Episode 26 | Killer Drummer- The tragic story of a Grammy-winning Murderer
We're going to turn back the clock and take a look at the enviable and extraordinary turned horrific and tragic life of one of the worlds most sought after Rock drummers. Jim Gordon was a beast on the skins. He kept time with the biggest names in the music industry. Everybody wanted him on their record. SHE wanted him to kill her. The voices — her voice — told him so. It was her voice that helped him pick out the eight inch butcher’s knife, and had him sharpen it. Her voice explained in detail how to use the whetstone to make the blade razor sharp. And he would do what the voices told him to do because he always listened to them, even though they had ruined his life.
And what a life it was!
James Beck Gordon had been, quite simply, one of the greatest drummers of his time. In the Sixties and Seventies he had played with John Lennon, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys, Judy Collins, Joe Cocker, Frank Zappa, Duane Allman, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne and Joan Baez. But the gigs had long since come to an end, and on June 3rd, 1983, there was nothing on his mind except killing his mother.
The voices told him what to do next. One said to hit her with a hammer first, so she would not suffer when he stabbed her with the knife. He would obey. He packed the hammer and the knife in a small leather attaché case and that afternoon drove his white Datsun 200SX the five miles from his Van Nuys condominium to his mother’s small North Hollywood apartment. When he got there, she was not in, so he went home and waited. At about 11:30 that evening he returned. A light was on inside, and when he knocked on the door, he could hear Osa Marie Gordon shuffling across the floor in her slippers.
When his mother opened the door, the six-foot-three Gordon stared down at the heavyset seventy-two-year-old gray-haired woman for only an instant. “Jim,” she said, in that eternally irretrievable moment before he hit her. As she screamed, he struck her with the hammer three more times, then as she fell to the floor he plunged the knife into her chest three times, and left it there – dead center.
At his trial in Los Angeles last spring, James Beck Gordon was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to sixteen years to life. The defense had argued insanity – but a tough new California law makes it almost impossible to prove that anyone is legally insane. Still, no one — neither the prosecution nor the presiding judge — disagreed with the diagnosis of the five defense psychiatrists that Gordon was an acute paranoid schizophrenic. No one, that is, except Gordon.
It is early in the morning when prisoner C89262 is ushered quietly into a sparsely furnished meeting room in the administrative wing of the heavily secured California Men's Colony in san luis Obispo.. He wears a light blue nylon jumpsuit, prison issue, and his whitening hair spikes up a little from a soon-to-be-renewed burr cut. Although a bit haggard, he is pleasant-looking, even handsome. “acute paranoid schizophrenic- They call everybody that,” he says with a warm, ingratiating smile that was as much a part of his being as the fact that he had brutally murdered his mother.“I really don’t feel that crazy,” he added. “I get along with people. I think I’m pretty normal.”
Gordon speaks softly and calmly. Taking a powerful antipsychotic drug daily and an antidepressant, and it seemed to help him feel better about himself, but he also appeared to believe what he said. It was, of course, all part of the delusion. So much had happened that it spilled out in great torrents from fellow musicians, friends, doctors and Gordon himself. The murder of his mother was only the final act of madness. Throughout his life there had been a series of disturbing eruptions that gave clear signs of the psychosis destroying his mind. And yet many of them were minimized or overlooked by those around him. The business of making music had much to do with it. In that maddeningly creative, nomadic world where geniuses, superstars, impresarios, fakers, freaks and free spirits vie for the spotlight, Gordon’s was just another act. That no one cried out before the disaster was just one of the many tragedies in a life that was, for a long time, “pretty normal.”
With his Curly Blond Hair and beefy build, Jim Gordon was a California golden hunk from a picture perfect family. Home was a small house in Sherman Oaks, a quiet bedroom community in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. It was a neighborhood where boys like James and his older brother, John, mowed the lawn, shined their father’s shoes and minded their manners. When either brother spoke, it was always “Please,” “Thank you” and, on the phone, “Gordon residence.”
At age eight, Gordon made a set of drums out of trash cans and held his musical debut in the room he shared with his brother. But, instead of throwing the cans out, his parents paid for music lessons. Both parents were solid breadwinners. His father was an accountant, while his mother was a nurse in the maternity ward of a local hospital. By twelve, Gordon had his own set of drums and, after additions to the house, a room of his own to play them in.
