I foolishly tasked myself with the impossible, to attempt to sum up Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister for posterity. My head was spinning at the news of his sudden loss – at the age of seventy following a very public year in precisely the wrong sort of spotlight, and a late cancer diagnosis kept sensibly private from everyone but those who most needed to know – and the tears were still uncomfortably fresh. If the world this morning after is full of shocked music fans who surely felt themselves existing on an intimate, “need to know” basis nevertheless, that only serves as another bit of evidence of how far the man’s reach extended and how deeply his impact was felt. Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister was so many different things to a sneaky large segment of the music-going public: a figurehead, a fountainhead, a guru, a gadfly, a hedonist, an evangelist, a hellraiser, a barnburner, a stoic professional and rock and roll raconteur all rolled into one, with countless miles of astonishing history behind him and a cheering crowd before him each and every night. Lemmy’s aura preceded him the way a shadow trails everyone else, a fact of life thick enough to choke a goat and powerful enough to light up the Vegas strip, though the man himself was, in his private moments, in his odd, contrary way, the picture of cerebral gentility. Anyone with a mind toward duplicating Lemmy’s life on the road would likely find it snuffed out by the midway point, possibly before he could even drunkenly count to seventy. “Rock and roll all night and party every day!” may be something that Kiss’ Paul Stanley shouts out to his own adoring crowd 100 or so nights every year, but only one person on Earth was capable of living any approximation of that life, that way, and he did so to the fullest. Now he’s gone, with the force of an earthquake for people of my ilk/disposition, but he leaves behind a great deal.
- “We are Motorhead, and we play rock and roll.” Lemmy delivered this loaded but straightforward intro at his every show for at least a decade. I was there for four of them, including one in the aftermath of a blizzard.
- “We are Motorhead, and we’re gonna kick your ass.” He said this similarly for at least another decade before that, though the dates themselves feel a little blurry (retreating to Youtube for additional research would probably not only be illuminating but therapeutic). It’s a simple statement, to the point, and, above all, truthful. No preacher, politician, or method actor ever spoke with more conviction about his constituency or chosen path.
- “Everything louder than everyone else,” proclaimed the back of the indispensable black t-shirt, adorned with the famous “War Pig” logo and notably worn both by lovestruck scenesters like Dave Grohl and possibly clueless ancillary tastemakers like rapper Missy Elliott, not to mention the thousands of metal bands and devoted fans across dozens of countries dotting the world …including me.
- “We want to be the band that, if we moved in next door to you, your lawn will die.” I love metal and hate yardwork, so is this coincidence or kismet?
Darkadaptedeye is supposed to be on hiatus as I write this. I weathered the storm of Star Wars, waxed fanatic about my opening night impressions, spent entirely too much time wrangling them into a readable entry (written, FWIW, in two different states over three separate days) and then unofficially put the site to bed for its extended winter’s nap, to be awakened sometime in early-mid January with the release of my annual write-up recapping the top albums from the prior year. Life happens in spite of best-laid plans, obviously. Most all of the “In Memoriam” pieces I’ve written have been spur of the moment affairs in which I not only felt I had more than a healthy paragraph to contribute to the greater discussion but also had sufficient time and motivation to work. For the first time since the appreciation piece that inspired this site, of the late Roger Ebert in 2013, I felt not merely motivated but compelled to write. No disrespect is meant to any of those other luminaries here included (any more than to the people I might’ve loved but, for whatever reason, never got to write about, like Robin Williams or Sir Christopher Lee), but Lemmy Kilmister was another level of influence, and presence, altogether. I racked my brain in the wake of the news, trying to bring him down to something even approaching eye level. Weird bases of comparison danced in my head, disparate, elusive, and maddeningly incomplete. Combine the unspoken gravity of John Wayne, went my thinking, with the all-encompassing breadth of, say, Elvis Presley, and the swagger and longevity of Keith Richards with the galvanizing punk attitude of Joey Ramone, and, well, you still fall rather short of what Lemmy Kilmister meant and represented to lovers of heavy metal music over the course of four decades and multiple generations. He remains a titan. Speaking of him now in the past tense sounds about as natural as one of the “Real Housewives of Dubuque” translating Klingon.
