Motorhead’s Lemmy, heavy metal pioneer, dead at 70: A voice like shrapnel and a bass tone to match
A voice like shrapnel and a bass tone to match. A steady diet of rock ‘n’ roll and rebellion — fueled by, until not so long ago, a bottle of Jack Daniels per day and sexual escapades too numerous to count. Plus: muttonchops.
Lemmy Kilmister, singer and bass player of Motörhead, somehow lived to be 70 before a surprise cancer diagnosis killed him on Monday. He played hard, he partied hard, and he lived hard — and leaves a venerable oeuvre eclipsed only by his reputation as one of rock’s most grizzled survivors. For sheer durability in a field where many a legend is undone by substances or suicide by age 30, only Ozzy Osbourne and Keith Richards come close to Lemmy — and neither is as frequently referred to by only his first name.
“Lost one of my best friends, Lemmy, today,” Osbourne, who collaborated with Lemmy, tweeted. “He will be sadly missed. He was a warrior and a legend. I will see you on the other side.”
“There is no easy way to say this … our mighty, noble friend Lemmy passed away today after a short battle with an extremely aggressive cancer,” the band announced on Facebook. “He had learnt of the disease on December 26th, and was at home … We cannot begin to express our shock and sadness, there aren’t words. We will say more in the coming days, but for now, please … play Motörhead loud, play Hawkwind loud, play Lemmy’s music LOUD. Have a drink or few.”
Lemmy’s story is a familiar one for young men growing up in postwar England: born with nothing, saved by the Beatles. Christened Ian Frasier Kilmister on Christmas Eve of 1945 in industrial Stoke-on-Trent — noted for its coal slag and filthy air — Lemmy was the son of a librarian and an RAF pilot who quickly made tracks.
“My earliest memory is shouting: at what and for what reason, I don’t know,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir “White Line Fever.” “Probably a tantrum; or I may have been rehearsing.”
Music was an inspiration — particularly early rockers such as Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran. But man cannot live on music alone.
“I decided to pick up the guitar partly for the music, but girls were at least sixty per cent of the reason I wanted to play,” he wrote. “I discovered what an incredible … magnet guitars were … That’s the only thing that ever worked so immediately in life. And I never looked back.”
Playing in bands through the 1960s, Lemmy was soon at the periphery of a scene revolutionized by the Fab Four, whom he saw perform at the legendary Cavern Club in their native Liverpool as a teenager. Despite their squeaky-clean image, he admired them as “hard men” from “a hard, sea-farin” town, all these dockers and sailors around all the time that’d beat the piss out of you if you so much as winked at them.” The Rolling Stones? “Mummy’s boys,” Lemmy wrote.
After roadying for Jimi Hendrix, Lemmy got his first taste of fame in the early 1970s with the psychedelic space-rock band Hawkwind. Though the band was nowhere near as famous as Motörhead would become, it created a legend of its own.
“The driving sound that Hawkwind had — the very pulse-y, percussive keyboard sounds — we would actually listen to that and try to emulate it,” Peter Hook, bassist of the iconic Manchester band New Order, said in the 2010 documentary “Lemmy.” “… We actually did try and rip off Hawkwind.”
But let’s be clear: Though born not long after the age of flower power, Hawkwind wasn’t for hippies.
“People thought we were some sort of f—king flower people,” Lemmy said. “We were like a black nightmare. We used to lock the doors so people couldn’t get out.”
Alas, Lemmy was a self-described “speed freak” during his time in the band and was fired from Hawkwind after getting busted for possession on the Canadian border in 1975.
“I found Lemmy in certain ways quite hard to work with because we were in a band where everyone was taking different drugs,” Nik Turner, a member of Hawkwind fonder of marijuana than amphetamines, explained.
Fortunately for Lemmy, a band would soon exist where everyone’s drug-taking habits were attuned — or, at least, whose members could be replaced at Lemmy’s whim. This was Motörhead — slang for “speed freak” — formed in 1975.
“Lemmy was at the beginning of heavy metal,” no less an authority than Alice Cooper said. “Maybe even pre-Black Sabbath.”
Ozzy Osbourne, Sabbath’s singer, agreed.
“Who was the original metal band?” Osbourne said. “It’s a toss between Lemmy and Black Sabbath — but I would say Lemmy and Motörhead.”
Lemmy, less interested in genre distinctions, would insist that Motörhead was just a rock and roll band, saying so from the stage at every show. But this simplistic musicology undersells Motörhead’s sound: a brutal, sleazy blend of rock and punk that offered a marked contrast to disco and the Osmonds as the 1980s approached. Lemmy, influenced by his time as a guitarist, played the bass more like a guitar, often favoring chords over single notes.
The result, according to Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo: “It was just brash, in your face. It was like getting socked by an overhand right. It was like Mike Tyson in his prime.”
Motörhead would go on to record more than 20 records and tour endlessly. Though best known for its hit “Ace of Spades” — “You know I’m born to lose and gambling’s for fools/But that’s the way I like it, baby” — the band’s catalog was far deeper. And the sound came with a lifestyle.
The drugs were ubiquitous enough to not merit mention. Asked in 2008 what songs were inspired by substance use, Lemmy said: “All of them.”
Then there were the ladies. Despite writing songs with titles like “Jailbait” — “I don’t even dare to ask your age / It’s enough to know you’re here backstage” — many thought Lemmy quite the catch.
“There was a magazine in England who said I screwed 2,000 women and I didn’t, I said 1,000,” Lemmy said in 2012. “When you think about it, it isn’t that unreasonable. I’m not even married, and I’ve been doing this since I was 16. And I’m now 66, so that’s like 50 years. I could’ve done more if I’ve tried, I guess.”
Lemmy’s penchant for German and Nazi memorabilia also was often remarked upon. Iron crosses weren’t just part of looking like a rebel without a cause, he said.
“I like having all this stuff around because it’s a reminder of what happened,” he wrote. “… I don’t understand people who believe that if you ignore something, it’ll go away. That’s completely wrong — if it’s ignored it gathers strength.”
This was not a pose. Offstage, Lemmy was still Lemmy.
“It was not a façade, not an act,” Greg Olliver, co-director of “Lemmy,” told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “He would walk around his house in tight jeans with a bullet belt, a rock show belt. There was no Lemmy in sweatpants.”
Though Motörhead never stopped, Lemmy eventually slowed down. He was diagnosed with diabetes in 2000. He eventually quit smoking and stuck to prescription drugs, but never gave up Jack and Coke.
“I must be the most drunken diabetic in the world,” he told an interviewer in 2005 — while pouring a drink.
Survived by one son he knew — and another one he never met, “so he don’t count” — Lemmy said there was no secret to his success. He just didn’t stop.
“Because we didn’t give up,” he said in 2005. “That’s the basic thing of, like, surviving. Not giving up, right?”