Behind the Curtain: Jaco Pastorius

Rock Cellar Magazine

Maybe the best way of trying to describe who Jaco Pastorius was and my encounter with him back in 1977 right around the release of his first self-titled solo album is by beginning this narrative with an episode guitarist Steve Morse once had with the legendary bass player.

This incident illustrates both the peculiarity and the preciousness of Pastorius, both his absolute love and passion for the bass guitar and the peculiar behavior that would haunt him his entire life. It is a dichotomy musicians, friends and family had been trying to understand for years. With Jaco’s murder on September 21st, 1987 — and whoever would have thought those two words would reside next to each other in the same sentence? — the question of who he was would remain forever unanswered.

I don’t pretend in any way to understand what polarizing emotions were waging war inside the bassist’s head. But I did spend a short afternoon with him some 10 years before his passing and gleaned a bit of an insight into the complexities of the man. However, before I tell you about my experiences with Jaco, I want to share Morse’s anecdote.

Both Steve and Jaco were then attending the University of Miami [along with a young Pat Metheny], and the guitarist was more than a little aware of this hip bass player who had been burning things up around town. Steve wanted to jam with him, and was finally able to lock Jaco down to a date and time, which was in and of itself a monumental task.

Morse takes up the tale. “I went to jam with Jaco one time at his place because normally we saw each other at school,” the Deep Purple guitarist says. “He was so hyped up and just a very energetic guy. At first he said, ‘We’ve got to run. We’ve got to jog’ because he lived right by the beach. We jogged up and down the beach, and I’m not a jogger, so he got me kind of winded.”

After running up and down the beach, Morse was exhausted. He carries on. “I said, ‘Alright. Let’s go play’ and we head back and he says, ‘No, no, no. We gotta go bodysurf,’ hahaha.’ So we did that and I come back with salt in my hair and just totally tired and winded and Jaco was just barely calmed down enough to jam so we started playing. He’s like, ‘Oh, check this out, man. Bzzzzzzzbzzzz [Morse imitates an ultra-fast bass riff]. What about this, man? Check this out.’ It was more like a conversation with guitars and bass in hand. We did finally get around to the playing but it was a process to get him wound down.”

Morse said the wait was worth it. “Yeah, if you got him to just settle down and do grooves, they were the most amazing grooves ever. He would put so many variations in and everything. Oh, another time with the Dregs, he sat in with us and he started doing his solo and it went on and on and he wouldn’t stop. Finally we left the stage figuring he would get the hint and he didn’t. He kept on playing.”

There it is — the weirdness and the wizardry.

But that’s what Jaco did. He played. Oh, my god, did he play. He had magic in his fingers but black magic in his head.

So many other things got in the way that by the end, by the horribly young age of 36, he was dead. The playing was gone, and what was left behind was the poison of a bipolar disorder, hypomania [a condition describing a mild form of mania characterized by periodic hyperactivity and an elevated mood], and an acute abuse of alcohol and drugs.

Some of the musician’s friends theorized that when he was in the throes of a hypomanic episode, that was when he was most productive. How fucking unfair is that? A voice in his head kept chanting, “You have to go crazy, Jaco, before we’ll allow you to create.” If this was true, and I hope it wasn’t, then Jaco was forced to suffer through this form of mental illness in order to break through to the other side in terms of accessing the extraordinary gifts with which he was so wonderfully endowed.

In other words, he had to walk through hell in order to find heaven.

However, when I met him in late 1976 or early 1977, he hadn’t yet been diagnosed with any illnesses [though a doctor had never treated him professionally for these mental diseases, that does not mean he wasn’t already suffering from them] and wasn’t killing himself with alcohol or drugs. The Jaco Pastorius album had been released a few months earlier and at the time he was working with Weather Report on what would become the Heavy Weather record.

Weather Report was holed up at Devonshire Sound Studios in North Hollywood, CA laying down tracks for their eighth album and I’d soon come to realize that was all Jaco wanted to do. I said earlier “he played” and that particular pursuit did not include sitting down with a journalist and talking for an hour. He did not dig anything or anyone coming between he and his bass and anybody who did would suffer his full wrath.

