I know how to type in the proper, traditional form. Learning how to do that was part of my ninth grade curriculum, and it largely turned out to be more or less like riding a bicycle. I never forgot how to do it. If I really decided to apply myself to it and learn the whole process over again, I could probably get my word-per-minute rate up to around 70. However, I choose to instead keep pecking out essay after essay on my two index fingers – well, technically it’s one index finger and one middle finger – for one reason: Proper typing is extremely uncomfortable. Not only for the typical reason, but my immobile wrist tends to cramp up quickly, and go into the occasional spasm.
This is a real pain in the ass for me sometimes, but in a way, I’m also lucky. My greatest talent is verbosity in print, which is a fancy way of saying I can write well. When I type, I need one finger to use one key at a time. Mistakes are easy to correct. And when I’m not coming off well, at least readers aren’t tortured by nails scratching on a chalkboard. The people in today’s tribute to amputees and disable people don’t have that luxury. They’re all musicians, all disabled in some way, and some of them are disabled in ways which could put a serious clamp on the ability to make music without straining or guessing at the notes. Making good music takes talent, an ear for timing and accuracy, and a full compliment of limbs and senses. That’s the common line of thinking, anyway. For other people, it just takes a work ethic and creative fire which are both strong enough for them to say screw it, I’m doing it anyway. Guess which route the musicians on this list took!
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Let’s begin with Beethoven, a composer who became one of the most influential in the history of music in spite of lacking the one sense which is the most crucial to creating music. It was probably in Beethoven’s favor that he began to exhibit signs of being musically prodigious at an early age and started to lose his hearing at age 26. He came down with a hard case of tinnitus, the scientific way of saying his ears were ringing and making it tough for him to hear music. No one knows what caused his deafness, although typhus, auto-immune disorders, and his habit of dunking his head in cold water to stay awake seem to be the most popular culprits. It didn’t stop him from composing, of course, but it did make his live performances hell. After 1811, he never played live again.
You might not know Beethoven’s popular compositions – like the Moonlight Sonata or the Ninth Symphony – by name, but trust me, you do know them.
Kenny G fucking sucks. You know it, I know it, and there’s no point in trying to hide it. Kenny G is an easy listening muzak producer. Although he’s frequently called a jazz musician, he does for jazz the same thing Shania Twain and Taylor Swift are known to do for country: Dial and layer back the identifying elements of it to drown out the hotter material, thus making it palatable to suburban America, then trick them into buying it by giving them the impression they’re enriching their own understanding of their country’s cultural heritage when they’re actually contributing to the wipeout of everything that made it so unique and different.
But talent is talent and disability is disability, and an asthmatic man who can hold a single note for 40 minutes on a woodwind instrument more than qualifies.
Paul Stanley was born with microtia, a relatively uncommon ear defect which affects roughly one out of every 7000 to 10,000 people. That means his outer ear is misshapen, if it’s even there at all. Stanley counteracted the torment that goes with having a birth defect by growing his hair long. I’m not sure how much of a difference that would make, given that he grew up in the 60’s, when long hair was not just ripe for torment but worthy of expulsion from school and arrest. The misshapen ear isn’t the defect itself, but frequently the result of a much worse defect: The absence of a normal ear canal, functional ossicles, and tympanic membrane – basically all those nice little parts which enable people to hear normally.
Certainly Stanley’s critics are rolling their eyes and saying “it figures,” because Stanley is one of the founding members and the frontman for Kiss. It’s hard to think of fine musicianship when your band is always selling out, a concept which was central to the very formation of Kiss, and a fact Stanley and Gene Simmons themselves gleefully admit to. Then again, this:
First of two blind musicians, Ray Charles’s disability is common knowledge. He showed a curiosity for all things mechanical from an early age, when he would watch mechanics work on cars at the local garage. His musical curiosity was sparked at a cafe when he overheard the owner play a boogie woogie on a piano. He also came down with glaucoma, and was completely blind by the time he was seven years old. While studying at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, he became the school’s premier musician. Looking for his own band, Charles moved to Seattle in 1947, released his first number one single in 1954, and by the time he died 50 years later, Ray Charles was revered as one of the most influential and important rhythm and blues musicians in American music.
I was originally tempted to cram him and Charles into the same entry. Both are blind, black musicians who performed rhythm and blues and were voices during the Civil Rights movement. Yeah, those are some pretty big similarities, but…
Stevie Wonder is a Motown boy. He was born six weeks premature in Saginaw, Michigan, which caused the not-yet-attached blood vessels at the back of his eyes to abort their growth, eventually detaching from the retinas. The medical term for this is retinopathy of prematurity. Despite his blindness, he developed an interest in music and became one of those ridiculously talented young prodigies, taking up piano, harmonica, drums, and bass. Wonder was friends with a man named Gerald White, who was a friend of Ronnie White of The Miracles. Gerald begged Ronnie to check out Stevie, and when Ronnie finally gave in, he ended up bringing Wonder to Motown Records. By the time he was 13 years old, Stevie Wonder had a major hit. He’s still the youngest singer to ever top the Billboard and R&B charts. In the 70’s he released a series of classic albums like Innervisions, Talking Book, and Songs in the Key of Life. He was considered an icon by the 80’s, and he’s still recording and performing today.
Another child prodigy, Winter is also an albino. While his albinism doesn’t subject him to the same torment or or physical hardship as everyone else on this list, the albino light sensitivity could easily hinder his ability to perform under bright lights.
