By: Josh Lucas
It was a snowy and frigid winter night in 1988 that I was born. George Michael’s “Faith” was the #1 album. “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley was in the top 10, and was perfectly innocent for the next 20-25 years, until it was used to prank people on the internet.
You ever look at the Billboard Hot 100 the week that you were born? I would consider mine especially depressing. The best songs and silver linings in the Top 20 were Everywhere by Fleetwood Mac, Hazy Shade of Winter by The Bangles, Just Like Paradise by David Lee Roth (bless you, Steve Vai) and Push It by Salt-N-Pepa. The only one my mom remembers, Angel by Aerosmith, had dropped from #3 to #48 by the time I was born.
Sorry to the other artists–it just wasn’t my (and evidently my parents’) cup of tea. Even the Top 10 artists that I would ordinarily love were putting out–let’s call it, their most commercial and absolutely worst music.
I mean, I’m no music critic, and there are plenty of ideas out there in the air for everyone to make whatever music they want for whatever reasons they want. But when I look back on 1988, there are only a handful of records that I can spin on a regular basis. And the most important record of all, I wouldn’t discover for another 15 years.
Swirling sweep arpeggios, insane alternate picking and legato lines, bluesy bends and no shortage of feel–and all from a kid who recorded and composed the music when he was just a little older than I was at the time.
I’m guessing those of you who are fans could tell without the title that I’m talking about Perpetual Burn by Jason Becker. That record left an impression on me that I’ll never shake off. Especially at the time I heard it–man, I wanted to play like Jason. I wanted to be that prodigy, and I worked harder than you can imagine to be able to play what I wanted when I was that age. It’s because he made it possible–I knew that it was possible because he’d done it–that I would practice for over 8 hours a day from age 14-18. It was homework, then practice, then just enough sleep to get by. I knew that if I put in the work, it would elevate the ideas that I had for music to the next level.
I know, I was a weird kid. I was obsessive, and I couldn’t be told, “No.” Fortunately, I always kept up with my grades so I didn’t have to catch too much flak. Although, at the time, there were no visible jobs for guitar players, so I always got the, “Well, you need to have a back-up plan,” talk.
But here I am in 2021, 15 years after High School graduation, earning a living solely from playing the guitar. I didn’t want a backup plan, and I wouldn’t settle for less–I knew that I have what it takes, and that these weren’t dreams I was having–they were goals, and I knew that I could accomplish the goals if they were clear.
I knew because Jason had done it, but I knew there was only a slim window of time where I could set the world on fire as a guitar prodigy. After a couple years of woodshedding, I sat down and learned the main theme of “Mabel’s Fatal Fable” note for note for my college guitar auditions.
And that was a pretty depressing time. I remember there were college representatives that would come to our guidance counselor’s office and talk with the seniors about their college plans–well, their whole mission was to get kids to stay in-state for college. It made practical sense, I’d get the “Promise Scholarship” where, you know, you “promise” to go to college in the state, I guess? I remember our conversation perfectly.
“Where would you like to go to college?”
“I don’t know… Berklee… GIT…”
“Well, are you independently wealthy?” she retorted.
Even as a 17 year old who scarcely knew what those two words meant when put together, I could tell that I wanted to kick her through the wall like Mortal Kombat.
I wish I could go back in time and tell myself, “Do it anyway. They’re just manipulating you”
But I couldn’t.
With supreme confidence, I entered my auditions–and I completely choked on Jason’s song, which was the centerpiece of my audition where I’d show off what I’m really made of. I did NOT get a scholarship to WVU’s music program. Better luck next time, kid.
But after that audition I thought to myself, “You know what? This isn’t what I really wanted anyway. Things may not work out how I planned, but that doesn’t mean that I want anything else.” I practiced harder, and nailed my other auditions. Although most colleges only accept classical guitar as a worthy part of their curriculum, and nobody cared how well I could play electric guitar. So I knew that I had more work to do, and I knew that my path wasn’t entirely in sync with my goals–but I also knew that learning classical would push my skills even further.
So I spent some more time in the woodshed, and on top of learning guitar in school, I spent my time playing, recording, and touring with my own bands. And even though I didn’t end up a “prodigy” or at least not a well known one, I was growing into the guitar player that I wanted to be, and I was writing the music that came to my head. I don’t think I could’ve done that without the inspiration that I drew from Jason–and I haven’t even mentioned the craziest part of his story.
For those of you who don’t know, after he got the gig as David Lee Roth’s new guitarist, he lost the ability to play guitar completely. He was scarcely in his 20’s when ALS would change his life and rob the world of his guitar playing forever–or so we thought.
Even after he lost the ability to move, and communicate in conventional ways, he and his father devised a way that he could compose music with his eyes. To me, he was fighting the ultimate fight and exhibiting almost superhuman bravery. He was still able to compose music, and guitarists were more than willing to execute his vision–all because of the incredible work that he did before he was even old enough to vote.
That’s a big part of what gave me hope, and continues to give me hope to this day–there is no limit to what we can do when we put our mind to it. Why can’t I play guitar for a living?
It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t instant, but it’s the road that led me here. And I’m so gratefully indebted to every person who helped get me here–even the ones that didn’t know they made an impact on me. That’s what’s beautiful about music, by its very nature we pay forward the joy it brings us. Every single note we play. They all mean more than we can imagine.
The craziest part is, even years down the line after I’ve learned some of the licks–the overall timelessness and mastery of the composition is still mind boggling. He was a 17-18 year old kid pushing his mind and body to the absolute limit. And his resolve to continue despite impossible odds will inspire people, not just guitarists, for the rest of time.