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The Chaotic Life and Violent Decline of Legendary Drummer Jim Gordon

Famous for his session work with big names in rock, pop, folk, and jazz musicians, the drumming never stopped as Jim Gordon’s life and mind came apart.

Drums & Demons: The Tragic Journey of Jim Gordon
Joel Selvin
February 2024

In his hair-raising new biography, Drums & Demons, author and former long-time music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle Joel Selvin takes on the daunting task of chronicling the unparalleled career and terrifying decline of session drummer Jim Gordon. Gordon was a first-call musician in Los Angeles for two decades. He played with Steely Dan, John Lennon, George Harrison, Joan Baez, Merle Haggard, Traffic, and Derek and the Dominos, to name just a very few. If you’ve even casually listened to popular music recorded during the 1960s and ’70s, you have encountered his playing. In his 2007 autobiography, Eric Clapton called Gordon the greatest rock ’n’ roll drummer who ever lived.

Jim Gordon’s life, though, is not a subject for the faint of heart. He suffered from severe mental illness, along with accompanying addictions to alcohol and drugs. Besides the litany of hits, he lent his talent to run a trail of nightmarish violence and disturbing behavior. “I don’t have a problem with dark subject matter,” Selvin says during our interview, “I’m drawn to it, in fact.” With Drums & Demons, Selvin revisits and reconsiders Gordon’s life and career. Flush with previously unpublished information, as well as new interviews with Gordon’s family and one-time associates, it’s a definitive and heartbreaking portrait of an artist and a family destroyed by mental illness.

From roughly 3 July 1983, when Jim Gordon’s vicious mental deterioration led him to murder his mother, Ora, whose voice Gordon heard in his head for years commanding him to starve himself, among other tortures, and 13 March 2023, when Gordon died in a medical facility at the California State Prison in Vacaville at the age of 77, mention of his name was something of a third rail in certain circles. Information on him was hard to come by, and those who had once been closest to him refused to speak. Indeed, Gordon’s crime set him apart in a business full of fiercely talented yet often troubled, sometimes dangerous characters. “The act of killing his mother was so shocking to people that they just averted their eyes,” Selvin says. “The music business has no problem with all kinds of bad behavior, but mental illness is not so easily handled.  And those people couldn’t deal with Jim.”

Jim Gordon’s father was a heavy drinker who dominated his family, and Jim, his second-born, was pudgy, shy, deeply insecure, and highly vulnerable. Gordon began playing the drums when he was eight, and the instrument was a natural fit. By the time he was a senior in high school in 1963, he’d landed the drum chair in the Everly Brothers’ touring band. By then, he’d grown into a tall and handsome Southern California heartthrob. “He was the Golden Boy,” wrote singer Rita Coolidge in her 2016 memoir Delta Lady. “He was like Tony Curtis in The Great Race, a little twinkle on his tooth.”

A flood of session work was soon his for the taking. And not just any work, but one classic rock, country, and folk recording after another. He’s the drummer on Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind”, Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and “The Bottle Let Me Down”, Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”, “Grazing in the Grass” by the Friends of Distinction, and Neil Young’s “Expecting to Fly”, to name just a few. He played on most of The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968) and all of Harry Nilsson’s Aerial Ballet (1968). On successive days in 1966, he played percussion on the Beach Boys’ “I’m Waiting for the Day” and Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High”. For a period of time in Gordon’s life, the music was neverending.

In Drums & Demons, Selvin navigates the varied who’s who of session players and producers who accompanied it with studied skill. He never lets things get tangled or starstruck, and each new face is a delight: Leon Russell and Ry Cooder here, Lenny Waronker and Jack Nitzsche there.

If a song was recorded in Los Angeles during the second part of 1960, there’s an even chance that Jim Gordon played on it. Like his predecessors Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, Gordon provided the unerring backbeat producers craved. But raised on rock ‘n’ roll instead of big band music, his placement of the beat was a touch more centered yet no less propulsive, and his drum sound was thick and warm. He could cover whatever style of music he was presented with and had the rare talent of knowing just what space in an arrangement was his to fill.

