RICK ALLEN | THE HUMANIST
No sooner are Rick Allen and I seated upstairs in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, than the affable drummer of Def Leppard is indulging me on topics ranging from Thomas Dolby (who played keyboards on Pyromania under the pseudonym Booker T Boffin), to our mutual approval of the Rolling Stones’ recent set list in Ireland, to Joe Elliott’s home being a venerable Rock n’ Roll museum. He’s a charmer, warm and inviting with an infectious laugh and a healthy curiosity in you, and from time to time he’ll punctuate a good point – yours or his – with a wink of an eye.
But when I ask Allen a casual question about a tour rehearsal he and the band took part in the night before, his reply immediately takes the levity out of things. “Well,” he says, using his lone arm to pull himself closer to the edge of his seat, “yesterday was a bit of a hit to my nervous system”.
I am here to discuss resiliency with Allen, and the role it has played in his life, his music, and the valuable work he does on behalf of wounded war veterans, many of whom suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
But what might get lost amidst the laughs and winks and his general good nature – not to mention the wave of adulation he receives when he is introduced by Elliott on stage each night – is that one of the reasons Allen is so well equipped to work with sufferers of PTSD, is because he is one of them himself.
I start off by asking Allen what was difficult about the night before…
It’s just the process of putting the production together…the amount of energy that was going on. I mean, there’s no audience. All it is, is just the pressure of knowing that we’ve got to get this right. Meanwhile, I’m looking at the crew and everybody, with just mountains of equipment hanging above my head. It’s like I was catapulted back into this crazy world again, after having spent all this time at home. Yesterday was very mental.
I wondered if that was something that would go away completely once he got settled in on the tour.
When all the details are taken care of, and I’ve got all the right balances and can hear everybody on stage and the drum kit’s playing nicely, then sure, it does go from anxiety and tension before I play, to just being in the moment. And when you’re completely in the moment, you’re in your heart, and when you get in there, you just play. You don’t think, ’hit drum’. You just hit drum.
I was curious to know how bad things could get for him in one of those settings
Being in that rehearsal situation yesterday, with all the production and everything, could have been potentially bad, in terms of a trigger. Just the anxiety of it all, and the sort of jangling of my nervous system. I had to walk off for a bit. I’ve learned the art of healthy retreat. Healthy retreat is very important for me.
Are the guys in the band aware of what’s going on with him when he has to step away for a while?
Oh, yeah. And you know, it’s not just me. Joe will go spend a fair amount of time on the back of the bus, and I’ll do the same. Maybe I’ll put some music on, or maybe just go sit and think of all the people I love. I’ll do anything other than become stimulated by the world I find myself in, in terms of Def Leppard world. I just need to get away from that sometimes. Once I get away from it, I can be appreciative of it. I can be grateful for it. But sometimes it’s the thing you’re in all the time that pisses you off, you know what I mean?
I commented that it probably helps that his bandmates saw firsthand what he went through decades ago, and asked him if he could bring me back to Dec 31, 1984.
I was with my girlfriend at the time and had just had a falling out with my family. I was a little bit angry when I left the house, and I think that kind of set the tone for the day. And the fact that I encountered some jerk in front of me…I don’t know whether he was jealous of my car (a Corvette), but this guy just wouldn’t let me pass. This kept going on, and going on, and going on and I lost my temper. My car was a left hand drive, driving on the opposite side of this winding rural road in England, and I didn’t see the corner coming up. When I finally did, I knew I had a problem and that I wasn’t going to make it. That was really the last thing I remember.
I asked him what he remembered once he regained consciousness.
It’s interesting, it’s almost like some protective mechanism comes into play and you just blackout. I think when you experience extreme trauma there’s an incremental shut down of your senses and the first thing to go is feeling. I couldn’t feel anything at all. I actually stood up out in the field after I came to, and I remember saying something about being a drummer, or “I lost my arm”. The arm was still in the car. I flew through the sunroof, and that’s when I lost it. I’m still not sure whether I said or thought those things about drumming and the arm. It was such a dreamlike state that I couldn’t discern what was real or not real. I just knew something really bad had happened.
