Growing up, drugs and alcohol seemed like one of those old “road closed” signs in horror movies to Brandon Jordan, a harbinger of danger lurking on the other side of a distant hill.
He was 21 before he even picked up, mostly because he saw the havoc they inflicted: He lost his father to a heroin overdose when he was 4, and his grandfather died from drug-related complications as well. As much as those tragedies might have kept him on the straight and narrow throughout his childhood and adolescence, however, they were no match for the blaring klaxons of discontent that sounded constantly in his head.
“I had a lot of issues previously to doing drugs and alcohol,” Jordan told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “There was abuse, and I’m a survivor of a couple of teenage suicide attempts, and I didn’t ask anybody for help. I kind of blamed myself, actually, but I knew I already had enough challenges that drugs and alcohol, to me, just seemed like it might make things more challenging.
“But the thing is, when I did find drugs and alcohol, they did for me what I couldn’t do for myself. It was the big shush to the negative voices in my head, like finding the remote control for the universe and being able to press the mute button.”
And as he’s done with most things in life — from the guitar to rock ‘n’ roll to his band (Killradio) to his work with Rock to Recovery — he threw himself into those vices with complete and total abandon.
“I went from zero to psycho,” he said. “I was the guy people really wanted to party with, because I never did and they thought it would be cool for me to try these things, but about three weeks after I started and began letting down my guard, people were saying, ‘No, man — we can’t hang with you!’”
A rock 'n' roll outlet
A native of Los Angeles, Jordan had a natural affinity for music as a child. He remembers singing and making up impromptu own songs as early as 4 years old, but in the fourth grade, he plugged into the rock ‘n’ roll power structure. As a combative, antagonistic, self-described “troublemaker,” he pushed enough buttons at school that teachers sent him to the principal’s office for lunch and recess, because they knew he’d eventually wind up there anyway.
“What they did allow me to do was have a Walkman, and I had a copy of ‘Appetite for Destruction’ on my little Walkman, and that’s when I started writing lyrics,” he said. “I remember I had a notebook of lyrics, and one song was called ‘Live Like an Astronaut.’ That was literally how I got through the boredom of having to sit there. I was a rambunctious child, so that’s how I was able to focus my energy while I was sitting in the principal’s office for every recess and lunch.”
Other rock ‘n’ roll, as well as hip-hop, began to inform his creativity, and it wasn’t long after that he began taking apart friends’ stereos to rig up his own sound system through the use of auxiliary cords and a cheap microphone.
“And in the ’80s, you could buy a cassette single of one song, and on the other side of that song, they typically had the instrumental version of that song,” he said. “Kids take these luxuries like YouTube for granted, because back then, you had to buy the tape, listen to it, then flip it over to get to the instrumental. But I did that, and that’s how I would come up with raps and rhymes and songs. I would take apart stereos and come up with my own shit.”
Even then, there was an edge to the things about which he wrote — life circumstances, like the death of his father or the constant moving around and the sense of displacement, he said.
“Music was my outlet, and it really helped me talk about what was affecting me,” he said. “In a way, I could find my own voice in that.”
The birth of a band and a movement
Shortly after the turn of the century, Jordan and some friends started a project that would become Killradio. It was a political movement as much as it was a punk band, he said, with the goal being the total destruction of the pablum he and his bandmates felt was polluting the airwaves.
“We didn’t really like what they were playing, and it was such a great medium that we had grown up with,” he said. “Some of my favorite memories involve being in a car, listening to the radio, and getting that sense of wonder. At that point, everything had kind of become very commercialized, and all of the rebellion had been turned into money, so we wanted to create something that just sounded like the music we wanted to hear.
“We were talking about the things we wanted to hear about, but we wanted to play the game, too. We wanted to do it in the same format: We wanted to write hit songs, take over the radio and kill anybody else’s chances of being on the radio. We were good, and we wrote good songs and songs with hooks, and we tried to garner an audience that would give us an opportunity to talk to a lot of people, so that’s how we came up with this bold name.”
Drawing on influences as diverse as The Clash and Rage Against the Machine, the idea was to channel the uncertainty and fear of a post-Sept. 11 world and cast a critical eye toward a government that seemed to be building toward a never-ending war, he added.