It might as well be Superman that just left us, for Lemmy was every bit a mythic figure. Perhaps only a comic book cover could properly encapsulate the man’s legend, his fearsome potency as a lover and a fighter, a bandit and a balladeer, a clever, defiant, effortlessly inspiring free thinker, and that rarest sort of personality cult whose actions and words seemed to carry equal worth and weight, while delivering the couldn’t possibly be true news of his passing. Indeed, I find the famous DC Comics rendering/proclamation a bit too understated for this particular moment, though I do appreciate the emotion behind it.
There was certainly nothing “controlled” about the musical fury of Motorhead. Onstage, Lemmy Kilmister sang directly from his gut, heroically strained as if suffering a permanent hernia, or perhaps enduring its surgery in real time, barking his various pointed barbs, sordid tales, laments for the world’s lost humanity, and, most crucially, hymns to the enduring power of rock and roll, up into a downturned microphone, strumming a bass guitar so distorted it could just as plausibly have been a second (or third, depending on band incarnation) axe. The music barreled ahead like a bullet train with an impaired conductor, existing of a piece with “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” bands like Iron Maiden and Saxon while immediately transcending the label. Even in its early days, Motorhead never followed anyone, instead providing a vital and exhilarating crossover link between the larger, essentially warring, punk and metal scenes of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and eventually, through its commitment to dissonant speed, directly inspiring the thrash metal movement of the later ‘80s – including rabid, lifelong fans-to-be in nascent bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax – which, in turn, did so much to kickstart the various waves of “extreme” metal of the 1990s and beyond. It isn’t a far stretch to suggest that every single metal band formed since 1980 contains at least a trace amount of Motorhead DNA, be it through active fans or inescapable influence. In a genre that venerates its heroes more than any other, Lemmy, by virtue of his integrity, perseverance, and musical dependability, sped right past that designation on a path toward full blown godhood.
You could call it evolution through constancy. For forty years, over the course of nearly two dozen remarkably consistent albums, Motorhead charted a singular course. There were no pretenders to the throne. With its grimy, road grade visual appeal and powerful, primal, unduplicatable aural attack, the band was practically born an icon. At its head, Lemmy flourished as what would arguably become the music industry’s most thorough and enduring embodiment ever of capital-R “Rock and Roll”, not just as a sound or an attitude, though it most certainly is both things, but as an ethos, a way of life. A confirmed bachelor and infamous romantic conquistador, Lemmy’s commitment to life on his and no other terms was an inspiration even to people who, upon closer inspection, might’ve found its fine details ludicrous. He worked for it, however, and it worked for him. Long held up as the kind of self-evident survivor who would one day comingle with cockroaches in the ashes of Armageddon, Kilmister’s sudden and recurrent health problems in 2014 and 2015 widened the eyes and seized the hearts of legions of fans as Motorhead was forced to postpone or cancel multiple tours. In the video footage that leaked out, he looked almost inconceivably gaunt and weak, but the best and most consistently thought-provoking quote in all of metal refused to ever feel sorry for himself. This, after all, was the man who, in his signature song, 1980’s “Ace of Spades”, coolly regarded a gambler’s life thusly: “You know I’m born to lose / and gambling’s for fools / But that’s the way I like it, baby / I don’t wanna live forever.” In his 2002 autobiography, White Line Fever, Kilmister expounded on the thought: “If I have to be on my deathbed regretting decisions I made, I’m not interested in that. When I go, I want to go doing what I do best. If I died tomorrow, I couldn’t complain. It’s been good.” True to established form, Motorhead did some figurative fly-fishing in the eye of a hurricane, releasing its twenty-second studio album, the sturdy but otherwise undistinguished Bad Magic, in the summer of 2015, before embarking, undaunted, on a fresh set of European dates.