Since there were no cellphones at the time and he was out in the middle of the country, how was he found?
I was very fortunate. Two people pulled up behind me, an off duty cop and a district nurse, in separate cars. What are the chances, out in the middle of nowhere, that they both just showed up? They were those angels on earth that people talk about. I really believe they saved my life. Until that moment, I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know each other. They actually became a couple through the thing, and ended up getting married. It was a whole love story.
Doctors reattached Allen’s arm shortly after his accident, but his body rejected it. Since he didn’t remember much about the crash, I wondered what he remembered about his first conscious moments at the hospital.
It was horrible. There was a period where I not only didn’t want to be seen, I didn’t want to exist. When you first come around, your mind tricks you into thinking that there’s nothing wrong. I was able to feel my left arm. My brain had been developed that way all my life, whereas if you were born without an arm, you would have never experienced that two way street – that sensation, and information being sent to your nerve endings. It was really surreal, you know? I couldn’t quite believe that this had happened. But then, as I started to come around to the realization that it had, I just wanted to curl up in a ball and go away. I really…
Allen pauses for a moment to play with the napkin resting on the table in front of him.
…it was horrible, you know?
Who or what pulled Allen out of that emotional state?
I think one of the biggest helps to me, was Mutt Lange (recording legend, who has produced several Def Leppard albums). He is stupid talented and a real genius, but he is also just an all-around incredible guy, and a huge influence on me as a person. He’s very spiritual – had his own Guru that he looked up to – and he was very proactive in helping me. He came to visit when I was in the hospital, and set me up with a Hari Krishna couple who would come into my room and cook food for me. There was a lot more to it than that, but when they were making the food, there was a certain intention, you know? Almost like using food as medicine. They would pray over the food and all of that and the hospital eventually said to me, “You know you’re going to be here for months, right?.” But they kept coming back to the hospital every night to cook, and ended up feeding everybody in the process. The whole ward smelled like an Indian restaurant. It was fantastic! [laughs] Even more fantastic, is that I was out of there within a month.
Does he attribute getting out of the hospital so far ahead of schedule, to their visits?
Yes, a good bit. My brother Rob was also very instrumental in my well-being – he worked with Def Leppard right from day one, when I joined up with the band in 1978. He ended up coming along with me and doing the sound and becoming my chaperone. I was only 15 at the time and couldn’t drive, and he’s 4 years older than me, so he made sure I was safe. I said, “Rob, could you go home and get my stereo system, and set it up here in my room? I want you to bring all the records that inspired me growing up.” And that’s what he did. It got me out of my own way. I was able to listen to something and reflect on that coming of age period of my life, and it helped me tremendously. I was able to really dig in. It helped to feel the power of the music, and experience gratitude for having it.
I was curious as to what persuades a man confined to a hospital bed, missing an arm, that he can play the drums again?
I broke my right arm very badly in the crash, but there was this piece of foam at the bottom of my hospital bed, and I was able to start tapping my feet on it. I realized that I could play simple rhythms, you know? Then a guy from Sheffield whom I had known for years called Pete Hartley came to visit me. He was always the electronics guy – he knew the Human League and all of the well-known Sheffield bands – and when he saw what I was doing with my feet, he said, “Rick, I can have you playing.” He started developing foot pedals for me while I was still in the hospital, and that was the beginning.
Once it was time for him to leave the hospital, I wondered what Allen’s feelings were being in a car for the first time since the accident.
Oh, God. I remember my brother Rob picking me up to take me home, and I got as low down in the seat as I possibly could. I was on the brakes before he was the whole way, you know? I was also hunched down because I didn’t want any of the people out on the street to see me. I remember first waking up in my hospital room after the crash, and the room seemed cavernous. It felt like this giant space. But over the course of that month, the room started to get smaller and smaller, to the point where it was kind of getting on top of me. When the day came for me to go home, the outside world suddenly seemed like a giant place. It just felt wrong.
I begin my next question by saying, “So you went straight home, and then…” before Allen politely corrects me.
