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Jaco Pastorius and Mt. Everest.

April 8, 2021

I’ve been thinking about Jaco Pastorius lately.

You might not know who he is.

To give you some idea…

Ok, that didn’t help all that much. Maybe this will..

Still not impressed?

Ok.. well..

Then let’s just say that, when I started getting into bass playing, and talking to bass players, this name kept coming up. A name I had never heard before.

Why? Well..

The only famous bass players are those who can also sing, are primarily known as singers, such as Paul McCartney, Gene Simmons, and Sting. If you were into strange music in the ’90’s, then you might have heard of Les Claypool, the singer and bassist of a very very strange band called Primus.

Yeah, you know who they are. Except for maybe Les Claypool.

The most famous pop culture bass player who doesn’t sing, or rather, is not famous as a singer and leader of a band or whatever, at least if you are over 40, like I am, is Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

So who is Jaco Pastorius then?

Well.. talk to enough bass players and Jaco is considered the greatest bass player who ever lived.

He was beaten to death in 1987.

No, not some victim of a random crime, not entirely.

He had been suffering from mental illnesses, got stuck on the usual substances, and bashed his way into a night club.

A bouncer with a particular proclivity for violence beat the bassist, and the bassist died of his wounds.

At age 35.

Before some of you were even born.

Why am I writing about this person?

I’m trying to get at that myself.

And I sometimes get ideas.

But now my brain is floundering.

And to be honest, no one reads this blog.

And on facebook, what, I get a few likes, three at most, no matter the quality of content.

But whatever.

So, Jaco then.. and the purpose for writing.

It’s the incredibly strongly held belief that reaching the pinnacle of success, of one’s profession brings happiness and will cure all one’s ills.

Whe Jaco was fairly young, he declared to his parents that he was going to become the greatest bass player in the world.

Why bass?

That I don’t know..

Maybe because bass is considered to be SO much easier and less desirable to play than guitar.

You want to become the greatest guitarists the world has ever known?

Get in line.

Yeah.

Behind Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Page, Carlos Santana, and the list goes on..

The best bass guitar player?

Crickets.

Well.. during Jaco’s time there were a few, such as Bootsy Collins, who was in James Brown’s band for awhile, Stanley Clarke (I forget what band he was in), and the bass players I don’t know the names of, but who were in such bands as Parliament/Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, and one of the greatest early bass players, the ultimate dude in the Motown House band, called The Funk Brothers, James Jamerson.

Yeah, there were some greats.

But they didn’t play at the level this guy got to.

I don’t know if Jaco and Miles Davis crossed paths. Reason I bring up Miles Davis is, first of all, Miles, long past his death, is still one of the all-time greats of Jazz.

And the guy happened to invent or co-invent several Jazz genres, including Jazz fusion, which, as the name suggests, is a blend of Jazz and other genres.

Jazz had reached an evolutionary culdecac, to borrow a phrase from the great science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke.

In order for Jazz to continue to exist and progress, Jazz musicians adopted other styles, like rock and funk.

Miles was at the forefront of this movement, with his album, Bitches Brew (a pun, a bad one.. from “Witch’s Brew”.. that phrase might have gone back as far as Shakespeare.. I am thinking of the witches in the play “Macbeth,” or more likely, much before Shakespeare’s time..

But anyway..

Jaco played Jazz fusion, with a band called Weather Report, with Joni Mitchell’s band, as she continued to change her style. And change and change..

I am just starting to get into Joni Mitchell’s music, and may not get much further in than I am, as I have so many interests, be they musically related or otherwise.

And Jaco had a solo album as well.

So..

I have been half-heartedly getting into bass playing yet again..

I am, to be honest, more a writer and several other things than I am, and probably will ever be, a musician.

But I wanted to explain to you why I have had Jaco on my mind tonight, this late night, as all my nights are, and why I wanted to write about him.

I wanted to call this blog lonely at the top..

But that doesn’t really cover it. I just can’t think of titles sometimes, that are not a cliche. Plus cliches get your attention. You can’t help it. Neither can I.

As much as we may not like cliches, and be sick of them, they are wired into us..

