Our Shadows Taller Than Our Souls

For the umpteenth time, I was watching Heart perform Led Zeppelin’s classic “Stairway to Heaven” from this years Kennedy Center Awards ceremony the other day. And again I was blown away, simply astounding. Apparently, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant thought it was pretty good too with all three at some point exchanging smiles and nods. At about 3:35 you even see Robert Plant mouth the words “Not bad” to Jimmy Page. The big finish with the choir wearing Zep’s late drummer John Bonham’s signature bowler hat was enough just enough to bring tears to both Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

I got to thinking that when Led Zeppelin was at the peak of their power, this was a band that was not only known for their music but also for their epic drinking and drug use, strong attraction to underage girls (most notably guitarist Jimmy Page), alleged ties to the occult and folklore about the misappropriation of a Mudshark in Seattle (NSFW).

The mighty Zep set the gold standard for what would become the era of sex, drugs and rock & roll. I suspect if one could hop in a time machine and go back to 1974 and tell them that in 28 years they would be receiving a Kennedy Center Award, I have no doubt I would have received a right good ass kicking from either Peter Grant or Richard Cole, probably both.

You see, in the 1970’s Led Zeppelin was the biggest act on the planet and accordingly, they were public enemy number one among the “establishment”. In Ohio, where I grew up, it was believed they were just one step away from the dark lord himself, Satan. In fact, I recall my 11th grade English teacher, Mr. Grueber, echoing the fanaticism of fundamentalists and telling us that if you were to play “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, you would hear a message from the devil.

Unless Satan sounds like a warbly Robert Plant being spun backwards, there is no message. I ruined my version of Led Zeppelin IV trying.

The band dissolved after the untimely death of drummer John Bonham. While they considered hiring a replacement, ultimately they realized that Bonham, and what he contributed, was irreplaceable. Over the years they have reunited periodically for different events and with the passing of time they’ve proven that maybe, just maybe, all that hype was just that, hype and that Led Zeppelin was really just a killer rock band. Albeit one  with healthy predilection for drug and alcohol abuse and underage girls.

Time grants forgiveness for past transgressions…for most things. If any band or artist proves that it is certainly Led Zeppelin.

Band drummers like John Bonham are, without question, irreplaceable. But there is a difference between a band drummer and a studio drummer. A studio drummer must be infinitely more flexible stylistically and mustn’t be afraid to be assertive in their contribution to the song.

When one thinks about modern studio drummers who helped shape the sound of modern day rock music, in my mind it can be narrowed down to three, Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon and Jeff Pocaro. All three transcended the role of sideman or hired hand. Hiring any of them was like recruiting a band member for the term of the session, not just a guy who could keep time.

All three helped shape the vibe and sound of every song they contributed to. Blaine is most famously known as a member of the Wrecking Crew, studio wizards who helped Phil Spector create his “Wall of Sound”. Jeff Porcaro was most notably the drummer for the band Toto, but is considered to be “one of the most recorded drummers in history” until his untimely death in 1992.

Sandwiched between Blaine and Porcaro is Jim Gordon. Gordon earned his chops as a session drummer in Los Angeles, playing the gigs that Hal Blaine couldn’t make. Gordon played on anything and everything and right after graduation from high school, he took a job touring Europe as The Everly Brothers drummer. Building a reputation as an inventive and reliable session drummer in the late 1960’s was no easy task and Jim Gordon did it, in spades.

After touring with Delany & Bonnie, he went off on Joe Cocker’s appropriately named Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. When that tour ended he lined up session work on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. While that music is not necessarily music of my era, I am enough of a student to recognize that is a trifecta of rock & roll awesome. Hell, just to have survived those three things would have been an accomplishment, let alone actively be a creative participant. Perhaps most importantly, the principle backing band on the Phil Spector produced All Things Must Pass ultimately became Derek and the Domino’s, led by God himself, Eric Clapton.

It’s hard to believe that the classic we now know as Derek and the Domino’s Laya and Assorted Other Love Songs was largely ignored when it was released. Clapton refused to market it as an Eric Clapton album so record companies did what record companies did (and still do) best, acted like petulant children and retaliated by not marketing it. Funny thing though, fans of music are far smarter than record honchos give use credit for, and even though the album was not heavily marketed, Laya and Assorted Other Love Songs quickly became one of the most definitive albums of the early 1970’s. The band’s signature song “Layla” was written by Clapton and Gordon is still a rock & roll staple. Besides the brilliant and instantly recognizable guitar intro and Clapton’s anguished pleas, it is Gordon’s piano coda that haunts this song and makes it one of the most sorrowful pieces of music in rock &roll.

Jim Gordon was not just a drummer, he was a genius. Maybe not by MENSA standards, but when it came to rock music in the late 1960’s through the mid 1970’s there was no one better. Even after Derek and the Domino’s imploded, Eric Clapton considered him “The best drummer in rock and roll” and used him on every solo album through Slowhand.

