If you have followed mainstream rock music over the last several decades, you are familiar with Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen’s tragic automobile accident. The resulting loss of his left arm and complete reinventing of his drumming technique are both well documented. His inspiring story of healing and regeneration seem as though it may have reached its conclusion some 30 years ago. Well, as it turns out, this journey is far from over and continues today. A large part of his personal healing has been his exploration and creation of visual art. For several years now, Allen has built an extension of his creativity, through photography and painting as well as mixing those and other mediums. This creative expansion has not just aided in his own personal healing, but has become a vehicle for aiding in the mending of the psyche of others.
Beginning Friday, December 9th and concluding Sunday, December 11th, Allen will be in attendance for three straight days of exhibits in partnership with The Wentworth Gallery. The trio of dates begins in Hollywood, FL on Friday, moving on to Boca Raton on Saturday and concludes in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday. A portion of proceeds from each piece acquired will be donated to Project Resiliency. Allen and his wife Lauren Monroe have a twelve year relationship with the organization, which helps military veterans who have served in Viet Nam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Allen’s passion for art started in his youth, “I started painting as a young kid, and I would get more paint on the floor and the ceiling and myself than anywhere else. Then, at about the age of 10, my focus became more about photography.” Of course, his voyage of inspiration would be channeled primarily into another area, “Then discovering music and playing an instrument, followed at the age of 15 , joining Def Leppard. And then as you might say, the rest is history.”
Allen has always continued to dabble in photography throughout his career. His path from professional musical artist to professional visual artist was instigated from by an unexpected influence. “My youngest daughter just turned 12. When she was born, it wasn’t long before the two of us started painting together. So in many ways she was very instrumental in reigniting my passion for wanting to paint.” After having his passion reignited, he realized there was something more to this than just sharing personal time with his daughter. “Being able to share all this wonderful art with other people is really a gift. It’s such a fantastic way to express yourself.”
Allen’s pieces have transformed over the years. Starting again with photography, then painting, now mixing the various forms into one a uniquely different medium. “As I get deeper into this and I have more history of art and painting, I’m able to bring [together] all the different things I do, whether that be painting with acrylics or photography or mixed media. Now we are even putting some of the pieces on metal, which is really interesting for me, because as a kid, my family owned a steel business.” The evolution of his pieces has developed an inspiration of its own, “So it’s almost like coming full circle, sort of getting into areas that I’d never even thought of. So I love the idea of combining all these different ways of presenting the artwork. And it just makes a really rich experience for me. And the people who end up buying the pieces, they love them. So it’s a win-win!”
Allen’s art transcends several different themes. There is Angels and Icons, which incorporates logos and familiar signs along with paint to create something unique. Another theme is Rock on Canvas, where Allen uses lighted drumsticks played in rhythm to convey a light painting technique. A third area is what is called Legends, “With the Legends pieces, that’s pure technique. It’s taking a favorite image of somebody who has really inspired me over the years and trying to come up with some sort of representation of them that really evokes an emotional response. I want people to look at the pieces and feel something. For instance when I was painting (Jimi) Hendrix, I did some research and learned more about him as a person.” That sort of immersion into a personality can lead to an intense attachment to the piece, “When I finished the piece, I didn’t want to give the piece away. I wanted it to be on my wall at home.” For the record, he did give the piece to the gallery.
The fateful car accident that claimed his left arm occurred almost 38 years ago. Based on his ability to conquer that incident and resume his musical career, you may think that once the physical wounds had healed, that the road forward was without hairpin turns and perfectly paved. When it comes to creating his visual art, “It’s the same place I go when I play music. I find it such a comfortable place to be, to be in front of an audience. And interestingly enough, when I paint, even though it’s not necessarily in front of an audience, I find it so therapeutic, particularly for the people out there that don’t know that I suffer quite badly with PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), so many artistic endeavors for me are really healing.”
When you look at the story from afar, you see this guy who triumphed over adversity and went on to attain the highest of heights of the Mt. Everest that is rock n’ roll. But to the contrary, as mentioned earlier, this odyssey is decades in the making. Thinking back to the time just after the accident and the starting point of this healing pilgrimage, Allen shares, “It was a really devastating time for me. I just felt so defeated. But I was able to get my right arm into a place where I could play, and if I set my drum kit up in a certain way, I wouldn’t experience too much discomfort, because I experience quite a bit of pain and discomfort to this day.” Part of the transition into reparation is finding a way to be normal again, “It’s about finding that new normal, where I can’t do it the way I used to do it, but I can do it in ways that are really, really unique. And in that uniqueness, I’m able to express myself in a way that people really love. It’s unusual to see a drummer on stage with one arm.”
