As is so often the case these days, the bad news came down through social media, via Motorhead’s Facebook page on Monday evening.
“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.”
And with that, a big chunk of rock 'n' roll died.
Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister – British-born bassist, singer, songwriter, raconteur – represented one of our last true connections to primal rock 'n' roll. With Motorhead, the band he formed in 1975, Lemmy took the primal strut of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Duane Eddy, force-fed it amphetamines, blasted it through a wall of Marshall Amplifiers, and stayed the bloody course for 40 years, not bothering to look back over his shoulder at the hellhounds forever on his trail.
Trends came. Trends went. Rock was dead, they said. Rock was reborn. Video killed the radio star. The album was declared a corpse. Everyone cut their hair. EDM replaced guitars.
Lemmy didn’t notice, or if he did, he didn’t care. Motorhead remained the same. Loud, irreverent, fast, relentlessly driving, gross, and fun.
One pictures the ever-stoic Lemmy learning, on Boxing Day, that he had cancer, that his days were numbered, and perhaps pouring himself a good, stiff drink, lighting a smoke, and dropping a few more tokens into his favorite video game – the one they’d moved down the street to his Los Angeles apartment from the Rainbow, the fabled rock 'n' roll watering hole he’d favored for decades. He’d been singing about death for years, employing it in a personal metaphysics that demanded the living of life to the very fullest, with the full awareness that death is always waiting just around the corner.
“You know I’m born to lose/And gambling is for fools/But that’s the way I like it, baby/I don’t wanna live forever,” he famously growled during Motorhead’s most beloved tune, “Ace of Spades.”
The references to the inevitability of that fateful meeting with the Reaper are all over Motorhead’s catalog of 23 studio albums and nearly as many live collections. “Killed by Death”; “Dancing on Your Grave”; “Overkill”; “Stone Dead Forever”; “I Know How to Die” – these are not the song lyrics of a man who intended to dress the end in flowery romanticism.
In her recent autobiography, “Reckless: My Life as a Pretender,” Chrissie Hynde recalls turning to Lemmy for advice when she’d run up against difficulty in getting her career off the ground in the late '70s. Dr. Lemmy prescribed some tough love. “Did you really think this was going to be easy?” he snarled at Hynde. Within months, she’d formed the Pretenders.
Though he is rightfully celebrated as a paragon of a brand of musical integrity based on steadfast belief in the tenets of primal rock 'n' roll, despite the opposition, there was more to Lemmy than the public persona. He endured a tough childhood, and spent his early years tinkering with psychedelic drugs as a member of Space-Rock icons Hawkwind, but by the time he formed Motorhead, Lemmy was an autodidact, a voracious reader and student of world history, and a man whose gruff exterior belied an agile mind with a keen interest in social and political issues. Many of his views are expressed in his rather brilliant autobiography, “White Line Fever.”
Lemmy was also a far better bassist than is often acknowledged – he pioneered a pile-driving, distorted bass sound peppered with primitive-but-apt melodic lines and power chords, all played on the Rickenbacker bass that was his constant companion throughout Motorhead’s tenure.
Motorhead has often been labeled a heavy metal band, and it is indeed the case that the thrash metal movement that erupted in the mid 1980s owed much to the up-tempo sturm und drang of tunes like “Iron Fist” and “Ace of Spades,” but Lemmy disdained such descriptions. For him, Motorhead was simply a loud rock 'n' roll band, one whose songs were generally short, hook-laden, direct, and to-the-point.
Abandoned by his father at an early age, only child Lemmy was raised by his mother, and throughout his life, he maintained close, enduring relationships with women. Though he never married, and indulged in countless one-night stands, it has been widely reported that he was consistently respectful, if not downright chivalrous, when it came to the women in his life. Estranged for years from his only son, Paul, Lemmy was reunited with him in middle age, and stayed close with him until the very end.
In a touching Facebook tribute, remaining band members Phil Campbell and Mikkey Dee requested that fans “play Lemmy’s music LOUD. Have a drink or few. Share stories. Celebrate the LIFE this lovely, wonderful man celebrated so vibrantly himself.”
I recommend those fans start the tribute with “No Sleep ‘Till Hammersmith,” the album that sums up better than any other the fire, grace and wit of Motorhead.
Cheers, Lemmy. You were the real deal.