One of rock and roll’s most storied odysseys launched from the back of a truck in 1972. Guitarist Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister found himself desperately in need of work and guitar in hand, he turned up for an audition to play with U.K. space voyagers, Hawkwind, who were playing a free gig from the back of a truck that day. When Dave Brock elected to switch to lead, that vacancy closed but another opened when the bassist went AWOL. Lemmy described the moment to my friend Joel McIver in 2003, “[T]hey said, who plays bass? And keyboard player Dik Mik pointed to me and said, ‘He does.’ I said, ‘You cunt, I’ve never picked one up in my life!’ And then the bass player didn’t show up and left his fuckin’ gear in the van. Talk about stealing his gig, eh?”
Little could Lemmy have seen that he had just stepped on the tail of a meteor that would catapult him through time and space into rock history as the Jack Daniels-swilling, chain-smoking, speed-loving frontman of Motörhead — one of heavy metal’s most cherished pillars. Like Keith Richards, he was as known for his poetic economy of speech, his prodigious vices and his death-defying longevity as much as his decades-deep catalog of music. What his hyper-aggressive bass playing technique (no effects, volume up, beating the strings like they owed him money), lacked in prismatic technicality it doubled in pure force.
I still recall the first time I saw Ace Of Spades on television — as transfixed by the ghoulish visage of this howling biker playing bass as I was by the joyfully unrestrained blasts of speed metal blowing through the tiny speaker of my television. I instantly sussed that what I beheld was more than simply a song or a band, but a bona fide institution and thankfully I had six or seven albums of back catalog to explore from that moment — one of those rites of passage for a young music fan when you realize that the new artist you’ve just stumbled onto has already released a trove of records just waiting to be plundered by fresh ears.
As both a fan and a journalist, I’ve had the honour of seeing Motörhead live many, many times and seeing Lemmy at gigs and festivals never failed to send jolts of electrified fanboy excitement running up my spine. And I always enjoyed seeing him at the Rainbow on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, playing his fruit machine in the corner, occasionally interrupted by the odd camera-toting tourist or starry-eyed metalhead looking for a photograph. Though I’d heard there were times when he’d tell people to leave him be while he was playing, I never saw him refuse someone’s photo request.
His death today was shocking, although weirdly, we all saw it coming — particularly in the wake of this year’s myriad show cancellations due to his failing health. And yet, while recent photographs betrayed his physical decline, there was no sense that the end of the road had drawn near. In fact, reports that he’d cleaned up his act, quitting smoking and cutting back on boozing, had bolstered hopes of a recovery. But two days ago, Lemmy received the news that he’d been afflicted with a merciless and exceedingly-aggressive form of cancer and less than 48 hours later, he had passed back into the eternal recesses of the great cosmic ether.
My friend Jamie Blaine had the chance to interview him for Bass Guitar Magazine a few months ago and I’ll be re-reading that feature tonight. What I love most about it is the way he considers Lemmy as a musician, an idol and a regular guy, wrapped up into one easygoing chat that I think captures Lemmy’s essence this year better than any other piece. It almost felt like, being featured by a smaller magazine than say Metal Hammer or Rolling Stone, Lemmy was more himself and less inclined to step into the gargantuan persona foisted upon him, expected to regale the interviewer with outrageous quotes and jaw-dropping tales of heroic excess.
Other outlets will cover his life in splendid detail but anybody interested in an absorbing and fast-moving biography of Lemmy and Motorhead should check out Joel’s magnificent Overkill: The Untold story of Motörhead.
In the meantime, here’s my favourite Motörhead song for your enjoyment. Knobs to eleven, if you please.