Podcast Transcript

Speaker 2: Takin’ A Walk.

Joel Selvin: In 1969, he moved into the live rock field. He joined the Delaney and Bonnie Band, and from there into the Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen. And from there he was a founding member of Derek and The Domino’s. He’s a co-author with Eric Clapton of Layla. He went back to Hollywood and continued his work as a session player.

Number one records with Harry Nilson, Carly Simon, Steely Dan, Gordon Lightfoot. But the illness just grew and grew.

Speaker 2: Welcome to the Takin’ A Walk podcast, with your host, Buzz Knight. Today, Buzz is joined by a previous multi-visit guest of Takin’ A Walk, author and music critic Joel Selvin.

Joel is the author of many critically-acclaimed music history books, including Altamont. And his new book is called Drums and Demons, The Tragic Journey of Jim Gordon. Jim Gordon is considered one of the greatest drummers of all time, known for his work with a who’s who of artists, Derek And The Domino’s, Tom Petty, Steely Dan, John Lennon, George Harrison, and many more.

Jim’s tragic madness, and the tragedy which led him to a life in prison, a prison hospital, and his ultimate sad passing, it’s an incredible story. Let’s join Buzz Knight next, with Joel Selvin.

Buzz Knight: Well, Joel Selvin, welcome to another edition of Takin’ A Walk. You’re a three-time champion, I don’t know if you know that or not.

Joel Selvin: It’s good to be back, Buzz.

Buzz Knight: You were on with our first get-to-know-you episode, and in that one you brought up Jim Gordon, the subject of this interview and your new book. And then of course, you did our second tribute to Tom Petty, that you were so fabulous. So, so great to have you on, my friend.

Joel Selvin: Thanks, Buzz.

Buzz Knight: So for those that don’t know the story, tell our audience about why Jim Gordon is considered the greatest drummer of all time, and his ultimate tragedy.

Joel Selvin: Yes, it is a terribly tragic story. Jim was probably one of the greatest drummers in pop music during his lifetime, but he suffered from severe mental illness and it ultimately undermined his career and led him down a very dark spiral. Ultimately, he ended up murdering his mother and spending the rest of his life in jail.

It’s a complicated and dark story, but it has a very sunny beginning. He discovered drums as a young man as like eight years old, and his life came alive. He became this extraordinary young drummer who took all the training, and all the different kinds of education and lessons. And when he left high school, the next day, he went on the road with the Everly Brothers. So he started up pretty high up the ladder.

He moved into recording sessions in Hollywood, and he played on records by Sonny and Cher, the Beach Boys, Glenn Campbell, all the Phil Spector records. He was one of the most successful session drummers in Hollywood. That’s him on Good Vibrations. That’s him on The Beat Goes On, that’s him on Wichita Lineman.

In 1969, he moved into the live rock field. He joined the Delaney and Bonnie Band, and from there into the Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen. And from there he was a founding member of Derek and The Dominoes. He’s a co-author, with Eric Clapton, of Layla.

He went back to Hollywood and continued his work as a session player. Number one records with Harry Nielsen, Carly Simon, Steely Dan, Gordon Lightfoot. But the illness just grew and grew. And by 1975 he was in and out of mental hospitals, and getting treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. And by 1978 he was washed up as a musician. He couldn’t even play music anymore. And then in 1983, he was arrested and went to jail.

It is an incredibly sad story. And Buzz, the most amazing thing to me was to learn how common schizophrenia is. Schizophrenia occurs in one in 100 in the general population. By comparison, multiple sclerosis is one in 10,000.

So all those people you see out on the streets, sleeping in the gutters and stuff, their heads are buzzing with voices. There are massive numbers of schizophrenics out there, and 50% of the schizophrenics can’t be helped at all. The other 50%, sliding scale. Some people lead fully-productive lives. Many just struggle every day.

Jim had among the most severe symptoms you can have. And at the same time, he had all the money he needed to get the best medical care available. And that wasn’t very good. It did not help him. He really did not experience any great benefit from the treatments.

