The doctor had a question for Alan Cornett: What did you do before the accident?
The doctor meant, what did Alan do before the car he was riding in was T-boned at a Gaithersburg, Md., intersection? What did Alan do before he was flung from his seat and struck his head on the pillar of the car, severely bruising his spine between the C5 and C6 vertebra?
What did Alan do before he awoke lying awkwardly on his left side, dazed, terrified at the realization that the message his brain was trying to send to his legs traveled no further than his shoulders?
“I’m a musician,” Alan said. “I play the drums.”
“Well, I don’t think you’re going to be able to do that in your situation,” the doctor said. “I think drummers need to use their legs.”
Maybe. But good drummers know how to use their heads, too.
Alan was surrounded by music growing up. His father was a musician — trumpet and drums — and a salesman at a music store, but Alan was largely self-taught.
“I just wanted so much to do it,” he said. “Whether I was doing it right or not didn’t matter. It was the stimulation of hitting something.”
Alan played with various bands around Washington and twice won a DC101-sponsored “Best Drummer in D.C.” contest. He was 24 when he met Gene Ryder, a Northern Virginia musician who was being compared to John Cougar and Tom Petty.
“It was almost like a romance, where you meet and everything blossoms, and it’s so different from everything that you’ve done before,” said Alan, 56, of Silver Spring, Md.
Alan became a member of Gene’s band, the Lifters. In 1986, they played a series of well-received showcases in Los Angeles before record label executives.
“So much of what I’d ever hoped and dreamed about was happening to me,” Alan said. “I wasn’t only reading about it.”
And then, the day after he returned from L.A., the accident.
Alan remembers thinking that he might die. He remembers thinking it might be better if he did die. He remembers months of rehabilitation and the milestones that slowly came: The first time he could stand. The first time he could take a step. The first time he could sign his name.
Alan remembers inviting his bandmates to come to his house to help celebrate his 25th birthday. The manager called back to say they couldn’t make it. Gene Ryder and the Lifters would be at the Capital Centre that night, opening for ZZ Top. (Gene Ryder would later release one album on Polygram.)
“I’d have people bringing me sticks to leave by my bedside,” Alan said. “I’d try to do a stroke on a pillow and watch the stick fly out of my right hand.”
But the same way he’d become a drummer in the first place was how he became a drummer in the second place: He practiced.
Still, the doctor had been right: Alan needed his right foot to provide the bass drum thump. But as an incomplete quadriplegic, he didn’t have the strength to push a pedal.
In 1992, Alan hit on a solution: He donned a headset microphone attached to a computer module made by a company called Ddrum. By making a clicking sound with his tongue, Alan could trigger a digital bass drum sound through a set of speakers.
He was a complete drummer again.
Alan played for years in guitarist Harry Traynham’s band. Lately he’s been sitting in with the band Late as Usual when their regular drummer can’t make it.
I caught them awhile back at Sullivan’s, a restaurant in Laurel, Md. Alan arrived in a wheelchair and got around on crutches, but once on his drum throne he was in his element: tasteful, powerful, in control.
Throughout the evening, the crowd paid Alan the highest compliment a drummer can get: They danced to the beat. His beat.
Said Alan: “Other than meeting and falling in love with my wife, Jane, I don’t think I know anything that gives me the fulfillment that being in front of people does. I really enjoy it so much. I know that I’m much more than the wheels that are under me and the crutches that hold me when I try to walk.”
Alan Cornett has a few upcoming gigs with Late as Usual: Sept. 1 at Clyde’s in Chevy Chase, Md., Sept. 16 at the Old Brogue in Great Falls, Va., and Sept. 22 at the Harp and Fiddle in Bethesda, Md.
To see a video of Alan demonstrating his bass drum trigger setup, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.