Despite cerebral palsy, musician rocks on

In hard rock, Brandon Mendenhall found salvation in the form of acceptance, friendship and, for the past six years, a creative outlet.

“It saved my life,” Mendenhall said, surrounded by members the Mendenhall Experiment, the band he formed in 2008.

In August, the group signed a contract for worldwide distribution with Lucent Records in Orange County. They have an album slated for release this spring, and a documentary about Mendenhall is soon to follow.

The trailer for the documentary is set to debut Saturday when the nonprofit United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties presents Mendenhall its first-ever Trailblazer Award at its sold-out Art of Care dinner in Santa Monica.

“When we heard this kid’s story, he almost created this award for us,” said Ronald Cohen, president and chief executive of the nonprofit.

Mendenhall, 31, was in Burbank with his band Friday to visit an apartment complex at San Fernando Boulevard and Providencia Avenue that Cohen’s group operates for people with disabilities. It’s less than a mile from the Home Depot where he worked and 2 miles from where he lived up until September, when he moved to Riverside to be closer to his bandmates.

Had you spotted Mendenhall in town, you’d have seen the long hair, the soul patch under his lip, the black T-shirt, black shades and black skull-shaped tattoo on his hand — the symbol of his band. In short, you’d have seen a familiar hard-rock image.

But what you might not have seen, not right away anyway, is not so common among rock guitarists — Mendenhall has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that makes body movement and muscle control difficult. It’s permanent, but it’s not degenerative.

The band, he said, is literally his experiment to answer the question: “Can a kid with cerebral palsy learn how to write songs, form a band and make [it] a success in the music industry?”

Growing up in a trailer park in Illinois, where his grandparents raised him, Mendenhall’s condition was so bad, he could hardly use his left hand. A doctor said playing an instrument would be out of the question, so his grandfather clipped the strings on his toy guitar and hid it away in a closet.

Neighborhood kids picked on him for his slurred speech and awkward movements. They once tied him to a neighbor’s porch by his neck like a dog. That neighbor, who had helped nurture Mendenhall’s affinity for hard rock, chased the bullies down and gave them a “stern talking to,” he said.

Everyone in the band is a bit of a misfit who’s found a home in rock ‘n’ roll, said Gregg Journigan, their manager. For example, bass player Nate Stockton is hearing- and vision-impaired and had to spend years in speech therapy. Stockton said he’s not sure if he was ever bullied, though, and joked he “couldn’t hear them anyway.”

Even after finding a place in the heavy-metal crowd, though, Mendenhall still faced obstacles not only because of his condition, but because of the way others viewed the hard-rock scene. A teacher accused him of using drugs and said he’d never amount to anything. His grandfather once told him “no grandson of mine will be a musician.”

The elder Mendenhall made the remark after catching his grandson, then about 19, practicing on a guitar he’d bought with a secret $1,000 loan from his grandmother.

Cohen said Mendenhall’s grandfather was trying to protect him from what he thought would be a crushing failure. A lot of parents of kids with cerebral palsy think in terms of “won’t be able to,” Cohen said, but Mendenhall exemplifies what can be done.

“He is such an inspiration to the parents,” Cohen said. “It really changes how a parent then sees the world with a kid with a disability.”

The rebuke from his grandfather only inspired the younger Mendenhall to try harder, and teaching himself to play guitar actually rehabilitated his left hand. But his grandfather died before Mendenhall’s early band performances in Illinois, less than two years before the formation of the band that carries the family name.

“I don’t know how I’ll do it yet, but I’m going to make you proud of me,” Mendenhall recalls telling his grandfather on his deathbed in 2006.

After six different lineups in nearly six years, it wasn’t until last year that the current incarnation of the group gelled. Less than a year later, after placing second in the Warped Tour Battle of the Bands last summer, they were signed with Lucent Records.

In a way, it’s a vindication, but it’s also a fulfillment of his promise.

“Look, Pop,” Mendenhall said. “I made it.”

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