And of course, in the seventies there were very primitive treatments. The psychiatric drugs were super powerful, primitive stuff. The understanding in the recovery community of what we now know as dual diagnosis, which is you’re addicted and you have organic mental illness. It’s a very complicated braiding of diseases, and they didn’t know anything about that back then.

So Jim was sort of by himself, scared, lonely, and crowded with toxic, pernicious voices who commanded him. And if he did not follow their instructions, they would give him headaches that would leave him crawling on the floor, wetting his pants. This is well-known to psychiatrists, they call it the Electric Hat Band.

But for Jim, it was years and years of torture. And chief among the voices in his head that were torturing him was the voice of his mother.

His mother was a fine person. She was maybe a little controlling, but she was a medical professional. She was a nurse, she was a loving mother. She cared very much for Jim and his older brother. And she did not understand the role she played in Jim’s mental illness. Where she was a voice hectoring him, telling him not to eat, not to sleep, not to play music. And if he didn’t, she would give him these headaches.

So that was his struggle, was trying to get on top of these voices that were controlling them, and he could never get there.

Buzz Knight: And I know you do not want to bury this headline here, which we will come back to. But the fact of the matter is, virtually an entire industry turned its back on this man when this terrible tragedy happened.

Joel Selvin: So the rock music scene in the seventies, Buzz, was very hospitable to drug addicts, alcoholics, sexual deviance, all kinds of reprobates, but they didn’t know how to deal with anybody who was actually mentally ill. And Jim had to hide his symptoms because he continued to work in this professional world at a very high level.

So he came to work with a mask on, and that mask was a genial guy with a easy smile. A very compliant guy who was there to do the work that you wanted him to do.

That mask would slip on occasions. He knocked his girlfriend unconscious, Rita Coolidge. It came out of nowhere. It wasn’t like he was Ike Turner, trying to control his girlfriend and command her. It was just some eruption that even he didn’t understand. This happened on other occasions, when this tremendous inner life, this turmoil, this roiling set of voices and forces inside him would just emerge and break loose. And then he would have to pull them back in, and put his face on, and go back to work.

There’s lots of stories of Jim having these eruptions that people just didn’t understand, in the middle of a recording session. Dean Parks, the session guitarist, is in a Johnny Rivers session. And it’s almost over.

And Jim starts yelling at Dean, “Stop that, stop that, stop that. I know what you’re doing.” And everybody in the room is like, what’s he talking about?

He says, “Yes, I know what you’re doing. You’re making my hands move. I’m missing the first beat on every bar.” And the whole room went quiet like, what is he talking about?

And Johnny Rivers, who was also at the producer as well as the artist, he says, “Oh, come on, Jim. Dean can’t do that from over there. Count it off, let’s go.”

And Jim goes, “Oh, okay. One, two, three, four.” And they go into the track.

But nobody understood that what was going on in his head was voices yelling at him. And they didn’t know, they just thought it was very strange. And he started not getting the same type of session calls, and the disease brought him down.

Buzz Knight: Now, back then it was, I guess, fairly common if somebody like Jim was checked into a hospital, that he could check himself out pretty quickly. Which he did frequently. Is that correct?

Joel Selvin: Yep, yep. It’s called AMA, against medical advice. You’re never a prisoner in a hospital, and you can leave anytime you want.

And Jim would check in, he would get his drug regimen straightened out, and then he would check back out. The first time he went into a mental hospital, he was there for a couple of months and he received no benefit whatsoever. And he checked out, went home, and tried to commit suicide.

This went on quite a bit. There were other suicide attempts. There were many, many hospital admissions. Maybe 15 or more over the course of several years. And there were some people that understood Jim, and were able to help to some degree, but not in any lasting way.

And they didn’t have the tools that they do now, they didn’t have the understanding that they do now. And by the way, at this point, still, schizophrenia is a very mysterious disease. They don’t know what causes this, they don’t know what makes it go into remission. They don’t understand so much about it. And back then it was the dark ages.

Buzz Knight: So do you have a sense that, if he was in this position alive today, that the treatment could have possibly saved him?