While Jeff Pacaro may have the title of “the most recorded drummer” there can be no doubt that Jim Gordon was arguably first in quality. The list of albums Jim Gordon contributed to is as long as it is varied. He effortlessly floated from genre to genre, from Mel Torme’ to Merle Haggard to Linda Rondstadt to Steely Dan to Carly Simon to John Lennon to Harry Nilsson to commercial jingles to Muzak and everywhere in between. Jim Gordon set a platinum standard for what it meant to be not just a session drummer, but a drummer as musician. Gordon’s ability to jump from genre to genre so aptly and impact each song so perfectly was almost schizophrenic. There’s a reason for that.

Jim Gordon is schizophrenic.

And on June 3, 1983 Jim Gordon’s illness overcame him and he killed his mother.

He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 16 years to life and has been incarcerated in California since 1984.

However, Jim Gordon’s story is more than just his illness and his crime and his music. It’s a cautionary tale of drug abuse as well as an indictment of the medical establishment at the time, Los Angeles authorities and the permissive nature permeating the entertainment industry. To dismiss Jim Gordon off as “crazy” is simple minded and negates both his illness and egregiously undermines his creative contributions.

Has enough time lapsed that we can re-examine Jim Gordon independent of his crime? In no way I am suggesting ignore his crime. It happened and it can never be understood, condoned or forgotten.

In our society, mental illness of any kind makes people nervous. Mental illness is a kind of societal leprosy. To acknowledge it in any fashion is to immediately become ostracized. Something as complicated and messy as schizophrenia is exponentially worse than depression or bi-polar disorder. There have certainly been advances in comprehending mental health issues and as permissive as the entertainment industry is, it generally still ignores mental illness and certainly doesn’t tolerate murder. It’s not surprising that many of Gordon’s colleagues and friends turned away from him after he was arrested and convicted.

Gordon is currently in prison and considering he was just up for parole for the fourth time and denied it, I am not entirely sure he will be released from prison any time soon. And I’m in no way asking anyone to ignore or forgive his crime, but 30 years on, he is paying for it and, I hope, getting treatment for his illness.

The music that Jim Gordon created and contributed to literally built the foundation for an entire genre of music and came to define an entire generation. While it may be the drummers plight to remain in the background there are those that truly rise above and deserve a more critical examination than those who can simply play to a click track and keep 4/4 time.

Jim Gordon contributed too much to be so easily dismissed as “crazy” or forgotten so simply. What we know as fact is that he killed his mother, he is genuinely ill and he was without peer for the period of time he was a practicing musician. We also know that his story is tragically complicated and made even more tragic by slowly letting his creative contributions continue to slip away.

Has enough time gone by that we can look at his work independent of his crime?

I can’t make an argument for parole and in no way presuppose any sort of award or admittance into any “hall of fame”. I just think that maybe we can take another look at his work and see where it fits into the pantheon of rock & roll.

There will be those who may think I am comparing murder to whatever misbehavior Led Zeppelin may or may not have participated in.
I am not. The shenanigans of young spoiled rich and polluted rock stars hardly compares to a schizophrenic committing matricide.

There will be those who think that I don’t believe Led Zeppelin deserving of the Kennedy Center Award.
That is wrong. I love Led Zeppelin and think that they deserve all that they have received and continue to receive. For my money, second only to The Beatles in rock & roll significance.

There will be those who think I may be dismissive of the other surviving Gordon family members or want to forget his mother, Osa Marie Gordon.
I am not. What the entire Gordon family has experienced is something no family should ever have to experience.

There will be those who think I am a Jim Gordon apologist.
I am not. I have no illusions about what he did. He bludgeoned his mother with a hammer and stabbed her. That is fact. I also know schizophrenia wreaks havoc on not only an individual but also a family and ultimately, a society.

But isn’t Jim Gordon more than his crime? Isn’t he more than his illness?

A cursory look at the music Jim Gordon contributed to is simply jaw dropping. I think it’s time that the man get some critical analysis of his creative collaborations. As more years go by both he and his legacy continue to be marginalized.

And that is just another tragic layer to an already epically tragic tale.


Further Study:

You’re So Vain – Carly Simon
Yep, that is Jim Gordon on drums. For my money, after the lyrics and Carly, the third most important part of that song.

Jump Into the Fire – Harry Nilsson
Find a better groove, I dare you.

What is Life – George Harrison
Proving that he was Hal Blaine’s equal, Gordon plays drums on George Harrison’s first solo album, produced by Phil Spector.

Layla – Derek and the Dominos
Easily one of the most pained love songs in rock history. if you don’t want to hear Eric Clapton’s incessant whining, you can go to 3:10. Gordon also earned a Grammy in 1992 for Clapton’s shuffle re-do on his Unplugged album (Gordon was in prison and unable to attend).

Doctor My Eyes – Jackson Browne
Jim Gordon played on the original from Jackson’s debut album. This video is from 1978 and that is Jim Gordon playing drums. By all accounts this is the last complete tour a healthy Gordon was part of.

I will try to post a better version of this article when I can find one. But this is sort of the definitive Jim Gordon article written by Barry Rehfeld for Rolling Stone magazine…in 1985.