by Steve Melone
Dean Zimmer is no ordinary drummer. He was born with arthrogryposis, a birth defect that severely restricts joint movement. Though he’s confined to a wheelchair, Zimmer refuses to let his condition stop him from doing what he loves to do the most. And that was decided a long time ago, when he first picked up drumsticks.
Zimmer had to learn to play drums in his own way, and some find it difficult at first to understand how he does what he does. But they’re beginning to get it. About a year ago, Dean’s story went viral after the short film Drummer Wanted: Dean Zimmer won best documentary at the 2014 Disposable Film Festival. It captured the imagination of viewers around the world, and news outlets including Rolling Stone, the Huffington Post, the L.A. Times, and the Atlantic covered it.
“The video has changed all of our lives,” codirector and producer Stanley Gonzales tells Modern Drummer. “It’s just crazy to see people’s perception of other people: ‘That guy’s in a wheelchair; he can’t do anything.’ Then you see someone like Dean get behind the drums and just kill it.”
Zimmer, a warm, sincere man in his early fifties who is soft-spoken but prone to boisterous chuckles midsentence, says that the film has brought him some newfound recognition, especially in California, where he lives. “It’s different,” he says. “Just walking down the street, you know? People see me and say hello.”
Following the initial success of Drummer Wanted, Zimmer, whose various bands have opened for Kansas, Foghat, and Eddie Money, among others, became an official endorser of DW drums. He also appeared in a Drum Channel show with the top drummers Terry Bozzio, Myron Grombacher, Gregg Bissonette, and Doane Perry. Zimmer has known all of these players for decades, since the beginnings of the Woodland Hills Drum Club, which was founded by Jethro Tull drummer and fellow Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native Mark Craney. In fact, it was Craney who planted the seed in Dean’s mind to move to California.
The Woodland Hills Drum Club was an unusual (and sometimes misunderstood) social group that, in addition to providing a casual scene where some of the top timekeepers on the West Coast could chill with their buddies, organized benefit shows to raise money for individuals in need of financial help, including Zimmer and Craney himself, who eventually lost a battle with kidney disease in 2005. According to Doane Perry, “Neither one of them ever complained, ‘Oh I don’t feel so good.’ Both had so much more thrown at them than most people ever have to deal with, and they provide wonderful examples of how to live our lives as a human beings, let alone as drummers.”
About Zimmer specifically, Perry says, “He has the most extraordinary attitude and upbeat outlook on life. He doesn’t let small things get him down. He has dealt with enormous physical challenges throughout his life, yet every time you see him, he’s smiling.”
Even a superhuman attitude doesn’t change the realities of the music business, though, and like many players, Zimmer has difficulty finding consistent work. “Dean’s biggest thing is that he just wants to play music,” Stanley Gonzales says. “You can see the joy when he plays,” Perry confirms. “He closes his eyes and goes in this other world. He’s a completely emotional player. You can see it coming through him and what a joyful experience it is, and that’s of course what music should be.”
Hopefully some of the coverage Zimmer has received following the film will hip potential future employers into seeing the upside of playing with a drummer like him. “Dean is an easy guy to work with, has a great personality, and is a great drummer,” Perry says. “Those are all givens. But he also brings such a great spirit. I think all of us who know and love Dean feel enormously blessed that our paths have crossed his, because he’s such an incredible inspiration to everybody around him—a great example, drums or no drums, of somebody who triumphs over a degree of adversity with this wonderful open attitude to living, and to people. We can all learn a lot from that kind of person.”