by Mary Pastorius
The following was written for and excerpted from the upcoming Holiday Park Records 2-CD release “Portrait of Jaco… The Early Years” companion booklet and was written by Mary, Jaco’s first born, back in 1994.
It’s difficult for me to write this. I’ve been procrastinating, despite how much I know I need to do this. You see, the words I am gearing up to write, speak of the most painful events in my life. My initial reaction, when I was approached to write a bit about my father, was enthusiastic. I felt strong and eager to have my reality, my truths, circulating out there alongside the misconceptions and miscellaneous bullshit that have been in existence long before my dad actually died. There are things that need to be said, and I’m not hearing anyone saying them. There are things that I’ve wanted to scream, but I haven’t; so, I felt obligated, and happily so, to write this piece. I hear a lot of “Jaco” stories. Pastorius isn’t a common name, so when my surname is made available, cashing a check or using my library card, there is a chance that I’m going to hear a “Jaco” story. These can be very positive encounters, where the people I meet are caring and sensitive to the fact that the man they are speaking of is dead and the person they are talking to is his daughter. I relish these people. They seem genuinely moved by my father’s music and only want to speak to me for a minute or simply look at me, trying to find the resemblance. I understand this. My father left an indelible mark on this world, and he profoundly affected many people. I would be saddened if nobody recognized my last name, because I am overwhelmingly proud of my father and his contributions to music. Maybe I am biased, but the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, my father wrote. No one can offer me more infectiously beautiful melodies than those singing through Las Olas, Village of the Angels, Portrait of Tracy to name a few. I am amazed by the music, more so now than ever, because growing up with it, it was normal. I thought everyone played like that. (Rude awakening right?) So, I understand completely when people meet me and freak out, because they, too, are still amazed. They just want a chance to express their appreciation, or the impact he had on their lives, and it’s nice to hear those things.
I can’t say I share the same uplifting experiences with all of the “fans” who approach me. I’ve had people tell me the ugliest stories, attempting to prove that they were buddies or they were really close because they spent a couple of days together in NYC. What shocks me is the casual manner in which these stories are told – and retold. The nonchalance. People will actually tell me their “crazy Jaco” stories with a smile on their face, assuming that I am happy to meet someone that “knew” my father. I can’t ingest another one of these stories. They’re not funny to me. They are enormously painful. People just don’t know what was really going on with my dad. We didn’t even know.
Jaco Pastorius was a human being. I am stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be re-stated. My father is referred to in the most non-human manner. Object-like. He has become an icon, this Jaco “thing”. Yes, he was a phenomenon, but not a thing. Not a machine. Not a god. The stories surrounding his increasingly erratic behavior, during his later years, have become folklore, almost mythical. But, the reality is that my father was only a man, and at times a very sick man who needed help. No myth in that. Not exciting nor romantic, but the truth nonetheless.
I can recall noticing changes in my dad in the early 80’s, subtle though they were. It is also hard to gauge, because I wasn’t with him on a daily basis due to my parent’s recent divorce. It wasn’t until the fall of ’82 that I spent a concentrated period of time with him. It was during the big band tour in Japan when I knew something was very wrong. Actually, it was evident before we even reached the airport when he picked me up in a white, Silver Cloud Rolls Royce, wearing full Miccosoukee Indian garb from (shaved) head to toe. That entire trip was like being at a theme park in the Twilight Zone. I was barely 12 at the time, so I surely didn’t know what had caused such an incredibly drastic change in his personality. All I knew was that daddy wasn’t daddy anymore. He kind of looked like him, but this guy was weird, irresponsible, untogether, and had a strange look in his eye. My dad was the antithesis of these qualities, so this sudden transformation was especially perplexing. I have yet to witness anything even remotely as strange as his antics during that tour.
My father got away with a lot of outrageous behavior, because he was Jaco. A “regular” person would never have been allowed to be that out of control and still receive the liberties he received. This seemed to work in his favor, but in hindsight, I believe this worked against him. It prevented him from getting help he desperately needed.
I think a lot of people wrote my dad off, throwing him into the “self-destructive genius/jazz musician who can’t handle fame or his own creativity, so he turns to alcohol, drugs, and eventually drives himself insane, etc., etc.” category. These elements definitely factor into the equation, but they don’t solve it. I don’t subscribe to the theory of the doomed jazz musician. That was not daddy, despite how overtly and superficially he seems to fit the description.
The truth is that my father was mentally ill. He was suffering from a severe chemical imbalance, manic depressive illness. He didn’t do anything to catch it or cause it, although he definitely aggravated it with many things. His warped perceptions of reality and all of the bizarre behaviors that went along with them can be attributed to manic episodes that sometimes reached psychotic heights. Some people can’t or don’t want to believe this. Some people have put him on a pedestal and can’t accept him being “flawed”. Some people, on the other hand, think my father was a fuckup who couldn’t get his shit together, thus birthing the manic-depressive “excuse” to tidy up some messy memories.
Well, I promise you, this illness is legit. It is severe, and I know this first hand. You see, in addition to inheriting my dad’s long arms, huge lips, and flair for fashion, I also inherited his chemical imbalance. Since he can’t give his own account, I would like to expose you to manic-depression through my own personal experiences. I want to write this, especially for the people who are out there suffering through it alone, because I’ve been there, and I know how validating it was for me to identify with someone else who has gone through it and lived to tell.
The first time, it struck out of the blue, without warning. All I knew was that I wasn’t me anymore. I was completely detached from myself. Disconnected. Nothing seemed real, except for the very real presence of something new and foreign within my being that didn’t belong. I’d heard the term “manic-depression” tossed around a couple of times when my dad was alive, but I didn’t know what it meant. It was never discussed. He certainly never mentioned it, so no connection was made.