I actually didn’t go straight home. I asked Rob to stop off at Peter Hartley’s electronics store so I could check out the pedals he’d been working on for me. My brother understood my willingness to play again, but he must have thought I was nuts! Pete had this tiny little store with no apparent order…he had keyboards and guitar amps all stacked on top of each other…but at that time, the seeming lack of order actually felt comforting to me. As I walked towards the back of the store, I saw the electronic drums and pedals for the first time, and my heart lifted immediately. I just sat down and played until I was exhausted. That meant less than five minutes in my condition, but I was just so happy that a new horizon had suddenly opened up for me. I thanked Peter profusely, and then I finally went home. [laughs] I needed to continue my recovery. On the way back I told my brother how that experience was exactly what I needed. It really gave me a sense of hope for my future, you know? History in the making.
He had mentioned his brother a lot, but hadn’t discussed his parents yet. Allen’s mother famously answered Def Leppard’s ad looking for a drummer, on her son’s behalf, when he was a young teen. I asked him how his parents reacted to his return home.
They were proud of me. My mother became the warrior though, and I saw the really protective side of her come out. [winks]
After a pause, I gently prompt Allen to discuss his father by noting that most mothers are more expressive than fathers.
Yeah, he just seemed to retreat a bit. It was like, “Where’s my daddy?” you know? I could tell that he didn’t quite know how to engage me.
What was Allen’s relationship with his father like?
It became better leading up to his death, about six years ago. We said everything we needed to say, and it was really good because nobody sweated the small stuff, you know?…
Allen reaches for a pack of gum that I left sitting near the middle of the table, and begins to occupy himself with it, opening and closing it while searching for words.
…he was going through cancer, and his generation…they are very reluctant to go to the doctors for anything, so by the time he got to the doctor he was already Stage 3. At that point it was good for both of us because…yeah….
At this point Allen stops playing with the gum, places a finger over each of his closed eyes, and quietly weeps.
I stay respectfully silent for the minute or two it takes until he is ready to engage again, and then change gears by asking him what life was like after he returned home from the hospital.
I threw myself quickly back into work. In hindsight, that was not the best course of action. I got out of the hospital within a month. A couple of weeks later I was on a plane from Manchester to Amsterdam, to rejoin the band. This is within six weeks of the accident. I asked Malvin Mortimer, my manager, to meet me at the airport, and he said I just looked gray. I didn’t look well at all. Still, I jumped back into being with the band, just trying to learn songs, and pedals, and trying to figure out how I could do this.
And how did he do it?
I became obsessed with taking the information that was already in the part of my brain that worked my left arm, and rechanneling it. And it happened. Some sort of natural phenomena occurred, where all that info just started going out to my right hand, and then out to my left leg, and then out to my right leg. It was really interesting! People asked, “How long did it take you relearn drums?” I didn’t really have to relearn drums, I just moved the info around. I’m not sure if it’s an ancient brain sort of thing that happens, where you adapt because you have to take care of the tribe, but it happened. I was always right footed when I played soccer as a kid, and all of a sudden I could kick with my left leg nearly as well as my right. That is unusual. And I could spontaneously do things with my right hand that I could never do before. So I thought, “That’s kind of a good deal.” [laughs] It propelled me into my next phase as a drummer.
In regard to getting all the way back to playing at a professional level, what was the biggest turning point?
The turning point for me was when I stopped comparing myself to how I used to be and stopped comparing myself to others and just embraced the uniqueness of what I was doing. I finally said to myself, “Yeah, I can’t do it the way I used to do it, and I can’t do it the way my favorite drummers do it, but I do it my way.” As soon as I came to that realization, the weight lifted. It became a blessing, and everything I was doing became a blessing. I discovered the power of the human spirit, and that’s when you become unstoppable. “I can do this, I can do this”, you know? It was like something woke up in me and motivated me to be the best I could be.
The culmination of Allen’s efforts came on August 16, 1986 at the Monsters of Rock festival in Donington, England when Allen played his first major show since the accident, and the massive crowd gave him a deafening reception after he was introduced by Joe Elliott.