Joel Selvin: No. I believe that Jim’s case was so severe that there was no backing him down from it. He was gripped by the most extreme kind of schizophrenia, and eventually it really left him unable to do much of anything.

He spent endless days and nights in his apartment ordering food to be delivered, and using drugs and drinking alcohol, which were the only effective treatment he could find. Alcohol would lower the voices. And cocaine, cocaine would regulate his dopamine. So that, I mean, it is a catastrophic situation for him. He was tortured every day, and the only answers were bad answers.

Buzz Knight: Now, you paint a picture of the era with all the musicians, and the drugs, and the debauchery that even a former Catholic boy like me was shocked at, in terms of the depth of the derangement that was going on so much in this business.

How were you able to paint this in such a detailed fashion. Where, first of all, I felt like I was a fly on the wall inside many of these parties and backstage events. How were you able to get that amazing detail? And then talk about the level of debauchery among many of our favorite artists?

Joel Selvin: Well, drugs and alcohol were a common part of the rock scene in the late sixties and early seventies, and there was no sense of there being any downside to that. It was just a party, and it was ongoing. It was LSD, and pot, and booze and then cocaine. And eventually for Jim and the guys in Derek and The Dominoes, heroin too.

So there was no real barrier to the drug culture in the rock scene at that point. There was not a lot of recovery, there was not a lot of information, there was not a lot of experience. And it just suffused the whole rock scene. And somebody like Jim, who came out of a very conservative, Southern California background, on the road with Joe Cocker and Mad Dogs and Englishmen, he was able to really engage his appetite for drugs and alcohol for the first time.

Jim Keltner, the other drummer in Mad Dogs, talks about Jim coming backstage with a handful of LSD tabs. And Keltner taking a little piece of one, and Jim swallowing a whole big pill. And they go out to play, and Keltner can’t even remember what rhythm is.

He sits behind his drum set with his hands in his lap, crying. And Jim is next to him playing away like crazy, screaming at him, “Play, play, play!” And Keltner finally just left the stage.

So Jim had this enormous capacity for drugs, and I’m sure that has to do with his electrochemical setup in his brain. Because it’s applied not only to illegal drugs, but it applied to legal drugs. His psychiatrist told me that he had made a mistake in prescribing Jim a very powerful tranquilizer called Haldol. And he wanted him to have 45 milligrams of Haldol in three 15 milligram doses during the day. And it got confused at the hospital, and they gave him three 45 milligram doses.

And when the doctor shows up and finds out that there’s been this mistaken dosage, he’s freaked. He thinks Jim’s going to be a zombie. And he goes to see Jim, it’s not a zombie. He’s not even had any therapeutic effect from those drugs.

So this disease in his head, this chemical setup, which also had something to do with what an incredible, intuitive drummer he was, it created a hellscape for him. He could consume massive amounts of drugs and alcohol without any apparent effect, and the disease just kept coming at him, just kept coming. And that was his only tools that were effective.

He took all the psychiatric medicine too, the tranquilizers and the antipsychotics. But it wasn’t as effective as the vodka and the cocaine.

Speaker 2: We’ll be right back with more of the Takin’ A Walk podcast.

Welcome back to the Takin’ A Walk podcast.

Buzz Knight: You talked to so many people in researching the book, a long list of folks. Now, did you ever first personally encounter Jim in your career?

Joel Selvin: Jim was not communicative. We sent him a bunch of letters and some books, and he never replied from prison. I think that older schizophrenics tend to even be more withdrawn, and the people that I’ve talked to who served time with Jim describe a fairly reclusive figure who didn’t spend a lot of time on the yard, and didn’t socialize a lot.

So no, never met Jim. I did have the benefit of a series of interviews that he did in ’88, ’89 while he was in jail with some people who had his cooperation on a book project that never really amounted anything. And 30 years later, I was able to find those people and acquire their research. So I have a lot of interviews with Jim, and they had complete access to his medical records, his diaries, and all his associates. And so that was real helpful.

