Don't Forget the Joker: Raising a Glass to Lemmy's 70 Years
Photo by Robert John
The last time I spoke with Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister — the seemingly indestructible frontman of Motörhead and cultural icon spanning generations and genres — was September 12, 2015. It was his first interview following the September 1 concert in Austin where a clearly ailing Lemmy halted Motörhead’s gig just three songs in, two minutes into the band’s 1979 tune “Metropolis.”
Four months later — and four days after his seventieth birthday, on December 28 — the music world lost a legend, a descriptor that truly suited the great and powerful Lem. The bassist/singer’s groundbreaking music with prog-rockers Hawkwind was as impressive as his work ethic, prolificacy and power with the more metallic (but not metal) Motörhead, not to be surpassed by his voluminous military knowledge, ever-present humor, and most importantly, his kind and humble demeanor.
In our phone interview that September afternoon, Lemmy was back on the road with Motörhead following the few cancelled and aborted shows, intent on supporting the band’s twenty-second album, Bad Magic. His voice so weak and faded that at times I could barely hear him, but his spirit was undampened. It was clear that Motörhead, formed in 1975, remained his raison d’etre, and the main message he wanted to impart was that “Any gigs we’ll miss we’ll redo, and we’ll try not to miss anymore. I don’t like to miss gigs where people have already paid.”
While he’d had real health issues that required hospitalization and “lifestyle” changes in the last several years, everyone, including perhaps, Lemmy, presumed he was indestructible. Actually, at nearly seventy, it was more like he’d done and seen it all — no regrets — and wanted to keep enjoying life on his terms, which included booze, smokes, women, touring and video games. “I’m staying as healthy as I can,” the whisky-voiced singer said on September 12. “Healthy is a bit late, but I’m being as healthy as possible. I’m smoking a pack a week, down from two packs a day. I’m still on the vodka and orange (from Jack Daniels and Coke), yeah. The vocals are a bit harder. My voice isn’t back. I’ll get it back. Or I’ll buy another one.”
In August, 2015, I spoke with Lemmy for the New York Observer, before Motörhead hit the road, and he was frank in his self-assessment: “It’s funny, old age, how it sneaks up on you. One year your feet hurt if you walk a lot. The next year your feet hurt anyway. And the year after that, you have to take pills for the pain. It creeps up, if you don’t die young and leave a beautiful corpse, which was a long time ago for me…”
Beauty wasn’t what Motörhead was about, though the unfettered trio format had its own simplistic purity and power. Brutality? Maybe. But to Lemmy, Motörhead was just revved-up blues, speedy garage rock inspired by his idols, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. As quoted in the book I co-authored, Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, Lemmy noted, “Motörhead is primitive brutality, I suppose. It’s rock 'n' roll, you know? People always like to rock 'n' roll. You can bop to it if you’re very quick.”
1980's “Ace of Spades,” the band’s most iconic and recognizable song, is an anthem about gambling and life, but it's also an apt analogy for Lemmy himself. “If you like to gamble, I tell you I'm your man …. Playing for the high one, dancing with the devil …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.” Other songs were as good, or better: “Iron Fist,” “Killed By Death,” “(We Are) The Roadcrew,” “Overkill” — Lemmy and Moyörhead were poets and heroes of the working class. His longtime support, collaboration and respect for all-female rock/metal band Girlschool also belied his gruff and macho image. The reverence expressed peers, both before and after his death, as generous and heartfelt as the man himself.
Lemmy and I weren’t friends, though I know quite a few who do call him that. We shared a casual journalist-musician friendliness, since, probably, late Eighties, and my respect for him only increased in the early Nineties when I approached him to write a column for RIP magazine under my editorship. His “Motormouth” musings were handwritten, faxed to the offices of Larry Flynt Publications usually after deadline. But they were always perfection, well-educated, precise, informed, humorously written rants about whatever was on his mind — Big Brother, World War I — all from the not-poison-but-pointed pen of Mr. Kilmister. Editing not required.
Many years later, when I requested, via his approachable and even-tempered manager, a blurb for my then-upcoming oral history of metal, I was given Lemmy’s personal email address, and received this in return: “That was a good time and it was certainly had by most, including Katherine. When I was just a poor boy working at the circus for hot dogs and cotton candy, she got me a column in RIP magazine which was ignored by thousands of you. That being said, this book is better than my column so go get it."
The official notification of Lemmy’s passing contained faultless adjectives, and circumstances of his death also brought some comfort for friends and fans who knew his proclivities. From Motörhead's Facebook page: “Our mighty, noble friend Lemmy passed away today after a short battle with an extremely aggressive cancer. He had learnt of the disease on December 26, and was at home, sitting in front of his favorite video game from the Rainbow which had recently made its way down the street, with his family. … Have a drink or few and share stories. Celebrate the LIFE this lovely, wonderful man celebrated so vibrantly himself. HE WOULD WANT EXACTLY THAT.”
Let it be done.
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