This punk rock musician re-learnt to play the guitar and won professional success after losing his picking hand – but what can his journey tell us about refusing to be defined by our own and others’ expectations?
RISING You were 12 when you lost the lower part of your arm and guitar picking hand – how did it happen?
DAN AID, GUITARIST ‘I was on vacation in Mexico and went to look over the cement railing that ran around the length of the rooftop I was standing on. Someone had stapled a power line to the back of that railing, so I accidentally placed my right hand on it. The electricity blew me backwards off the roof and I landed on my head in a stairwell, putting a seven-inch fracture in my skull. My brain was swelling, my kidneys failed, and the heat of the electricity was basically cooking muscle, tendons, and tissue in my arm, chest and back. I was rushed to a hospital in Mexico where they made an initial incision in my right arm to relieve the swelling, and then I was flown to Sacramento, where I spent the next couple of months in a burn unit undergoing a series of surgeries and physical and occupational therapy.’
RISING The process of recovery must have been hard – at what point did you decide that finding a way to carry on playing guitar would be a part of it?
DA ‘As soon as I got home I was ready for life to normalise a bit, and that meant trying to figure out how to do the things I loved to do with two hands, with one. My dad and I started experimenting with ways to attach a pick to my right arm, and fairly quickly came up with the same system I use today, which is basically a pick glued in between two paint stirring sticks attached to my arm with sports bands and rubber bands; my arm provides the pressure for the down-strum, and the bands provide the pressure for the up-strum.’
‘Sometimes we need to allow ourselves to step outside the confines of who we think we are’
RISING Did you have to work through any frustrations to do that?
DA ‘There were moments of frustration, anger, fear and sadness that came along with the process of that initial recovery. My dream at that age was to be a professional baseball player, and with the loss of my throwing arm, my sense of self was massively rearranged. The realisation that I was no longer going to be able to compete in the same way and at the same level was heartbreaking, but it also created space for other passions of mine to come to the forefront – that's when I really started playing a lot of music and acting.’
RISING Did re-learning to play the guitar almost become a way to move on from the accident, psychologically?
DA ‘Absolutely. Playing an instrument, and participating in music is incredibly therapeutic. I use music as an outlet every day of my life. I don't know that I'll ever 'move on' from the accident, but as my relationship to my arm and body evolves, music and performing are a way for me to explore my world in a way where I can be anything I can imagine, and I think that makes it easier in a way. Sometimes we need the ability to allow ourselves to step outside the confines of who we think we are or what we can be, and when we do that I think we often surprise ourselves.’
RISING How did the people around you help you to deal with what had happened?
DA One of the biggest moments for me when I got back to Colorado was the way I was treated by my friend Evan Rodgers. I was still having to sleep strapped into these big plastic braces to keep the graft sites under my arms from constricting and pinning my arms permanently to my sides – I had to wear these compression garments 24 hours a day, do multiple rounds of scar massage every day, and I had this big clunky prosthetic hook instead of a hand. I was terrified of how people were going see me; treat me, pity me, hurt me... And Evan just treated me like his friend. It was simple. And I started to see myself through that lens. Evan wasn't scared of me, he didn't treat me like I was fragile or damaged and that made everything seem like it was going to be OK. Since Evan there have been a lot of people in my life who have helped me. This is my dream and I've worked as hard as anyone to get to this place, but I didn't get here alone.’
RISING You used to front your own band but what’s it like to be touring with Authority Zero as guitarist?
DA ‘The year and half since I joined the band has been life-expanding. It's always surreal, and scary, and exciting to throw yourself out the door, not quite knowing what's on the other side, and somehow find a bigger life than you could have ever imagined. We all understand each other musically in a way that makes working on songs exciting, and there's a natural chemistry and energy on stage between us that's pretty rare. Being the new guy in any job naturally comes with a fine fresh set of bumps and bruises, but when your job consists of making music with your friends it makes it pretty easy to show up on time every day.’
‘People will sometimes try to control you with their fear – but my life is my own’
RISING Have you had to face any resistance or people saying ‘you can’t do this professionally’ along the way?
DA ‘Yeah, I've had a few very direct, and a lot more indirect moments of people letting me know their opinion of my abilities, and what might be a safer or easier path. I've learned that people will sometimes try to control you with their fear. But my life is my own, my body is my own, and I choose love, I choose empathy, I choose the biggest life that I can dream up for myself.’
RISING Do you think that society can be too quick to prejudge what is and isn’t possible for people who have life-changing injuries?
DA ‘Absolutely. A lot of times we judge what we don't understand. I am just one example in a pool of thousands of people challenging the role that society might set out for us based on ability, race, sexuality, gender, belief, or any other number of boxes that it might feel easy to put someone into.’
RISING Who are your guitar heroes?
DA Billy Joe from Green Day, Justin and the Chris's in Anti-Flag, and the Rancid boys changed my life. I wouldn't be where I am or who I am without them. I learned how to play guitar, write songs, and perform listening to those records and going to those shows. Green Day's Insomniac in particular had a massive impact on me. I think that's the most beautiful thing about punk rock: there's almost no barrier to entry; almost anyone can figure out how to down-strum a chord, and from that point on it's just how far you want to take it and how big you can dream.’
‘It’s how we react in our darkest moments that defines who we are’
RISING What are your future goals for the band and your own career?
DA ‘With Authority Zero I want to keep making music and seeing the world. We have a two week Japan run coming up in November that I'm really excited for. Our new album, Broadcasting To The Nations is being really well received, and I want to just keep getting it out there. When I get home I'm heading back into the studio to start recording my second solo record with my friend and producer, Andrew Berlin.’
RISING What has been the most important thing to your success, so far?
DA ‘Showing up and saying “Yes". I'm still learning how to be the best version of myself every day, but I try really hard to bring my best to every situation and opportunity. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunities I've had.’
RISING What advice would you give to people facing serious obstacles to their dreams?
DA ‘I'm not sure how to give tips for overcoming obstacles, but I do know that it is how we react in our darkest moments that defines who we are. I know that strength, and love, and compassion often come from beautiful and unexpected places.’
WHAT NEXT? If punk rock floats your boat then check out this Authority Zero video of a song taken from their upcoming album…
Dan Aid is an ambassador for Orange Amps