There was only one stain on this picture-perfect scene from suburbia, and it was hidden from view. When Gordon was a boy, his father was an alcoholic. It was his mother’s strength that held the family together until the children reached adolescence and her husband joined Alcoholics Anonymous, stopped drinking and became a full-time father again, happily managing his sons’ Little League team and playing the role of neighborhood chauffeur.
Yet, even within the relative tranquility of his family circle, there were warnings of the nightmares to come. Although he played frequently with his brother and was treated as the baby of the family by his parents, he says he felt left out. Eating made him feel better, but it only added to his insecurity; he was heavy, and sensitive about his weight. There was only one comfort to which he could turn: the voices. He seemed to need them then. They were his friends, a child’s companions — someone to talk to — safe, loyal, kind.
“Those voices were totally within the realm of reality for a small boy,” says Dr. William Vicary, one of the defense psychiatrists, “but they were also indicative of the paranoiac insecurities he would fall prey to later.”
Whatever insecurities he felt as a child, they were not easily justifiable for the teenage Gordon. Tall, husky, handsome and winsomely shy, he was elected class president in junior high school. His rising popularity paralleled his increasing devotion to music.
He was a prodigy. While in high school, he played with the Burbank Symphony, toured Europe one summer and performed in the Tournament of Roses Parade with a youth band. He got a fake ID, so he could work as an adult and landed a touring gig in the UK with the Everly Brothers. Soon he was working weekends as part of a group called Frankie Knight and the Jesters. They played the clubs in Hollywood and West Los Angeles for five or ten dollars a night. It was barely spending money, but Gordon got more out of it than cash. The insecurities and the voices receded as though overwhelmed by the beat of the music.
His parents wanted him to go to college, and he considered becoming a music teacher. UCLA offered him a music scholarship, but he turned it down. Too much was happening in the industry for The Voices or him to spend four more years in school.
The Los Angeles studio scene was the place to be for a talented young musician in the early Sixties. It was where the best and highest-paid sidemen came to do their most creative work, laying down track after track until they had the perfect sound. Producer Phil Spector, with his Wall of Sound, was a one-man hit factory, rolling out gold records for the Crystals, the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers. Keeping time with Spector was surf music, as epitomized by the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Phil Spector also has a place in criminal infamy which we will be covering in a future episode of the serial talker.
Gordon pounced on whatever work he could get. Everyone was hunting for talent, and the clubs Gordon played were crawling with scouts. One who spotted him was a bass player with the Everly Brothers.
Rock’s premier duo was gearing up for a summer tour of England in 1963, and after Gordon auditioned, the Everly Brothers wanted him to be their drummer. Although his parents disapproved, his pay would be low and his toehold in the studios would be lost, it was one spectacular graduation present for an 18yr old young man, and Gordon leapt at the opportunity.
The tour was a success (he joined them for another the following year). When Gordon returned home, he was excited about making performing his career. It was slow going at first. He even had enough time on his hands to attend Los Angeles Valley College. Yet, if Gordon was learning anything that school year, it was not in junior college but in the A&B Corned Beef restaurant. There the great studio musicians hung out during their breaks, talking music and industry gossip. Gordon’s club dates, demo work and Everly Brothers credit made him an accepted member of the club. Whenever he could, he grabbed a sandwich and picked up some impromptu lessons by watching the great sidemen play. He was a quick study. Within a year, his formal education was over, and he was headed for a class by himself as a drummer. A world class.
At thirty-five, Hal Blaine was the most respected session drummer in Los Angeles, with more work than he could handle, when Gordon arrived on the scene. Blaine says, “His name was on everybody’s lips.” Including Blaine’s – and that was better than a meal ticket.
Word spread that there was a hot new drummer around. Gordon was the “only living metronome” and had a “knack for hitting the sweet spot.” Soon, like Blaine, he was handling two or three recording sessions a day, sometimes six, seven days a week and charging double time for it, something only the best could do. At that price, producers were also getting the drummer’s own set, instead of jack-of-all-beats studio skins. The meticulous care Gordon gave his own kits made producers eager not only for his talent but for his sound.
The big Gordon beat was soon a record-industry standard. From a session with the Righteous Brothers, he and a set of his drums might travel to a date with Judy Collins while another set was being shipped to the day’s final session with Bobby Darin, Gordon Lightfoot, Glen Campbell or Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. Almost overnight the money was rolling in, and he handled it well. After all, his father was his accountant, and proud of it, too.