Buzz Knight: Yeah, there were two in particular, I guess sit-downs that people had, that were pretty striking. That Rolling Stone, When The Voices Took Over article. And Martin Bow, I believe is his name, from the Washington Post, Bang The Drum Slowly. Those were incredible, just unbelievable depictions of what was going on at that time in his life.

Joel Selvin: Pretty stark. They did not have the details of the background of Jim’s illness, and all they knew is that he was in jail from killing his mother, and that he’d been diagnosed as a schizophrenic. They didn’t know anything about the 15 hospital admissions, or the years and years and years of torture, and the real details of his struggle against his mental illness is missing from both those accounts.

They’re very, very much the kind of sensational journalism that I try to avoid in my career at The Chronicle. They skim across the top of the situation, they focus on the sensational, and they never get under the hood of it and show Jim any compassion. He’s just a killer who killed his mother brutally, and they never look into his troubled heart.

Buzz Knight: Fair to say, they were early examples of clickbait, right?

Joel Selvin: Well, of course that’s long before the internet. The Washington Post article came about when Jim won the Grammy in ’93 for Layla. I mean, Clapton had that big Unplugged album, and he came home with a bunch of Grammys, including one for a re-recording of Layla, which Jim is a co-author, got the award.

So the Washington Post guy went to the prison and interviewed Jim, and he was kind of there. I think the guy said it was like a radio signal that came and went. The Rolling Stone Guy, I don’t think he interviewed Jim. I think he interviewed the lawyers and some of the people associated with the case, but I don’t think Jim ever interviewed him.

Buzz Knight: So going back to Derek and the Dominos, that one story where basically they ended up trashing the hotel room, and breaking glasses, and just that prior to them embarking on the US tour. I mean, boy, what an absolute mess that was, certainly.

And then ultimately, the friction that was existing between Jim and the other band members, Jim and Clapton. To some degree, is it fair to say that Jim’s tragic situation was part of the end of Derek and the Dominos?

Joel Selvin: No question. Schizophrenics have a real problem with sustaining personal relations. That was an issue all through Jim’s life. He very much wanted, sought romantic partners, but he couldn’t maintain them. I could never find anybody who thought Jim as a close friend.

People have spent hundreds of hours with him in the recording studio who didn’t know he was married and had a daughter, or anything about him. That was typical of the mentally ill. That he was there for the drumming, he was holding his own, and everything else he kept hidden behind a facade. That’s how he had to operate.

Buzz Knight: Yet, his child support record during this was unblemished. Is that correct?

Joel Selvin: Well, he was very specific about certain tasks. Paying his bills, keeping his financial records, his father had been an accountant. And so, yeah, there were details to his life that he managed very specifically. And he could pay his child support, but he couldn’t remember to pick her up at school. He had real trouble being a father and knowing how to do that.

And he left his daughter with a lifelong trauma. She was very close to her grandmother, she was 14 when the crime happened. And it was years, and years, and years before she could even bring herself to look at her relationship with her father.

Buzz Knight: And he did try to reach her while he was in prison. Is that correct?

Joel Selvin: Constantly, yeah. He hadn’t seen her at that point since she was about 10 years old. He had been estranged from his mother, his mother was the access to his daughter. He really didn’t talk to his first wife.

And he thought that he saw her in court, but he couldn’t even be sure if that was her. And he would write her letters, and she did not answer them. She was traumatized by this. Didn’t have any other way to deal with it, but just to shut him down.

Buzz Knight: And Jim had a lot of conspiracy theories in his head, obviously, with the voices. Wasn’t one of them that he thought his mother killed Paul Lin and Karen Carpenter?

Joel Selvin: Yes. He was convinced that his mother had all kinds of evil connections. Since she was a nurse, he was certain that she controlled all the doctors that he saw. There was one particular doctor he was fairly certain was out of her control, but the others, no, they were controlled by her.

And his whole hospital admissions, he blamed on her. That he would go into the hospital because she wanted him to. And then when he got loose of her voice in the hospital, he would check out again. And he thought that was her game, that she controlled all this medical world that he was in.

