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He Has the Beat of a Different Drummer : Dreams: Dean Zimmer, born with a rare birth defect, has triumphed over skeptics.

August 31, 1990|MICHAEL ARKUSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dean Zimmer laughs today about his night of humiliation more than a decade ago. It sure beats more tears.

Zimmer, confined to a wheelchair, was playing drums at his South Dakota high school in the mid-1970s when a drumstick fell to the floor. He attempted to compensate by beating fiercely with the other but then dropped that one. The band stopped. Zimmer was crushed.

"I wanted to crawl into the woodwork," he said.

Instead, Zimmer headed toward the future. These days he plays drums every Tuesday night at Club M in Canoga Park. The drumsticks are attached by straps to his wrists so that his embarrassment of years ago won't be repeated. While hardly securing a regular gig--he doesn't belong to a band--Zimmer has triumphed over his insecurities and over the skeptics who assumed he would never make music.

Zimmer, 28, has arthrogryposis, a rare birth defect that severely restricts joint movement in his arms and legs. Nine operations have given him slightly more coordination, but the truth remains: He will never walk properly or have full use of his arms. He must rely on effort and practice.

"He's found that inner center," said Mark Craney, former drummer for Jethro Tull, who got Zimmer the Tuesday night work. They met in 1980 at a concert Craney gave in South Dakota. "His play is consistent and creative. His biggest problem is just getting a chance."

Here's an all-too-frequent scenario: Zimmer, answering an advertisement for a drummer, calls the band to set up an audition. When he shows up, the band is often surprised to learn Zimmer is in a wheelchair.

"I didn't tell them my situation on the phone," Zimmer said, "and when they saw me, it was frustrating. It's hard to find musicians who can get past the chair and everything." Zimmer gets the audition, but not the job because, he said, band members are turned off by how long it takes him to set up his equipment. By himself, it takes him an hour to set up the drums; friends often help him.

For years, Zimmer had no equipment, just a dream. Growing up in South Dakota, he fell in love with music. "My mom always heard me with a radio. I wanted to play an instrument, and guitar was out of the question," said Zimmer, who has limited use of his fingers.

Zimmer had to improvise before he could afford a drum set. For hours, he used his legs as fake drums, learning the beat of the music. Attending a school for the handicapped in Sioux Falls, S.D., Zimmer met Ken Roll, the son of one of his teachers, who taught him how to play on a whole set. Zimmer practiced incessantly, building the endurance level required for long concerts.

"I've seen him on a speed metal band," said Craney, who knew Zimmer in South Dakota, "and I was holding my breath to see him get through a song, let alone a set. But he does it."

At first, Zimmer knew that taking up drums wasn't going to receive total support from his family. "Nobody really told me I couldn't do it, but I could just see it in people's eyes." At school he was surrounded by people who, he said, didn't fight hard enough to overcome their adversities. "I was the opposite of that. I wasn't handicapped; I just couldn't walk real good."

His hands didn't work great, either, but since the mid-1970s he has resisted further operations. "The doctors wanted to try to make my hands straighter, but I was worried about them making them worse. I can tie my shoes and write, and drive--a lot of the things I need to do in this life. I don't care if my hands look like everyone else's or not."

For a while, he walked with braces, and then crutches, and then without crutches. But he opted for a wheelchair when the other devices didn't him keep from constantly falling down.

In 1986, after playing with bands in South Dakota, Zimmer decided to make the big trip to California. "I knew I could play all my life in South Dakota, and nobody would ever know I was around."

Today he survives on disability checks--$500 a month--and the occasional gig. It's been a year since he received money for a performance. And he survives on the encouragement from the Tuesday band at Club M--the Geniuses, who each get paid $25 per night--and the crowd reaction each time he beats the drums.

A recent performance was no exception. Zimmer was summoned to the stage by Craney announcing, "Let's welcome Dean, the Mean Machine." The crowd cheered. He slowly wheeled his way to the edge of the stage, and then slid from the chair to the drum set.

Once on board, he seemed totally at peace, smiling broadly and holding nothing back, generating a lot of power from his legs. The band set him for a solo, which he thundered through, again sparing no energy. His head bopped up and down, his arms beat the drums at the perfect moments.

The sticks didn't fall off.

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