Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister of Motorhead died yesterday. To put it succinctly, as my friend Iann said, we haven’t lost one of the great ones, we have lost THE great one. Lemmy was an entirely unique individual and is totally irreplaceable. As the saying goes, we shall not see his like again.
I first heard the inimitable, rampaging strains of Motorhead as a gormless high schooler in 1982 or so, and was instantly smitten. Being that they seamlessly blurred the lines between the weightiest of heavy metal and the amphetamine-fueled hyper-velocity of punk, they essentially embodied the finest elements of both. But in the same way that Johnny Cash transcended the confines of country music, Motorhead was so much more than simply a “metal band,” let alone a punk one. To hear Lemmy describe his own music, he simply called it Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s pretty damn hard to argue with that.
Lemmy personified rock ‘n’ roll. Not in a cartoony way (although he was damn amusing), but in his filterless, no-bullshit approach to the music and the lifestyle. He was the definite article. Show me someone who doesn’t appreciate the purity of Motorhead’s music, and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t understand rock’n’roll played properly, full fucking stop.
Sadly, I only got to see Motorhead play a couple of times. The first was at the New Ritz (formerly Studio 54) on 54th Street on the tour for 1991’s 1916 (which found the also-recently-deceased drummer Philthy Animal Taylor back behind the kit after a few years away). True to legend, it was impossibly loud (a sternum-worrying roar rivaled exclusively by SWANS), but still performed with a richly-cultivated respect for the music. Pretty much every line-up of Motorhead – and there have been a few – boasted accomplished musicians in its ranks. Maybe not accomplished in a traditional sense, but with a stamina and sense of dedication that most precious virtuosos could never match. Most couldn’t keep up.
The last time I saw Motorhead was about ten or fifteen years ago. They were playing at Madison Square Garden, albeit third on the bill behind Dio and Iron Maiden. Now, while I have nothing but respect for both of those bands (especially `Maiden), Motorhead should never have been anyone’s opening act. And unlike those two other bands, Motorhead left the special effects and elaborate staging at home, walked on, plugged in and blew the goddamn roof off the place. With all due reverence to the mighty Ronnie James Dio, who assumed the stage after Lemmy & Co., Dio’s repertoire felt like a light summer rain after the sonic tsunami of a Motorhead set.
Over my 48 years, as both a bug-eyed rock geek and during my professional capacity as a journalist, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet several musicians I admire. I’ve had dinner with Rush, gone drinking with Killing Joke, chatted with the odd Ramone, gotten a phone call from Bono and shaken hands with Ace Frehley. Sadly, I never met Lemmy, but I did come close…
In the mid-90’s, three of my good friends temporarily forsook the East Coast and decamped to Los Angeles (specifically Silver Lake and Costa Mesa). I went out to visit them a few times (as discussed here) and always had a great time, although I’d sure as Hell never want to live there. And in keeping with our collective interests, when I went out to visit Rob D., Rob C. and Tim, we would routinely go see live music.
Maybe I was just lucky enough to be there during busy periods, but there was seemingly never a shortage of bands to go see when I was there. We caught an amazing double bill by the Finks and the Invisible Men at Jabberjaw, a bottom-heavy show by the Melvins at the Roxy and two back-to-back shows at the Troubadour by Claw Hammer and the Laughing Hyenas.
As it happened, my friend Tim’s pal, Carol – not a rock head by any conceivable stretch of the imagination -- lived in an apartment just off Sunset Strip, just down the street from the fabled Rainbow Bar & Grill. Given the reputation of said establishment (and the fact that it was a favored hang-out of Lemmy’s), I demanded we go check it out. As it happens, Lemmy was on tour at the time, so his legendary perch at the bar was empty. But during the course of that evening, Carol let slip that she actually lived in the same apartment complex as Lemmy. After a number of strenuously emphatic “SHUT THE FUCK UP”s by all concerned parties, I basically told her to put up or shut up and prove it.
So, we slugged down our beers and trooped back outside and the down the hill to Carol’s unassuming building. If memory serves, it was one of those typical California apartment blocks with a somewhat grotty swimming pool in the center courtyard, with bungalow-style flats surrounding it on a couple of terraced levels. I’m doing a shit job of describing it, but if you remember the ancient video for “Infatuation” by Rod Stewart (click here if ya don’t), you’ll know what I mean.
Anyway, despite being in a collective state of “advanced refreshment,” we barged with a vigorous sense of purpose into the front foyer of Carol’s building and I immediately started scanning the buzzers, when what to my wondering eyes did I spy but – I’ll be goddamned – “I. Kilmister.” Sure enough, our buddy Carol was goddamn NEIGHBORS with Lemmy.
Her credibility newly enhanced, Carol was then duly subjected to a fierce round of questioning. Evidently, Lem wasn’t there too often, as he was presumably off touring the world and taking no prisoners. But when he was around, said Carol, he was often inclined to lounge blithely around the pool with a guitar in a disarmingly revealing pair of faded and stringy denim cutoffs. I have no idea if the following anecdote is true, but I love it anyway: Evidently, one morning, Carol was off to work and opened the door of her apartment to leave, stepping out onto the terraced balcony over the pool, where Lemmy was lounging in manful repose. Upon spying our sleekly svelte pal Carol about to commence her work day, Lemmy picked up his guitar and immediately started to serenade her with a throaty, poolside rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.”
Though they were friendly, Carol says she never went inside Lemmy’s flat, not because of any concerns on her part (she underscored that he was a consummate gentleman whenever she saw him), but that he was evidently quite embarrassed by his allegedly filthy carpet.
So, yeah, that was as close as I ever got to meeting Lemmy.
Anyway, while virtually every media outlet under the sun is invariably quoting the immortal line from the middle-eight of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” wherein Lemmy intones that he doesn’t want to live forever, I take more solace in these lines from the title track of Motorhead’s 1987 opus, Rock ‘N’ Roll.
I can't imagine growin' old like everyone
Marching to a different drum, I hear a different song
I swear I love 'em all, I don't care if they're small
I don't care if they're tall, I love 'em anyway
I got rock 'n' roll, it satisfies my soul
If that's how it has to be, I won't get mad
I got rock 'n' roll to save me from the cold
And if that's all there is, it ain't so bad
Pour one out for the great man.
ADDENDUM: Given the deluge of Lemmy-centric posts that are flying around Facebook at the moment, I stumbled upon this amazing shot of our Lem that -- given its NYC-centricity, I thought was worth including here. Here's a lovely portrait by British photographer Chalkie Davies of the great man wearing a Max's Kansas City shirt. Did they play there at any point, do we know? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?