Despite his recent health problems, the news of Motorhead frontman Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister’s death on Monday (Dec. 28) came as a bit of a shock. Like many other folks in the hard rock and metal world, I’m sure, I considered Lemmy one of those almost immortal guys — someone who would always be around. Sadly, cancer is not a fan of anyone.
I still remember the first time that I heard Motorhead. I was probably 11 or 12, already a metal fan, but only just beginning to move into the heavier stuff. Some friends played it for me. I don’t even remember which record it was, but I heard Lemmy’s gruff, shouted vocals and thought, “Who in the heck would listen to that? The guy can’t even sing.” Of course, as the years went by, my opinion changed drastically. In all honesty, I never became what I would consider a hardcore Motorhead fan, but I gained a great respect for what they did, and I certainly became a fan of Lemmy. It was almost impossible not to.
If any person ever embodied the spirit of hard rock (or rock ‘n’ roll, period) it was Lemmy. It’s an easy reference that will probably be made many times in tributes to him, but it’s still appropriate. Lemmy was who he was — iconic warts and all — and he didn’t give a fuck what you thought about it. I mean, come on, how many people can you use the phrase “iconic warts” about? He was a straight shooter, and if you asked him a question, you’d better be prepared for the answer. He could be funny at times, and he could be painfully and brutally honest at others, but he was always Lemmy.
In his later years, he probably could have signed on for a reality show like so many other aging rockers have. In fact, I’m almost certain that someone, at some point, probably approached him about one. But that wasn’t Lemmy’s style. The only show that he cared about was the one he put on for the Motorhead fans. In fact, as his health failed in the past year or so, no one would have thought less of him if he’d announced his retirement, told us that his body just couldn’t take it anymore.
Instead, he fought through it, taking the stage night after night, trying to give the fans what they came for and, usually, succeeding. I remember reading a story on the satire site Tyranny of Tradition a while back with the headline, “Lemmy Has Surgery to Remove Both Livers; Plays Concert That Night.” It was funny, but despite the absurdity, absolute truth. Playing rock ‘n’ roll was what he did, and nothing was going to get in his way.
He had an uncompromising approach to his music. He never catered to, nor cared about the trends of the day. Still, he managed to make Motorhead sound timeless, and he managed to make waves in mainstream and pop culture despite his unwillingness to compromise. I doubt that there’s a rock music fan in the world who doesn’t recognize the main riff of “Ace of Spades.” I remember being stunned as a teenager, back in the days when heavy rock still had a bit of taboo, when I saw the video for the song on the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon “Kidd Video.” Getting something that heavy on a Saturday morning cartoon in the mid-1980s? That’s an achievement.
In more recent years, Motorhead fan and WWE wrestler Triple H signed Lemmy on to perform several ring entrance themes for him, opening the band to a new audience, and delivering the only wrestling theme worth listening to with “The Game.” They even eventually won a Grammy, though sadly, it was for a cover of Metallica’s “Whiplash” rather than one of the band’s original works. But then, we all know how much the Grammy folks know about heavy metal, right?
Of course, Lemmy would take umbrage with the very fact that Motorhead was lumped in the heavy metal category. Though their mixture of hard rock and punk is often credited with launching the thrash movement, and most of the bands in that genre cite them as a huge influence, Lemmy never considered his music metal. He always said that Motorhead was a rock ‘n’ roll band, pure and simple. If you listen to their catalog with an open ear, that’s a fair statement. Even in the band’s fastest and heaviest numbers, you’ll often hear far more Chuck Berry than Black Sabbath in their sound, albeit an amped up Chuck Berry on steroids.
Lemmy believed that rock ‘n’ roll should be played fast and loud, raunchy and obnoxious — that it should still be music that scared the shit out of parents. And that’s how he did it. He attacked the strings of his Rickenbacker bass with a vengeance, and when he struck that familiar performance pose — legs spread, head back to sing into a microphone placed slightly above him — he was the epitome of cool. There are few cats in the world that have the kind of vibe and presence that Lemmy had without even trying.
In reading tributes to him on social media, one friend of mine really summed it up when he said, “We’ll never see his kind again.” Though he was never a face of the genre, he was an icon and a legend, and on Monday, the rock ‘n’ roll world lost one of the biggest champions of the art. He will be sorely missed — warts and all.