By Yousef Hatlani
Lemmy from a photo session for his 2002 autobiography, White Line Fever // Photo by Nicola Rübenberg
Until yesterday night, Lemmy Kilmister was probably the very last person you would expect to see in the Obituaries section; he, perhaps along with only Keith Richards, had helped mythologize his career by successfully appearing stronger than death. At age seventy, the man born Ian Fraser Kilmister had spent five decades unapologetically emblemizing the very music he created—dating back to the eras that engendered both rock & roll and heavy metal as we know it. The concept of marrying sheer volume with youthful rebellion was born in his lifetime, and he experienced the genesis firsthand.
Kilmister could rightly claim to have seen Buddy Holly live, to have roadied for Jimi Hendrix and to remember a time before Elvis Presley was ever heard on the radio—because it was all true. In many respects, Lemmy was the purest personification that several generations may ever see of the rock and roll lifestyle.
In light of growing up during the most crucial eras of classic rock and roll, Kilmister later grabbed his teachings with a clenched fist and plugged them all into a distortion pedal. Then he took the train-kept-a-rolling backbeat that kicked up the music of early country rebels like Johnny Cash and tempered it into a nonstop double bass assault. Finally, he achieved his sonic focus by emphasizing not the electric guitar, but snarling, distorted bass—an uncommon idea in his day.
Following early stints with the Rockin’ Vickers, Sam Gopal, Opal Butterfly and—most prominently—Hawkwind, Motörhead was born in June 1975 with such a mixture in mind. From there on, Lemmy began every single, solitary show with a simple decree: “We are Motörhead, and we play rock and roll.” And thus speed metal was inadvertently born; whereas Black Sabbath largely invented the genre and Judas Priest’s combo of vocal tremors & twin guitar attack added characteristic virility, Motörhead’s specialty was unadulterated brashness, authenticity and hustle. They looked and sounded like they were from the streets. If they moved in next door, as Lemmy would say, your lawn would die.
Lemmy with Joey Ramone, 1990’s.
In Motörhead’s wake came the thrash metal of the early 1980’s; Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax and just about every successful band from that era could (and did) lay claim to emulating Lemmy’s swagger without flinching. Classic thrash albums like Kill ‘Em All, Show No Mercy, Killing is My Business and Fistful of Metal all point back to the undying tread of Motörhead’s Overkill, Ace of Spades and the legendary live document No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith—which, as you may have guessed, directly inspired the Beastie Boys anthem “No Sleep ‘til Brooklyn,” as well as Metallica’s first demo, entitled No Life ‘til Leather, the Stiff Little Fingers live album No Sleep ‘til Belfast and about a zillion other cultural references. Their mark had been made.
Despite predating most heavy metal bands, Motörhead still recorded and toured more consistently than most groups half their age, releasing a total of twenty-two studio albums over thirty-eight years—never wavering in quality or concentration. Quite plainly, this was Lemmy Kilmister’s life and—as he admitted in the 2010 documentary that bears his name—he did not know how to do much else.
That simple admission, however, bore much more weight than Kilmister may have realized: rock and roll was literally Lemmy’s life. The Blackbeard-esque splendor, the ever-present mutton chops, the top hat, tight jeans and permanent middle finger were not just a stage getup—they were his everyday wardrobe. He was inextricable from the slot machines and Jack & Cokes at the Rainbow, the legendary Sunset Strip bar & grill just down the street from the Los Angeles apartment he lived in for twenty-five years. He also smoked ceaselessly into his 60’s. The Ultimate Badass, it seemed as though nothing could ever stop him.
Lemmy playing Tempest at Portland, OR’s Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade, 10/3/09. He set two high scores that day. // Photo by Art Santana
In reality, the fabled rock and roll lifestyle took its toll on his body: in a 2013 interview with the New York Times, Lemmy admitted that he was “paying for the good times,” and that he had given up smoking. Just wine every now and then, that’s it. The band also canceled a European tour that year in a rare showing of frailty. Ultimately, the band did soldier on and play several shows over the following two years, although many were cut short or canceled altogether—all the while recording & releasing what would be their final album, the well-received Bad Magic, in August 2015. Kilmister’s later public appearances revealed him to be progressively thinner, gaunt and in poor health.
So, was Lemmy really stronger than death? The answer, all things considered, is perhaps another question: does it really matter? Kilmister’s grit and growl has provided the very lifeblood for heavy metal’s most defining bands over the last thirty-five years, embodying the take-no-guff attitude that anyone would want to adorn so surely. That a man who once exclaimed in his 2002 autobiography he “should be dead, medically speaking,” lived to be a full seventy years old epitomizes the Motörhead maxim of ‘Everything Louder Than Everything Else.’ With this, Lemmy had decidedly accomplished the mission he set out with forty years ago, inaugurated with the unrelenting rallying cry of “We are Motörhead, and we play rock and roll”: simply put, he played rock and roll—and the world will be forever louder for it.