COLUMBIA — Keith Lottes planned to be a famous drummer, but when he turned 42, the pain began.
“I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t open up a can. I couldn’t open up a beer,” Lottes said.
This also meant he could no longer hold a drum stick, something he had done from age 7 until his early 20s.
It was difficult for him to do simple tasks, but it was especially hard to do what he loved most. When the pain became unbearable, Lottes visited a physician and discovered he had rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis inflames the joints, leading to long-term joint damage, loss of functionality and chronic pain, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Lottes submitted to a wrist fusion, replacing bone in his wrist with bone from his hip.
The surgery would strengthen his wrists, but his condition was very aggressive. He learned he could be in a wheelchair within 10 years.
Lottes tried to rehabilitate his joints but was unable to advance in therapy. He resigned himself to never playing music again.
"Everything was so painful," he said. "I didn't want to believe that I wouldn't be able to drum again."
But within the 10 years, Lottes found new therapy in music. He was 52.
In addition to effective pain medication, Lottes cured himself by drumming. Prompted by his grandson, who asked him for drumming lessons, he began playing again. The action toned his muscles and made him stronger.
He became drummer and manager of the band Downfall, as well as the drummer of another band, Oddessey 5.
“When I first tried playing, I wasn’t sure I could, but I am still doing it and I will keep doing it,” he said.
This discovery pushed him to devote nearly all his time to music. His wife, Sheila, showed her support by buying him a professional drum set.
“It’s something he loves to do, and I let him do it,” she said. “It’s his life.”
Lottes describes Oddessey 5 as a “mellow rock” band, one that plays covers of Pink Floyd, Lynard Skynard and the Grateful Dead, among others. He found Downfall on Craigslist and calls it a “very open-minded” band, one that plays covers of Judas Priest and Green Day.
Lottes has been a drummer since he was a child. In his late teens, he formed a group with a neighborhood friend and went on the road, playing dozens of gigs.
But when his wife told him they were expecting their first child, a boy, he knew he had to be a more reliable provider. He began working at Pasta House Co. at age 22 and worked there for 20 years, ending up as restaurant manager.
When he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, he left the restaurant and was put on disability.
Since he has returned to music full time, he uses his management skills to keep the band on track. His style is candid to the point of being blunt, something Downfall’s bassist Darrell Jones said he appreciates.
“Sometime you gotta just cut right to the chase,” Jones said. “You gotta put your feelings to the side and worry about the sound. And that’s what he’s good at.”
Jones said Lottes’ experience has helped get the band organized. But for Lottes, the managing comes second. Music is the most important.
“I’m not here to show off,” he said. “I’m here to perform music with everybody. … I just like to play the kind of music that has feeling.”
Lottes’ association with Downfall has precipitated ambitious plans to tour and release original recordings. Most of his bandmates have little to no experience in touring or recording CDs, and he is happy to share his own knowledge.
“I enjoy watching them develop and making that song better than when it first started,” Lottes said.
His pride in both of his bands was evident at a Halloween concert on Oct. 30. After the last song, he emerged from behind his drums wearing a pair of pajama pants with a red pepper print and a huge smile on his face, his elbow swollen from a full night of playing.
The prospect of pain still lingers in his mind, but he doesn’t let it discourage him. He said he looks forward to the future and the potential of Downfall to recreate the magic of touring he once experienced.
“I want to be up there like Aerosmith,” he said. “Once that kicks in, I’m done.”