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Metallica’s Trujillo Rescues Jaco Pastorius’ Bass of Doom

Written by on June 21, 2010

Metallica’s Trujillo Rescues Jaco Pastorius’ Bass of Doom

Jaco Pastorius and the “Bass of Doom.”

Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo has long regarded Jaco Pastorius as his personal hero. During his early days of writing bass lines and riffs with former bands like Infectious Grooves, thoughts of Pastorius inspired his every move. And it wasn’t just his dexterous bass playing either; Trujillo also admired Pastorius’ fearless attitude.

“Jaco wasn’t just a tremendous player and an innovator of the instrument,” says Trujillo. “He had incredible stage presence and a fearless, anything-goes attitude. He was also a brilliant composer. He was so musical and well rounded — and whether it was utilizing aspects of harmonics, distortion or bringing Hendrix into the flow, Jaco always kept it really, really, heavy on the swing end. I think what separates him from a lot of the other super badass bass players was his groove.”

Trujillo considers himself privileged to have seen the late master perform live on several occasions, particularly in 1985 when he happened upon the famed musician in an intimate setting at the Los Angeles Guitar Show. While checking out the various exhibits at Hollywood’s Merlin Hotel, Trujillo’s ears perked up at the sound of a loud distorted bass coming from the neighboring room.

“The walls were shaking!,” recalls Trujillo. “I walked into this room to see who was playing, and there’s Jaco. I was speechless, so I just sat down and watched him play, and the next thing you knew the room had filled up with about 70 people — all completely overwhelmed by his presence. And it was really strange, because he didn’t speak to anybody. He just looked closely at everybody and kept on playing. It was a really surreal and special moment and I’ll always remember it.”

That chance encounter now seems especially serendipitous, as it was Trujillo who recently made it possible for the Pastorius family to gain control over the fabled “Bass of Doom.”

The Pastorius family was electrified to learn in December 2007 that Jaco’s Bass of Doom — the fretless 1962 Fender Jazz Bass that had been stolen from a park bench in Greenwich Village in 1986 — had actually surfaced in a small music store in Manhattan’s east side. Although the instrument had Pastorius’ full name inscribed on the back of the headstock, the shop owner paid a mere $400 to the stranger who walked in off the street after possessing the instrument for over 20 years. Attempts were made through a family representative to recover the long-missing instrument by offering a handsome reward, but the store owner was unwilling to return the instrument, and the Bass of Doom quickly became the epicenter of an extensive legal battle.

Robert Trujillo

Having become friends over the years with bassist David Pastorius (Jaco’s nephew) and Jaco’s eldest son, Johnny, Trujillo only learned of the legal battle surrounding the Bass of Doom from Pastorius’ lifelong friend and fellow bassist, Bob Bobbing, during a meeting about the making of a documentary on Pastorius’ life.

“While visiting Bob at his office in Florida, a call came in from the New York attorneys handling the lawsuit, and later Bob filled me in on all the details,” recalls Trujillo. “My first response was ‘What can I do to help?’ Not being a collector, I just wanted to right a wrong and help squash the ongoing and costly legal proceedings.”

Trujillo selflessly supported the family by making available to them the funds necessary to resolve the matter. The case was settled in late March in New York, and Johnny and Felix, armed with Pastorius’ original double Anvil touring case, soon traveled there to reclaim their father’s bass.

Although Trujillo currently owns the instrument, the Metallica bassist agreed in writing to relinquish the instrument to the family at any time for the same purchase price. According to Bobbing, the family corporation’s liaison to the law firm of Kilpatrick Stockton, Trujillo additionally made several other warranties in the purchase agreement rider that completely established that he had the best interests of Jaco and of the Pastorius family in mind.

“I’m never going to single-handedly feel like I have the ultimate right to it,” says Trujillo. “I feel like myself and the family share its voice in a way. Ultimately, I think we all agree that we’d like to see this legendary bass in a museum.”

For most, the legend began in earnest in 1976, when Pastorius released his groundbreaking eponymous solo debut. Jaco Pastorius was a landmark work still considered one of the greatest if not the greatest bass album ever recorded. His subsequent influential work with Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell and Weather Report, in addition to other solo work and many other guest appearances, have left behind an enduring legacy. One can only speculate on the heights he would have achieved had he not met a tragic and untimely fate at age 35 in September 1987.