“We were very suspicious of the way that the nation was turning,” he said. “At the time, everyone was mourning, but I think they were also turning a blind eye to some of the vultures that were circling around and making decisions for this nation that were destructive.”
It was groove-driven rock that included elements of ska and punk, and the lyrics were both thought-provoking and antagonistic. At the band’s first show, a fight broke out, and the adrenaline Jordan felt was a high in and of itself.
“That’s when I knew we were doing something right,” he said. “I wanted people to talk about this stuff, and I wanted it to be heated. I wanted us to be the band that other musicians would come to see and then quit their other bands.”
Major label, major problems
As Killradio began to gain momentum, Jordan cast aside any suspicions he had of drugs and alcohol. The guys released a couple of independent EPs, and then Columbia Records came calling with an offer to put out “Raised on Whipped Cream,” which would be released in 2004. By that point, however, the discontent that had been his constant companion had become too loud to ignore, he said.
“The day after I signed a multi-million dollar record contract, I still felt like Brandon the next day,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow. This doesn’t fix me. I still have that negative voice in my head.’ My childhood dreams were coming true, and it still wasn’t fixing me. So I got wasted that next day.”
In so doing, he blew off a meeting with a potential producer for “Whipped Cream,” and after he sobered up, he felt horrible. Killradio had been invited to “the big dance,” he said, but already he was blowing off obligations — not because of rock ‘n’ roll superiority, but because of the inferiority he had always felt.
“To have something that you dream of happening because you think it’s going to fulfill something actually happen, and then realizing it doesn’t, that’s a scary day,” he said. “And that’s a day that requires treatment — and the way I know how to treat that is with complete oblivion.”
With greater industry responsibilities, Killradio began hitting the road, but it would be a while before Jordan came up for air. Ironically, the “crazy front guy” reputation was seized upon by publicists, and the band’s shows developed a reputation for self-inflicted brutality. In hindsight, he became something of a caricature of the activist rocker he wanted to be.
“I started Killradio to come up with crazy ideas that were actually normal, but crazy for people to be talking about in a loud way,” he said. “Then, I just became obnoxious and just wanted to get attention. It made for a great live show, because in those days, a lot of people were coming to the show to see if I was going to kill myself. I electrocuted myself on stage so many times; I’ve thrown up; I’ve thrown out my shoulder.
“It was a very wild act. I remember one time I hung from the chandelier at the Fillmore West, and I was trying to kick over the 10-foot monitor, shaking it like it was going to topple over onto the audience. I wanted them to feel like it was dangerous to come see this band.”
The bitter ends
The problem with nightly rituals of self-inflicted pain, however, was that it began to erode Jordan’s basic humanity. He found himself using more and harder drugs to maintain that momentum, and when he tried to put on the brakes, he found that he couldn’t … or if he could, things got worse.
“It was really hard to keep up, and eventually you say, ‘OK, this is crazy — let me just turn off the destructive mode and stop drinking and using, because I’ve put my mind to harder tasks and succeeded,’” he said. “But drugs and alcohol create something way deeper, and when I stopped drinking and using, I would just get crazier, but in a different way. I really love the guys I get to play music with, and we’ve reunited in my sobriety, but at the time, we lost the record deal, the manager, the booking agent, and I lose the respect of my friends and my family and myself. I went from really feeling like I had the world at my disposal to being homeless.”
At his worst, he was in a semi-permanent state of cocaine psychosis, living in a bush and accosting old ladies — literally, he described.
“I thought she was working for the CIA, and I jumped out of my bush and grabbed her by her neat little knitted sweater and shook her hard and asked her who she was and what she knew,” he said. “I was convinced she and her little dog were transmitting to some agency.”
In his more lucid moments, he subsisted through theft, and the crew with which he ran planned a major heist that would have crossed a line from which there likely would have been no return. The money would have been more than he’d ever made in his life, but the frayed tangents of his moral compass gave him pause:
“I took this walk down Sunset Boulevard in East Hollywood, and I remember saying to myself, ‘You are in this position, buddy boy, because of nobody else but yourself. You can’t blame it on mommy and daddy, the band not working out, or the disappointments. You are about to make this decision, and it’s all based on you. You can’t blame anybody but yourself.’”
