RICHMOND -- As Gary Becker watched his 20-year-old son hobble onto the plane at Oakland International Airport, he felt a confounding mix of excitement and fear.
The reason for the excitement was obvious: Jason Becker was headed to audition as lead guitarist for David Lee Roth's band, perhaps the most coveted gig on the planet in 1990. The fear came because Jason was so young -- and what was that limp?
"He was still like a little boy to me and I was putting him on a plane and sending him off to Hollywood," Gary recalled.
Jason got the gig. Three years out of Kennedy High School in Richmond, the baby-faced prodigy had reached his dream.
The next week, it imploded. After a series of tests, doctors told Jason that he was in the early stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
Given three years to live, he later bowed out of Roth's band. He soon lost the ability to play his beloved guitar. That could have been the end of the story. But it wasn't.
Jason -- now 42 -- is among the 5 percent of ALS patients to live 20 years after diagnosis. Though he can barely move, he still makes music. With only his eyes and an invention by his father helping him communicate, the Richmond resident has continued composing, and his life story has inspired the documentary "Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet." The film debuted this month at San Jose's Cinequest Film Festival, winning the Special Jury Prize for Documentary and the
At a question-and-answer session after a screening, an audience member asked Jason how he has maintained his positive attitude.
"I don't really know," he said, through a translator. "I just lived my life."
'Blew everyone away'
At 12, Jason sat down next to his dad and played all the guitar parts from Eric Clapton's latest album. He had taught himself.
"He had a vision," said his mother, Pat. "He knew exactly what he wanted at a really young age."
At dinner, Jason would play riffs between bites. He bought a miniature electric guitar so he could strum while waiting at stoplights. His uncle would videotape him shredding with one hand, while slinging a yo-yo with the other.
By 15, his father, Gary Becker, finally persuaded friend and musician Jim Ocean, who has promoted concerts across the East Bay for decades, to visit their house to hear the son play.
"I saw a kid coming down the hallway with metal hair and dog collars on his wrist and I thought, 'Oh my God, I should have brought my earplugs,' " said Ocean, a folk scene aficionado. "Then he started playing Bach ... a blinding Bach fugue."
Ocean invited him to perform at the Musician's Coffeehouse, an open mic held in a Walnut Creek church.
"He pretty much blew everyone away," Ocean said. He returned for an encore performance, culminating his set by tossing his guitar into the air, only to have it get caught in wiring.
His rock-and-roll act needed room to grow.
Can I still tour?
While still in high school, Jason joined guitarist Marty Friedman to create the duo Cacophony. Friedman, who later joined Megadeth, and Jason toured for three years. At 18, Jason released "Perpetual Burn," a solo album with mind-blowingly fast guitar playing.
" 'Perpetual Burn' is like the Holy Grail," said Jesse Vile, the 31-year-old director of Jason's documentary, who was a teenager learning guitar when he heard the album. "It's beautiful music with proper composition and soul, and I just fell in love with his music."
In 1990, when guitar legend Steve Vai left for Whitesnake, Roth chose Jason as lead guitarist for his next album, "A Little Ain't Enough." Jason was heading into the rock stratosphere.
"We were happier than we've ever been," his mother recalled. "He was going to make his dreams come true and we were really proud."
When doctors delivered the devastating diagnosis, Jason asked if he could still tour with his band.
"I thought they didn't know (expletive)," Jason recalled. "I wasn't worried yet. It took a long time for me to get worried."
That happened as he returned to record the album, and the perfectionist started needing a few takes to nail his parts.
"Finally, I finished and I went in the bathroom and looked at my left hand and the muscle between my finger and thumb was way smaller," Jason said. "I cried. It was scary."
He soon left Roth's band. By his 27th birthday, he was paralyzed.
Life after guitar
In Jason's dreams he doesn't have ALS.
"I am always totally healthy in my dreams, but I can't play very well. I always mess up," he said on a recent rainy afternoon from his wheelchair, his mother translating. Jason lives next door to his parents in the hills of Richmond, his home adorned with guitars, 49ers memorabilia, his father's paintings, photos of his spiritual guru Amma -- known as the Hugging Saint -- and a small disco ball dangling from the ceiling.
His parents and ex-fiancee, Serrana Pilar, care for him, a full-time job. Having lost his voice, and breathing through a tube, Jason communicates through eye movements and the Eye Communicate Becker System.
Gary, a 64-year-old artist, created a glass rectangular board with six quadrants and letters spaced within those squares. Jason spells words by angling his eyes to a quadrant, with a second eye movement designating the letter.
"I really needed to communicate with him and that seemed like the simplest way to do it. Now he talks too much. ... Maybe I shouldn't have (made it)," Gary said, chuckling.
Jason has limited muscle control in his face, so arched eyebrows mean yes, and a mouth twitch means no. He gets people's attention by moving a finger, one of five muscles that have regained movement over the past two decades, which sounds a computerized "Hey, you!" He has enough facial movement to smile.
Jason's passion remains music, and a digital music program allows him to compose. During sessions, Jason stares at a guitar hanging on the wall, visualizing his fingers on the frets, and directs his father to enter each guitar note into the computer to create his music. Arpeggios that once overwhelmed audiences with their warp speed are now slowed to a crawl, but Jason said the composing provides an adrenaline rush akin to his stage days.
"It is wild how similar the feeling is inside," he said. He released his latest post-ALS album in 2008.
"I am going to put out a CD of demos I did when I was a kid, and I am slowly working on a new album," he said. "But my main goal is to be on the cover of People magazine as 'Sexiest Man Alive.' "
In the moment
Juri Kameda, of Menlo Park, seven years into her battle with ALS, came to the Cinequest screening of Jason's documentary to meet her hero.
"I'm inspired by his will to live. He has the spirit to live," said the 49-year-old former Stanford Hospital respiratory therapist from a wheelchair. "A lot of people take ALS as a death sentence and sit at home. But Jason chose to live."
His parents beam with pride at Jason's impact offstage.
"It is wonderful, but a little bittersweet," Jason said. "I wish I could do more to help."
Another audience member flew in from India to Cinequest to meet the guitar legend. Jason's YouTube videos, pre- and post-ALS, and website (www.jasonbecker.com) attract worldwide followers.
"I don't consciously think about inspiring people, it just happens. If it helps others, awesome," Jason said. "I guess I mostly just live in the moment. I rarely dwell on what could have been. I like my life now, so I am grateful."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
what is Lou Gehrig's disease?
Source: ALS Association
Jason was born in Richmond and attended Kennedy High School.
On May 28, 1996, the city of Richmond pronounced it Jason Becker Day.
"Music is the voice of my heart," Jason wrote in a statement that his emotional father read aloud to the city council that day. "The success I had in music grew from the dreams that were hatched here."
He ended his presentation by plugging his son's latest album and handed a CD to the mayor.