Guitar god Pat Martino, 71, has been a force on the jazz scene for decades, pushing musical boundaries, and playing in every style imaginable. But in the middle of his career he lost his mind, and his very identity.
There’s so much joy in the virtuosity of Pat Martino’s guitar—but earlier in his career, as he wracked up artistic triumphs and professional successes one after the other, he was increasingly plagued with terrible headaches, mood swings, even hallucinations.
"It was diagnosed again and again as different forms of psychological problems, psychiatric problems," Martino said. "Due to that, I had experienced electric shock treatment. I experienced being placed in locked wards in different psychiatric facilities, medication that was extensive in terms of tests, 'Let’s try this, let’s try this, let’s try this, have patience,’ I was told many times, again and again. None of these things ever worked."
Martino gave up on doctors, and eventually had to stop performing after suffering a seizure onstage in 1976. A few years later, another seizure put him in the hospital.
"The lady that was with me at that time, a very close friend, saved my life," he said. "I was swallowing my tongue. I then was rushed to a hospital and given, for the first time, a CAT scan."
The scan revealed an aneurism. Doctors saw a nightmarish tangle of blood vessels in the temporal lobe of his brain.
"They gave me two hours to live at that time, and they said it was about ready to erupt and explode, and they told me I needed neurosurgery immediately."
It’s hard to imagine a moment more terrifying, but Martino felt joy to finally know the real cause of the hallucinations, the depressions, all his suffering: A brain abnormality he could see on a scan. He took a risk and flew home to his parents in Pennsylvania for the surgery. The dangerous procedure took two attempts.
"The second operation was on Easter Sunday and that one was successful," he said. "The only thing, it left me with no memory."
Doctors had removed nearly three quarters of the left temporal lobe of his brain.
"I had no idea of who I was, of what I was supposed to do," e said. "I had no idea of the people who were surrounding me, it was a blank."
Pat Martino, virtuoso guitarist, didn’t exist anymore. Instead, Martino found a new identity in the role of caretaker for his aging parents in their final years. One night, he was unwinding in a bar and found himself captivated by a local pianist.
"I was stimulated by that," he said. "… At the end of their set, he came over to say he had recognized me and came over to introduce himself to me and I literally responded by saying I’d love to play with you sometime. And that, it was a moment of spontaneity that caused me to begin to think about music again. And that’s what I did."
As Martino played guitar, memories, lost years earlier, began to come back. The feelings of his fingers on the fretboard, a song or chord progression would open a door, and bring back a lost moment, or help him recognize an old friend.
More than 35 years after the surgery, there’s still a lot missing, but Martino says he’s still discovering old memories.
And he says he’s a different person now. Perhaps due to the temporal lobe’s role in encoding memory, Martino says he experiences time differently now.
"I’ve had to focus my attention upon the moment, upon now as opposed to the past," he said. "Or the future in that respect.
They’ve lost interest on my behalf. They seem to be baggage, compared to the importance of focus and attention to now, because that’s when things are really, realistically happening. The past doesn’t exist, the future doesn’t exist. The only thing that really exists, and can be trusted, is now. So it seemed to be a good move in terms of forward growth."