It’s Lemmy. You either take him or you fuckin’ don’t, and he don’t give a flying shit if you do or not.
– Ozzy Osbourne
I’m not sure there’s ever been a more concise assessment of Ian Fraser Kilmister, better known as Lemmy, who passed away yesterday, four days after his 70th birthday, after a brief battle with highly aggressive cancer.
This time yesterday, I had a few posts in progress but wasn’t sure how long it would take me to finish them. I definitely wasn’t expecting to be suddenly handed an opportunity to write one from scratch. And a horribly sad shitty opportunity at that.
Things hadn’t been looking good for Lemmy healthwise in the last couple of years; his legendarily hard-living lifestyle consisting of cigarettes, Jack Daniel’s, speed, sex and rock n’ roll seemed to be catching up with him in 2014 as he received treatment for diabetes, causing Motörhead to cancel or cut short gigs in 2015 due to his flagging endurance. But in the hard rock/heavy metal community, there was always faith, both stated and implicit, that, hey… it’s Lemmy. He’s invincible. He’ll bounce back, he’ll outlive most of us, and he’ll still be cranking out albums for decades to come. If his diet of fifty-odd years hasn’t killed him by now, nothing can.
But, cancer is a bastard. It can, and it did.
It’s all too easy in moments like this to get swept up in excessive adulation, but many, myself included, would argue that Lemmy was unique. His story spans the history of rock music; his earliest influences were Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and most importantly Little Richard, whom he idolized above all others. (As Lemmy remarked several times, “can you imagine being gay and black in Macon, Georgia in the 1950s?” HELL no.) He claimed to have seen the Beatles, his other musical idols, play the Cavern Club in Liverpool before they were signed, and there’s not much reason to doubt this. He cut his musical teeth in a rather obscure English R&B band called the Rockin’ Vickers from 1965-1967, followed by a gig as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix, for whom he used to score acid, among other things.
Lemmy was then recruited to join “space-rock” band Hawkwind from 1971-1975, where his brief tenure and stint on lead vocals gave the band its highest-charting UK single, “Silver Machine”. After being fired from Hawkwind due to what he described as “1970s drug snobbery”, he formed Motörhead in 1975, with whom he proceeded to release 22 studio albums over the ensuing forty years. All while taking occasional momentary breaks for such worthy endeavours as teaching Sid Vicious to play bass, directly inspiring the birth of thrash metal via its early progenitor Metallica, and writing hit songs for Ozzy Osbourne.
Whew. No wonder he regularly took speed.
Not only was Lemmy Motörhead’s sole constant member, but as its lead vocalist, bassist, songwriter and most iconic symbol, he WAS Motörhead. And over the course of forty years with his steady hand on the tiller, the band never changed its sound, gave in to trends as so many contemporaries did (Judas Priest, Metallica, Slayer, e.g.), or lost the script. They never became superstars, but that wouldn’t have been Lemmy’s style anyway; he spent years living in the same two-bedroom rent-controlled memorabilia-packed apartment in Los Angeles a few blocks from Sunset Strip and his favourite local hangout, the legendary Rainbow Bar & Grill. It had been a personal dream of mine for the last few years to visit L.A. for my first time since the late Seventies, stop by the Rainbow, and hopefully say hi to Lemmy. Sadly, that will never happen now, and I’m not ashamed to say, I’m somewhat crushed by this.
I opened this eulogy with a quotation from Ozzy Osbourne about Lemmy’s individuality; a popular internet meme features a photo of him wearing ultra-short Daisy Dukes and the descriptor “not a known giver of fucks”. The best summation of his personal style I can come up with is that it consisted of equal parts biker, cowboy and pirate, with a dash of World War II general thrown in. Despite Motörhead’s ear-splitting volume and sonic ferocity, the esteem with which Lemmy and the band were held by the heavy metal community, and their undeniable influence on the development of thrash, Lemmy never described Motörhead’s music as heavy metal. To him, it was best characterized simply by his legendary show-opening declaration: “We are Motörhead, and we play rock n’ roll!” It was this insistence, and refusal to be pigeonholed or categorized, that led to the band and Lemmy in particular being embraced by both metalheads and punks alike — two musical camps traditionally more likely to come to blows than to acknowledge any kinship. And while some noise has been made in the past about Lemmy’s collection of Nazi memorabilia, it’s clear that his interest was historical in nature, rather than sympathetic; his few public political pronouncements tended to be decidedly liberal, he was known to be an avid World War II historian, he idolized Little Richard, and he was beloved of Jewish musicians like Gene Simmons and Anthrax’s Scott Ian. While keeping such a collection is arguably at odds with good taste, regardless of the motivation behind it, it speaks more to the overall I-don’t-give-a-fuck-what-anybody-thinks attitude with which Lemmy ran his life. In an era in which the mass media creates opinion and seeks, usually successfully, to assimilate the public, there’s much to be said for that philosophy.
In conclusion, it’s sobering to observe that we’re now firmly in a musical era in which the world no longer gives us rock heroes, but instead takes them away. There don’t seem to be many new standard bearers waiting in the wings, either. But that being said, Lemmy was indisputably one of those rock heroes. He will be sorely missed, and the world will be less bombastic and exciting without him. We fans can take a small bit of comfort from the knowledge that, if there’s a rock n’ roll Heaven, Lemmy is undoubtedly there – in the words of Dave Grohl, “probably drinking Jack-and-Cokes and writing another record.”
It just sucks that Heaven henceforth gets all the fun.