For Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, June 14, 2009 was a special day. Leppard’s headlining appearance at the Download festival on that date marked an emotional return to Donington Park – where, 23 years earlier, Allen played his first major gig with the band since losing his left arm in a car crash on New Year’s Eve 1984.
Here, Allen talks candidly about the accident, the comeback at Donington, how Ozzy Osbourne branded him a “freak”, how he became a role model for children with disabilities, and how he discovered the meaning of life.
How did you feel being back at Donington after all those years?
The memory of that first Donington just stays with me to this day, always. It was fantastic, but I remember being very nervous. And I remember hearing of some other chap on the bill mentioning something about the freak show getting up on stage.
That was Ozzy?
Yeah. Until that point I was in a world of my own. And then I started to come back down to earth and go: “Maybe I am a freak…” I came out of the clouds and it was like, okay, I’ve actually got to get up there and play in front of all these people. So I got up on stage and did the best I could. And it was great.
Did you make your peace with Ozzy later?
He called up after the fact and said: “Fair play, you fucking did it, and I was wrong.” We’ve all said shit we regret.
How much do you remember about the night of the accident?
The only way I can describe it is you go into a kind of a survival mode where all your normal senses disappear. I think it’s a protective measure where a very ancient part of yourself takes over. You go to this place where there’s no pain, there’s nothing unpleasant. Some people call it a near-death experience. And in that place you’re able to decide whether you’re better off dying or staying here. It’s not a decision you make alone, which is very difficult to describe.
You sensed a higher power?
In that state it’s almost like you’re in communion with people that you know, or people you’ve known. You’re disembodied, almost. It’s like realising that the physical body and consciousness are two separate entities.
Do you believe in God?
I think most of us are sceptical, until you go through an experience, a mystical experience that is inexplicable, illogical.
Is that a yes?
You know what? To stay in the wonderment instead of asking the question is sometimes a better place to be.
How would you describe your life after the accident?
Rebirth. We tend to take things for granted a bit. That’s human nature. We tend to push some of the things away that were the best things in life that we could have ever found, and it’s only after the fact that you really appreciate them.
Have there been times when you’ve felt sorry for yourself?
Absolutely. There are times when I get weak, when I go into the emotional responses. I think it’s part of the human condition. But if you can stay in a place of gratitude, it helps a lot, because you see more. Instead of being in your own little world, self-absorbed, you put emphasis on friendships and on family, all these great things.
You often take time out at Leppard shows to meet kids with disabilities. Does that help you too?
It’s extremely rewarding. It’s always a two way street. I’m always inspired by those kids.
Who has been the most important teacher in your life?
I learned so much from Mutt [Lange, former Def Leppard producer] in terms of being a musician and just… being a human being. He taught me about dedication, how there’s always room for improvement. I learned more about playing drums from a guy that doesn’t play drums. Mutt’s friendship is one that we all cherish. And if we ever got the chance to work with him again we would.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
When you’re making music, don’t fall in love with something because it may get changed.
What is the secret to happiness?
Life itself is a gift. And I came close to losing everything. It’s a huge gift that I’m still here and I’m still doing what I did. I tell people, you know, I survived the 80s, did all the mind-benders and all the abuse and the rest of it, but now I want to be a good husband, I want to be a good father, I want to be a good son, I want to immerse myself in all the things I neglected during the time that I was discovering myself.
What is the meaning of life?
For our 70, 80, maybe, if we’re lucky, 100 years on this planet, we really don’t have any of it figured out. It’s been going for so long, and there are so many things that we can’t really explain. And I wouldn’t even want to try. Acceptance is the best thing I can do these days.
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock 142, in March 2010.