Being the drummer in what was arguably the most popular and successful rock bands in the world at the time, losing a limb is akin to a sprinter losing a leg. The suddenness of such an event imposes some very unique challenges. “A friend of mine who was born without part of his limb, once said to me, ‘In a way, it’s more difficult for you because you had it and then you lost it. I never had it, so I didn’t have to adjust.’ It was very sudden and a traumatic experience, particularly when you add the fact that I play drums for a living.” Allen remains very grateful and aware of his road to recovery, “So I’ve been very blessed in sort of reinventing myself, so I think that’s part of it.”
Having the ability to perform in front of 20,000 to 100,000 people you might think that Allen has nerves of steel and does not deal with insecurities. “One thing none of us can deny is our humanness. And we all experience the same emotions, and I’m not immune to that. I’m actually quite proud of the fact that when people get to know me, they realize that I’m just the same as them. It’s just that I do something unusual for my job.” His entry into the world of visual art was not without trepidation. “To be honest, when I first started painting, I didn’t want to present any of these paintings to anybody because I was afraid of the rejection. I thought people would be like, ‘Oh, just another musician trying to be an artist.’ But my wife said, ‘No, you’ve got to show people this stuff. It’s great.’ When I finally showed it to people, they really loved it. So it was an easier transition to move into that area than I anticipated.”
Mexican Gray Wolf
Allen’s social conscience has been a large part of his life for some time. He has a special connection with military veterans. “When we first started out with Raven Drum Foundation, we worked with so many different parts of the population, from incarcerated youth to women’s shelters to kids going through cancer treatment. This is something we helped people using music and drum circles. That started the push into different areas, mindfulness practices, meditation, diet, all different kinds. Then sometime in 2006, I visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the D.C. area, and I saw so much suffering. I couldn’t believe what our soldiers were going through. After that meeting with all those incredible people, I called Lauren (Monroe, Allen’s wife) and I said, ‘We really need to refocus some of our efforts on what’s going on with our veterans and some of the wounded warriors.’ That’s when we created Project Resiliency. It was more specific, it really focused on the healing and the trauma of our veterans.”
The experience hit home for Allen, “I saw a lot of parallels. My trauma, some of the darker places that I would go, self-medication, all kinds of behavioral problems. When I saw the parallels between my experience and some of the things our veterans go through, it was the very least that we could do, to step up and help other people who were suffering in a similar way to the way I was.” Allen found a deep connection between those soldiers and his own experience, “A lot of us are traumatized in many ways. It could be like me, a car accident, or it could be somebody who has been in combat. Even though my trauma wasn’t combat related, your body responds in the same way. So there are a lot of similarities between me and combat veterans, who have had traumatic experiences in their life. So, it all goes together.” As for his felt responsibility to do something, “That seems to be my default setting these days. When i see other people suffering, there’s a part of me that wants to step in and help, because I know how devastating it can be.”
From the Angels and Icons collection
Much of his compositions feature the artist’s very own handprint. Allen explains the significance of using his handprint in his creations. “Shortly after I came around in [the] hospital, in early 1985, not only had I lost my left arm, but I damaged my right arm very badly, to the point where I thought I was going to lose my right arm as well.” Imagine of how much he and the world would have been robbed had he lost the other arm. Thankfully, the right arm was saved, “The idea of the handprint is sacred to me. The fact that I didn’t lose my right arm and I’m able to do all these wonderful things, whether it be creating art or music, I felt it was a nice gesture to be able to use my handprint almost like a signature. And when people see the handprint, they go, ‘Oh, that’s something that Rick Allen created.’ So if people see that handprint, I want them to feel not only the despair but also the joy of being able to create with just that one hand.” That particular symbol may become a universal emblem for healing.
Allen approached the creative process of his visual art very similarly to his process in creating music. “It’s like that meditative state. You’ve got a blank canvas or you’ve got a photograph, and then you go, ‘Well, now what do I do?’ And sometimes what I am able to do is create a starting point and then leave it. Sometimes for a day, sometimes a few weeks, and then I go back to it and I go, ‘Oh, okay, now I know what it wants.’ I know what it needs and then I’m able to move forward and finish it in such a way that it’s really quite impressive. It looks incredible.” What does he do when inspiration does not strike as expected? “Many times when I’ve started something, I go like, ‘Oh dear, this isn’t going the way I thought it would.’ But the wonderful thing with paint is you can paint over it and start again.”
