Rick Allen's Urban Angel
Rick Allen's Urban Angel
Artwork by Rick Allen

Def Leppard's One-Armed Drummer, Rick Allen, Is Also a Prolific Painter

Rick Allen lost his left arm in a horrific Corvette wreck in 1984 — but that didn't stop him from working as the drummer for English rock band Def Leppard. He carried on with a custom-made, cutting-edge drum kit and led the band through its most successful single, "Pour Some Sugar on Me." The group's latest, self-titled album was released October 30 and entered the Billboard Top 200 at number ten its first week.

But the crash took its toll on Allen: He suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He found solace through art and began dabbling in photography, eventually enhancing his prints with acrylic paint. Today he makes freehand pieces and wearable art.

During Def Leppard's U.S. tour, Allen will take his newest art collection, "Angels and Icons," to a selection of Wentworth Gallery locations, including two in South Florida. This Saturday, he'll visit one on Las Olas Boulevard from noon to 3 p.m. and one in Boca Raton from 6 to 9 p.m. Guests can meet Allen, and portions of sales proceeds will be donated to wounded war veterans through Project Resiliency's Warrior Resiliency Program.

The exhibitions come shortly before Def Leppard's January 29 performance at the BB&T Center in Sunrise.

Allen spoke with New Times via phone before his visit.

New Times: You're into art now.
Rick Allen: Yeah, actually, I've been taking photographs for many, many years. I always kept the photographs kind of to myself and just shared them with family. Then I started doing light art, which is long exposure of photography and then taking canvas and enhancing with acrylics and texturizing this, that, and the other. And then I met with Wentworth Gallery and they encouraged me to go full paint, and I started working pieces from scratch.

Does your collection have a centerpiece or a piece that means most to you?
I think the hearts, all of the hearts. It's basically all different aspects of myself — being from the best expression of yourself you can be to the worst expression of yourself you can be. And I think the telephone boxes: They bring up a lot of things from my past from when I was younger, way before I joined the band. It was a place where me and my friends could go when it was cold. It was a way we could find shelter. It was where we could get up to no good. And then a lot of the angels and the hands: The hands are different expressions of me at different times of my life before I even came to America.

What's the message behind your art?
I think the underlying message is always one of hope, not just for myself and my family, but for mankind.

What are your favorite things to photograph?
I love taking pictures of my kids. There's one called Girl on a Swing, and that's actually my 5-year-old. She's such an easy target. You just see the innocence, and it takes you back. It takes you back to that time when you felt like you had time for everything, you had time to do everything.

You once spent some time on a court-mandated graffiti-removal crew. What was that like?
It wasn't so much art; it was more carving out turf. I've seen some incredible street art. But many times the street art is endorsed by the city or by the town. Banksy, he's done a bunch of stuff. I like it. It kind of livens up the neighborhood. He's really talented.

What was/is the hardest part of learning how to play drums again following the accident?
In many ways, it was quite inexplicable, the experience that I went through. I realized that I could do things with my right hand that I could never do before. At a certain point — because I kept going, I kept doing it, I kept playing — the learning curve takes over. I guess now I'm in the learning curve stage of my experience, my recovery, my forward momentum, as it were.

You're still in the learning-curve stage 30 years after the accident?
Absolutely. I can't help but move forward. I don't want to stand still. I find new ways of doing old things. I'll discover something a year or two ago that I couldn't do, and all of a sudden, I can do it. It's just a matter of pushing that learning curve and continue studying. I still have the capacity to improve.

Rick Allen's Buddha with Flowers
Rick Allen's Buddha with Flowers
Artwork by Rick Allen

Are you able to mimic your old drumming style?
Yeah, I can mimic it really well. Where I can't do things cleanly, let's say, is consecutive beats on one particular drum. So then I'll play a game of substitution. So I'll play right hand, left foot, and then I'll add kick drum. So what I do is I substitute one of the beats that I was going to play, or that I want to play on one drum, and I'll substitute those beats with other drums so that I can play something that sounds very similar. It's not exact, but it sounds very similar to what I would have played before.

What's your drum setup like?
When I'm performing live, it's more of a hybrid drum kit that is a combination of electronics and acoustics. All of the foot pedals that I use, everything that I used to play with my left arm, I now play with my left foot. I have a series of foot pedals on the floor that help me to do that. Then, when I'm in the studio, a lot of the times I like to play acoustic drums.

Do you still drive Corvettes?
I don't. I never drove one since. It was the first of the newer-model Corvettes. The one thing that they didn't have on that particular model was the antilock brakes and the ESP [electronic stability control]. And the fact that I was driving a left-hand-drive car in England at the time, it kind of left me at a disadvantage, you know what I mean?

Did you think your career as a musician was over?
For about a day, and then my brother, he came and spent time with me. He stayed in my hospital room with me. And just the encouragement I started getting from my family, and then ultimately the encouragement I got from the rest of the guys in the band. Further out than that, letters from hundreds of thousands of people all over the planet. I was inspired. Then I discovered what I considered to be the strongest thing there is, and that is the human spirit. I think once you tap into that, you're pretty much unstoppable.

What would you say to struggling people who are impervious to encouragement and inspiration?
I felt that way at first. It wasn't until I stopped comparing myself to myself, to how I used to be. As soon as I started to realize that I couldn't play the way that I used to play, but the way that I play now is totally unique and nobody else can do it, then it changed everything.

Does art help you manage your PTSD?
Absolutely. It calms the nervous system. It gets you into what I call "the zone." It's almost like a meditative sort of state where you're just in the moment. I think once you get the mind out of the way, the body knows what to do. It knows how to heal itself.

"Rick Allen: Angels and Icons"
January 16 at Wentworth Gallery, 819 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; and Town Center, 6000 Glades Road, Boca Raton.

Def Leppard
January 29 at the BB&T Center, 1 Panther Parkway, Sunrise. Visit thebbtcenter.com. Tickets cost $31.70 to $121.70.

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