In 1964 Gordon married an attractive, vivacious dancer whom his mother had liked ever since he had begun dating her during his youth-band days. In many ways, Jim and Jill Gordon were an ideal couple. Music continued to be a bond in marriage, as both landed jobs on the prime-time-television rock show Shindig. Together they bought a Mercedes 220S and a Spanish-style two-bedroom house in North Hollywood. It was not far from Gordon’s parents’ - home, dining there regularly.
As the Sixties raced along, Gordon became restless. He tried to break with his routine by forming his own group, but they made only one album before splitting up. He then grew closer to Leon Russell and Rita Coolidge, who had recorded a popular album with the white soul duo Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett.
Delaney and Bonnie were getting set to tour England in 1969 and needed a drummer. A great drummer. Enter Jim Gordon.
Shortly before Jim left for England on the tour, He and Jill were divorced. Their marriage had lasted five years and produced one child, a daughter. True to his paternal roots, Gordon made sure he was paid more than any of the sidemen. But Delaney and Bonnie could afford to pay him a little extra. The tour was almost guaranteed to be a success. The duo was far more popular in England than in the States, and with the addition of a couple of unemployed guitarists named Eric Clapton and George Harrison, the tour took on superstar trappings.
“Jim was gentle,”, “sincere, considerate, brutally handsome, charming as a snake, and could he play! says Bonnie Bramlett about Gordon. I was really enjoying myself. We all were. And it showed.” It was an amazing tour.
Audiences everywhere caught the spirit. The tour sold out, and a live album was a critical and financial success. Delaney and Bonnie thought they had the makings of a long and fruitful collaboration, but they were wrong.
Nearly everyone from the Delaney and Bonnie ensemble left to join Leon Russell for Joe Cocker’s soon-to-be infamous Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. Leaving the Bramletts heartbroken.
The tour had been Leon Russell’s idea, with a little help from a canine friend named Canina. The show had everything: not only Canina but booze and drugs, a ménage of groupies, wives and children, a live-record contract and a film crew taking it all in for a feature-length movie. Sheer genius, total decadence, utter madness and knockout showmanship mixed in equal measure. Cocker led by example. Alternating between performing brilliantly and forgetting the words to his songs, he could be an inspiration on the tour one day, then barf in public the next. All the while, drink and drugs were the red and green lights directing the action onstage and off: heroin, mescaline, speed, MDA, cocaine, acid.
“Some real decrepit things went on,” says James Keltner, who came along on the tour to play double drums with Gordon. “Sharing girls. Shagging every chick in sight. The drugs were just as easy to get. I wasn’t a stranger to them myself and looking back Now I feel like I’m just lucky to have survived them.”
Gordon seemed to more than survive drugs then. He was a superman. For a young man who had never before done anything stronger than grass, Gordon did drugs prodigiously. Before one concert in Seattle, Gordon got Keltner to drop acid with him. During a rendition of “Bird on the Wire,” Keltner was unable to continue. Gordon tried to coach him, to no avail. Keltner left in tears, while Gordon powered on.
It went that way the whole tour: Gordon playing at the top of his stroke while he swallowed, smoked and snorted anything he could get his hands on. He was trying to keep the demons at bay.
The voices were pattering — they did not like the drug business — but they were mere murmurs then, perhaps no more than childhood memories or his conscience. Gordon ignored them. Everything was going along so smoothly. He avoided the groupie scene in favor of a steady relationship with Rita Coolidge. They spent nearly all their spare time together. He bought her a fox-fur coat. They collaborated in writing music and laughed over who was the poorer piano player. But it all came to an abrupt end one afternoon in a room at the Warwick Hotel, in New York, where the band was hanging out.
“He asked me to step out into the hall,” Coolidge says. “I thought he wanted to talk; instead he hit me.”
The blow sent her sprawling and left her with a black eye for the rest of the tour. It was then, as now, inexplicable. It appeared simply to be the first chapter of paranoid madness. Gordon is sheepish about it now 50 years later. He was apologetic then. He left books of poetry for Coolidge, but she would no longer have anything to do with him. In a madmen’s tour, the incident was quickly buried by others, and Gordon continued on a roll.
One great gig leads to another. When the tour ended, Gordon got a call from London - one of the Fab Four was on the line-George Harrison wanted Gordon to join him as well as Clapton and Phil Spector in making his first solo album, the landmark All Things Must Pass. After they finished, Clapton asked Gordon if he wanted to form a band. A giddy Gordon said absolutely, settled into a Chelsea flat and bought a Ferrari. Together with Bobby Withlock, Carl Radle and Duane Allman, he and Eric Clapton formed the short lived but much applauded Rock supergroup Derek and the Dominos.
