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Old Drummers are Like Old Athletes: Sometimes the Body Just Gives Out

Playing drums in a rock band is a tremendously physical thing. And just like playing sports, it takes its toll on the body. The Globe and Mail takes a look at why some drummers are forced into retirement.

At the Metallica show this week at the small-venue Opera House in Toronto, the singer-guitarist James Hetfield addressed an audience. “Do you want it heavy?” he bellowed.

The crowd, a sausage party of dads, record-label personnel and other refugees from the nineties, replied affirmatively, with gusto and the requisite devil-horn-hand-gesture exclamation. Hetfield responded with a roar and a promise: “Toronto, Metallica gives you heavy!”

Which they did, for a while. Shortly after Hetfield’s rally call, an older fan was brought back into the lobby where he was put on oxygen by paramedics. Some of the concert was marked by what could charitably be called “loose” performances. The band played For Whom the Bell Tolls, an ominous metal-rock classic about war, wounds that test pride and time that marches on. Metallica, superstar thrashers now middle-aged, plow forward, but not as easily as they once did.

he next day, the band’s chatty drummer, Lars Ulrich, talked about the struggle of the night before. “During the last half of the show the air got really thick in there,” says Ulrich, who was in town to promote Metallica’s latest album, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct. “For a bunch of guys in their early 50s, fighting winter colds and sinus issues, it was a little challenging.”

Earlier this year, Ulrich attended this year’s Desert Trip, a three-day festival in the California desert featuring Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, the Who and Roger Waters. “Did you notice the drummers?” Ulrich asks. “Only one of them was still an original.”

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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One thought on “Old Drummers are Like Old Athletes: Sometimes the Body Just Gives Out

  • Playing drums in bands with music as demanding as Metallica and Rush is definitely a real workout, and at 60 now, my body is certainly telling me many times each day that it has had enough. That comes from years of factory work, and now commercial cleaning, which still has taken and continues to take its toll. I’ve been a professional musician for 37 years now, since 1979. I sing and play guitar, but I play a 12-string acoustic exclusively, so it can be hard on the hands. I have issues with my hands sometimes now as I am getting older, especially during the summer when I play a lot more gigs. Muscle and tendon pain, and cramps are a part of each performance now. From my other work I have lost some of the feeling in my right thumb, and I wake up every single morning with ringing in my ears. I can hear it right now, as I type this. I’m not surprised that musicians who perform demanding music are not able to keep up the pace as they reach senior age. It’s just the way things go.


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