“We are Motorhead. And we play rock’n’roll!”
In the last 40 years, I can’t think of any other phrase that says everything a band ever needed to say in so few words. It especially comes in handy now that there are really no other words to explain the loss of a true rock icon, Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister, yesterday at age 70. Whether you are Dave Grohl or some 16 year-old stoner kid living at home, this news is gutting. And chances are, Grohl and the stoner kid handled it exactly the same way—by blasting Lemmy’s hellified distorted bass on “Ace of Spades” until it was literally everything louder than everything else.
Here’s the thing though, Lemmy—whether you believe in heaven or hell—didn’t give a shit about death. He believed in only one thing: choices. He made his own till the day he died. And as far as I could tell, he pretty much always stuck to them. The only confirmation you need on that is a good look at the man’s wardrobe. It. Never. Fucking. Changed. Tight black jeans, boots, black shirt, black vest, maybe a necklace or two, black Robert E. Lee hat with the skull and crossbones—that was his image. Beyond that, his music—the breakneck speed, the hellishly distorted bass tone, and the gravel in his voice—cut a path in rock'n'roll that he never wavered from. You can’t really even consider him the last of a dying breed. After four decades in a rock band that never gave a shit what anybody thought, it’s clear he was one-of-a-kind.
I could sense that from the first time I laid eyes Lemmy, standing in the musty back corner of the now defunct Bionic Records in Fullerton. I was sifting through racks of framed band posters, making a typical record store nuisance of myself when I came across my first image of Motorhead. I didn’t know shit about this band at the time, only what I saw in front of me. Three dudes, Lemmy of to the left, drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor to the right, both shirtless with perfect hair and black leather jackets, with guitarist Brian “Robbo” Robertson in the middle. The name Motorhead was up top and the title for the song “I Got Mine” (from 1983’s Another Perfect Day) was splashed across the front in frantic, ‘80s-style writing on the bottom. One thing I knew was that these guys looked like they were, in fact, getting theirs. I immediately searched through the stacks of CDs to find the band, snagged Another Perfect Day, Ace of Spades and Overkill (thanks for the suggestion, record store clerk!) bought that poster and have been a fan ever since. The whole aesthetic just made sense to me. Like many punk and metal fans, I liked the fact that the band took such a hard-edged, unequivocal approach to their sound that all other genres I was into just kind of automatically accepted the band as a catch-all for anything badass. They weren’t punk, they weren’t metal, they weren’t hardcore, they were just Motorhead.
Motorhead's War Pig logo, which I still rock almost religiously (and topped our list of the Best Metal shirts), is this devilish symbol of loudness that you can just get behind, no matter where your musical allegiances lie. To me, they were the fastest, loudest thing I could cram in my headphones. The lyrics inspired me to take risks. When I decided to skate down my first steep hill with not so much as a prayer between me and the asphalt I was listening to “Fast and Loose” on my (anti-shock) Discman. Before getting on stage for my first real gigs as a bassist in a local band, I would usually blast some Motorhead on my drive to the club to pump myself up. Virtually every important take-home job application (including for this gig) was done while Lemmy and company thrashed away on my playlist in the background. To this day I’ll always associate the sound of Lemmy’s voice with the desire to purely and simply go for it.
That’s basically all Lemmy’s music ever encouraged me to do. That kind of decisiveness and bold-faced confidence and style is so hard to find in rock music right now. And that’s even more apparent now that Lemmy’s gone.
Despite only having interviewed him twice in my career, I’ve gotten the chance to see Motorhead live about a dozen times. The last two were this year—once at the Riverside Municipal Auditorium in August and again in Chicago during Riot Fest in September. Though it was towards the end of his life, Lemmy never let his inability to move around on stage or sometimes even finish the lyrics to his own songs take away from his commitment to the fans. There were times when all he had to do was scan his eyes over the crowd like a black-clad cyborg holding his signature Rickenbacker 4004LK and cracking a wry smirk that people knew they were still in the presence of the genuine article.
His absence from the planet has left a hole that not even the Motorhead’s mountain of albums can fill. And there’s probably zero chance we’ll ever see another rocker whose body, soul and liver can take that kind of a pounding. But I take heart in the fact that I can feel that same life force I felt as a 16 year-old kid standing at the top of a steep hill with my skateboard surging through me as I let the sound Lemmy’s bass wash over me, while I steadily adjust this volume knob on my stereo high enough to bug the shit out of my neighbors. After all, it’s what Lemmy would’ve wanted.
He was born to lose, but he lived to win. And thanks to his music, so do I.
Lemmy is God!