We can’t understand the reality that Jim Gordon lived in. Because it’s an entirely separate world from the one that you and I live in, Buzz.

Buzz Knight: Let’s celebrate this body of work here for a bit, because it’s so outstanding. I mean, every time you turn around and I read another page, there’s something else I discovered that he was part of. Like the one that I went, “Oh my God,” was Helen Reddy, I Am Woman. I mean, this guy was everywhere.

Joel Selvin: He, I think, made Midnight At The Oasis, a hit record from Rhea Moldau with that little samba groove. His ultimate masterpiece is You’re So Vain with Carly Simon. He was the third drummer to tackle that track, and he did 60 takes in five hours, and I’d say he nailed that one. Sundown with Gordon Lightfoot, Ricky Don’t Lose That Number with Steely Dan.

A couple of my favorites, Grazing in the Grass by the Friends of Distinction, where he shows a boogaloo beat that just drives that record from beginning to end. And BW Stevenson’s, My Maria, where he has a drum part that’s so deeply embedded in the composition of the record. I can’t imagine another approach to it, and I think that the drum part is the crucial ingredient to making that record a hit.

Buzz Knight: And then tell the story of God Only Knows, how creative he was in his participation there.

Joel Selvin: Well, Hal Blaine was the great studio drummer in Hollywood, he took Jim under his wing and introduced him right away to Brian Wilson. So Jim was doing Beach Boys sessions starting in Pet Sounds. Hal did most of the hit drumming, but Jim would bring in bells, and marimbas, and various assorted percussion.

And he was goofing around on a break with an orange juice bottle, a plastic orange juice bottle going clop, clop, clop, clop, clop. And Brian caught wind of it, and they got a razor blade, and they trimmed up four different orange juice bottles so each one was a different note.

And he plays the orange juice bottles on God Only Knows. They follow Hal Blaine’s, drum part, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop. And the next time you hear it, you’ll hear the orange juice bottles. So they’re very present on the track.

But yeah, that’s the sort of playful, inventive thing that Jim was just brilliant at. I mean, in the recording studio, this guy was a genius. Outside the recording studio, everything was difficult for Jim. Everything.

Buzz Knight: And then he worked with Frank Zappa. Frank called him Skippy, right? Because he would look like the…

Joel Selvin: He thought he was so all-american, oh yeah, Skippy. Yeah, and he was playing some of the most dense, complicated music Zappa did. It was the Grand Wazoo Orchestra, a twenty-piece band that Zappa put together after his accident took him out for a year.

And he did big shows in Europe, football stadiums and stuff like that, and still didn’t make any money on the tour. But that very complicated, intense music, out of which came the title track to the album Apostrophe, which is Jim, Jack Bruce from Cream on Bass, and Frank and his other guitar player just jamming in New York. So Jim’s on Frank Zappa records, he’s on John Denver records. I mean, there isn’t anything the guy couldn’t play.

Buzz Knight: So when we talked previously, you mentioned one person that stuck with me, that sort of came to care about Jim when all this happened, it was Jackson Brown. And are there any folks that you spoke to in your research for the book who maybe felt some regret that they couldn’t or didn’t do anything to try to help him?

Joel Selvin: I ran across so many different reactions. A lot of people didn’t want to talk to me at all. They didn’t want to put anything on that at all. Nope, not going to talk to you about that. And then there were people that went, oh, Jim Gordon. Oh, I loved him. What a tragedy. I mean, Van Dyke Parks told me, “Oh, Jim was the esprit de corps.”

Lenny Waronker, the president of Warner Brothers records, thought he was this most wonderful character, and his wife and he were just such sweet, all-American people. Jim Keltner, Keltner wept during our interview. Wept! Had to wipe tears off his cheeks and everything. I mean, there’s a lot of love out there for Jim. And there were a lot of people who felt like you say, that, was there something that could happen?

His best friend in life was Mike Post. Mike Post and he were in high school together, they started out in the music business. Mike, first, didn’t want to have anything to do with the book. After Jim died he changed his mind, and we talked, and we talked extensively.

