Rock’n’Roll Is Dead: One Last Toast to Lemmy Kilmister
Born to lose, lived to win, killed by death.
Photo by Justin Staple
I never thought I’d have to write an obituary for the bloody, boozy, indomitable spirit of rock’n’roll itself. The very thought of it was absurd—that a decades-old musical phenomenon that forms the very backbone of a huge swath of both popular culture and underground devotion could somehow falter, or disappear entirely. That’s the stuff of Gene Simmons tirades, not reality. Sure, magazines and aging, buffoonish musicians love proclaiming that “rock is dead!” and that it died ages ago, ousted by the rise of pop, hip-hop, or whatever else was de rigeur to hate on that day, but they’ve always looked foolish doing. Anyone with a brain and an ear for a decent riff knew that as long as we had Lemmy, Keith Richards, Joan Jett, Slash, Tony Iommi, and the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix, Wendy O. Williams, and Phil Lynott, rock’n’roll and all of its bastardized offshoots—from ska to death metal—would be just fine.
But last night, Lemmy died, and he took rock’n’roll with him.
On a cold Christmas Eve in 1945, Ian Fraser Kilmister was born in the industrial English town of Stoke-on-Trent. His father, an Army chaplain, abandoned him and his mother when the boy was only three months old, unwittingly setting his son up for a life marked by self-sufficiency and a hearty dislike for religion (as Lemmy mentioned in his autobiography, White Line Fever [a classic if there ever was one], “The only interesting thing about religion is how many people it's slaughtered.”) Ian—christened with the nickname Lemmy by his schoolmates—spent most of his early life in Wales, working menial jobs, riding horses, and eventually discovering the magical properties of the guitar (namely, its uncanny ability to attract girls). Then, once he went and saw the Beatles play at the Cavern Club, his fate was sealed at age 16.
Lemmy’s first couple of bands (The Rainmakers and The Motown Sect) didn’t make it very far, but his fortunes changed in 1965. That’s when he joined The Rockin’ Vicars, who nabbed a record deal, released a few singles, and toured Europe (distinguishing themselves as the first British band to play the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). That whirlwind tour gave Lemmy his first proper taste of the rock’n’roll life, and the next few years saw him bouncing all over the place. The Vicars took him to Manchester, then he found his way down to London two years later, famously roadied for Jimi Hendrix, joined a couple more bands, and ended up playing bass and singing for space rock weirdos Hawkwind in 1971. Four years later, Lemmy’s time with Hawkwind came to a close when, as he’s said, he got kicked out “for doing the wrong kind of drugs.” His legendary love of amphetamines had already begun, and didn’t jib with Hawkwind’s psychedelic vibe (his 1975 arrest at a US/Canada border crossing didn’t help, either). As messy as it was at the time, getting fired was arguably the best thing that ever happened to our Lemmy, though—because immediately after, he put together the band that would become Motörhead.
After a few false starts (and one discarded band name, Bastard), Lemmy, guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke, and drummer Phil “Philthy” Taylor came together to form what’s now considered the band’s classic lineup, and changed rock’n’roll forever. Motörhead blurred the lines between the fledgeling camps of heavy metal and punk in a way no band had ever done before—trading on the undeniable power of fast riffs, black leather, and sheer fucking attitude. Motörhead didn’t just write songs, they wrote anthems. “Ace of Spades” is one of the best-known rock songs in history, and that’s without mentioning the likes of “Overkill,” “Iron Fist,” “Born to Raise Hell,” “The Chase Is Better Than the Catch,” Killed by Death,” and so many others.
It’d be tedious to list all of the band’s accomplishments here, or to note every one of their 40-odd albums; if you listen to rock’n’roll, or heavy metal, or punk, you already know them, and you know how much they rule. It’s no exaggeration to say that Motörhead is one of the most influential and iconic rock bands to have ever existed, and Lemmy—the leather-clad Colossus winking and growling at the front of the stage—was a huge part of that mystique. The voice, the attitude, the facial hair, the hat, the boots, the bottle—no one looked cooler than Lemmy, no one. He was a bad motherfucker with a heart of gold, and you could tell just by looking at him that he’s done enough living for three people, let alone one scrappy lad from Staffordshire. He radiated cool, but always found time to sign an autograph or pose for a photo if you caught him backstage or in his customary seat at the Rainbow Bar & Grill, his favorite West Hollywood haunt. I never knew him, but I got to shake his hand, and take a photo with him, and it really meant the world to me—just as it meant the same to the thousands of other people he’s been kind and humble enough to share his time with along the way, and to the friends and bandmates he’s spent his life playing and drinking and laughing alongside. He was larger than life, but he never bought into his own hype; he was a rockstar, and he bloody loved being a rockstar, but he remembered where he’d come from, too. People could relate to that, and they loved him for it.
