The man behind the myths: A tribute to my friend Lemmy
July 28, 1981. The following day, Prince Charles and Diana Spencer were due to be wed, and the streets of London were awash with flag-waving tourists. At 1am, though, I was roaming these streets looking for slightly less regal entertainment, when I happened to stumble past a place called the Venue, in Victoria. Unfortunately, who was due onstage that night is information seemingly lost to history, but there in the foyer, larger than life and twice as badass, was Lemmy; drink in hand, of course, with a couple of Hells Angels lurking nearby. As luck would have it, I was wearing an Ace Of Spades shirt, and I ducked inside to ask for his autograph.
“Sure,” he rumbled. “Have you got a pen?”
I didn’t have a pen.
“Drink this, you look like you need it,” he said, handing me something that both looked and tasted like Ribena, but which delivered a weighty kick of alcohol. And with that, he disappeared into the club to find a pen. To this day, I can’t think of any rock star who would go to so much trouble for a fan, and to add some perspective, this was only a month after the release of the mighty No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith live album, which had reached number one in the UK album charts.
The band had a justifiably fearsome reputation – the dirtiest and loudest rock‘n’roll band in the world – and Lemmy didn’t need to go out of his way to sign shirts for anyone. And yet, he always did, never turning a fan like me away.
Read this: The warts’n’all wit and wisdom of Lemmy
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Motörhead’s classic Overkill and Bomber albums, which were are reissued in an exhaustive new seven-album box set, packed with rarities, previously unreleased live recordings, and other must-have collectibles. That it comes wrapped in a ‘black leather jacket’ tells you much of what you need to know. Motörhead were – are – one of the greatest rock‘n’roll bands of all time, their legacy unsurpassed, their music timeless, and it was on these albums, the band’s second and third respectively, that a reputation that stands to this day was first forged.
Almost four years since Lemmy’s passing, that status has only grown stronger. His death on December 28, 2015 was marked in Germany by the issuing of special edition postage stamps, which sold out in a heartbeat. Stages at festivals such as Download and Ozzfest Meets Knotfest were renamed in his honour. A statue of Lemmy was erected at his favourite watering hole, the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Los Angeles’ infamous Sunset Boulevard, the back bar of which is now known as Lemmy’s Lounge.
His is one of the very few instances in which ‘legendary’ isn’t, in fact, too strong a word – and yet Lemmy’s is a story from the humblest of beginnings.
Born on Christmas Eve, 1945, in Stoke-On-Trent, the son of an ex-air force preacher who left home when he was just three months old, Lemmy didn’t have what you’d call the greatest start in life. His mother remarried when he was 10, and the family moved to Anglesey in Wales where, as the only English kid, he stood out like a sore thumb. By 14, he’d been expelled from school for smacking the headmaster around the face with his own cane.
“I was due to get two strokes,” he later told Kerrang!, “and I asked for them both on the same hand, but he wouldn’t, so I took the cane off him and smacked him around the head with it. If any kids want advice on how to get out of school early, that’ll do it!”
After school, Lemmy worked menial jobs, including a couple of years at a Hotpoint factory, which he hated with a passion. “That was fucking misery,” he said. “Ever since I left that job I’ve appreciated every day that I wasn’t in it. I could feel it rotting my mind. Any intelligence would drive you nuts, so you become less intelligent. You knock yourself down intellectually to cope.”
But as much as he hated the factory, Lemmy loved this new thing called rock‘n’roll – the birth of which he was there to witness, soon becoming enamoured by the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis.
“Before Elvis, there wasn’t anything remotely like it,” he said, in what would be his last interview with Kerrang!. “You had your mother’s records, and that was about it. And then Elvis came along, and suddenly it was like, ‘I know what I want to do with my life now: I wanna be a rock’n’roller!’ It changed the whole world, man. Nothing was the same.”
Lemmy even got to see The Beatles live at The Cavern Club in Liverpool when he was just 16 years old. Noting that people who played guitar were “surrounded by chicks”, he naturally progressed to playing in his own bands, The Rainmakers, The Motown Sect, and then The Rockin’ Vickers.
It would be impossible, in just one feature, to cover even a fraction of Lemmy’s early life. After the Vickers, he moved to London, living in squats with Hells Angels and developing a lifelong fondness for speed. He worked as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix and was even supposed to audition for his band – “On the day he fucking died!” – before joining space rock legends Hawkwind in 1971, almost by accident, after the band’s bass player didn’t show up for a gig, yet had left his gear in the van. “He was pretty much saying ‘steal my gig’,” recalled Lemmy. “So I stole his gig.”