Prior to the interview, I spent a lot of time on the phone with Epic Records [his label] publicity in arranging and scheduling the interview and it was only because I had such a strong relationship with the publicists there that they even tried to hook this up. Jaco rarely gave interviews [even the recent documentary Jaco — involving Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, a huge Jaco fan —  barely includes any interview material], and after going back and forth for what seemed an interminable amount of time, the bassist finally relented to sit and talk. What he thought of as sitting, however, was not how the rest of the world saw it.

I drove out to the facility with my friend Doug Steinman. Doug was a remarkable bass player in his own right — in fact we played in a band together — and was a Pastorius devotee. He routinely worked out Jaco’s bass lines and had listened to that first solo album a thousand times. I knew bringing my buddy along to the interview would mean everything to him, and it did. On the drive out there, he couldn’t stop talking about actually meeting the man. He was wired, nervous and excited, and there was probably no bigger fan in the world that day than Doug.

In fact, I always tried to share these rock and roll experiences with my friends. I knew I had been given a rare opportunity to sit and speak with my heroes and there was nothing in the world that filled me with such pleasure and fulfillment. My friends had their heroes and when I interviewed Supertramp, I brought along my close friend Jim Howe because they were his favorite band and when I spoke with drummers, I routinely brought my drummer brother Mick who would end up not only playing Simon Phillips’ drumkit — at Simon’s behest — but would show Cozy Powell how to twirl drumsticks, talk about cars with Carmine Appice and engage in a heated discussion with Billy Cobham by describing his playing as “non-traditional.”

Maybe as much as anything, I didn’t want to walk in there on my own. Bringing Doug along wasn’t an entirely selfless act. I also was looking for a bit of solace and support. With my buddy by my side, we entered the recording studio and looked around for Jaco. We found him — or rather he found us. Doug and I introduced ourselves and from the very first seconds of meeting the bass player, I felt uncomfortable.

He emanated a strange, frantic energy that looking back on it could certainly have been described as manic. It was like he was plugged into some celestial socket somewhere and was drawing this electric adrenaline from some bizarre power source that only he was plugged into. But at the same time, it was extraordinary to meet him and you couldn’t help being sucked into this weird vortex of his personality.

I tried to corral Jaco and guide him to a quiet corner somewhere where we could talk, but that wasn’t on his agenda. He wanted to play ping pong. Looking back at that moment now, I realize this was the same kind of trial by fire Steve Morse endured when he was forced to run on the beach and go bodysurfing before Jaco would submit to a jam. Jaco was testing me, or maybe he just loved ping pong, but whatever the case it was a bizarre scene. We walked outside into this little courtyard and guess what was sitting right there in the middle of this patio-like area? A ping pong table.

This wasn’t the first time I’d had to earn my keep this way. Years earlier, I was interviewing producer Keith Olsen [Ozzy, Whitesnake, Fleetwood Mac] and following our conversation he suggested we play a game. He had his own table set up in the recording studio and he beat me like a mongrel dog. Keith was a very good player but on top of that, this was his table. He’d obviously logged countless hours on it and knew every inch of it and how the balls would bounce and how the paddles reacted to backhand slams and forehand returns. He would have beaten me on any table but the score would have been a whole lot closer.

So when Jaco suggested a game — it was more like a demand really — my first thought was, “He’s played on this table a thousand times before. He wants to humiliate and embarrass me.” I honestly don’t know why I thought he would do that. Again, maybe he just wanted to have a fun little game of ping pong but somehow I didn’t think that was the case. My next thought was, “Let the dude win.” If I had done that, I thought Jaco would be happy and calm and we could sit down for a productive tête-à-tête, a cool conversation.

But then I surmised, “No, that wouldn’t happen. If he beats me, I won’t hear the end of it.” Finally, I decided to give him my best game. I had always been competitive and the idea of lying down just to get a good interview was not in my makeup.