That, he added, is when he reached out for help. A guardian angel offered some assistance, and he wound up in a government-assisted addiction treatment facility (“If you’re a taxpayer of L.A. County, thank you!”). The addiction detox process was excruciating, and at the outset, he wondered if there was any way back from the abyss.
“I definitely felt like a car that had been abandoned on the side of the road: broken down, tires flat, fluid all over the road and no mechanic to take it to that will get it running again,” he said. “But slowly but surely, the impossible became possible. Slowly but sure, I was able to change my life around. I found this sobriety, and it gave me an opportunity to start feeling like I was making a difference in my life.”
Navigating the boundaries of control
Killradio, he pointed out, was established as a band that would make a difference in the world. The original intentions were pure ones, but as the guys lost their way, that vision fell by the wayside. In recovery, Jordan realized that in order to make a difference in the larger world, he first had to make a change in his own. When he got clean and sober in 2007, he began to put into action the tenets of a recovery program that allowed him to do just that.
“You have to be fully convinced that drugs and alcohol truly don’t care who you are,” he said. “They’re non-discriminatory things that don’t care who you are, whether mommy and daddy stayed together, what day of the week it is. I tried to drink and use on a Saturday night and stop on Sunday, but drugs and alcohol don’t care that it’s Monday. I’m also convinced they don’t care what year it is — I will pick up where I left off in 2007 as if the last 11 ½ years don’t matter.
“They don’t care what neighborhood you’re from, whether you went to college … they affect me the same way every time, any time. I had to accept that I can’t change drugs and alcohol, and I had to become willing to accept the challenge that I’m the one who has to change. I had to stop negotiating with myself and thinking things like, ‘Maybe I’ll learn to control it.’ I had to let go of that, and if I don’t let it in my brain, I have a really good shot of staying clean and sober for a really long time.
“It was a relief to do that,” he added. “Letting go of that negotiation is the same relief I got from using drugs and alcohol. I don’t have to fight that war anymore.”
Wes Geer founded Rock to Recovery in 2012, and Jordan joined the organization — which takes music therapy into Southern California treatment centers to help addicted patients — in 2014. As a program facilitator, he interacts with roughly 250 people a week, and over a year’s time, he writes somewhere around 700 songs. He’s gotten involved in Rock to Recovery’s work with wounded veterans as well, and seeing the relief, the joy and the freedom on the faces of all afflicted by pain and trauma is a reminder of the grace he himself received, he said.
“I’m able to make a difference, and the only reason I’m able to make a difference in the world is because sobriety gave me an opportunity to make a difference in my life,” he said. “It gave me enough confidence to start trying to address those other issues that were influencing me to want to go to oblivion.”
An ode to Aunt Jemima's smile
Surrender as defined in the First Step of all 12 Step programs, he added, was the key. He had tried other ways in the past, but the results were always the same. By surrendering to the process, he was able to rebuild himself, reunite his band and carry a message of hope to others through Rock to Recovery and his own program.
It’s not magic, but it does result in miracles. It’s not difficult, but it does require take work. And it’s not dogmatic, but it does require some belief. That, he added, was a crucial part of his personal transformation.
“The final ingredient that allows me to stay clean and sober is a belief that there’s something outside of myself that did not want me to drink or use, and that if I did not, everything was going to be alright,” he said. “I’m not talking about God, and I’m not talking about religion, although it could be. It could be for anybody coming into treatment or recovery. But what I’m talking about is the power of belief. You have to have that if you want to stay clean and sober, and it doesn’t have to look, taste or smell like anything, but you have to believe in something.
“For me, the early part of it was getting to breakfast and seeing the smile on the bottle of syrup. I hadn’t eaten in a long time when I got clean and sober, and when I was finally in detox and got to eat breakfast, I realized everything was going to be OK as long as I got out of bed, got some food and saw the bottle of maple syrup in front of me with the picture of Aunt Jemima’s face. She’s got the most awesome smile, and I remember the first time I saw it. I don’t know what it was about that day, but I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, that is my Higher Power for right now — something I can check in with every single morning before I eat this delicious meal of French toast, and everything is going to be alright.’
“I believed in that. I believed in Aunt Jemima, and the beautiful thing in recovery is that we don’t judge beliefs,” he said. “We just need you to believe that something doesn’t want you to drink or use, and that things are going to be OK.”