As an aspiring guitarist and metal head in the mid 1980’s, it was difficult to escape the influence and artists of Mike Varney‘s Shrapnel record label.
From Paul Gilbert and Racer X to Tony MacAlpine and the first stirrings of neoclassical fret fury from Yngwie Malmsteen, Shrapnel had what you needed if you loved noisy, 300 mph speed metal and had no fear of men in skin-tight, animal print spandex.
One of the major leading lights of that movement was Jason Becker, who first came to prominence in the duo Cacophony with fellow corkscrew-curled fretboard mangler Marty Friedman (who would later go on to a gig in Megadeth and improbable late career J-Rock fame in Japan).
Becker is the subject of a superb documentary “Not Dead Yet”, which I saw at the weekend on the UK’s PBS America channel and can heartily recommend to any fan of inspiring stories, nostalgic metal fans and people who like good stuff.
So, most of you, then?
See, Becker’s rapid ascent through the metal guitar ranks was cruelly interrupted by illness just as he had scored a prestige gig as lead shredder in David Lee Roth‘s band – as he recorded the album, Becker was diagnosed with ALS, the affliction more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease and his once promising musical career was abruptly curtailed.
The film tells Becker’s story carefully, being certain to emphasise the importance of his family background and how their support for his musical gift helped him achieve success before the tragic onset of illness seemed to rob him of the successful musical future which seemed his for the taking. It’s that family and his network of friends which are the revelation of the film – nobody walked away from him once his ALS diagnosis was confirmed and it’s perhaps only due to the family’s determination to support Becker through his ongoing illness that we have this story to watch.
Though now in a wheelchair, tube-fed and on permanent life support, through a vital network of friends and technology Becker still composes music and is a regular guest at gigs in his honour, where the likes of Friedman, Joe Satriani, Richie Kotzen and other luminaries of the whammy bar assisted arts rock out in a celebration of music and its ability to communicate even through the most seemingly insurmountable barriers that the human body can present.
Jesse Vile’s documentary is a film that can’t help but inspire you – the problems which many of us face don’t really stack up to much when you see what kind of obstacles Becker and his family have faced in their efforts to beat the odds and circumvent the three-to-four year life expectancy which Jason was calculated to have when first diagnosed. By the time that the film ends, it’s not really a spoiler to tell you that the musician is 42 years old and…well, the title tells you everything.
See it – it’s a fantastic piece of work.