Reclaiming the Rhythm: An Interview With Rick Allen
by Christine K. Stevens, MSW, M.A., MT-BC
What would you do if you were suddenly faced with the threat of losing your most important gift? What if regaining it required more effort and willpower than you’d ever imagined and forced you to rely on parts of yourself you never even knew existed?
Rick Allen became a rock star at the early age of 15 as the drummer for the group Def Leppard. After an explosion of success in the early eighties, his world was suddenly turned upside down in 1984, when a violent car accident caused him serious injuries and the loss of his left arm.
After a visit to the Remo factory in Valencia, California, Rick immediately insisted that his family members join him at a Remo drum circle that evening. Inspired by this experience and the philosophy of Remo’s drumming & wellness department -HealthRHYTHMS, Rick agreed to share his personal story and information on his current project, Raven Drum Foundation, in an interview at his home in Malibu, California.
- Could you describe your first memories immediately after the accident?
- ÖÖÖÖÖ.I felt very lost. It was the epitome of chaos. Really in and out of belief and disbelief. But I think we all have an inner strength in times like those. You really canít even say what you would do if it happened to you. But when youíre thrown into it Ė you are amazed at what you can do. The amazing thing was my family and friends. Throughout my hospital stay, I saw people around me dig into sides of themselves Iíd never seen before.
- When was the first time music came back into the picture for you?
- In my first week in the hospital, I started hearing music that just seemed to be playing. I thought it was coming out of the air vents. Then I told my brother, "Youíve got to go home and get the stereo system and my music collection to see what I can do." So I started listening to Led Zeppelin, Free, Bad Company, T-Rex, David Bowie Ė just throwing myself back into that whole era I grew up with.
- What was it like when you first started to feel the rhythms?
- It was interesting. I realized that I could play all the basic rhythms I ever learned just with my right and left foot. I played the rhythm by tapping this big piece of foam at the end of my hospital bed. I realized I could make a beat, using only my legs. And it was like Ė WOW Ė I CAN DO THAT. I can replace what I used to do with "left hand" with "left foot." The information was still there, in the brain Ė I just had to re-channel it.
- But is it just in the brain?
- Actually, your entire body becomes a memory of how to play an instrument. You have to re-shuffle everything and ask, "whatís important now?" Iíd rather play a basic pattern really well than try and play too much. Itís a constant learning curve. What I can do today with two legs is completely different than what I could do two years ago.
- You figured out that the information was within you, it just needing to be re-channeled.
- Well, you have to figure out ways of healing yourself. You let people on the outside influence you Ė but ultimately, the job of getting well is entirely up to you.
- Did anyone doubt you Ė tell you that it wasnít possible to play again?
- One junior doctor came up to me and said, "You know youíll never play drums again." But I think it just made me more determined. Another guy said, "You know youíll never be able to wave again," since my right shoulder was severely broken. After I was released, I came down the hall and waved at him. Even today, Iím working with a trainer and my right arm is still improving. It helps when I use the aluminum drum sticks (Easton) to take some of the shock out of playing. When Iím playing electronic pads all the time, I feel like I need that cushion. Iíve also learned to constantly give myself that positive reinforcement.
- What do you think is the role of the mind in rehabilitation?
- Itís all about intention - what you set out for yourself. I keep pushing that boundary and seeing myself in a better physical condition. Being a better musician. Even just being able to tie a shoelace in a better way.
- When you first started playing again Ė did it make you more aware of the loss? Was it a painful experience?
- Actually being able to play my instrument again was enough. That was really the gift. It didnít matter how good or bad it was. It was just, "OK Ė I can do this. THANK YOU." I encounter people that are in worse situations who are so challenged, but they have the audacity to look up to me. I donít even feel like what some people would say "disabled." I donít even feel like I miss anything. I think of some people out there who do so much more than any of us with so much less. When I think about them, I realize that I donít really have a problem, do I?
- What was it like playing your first concert after the accident? Your first time on stage?
- It happened gradually, through an amazing series of coincidences. We were playing four shows at small pubs in Ireland with this guy, Jeff Rich who we affectionately called our "stunt drummer." He played acoustic drums to back up my electronic kit. But, he had travel problems and missed half of our second gig, so I played it myself. And the next gig had a stage that couldnít fit both our kits, so I managed it on my own. By the time we played Donnington, outside of London, for a crowd of 55,000 people, I felt great. When I was introduced, the crowd went nuts. My mom, dad and brother were there to support me. That was probably the greatest moment in my life Ė just sitting there with so much gratitude.
- What helps you now?
- It helps me to improvise and play for the fun of it, especially with a group of people. It feels good to do whatever I want. No right or wrong, just very natural, without any muscle.
- Do you feel that drumming has been healing for you?
- Yes, but only when I realized it. Not when my playing was forced. Sometimes when you sit behind drums, its all muscle. Very physical. Its not until you realize you donít need that. The rhythm or the feeling can be found within. Iíve been in situations when Iíve felt itís been damaging Ė because Iím over-playing and Iím in a place thatís uncomfortable. And there have been other experiences, where Iím very comfortable Ė like everything is RIGHT. It transcends the drum and becomes just the feeling.
- What inspired you to create the Raven Drum Foundation?
- Actually, Lauren and I want to bring more awareness of healing through the arts. We want to use our website to guide people to where they can go to learn about these tools and get more information.
(Joined by Lauren Monroe- Director of the Raven Drum Foundation)
- The information is important, but the primary thing is the experience. We want to help people discover how to express themselves through sacred methods. We want to give people keys ...to open up parts of themselves. The mission of the Raven Drum Foundation is bringing ancient knowledge through the arts for the purpose of healing. We want to support a collective of artists and facilitators who can share their wisdom and practice.
- How did all of these events affect your outlook on being a performer?
- I believe in intention and the connection between the mind and body. Iíve started setting intentions with the guys in the band, even before going in front of 10,000 people. And for myself, I just keep playing with the concept of simplicity and feeling good. I think itís really about finding something that makes us feel good. If we can achieve that, we have a tool to cope with whatever life challenges come our way.
Rick Allen is President of the Raven Drum Foundation. Since the age of 15, Rick has been the drummer for the heavy metal rock band, Def Leppard. He is a REMO artist.
Lauren Monroe, M.A., CMT is Director of the Raven Drum Foundation. She holds degrees in Dance Choreography, Education, and Massage Therapy.
For more information on the Raven Drum Foundation, go to www.ravendrumfoundation.com or telephone (310) 456-5030.
Christine Stevens, MSW, MT-BC is Director of Music Therapy and Wellness Programs
in the new HealthRHYTHMS division at Remo, Inc. She holds masters degrees in
music therapy and social work and is a member of the Percussive Arts Society
Health and Wellness committee, For more information on the use of drumming for
health and wellness, go to www.remo.com, click