Unstoppable: Meet the wheelchair drummer

Unstoppable: Meet the wheelchair drummer,

Jeff Elwood

Article and select photos
by Shane Collins

We do our best and adjust to what life throws at us and sometimes we bob and weave when we’re on the ropes. Sometimes we get caught with a sharp jab followed up with a blow to the body. Sometimes we’re knocked on our ass. Sometimes, we’re forced to face it and simply have to throw in the towel. 

I’ve been guilty of that. I’ve done it many times. I’ve up and quit because I just didn’t have the guts to push through the pain or the tenacity to do the work that needed to be done or the faith in myself to keep going. 

That’s why I sit down with the people who have stuck to their guns and have been slugging it out, overcoming the odds, pushing through fear, believing in themselves, fighting back and really making something of their lives. Their spirit is unstoppable. Jeff Elwood is one of these people.

You can’t help but love the guy. Whenever I’m around Jeff, he’s smiling, he’s joking, he’s telling you a story or, if you’re lucky, he’s set up behind his drum set.  

I met up with him at his home in West Kelowna a little while back and we hung out a few times to talk about music, his band: LIFE and he told me a bit about his story and how he found his way through music after a near fatal accident that has left him paralyzed from the chest down. 

Jeff opened the door to his house, invited me in and took me to his music room. 

At 53, he’s still throwing down some heat on those drums. His basement is wallpapered with rock and roll posters, images from live shows and it’s painted in purple and white stage lights. 

I sat down on his couch, cracked a beer and fired up a doobie. It’s a Saturday night. Let’s get into it.  “So, tell me about what happened. How did you become paralyzed?” Jeff sits behind his drums. His drum kit is custom fit for Jeff and for Jeff only. 

wheelchair drummer Jeff Elwood
Jeff dirt biking before his accident

“I was riding my last motocross session of the season when I struck a rock about the size of a football and dropped off a cliff. I went over the handlebars and onto my head. An insurance investigator would later tell me that the soft sand is what kept me from dying. Apparently, I soared down three stories at speeds over 80km/hr. I was instantly paralyzed from the chest down.”

I shake my head and take a few notes. I look up over the walls of his downstairs jam room. Posters of Kiss and Rush, Def Leppard and Iron Maiden are mixed in with photos of him and his friends, band mates, family and even backstage photos of him and Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen. 

“Who did you listen to when you first got into music? Who was getting your attention when it came to music?” 

Jeff cuts his drum sticks across the skins of the drums in a short but fast solo. “Before I was in the accident, I was obsessed with KISS and I’d say that Peter Chriss was a big reason why.” 

“When did you start playing the drums?”

“When I was 15.” 

“How old were you when the accident happened?”

“I was 21.” Jeff flashes his sticks across the skins again, this time breaking into a jazzy beat. 

“Can you read music?” I shout over the crash of his symbols. 

Jeff shakes his head and stops playing. “I never understood how to read the music. I just know how to play. It comes naturally and I just practice. A lot. Especially back then when learning complicated songs took up a lot of my time. Drummers like Neil Peart, John Bonham, Alex Van Halen and Nicko Mcbrian were in their prime back then and I learned through them. Rick Allen would be a BIG influence later on.” 

wheelchair drummer Jeff Elwood
Jeff’s kick drum

I stand up from the couch, walk to Jeff’s drum kit and look it over. There is a white drum between the hi-hat and the snare. In black marker, it’s labeled, ‘KICK.’ I look at him. “How did you figure out the kick drum? That must have been a process.” 

Jeff takes his drumsticks and simply taps out, Queens, “We will rock you.” Demonstrating how he uses the drumsticks on that ‘KICK’ labelled drum.

“After the accident I wanted to play the drums again. I felt like it was one of the physical things I could potentially do. John Buck, who was my best friend way back then and still to this day he’s right here in our band, LIFE and we’re still tight like back then.

wheelchair drummer Jeff Elwood
Jeff’s original attempt at an electric foot pedal mouth piece

He and another good friend, Brent, first assembled an electric foot pedal. It was made out of a hockey mouth guard and copper wiring. The idea was when I bit down, the kick pedal would kick. It kicked, but it wasn’t timed right and in the end, we had to scrap it after I electrocuted myself. A few watts of electricity coursing through your face wakes you up faster than coffee.”

“That must have been frustrating,” I said, wincing. 

“I gave up for, like, ten years. Then, one day at church, I rolled over to a drum kit that was partially set up. The kick drum was on its side and next to it was the snare drum. I hit the kick drum with one stick and the snare with the other.” Jeff taps out that same, simple beat again. “It was like a lightbulb turning on in a dark room.” 

Jeff would borrow a drum kit and play around with a way to alter its set up, creating a unique style all his own. “Once I discovered I could play like this, I’ve been playing this way ever since.” 

There are lots of obstacles to it all. Figuring out how to use the drum kit itself was one thing but being paralyzed from the chest down means his abdominal muscles won’t support his upper torso.

“We’re still trying to find a way to keep me sitting up well enough so I don’t fall into the drums. We’ve tried all these different kinds of seats and still haven’t found anything that is ideal. Usually there’s lots of duct tape involved.”

There’s that smile and laugh again.

