When I was a teenager, the bad kids I knew – the ones who shoplifted beer, who owned switchblades, who spray painted graffiti, who didn’t wash their hair – had one thing in common: they all loved Motörhead. With the death of Lemmy Kilmister yesterday at age 70 in Los Angeles, miscreants of all ages lost their leader, and rock ‘n’ roll lost one of its last true renegades.
I moved to Los Angeles not long ago, and on a couple occasions I’ve stopped by the Rainbow Bar and Grill on the Sunset Strip, Lemmy’s watering hole of choice. Trying to be discreet, I’d lean in and whisper to the bartender, “Is Lemmy around?” She’d smile and say, “Not today, honey,” as if I wasn’t the tenth person to ask her that day. The Rainbow bartenders were always nice about it, because they knew we all wanted the same thing: to buy our hero a Jack and Coke.
But what made Lemmy our hero? His evil-looking mutton chops? His singing voice (which sounds like Satan gargling steel wool)? The way he angled his microphone down, so he screamed to the sky, as if taunting God? No. Lemmy’s fans revered him because of his unwillingness to compromise. Motörhead shredded for 40 years, and in that time the band’s brutal sound and sinister style never wavered. They were as dependable as a Swiss Army Knife.
For his entire career, Lemmy played the bass guitar, an instrument that suited his workmanlike approach to rock stardom. One of his first gigs was as Jimi Hendrix’s roadie (and, as legend has it, Jimi’s acid dealer too). In the first half of the 1970s, he created pulverizing rock with Hawkwind, one of the UK’s greatest proto-metal bands. Forget the new Star Wars. If you want to feel like you’re blasting through the cosmos at the speed of light, put on Hawkwind’s classic 1972 live LP Space Ritual right now.
After Hawkwind booted Lemmy, for amphetamine use, he formed Motörhead in 1975. If you listen to a sample of Motorhead’s 22 studio albums, it’s easy to see in hindsight why the band was so brilliant. Lemmy’s best songs carry the DNA of early rock ‘n’ roll. Look beneath the thrash of “Overkill,” “Damage Case” and “Killed by Death,” and you’ll see the fingerprints of Lemmy’s idols: Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry. Lemmy’s knowledge of and respect for early rock ‘n’ roll is what set his music apart from the hair metal of the ’80s, and what famously made Motörhead the only band that punks and metalheads could agree totally ruled.
In my early 20s, my friends and I would break into golf courses late at night, drink whiskey, smoke cigarettes and ride ice blocks down steep fairways like bats out of hell. It was stupid and childish. But every night on our drive home, we’d play the Lemmy song “Shake Your Blood” from Dave Grohl’s 2004 Probot album at a brain-rattling volume. We’d scream along with Lemmy: “Rock out / I knew you could / break your heart / shake your blood!” It was a moment that encapsulated what Lemmy did best: provide a killer soundtrack for good kids making bad decisions.
LIFE LESSONS WITH LEMMY