Unlike my father, my initiation into the world of mood disorders was clinical depression – not mania. There are no words nor language to accurately convey the madness, loss, and empty terror that is clinical depression. I think of it as a place. It’s the place you are left to wander, aimlessly, after everything you are has been stripped from you, and your soul has been seized by invisible marauders. I vividly remember when I realized that this must have been the place where daddy lived. This only intensified my ever-present, ever-growing terror.
I had no clue as to why this torture had befallen me. I wasn’t functioning at all. Work and school weren’t even in the realm of possibility. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I would wander about the house crying, sobbing until the day came when I couldn’t even cry anymore. I sat, paralyzed, as everything else in the world kept right on going without me. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was terrified 24-7, consumed with a fear of unknown origin. I was afraid to leave the house. I was afraid that someone would look into my eyes, see the insanity, and lock me away (remember Frances?). I had no feelings. I was a zombie. I was nothing. I could faintly remember that I used to be someone that existed. I had the pictures, the clothing, and the notebooks to prove it – but she was gone. She left in a hurry and forgot her stuff.
The illness seems to feed on itself, taking on a life of its own (or rather, usurping the host’s) the longer you are in it. After two solid months in hell, my psychotic breaks were the norm. I could no longer distinguish between dreaming and reality. After that, I decided that I must be dead. How else could I have kept existing in a completely lifeless state? Ironically, I think these twisted thoughts helped keep me alive, because if I were already dead, I couldn’t kill myself. I was consumed with death. Something was trying to kill me from the inside and I couldn’t fathom ever being alive again.
Fortunately, after some traumatic experiences with some inept doctors, my mom called the doctor that treated my dad in Bellevue, and he referred me to a doctor in Miami. It was November, 1988, when I was admitted to the Neuroscience Center at St. Francis Hospital, where I was officially diagnosed – bipolar affective disorder. I wasn’t magically cured, but at least now I knew what was wrong with me – and that there was a treatment.
I was given lithium and anti-depressants. These little pills saved my life. But, even with medicine and a newfound knowledge on my side, it still took a long time to recover. It’s hard to shake that sick feeling. I have been taking lithium ever since. I would love to stop taking the meds and see how I function without them, but I can’t take the risk of getting sick again without a safety net. I know what this illness is capable of. I know what it did to me. I saw what it did to my father.
I’ve had two more episodes since the original, despite what a good girl I am. I take my lithium every day, I don’t drink, smoke, do drugs – I don’t even drink coffee! And I still get sick. Granted, not nearly as bad, but it still happens; and, even though I’d already been through it, the second time and again the third, it still kicked my ass. Each time I thought I’d never get better. It’s the nature of the illness and intellect can be futile.
I’m trying to convey the strength of this disease. Once it’s back out, it’s in control, and it’s a battle to take that control back. You can fight the symptoms, but I personally believe that all you can really do is wait for the episode to run its course, and try to keep yourself alive in the meantime. But, during that meantime, medicine is definitely the first line of defense.
I can’t express the gravity of manic depressive illness enough. But, as serious as it is, I must stress that it is not necessarily a permanent condition. Episodes are cycled in and out of, according to individual chemistry. There are people that respond so well to lithium their episodes cease entirely. Others need a combination of therapies. There is no one formula. There are many successful treatments available. So, whether you’re sky high or in the depths of hell, you can even out.
There is no doubt in my mind that my father would have gotten better. It would have taken a long time for him to recover after the chemical warfare that wreaked havoc on his brain for so many years, but he didn’t even get that chance. He should have had a lifetime to heal and learn. Yes, my father kept making mistakes – everyone does. Unfortunately, if you are living in the throes of manic-depressive illness, your mistakes are going to be on a much grander scale and with far greater consequences.
However, manic-depression did not kill my father. This, too, I cannot stress enough. My father was murdered by a man who beat the life out of him, using his bare hands. There is absolutely no justification for the savage beating my father received, and yet his killer served only four months in jail. We live in a society that condemns the mentally ill and condones violence towards them. It’s disgusting. I can’t help but to wonder how many sick people, my people, are murdered in the streets and nobody ever hears about them because they aren’t famous.
I’m sure my father was perceived as just a bum by his killer. It probably never crossed his mind that he might be killing a brilliant man. A father. A brother. A son. There are so many of us that lost so much, and this man has never expressed any remorse, apologies, or attempted to help my family in any way. Two of my three brothers will never get to know their own father. My grandparents had to watch their firstborn son be put into the ground after a mere 35 years of life. Someday, I’ll get married, but, I won’t walk down the aisle proudly on the arm of my father. Someday, I’ll have kids, and they’ll never know their grandpa.
But, despite the loss, the pain, and the tragedy, I still have my beautiful memories of daddy – full of life and laughter. Climbing trees, stealing mangos, frisbee on the beach, my first plane trip, cookies on the way to Central Park, listening to Stevie Wonder, weekend softball games, swimming and ping-pong at Grandma’s, postcards from all over the world, hiding from the tickle monster, listening to him play the piano, listening to him play the drums, listening to him play anything, all the food backstage at Weather Report concerts, watching Star Trek, cutting my fingernails, cleaning my ears, Burger King Friday, teaching me how to sing into a mic, bringing home a doggy, buying pina colada, a solo performance to my 4th grade class for career day, holding him tight when he picked me up from school on the motorcycle, kissing me good night.
These are some of my memories and no one can take them away from me. These are what I’ll give to my kids, so they WILL know him, through me – and the music.
I love you daddy.
This article has been featured in the NAMI (The National Alliance for the Mentally ill) national magazine (Summer 2001).