Def Leppard's One-Armed Drummer Rick Allen Makes Art Out of Music
"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.
Max Danziger Rick Allen and his work Shape Shifter
"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.
Max Danziger Warrior Heart
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."