Much like starting with a blank canvas, creating a musical idea can be as elusive as a visual awakening. “I think to be in that meditative state where I’ll sit behind my drum kit, and I’m not sure what I’m going to play. Sometimes it could just be experimentation and something comes out and I go, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ Taking that idea and presenting it to somebody else, that’s part of my process. The thing with being part of a band, is if I come up with an idea, it’s wonderful to be able to present it to somebody else and maybe they can add something to it that I can’t.” Asking a musician which is their favorite song, is like asking them which is their favorite child. They tend to love them all, because they were an offshoot of their very essence. But what happens when you can’t paint over a song? “That’s happened on many occasions. And when you’re in it, you want it to be amazing, but it doesn’t always go that way. Sometimes we revisit musical ideas, or we revisit visual art ideas as human beings, and when the time is right, we’re able to make sense of them.”
On the contrary, from time to time, composing a musical piece can seem divinely apportioned. “I’ve heard many songwriters talk about that. I remember talking to Bernie Taupin about Candle In The Wind (which he co-wrote with Elton John), and I said, ‘How long did it take you to produce that piece?’ He answered, ‘Ten minutes. It was all in my head. I heard all of it, I heard all of the backing vocals, I heard everything.’ It’s almost like the song was already there, in the ethers. It just needed him to reach out and be able to grab that from…almost like a divine source.” But they all don’t come that easily, “You’ve just got to find a starting point, or at least put yourself in a situation where you’re not distracted. Then you can be selfish and just be in your own space. Sometimes, the most incredible things come out of it. Not always though.”
Now that Allen’s musical career is well over four decades long, which is pretty good for a guy who just turned 59 years old, does he still get a charge out of playing in front of an audience? “Playing in a band, in front of an audience, especially with songs that are timeless, these songs were part of the soundtrack of those people’s lives. They are associated with coming-of-age moments, where you did something for the first time. That part is magical. To play these songs in front of an audience, and they take on a life of their own, that’s a huge gift.” Initially he did not expect to have the same kind of connection with people through his visual art. “I’m starting to see that. At first I thought, oh, I’ll be able to hide behind the artwork because I’m kind of a private person. I’m not really that outgoing.”
It’s been 44 years since Allen joined Def Leppard. Compared to some other contemporaries, he is relatively young, but that length of time is still impressive. How much longer does he think both his and the band’s career will carry on? “That’s something we never talk about.” His stance on that is as much matter of fact as it is hopeful. “All these incredible people that I’ve painted over the years, they’re not here anymore. And I’m sure that was something that they never talked about. I consider that to be the elephant in the room. I don’t think as a band, we want to sit around in the dressing room and talk about what the last show is going to look like or what it’s going to sound like, because, who knows?”
In addition to the upcoming exhibits, Allen and some of his percussive friends team up to raise additional funds for veterans and first responders. “Right now we’ve got an auction on the go. It will be continuing on until the 12th of December. People can go to 12drummersdrumming.org, they’ll be able to bid on the most incredible memorabilia from some of the biggest drummers on the planet. This is the second year we’ve done it, I encourage people to go there and see if there’s something they like.” So, if you have an affinity for drummers, what types of things might you be able to bid on? “These are like personal items whether that be drumsticks, drum heads or signature snare drums or the chance to have an exclusive interview or zoom meeting. The drumming community have been incredible. I have this team of drummers and bear in mind, all the money that is raised from the auction goes toward veterans, first responders on anybody else who is going through some traumatic events in their life.” And if you thought you might be able to pick up a pair of stage worn, Union Jack track shorts from the 1980’s, “My wife hid them from me. She said something to the effect that it looks like ten pounds of potatoes in a five pound bag.” Sorry to burst your bubble.
There is a lot on the horizon for both Allen and his bandmates. The band will head down for some dates in Central and South America and follow that up with European dates. After that, “I’ve heard rumor of the Far East, hopefully we can go to Japan, and that normally means Australia and New Zealand.” Either way, the drummer seems like he will have plenty to keep him busy and shows no signs of slowing down. “We’re all blessed to be here on this planet. None of us really know how long that is going to be. I guess what I’m trying to say is we’re just going to enjoy the time that we have and the shows that we’re going to play. We’re going to enjoy them to the max.”
As the Christmas holiday nears, let us reflect on the true spirit of the season, the spirit of giving. As you count your blessings, be mindful of those who are less fortunate. As an example to all of us, Rick Allen’s humble and pure heart toward helping people who can really use a hand, is inspiring and warms the heart. In that very same spirit, Screamer Magazine has decided to devote this special issue to Those Who Make A Difference. In addition to the few articles in this issue that show how rockers make a difference, we also highlight some charities that put your donations to work in the very best way. Please consider some of the top rated charities according to the highly respected charity watchdog organization CharityWatch.
Have a rockin’ Christmas and practice, practice, practice good will toward men.