It was an unparalleled combination of creativity and star-crossed lives. Clapton was the Mozart of rock, a man of seemingly limitless talent nearing ruin. He was not alone: speedballs (mixing heroin and cocaine) was a favorite drug in the group. Still, the music managed to fall into place. Gordon and Clapton wrote the classic “Layla,” the title cut of the group’s only studio album. Clapton wrote the driving first half, and Gordon added the inspired piano melody on the haunting second half, one of the products of his work with Rita Coolidge.
The group broke up acrimoniously after its only tour in 1972, citing differences over money and artistic direction, and arguably the drugs had a role in it, too.
“The producers wouldn’t pay me for Layla,” Gordon recalls, “because they said I would be dead in six months anyway.”
As sobering as that may have been — especially given the recent drug-related deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin as well as Duane Allman’s later fatal motorcycle accident — Gordon kept doing drugs, graduating from snorting to mainlining heroin. And he kept up his feverish work pace. John Lennon brought Gordon aboard for his solo album Imagine. (They had played together when Gordon, Clapton and Harrison joined Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band for a UNICEF concert in London in 1969.) Next he took over the drumming for Traffic on The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys and the tour that followed. When he returned to London, he did studio sessions for producer Richard Perry, including Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” Then he was ready to go home to California. He was tiring of the cycle of drugs and work, and he had just received his own warning of the damage they could do. Driving on a rain-soaked road, his mind had drifted and he had totaled his Ferrari.
Word of how he had changed — the drugs and alcohol, the accident and his treatment of Coolidge — preceded Gordon to L.A. He was labeled another drugged-out superstar casualty, unable to deal with the pressure, the work and and the drugs. Yet, when he got back, it was as if he had never left. Gordon was in such demand that he could pick and choose his recording dates.
The music industry was booming. There was a feeling that the impossible could be done every day, and new groups and sounds were being tried out everywhere. Although the risks of failure were high, so were the payoffs. The record companies made sure they had a safety net. When a band got in the studio, a new range of high-tech equipment as well as sidemen like Gordon were waiting there to prevent any bad recording cuts.
“In most cases,” says producer Michael Omartian, “drummers in a group had to get used to the fact that when they got into the studio, they were going to be replaced by Jim.”
He never let up. He was working in the studios constantly, with Steely Dan (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”), Frank Zappa (The Grand Wazoo), Johnny Rivers (L.A. Reggae), Maria Muldaur (“Midnight at the Oasis”) and many others. Any doubts about the staying power of his talents quickly disappeared. He had gotten away with it.
Excepting his father’s death in 1973, Gordon remembers the period following his return from England as one of the best in his life. He bought a house in Sherman Oaks and a new Mercedes 450SLC, saw his daughter again and married singer and songwriter Renée Armand. For a time, he also stayed away from drugs. Still, he was not entirely clean.
“I guess I was an alcoholic,” he says now, contemplating the slide from drugs to booze. “Before, I was drinking every night, but I wasn’t getting up in the morning for a drink; I would put a needle in my arm. When I stopped taking the heroin, I began to drink all day.”
He didn’t stop doing drugs for long. Speedballs — cocaine laced with heroin — became his passion. Still, he was always there when a record producer needed him, and he was one sideman who never excused himself during a session to do a line. His reputation was so solid that even those who took no part in the drug and alcohol culture, like the Osmonds, were glad to have him play with them. Nevertheless, there was something churning up Gordon’s insides.
It was as if there was a struggle for control over him – and he was slowly losing. He went from warm to polite; from friendly to pleasant; from quiet to uncommunicative. During session breaks, he would stand alone in the corner, sometimes mumbling to himself. He told a friend not to give out his telephone number – he didn’t want to talk to anyone. “He was always a quiet guy,” says bass player Max Bennett, “but the quiet became very loud, and everybody left him alone.”
Gordon gradually retreated, like someone with a terrible secret. Sometimes he would disappear for days, isolating himself in some out-of-the-way hotel. His old childhood insecurities returned, but they were grown up now, into full-blown paranoia. He felt unwanted and unsure of himself. Life atop the drummer’s pedestal was shaky. He had an irrational fear of the latest crop of drummers who were swarming all over Los Angeles. When the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band was forming in 1973, Gordon surprised Chris Hillman by quietly asking for an audition when the job was his without question.
