a communication board developed by his father. “Dylan has so much soul and attitude, he was the soundtrack of my childhood. It was about the feelings that he evoked. Later I was playing Eric Clapton and when I was 11 came influences like Jeff Beck, Segovia, Bach, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Morse and Eddie Van Halen.”
At 13 he wrote his first song, “Remember,” and at 14, he met producer Jim Ocean. “I was sitting in their living room and this kid comes in, plugs in his amplifier and launched into a Bach fugue that morphed into this speed metal thing,” Ocean says. “I realized I was in the room with a genius, with a virtuoso at age 14.”
By 16 he had cut four records, finished high school early and played a world tour with Marty Friedman in his band, Cacophony, for Shrapnel Records. The two became known for their innovative playing style of neoclassical-fusion.
At age 20 he was named “Best New Guitarist” by Guitar Magazine, and on the heels of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, signed on as lead guitarist with David Lee Roth. They cut the A Little Ain’t Enough album for Warner Bros. and prepared for a tour to introduce Becker to the world. Awash in the innocence and invincibility of youth, he literally had the world at his fingertips.
But on Mother’s Day the previous year, he had woken up with a painful cramp in his leg that became a limp. He began falling, started using a cane and after numerous tests while working on the Roth album, was diagnosed with ALS and told he had three to five years to live.
“I was more annoyed by the diagnosis than anything else,” Becker says. “I didn’t know anything about ALS, and I didn’t look into it. I believed I would fix whatever it was, and that would be that. I was playing guitar for David Lee Roth, and my limp was a minor annoyance.”
The condition progressed and the effects of ALS began to take a toll. “The weakness traveled to my fingering hand. Only one friend knew that I barely finished Roth’s album with a shaky hand. I just laughed it all off, thinking it would go away.”
His father watched in agony as ALS compromised his son’s ability to play. “Here was this kid who practiced constantly all his life. He’d already achieved so much and was on the pinnacle of a great music career, and he couldn’t hold the strings down and started dropping his guitar,” Gary laments. “It was rough to watch — when I looked at him he still looked like my little boy.”
“He’d work so hard for this and it was all going to be taken away, and he didn’t believe it at the time,” says Becker’s mom, Pat. “But we did.”
Keeping the Dream Alive
By the time David Lee Roth hosted an event to introduce his new young gun, the Beckers already had the prognosis. They describe the party as surreal.
“It should have been a huge celebration of everything he worked and dreamed for coming true right there,” says Pat. “But here we were, being diagnosed with ALS — it turned the dream into a nightmare.”
“But he was going to beat it, he had work to do and was in one of the great rock bands in the world,” Gary says. “To watch your little boy still full of hope … it was totally devastating. Simply heartbreaking.”
When Jason told Roth about his diagnosis, they agreed he wouldn’t continue with the band or tour.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he was going to be in that league with Van Halen and Clapton, even beyond that because of what he could do with classical music,” Gary says. “He was a consummate musician with absolutely no arrogance or ego about being in that world. He was just going to have fun with it and love it.”
Soon after Jason became paralyzed, a producer friend devised a sensor-equipped headgear and chin mouse so he could continue to compose. When he could no longer move his head or chin, Gary devised a unique, eye communication board so he could spell out words and notes that Gary enters into a musical composition computer program.
It is easy to see that Becker is surrounded by love. After a five-hour morning routine of daily hygiene, eating, drinking water and getting dressed, he’s off to work on the computer, composing music or going through fan emails and posts. His family, friends and ex-girlfriends work with him and the communication board to allow him to continue to create his music, which he describes as Rock-Metal-Classical-Blues-World music. Their team approach is more symbiotic than what any band could wish for.
“I’m just a human mouse,” says Gary. “Jason spells out what he wants me to key into a composition software.” He takes his basic melody or chord structure, has Gary play it on a keyboard or guitar, then he logs it into the computer. Jason can change or move notes and decide which instrument to use.
“He builds it up and makes it richer and richer until it becomes a full blown symphony at the end,” Gary adds. “Or it might be a simple classical guitar piece if that’s what he wants.”
“Nothing would be possible without the love and care of my friends and family,” says Jason. “A lot of people who get ALS don’t have enough support, and that’s probably a big reason why they don’t last long.”
Do You Want to Live? ‘Hell, Yeah!’
There are different classifications of ALS, and a fairly wide span separates the various prognoses. Most people fall into the average life expectancy of two to five years; 20 percent live five years or more; 10 percent live 10 years or more; and 5 percent live 20 years. Becker is in rare company, having lived 25 years after diagnosis.
Early on he stopped seeing specialists and avoided reading about the condition because he didn’t want to hear negative news or possibly be swayed by the power of suggestion.
“I don’t want to be preoccupied with this stuff,” he says. “I’m friends with people at research companies like Cytokinetics and the nonprofit ALS Therapy Development Institute. They will let me know if anything comes up that I should try, and my fans keep me up to date on anything new.”
“Gary and I follow Jason’s lead on dealing with this,” says Pat. “I don’t think we would have survived without the way he dealt with it. Sometimes I’d think he’s not grieving enough, is he going to get this out? Is he going to explode? Well yeah, he’d explode, but he’d also have wonderful moments.”
After leaving Roth, Jason began working furiously to continue to write, record and promote albums and get as much done while he was able. “In the beginning, it was all denial, or more like I thought I could fix it,” he says. “I don’t think that was an ignorant thought. I believe anything is possible.
