Def Leppard's One-Armed Drummer Rick Allen Makes Art Out of Music
Rick Allen and his work Shape Shifter
"I threw my drum kit down the steps outside. All the drums landed in a heap on the driveway and I said, 'I don't want to do this.' I was almost 15 and that was it. I was giving up my career," says Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, rolling his eyes at the bratty 15-year-old-version of himself.
"Almost simultaneously," he adds, "there was an article in the newspaper that said, 'Leppard Loses Skins' and it talked about Def Leppard, a local group that had lost their drummer, so I called up, got an audition and I got the job."
The 48-year-old, one-armed British drummer, who has lived in California for 21 years, is relaxed and seated at a table on the patio of a busy Santa Monica cafe. He's wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt, jeans, earrings and a brown beaded necklace. Though it is lunchtime, Allen hasn't ordered anything to eat or drink. Instead, he has brought a Thermos filled with distilled water and Himalayan sea salts. "Excuse me if I seem a little spacey," he says, explaining that he's on the second day of a three-week dietary cleanse.
Allen also has brought a clear plastic drum stick, one of two types used to create the images for his upcoming fine art debut, "Electric Hand: Rhythm + Change," a limited collection of abstract images created from computerized tracking of Allen's drum strokes, on display on his website www.rickallenart.com.
Having been approached by Los Angeles art collective SceneFour to be part of its project The Art of Drums (previous drummers have been Matt Sorum, Stephen Perkins and Frankie Waddy), Allen sat in a dark room playing drums with sticks that either contained LED lights or had LEDs attached to their tips, while a Fuji X100 camera took long exposures of the light trails created by Allen's strokes. Depending upon the intensity of the hits, the color gradient ranges from black (lowest intensity) to color to white (highest intensity).
"Just by seeing the colors or density of colors this produces," says Allen, "it's either masculine or feminine. Some of the feminine might be lighter strokes, and then the masculine are where you are grounding the beat -- one, two, three, four -- you can see that pathway that is carved in and grounding the whole thing. You can actually see rhythm in a visual form. That's really interesting because, until I embarked upon this project, I didn't know those [two] realms existed."
Plus, he adds, "Every single picture was an aspect of me or something I'm passionate about."
As to the collection's title, when Allen visited a Mexican shaman years ago, he was told about a blue electric hand from Mayan symbology. As he began to work on his current art project, recurring images of the blue electric hand kept popping up inside his head. "It was all symbolic," he says. "The fact that I only have one hand to work with. It was 'hand' and not 'hands.' It was singular, so it kind of led me on to the whole flavor of the project."
Allen sets three CDs on the table -- one is a collection of songs he produced for his wife, singer-songwriter Lauren Monroe, with whom he has a 16-month-old daughter (he also has a teenage daughter with ex-wife Stacey), and the other two are healing CDs the pair collaborated on -- percussion music for meditation, healing and peace. Together, Allen and Monroe have embarked upon a life comprised of music and philanthropic work, having founded the Raven Drum Foundation, an organization that supports veterans and people in crisis through various programs, including drum circles.
Throughout the afternoon Allen talks a lot about healing, transformation and having studied massage. So instead of sex, drugs and rock & roll he's doing chanting, guided imagery and Sanskrit?
"People do have a strange perception of me at first," he says. "But then when they get to know me, it's perfectly normal. They realize the depth of suffering I've been through and, through this suffering, experiencing growth. Trust me, it would have been very easy to curl up in a corner and just disappear. Going through what I went through with my accident was horrific. It was a horrible experience I wouldn't wish on anybody."
Born in Dronfield, England, Allen jokes that they wore "loincloths," referring to his birthplace as "a bit Neanderthal." Growing up, he says it was clear that he was "never going to be a brain surgeon," so it was fortuitous that he found drums, which, he says, "kept me off street corners." At 21 years old, however, while experiencing success with Def Leppard, a car accident severed Allen's left arm, which was later re-attached in the hospital before it had to be amputated due to infection.
At the time, Allen's biggest concern wasn't whether he could play drums again but his worry that he'd be seen as grotesque. A year and a half later, when Def Leppard played a festival in Donington, the band's first big show since Allen's accident, the enthusiastic crowd of close to 75,000 people began cheering and waving their arms in support of Allen. "It was a real turning point," he says. "It was a wonderful feeling of just being supported by everybody, instead of being perceived as, 'Well that's kind of weird, a guy playing drums with one arm.'...I kind of rose to the occasion and realized that I'm not a freak show."
Almost three decades have passed since his accident, but Allen continues to feel sensations connected to his left arm. "Right now as we speak, I feel everything," he says. "When that part of your brain has developed, it sends and receives messages still, even if it's not there. Even though the physical form is gone, the energetic form is still there. That leads you to ask questions about existence."
Though he spends most of his time with family and he's living more healthfully now than in days gone by, Allen admits there was a time when he overindulged. But he doesn't seem regretful of his wilder experiences, which include smoking heroin. And he is not completely sober. "I have a glass of wine once in a while and that's fantastic," he says. "I've tried everything. Why not? I think the trick is to not get stuck. When it becomes a crutch, then it gets kind of nasty. But for me there was always this sense of, 'Try it out and see what it's like,' and then take the experience from it and move on. Fortunately, with most things, I was able to do that. I really battled with cigarettes, though. To me, that is one of the most addictive things in the world."
Without the excess once connected to being in Def Leppard, Allen now holds different attachments to the band. "The experience comes back around where now I have a whole different perception of what I do," says Allen. "At one point, it was about holding on to the reins. Now it's a blessing. Every day I go out there and I am able to play it's like, 'This is insane. I can't believe I do this for a job.' It's idiotic that they give me money to do this."
Despite years of experience, Allen reveals that there's not a single show that doesn't dredge up an almost paralyzing distress. "I'm, like, 'Oh God, do I have to do this? There's a real fear before I play," he says. "It never subsides. It really doesn't. That fear of just not being able to do it. It's always there."
Though he's excited about his upcoming Def Leppard tour (with Poison), Allen's equally thrilled to be able to connect people through his art, which will provide a new dimension he says fans haven't seen previously.
"I'm a private person. I don't really get out much," he says. "This is kind of a way for me to have a vehicle to allow people to see some new sides of me. But also, in the process, to be able to see themselves and re-remember parts of themselves they may have either forgotten about or they've yet to discover. The idea being everybody can be a hero. I think during times like this, with everything going on with the economy and financial crisis, any one of us who's able to make a statement and inspire other people, that's great for all of us. That wave goes through everybody."
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