News of the death of Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, bassist/vocalist/songwriter/essential component of British ur-thrashers Motorhead, began to pop up on my social media feeds yesterday afternoon. I hoped it was a misreading of the passing of his seventieth birthday last week, but I really wasn’t surprised — he had been forced to cut some shows short in recent months, and questions about his health had been rampant for years. The band’s official website reports that Lemmy succumbed to a particularly aggressive cancer that had been diagnosed only two days earlier, but really, the marvel was that he had lasted as long as he had.
His life and career would serve as a fair condensation of British rock history. He saw Gene Vincent, and had at least one terrific story about seeing the Beatles at the Cavern. He roadied for Jimi Hendrix (where he reportedly acquired his nickname, the result of asking various people to “lemmy a fiver”) and the Nice (where he loaned Keith Emerson a Nazi dagger for his showstopping Hammond-abuse parts of the set), and told Jon Lord that hooking up with Deep Purple might be a good idea. He attempted (unsuccessfully) to teach Sid Vicious to play bass. He played for space rockers Hawkwind — and sang on their biggest hit, “Silver Machine” — before getting fired for “doing the wrong drugs” (Lemmy was a speed freak, while the rest of the band were into opiates and hallucinogenics.)
And then came Motorhead, really the first band to marry the power of heavy metal to the ferocity of punk rock. The band’s very name was a slang term for amphetamine abusers, and in company with drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor (also recently deceased), Lemmy more or less invented what would come to be known as thrash metal.
It was at this point that I first heard of the band. I was in junior high school in Kentucky, and a guitarist I knew told about this band that didn’t really sound like anyone else. Meanwhile, back in Nashville, my buddy Mike Dearing was talking about them too, a band that was doing songs with titles like “Love Me Like A Reptile” and “Killed by Death.” So I gave them a listen, and thought it was the most Godawful racket I had ever heard. I wondered if it was some kind of parody, a joke. But I also found it strangely appealing — it was fast, loud, ugly… and utterly unapologetic. Within a couple of years, they became both part of my regular rotation and a sort of litmus test for friends and the occasional girl: “Does this frighten you?” (Ah, the arrogance of the late-teen/early-20s music geek. Not my finer years, but I was who I was.)
I got in the habit of renting videos at the local record store, and brought home the Motorhead video collection on several occasions. My mom and dad came downstairs one evening to watch it with my friends and me, and they decided they liked it, too, even asking me to run it again when it had finished. “I can see how bikers would like this stuff,” Dad said — and as someone who knew his share of one-percenters back in the day, he knew what he was talking about. So Motorhead became part of the soundtrack around the house.
I finally got to see a version of the band (which was essentially Lemmy plus whoever else he rounded up) in 1986, on their tenth anniversary tour, pushing the Orgasmatron album (the title cut is actually a satirical comment on organized religion and politics). New York Hare Krishna/Hardcore punks(!) the Cro-Mags opened, and the crowd was basically half biker and half hardcore punk. My buddy Dennis and I were the rounding error in the audience, and we stayed up in the club’s balcony to avoid the massacre on the main floor. Motorhead’s set was ferocious, and Lemmy was the linchpin of it all. At 6′ 4″, he towered over everything on the stage but his mike stand, which dangled his vocal mike at neck-twisting height — probably not ideal for vocal technique, but that wasn’t really the point, was it? The slabs of high-speed noise were relentless, and the combination of the music and the seething masses on the floor were simultaneously a foretaste of damnation and utterly exhilarating. Through it all, Lemmy played and sang, seemingly unconcerned with anything but the music and the moment.
I saw them again ten years later at the same venue, and this time I watched from the floor (although I still avoided the pit). My outstanding memories of the show were my brother acting as my bodyguard when a big guy came dashing up to me (unnecessarily — the guy was an old college classmate and the singer for Lexington cowpunk band Nine Pound Hammer) and the show’s opening. The house went full dark and silent, broken suddenly by Lemmy’s Grendelesque growl of “Cincinnati!”. And then the madness began.
I haven’t listened to as much metal in the last twenty years or so, although I still do from time to time, and I’ve watched Lemmy progress from fringe figure to elder statesman in hard rock. And the secret to it all, I think, is that Lemmy was always himself. As I said of the music earlier, he was loud, fast, ugly — and unapologetic. He was exactly what he appeared to be, was fine with that, and didn’t care if you weren’t. While the rock-star-as-desperado motif has become cliche, Lemmy embodied it without ever appearing to be playing dress-up. He lived his life on his own terms, experiencing joys and sorrows (including the loss to an overdose of a woman generally considered his true love) and plowing through them all. He played music outside the limits of what had been considered acceptable, and like a Wordsworthian poet, wound up creating the taste by which he would be judged. And through it all, he appears to have cultivated a life of his mind as well — his hobbies were reading history and playing trivia (most notably at L.A.’s Rainbow, where he had a designated seat at the trivia machine. In his final days, the machine was moved to his home, and he was reportedly playing it in his final moments.)
I wasn’t expecting this to turn into a thousand-word post, but it seems to have done so, and I guess that’s a kind of evidence of his impact on me. Once again, along with guys like Frank Zappa and Jim Bouton, Lemmy was one of the people who let me know that I could do my own thing and be who I was, even if the people around me didn’t necessarily get it. I’m grateful for that.
So long, Lemmy — thanks for the music.