The Contested Memories of Jaco Pastorius

As I’ve mentioned before, music is my twin passion with history. I couldn’t live without one or the other. Lately, I’ve been wanting to read more about music, so when I got an Amazon giftcard way back at Christmas time, I promptly bought Bill Milkowski’s work on the legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius, Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius. I finished reading it a few months ago, but have just now gotten around to writing about it.

Pastorius (1951-1987) was a world famous bassist who gained prominence in the 1970s and 80s for his work as a member of Weather Report and as a solo artist. He also played with guitarist Pat Metheny, singer Joni Mitchell, and a slew of other artists. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Jaco’s bass playing was revolutionary. He was one of the first electric bassists to play without frets, which gave his bass a warm tone that made it sound almost like an upright bass. He broke all the boundaries of conventional bass playing and turned the instrument into a melodic, expressive instrument that captivated musicians of all types. Furthermore, he played EVERYTHING: Jazz, R&B, Rock, Reggae, you name it. I can’t help but think that if Jaco was around today he’d be playing bass on hip-hop and electronic albums. In sum, his influence is everywhere in the bass and music community.

The quality of this video is not great, but wow, Jaco rips it here. And he moves around like a crazy man.

Oh, and his son is pretty good too. This is long, but a great jam.

There was a dark side to Jaco, however. During his days with Weather Report he began drinking to excess and doing coke. Fans wanting to be seen with the “greatest bass player in the world” would enable such behavior by giving him free drugs and alcohol, which would trigger his bi-polar disorder that was eventually diagnosed in 1982. By the mid-1980s, Jaco was almost completely out of music, living on the streets of New York City and panhandling for money. When Jaco wasn’t sober, he was often violent and/or manipulative. During the dark years he burned his bridge with almost every fellow musician or family member who tried to help him. In the wee hours of September 12, 1987, Jaco, after trying to get into a bar called the Midnight Bottle Club in Wilton Manors, Florida, was beaten into a coma by a 25 year old bouncer named Luc Havan. After remaining in a coma for several days, Jaco died on September 21 at the age of 35.

When writing a biography, historians employ the use of primary sources such as letters, diaries and interviews to craft a story and provide a context in which to place their subject. Prior to purchasing Jaco, I looked forward to perusing the book for Jaco’s “primary sources” to gain an better understanding of him, in his own words. In this regard, I was disappointed. The book has no footnotes or citations, and Jaco’s own voice is rarely used in the book. Rather, the narrative utilizes hundreds of interviews with Jaco’s contemporaries–fellow musicians, childhood friends, and relatives–to tell the story. Considering the fact that Milkowski is a professional journalist and not a historian, this makes sense.

Upon further review, however, I realized that this book isn’t a biography, and that’s okay. In reality, it’s a book of memories – what contemporaries remembered about Jaco Pastorius. Our memories evolve over time, but they rarely ever advance, and we see that taking place throughout the book. The interviews don’t necessarily reflect “history” or what “actually happened,” and it would be tough to advance the narrative through historical hypothesis, considering the lack of primary sources to verify such memories. Rather, they portray individual reflections on the meaning of Jaco’s life. Milkowski acts as a sort of editor and provides a chronological format to place the interviews within the context of Jaco’s life.

Throughout the book, we see instances in which the memories of Jaco are contested. Milkowski leaves these conflicts unresolved and leaves the reader to his or her devices to make their own conclusions. Several examples stick out to me. On page 60, we see a conflict as to when Jaco began drinking:

According to [Bob] Economou, it was during this tenure with Ira Sullivan [in 1973] that Jaco got his first serious taste of alcohol. “I remember getting really drunk with Jaco at the Lion’s Share a couple of times,” says Bobby. “But when it happened back then, it just seemed to be a lot of fun. It wasn’t the self-abusive thing it became for him later in his life.” And yet, Sullivan remembers Jaco being “straight as an arrow” during their sting together. “He was a nice young man, a family man. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink. All he wanted to do was play the bass, and play baseball or basketball or racquetball. He was always full of energy.”

What actually happened? If Jaco did drink, could we agree with Economou that it wasn’t a “self-abusive thing?” How would he know that? Furthermore, if he did start drinking at that time, what were the larger consequences of such actions? It is left to the reader to decide.

On page 247, we see an incident that took place towards the end of Jaco’s life. His friend and fellow musician Bob Herzog died on June 13, 1987, and Jaco was devastated. During the eulogy, Jaco apparently stormed into the church, sopping wet, and ran down the altar. He then moved the pastor aside and began loudly speaking at the podium before moving to the church organ and playing R&B tunes. Quite strange indeed. In response to this bizarre behavior, Herzog’s mother responded with this:

Some people didn’t know what to make of it. They kept coming up to me and say “I’ll get rid of him if you want me to.” But I said, “No, don’t usher him out. He needs to be here just as much as I do.” Jaco really needed to let all that out. Afterwards, I thought about how much it took for him to get up there and say that in front of all these sad people. I saw strength in Jaco that day. It made me think, “Well, this is it. This is the thing that’s going to scare the shit out of him and get him to pull himself together.” I saw a glimmer of hope there.

Yet Othello Molineaux, another close friend of Jaco’s, had this to say:

Before, there was always that hope in Jaco’s eyes because his soul was burning brightly. We’d look into each other’s eyes and there’d be a definite connection, because he was in tune with his higher self, even in those days when he had psychological problems. But that day at the funeral when I looked into his eyes, he was gone. There was no communication… it was like, “Just leave me alone. I’m outta here.” And from that day, I started to grieve. I could not reel him back in. He was off in another world. You couldn’t get to him through his eyes anymore.”

I find these conflicting memories profound. We have one person who sees this incident as a starting point towards personal redemption, “a glimmer of hope,” and we have one person who sees this behavior as the tipping point towards failure and death. Added to this is the fact that these people are reflecting on this incident years later, when the limits of time and hindsight creep into the narrative.

Milkowski’s book was one of few in my life that satisfied both my musical and historical interests. I highly recommend it.