The greatest concession Lemmy would eventually make to his health involved cutting back on smoking and switching out his recreational Jack Daniels habit for vodka and orange juice. Otherwise, it, and he, was business as usual.* Cancer would claim him only twenty days after his final tour ended, when the man who occasionally idly extolled the virtues of dying on stage came altogether close to outright prophecy. No metal fan with a functioning brain held Lemmy up as some paragon of virtuous living worthy of being emulated. We merely admired his philosophical consistency, sly, positive attitude, and deep humanity (he was a champion of young bands throughout his career and went out of his way to make friends and fans, when they met him, feel special). We were not a little awestruck at his preternatural ability to push himself hard in multiple directions and not only endure but thrive. And, god, was his music ever among the most thrilling on the planet. Surely, he had pride in his work, and I don’t doubt that by prioritizing his passing over Bad Magic or the European tour’s successful completion, amazing given the circumstances, he might cheekily suggest I was telling the wrong story. I saw Motorhead four times in total, far too few for either my liking or the fundamental maintenance of my soul, and always hoped against hope I’d get one last chance. That opportunity actually came earlier this year for a couple of my friends still living in the South, and I’m fairly thrilled for them. Their pictures and recollections, plus all the songs I’ve seen posted in tribute on Facebook** (to say nothing of the tributes themselves, from every corner of the metal genre, and an edifying and telling portion of the greater rock landscape) have been a boon for me as I’ve tried to put my words together. There’s so much to say, in fact, that it behooves me more probably to follow the man’s explicit example – to get straight to the point, with no affect and no bullshit, offering no rest for the weary, the wicked, or the undecided, ever. It’s worth a shot, though I don’t like my chances.
*As previously mentioned, Motorhead, in its own opinion among others, represented the very pinnacle of the ass-kicking profession. No replacement is forthcoming, or likely even possible.
**My Facebook feed has had the decided feel lately of not simply another round of condolences and heartfelt remembrances but something far closer to a state funeral, as well it should.
Serendipity exists in music. I first encountered Motorhead at almost the exact same time I was transitioning from an extended period of dedicated Maiden worship into a full-bodied embrace of thrash metal, a subgenre whose own brilliant architects were so obviously beholden to the Mach 10 speed that powered Motorhead’s music that I felt the band was on that same level from the start. And so, just as I loved Megadeth’s Rust in Peace and Peace Sells, or Metallica’s Master of Puppets and …And Justice For All, or Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss and Anthrax’s Among the Living, I revered Motorhead’s skull-rattling No Remorse compilation and masterful 1991 studio album 1916, which contained, in the blustery, blistering lead single “I’m So Bad (Baby I Don’t Care)”, my first ever exposure to the band and its inimitable sound. A more fitting introduction to any band I defy you to produce. Not only does the music begin, end, and blissfully exist in fifth gear, it seems on the perpetual verge of jumping the rails altogether. Mr. Kilmister, always an economical and evocative lyricist, picks that precise moment to brag a bit and polish his growing legend:
“I make love to mountain lions / Sleep on red-hot branding irons / When I walk the roadway shakes / Bed’s a mess of rattlesnakes”
“Get me up, you go down / Tall building, single bound / Overkill, walk the line / Kill the lights, it’s lampshade time”
“On the road, on the lam, people running scared / I’m everything they say I am / I’m so bad, baby I don’t care”
All of this is tremendously exciting to a sixteen-year-old, of course, though that hardly explains why I got fresh chills listening to it this morning.
Lemmy turned seventy years of age a handful of days before he died, as if proving one last point. His physical absence leaves a Texas-sized crater in the very heart of the heavy metal genre, and he’ll be missed dearly without a doubt, but there is also literally no way we could forget him. You will search long and hard and fruitlessly for any metal band with an ounce of grit or moxie that doesn’t have Ian Kilmister’s grubby fingerprints practically tattooed on them. That’s a hell of a legacy to leave, before you even turn to his own superlative music (“Overkill”, “We Are The Roadcrew”, “Iron Fist”, “Metropolis”, “Killed By Death”, “Orgasmatron”, among dozens more classics). So thoroughly was he a genuine, one-of-a-kind article, a musical Mount Rushmore boasting a single, wart-embellished face, frozen forever in our memories somewhere in the movement between a snarl and a smirk. It seems self-evident and, honestly, a little ridiculous to say something along the lines of there will never be another Lemmy. There was never anyone else like him to begin with.