Joe and I had the conversation before the show, and he said, “I’m not going to say anything.” I said, “Good! Let’s just get through this, let’s just do this.” But throughout the show Joe was feeling an energy from the audience, and it pushed him to say something. He basically just went, “Ok, I give up.”, and went into a spontaneous speech. Meanwhile, I’m sitting back there with tears just rolling – they were tears of grace, really. I was feeling that I was being supported not just by the band at that moment, but by the whole world. It really felt like that.
I suggested to Allen that despite the feeling he got from the cheers and outpouring of support, he still might not have been well.
Oh, I wasn’t. Some of the painkillers they gave me in the hospital were very strong, and that didn’t help me when I got out. When I was there I was having intense dreams and hallucinations, and I remember one night, sort of being in a twilight…just being overly aware of the room. It was like I was in a World War II hospital room, you know? There were really dark elements that didn’t sit well with me. So going on from that, rejoining the band so quickly, and then being in the proximity of Amsterdam of all places, was probably not a very good idea. It was easy to self-medicate. To keep it going. What you say is true, I was fighting demons.
How did he stop abusing substances?
I was obviously searching for something, because I wouldn’t have been self-medicating like I was. But I’d done a lot of work on myself, even before I began meeting with the Wounded Warriors. I am fortunate because I was always aware of when I was headed towards that point of no return, you know? I knew where the off switch was. So, that kept pulling me back to the good side. It kept pulling me back to the light. I’ve met a lot of musicians who don’t have that.
Since he eventually had a hold on his use of substances, I asked him when he started to address the deeper problems he had been experiencing
Actually, I think a lot of my healing really started years later, when I met my wife Lauren. In fact, when I first met her, she took me to the Boulder College of Massage. It was the first time I experienced intention. Subtle energy. She was running a class at the time, and had me lay on a table in the middle of the room, while some beautiful piece of music was playing. Nobody touched me, they just stood around me, sending energy to me with love and compassion, using their intention. The exercise took maybe 20 mins, but by the end of it, there wasn’t a dry eye in this room full of people. It was such a wonderful connection. Feeling that kind of nurturing energy affected me, and I think it led me on a bigger path of discovery.
What was Lauren’s impression of him when she first met him?
She felt that I had a big heart, and she thought that I was…well, we all are special in our own way. But right off the bat, she just felt that she knew me, you know? Like she’d known me forever. We’ve actually sat down and figured out where and when we had nearly met years before. One time we were both in London – she was studying dance at the time – and I went to a place that I’d never previously been. And she was there, on the stage! I didn’t know her at the time of course, but we realized it later. And we figured out there had been other instances as well. I guess it’s just whatever the universe dishes out. It’s like, “Nope, now’s not quite the right the time for you guys, you aren’t ready for each other.” And then all of a sudden, the planets line up, and it’s our time.
Having had a meaningful experience with nurturing energy, I asked Allen if he was always open to new and challenging ideas, or if he felt strange doing them?
I was always open to it. I always tried to read thought provoking books and listen to challenging and spiritual music – like indigenous music. I also wasn’t opposed to using therapeutic mind expanding substances to help open me up and give me new insight. It eventually led to a place where I can just sit down and be in a place of gratitude.
I wondered what role Allen’s multiple journeys to India had on that mindset?
I call all of it my healing journey, but going to India was a huge part of it. I think what going to India did, is show me the totality of the human condition. When I went for the first time, I saw myself – I mean, really saw myself – and I didn’t like what I saw. I hated it, and I hated being there.
What made him feel so bad about himself?
There were lots of things, but my impatience was a big one. I was always argumentative with my father. He had this perfectionist thing where whenever I tried to do something, it was never good enough. So, that is a part of me as well, and I upset my family with that part of myself. I’d be looking over somebody’s shoulder, watching them do something, and I’d snap like, “Argh, come on, let me do it!” It’s something I’m not proud of. But I was seeing all of the bad stuff, and the disparity between me and the people we were with. The monks, you know?
What were the disparities?
