Rockers With ALS
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to the growing list of people (including a lot of classic rockers) who have accepted the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. But the disease is a frightening ordeal for the thousands of people living with it every day — and their ranks include a number of musicians whose work should be familiar to us all.
Perhaps the most high-profile artist battling ALS is Jason Becker, the talented guitarist who seemed poised to embark on a brilliant career before he received his diagnosis in the early ’90s. Rising to prominence alongside Marty Friedman in the short-lived project Cacophony, Becker released a solo album (‘Perpetual Burn’) in 1988, then caught the ear of then-former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, who needed a replacement for departing guitarist Steve Vai.
Roth enlisted Becker for his third solo LP, 1991’s ‘A Little Ain’t Enough,’ but what initially appeared to be the first in a series of big breaks ended up being a test of endurance. After noticing a limp in his left leg, Becker sought medical attention, and was given the grim news that he had ALS. A progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, ALS gradually robs its victims of the ability to control muscle movement, starting with fine motor skills (such as playing guitar) and continuing through daily activities most of us take for granted, such as walking or being able to speak. The general prognosis is grim, with most patients passing away within three to five years from the onset of symptoms.
Determined to press on even after his diagnosis, Becker managed to finish the ‘A Little Ain’t Enough’ sessions, but he was unable to join Roth on tour and soon lost the ability to perform. He’s lived well beyond the initial life expectancy the doctors originally gave him, however, and thanks to some unique software that tracks eye movement, he remains able to communicate and compose; his second solo LP, ‘Perspective,’ was released in 1996, and he maintains an active connection with his fans via his official website. (To learn more about Becker’s life, career, and battle with ALS, you can also watch the 2012 documentary ‘Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet.’)
“I don’t feel strong necessarily. I just live my life,” Becker told the Quietus in a 2012 interview. “I know that things didn’t turn out the way I had planned, but after the initial shock of it all, what can you do? When I think about it, I seem strong, but I still make music and I have lots of love and fun and the people around me seem strong too, so it makes me feel humble and grateful, and I also feel the grace of God. I understand the feeling of hopelessness and loss, but I also understand the feeling of love and gratitude. It all depends on what mood you catch me in. I think passion, purpose and love are things that we all need. Those things make us all stronger.”
Becker’s struggles are painfully familiar to Toto bassist Mike Porcaro, whose health woes first became known to fans when he left the band’s live lineup in 2007. Toto broke up in 2008, but reconvened in 2010 for a series of live dates booked to raise money for Porcaro’s care; as guitarist Steve Lukather put it in an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock in 2014, “That was the reason why we got back together — to help Mike Porcaro, you know, battling the ALS, and he’s not winning the battle. It’s a tough one, to watch a brother down like that, slowly fading away. It’s cruel.”
“I’d like to say Mike’s doing better, but Mike’s … The words I can use are, Mike’s hanging in there,” Toto co-founder David Paich sighed in a 2012 interview. “Mike has a great attitude. In general, it’s the prognosis that isn’t great you know … He’s kinda been going downhill for the last three years here, because it’s a very slow degenerative process. But again, Mike mentally is fantastic and if you talk to him his spirits are up and he’s great and he’s like the old Mike Porcaro, except that he’s disabled, he’s in a wheelchair and can’t move. Can’t walk and can’t play which is a total … Just a heartbreaking drag, you know what I mean?”
At the Porcaro Charity Fund website, fans can donate to Mike’s care as well as read updates from his wife Cheryl — including the story of encouraging improvements in his condition after taking a new supplement called ImunStem. “I’m doing the best that I can, and I know that you all are a big reason for that,” Porcaro wrote in a message posted at his official site. “The chances and the changes of life challenge all of us and I am surrounded by the love of family, friends and fans from around the world.”
* Update: Porcaro passed away in March of 2015.
ALS has already claimed the lives of a number of well-known musicians, including former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dan Toler, who passed away in February 2013 at the age of 65. In recent years, he’d reunited with his former Allmans bandmate Dickey Betts as part of Betts’ reconstituted Great Southern, a period Betts recalled fondly at Toler’s memorial service. “This last go round with Danny when we were really working for a living, after the blowup with the Allman Brothers, I think that was the most special. We had to really get out there and play, you know, we were right next to the people in smaller clubs, not a whole lot of money, we were just playing for the love it,” he told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “What a guitar player. As far as his diversity and everything, I think he was the best I’ve ever run across, and I’ve seen a lot of them.”
It probably goes without saying that these are just a few of the professional musicians whose careers have been cut short by ALS. Blues legend Huddie William Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, was one of the first, passing away in 1949 — just a few years after the disease claimed its first known celebrity victim, baseball great Lou Gehrig. Jazz titan Charles Mingus was also diagnosed prior to his untimely passing in 1979.
According to the ALS Association, every year, roughly 5,600 people in the U.S. alone are diagnosed with the disease; estimates indicate “as many as 30,000 Americans may have the disease at any given time.” Work continues on drug treatments like Riluzole, but we’ve yet to determine what causes most forms of ALS, which has hampered efforts to find a cure. All of which is to say that while it’s definitely entertaining to watch friends, loved ones and famous folk being dunked with buckets of cold water, there’s a very serious purpose behind all this — and the more than $40 million raised (so far) will be put to excellent use.
And once you’ve toweled yourself off and mailed out that donation, you may want to contact your local representatives about reversing recent budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health, which — as this NBC News article makes clear — contributes the lion’s share of funding to medical research, to the tune of $30 billion a year. “Researchers need dependable money,” one doctor told the network. “Almost no one realizes how dire the research situation is for NIH.”