This was not the Jim Gordon anyone knew, and few knew who or what was taking his place. In a business where so many had an intimate relationship with drugs and booze, there was an unquiet feeling that whatever was wrong with Gordon, it bore little resemblance to anything they had ever seen at the end of a needle or at the bottom of a bottle.
“The paranoia,” explains Dr. Vicary, “was just one symptom of his illness. It is often one of the earliest signs of schizophrenia. ‘I’m okay,’ he might say. ‘They’re all just out to get me.’ The ‘they’ are often real people in the beginning. When more advanced symptoms turn up, delusions and hallucinations, they can become imaginary voices and people.”
Gordon’s wife Renée was perhaps the first to glimpse the otherworldly horror in his soul. Theirs had always been a mercurial relationship, certified by an overnight trip to Las Vegas and held together by their mutual love of music. Gordon played the drums, guitar and piano on her solo album, The Rain Book, and arranged and wrote some of the music. But whatever the difficulties that arose in their marriage, Armand was not prepared for the violence.
She was just coming home from shopping one afternoon, hadn’t even put the groceries down, when Gordon confronted her. He looked down at her with a menacing stare, his eyes narrowing. It was a look that would chill many over the next decade.
“I know what you’re doing,” he said.
She said she didn’t know what he was talking about. He pointed to three objects on the floor.
“The magic triangle,” he said. He accused her of being responsible for evil spirits in the house. She denied it, and then he punched her, cracking several ribs.
“I loved him very much,” says Armand. “I didn’t know what had happened to him, but I couldn’t stay after that.”
His marriage was over after only six months, but Gordon did not remain alone. The voices kept him company. They were back. He doesn’t know how, why or from where they came, only that they were back. Of that he was sure. He was stone-cold sober and straight when he heard them. No more murmurs hiding in the background. They were everywhere. As they became part of his daily life, they took on real identities. There was a family of voices, with faces he could see in his mind but whose names he did not know. The leader was a man with a white beard, and the group included a young blonde woman and another who was dark and Greek. Some he knew well: his brother, his aunt and, most of all, his mother.
“The voices started out friendly,” he says. “They were giving me little pointers. How to take care of myself and the house. How to shop. I was glad for the help. I was getting ready for the rest of my life. I thought it was pretty strange, but there was nothing I could do about it. I heard them all the time. They would tell me if I was doing right or wrong. And I took it in like a fool. They said I had some kind of responsibility to God and country. I was the king of the universe, they said. I had to make sacrifices, and I had to do what they said. That’s when my mother started making me eat half my food.”
There was no more reason for eating less than there was for the existence of the voices. But however many calories he lost in food, there were more in the alcohol he consumed. He could drink a fifth of scotch or vodka a day and still work. No one knew about the battle raging for his mind. He was still the king of the calfskins, with all the privileges that went with it.
Gordon was never without a beauty on his arm or in his bed. He was after all, despite any misgivings, a rock star! If one woman left him, there was always another one eager to take her place. One was a secretary named Stacey Bailey, who got to know Gordon while working for the band Bread. She moved in with him and for a long time beat the odds. There were times when Gordon was quietly at peace with himself. Reciting passages from the Bible. He brought her breakfast in bed, got her a seat next to Bob Dylan at a Joan Baez concert.
But there was also ample reason to be on guard. A dangerous Orestes was on the prowl, stirred on by fear and insecurity and the voices. He shared the secret of the voices with Bailey and complained about his mother. Although he made no link between the two, his complaints about his mother were the same as those about the voices. He tried so hard to please his mother, he told Bailey, but that was not enough for her. His mother wanted to control his life, as all women did.
One night while Bailey was sleeping she woke unable to breathe. Gordon was choking her. She was on the verge of passing out when he loosened his grip. He repeated the cycle again and again. Finally, he released her and fell back on the bed laughing. It was all a joke, he said. Hysterical, Bailey ran to the neighbors. Gordon begged her to come back. He cried. “I just wanted to see if you really cared about me,” he told her.
The violence Gordon committed against women was his personal affair, and as long as he kept it that way, no one in the business – virtually all of them men – said anything. Yet for Gordon every day was becoming a struggle. The voices were tormenting him now to the point that it made it harder and harder for him to control his rage. His main defense was his politeness and keeping his distance from people.