The trouble with writing up a list like this is that our society is currently so intertwined with rock music that we overlook almost everything else. Perlman is not a rock musician. He’s one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th and 21st centuries. He’s also Israeli, which means American audiences aren’t going to hear about him very much if they’re not violin fanatics.
Perlman took up the violin after hearing a performance on the radio, but was too small to hold the instrument, which got him denied entrance into the Shulamit Conservatory. Instead, he taught himself how to play by using a toy fiddle until he was old enough to study at the Conservatory, and later at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv – giving his first recital when he was ten years old – and eventually Juilliard. He contracted polio when he was four years old, and although he recovered well enough, he does have to use crutches and electric scooters to get around and sit during performances. Although he’s best known for his classical music, he did score a few movies, including Schindler’s List and Memoirs of a Geisha.
Jacqueline du Pre
Jacqueline du Pre heard a cello solo on the radio in her home of Oxford, England when she was four years old and asked her mother for “one of those.” Her mother obliged and became her first teacher, and alongside her sister, flautist Hilary, du Pre was entering and winning music competitions from an early age. She then began working with the damn ivy league of cellists. By the late 60’s, her peers were declaring her one of the truly gifted musicians of her time.
By the 70’s, however, she started to lose sensitivity through the onset of multiple sclerosis. After the disease really began to overwhelm her, she stopped performing in 1973 after getting trashed in print by some American critics. She developed problems with the weight of her instrument and had trouble opening the case for it. Although she stopped performing in 1973, she lived until 1987. Although she never did get to score a movie, she did get to be the subject of the 1998 film Hilary and Jackie, which was controversial because it appeared to sensationalize her private life and it pissed off a lot of people who were close to her.
Try to imagine this: You’re the drummer for a popular headbanger band from England called Def Leppard. So far, your career has been going pretty well. You’ve opened for metal luminaries like AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne, your video was one of the first metal videos ever shown on MTV, and your most recent album just sold six million copies and yielded three hit singles. Naturally, you want to go out and celebrate on New Year’s Eve, but on the way to the party some asshole in an Alfa Romeo passes you, slows down, and doesn’t let you by. You get angry and start jockeying for position to pass him, lose control of the car, and eventually flip over a stone wall. Since you’re an idiot who thinks you’re too good for seat belts, you take an impromptu flying lesson into the field. In getting up, you try to move your left arm, but you can’t because it’s apparently afraid of flying and decided not to make the trip with you.
Doctors originally reattached Allen’s arm, but they took it off again because it was infected. Allen originally developed a severe depression, but with the encouragement of his bandmates, he had some engineers develop an electronic drum kit to help him play the snare as he re-learned some of his old rhythms in order to play them one-handed. My favorite part of this story is that after Allen’s accident, the band reached its greatest success. The first Def Leppard album after the accident was Hysteria, which went on to sell over 20 million copies and produced the band’s best-known single. Although Def Leppard doesn’t headline like they used to in the 80’s, they still record and tour, and with over 100 million albums sold worldwide, are one of the most successful bands in the world. Allen was another famously disabled person my father told me about when I was very young.
Aston, England may not be an American city, but I get the feeling it would fit right in on the Rust Belt: Industrial base. Roughneck population. You’re lucky to earn a high school diploma, and even if you do, you’re still expected to fall in line like everyone else – you go to the factory and die, mainly because you don’t have the capacity to imagine anything more. Tony Iommi was a 17-year-old Birmingham kid who liked to play guitar and was close to going professional. On what was supposed to be his last day at the factory, the metal presses ate a little extra when they lopped the tips of two of his fingers. The devastated Iommi never thought he’d play again.
Iommi’s manager offered some encouragement to him by playing a record by guitarist Django Reinhardt, and after Reinhardt blew his mind, he was determined to keep playing guitar. The southpawed Iommi tried to learn righty guitar and, failing that, went back to playing left-handed with ligther strings and thimbles. He tells the story in this video:
After one of his bands broke up, the young Iommi answered an ad from an inexperienced musician who used the stage name Ozzy Zig. Zig turned out to be some weird kid named John Osbourne, whom Iommi bullied when they were kids. But with that in the past, they formed a new band called Earth. When a booking mixup resulted in them showing up to a gig instead of a small-time band on the English circuit which happened to share the same name, Earth changed its name to Black Sabbath, and Iommi became the defining guitarist for a subgenre of rock music which is still very, very popular.
If you’re wondering why Django Reinhardt’s music was so important to Iommi, well…
Those who know movies might know Django Reinhardt as the guy Sean Penn’s character idolizes in Woody Allen’s movie Sweet and Lowdown. Since the movie is a piece of fiction revolving around a character who is also fictional, I figured he was a work of Allen’s imagination. At a housewarming party some years later, I was chatting with a friend who was a musician about the potential musical limits of my own birth defect when he asked me if I had ever heard of Django Reinhardt. He let me in on the fact that Reinhardt was a real person and, what’s more, had two paralyzed fingers on his fret hand. When I went home and looked him up, I learned that the paralyzed fingers were the result of a fire which severely injured him. He had to learn a whole new style, and when he discovered jazz, he just about went nuts for it.
Whenever those “Greatest Guitarist Ever” lists are drawn up, they usually cite the usual guys among rock journalists: Hendrix, Van Halen, Page… Reinhardt is considered the greatest among people who aren’t afriad to look outside the rock field.
The Grateful Dead face severed part of his finger when he inadvertently put it in the way of a falling axe. He used it to his advantage when he was a kid, showing it off to other kids in the neighborhood.