My dad had taught me how to play ping pong on a homemade table. We had taken a wood panel from inside our garage and nailed it to our dining room table. The piece of wood was warped and had a huge square hole cut in it to accommodate where a light switch had been mounted on the wall. The nails stuck up and every time you hit the ball and it struck the head of a nail, the ball would careen off at odd angles. I would spend hours playing with my dad and he beat me like a rug every single time but I became a good player. When I finally played on a regulation table, I was screaming. A flat surface without impediments? I felt like I was cheating.

Jaco and I began our game and I could see instantly he was a capable player but I knew I could beat him. He was confronted with my best serves, my thunderous slams and the returns of his hardest shots. We probably played several games and I won all of them. He was mad. He thought for sure he could beat me and when he didn’t, I could see blood in his eyes. But there was something else there, something in the way he looked at me that said, “OK, this cat is alright.”

We sat down in the courtyard next to the ping pong table and began talking. He was sarcastic, kind of ill-tempered and looked like he wanted to jump out of his own skin but to his credit, Jaco was informative, open and willing to talk about anything. I asked him about his influences and playing with Weather Report and how he approached harmonics on “Portrait of Tracy.”

He was exceedingly bright and articulate and had a profound sense of who he was and what he did. Doug posed a few questions and when Jaco realized how much my friend understood about his music, he relented a bit.

I met Jaco briefly about five years later at a record release party for Word of Mouth, his second album. He barely acknowledged me and seemed caught up in some world of his own. The bass player was there with Weather Report drummer Pete Erskine. I had met Pete sometime earlier when he had come to my little guesthouse in the Hollywood Hills and we had spent a delightful afternoon talking [Mick, my brother the drummer, was there for that one]. Erskine gave me a warm hello but Pastorius either didn’t recognize me or simply ignored me.

A year later, I ran into Jaco Pastorius for the last time. It was awful. I was in New York to interview Donald Fagen on the release of The Nightfly, his first solo record. We met at the Warner Bros. offices in Manhattan on a wet, grey, rainy New York day. As we were talking, I saw someone exit the elevator. This person was soaked head to toe and was literally creating puddles on the floor as he walked. At first, I figured it was just some homeless person wandering in out of the rain in order to get dry.

Then I looked closer and to my shock and horror, I realized it was Jaco. He was wearing some shapeless wool sweater that had been stretched down to his knees because it was drenched from the rain. His head was shaved because he had been recently released from jail where he had been arrested on drug charges. His nose was running and he wasn’t wearing shoes. He was in horrible shape and it broke my heart to see him this way. He had been using drugs and alcohol for many years at this point and combined with his mental condition, he had become a virtual zombie.

He exited the elevator and entered the plush Warner Bros. offices and the secretaries recoiled in horror. They had no clue who he was, though Jaco was signed as a solo artist and was on the Warner Bros. roster. They called security and he was forcibly evicted. I tried to explain to the secretaries and the guards who this was. “This is Jaco Pastorius,” I said. “He’s on the label. This is the greatest bass player in the world,” but to no avail. They virtually threw him back out into the street where he stood in the pouring rain like someone lost and scared. It was horrible to watch and I wish I’d never seen it.

Some 5  years later, he’d be found in an alley with his head caved in. His murderer has never been found.

Still, nothing can detract from the body of work he created. He was the linchpin between jazz and fusion. and his work with Joni Mitchell on the Mingus, Shadows & Light, and Hejira albums, completely revolutionized the character of electric bass. He was chronicled in the 2014 documentary  Jaco, which was financed by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo [Robert approached me about my interview with Jaco and though none of the audio was used in the film, I was given a credit at the end].

His praises have been sung before and nothing I can say about his greatness will really mean much. When he held the bass, it looked as if he had been born with it in his hands—there is that symbiotic thing going on when you see Eddie Van Halen or Jeff Beck cradling their guitars—and maybe that’s why he looked so utterly and terribly lost on that rainy New York afternoon: he wasn’t holding his Fender.

I am still haunted by that vision of Jaco Pastorius standing there drenched to the bone and looking as lost and broken as any human being as ever been. I tried to do what I could that horrible day but I wasn’t able to do anything. As the security guards tossed him from the building, I could only think about one thing: I should have let him win.