His role as drummer was never all that fussy, and when he provided punctuation, it was in service of the song. (His part on Derek and the Dominos’ “Bell Bottom Blues“, with its inverted placement of the kick and snare during the verses, is the kind of drumming that only Gordon could have put together.) “He’s the guy who wrote the book of rules for rock and roll drumming,” says Selvin. “He wrote that vocabulary. That’s his literature.”

Though it’s impossible to know for sure just when Jim Gordon began hearing voices, he’d likely been suffering from the effects of schizophrenia for over a decade by that point. “Jim moved through his life like a ghost,” Selvin says of Gordon’s struggles to balance his work with his tenuous mental health. “He was friendly but had no real friends…. Nobody really knew him.”

Whatever control he’d been able to exert early in his career began slipping noticeably over the course of the ’70s. As his workload grew, his relationships became more complicated, and his intake of drugs and alcohol increased. He punched Rita Coolidge while the pair were performing as part of Joe Cocker’s substance-fueled Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, knocking her unconscious in a hotel hallway and then returning to the post-show festivities as if nothing had happened. (“It wouldn’t have shocked me at all if he had said, ‘When we get home, could we get married?’” Coolidge later wrote of the moments leading up to the assault.) In 1973, after accusing his then-second wife of trying to bring evil spirits into their house, he attacked her so intensely that she was afraid he would kill her.

The drumming never stopped as Jim Gordon’s life and mind were coming apart. He performed legendary work on Traffic’s The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (1971), George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (1970), Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust (1975), Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown”, Frank Zappa’s “Apostrophe”, Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t That Lose Number” and Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”. His playing on these last two songs is a masterclass in how a drum part can frame a song’s emotional peaks and valleys. He played on countless more tracks during this era, as well, and through sampling, his drum break on Incredible Bongo Band’s throwaway cover of “Apache” in 1973 would provide the foundation for hundreds of more songs in the decades to come.

Jim Gordon’s professional life creates a wildly jarring juxtaposition with his personal life, and it makes following his grim decline all the more unsettling. Convinced his mother’s voice was commanding him not to eat, Gordon would fast for days at a time. Being in public could send him into paranoid fits, and he began to lose control of himself in the studio, missing sessions and frightening fellow musicians with his temper.

As he grew more isolated and as his repeated attempts to find medical assistance proved unable to cure him, Gordon only got worse. “The years and years of struggle, the hospital admissions, the mental hospital stays, the vast amount of therapy, all the pharmacological stuff, his intense battle against this disease…this is missing from all the pictures of him,” Selvin says. “I think Jim was a lost soul and everything that he did to assuage his situation was ineffective and frustrating. He knew he wanted to sleep. He knew he wanted to eat. He was ashamed because he knew he was an intelligent person and he couldn’t think his way out of it.”

Drums & Demons contains a remarkable amount of information on Gordon’s personal hell, pulled from private interviews Gordon gave while he was still able. Selvin also digs into letters and interviews with family members and close friends, most of whom declined to speak on the matter while he was still alive. “People felt like the topic was something they did not want to address at all,” Selvin says. “It was a really emotional issue. There was nobody who said, ‘Oh sure, what do you want?'”

Only after Jim died did the family decide they wanted to get their footprints in the sand. With Jim alive there’s all these things in their life that are unresolved and traumatizing to the extreme. With Jim dead, it’s resolved. And that happened to not just his family but the whole world changed their mind about Jim when he died. Instead of being this murderous musician, he is a victim of mental illness and finally some of the compassion that had been missing from the examination of his case was being applied.

With Drums & Demons, Selvin creates an intense account of Gordon’s chaotic life, bringing us as close to the man as one might dare. “It’s such a monumental story and it’s got so many things that are important in it beyond the music,” Selvin says. “This guy’s tremendous battle with his life and his ability to maintain this incredibly high level of artistic accomplishment at the same time he was going through this deep and traumatic personal struggle. It’s the stuff that heroes are made of. Of course, this doesn’t have a heroic ending.”  

RATING 8 / 10