The Haunted Talent Behind 'Layla' Jim Gordon Won A Grammy For Co-writing The Song That Eric Clapton Reprised In The '90s. But Honors Mean Little. Gordon Is Serving Time For The 1983 Slaying Of His Mother.

Posted: August 21, 1994

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — It's early in the morning when Prisoner C89262 is ushered quietly into a sparsely furnished meeting room in the administrative wing of the California Men's Colony here. 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.

His first visitor in . . . two years? Three? Five? He's not certain, but he does know that in his 11 years of incarceration here and elsewhere, he hasn't seen more than a half-dozen people from the outside. As he shyly offers his hand and folds his gaunt, 6-foot-3 frame into a wooden chair pulled a couple of feet back from a gray-topped table, he seems to will himself to remain reserved, dignified. That, however, is subverted by the undisguised glee that swells behind his boyish grin.

Someone remembers him.

Although Jim Gordon does not have the name-recognition of the top rock stars from the early '60s through the dawn of the '80s, he was there, and not just in the wings. Through hundreds of recording sessions that spawned dozens of Top 10 hits, his work as one of the most in-demand session drummers of the era spills through a stunning array of albums.

John Lennon, George Harrison, the Everly Brothers, Frank Zappa, Leon Russell, Traffic, Gordon Lightfoot, Seals & Crofts, Jackson Browne, Bread - Gordon laid down the beat for all of them, playing in myriad styles.

For 15 years, Gordon, now 48, lived a life worthy of any teenage boy's rock-and-roll fantasy. He'd had beautiful women and jet-setted between London and Los Angeles. He partied like a rock star, but managed his money like a CPA. He was known as a solidly reliable professional, commanding as much as triple the usual scale paid to session musicians.

Then, on the night of June 3, 1983, Jim Gordon killed his mother. He first pounded her head with a hammer. When she failed to lose consciousness, he plunged a butcher knife between her ribs three times - to end her suffering, he later told police.

Today, with but a dim possibility for parole, Jim Gordon is the man rock- and-roll forgot. Except, perhaps, for one brief moment on Feb. 24, 1993, when, along with Eric Clapton, he was awarded the rock songwriting Grammy for ''Layla."

First released in 1971 when Gordon performed with Clapton as a member of Derek and the Dominos, the song was re-released in 1992 as part of Clapton's Unplugged album. Staggeringly popular, Unplugged has sold upward of seven million copies.

Clapton made no mention of Gordon in his acceptance speech.

*

Looking back now, I recall lots of feelings I had. I recall many things that made me feel great.

A new nehru jacket that went great with the mod clothing. . . . You went to wonderful parties that were full of the spirit of the times. . . . There was the music: Cream, the Bee Gees, the Beatles, the invasion of the British music - things we never dreamed of hearing. . . . We had the hippies, people completely lost in their freedom.

- From a letter by Jim Gordon to a friend

"You know, I heard the new version of 'Layla' on the radio and I was real surprised," Gordon says. "And then I was informed that it was nominated for a Grammy and I was real surprised."

Gordon lets himself laugh. His eyes, drifting from the table top to his visitor, seem to plead for encouragement. He speaks haltingly, probably owing to his medication. During his trial, five psychiatrists testified that Gordon was an acute paranoid schizophrenic, a diagnosis that the court accepted. Depression has been an intermittent problem stemming from the grind of prison life, Gordon says. He takes two drugs, he says, Navane for schizophrenia and another medication for depression. His lucidity waxes and wanes like a radio signal in stormy weather.

When Gordon talks about his Grammy, he sounds almost as if he's talking about someone else, someone he was distantly acquainted with a long time ago. Although he was formally invited to the February ceremony, prison officials say it is highly unlikely that he would have been released had he even petitioned for it, which he did not.

"I watched the show," he says with no apparent regret for his inability to attend. "And when my name was announced, well, I didn't hear it. I'd stepped out of the room. But the other guys said, 'Well, you won.' "

Gordon grins tentatively. He seems to be groping for feelings and opinions he knows he has but can't seem to put together. He seems to comprehend the award only on the most tangible level: "It's a big old heavy thing," he says, trying to be helpful. "I got to hold it."

With the exception of his attorney and his business manager, Jon A. Thomas, any and all well-wishing was done by his fellow inmates. Gordon hasn't heard

from anyone else. But that is something he accepted long ago, and it seems to have generated little or no bitterness.

