Phil Collen of Def Leppard
Longevity is a concept too often confused with success. especially in the world of rock stars. It usually means a lifetime spent making hits, touring constantly and having devoted fans who’ll sell out your shows through thick and thin.
But for Phil Collen, the guitarist of iconic rock band Def Leppard (who undoubtedly still has ALL of the above), longevity grows from something more organic -- quite literally. Collen, a longtime vegetarian and current vegan, swears by the healing power of raw veggies, but more metaphorically? Collen is commited to cultivating health and extending life through the ultimate life-giving activity: charity.
Collen, who, recently concluded a summer “Rock of Ages” tour with Def Leppard, has had a memorable past few months as this year marks his 30th anniversary as lead guitarist of the band. But this year has also been devoted to another audience, the local San Diego non-profit The Gerson Institute. The organization was begun in the 1920s by Dr. Max Gerson as a holistic approach to the treatment of cancer and a variety of degenerative diseases. This year, on Nov. 15 in honor of ‘Pancreatic Cancer Awareness’ month, the education and training center will receive a $20,000 donation from Collen.
Heading to San Diego to perform an exclusive live acoustic performance, Collen will present the donation at the Institute, celebrate with the Gerson founders and share the proceeds from the sale of the guitar he used on the past tour.
Using a custom designed Jackson PC1 guitar named “Wings” on the recent Rock of Ages tour, Collen not only raised funds but awareness for the organization by auctioning off the guitar following the conclusion of the tour. Donating all proceeds from the month-long eBay bidding war that concluded in September, Collen -- who lost his father Kenneth to pancreatic cancer in 2004 -- was approached earlier in the year about the idea of a charity auction by guitar shop owner Jake Willoughby, who had recently lost his mother to the same disease.
Speaking with us about the inspiration behind the fundraiser, Collen shared personal tips on staying fit before heading down to San Diego for his Nov. 15 performance.
Alexa Mangrum: Hi Phil! How are you enjoying a bit of time off tour?
Phil Collen: Ah! It’s great. My wife, Helen, and I are always saying being here in California is like being on vacation. It’s amazing.
AM: You’ve had a busy year with the tour and planning the auction. How do you manage the stress of it and stay healthy?
PC: It’s very hard in this day and age. It’s a pretty toxic environment we live in, really, but you’ve got to get balanced one way or another, and I think it comes back to the same things: keep active and keep your body moving, and have a good diet.
My wife and I are both vegans, and obviously that’s not a total cure, because loads of vegans are really unhealthy, but we really try and get a balanced diet. It’s hard because you want to eat junk and sugary stuff -- I love eating chips and salsa -- but you need to balance carbs with clean stuff: leafy greens, without oils. We use lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, not dressings, and, you know, it really tastes great.
People will get fat sucked up, you know liposuction, and it makes me laugh. The next day they’re eating like they were before, or worse. I know a guy who got an organ transplant, and he came right back out, smoking away, and I thought, “Wow, you’ve been given this gift, you’ve got a new lease on life, and there you go straight back in the hole!” You can’t abuse your body. You’ve got all this toxicity floating around. So it really is all about that balancing, so if you bear that in mind, you’ll be ahead of the game.
AM: As I understand it, the Gerson Institute is based on the Gerson Therapy, which advocates a holistic, nontoxic treatment for cancer, which claimed not only the life of your father but the loved ones of Jake Willoughby, who approached you about the process, and Mike Learn, the artist whose artwork is on the guitar. Was it hard for you, throughout the year, to revisit the loss?
PC: You know, it’s been a pretty positive experience all the way around. I thought it was a great opportunity to get out there and try and make a difference, because if you can do something to help instead of just waiting for [cancer] to happen, it all helps.
When Jake came to me and said, “I’ve got a bit of a favor to ask you.... Would you play a guitar on tour for a charity?” I said, “Yeah!” More than anything else, we really want to get the awareness thing going.
AM: The guitar, named Wings, featured a unique design of a winged warrior. What was the inspiration behind the artwork?
PC: Mike, who did the guitar, is great. He’s done a bunch of my guitars -- you know, heavy metal guitars with skulls and whatnot -- so it was cool that he did this one, as he’s lost a family member to cancer as well. I had seen an illustration of a kind of warrior and thought, "That’s kind of cool." I wanted [to raise awareness] without getting too cheesy and find a middle without too many religious overtones [but] represent something that was powerful and angelic, [and symbolized] a sort of token, so the winged warrior represents the fight against cancer.
AM: How did you come to find the Gerson Institute?
PC: I had heard of [Dr.] Max Gerson from a friend of mine, Jenni Cook, a vegan raw chef [and wife of the Sex Pistols' Paul Cook]... You really have to research these things, and I don’t want to gratuitously give to any charity but want it to go to the right place.
Whether it’s HIV or cancer, obviously, there’s no particular cure, and we’re no closer to a cure than 50 years ago, [but] it seems that holistically and naturally, we have better results, and the Gerson Therapy is amazing, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if it went somewhere like that? That’s more than just a charity!'
With my father, if I had known about the [Gerson] treatment, there are definitely some things that I would have done, but it was hard because my dad was from an older generation. He used to smoke but stopped years ago. But just even getting him to drink water, he was like, 'Yeah, yeah yeah, I’ll try it...' and then he just didn’t. He’d drink a cup of tea all day. You drink tea and coffee all day, you’re going to dehydrate; it’s not like drinking water or juice. The Gerson Therapy uses 13 different kinds of juice, which can’t hurt -- there’s nothing wrong with eating healthy! But [my dad] wouldn’t listen; he was from a different generation.
AM: Speaking of generational connections, with cancer affecting so many, of all ages, how did the process of touring with the guitar and the whole experience elevate your interaction with your fans?
PC: Cancer is such a common disease these days, [but] I was amazed, actually, at the number of people who came forward with their stories. It started with a tragic kind of thing but has turned into a very inspired, positive outcome. A guy named Murray Bolton from New Zealand ended up [winning the bid] with the guitar, and then he came by the house a couple of weeks ago: pretty rad.
It was nice to relate to people and feel able to know that there was something good being done.