“When we play shows at different venues, I need my drum kit precisely assembled and that sometimes limits where we can even play. Not to mention how long it takes to assemble and disassemble the thing. Lots of venues aren’t exactly wheelchair friendly. John and others constantly have to help get me around this task.” 

wheelchair drummer Jeff Elwood
Jeff with Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen

“Rick Allen has only one arm and he’s the drummer of Def Leppard. He’s a friend of yours, ya? How’d you meet him?” 

“Rick has been really good to me, man. We met back in O3. John Buck was a lead rigger for the show in Kamloops. He was talking to someone about me and then they ended up mentioning it to Rick.

“Rick set me up with tickets and backstage passes. He’s like the salt of the earth. One of the nicest humans I’ve ever met and ya we’re still friends to this day. I’ve seen and met Def Leppard a number of times now.” 

Jeff has created his own Youtube channel, where he posts his videos of drum covers and music videos. His band is actually practicing tonight. I’m on my third beer when Sean Lynn and John Buck walk into the room. I’ve photographed these guys so many times. John and I go way back and I get a big hug from him. 

These guys hope to keep their skills sharp for the return of live music. “Now’s the time to practice and keep at it.” John tunes his guitar. Sean plays with a foot pedal while holding his bass. Jeff readies himself behind his drums. I watch John and Jeff joke around. Their first band, Haven Fall, was new back in 1983 and all these years later, these guys are cracking jokes and still razzing one another. Just like old times I suppose. 

wheelchair drummer Jeff Elwood
John, Sean and Jeff at DOC’S 2019

Between songs, I ask Jeff, “Who are some of your big supporters?” 

Jeff nods to John. “This guy right here. Him and my family, my wife, Bridget… without them I don’t know what I’d have done.” 

I sit back and enjoy the rest of my time at their rehearsal. I snapped a few photos. Loud power cords and face melting solos wash over me while Jeff keeps the beat with deft precision. Some thought he wouldn’t be able to do what he’s now doing. I know he had doubts of his own. However, in the face of opposition, with the help of lifelong friends and with the admiration of rock and roll royalty, Jeff has proven that by being an example of believing that anything is possible and if you stick to what you love, no matter what stands in your way, there isn’t anything you can’t achieve. The confidence it takes, Jeff and the others I’ve interviewed… They all have it. That confidence is like a  rugged shoreline that waves of doubt smash against. For those of us still navigating life and its troubled waters, these people are like lighthouses, shining bright for anyone needing some direction in the storm. They are proof that there is refuge if you simply believe, stand ready at the helm, work to fight the winds and waves of fear and doubt. I want to follow that light because this writer truly believes that if we commit to seeing it through, we become unstoppable. We just gotta have the guts.

I put on my jacket after a while and said my farewells. Before I left, I asked Jeff one more question: “What advice would you give anyone in a similar situation?” 

“I’d say just do it. Commit to it. It’s like a discovery. There are lots of examples of how to be a drummer while in a wheelchair.  That’s one reason why I made that YouTube channel. So people see how I do it.” 

I get one last hug from the guy. He tells me, “you know, all this work and all these memories… It took its time but in the end, it’s been worth it.” 

wheelchair drummer Jeff Elwood and Def Leppard
Jeff with Def Leppard

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The Okanagan’s been my home since I was born. Life has taken me across the planet several times and through that transient lifestyle I developed a journalistic style to my photography and to my writing. My influences would be that of James Nachtwey, Annie Lebovitz, Ashley Maile, Hunter S Thompson, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Tom Robbins, Wes Anderson and Charles Bukowski. The world outside this incredible valley, its cultures and its mystery is what’s kept me working and trying to save my money, so I can keep getting back into the world. That’s the way it used to be. Covid has opened my eyes to the land I call my home and there are so many tales to tell right here in BC. From tales of the impoverished to the neglected to those who overcome adversity, to the spirit to overcome fear, the power of storytelling has never been more relevant. I’ve always been a storyteller. There’s a tale worth telling in every neighborhood. I just happen to write about what happens to me along the way and I’ve kept them close to my heart, hoping one day I’ll have an outlet so I can tell those stories the best way I know how; by writing them down. From adventures of long ago, both here or maybe far away, future interviews with musicians, artists of all kinds, the coverage of events, the people I meet along the way, whatever I get up to I intend to have you as my guest as I go back in time and dig up the bones of those old adventures or chase down new ones. Through the alchemy of storytelling, you can come along with me if you like. Before Covid-19 I was really coming into my own photographing live shows; punk rock bands, hip hop showcases, tattoo portraits, rock climbing adventures, Femme Fatale burlesque performances you name it, the phone was finally beginning to ring. Then Covid showed up like a hurricane and I guess it wiped us all out in one way or another. I have a real bone to pick with Covid-19 and if I can share some stories for our readers to enjoy, I’ll do that and when we can return to live music and to foreign travel and we can safely get to working on mending what’s been damaged I tell you I want to be ringside like Joe Rogan commentating on Covid getting its ass whooped. I want to see it tap out and watch us overcome this hardship, raise our collective hands triumphantly and move on into whatever new normal is waiting for us. I’ll be there and through my eyes, just like the boss man, Hunter himself, I’ll do it in Gonzo fashion and bring you kicking and screaming along with me. So hold on tight and dig in. It might not always be pretty but I won’t call it all ugly, neither. That’s for you to decide. My name is Shane Collins and I hope you’ll read along with me and our team here at Gonzookanagan.com

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