As for the bass guitar on which he built such a legacy, well, that is a story in itself. How Pastorius transformed a $90 pawnshop find into the stuff of legend may yet be the topic of a future documentary film.

Nicknamed by Pastorius himself, the Bass of Doom was a stock 1962 Fender Jazz Bass, purchased at a pawnshop in the early 1970s. Pastorius originally removed the frets with a butter knife, filling the slots and missing chunks with “plastic wood” and covering the fingerboard with several coats of boat epoxy. This “customized” bass would be the only fretless instrument Pastorius would ever record with.

“Jaco played his fretless like a surfer rides a surfboard,” says Trujillo. “He became one with his instrument — gracefully navigating through the unknown. I think where he shines most brightly is with that fretless voice. Just the mere fact that he ripped his frets out of the board himself to get that growl shows he was actually committed to the art of the fretless bass. He was a pioneer; an innovator; and he took that melodic voice on the fretless bass to incredible heights. There’s not a bass player on the planet that would not respect or acknowledge that.”

Since the news broke of his involvement in acquiring the bass, Trujillo has heard from more than a few of his musician friends, including Flea, Craig McFarland (M.I.R.V.), Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam), Pete Griffin (Zappa Plays Zappa), Mike Watt and the Phil Lesh camp.

“It’s been amazing,” says Trujillo. “Some of my friends were literally in tears — that’s how heavy it was. It’s just been overwhelming that there’s so many different types of musicians who are moved by Jaco and this particular instrument and the fact that it’s back after all these years.”

While its future resting place has yet to be determined, for now, the Bass of Doom is under lock and key in a vault in Northern California.

“I call it Fort Knox,” says Trujillo. “It’s got a triple alarm system and the whole nine yards. I’m not a collector, but my bandmates are and they’ve got a lot of very important vintage instruments, so the Bass of Doom is in good company right now.”

The Bass of Doom as it existed when Pastorius bass tech Kevin Kaufman received it in 1986 (above), and how it looked when he returned it to Pastorius in New York after 150 hours of work on it (below).
Top photo by S. Fitzstephens, copyright 1986-2010

Because the bass looks so pristine now, some may question the instrument’s authenticity, as Pastorius was well known to have basically destroyed it by the mid-1980s. But Pastorius shipped the broken instrument back to his bass tech in pieces in 1986; Kevin Kaufman and fellow luthier Jim Hamilton then dedicated over 150 hours to rebuilding the instrument.

“Kaufman rose to the challenge admirably,” Trujillo notes.

“It was very mom-and-pop what they did,” he says. “I’ve seen photos of Kevin working on the bass in his workshop, and that makes it even more meaningful to me. Rebuilding that bass was nothing short of a miracle. The instrument seems like it’s back 100 percent — not just the neck, but even the body, where a beautiful thin veneer was laid on the front and the back, obviously because the body had just been beaten to death. The instrument still breathes, and although all of its scars and wounds are still there beneath the veneer, it’s now beautiful and fresh. And you can just feel the history when you hold it — the beatings still exist, but in a good way.”

Trujillo is also impressed with its sound.

“It’s amazing,” says Trujillo. “The neck plays like butter. After nearly 50 years with all its trials and tribulations, the on-and off-stage adventures, it still speaks. It actually growls when you play it — the neck growls. It’s got a lot of kick to it, too, for a fretless. I’ve played it onstage already and it didn’t disappoint. It’s just such an amazing instrument.”

Although reportedly ecstatic when Kaufman returned the refurbished bass in such great condition, Pastorius would only have one more session with the instrument before it was stolen, using the infamous Bass of Doom to record “Mood Swings” with guitarist Mike Stern only days before its disappearance.

Despite offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to its return, Pastorius received no leads on the whereabouts of his beloved bass.

“I’m completely intrigued by where it’s been,” says Trujillo. “I don’t understand how this guy could have had it for such a long time and didn’t know it was Jaco’s bass. There are a lot of details that are missing, and I think the mystery of it makes it that much more fascinating. But it’s a very special instrument, and it’s back, and there’s reason to celebrate.”