Gordon’s defenses were damaged, and the emotional wall was not going to hold. He tried to patch it up. He gave up drugs for good and, with his mother’s help, went on the wagon. It was only a band-aid solution, though. Gordon needed the drink to fight the relentless voices, and in a short time he was drinking more than ever. The madness was winning, and soon everyone would know it.
The first time most people in the L.A. music scene remember hearing about Gordon’s deteriorating mental state was after the recording of Johnny Rivers’ Outside Help in 1977. During one session Gordon suddenly stopped playing. The whole studio grew still as Gordon glared at guitarist Dean Parks.
“You’re messing with my time,” Gordon said, rising to his feet menacingly.
Parks denied it. He and Gordon had done a lot of work together, and nothing like this had ever happened before. “You’re moving my hands,” Gordon continued. “I want you to stop it.”
Parks assured him that it was impossible for him to do anything from across the room. Gordon grudgingly began playing again, but a few sessions later he railed at someone else. Gordon was becoming a liability. Record producers would not hire him anymore. With few recording dates being offered, Gordon wound up doing lower-paying work, like television, movies and commercials.
He had become the industry’s quiet embarrassment, but he made it easier for everybody by making himself less available by touring and recording in Canada with Burton Cummings. But the change in atmosphere did him little good. There was just no escape. The combination of work, drink, the voices and life on the run was killing him.
Gordon revealing he couldn’t cope with being outside anymore,” -The v oices were chasing me around. Making me drive to different places. Starving me. I was only allowed one bite of food a meal. And, if I disobeyed, the voices would fill me with a rage, like the incredible Hulk gets.”
By 1977, his mother’s voice all but consumed his every waking hour. He told her voice to leave him alone. When that did not work, he telephoned his mother and told her the same thing. Naturally, she did not know what he was talking about.
“She said I needed help,” he says, “so I went to Van Nuys Psychiatric Hospital.” It was the first of at least fourteen times that he would check himself into a hospital over the next six years.
He told doctors that he couldn’t sleep, that he heard voices, including his mother’s, and that he felt guilty about taking drugs and leaving his former wife Jill. His mother visited, and he told doctors that she was “the only friend” he had. Allowing for his ambivalent feelings toward her, the doctors gave their permission for him to go home with her on weekends. Even then he would hear her voice tormenting him, and again the cycle of accusations and denials would begin. After only two months, he checked himself out of the hospital, against his doctor’s advice. But Gordon agreed to see a doctor as an outpatient.
On September 3rd, when he did not show up for an appointment, his doctor called Gordon’s mother. She found him at home, unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital, suffering from an overdose of the sedatives prescribed by his psychiatrist. At his next meeting with his doctor he apologized for attempting to commit suicide. The voices, he explained, did not care if he killed himself. As serious as his condition was, he would not continue therapy. The rage inside him made it impossible for him to keep his appointments. So he reluctantly went back to work, doing mostly commercials and movies. Then a friend recommended him to Jackson Browne, who was going on tour. It was the spring of 1978, and Gordon saw it as a chance for a comeback.
The tour was uneventful for Gordon, just as he wanted it. He jogged and played racketball with Browne.
“We played all the time,” says Browne. “It was pretty well known that he had had a breakdown, but I wanted him on the tour. You just wanted to root for him. He cut such a gallant figure, with his open white silk shirts and felt Borsalino hat, and he was such a good drummer. He’d get my attention with this great fill, really imaginative. He just rose to the occasion.”
Yet, when Gordon got back from the tour, he saw that little had changed. If anything, things had gotten worse. The music business was in a profound slump. Record sales were nose-diving, and artists were having a tough time getting their records produced. Sidemen were suddenly expendable. With Gordon’s emotional state as well as his talents and dependability suspect, few record producers called.
Frequently out of work, Gordon would go on drinking binges for months in an effort to drown out the voices. But it did no good. Nor did calls to his mother and even to his brother, John, a bank executive in Seattle. He was falling totally under the control of the voices. They would not even allow him to accept all of the few jobs he was offered. When Bob Dylan called late the following spring to talk about the Slow Train Coming Tour, the voices — his mother’s voice — forced Gordon to say he was not interested.
Hanging up on Dylan hurt Gordon terribly, and he was determined not to let it happen again. A short time later, when Paul Anka offered him a job in Las Vegas, Gordon accepted. Then his mother’s voice delivered the most crushing blow.