Photo from the author's collection
Like any proper rockstar, he’s no stranger to controversy, either. Lemmy’s interest in history, politics, and philosophy bled through into his lyrics, as his hoarse growl recounted and gloried in tales of sex, death, history, war, and a bottomless well of hatred of authority. Interviews with the man himself are often peppered with his own tart observations of the world as we know it, and he’s never been one to hold back, especially when challenged. When questioned about his massive, well-documented collection of Nazi memorabilia, he’d invariably shoot back, “Well, my black girlfriend doesn’t have any problems with it, so I don’t see why you should.” In the 2010 documentary that bore his name, he explained further, saying, “By collecting Nazi memorabilia, it doesn’t mean I’m a fascist, or a skinhead. I just liked the clobber. I’ve always liked a good uniform, and throughout history, it’s always been the bad guys who dressed the best: Napoleon, the Confederates, the Nazis.” He elaborated in a Guardian interview, saying, “It's not a nationalistic kind of thing. Don't tell me I'm a Nazi 'cause I have uniforms. In 1967 I had my first black girlfriend and a lot more ever since then. I just don't understand racism, I never thought it was an option.”
Despite all the chaos, and the controversy, and the sacrifices he made—the physical, emotional, and mental stresses any bonafide celebrity must endure, especially one who lived as hard as fast as this one did—Lemmy seemed to genuinely enjoy his crazy rock’n’roll life, warts and all. As he’s said, “I don't do regrets. Regrets are pointless. It's too late for regrets. You've already done it, haven't you? You've lived your life. No point wishing you could change it.” After losing the love of his life to a heroin overdose, he never married, shunning long-term relationships and cementing his status as a sex god with literally thousands of one-night stands and trysts. He had two children (that he knew of), Sean and Paul, both born while he was in his teens; he had no relationship with Sean, but was very close with Paul, with whom he reunited after decades of estrangement. His love for speed, whiskey, and general misbehavior never abated, even after he curbed his own drug use back in the 90s, and his doctors recently told him to cut back on the Jack Daniels. He switched to vodka instead.
Lemmy was a man of the people, and Motörhead was the ultimate working class rock’n’roll band—”No Class” is an anthem for more than its catchy chorus. Since the very beginning, the Guinness World Record-approved loudest band in the world has spent the lion’s share of each year out on tour or in the studio, playing any club that would have them (even once those grotty pubs and American Legion halls turned into stadiums). They worked hard, and Lemmy refused to entertain the idea of giving up, even when his health began to falter. He always seemed a bit offended that people would even ask about it, saying “I don't see why there should be a point where everyone decides you're too old. I'm not too old, and until I decide I'm too old I'll never be too fucking old.”
Over the band’s four decades of existence, Lemmy remained the sole original member; Motörhead has always been Lemmy, and for well over half of his life, Lemmy has lived, breathed, and bled Motörhead. The band’s most recent lineup was its most stable, and longest-serving; Welsh guitarist Phil Campbell joined in 1984, and Swedish drummer Mikkey Dee came onboard in 1992. Their most recent album together, Bad Magic, got glowing reviews and crowned myriad year-end lists for a damn good reason—it was a great rock’n’roll record, and in 2015, that’s a difficult thing to find. The band was on fire this year; despite Lemmy’s health issues and Campbell’s own recent health scare, Motörhead powered through their latest round of touring, even floating off into the Caribbean on their own Motorboat Cruise (which I was lucky enough to attend and document here). 2015 was one of the most successful years in Motörhead history, and there’s small comfort to be had in knowing that the band’s heart and soul went out on a high note. When Lemmy died, Motörhead died along with him, as Phil Campbell made clear in a statement: “We will not be doing any more tours or anything. And there will not be any more records. But the fire survives, and Lemmy lives on in the hearts of everyone.”
Near the end of his life, the health scares, rumors, concert cancellations, and dire photos of him looking exhausted began to pile up into a dull roar of dread. The media watched every step those cowboy boots took, and the band’s publicity team went into overdrive to assure us that all was well, our hero was doing just fine. It must have been a thousand times worse for those that knew him intimately or worked alongside him, but they probably had a few more details to cling onto; for us, for the fans, all we had was “official statements,” and hope.
Every day felt like a game of Russian roulette, and each time he stepped out onstage, he threw those dice. He was a gambler until the very end—and I’d bet you anything that that night at the Rainbow, when he got that fatal cancer diagnosis, he was planted firmly in front of his beloved video poker machine, drink in hand, doctors be damned. He as good as told us back in 1980 not to get comfortable, that he didn’t intend to coddle himself—or us—by following anyone else’s rules or recommendations. Out of his hundreds of incredibly quotable lyrics, the best-known of them all lays it all out, and tells it to us straight. “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.”
The thought of eulogizing a person like Lemmy Kilmister, who once said he wanted only to be remembered as “an honorable man,” but then immediately conceded with a wink that “that’s probably not going to happen, now is it?” is still hard to wrap my head around, even now that I’ve gone and done it. To me (and to millions of others), Lemmy was immortal; after all, legends never die, and he’s the ultimate rock’n’roll legend. He was a god, but one that you always wanted to buy a drink for—and the best part was knowing that if you went to the Rainbow at the right time of night, and made your way to the right corner, you actually could. Now, none of us will ever have the chance to buy him that drink. Accepting that he would one day leave this mortal coil was as scary as acknowledging that my grandfather, with his strong back, big laugh and quick temper, will do the same. It just seemed impossible—until it wasn’t. We can never truly prepare ourselves for the loss of a hero, but unfortunately, it’s not something we have much say in. The past few years have eased us into the idea that Lemmy might possibly be mortal but still, no one ever really believed that the end could be near—until it was.
Lemmy was nothing if not a straight shooter, and an honorable man besides—that’s all he ever wanted to be, and in the end, it’s what he was.
Born to lose, lived to win, killed by death.
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter here.