Rock of Ages: Life lessons with Def Leppard's Joe Elliott

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK (Reuters) - (The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Looking at the latest music headlines, it could be 1984 all over again. That is because British heavy metal band Def Leppard has been making news with a deal to stream all of its hits on digital platforms, and an arena tour with American band Journey.

Still helming Def Leppard is lead singer Joe Elliott, 58, even as the band has lost members to accidents and life changes.

For our latest edition of "Life Lessons," Elliott retraces his journey from an industrial English town to global superstardom.

Q: How deep do your musical roots go?

A: I grew up in Sheffield, and at the age of 4, I had a plastic Paul McCartney guitar and a little stool, which I would stand on and sing 'Love Me Do.' Then my mom bought an actual acoustic guitar through a mail-order club when I was 8. She was my heroine.

Q: Was your first job in music?

A: Actually I had four paper routes – two before school, and two after. I saved all my money to buy records. It paid me enough to buy a few singles a week, or maybe three albums a month.

When I left school, I had a factory job for over four years in a steelworks.

That money helped, because by 1977 we had started the band, and we needed to pay for things like microphones and rehearsal time. Everybody in the band had a day job, like Rick Savage, who worked for British Rail. Eventually I got fired for playing cricket in the basement. I wrote most of the lyrics for the first album down there.

Q: Was money tight in those early years?

A: Money was tight until about 1983. We had signed a record deal in '79, but that all that money went into running the band. We got about 30 quid a week, which wasn't even enough to buy stage clothes.

When we went to the States and opened for acts like Judas Priest, at first we were traveling around in a station wagon and sharing rooms at the Holiday Inn. All the profit from the shows went into getting a tour bus, so we never saw a penny.

It wasn't until "Pyromania" took off that money started coming in and we were able to pay off our debts. And when you spread that over seven years, it only worked out to a decent income, probably less than your average doctor. It was seven years of poverty and borrowing off our parents.

Q: In the music business, did you see others who squandered their wealth?

A: I knew people whose records I bought as a kid, and I expected them to live in castles. But they had put it all up their nose. That was a big disappointment for me.

There is a lot of squandered money in the business. But when you come from Sheffield, and have parents like we had, that's not going to happen.

Q: In 1984, drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a car accident, and in 1991, guitarist Steve Clark died of an overdose. Did this change your perspective on life?

A: Absolutely it did. Ever since Rick lost his arm, I don't speed anymore. Accidents aren't always your fault, but I'm going to make damn sure it's not mine. I'm also mindful not to drink too much, after Steve Clark lost his life. A lot of the most powerful life lessons don't come from success, but how you react to misfortunes and failures.

Q: Where do you direct your philanthropy?

A: I'm involved in a lot of causes in Ireland, like the prevention of cruelty to children, and homelessness and autism. But I've never told anybody before, because I like to keep it under the radar. I don't want people to think I'm showing off.

Q: Has fatherhood changed your outlook at all?

A: I have a boy who's 8 years old, and a daughter who is 18 months, so right now I'm sleeping for the first time in 18 months. You think you won't be able to cope, but somehow you find the extra energy. Your outlook on life changes and softens, and you become more forgiving of people.

(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Richard Chang)

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