“I flew to Vegas,” Gordon says, “played a couple of notes. My mother said to leave, and I had to obey.”
He returned severely depressed and in November checked himself into Valley Presbyterian Hospital. It was one of his worst stays. He was so upset that he threatened to kill a nurse. He doesn’t remember threatening her, but he rembers the incident.
“She wouldn’t leave me alone,” he says, “and my mother was working on me. The nurse told me nothing was wrong with me. I had a pain in my back. It was a psychological pain. I broke a potted plant. I ran down the stairs yelling, ‘Let me go. Let me go.’ “
Again, as he did over and over, he checked out against doctors’ advice. It was all over, though. Whatever jobs followed were of little consequence, and by 1980 he was, for all practical purposes, no longer a professional musician.
“He couldn’t function in the normal everyday world,” says guitarist Larry Rolando, one of the few friends Gordon saw then.
With substantial savings, smart realestate investments and royalty payments coming in steadily, he could still afford to do anything or nothing. He stopped playing his drums. There were periods when he would not bathe, shave or change clothes for days, and others when he would dress up and go to church. He spent much of his time sleeping, watching old movies on television, writing songs he would never finish, playing the same song endlessly on his piano late at night and drinking more than he ever had. When he checked into the hospital again, on June 5th, 1980, he had already consumed two-thirds of a bottle of cognac and half a gallon of wine during the day.
He was gaining weight, and the doctors warned him that he was destroying his liver. His response, as always, was to leave. This time, the next day. The doctors never helped him, he thought. He only went because he had to play his mother’s voice’s little games.
“She liked hospitals because she was a nurse,” he says, “and her to rture things were based on what they do in them, like eat part of your food, sit up, lay down.”
And yet he would turn to her when he got out. That, too, was part of the game. He had to see her or suffer the consequences. The line between mother and voice grew fainter until it did not exist. She was the voice, and the voice was her.
His obsession with her voice was becoming his whole life. She was a woman of unspeakable evil. He thought — still does — she killed Paul Lynde and Karen Carpenter. At times he figured that his mother wanted him to die, because his purposefulness — whatever that was — was over. At other times he thought that she would rather torment him until the day she died.
“She knew what she was doing,” he says. “She was ruining my life. That’s what she wanted to do.”
Nothing was right or even safe for him. He stopped going to a bar, he told Rolando, because there were evil people in it. He was uncomfortable wherever he lived, so he moved from one place to another. No car suited his needs. With in two years, he went from his Mercedes to a Capri, a Scirocco, a Volkswagen van and finally the Datsun.
Gordon prepared for the worst. He rented a storage garage and packed it with freeze-dried food in expectation of the world’s end. His record of child-support payments was unblemished, and he paid his bills on time: if he died suddenly, he would not owe anyone any money.
Every so often he would make an attempt to break out of his depression. Reminiscent of his Jester days, he played the Los Angeles club scene for a while, at spots like Chadney’s, O’Mahoney’s and the Century Club. He talked of forming a band with Rolando.
“What could you say?” asks Rolando. “Who had any experience with whatever was wrong with him? He wouldn’t talk. Then there was that look. He didn’t trust anyone. One morning, at seven, he called about the band. ‘I can’t do this,’ he said in a very cold voice. ‘My jaw, my shoulder. You don’t know the pain. If I picked up my drumsticks, it would kill me.’ “
Toward the end of 1982, the pain had become unbearable. On October 22nd, he checked into the hospital and told the doctors that he felt he was dying of “hate” and that his “world was falling apart.”
There seemed precious little left that he could do to end his misery. He could kill himself or he could kill his mother. Both ideas wrestled viciously for dominance.
In the spring of 1983 his mother decided to write him. She had not seen her son in two years. He had avoided her, and she was often out of the city. For a time, she had lived near Lake Tahoe, and although retired from nursing, she worked part time as a physical therapist throughout the state.
In a letter dated May 23rd — but never opened by Gordon — his mother tried to reassure him that whatever was going on in his mind, she was not the cause.
“I think of you so often and wonder how things are going for you,” she wrote. Then she told him of her plans to move to Seattle in a month. Part of her reason for moving was to get a safe distance away from her son, but of course she did not write that. She told him only that she was going to live with John and his family. They had a large house. It would allow her plenty of privacy and at the same time give her the security of having family around if she needed it. She finished the letter by writing, “I love you, Jim, more than you know. Just remember, I am as close to you as your phone.”
