Henry Rollins: You Can't Tell the Story of Rock & Roll Without Lemmy

Lemmy in concert with Motörhead at Club Nokia in 2009
Lemmy in concert with Motörhead at Club Nokia in 2009
Photo by Timothy Norris

I was checking the email and saw a new arrival. Kirt S. wrote to inform me that, if I didn’t know, Lemmy Kilmister had just passed away at 70 years old.

Only a few hours ago, I had been looking at a German rock magazine cover with the two of us staring at each other. Yesterday, I had been wondering how he was doing.

I can't imagine that readers of the L.A. Weekly who find themselves in the music section need any explanation as to who Lemmy was. All you need to say is Motörhead and the image of Lem comes up.

I became a Lemmy fan when I heard Motörhead’s album Ace of Spades. In the small punk-rock scene I was in, they were a true crossover band. It wasn’t uncommon then or now to see a punk rocker in a Motörhead T-shirt.

I would like to think that this was due to at least two reasons. First, the music was badass and uncompromising. It packed as much or more wallop than anything your punk heroes could ever come up with. Second, and more importantly, you knew that Lemmy was the 100 percent genuine article. I think this was the biggest selling point of the band. The man was so straight-shooting, you could either handle it, or you couldn’t.

Motörhead were well known in the rock world not only for playing hard as hell but for being loud to the point of giving their audiences brain damage. Even from the side of the stage, from where I last witnessed them, it was a battering experience. Lemmy’s lyrics, often witty, packed with sarcasm and scorn, told a lot of unflinching truth. With Lem, it wasn’t always what he saw but how he saw it that made the lyrics bite.

In 1981, I joined Black Flag and was immediately exposed to a lot of new music from my new bandmates. One of the most lasting musical turn-ons of my life was when Dez Cadena played me Lemmy’s pre-Motörhead band, Hawkwind. When I heard their mind-numbing live tour de force, Space Ritual, it became one of my favorite albums and remains so to this day.

Beyond the music, which more than speaks for itself, Lemmy the man was truly one of a kind.

I first met him in 1988, I think, at the New Music Seminar in NYC. We were on a panel. The green room was an eclectic who’s-who from all genres. I was sitting with Leonard Cohen, Diamanda Galas, Jellybean Benitez, Hank Ballard and Lemmy. It was all a little much for me to take in. Lemmy looked at me, then wrote a note on a piece of paper and slid it in front of me. It read, “What am I doing here?”

I don’t think he was the type who wants to sit on a stage behind a table and talk about music. I admired his overall disgust with the event. Still, Lemmy ended up winning the day by being the only one of us, besides the great Leonard Cohen, to connect with the audience. I was asked a question and, after I answered, Lemmy leaned into his mic and said, “That’s a lot of bull.” The audience went nuts.

That was the start of crossing paths with the man all over the world until September of last year, which was the last time I saw him.

One of my favorite Lemmy memories is from the beginning of this century. My bandmates and I were in a small plane, somewhere in Scandinavia, waiting on a hot tarmac for some late passengers. The inside of the plane was getting warmer and warmer. Whoever these people were who were making me sit and sweat better have a good excuse.

Finally, I saw humans clambering aboard. I smelled a combination of leather, sweat and tobacco. Motörhead walked down the aisle! All was forgiven.

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Luckily, the seat next to me was open. Lemmy sat down. “Hello, Henry, mind if I sit with you?”

I pummeled the man with Hawkwind questions, which he happily fielded. Then the drink cart came by and Lem asked to inspect the alcohol. None of it met with his approval. He said to the attendant, “A glass. Ice. Coke.”

He looked across the aisle to one of his crew. “The bottle.” A bottle of brown liquor was handed to him and he prepared his drink. He remarked to me, “I will not be trammeled by a mere airline.” Lemmy gold.

By never flinching and living his life exactly how he wanted, Lemmy will be, to countless fans all over the world, a friend they never actually met and one of the true icons of rock & roll. The man was the music.

He once told that he remembered before there was rock & roll. The statement blew my mind and I asked him to elaborate. He said there was a time when it was just your parents' Rosemary Clooney records. Then he heard Elvis, Chuck Berry and other originals and never came back. In the next breath, he talked about seeing The Beatles play in the Cavern Club, and I realized that the man was there when they were building the foundation. Oh, and then there’s the part where he used to be on Hendrix’s road crew.

So there was really nothing you could ever tell Lemmy about how it’s done. In fact, you can’t tell the story of modern rock & roll without him. This is not grief-fueled hyperbole because I’m not grieving. The man lived his life his way and had a great time doing it. I’m willing to bet he wouldn’t have changed a thing.

That doesn’t mean I won’t miss him, because I will. He was loved all over the world by millions and there’s no way he didn’t know it. Nice one, Lem.

Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.


More From the Mind of Henry Rollins:
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Why I'm Not an Atheist

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