The Loud, Proud Meaning of Lemmy, a Heavy-Metal Folk Hero

Lemmy Kilmister. Photo: Jason Nocito/Corbis

To get your head right for reading a tribute to Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister, who died from cancer yesterday at 70, I would suggest you should read this piece loud. I don't know how you'd do that, exactly, but Lemmy would find a way. 

There are some rock musicians — and you can count Lemmy among them — who, through a combination of staying power, singular vision, and fate become the embodiment of a particular idea of rock: John Lennon is forever the Ur-idealist; Keith Richards, the lovable rogue against which all other scarf-wrapped and kohl-eyed rogues are measured. Commercially speaking, Lemmy lived on a more modest floor of the tower of song, but he was one of those totemic figures, too. Indeed, he was something close to a folk hero — the embodiment of music as driving aggression, of rock as a way of life. He was a man who’d mainlined the bad mojo that makes you feel good, that makes you want to push your boss in the face, slam back some Jack, and blast the kind of anthems that force the naysayers to plug their ears and make a face like they smelled something foul. (Those people are not our friends.) 

Lemmy didn't arrive at legendary status by accident. Born in Staffordshire, England, to a military dad and a mostly absent mom, and raised in Wales, Lemmy — he said he didn't know where the nickname came from — caught the rock bug early. In the early '60s, he saw the Beatles play at the Cavern Club, back when John, Paul, George, and Ringo were toughs from Liverpool, not cuties who belonged to the world. Later that same decade, he roadied for and dropped acid with Hendrix. He played wonderfully melodic, fuzzy bass for the underappreciated psychedelic savants Hawkwind. (The 1973 live opus Space Ritual will jurgle your nurgles well and good; 1974’s “Lost Johnny” is a hotshot of similar stuff.) Then he was kicked out of that band for doing too many drugs, which is a little like being asked to quit boxing because you punch too hard.

When Lemmy formed his new band in 1975, he named it after a slang term for a speed freak. Of course, he didn't stop there. He knew the appeal of an umlaut, so Motörhead's nightmarish logo looked truly alien and timeless, as if he'd stumbled upon it carved into a megalith rather than something so mundane as paying a mere mortal being to design it. He said that if his band moved next door, your lawn would die. He sported masterful mutton-chop sideburns, dressed in the manner of a biker general, and had, truly, an iconic mole. The band’s only constant member, he was Motörhead, and he wrote fucking “Ace of Spades.” What the hell did you ever do?  

Understandably, Lemmy's legacy has a lot to do with the kind of total disregard for the straight life that I just chronicled, but to overlook his music would be a mistake worthy of a jackboot to the junk. Even if, like similar aesthetic purists AC/DC and the Ramones, the band pretty much did one thing — balls to the wall, all the time, every time — they did it deliriously well. Coarse and hoarse, Motörhead were a great, great band. Speedy, distorted, needle-in-the-red rock, topped by Lemmy's scraggly bellow singing fatalistic and often surprisingly funny lyrics about bloody wars and bad faith. A lot of people call this music heavy metal (the band’s barreling velocity and fierce attack were a key influence on early Metallica), and you wouldn’t be wrong in labeling it punk-ish (the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious asked Lemmy to teach him bass), but to me it sounds like Lemmy’s beloved tightly constructed, no-frills, golden-age rock and roll with a sinner's attitude and sadist-size amps.

Whatever you tag their sound, as a visceral pleasure they were tough to beat, and remarkably consistent at that. There aren’t really any duds among Motörhead's 23 studio albums, but there are some standouts, usually the result of the lineup that saw Lemmy joined by brutal guitarist "Fast" Eddie Clarke and brutal-er drummer Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor. Commercial highpoint Ace of Spades (1980) is the album a non-Motörhead fan is most likely to have heard of, but live album No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith (1981) is grimier, and maybe better. Produced by the wizardly Bill Laswell, 1986’s Orgasmatron (I’m sorry, I love that album title) has hints of psychedelia and dub, and is the best one to listen to while in a stupor, drunken or otherwise. Whichever album you pick up — actually, maybe just start with the No Remorse compilations — you’ll hear something fast and wild.

Lemmy spent 50 years as a walking middle finger to the suit-and-tie world. You can take that as a vicarious thrill, or you can view the unsavory aspects of his life as not only worthy of celebration and interpret his behavior as something other than signs of spiritual integrity. There was his obsession with Nazi memorabilia. His, I dunno, slightly skeevy claim to have slept with somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 women. (He never married.) His substance abuse. The fact that, when the band wasn't on tour, he could almost always be found playing video poker by himself at the Rainbow Bar and Grill in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. It doesn’t strike me as overreaching to suggest that, just like his fans, Lemmy needed Motörhead’s gunned-engine barrage to help fill a hole, or at least pummel the senses for a while while trying to forget what's missing. Or, of course, maybe the man just liked to collect freaky shit, play cards, and screw. There are worse ways to pass the time.

When news of Lemmy's passing came last night, I saw folks on Twitter note that this moment had seemed impossible. Lemmy, like Keith Richards, appeared destined to outlive us all. If he was ever going to die, shouldn’t it have happened already? But he wound up, as we all do, killed by death. You win some, you lose some, as he sang. He knew that, despite appearances, he was mortal. “Death is an inevitability, isn't it?” Lemmy told an interviewer not terribly long ago. "If I died tomorrow, I couldn't complain. It's been good.” And loud.