I saw their reverence. I saw how high the vibrations were coming from them. And they had standards, you know? They had standards and beautiful rituals, and it was just such a contrast. We worked with some wonderful people who had a tremendous dedication to their own growth. But I did have glimpses of my potential, which is the reason I think I went back the next year. We spent about a month there and then returned the next year around the same time. We went three times total, and it eventually started getting easier and easier for me to be there. I felt myself maturing and growing – accepting the negative, and embracing what my potential was. I remember turning to one of the monks that we were working with and saying, “I don’t want to leave.” I mean we were out in rural, southern India. There’s nothing but donkeys and farmland, and it’s a simple, simple, simple life. We were sleeping in two single beds, constantly getting bitten by mosquitos. The most luxurious things we saw were mopeds, and an entire family would be on board. Still, I didn’t want to leave. But the Monk said “Rick, it is not your path.”, and he sent me out into the world. He said, “Don’t worry, you will spread happiness and joy through whatever you do.”
I ask him when it first occurred to him that he had PTSD
I always knew there was something wrong, and Lauren knew there was something different…not wrong, but different about me. You know, having a short fuse, or maybe not being as tolerant as I could be. I also had certain triggers. If somebody changed the routine, or if I was going to be late for something, I would have a tendency to sabotage whatever it was I was going to do. And I’d always aim it at the family, which was horrible. Those were the parts I didn’t particularly like. But in 2006 I visited injured troops at Walter Reed Medical Center and just saw terrible, terrible, suffering. I held it together while I was there, but when I got back to my hotel, I totally lost it. I called Lauren up, and said, “We have to refocus what we’re doing with the Raven Drum Foundation because I’m seeing a level of suffering that is like a reflection of where I’m at”, and I believe she already knew that.
And that led to action that had Allen acknowledging his own PTSD?
Yes, we started to refocus our attention on our wounded warriors, and that’s when I met John Roberts. John works with the Wounded Warrior Project and is a wounded warrior himself and he has become a really good friend. I started to do these gatherings at Def Leppard shows, where a group of warriors would come to meet with me and see the show. I met John backstage in Houston at one of the gatherings, and within moments of meeting me, he said, “Have you addressed your PTSD?” And I said (showing surprise), “Is it that obvious?” Keep in mind, I’m meeting this guy for the first time. And he said, “Well, yeah, I see something.” So from that moment, I’ve kept in touch with John, and I think between he and Lauren both, they encouraged me to open up about my own situation. And then, once I started to talk about it, it became one of those “Ah Ha!” moments where you go, “Oh, so as soon as I start to talk about this, I don’t have to hold onto it anymore?” It was a weight lifted.
With that being the case, I suggest that Allen probably is on the receiving end of plenty of difficult stories when he meets with the warriors.
If you create a safe space like that, and you get a group of traumatized people together, you then create the right environment for everybody to open up, and it’s amazing what comes out.
I ask Allen if he ever felt out of place around the warriors because his injury came from driving a sports car recklessly, and their injuries came while fighting on behalf of their country.
That’s a really good question. Yes, I did. But what I eventually discovered is that trauma is trauma, and it doesn’t matter what you went through. Mine isn’t combat related, but my brain doesn’t know that, and combat isn’t the only cause of PTSD. It could be an abusive relationship, an alcoholic background, a car accident, falling off a horse, you name it. I always say that we’re all traumatized, but some of us more than others. [winks] So, yeah, at first I felt that way. But now, I walk into a room full of warriors and none of us see any differences between us.
I wondered which one – his injury, or his celebrity – does Allen think helps his relationship with the warriors more?
I think it’s a little bit of (the injury) but also the fact that they feel like they know me. Because of the history of the band, I know that’s my in as soon as I walk in the room. They see me and they say, “I feel like I’ve known you forever.” It’s great because it opens up a dialogue immediately, and they know they can trust me. I meet so many people, it’s like an antennae grows. You really learn how to listen to someone, and get in tune with what that person is feeling, regardless of what they are or aren’t saying, you know? [winks]
[In the following days, when I speak to John Roberts, I ask him about Allen’s gift for enticing strangers to reveal parts of themselves that they had been holding on to for so long – without him ever asking them to. Jokingly, I call Allen the ‘Human Whisperer’.
John Roberts: That’s a good way to put it. When we have these warrior meetings and Rick jumps in with his struggles and stories of recovery, (the warriors) feel comfortable enough with him very quickly and they just unload. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe it’s ‘The Whisperer’ thing like you said, or maybe it’s the celebrity thing. But warriors usually get very quiet about their personal feelings when they are around someone who is not a combat veteran. What amazes me, is that with Rick they don’t stop talking.]