“I started using a manual wheelchair in 1991,” he adds. “I felt like getting in a wheelchair was like giving up on walking. I would be a failure because I couldn’t heal myself.” He had tried chelation, acupuncture, colon cleansing, special diets and even had all of the mercury fillings removed from his teeth. “Once I relented, it was a huge relief. I didn’t have to stress about falling any more.”
But by 1996 breathing, talking and swallowing had become difficult, and his weight dropped from 150 to 80 pounds.
“Yeah, my middle name should be reluctance!” he says. “I hesitated getting a trachea for the same reason I didn’t want to use a chair: It would be admitting defeat. I could barely chew and swallow and could only really breathe when I was fully reclined.
“I had started to aspirate my food since I couldn’t chew it enough, I could barely sip on a straw and I wasn’t sleeping at all,” he says. “I finally decided to go to the doctor.”
His doctor took one look at him and asked him if he wanted to live, to which Jason replied, “Hell, yeah!” With that, the doctor sent him to the hospital to get a tracheotomy and gastrostomy tube. Within the month, he started to gain weight and feel better. Today he is back up to 120 pounds.
“I tell you, being able to breathe is sweeeet! Oxygen and food and water sure make a person feel better! I had forgotten what it felt like to be able to relax and be comfortable. I still ate blended food by mouth, like Twinkies and Ho-Hos, — ha!” he adds. “That was fun for about a year, but it became a waste of time. Once I went strictly to the G-tube, I didn’t miss eating.”
Peace and Purpose
While in the hospital waiting for the trachea, Becker’s ex-fiancé and caregiver, Serrana Pilar, noticed he was unresponsive and realized he was in CO2 narcosis. Having read Paramahansa Yogananda’s writings, he said he felt life leaving his body, then heard the sound of Om. When he came to, he’d lost his anger and fear and felt everyone around him had more energy and love. It gave him the peace and love he needed to follow his destiny.
“I now do mantras and meditate every day,” he says. “I go see my guru, Amma [Mata Amritanandamayi], once a year, drink a lot of water and eat only healthy food.” Through his tube, he now drinks seven, 12-ounce glasses of water each day, to which vitamin D3 may be added. His morning “gruel” includes quinoa, amaranth, fresh ginger, vitamins, cranberry concentrate and calcium. Lunch and dinner is fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and raw greens. His food is made in a slow cooker, with vitamins and extras added prior to each meal, which has been pureed.
“Humor is also big,” he says. “I always make nasty jokes, and my peeps and I are often cracking each other up. This is not to say that we don’t have sad or angry times. We definitely go through that, too.”
There are over 100,000 videos on YouTube featuring Becker and his music that continue to receive millions of views. In 2012, Carvin Guitars made a replica tribute guitar of the one Becker used, and Kino Lorber released a film about him, titled “Not Dead Yet,” available on Amazon.com.
Becker’s friend — and Pat and Gary’s “third son,” Dave Lopez — plans yearly benefit concerts. “Not Dead Yet” concerts are attended by fans or those who take inspiration from Becker’s perseverance while living with ALS. People with ALS come from all over the U.S. to meet him, and fellow musicians and bandmates come from all over the world to play for him. He recently put out an album of his new music, available on iTunes, and also collaborated on a new song with Marty Friedman for his new album.
“Jason always had this drive,” Gary says. “He loved playing so much, it was part of his existence, his reason. He’s not just inspiring people in the music world, but also in the world of people having to deal with devastating illnesses.
“Jason is in both worlds now — it seems to be his life purpose.”
Jason’s Musical Gift
The sweetest part of Jason Becker’s gift is depicted in a movie and on various YouTube videos: In “Not Dead Yet,” Josh, a boy about 13, and his mom visit Jason at his home. “I’m really excited right now, it’s an honor to meet you,” Josh gushes. “I watched your video for a whole week and am trying to use your techniques for my techniques.”
Then he plays for him.
In another clip, a 15-year old and two of his buddies show up to proudly show off an acrylic painting he did of Becker. After he rips off the dog-print wrapping paper, he says, “Um, yeah, it’s you!”
In another YouTube video, at a backyard birthday party, Richie Kotzen, formerly from the band Poison, sits and plays and sings for him while friends and family look on. When he finishes, Becker tells him he loves him, whereby Kotzen hands off his guitar and kisses him on the forehead.
“It is extremely important to still have a passion in life, and to feel like you have something to offer, to feel like you matter,” says Becker. “I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful people who help me continue with my passions. I get to write music and have a fun career.”
Eye to I
Gary Becker, Jason’s father, saw the need for a communication board that went beyond those he saw on the market. “The boards I’d seen were basically the alphabet in a row, and you could point to a letter and the person would indicate that it was correct,” says Gary. “This technique was slow, cumbersome and designed for the basics. I wanted something fast that would enable us to talk.”
Gary’s Eye Communication board is made up of six squares with four letters each, with Z and Y in the bottom left square. Each letter consists of two eye movements from Jason: up or down; left or right. Jason’s first eye movement points to a box, the second to the letter.
“One day, Jason was in the ER and I couldn’t find the board,” Gary says. “Turns out we both had it memorized so now we all have it memorized and don’t use the board anymore. It’s more like conversation,” Gary says. “We can look eye to eye and it’s much more intimate, much more realistic and like conversation.” For a demonstration, go to youtu.be/DL_ZMWru1lU