She had mentioned her plans to him previously over the phone, and he says now he thought they were “great.” But that is the son talking. The schizophrenic was hearing a different message. “She wanted me to throw my drums away, do all these impossible things. We’d been over the same ground so many times that I knew what was expected of me. She said, ‘You’re going to kill me,’ or something like that.”
It was 9:30 p.m. on June Ist when her telephone rang.
“You’re bugging me again,” Gordon told his mother, who was by then writing everything down. “I’m going to kill you.”
As always, she denied his accusations. After he hung up, she called the Medical Center of North Hollywood and asked a nurse if her son had been there. She was told that Gordon had been admitted that day. He had been drinking and had said, “I want Thorazine [an antipsychotic drug]. I am feeling very violent.” (“Agitated,” Gordon recalls.) But the doctor was not in yet, and Gordon angrily left. Osa called the local police. The desk officer on duty at the time said there was nothing that they could do and suggested that she leave the lights on in her house. He also wished her luck. She next tried John, but no one was home.
At 11:40 p.m. Gordon called again, and the conversation was a repeat of the previous one, but there was nothing more she could do. She decided against calling John again because it was too late. The following day, Thursday, she called the city attorney’s office about having her son served with a restraining order. She faced a formidable bureaucracy, though, and hung up.
Osa Gordon didn’t call anyone else that day or the next. She had, after all, been dealing with her son’s illness for a decade and had to manage only a few more weeks alone. Although it was necessary to treat her son cautiously, he had never raised a hand against her, and no doctor had ever warned her that he might. It was perhaps with these thoughts in mind that she opened her door to her son when he suddenly appeared in front of her apartment late that fatal Friday night.
There were no witnesses to the murder, but neighbors heard the screams and called the police. When they went to Gordon’s apartment early the next morning, it was to notify him of his mother’s death. The police found Gordon, moaning and sobbing, face down on his living-room floor. He had been sober when he killed his mother, but afterward he had been to a bar and to Chadney’s, where he had several double margaritas, pernods, Long Island iced teas and then, once home, a fifth of vodka. Still, he was coherent, and as the police lifted him to his feet, he confessed.
“I had no interest in killing her,” Gordon says. “I wanted to stay away from her. I had no choice. It was so matter-of-fact, like I was being guided like a zombie. She wanted me to kill her, and good riddance to her.”
His mother’s voice is gone now. But Gordon still hears the others. The psychiatrists can shed little light on the origins of his illness.
“He was strongly predisposed to becoming a schizophrenic,” says Dr. Vicary, “and without that, it just won’t happen. The stress of working in a highly pressured, idiosyncratic business like music was a contributing factor, and the drugs and the alcohol, used as self-medication, didn’t do him any good.”
The doctors are not optimistic about his recovery, especially since he is behind bars instead of in a hospital. He will continue to suffer delusions and paranoia and to have intensely ambivalent feelings toward himself and those people whose voices he hears.
His brother’s is the most prominent now. Gordon generally gets along with the voice except when it starts to nag him. The voice says he cannot eat desserts. But that is all right, too, even though he has lost more than enough weight to assuage the guilt of the boy drummer inside him. Far blacker thoughts have crossed his mind since he killed his mother. Gordon attempted to commit suicide by slashing his wrists while he was in the Los Angeles County Jail. Now, at San Luis Obispo, one gets the feeling that all he wants to do is fit in.
“They have a band here,” he says, with a smile. “I’m going to try to get into it.”
If the voices let him.
WOW! What a sad and tragic story this is and from so many angles.
Jim Gordon wasn’t just a drummer, he was a genius. Even after Derek and the Domino’s imploded, Eric Clapton still considered him “The best drummer in rock and roll”. And The list of albums Jim Gordon contributed to is as long as it is varied. He effortlessly floated from genre to genre, from jazz of Mel Torme’ to country western’s Merle Haggard to commercial jingles to Muzak and everywhere in between.
Gordon set a platinum standard for what it meant to be not just a session drummer, but a drummer as a musician. His ability to jump from genre to genre so adroitly and impact each song so perfectly was almost well… schizophrenic.
The majority of people with schizophrenia are not violent. Unfortunately, Jim Gordon is not one of those.
Due to being “medically and psychologically noncompliant,” and showing clear symptoms of schizophrenia, in March of 2021 at age 75 Jim Gordon was denied parole for the 11th time and will most likely remain incarcerated for the remainder of his life.