But my point is this..

Reaching the top of one’s field is not always a recipe for happiness.

It can just as easily, and perhaps, even more often, be a recipe for the collapse of one’s relationships, substance abuse, and, if one is already suffering from mental illness or illnesses, as so many of us are.. a far more precipitous decent than what may have been experienced when a person was still climbing the ladder of accomplishment and recognition.

The question is simply this.

Where do you go up..

If..

You are already..

Up?

If you’ve been striving really really hard, so that your only goal is, day and night, misery upon misery, minor to major success after success, amidst all the avoidable and unavoidable failures along the way..

To reach the top.

And you reach it.. what then?

Some people have climbed Mt. Everest more than once.

There is such a thing as the law of diminishing returns.

Meaning, do the same rewarding thing over and over again, that thing. that activity.

Becomes less rewarding.

I wonder if some people only keep climbing Mt. Everest until they die.

Because..

Metaphorically and literally, they have reached the top.

Some people, the better adjusted ones, or the particularly obsessive, and at the same time particularly lucky, find new goals.

But many do not.

And some, and perhaps some of the least fortunate among them, suffer mentally.

Jaco was one of these.

He had “mental health issues,” as we call them these days.

And he likely realized that, once he reached a certain age, and a certain level of prowess, a level only he and he alone was qualified to measure..

He had reached the top.

When you reach the top, “there’s nowhere to go but up” no longer applies.. not necessarily.

Granted, one can continue to improve, and innovate, and reach new heights..

But one starts to wonder, what is the point?

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen what the very tippy top of Mt. Everest looks like.

It’s a tiny little spot. Only one person can stand on it at the same time. Or at least, that is how I have seen it depicted, in film, and in photographs.

This is appropriate.. a literal and metaphorical truth.

Stand at the top, and you are truly alone.

And being alone is lonely.

But that is not even the worst problem.

If there truly is nowhere to go, because one has already reached “up,” has gone farther than anyone else, and one has gone as far as one can..

Then what?

I wonder how many people who, once they have reached the very top of their field, have become addicts, withdrawn into seclusion, or who have committed suicide.

In my thinking, Jaco became the best, knew he was the best, lost purpose, succumbed to substance abuse, mental illness, became homeless, and lost himself in his own madness.

On the night he died, so I have read, he, in an intoxicated or manic state, burst into a night club, and tried to force his way onstage.

And a bouncer hauled him out of the club..

And proceeded to beat the greatest bass player of all time.. to death.

Maybe, in the dark pockets of his mind, Jaco was relieved.

Death..

The end.

The end of all suffering.

So why am I writing about this guy, this both great and terribly tragic figure?

Because of a lesson that is counter-intuitive, and certainly not what we have been taught by our culture.

That, instead of what we might think, and what our culture tells us, it can be FAR better to be climbing the ladder of success than to finally reach the top.

Because some, perhaps many people who have truly reached the top, have then encountered the truly horrifying question of..

What Now?

This is a question they had never faced before, had not anticipated. Why not? They were focused on their goal.

Some people stay at least somewhat sane, and like Bob Dylan and Michael Jordan, intentionally fade into a quiet, and hopefully contended retirement. I don’t know what they do with their time, but maybe they are at least somewhat happy.

They are the more well-adjusted.

For those who are not so well-adjusted, who have been overcome by mental illness, or the abuse of alcohol or drugs, or, as often as not, a combination of mental illness and substance dependence..

Well..

Some have gone mad..

And some have died.

All this is to say..

Be careful what you aspire to.

That old adage, “Be careful what you wish for,” is correct.

The vast majority of people striving for ultimate success won’t reach it.

This is its own kind of heartache and hell.

But perhaps an even worse damnation awaits those who do reach the top of the mountain.

Perhaps, better to be satisfied with being the best guitarist on your block, and having a happy and healthy family, or running a beloved coffee house in your hometown, and calling it good.

Do you really want to strive and strive for success, sacrificing anything and everything to get there.

Once you have reached the top of Mount Everest..

Then what?

Jaco found out.

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