Music: Genius plus Jaco equals pain
Jaco Pastorius hailed himself the greatest bassist in the world. He was also manic depressive and he died forgotten and alone. But was this the inevitable price of his brilliance?
Friday 06 November 1998
And not simply geniuses. Too many people have worked on the principle that if genius is pain, then being in pain must automatically make you a genius (for some reason, I am irresistibly reminded of Steve Harley at this point). And when the time-honoured principle of reductio ad absurdum is applied, what remains is the notion that simply being a pain makes you a genius.
Certainly, when you examine the lives of the gifted and difficult, it is hard not to wonder why anybody put up with them in the first place. The likes of Peter Sellers and Jim Morrison were regularly crossing the thin line separating "difficult" from "impossible", even before they achieved icon status. The ultimate proof that Auberon Waugh is indubitably a nice man - despite his own publicly professed opinions to the contrary - is that he never committed fratricide despite extraordinary provocation. Paul Gascoigne may well be the most talented footballer this country has ever had, but he's also the saddest git currently holding a British passport. Mike Tyson is a great boxer, but he's also a psychopathic bully. And so on.
The horrendous behaviour of many superstars and celebs (many of whom may even be reasonably talented) is often brushed over by citing "artistic temperament', though Jung, for one, was highly sceptical of this notion and devoted some of his mighty ratiocinative energies to debunking it. Briefly summarised, the "artistic temperament" theory holds that there is a price to be paid for everything and that every gift is balanced, in some mysterious way, by a corresponding flaw. This notion serves a twofold function. One is that it enables the genius's flunkies to excuse his or her rudeness, unreliability and numerous other sins.
The other is that it makes the rest of us feel better. Yes, somebody may be almost scarily brilliant as actor, author, athlete, academic or musician - but since they are deeply unhappy, damaged or unpleasant, we don't envy them. In fact, we can heave a sigh of relief and mutter "There but for the grace of God..."
A case in point: Jaco Pastorius. Who he? Jaco Pastorius played the electric bass. More precisely, he called himself "the greatest bass player in the world" and, as far as many listeners and fellow musicians were concerned, between 1976 and his death 10 years later, he probably was. He was a virtuoso on an instrument commonly considered, in both its acoustic and electric incarnations, as part of music's engine room rather than its front line, but his claim to genius derives from his mastery of an instrument that he more or less invented: the fretless electric bass guitar. By pulling the frets out of a 1962 Fender Jazz Bass, he created a unique voice, enabling him to combine the fluidity of the fretless acoustic bass with the power and range of the fretted electric, providing access to cello and trombone tonalities otherwise impossible to achieve.
By doing so, he reinvented the electric bass as profoundly as Jimi Hendrix reinvented the electric guitar, Jimmy Smith the Hammond organ, and Charlie Parker the alto saxophone. His work with Weather Report, with Joni Mitchell, and as a composer and bandleader in his own right, for ever altered the way people heard, thought about and played the electric bass guitar.
But Pastorius suffered from manic depressive illness, and his extreme mood swings eventually tore down all that his titanic talent had built up. The result was that this supremely gifted and universally admired musician ended up almost unable to get work, living on the streets of New York City and dying a violent death at the age of 35.
John Francis "Jaco" Pastorius III was born on 1 December 1951, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. The family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when Pastorius was eight. He was the eldest of three brothers. As a child, he was charming, hyperactive, precocious, and nuts about sport and music. His father, Jack Pastorius, was a touring singer and drummer who wasn't at home very much.
Pastorius loved music: just about any flavour of music you cared to name, be it Bach and Stravinsky, James Brown and Sam & Dave, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, or Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. He started out playing drums, but switched to bass as a teenager after breaking his wrist. Pastorius and the Fender bass guitar turned out to be a marriage made in heaven, and by the time he reached his late teens, he may not yet have been accepted as "the best bass player in the world", but he was certainly deemed to be just about the best bass player in South Florida.
In 1976 he auditioned for Bobby Columby, drummer with the highly successful "jazz-rock" combo Blood, Sweat & Tears (and recently appointed as a producer for Epic Records). Columby was knocked out by Pastorius's virtuosity - nobody had ever before heard Charlie Parker's complex alto-saxophone piece "Donna Lee" played on bass before - and flew him to New York to meet Epic's bosses. Nobody had signed an unknown bassist to record a solo album before, but his debut album was to be a revelation. Almost overnight Pastorius was recording with Joni Mitchell on her Hejira album, and by the end of the year he had joined jazz-rock's premier band - Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter's Weather Report. His astonishing playing, compositional talents and scene-stealing showmanship - with stunts borrowed from Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix but never before seen in the comparatively sedate jazz world - catapulted Weather Report from the college circuit to international stadium status.
Unfortunately, rock'n'roll status led to a rock'n'roll lifestyle. Before joining Weather Report, Pastorius had, according to one of his brothers, drunk perhaps three beers in his entire life. On the road with both Weather Report and Joni Mitchell (with whom he had continued to record), he was introduced to cocaine and fine cognac, and his fragile psyche slowly began to unravel. His marriage collapsed, he frequently butted heads with Weather Report's authoritarian leader, Joe Zawinul, and he began to disrupt live performances by turning his amplifiers on full and playing Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone from the Sun".
After leaving Weather Report to resume his solo career, things got worse. Pastorius had always been egotistical, albeit puckishly - he once answered a question about where the future of music was headed by informing his interviewer that he would be flying back to Florida the following day - but his mood swings were becoming uncontrollable. He began to disrupt performances by his own band, just as he had previously derailed those by Weather Report. Promoters began to fight shy of booking him. His second marriage failed, as had his first, and he was evicted from his Manhattan apartment. He could be seen, not on the stages of the world's concert halls, clubs and stadiums, but sleeping rough in the park in Washington Square. Clubs where he had once been a premier attraction would bar him for stealing waitresses' tips.
Jaco Pastorius died in Florida in 1987, just a few weeks before what would have been his 36th birthday. He had recently completed the second of his two sojourns in New York City's Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, and returned to his home state to get himself together.
One night he was trying to gain admittance to a club from which he had been barred. Things got out of hand, and he got into a fight with the bouncer. Or maybe "fight" isn't quite the right word: he was pulverised. His skull was caved in; nine days later, he died in hospital without regaining consciousness.
How could this have happened? How could Jaco Pastorius, one of the greatest musicians of his generation - fall so far and die so pitifully?
Well, if he hadn't been an artist and therefore "permitted" to act weird, his manic-depressive tendencies would probably have been diagnosed and treated sooner. Their manifestations certainly would not have been attributed to "artistic temperament" or "rock'n'roll lifestyle" or genius-type waywardness.
Artists, even great ones, are human beings first and foremost. Sometimes gifted artists simply take the piss, misbehaving "because they can". At other times they may be genuinely in trouble. If there is a lesson to be learned from Jaco Pastorius's tragic fall and demise, it is this: if we look after the humans, the art will look after itself.
`Punk-Jazz - a Portrait of Jaco Pastorius' will be broadcast on Radio 3 on 14 November at 6pm
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