Lemmy was fired from Hawkwind four years later, having been busted for possession of speed at the Canadian border, famously retorting that being fired from Hawkwind for drugs “is like being pushed off the Empire State Building for liking heights.” Erroneously charged with possession of cocaine, he was bailed after being “handcuffed to a pipe for 24 hours”, then went back to London and formed Motörhead, making a proud, ominous declaration to Sounds magazine as to the nature of his band.
“If we moved in next door,” he decreed of his new charges, “your lawn would die.”
True to Lemmy’s word, Motörhead created a racket like no other; filthy and uncompromising, like a pack of Harleys booming through the wrong side of town. With albums like the aforementioned Overkill and Bomber, and later Ace Of Spades, they inspired punk bands and metal bands alike, and pretty much single-handedly kick-started thrash – although, ironically, Lemmy wasn’t really a fan of the latter, or, indeed, heavy metal, and considered Motörhead more of punk band.
“We’ve got a lot more in common with The Damned than Judas Priest,” he said, “but we had long hair so they racked us in with heavy metal. If we had short hair, we’d be one of the last of the punk bands. I mean, that’s fucking smart: it all depends on your fucking hairstyle.”
To be honest, most of this is already known to the majority of Motörhead fans, and well documented. Having had the privilege of being Lemmy’s close friend for over 30 years, however, one question that gets asked with regularity is ‘What was Lemmy really like?’ Truthfully, it is one that has always confused me. It’d perhaps be understandable if he had a persona, like Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson, or had hidden his true self away for the sake of personal privacy. But Lemmy was always Lemmy. Nothing about him was an act. He didn’t rise in the morning and dress up as ‘Lemmy’. You may not have even met him, but you knew him, too, and any misconceptions people may have had about him were entirely their own. “Whatever I seem to be, that’s what I am. That’s the whole story right there,” he told Kerrang!.
Read this: The United States of Mötorhead
At a club you’d find him ruthlessly feeding coins into a games machine, Jack and Coke in one hand, Marlboro Red in the other. At home, in his small and hopelessly untidy West Hollywood apartment, a few blocks from the Rainbow and “downhill going home”, you’d find him much the same. Except that the History Channel would be on, airing some World War Two documentary, and he’d often be wearing unreasonably tight Speedos, because LA’s hot and he didn’t give a fuck. He got a lot of backlash from UK fans when he first moved to LA in 1990, but, again, that was other people’s problem, not his.
“People don’t like me living here and I don’t understand it,” he told me. “I wasn’t exactly around their house all the time. England lives in my heart forever, I’m an Englishman and proud of it. But just because you were born on a piece of geography doesn’t mean you have to stay there.”
When he wasn’t on tour, he’d invariably be at the Rainbow, or if not, maybe Crazy Girls strip club. He loved the company of women, had girlfriends and was always the gentleman, but never elected to ‘settle down’.
“I think marriage is very irrational,” he once opined. “It was invented when we were all living in fucking mud huts. Nowadays, everybody cheats on everybody, but the married people say they don’t, which is rank bullshit to me. I wouldn’t do it. If I ever find a woman I’m going to marry, I wouldn’t fuck anybody else, ever. But I never found a bird who could make me think that.”
Well, maybe there was one, when he was younger, but she had tragically died of a heroin overdose.
“It makes you into an evil person, heroin,” he said. “It makes you into the sort of person who’ll purposely infect a kid just so they have someone to shoot up with. It’s a monstrous drug, the worst drug ever. I don’t remember anyone dying on anything else, just heroin and downers. I never saw anyone die of a heart attack from speed, and I never saw anyone die from cocaine, because you couldn’t afford it. I laid into the Welsh parliament about that! They invited me to speak on the subject of drugs because some councilman had seen me moan about heroin on TV or something, and I went in and said they should legalise it. That way you could rate it and control it, and you’d get rid of all the dealers who are shooting each other. It wasn’t the answer he was looking for and I think he was a bit dismayed.”
Perhaps more than anything, Lemmy was honest. And if you didn’t like the answer, then maybe you shouldn’t have asked the question. He had a wicked, often absurd sense of humour – which could be distinctly un-PC – but there was never any underlying malice. It’s just that there was nothing off-limits when it came to jokes, even with serious subjects.
“War’s important,” he once told me, when discussing his lyrics. “If we hadn’t had two world wars there’d be nowhere to sit! We’d have to stand up because there’d be no room! People breed like rabbits and war is the culling of the herd. Shooting each other is more fun than contraception. Obviously it’s more fun, ‘cause look at the amount of people that are doing it…”
In every Lemmy interview and quote, you can hear his voice, and that unrepentant nicotine cackle. I spent many a night hearing it first-hand, while playing the foolish wretch attempting to keep up with him. I tried and failed on many occasions, not the first person to leave an interview rather worse for wear.