"When the crime happened, they all just turned their backs on me," Gordon says. "I don't blame 'em, to tell you the truth. Whatever was taking me down that road, I was on a path of self-destruction and it was nothing that any reputable studio musician or artist would want to be connected with. Because it was kind of a hopeless situation."

When Gordon speaks of what occurred on June 3, 1983, he refers to it as ''my crime." He didn't commit the crime; the crime "happened." Gordon was only obeying the voices.

"When I remember the crime, it's kind of like a dream," he says. "I can remember going through what happened in that space and time, and it seems kind of detached, like I was going through it on some other plane. It didn't seem real."

When police went to see Gordon, they heard him crying, and, according to police reports, he said he feared that the same assailant who had killed his mother might have come for him as well. In the police car, Gordon sobbed inconsolably: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but she's tortured me for years."

Cornfields on long bus rides going from town to small town. Night bus rides that were fun. Beach Boys records reminded you of home, and live radio shows so important you couldn't make a mistake.

- From Gordon's letter

As Gordon remembers it, the voices were not a part of a childhood that, on the surface anyway, seemed normal. In memory, his youth in Sherman Oaks, Calif. - a pleasant suburb in the San Fernando Valley - was a bright patchwork of Rose Parades, Renaissance Faires and Saturday night football games. His mother was a nurse, his father an accountant who instilled in Gordon a disciplined financial sense. Old date books show that Gordon meticulously recorded every expenditure while he was on the road, down to 15 cents for toothpaste.

He made his first set of drums out of garbage cans; his parents bought him a real set soon after. In high school, he worked whatever gigs he could muster: weddings, bar mitzvahs, parties. His first band, Frankie Knight and the Jesters, played the Hollywood club circuit. He began to attract attention. At 17, with the help of a fake ID, he joined the Everly Brothers' tour of England in 1963.

Not surprisingly, Gordon's trial commanded a huge amount of media attention, and from interviews with the relatively few people who had known him and would talk publicly about him, a portrait emerged of a clean-cut, all- American type - at least in his early days. He was an earnest mixture of bashfulness and sit-up-straight good manners, qualities that, however distorted, he projects today.

After his conviction, Jan Walker, then an executive assistant to producer Brian Grazer at Imagine Films, became interested in Gordon's story and began to pursue a book project. She and her partner, Nyna Cravens, spent hundreds of hours with Gordon and interviewed dozens of the people who knew him. (The book was never sold.)

"You could sense that he was more than just a run-of-the-mill drummer," Don Everly told Cravens. "There was a lot of talent there. And he was a young, sweet, kind, gentle human being."

Everly recalled the very green Gordon meticulously unpacking his suitcases and arranging his clothes in the hotel room drawers - on a one-night stand. ''You don't need to do that," Everly counseled him, "because we're gonna be gone."

Later, even after Gordon had become a seasoned session and road musician, Frank Zappa would call him Skippy, "because he was such an all-American boy."

The top studio drummer in Los Angeles in the late '60s, Hal Blaine, began recommending Gordon when he had more offers than he could accommodate. Soon, Gordon was commanding double the usual studio scale. He prospered. "I never had millions," says Gordon, "but there were times when I had several hundred thousand in the bank."

After touring with Delaney and Bonnie, Gordon followed suit with much of that entourage and joined Joe Cocker's now-legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in 1971. It was a rollicking musical free-for-all, and perhaps the tour that would, next to Woodstock, forever fuse sex, drugs and rock and roll as a package deal in the country's pop consciousness. Speedballs, a mixture of heroin and cocaine, were the order of the day, Walker and Cravens say Gordon told them. This became a convenient explanation for others seeking to justify his increasingly strange behavior.

"He would stop in the middle of sessions and tell the other musicians, 'You're the Devil. You're messing with my time,' " says Walker. "He also punched (singer) Rita Coolidge, out of the blue. She said she couldn't believe it - there'd never been anything in his character to suggest he'd do something like that."

Today, Gordon's memories of such peak performances as Mad Dogs are muted.

"We had some good nights on that tour," he says with what one suspects is intentional understatement. "There were a lot of us milling around onstage and backstage. Hard partying, all the time. But I was going with Rita Coolidge and we kind of stayed away from all the parties."

Just when the voices began to torment Gordon is hard to say. Walker says Gordon once showed her a letter his father wrote in 1969 urging him to get psychiatric help, although it made no reference to voices.