I ask Allen about certain activities that he advocates for the warriors, particularly Equine Assisted Therapy. I wondered if he had ever tried it.
Of course. I’m always the guinea pig for these things! Everyone says, “Rick’s messed up, let’s have him try it.” [laughs] Working with horses is a huge deal. I mean, you’re working with a wild horse, so you can’t go in there and be about you, or you’re going to get hurt. You have to walk in there, and soften. My strategy is to stay away from the horse, and allow the horse to become curious about me. A great trick that somebody showed me is to reach out gently with the back of your hand – especially when the horse is kind of skittish – and let him smell it. The amount of information that the horse takes in about you just from that little interaction, is massive. It’s like instantly, he sort of knows you. Then you walk away from the horse, and the horse says, “Whoa, hold up. I thought this was about me?” and they start to follow you.
I suggest to Allen that the confines of a warrior group might be one of the few places where he doesn’t draw prolonged attention for his physical appearance, and I ask him if, his work with the warriors aside, he sometimes wishes he could just go out one day and not be recognized.
Allen lowers his head and contemplates this for a few seconds, while his hand revisits the napkin. Then he cheerily snaps up.
…no, I’m fine with standing out. I think it helps people figure out who I am when they meet me, you know? Authenticity. They get the whole package. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that life experience, so, I’m cool with it. It helps people know me.
After a short pause, Allen, possibly sensing my letdown after coming so close to a revelatory moment, continues.
But there is a lot of truth to what you said. There are days like today where I just don’t want to be out there. I’ll put the TV on, or get on my phone, or Facetime some people, you know? I’ll interact with people that really love me and care about me. I’ll give myself one of those days where I just have a sense of gratitude for my surroundings. I mean, look at where we’re at, you know? This city is so beautiful and alive, and I’ve got St Patrick’s Cathedral right outside my window! I’ll also have gratitude for my life in general. My oldest daughter has a birthday this week, and last night I had a few tears thinking about it. It made me realize the timestamp of my life…seeing my children grow older, my life passing by…and it made me stop and feel my life more deeply, and reflect on just how blessed I’ve been.
We both agree that would be a nice sentiment to end on, since Allen is due for a nap, and I have a long drive home. As we rise from the table and I check a pocket for my keys, a commuter’s checklist floats through my mind, until Allen’s voice casually cuts through my fog.
“Can you get this for me?”
At first glance, I can’t figure out what he is referring to, and his face isn’t offering any hints. After looking him over again however, it becomes clear to me that Rick Allen, the inspirational model of self-sufficiency for physically challenged people the world over, requires help turning his shirt sleeve right side out.
Not an unreasonable request, but one made trickier by the fact that he is still wearing the shirt. I clumsily begin to fumble with the sleeve in starts and stops, and what should have taken 10 seconds seems to have already lasted a minute or more in my hands. I’m growing anxious as there are a few dozen people in the establishment, and I don’t want to embarrass Allen. I feel eyes on us, from a restaurant staff meeting that is being conducted downstairs.
The possibility that my struggles might be putting an unwanted spotlight on him, during his room service day of all days, is wrecking me, but seems of no concern to Allen. He remains stoic and calm and abundantly patient, radiating an enviable sense of peace and contentment. It occurs to me that I have never been in such close proximity to someone so still, who happened to be awake.
With the sleeve finally tamed, I can relax. We’re free to go. The staircase is steep, and I find myself reflexively reaching for the railing a few times as I make my way down. Allen strides down the middle of the stairs, hand free, slowing only to offer the staff a hearty thank you as he passes by their meeting, complete with a smile, and heck, probably a wink as well.
Two of the employees, young women of Asian descent, smile back. They were watching us intently when we were upstairs, but now both have looks of curious admiration on their faces, as their eyes follow Allen out the door.
It was as if they couldn’t quite place his name, but they knew him.
Robert Ferraro is the senior writer at Of Personal Interest, where he profiles and interviews pop culture figures.