“You know as well as I do that I don’t get falling-down drunk,” he told me. “I drink a bottle of bourbon a day, but I don’t get falling-down drunk.”
Not that Lemmy wasn’t fully aware that his lifestyle was unhealthy.
“I don’t recommend my lifestyle,” he said. “It’s been finely-tuned over a long time. It would kill most people.”
Hearing that Keith Richards had tried it, Lemmy even considered getting his blood changed one time, and he went to see a Harley Street doctor who ran some tests, but found some weird chemical compound that wasn’t actually blood. He was advised against changing it.
“I’m lucky, that’s all,” Lemmy shrugged. “It’s not that it doesn’t kill you – it does kill you. I’ve got a metabolism that flexes its muscles and goes, ‘Gimme more!’ But a lot of my friends went off on speed and then on to heroin, and that’s a bad spiral. You’ve just got to be careful. Find what agrees with you and do that.”
Read this: The 13 best heavy metal T‑shirts of all time
It wasn’t until the last few years of his life that Lemmy finally, reluctantly, slowed down a bit, easing off with the cigarettes and speed, and switching from Jack and Coke to Jack and Diet Coke, then to vodka and orange, because it was marginally better for his diabetes. Lemmy had a defibrillator fitted for heart problems in 2013, and then suffered a haematoma that further set back his recovery. So too did going back on the road too soon, although the latter was entirely his choice. He loved being on tour, and while health problems eventually caused shows to be cancelled and sets to be cut short, he carried on through “dogged persistence” and “a refusal to lie down and play dead.”
“What is growing old gracefully?” he snorted. “I don’t think growing old is graceful at all. Growing old is the pits. I’ve still got plenty to play and sing and do, so why shouldn’t I? Anyone who wants to put a fucking curb on me can piss up a rope. As long as I think I’m doing decent music, I’ll keep doing it.”
That was from an interview he did aged 49. Even then, people were questioning how long he could possibly keep this up. Little did they know he had another 20 years on the clock, and another eight studio albums, including such barn-burners as We Are Motörhead, Hammered, Aftershock, and their swansong, Bad Magic. Though they never really got the credit they deserved for it, a lot of Motörhead’s finest work came later in their career.
“People seem to think this band has a plan for world domination,” Lemmy had laughed. “But if we had a plan, it would have gone better. We just fucking do what we do. If we watched the marketing trends then Motörhead wouldn’t be Motörhead any more.”
Besides which, Lemmy was always satisfied with his lot.
“I really like being top of the second echelon so we don’t have to top the bill and you come offstage and there’s just paper cups blowing about,” he told me in our last interview together in 2015. “We come offstage and there’s still some chicks there! That’s always good. And there’s still a crowd to tell you how great you are – or not!”
But he was ill by then, and he knew it. He walked with a cane, yet even managed to make that look cool. He’d moved a little closer to the Rainbow – still downhill on the way home – but he was there less often and less inclined to stay until final orders. I’d go and see him at his apartment instead, and watch some TV.
“I can’t play for much longer,” he told me. “Getting old is the worst thing that can happen to anybody. I don’t recommend it.”
The last time I saw Lemmy was at his 70th birthday party on December 13, 2015, at the Whisky A Go-Go, where Slash, Billy Idol and Sebastian Bach played in his honour. Two days after his actual birthday, December 24, I got a call to say he’d been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to say goodbye to his friends. He had maybe two weeks, maybe two months. In typical fashion, he’d shrugged, “Two months, huh?” and returned to the games machine, which had been moved from the Rainbow to his home. Two days later he was gone, falling asleep in front of that damn machine and never waking up. He always said he wanted to go suddenly: “I don’t want any of them pipes up my nose. They look terrible, don’t they?”
It was a cold day in LA when we laid Lemmy to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Honoured but terrified to be among those speaking at the funeral, especially with guests like Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford, Lars Ulrich and Dave Grohl, I snuck a bottle of Jack in. There was no need. There were crates of the stuff, and, watched by a quarter of a million people live on YouTube, we gave him a good send off, his bass feeding back from the stage one last time. Then we partied at the Rainbow, drinking the place dry. He’d have liked that, the whole of Sunset Strip coming alive in his memory.
Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him, along with millions of others, all touched in some way by his presence. But Lemmy wouldn’t have wanted tears. “I’ve had a good life,” he said in that last interview. “A good run.” He didn’t want to live forever. Instead, he’d have wanted you to raise a glass and crank up some Motörhead. Maybe you could start with Overkill and Bomber.
It’s been a staple of blues, country and Americana for over a hundred years, but what are the trusty harmonica’s greatest appearances in heavy music?
Venom: Let There Be Carnage’s Tom Hardy and Andy Serkis try to figure out if the likes of Venom Prison, Mania and Grendel are death metal bands or Marvel symbiotes…