The voices came in many forms, some benign, some malevolent. But the most powerful of them all was that of his mother, Osa Marie Gordon, psychiatrists testified during his trial. By all accounts, she was a caring and concerned mother, but when her voice would roar in Gordon's ears, whether from across town or across the country, it sought to destroy him.

The voice denied him food. Gordon would starve himself for days. Then, trying to hide, he would check into the Sportsman's Lodge in Studio City, Calif., with a box of fried chicken, wolfing down as much as he could before the voice would inexorably seek him out and force him to stop.

The voice would also rivet his body with excruciating pain. It would not let him sleep or relax. He became sullen and incommunicative, given to violent outbursts. Worst of all, the voice refused to let him play drums. It controlled his hands, muddled his sense of rhythm. Gradually, Gordon's reputation began to succumb to stories of his tirades that occurred as he battled the voices.

Beginning in 1977, Gordon seemed caught in a revolving door of more than a dozen hospital stays. According to Scott S. Furstman, the lawyer who defended Gordon on murder charges, he would check himself in for treatment, only to leave before he stabilized. The final blow came in 1979 when Gordon, whose work had dwindled to almost nothing, accepted a gig with Paul Anka in Las Vegas. After a few bars of the opening song, Gordon walked off the stage, unable to play.

Breakfast after hours, the talk never stopped. Lots of clubs, recording studios - all new. Little sleep, but it didn't matter . . . the music went on.

Today, Gordon says he no longer hears the voices, but he seems haunted by the memory of them.

"My mother, she persecuted me a great deal, I felt. It finally got so bad that I just gave up and got a condominium and just stayed indoors," he says. ''I didn't ever go anyplace. That's when I started hearing voices, and having delusional thoughts and hallucinations, and all of a sudden the crime occurred." He laughs uneasily.

"I was in a real strange place then. What I was imagining and what was real - I still don't know the answer to that. . . . But something always confronted me and didn't allow me to go along the lines I wanted to go along. And, well, it just ruined my life."

The bitter finale is laced with irony. First, what provoked Gordon to kill his mother was the fact that she was planning to move away to stay with family in Portland, Ore. Furstman says Gordon, in his paranoia, believed that his mother's departure would enhance her control over him.

"He truly believed he was acting in self-defense," says the lawyer, who calls Gordon "the most tragic case of my career. . . . He perceived the voices to be life-threatening. They moved at lightning speed, and from Jim's point of view, his mother's departure deprived him of the ability to defend

himself from her."

Another irony is that, by several accounts, in the months before his crime, Gordon had regained his ability to play and was in exceptional form. He had formed a band called I-5 and had high hopes of getting a record deal.

The final irony is that Gordon, with a well-documented history of mental problems and a firm diagnosis of acute schizophrenia, was convicted of second- degree murder, denied a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. A then-recent change in California law had severely restricted the use of insanity as a defense.

"In Jim's case," says Furstman, "even though he was clearly responding to these audio hallucinations, he knew, according to the court, that it was still wrong to kill. He had made statements right after the crime, admitting that it was wrong to kill, so the court found that he wasn't acting in a blind or incoherent state."

On May 24, 1984, Gordon was sentenced to 16 years to life for second-degree murder. Most of his time has been served at the Atascadero State Hospital.

"My social worker says there's a pretty good chance for parole coming up," he muses during the interview. But shortly thereafter, parole would be denied (for the second time) and Gordon would waive his right to testify before the Board of Prison Terms.

But what would be awaiting him, should he be released?

While Gordon appears oblivious to his own finances, Thomas, his financial manager, says Gordon is far from indigent. Thomas declines to say how much Gordon has made from royalties for the re-release of "Layla," but concedes that the former drummer's profit would fall into the six figures.

He also receives royalties from the co-writing he did with the group Traffic, as well as from the "Apple Jam" segment of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass album. He also stands to receive royalties from a recently released Derek and the Dominos live album.

"Without leading an extravagant lifestyle, Jim can easily be supported for the rest of his life," says Thomas.

In the meantime, through the thick haze of medication and the numbing routine of prison life, Gordon still sometimes hears the beat of the drum set that remains packed away in a San Fernando Valley storage bin.

"As far as getting back to anything I was doing before 1981, it's pretty grim," he says wearily. For a flickering moment, he brightens. "Unless . . . what I'd like to do is get in some kind of touring situation, maybe contribute a little bit with my writing."

And then, he adds meekly: "I'd still like to play with Eric."

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