And he read the book just recently, and he called me up and congratulated me on the book. He was pretty blown away by it. What he said was that he had come to learn, from reading the book, that there was nothing he could have done to help Jim. That he had spent his life feeling guilty about not being able to help Jim. But reading the book, he realized there was nothing he could do.

Buzz Knight: So Dr. Vickery, have I pronounced his name right?

Joel Selvin: Yeah, He’s a professional psychiatrist testifier. He’s in a lot of the famous Los Angeles trials. He never met Jim, he just studied the records and testified. There were psychiatrists that testified who did meet and treat Jim. One of them I had a long interview with, who had treated Jim at UCLA, and had some success with Jim. That was about the time he went to work with Jackson.

Buzz Knight: But the doctor, Dr. Vickery, had a comment here, which I think is an underpinning to certainly this tragedy. But I think, correct me if I’m wrong on why you want this story out there as well. I’ll read you the doctor’s comment. He said, “The stress of working in a highly-pressurized business like music was a contributing factor.”

So when you think of that comment, and you think of the music business today, talk about the importance of getting this terrible story out of the shadows.

Joel Selvin: This is a really important story, but I’ve got to take some exception to Dr. Vickery’s comment. I mean, would he say that about a banker who was schizophrenic? Yeah, he could say that about a banker too.

It was not a contributing factor, it was an ameliorating factor. His professional life gave Jim a place where he could function, where he could live, where he could breathe, where he was free from the demons. Because I’m sure that when he played drums, he didn’t have voices in his head. He was, between the rhythmic entrainment and the record of the drums, he was in a hypnotic state.

And he was there, he commanded that world. So no, I don’t agree with that statement by Vickery. It’s a typical sort of a professional looking down on musician stuff that doesn’t really understand what the role was.

Similarly, people were saying, “Well, the drugs and alcohol were contributing factor.” I don’t think so. I think they were an ameliorating factor. I think this guy was mentally ill, and he had chemical problems in his brain. I think the drugs and alcohol helped him deal with it, I think the music was the only safe place in his life. So no, Dr. Vickery, I don’t agree.

Buzz Knight: But you do want this story out there, not only to celebrate Jim Gordon’s music, but to get mental health issues out of the darkness. Correct?

Joel Selvin: It’s so important that people understand this story. Jim has never been treated fairly, he’s never been shown any compassion, and his extraordinary accomplishments have been buried in the process.

So yeah, I wanted to elevate Jim’s career and make sure that people knew what a contribution this guy made. I also wanted to bring into the light the struggle, mental illness. How pernicious it is, how dangerous, how irreversible in many ways. And this story dramatizes it in such a intense and vivid way.

So it’s really important. And there’s a quote from Frank Zappa in the book, “I don’t condone anyone who wants to go out and commit a murder, but if this has to do with chemicals in your brain, this could happen to anyone.”

And that’s the truth. Between Zappa’s quote and that little epigram that I opened the book with from Emily Dickinson about, one does not need to be a house to be haunted, and we throw in the playlist of the records that Jim played on, there’s the story right there.

Buzz Knight: Amazing work, Joel Selvin. Drums, and Demons.

Joel Selvin: Thank you, Buzz. Amazing work, Jim Gordon, amazing work. I feel like his story is so powerful and so effective that all I had to do was just sort of stay on the back of the bull, and ride it to the bell. I mean, I may have written a good sentence or two in the process. But really, the power of that book is Jim’s story. And it’s a tragic and powerful story.

Buzz Knight: Thank you, Joel. Great work.

Joel Selvin: Thank you, Buzz.

Speaker 2: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Takin’ A Walk podcast. Share this and other episodes with your friends, and follow us so you never miss an episode. Takin’ A Walk is available on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your podcasts.

About The Author

Buzz Knight

Buzz Knight is an established media executive with a long history of content creation and multi-platform distribution.

After a successful career as a Radio Executive, he formed Buzz Knight Media which focuses on strategic guidance and the development of new original content.