During my formative years as a college radio DJ in Northern Michigan, I was granted a few minutes on the phone with Lemmy Kilmister for an on-air interview.
Having no idea what to ask Lemmy that he hadn’t been asked dozens of times during his music career — which was already past the 30-year point even by the time of our interview in 2000 — I panicked and asked him if he was indeed God as posited by Steve Buscemi in the 1994 heavy-metal comedy Airheads.
His disarming response: “I saw God during an acid trip one time. He’s much taller than me.”
That may or may not be true, and I was more than happy to take Lemmy’s word for it. But the specter of Lemmy loomed taller and received more reverence than almost any other figure in the history of heavy music.
Many of the vaunted heroes of metal have blemishes on their legacies. Ozzy Osbourne had his reality-TV trainwreck period. Metallica nearly crashed and burned during the St. Anger/Some Kind of Monster era. Scott Ian had years where he was known more as a VH1 personality than as a musician. Glenn Danzig became the butt of jokes about self-seriousness and kitty litter.
But as other metal gods had their ups and downs, Lemmy remained the most un-fuck-with-able icon in heavy music and rock & roll.
By the time he formed Motörhead in 1975, Lemmy already had a resume that would have been looked at as a badass career. He was a roadie for The Jimi Hendrix Experience. He played bass for '70s British space-rockers Hawkwind on some of their best albums.
After his unceremonious departure from Hawkwind in 1975, Lemmy copped the title of the last song he had written for that band and dubbed his new group Motörhead. Motörhead was loud enough for the metalheads, fast enough for the punk rockers and catchy enough for the rock & rollers. The term “crossover” was coined in the world of heavy metal to describe '80s bands like D.R.I., which appealed equally to metalheads and punks, but a strong case could be made that Motörhead was the first true “crossover” band.
As Motörhead’s reputation built throughout the early ‘80s on the heels of their biggest “hit,” “Ace of Spades,” the cult surrounding Lemmy grew. The fact that he played his bass more like a traditional guitar, his all-black yet stylish attire and his preferred performance stance, shouting up into a microphone, were little touches that helped Lemmy stand out from the ever-growing crowd of heavy-metal screamers and growlers. There was also the simple fact that Motörhead was the loudest band on the planet.
I saw them perform at the Wiltern and forgot to wear earplugs. My ears rang for four days straight afterward.
By the time the ‘90s rolled around and transitioned into the 2000s, Lemmy’s image was firmly established as shorthand for metal. Forays into Hollywood and celebrity that would have ruined the credibility of other musicians just saw Lemmy become that much cooler. A cameo in the aforementioned film Airheads and appearances in multiple Troma cult movies spread his legend beyond the ears of the already converted. WWE called on Motörhead in 2001 to provide an original entrance theme for main-event wrestler Triple H. As video games became more sophisticated with the next generation of consoles, Lemmy’s voice started populating games such as Scarface: The World Is Yours and Brutal Legend.
Motörhead’s motto for their live performances was “everything louder then everything else.” They accomplished that goal every night, but especially so on the evening that I saw them perform at the Wiltern and forgot to wear earplugs. My ears rang for four days straight afterward.
But for every time they cemented their reputation for loudness, some of the finest moments of Lemmy’s musical career are more dialed-down and subdued. The biggest songwriting credit of Lemmy’s career was as a co-writer of the 1991 Ozzy Osbourne power ballad “Mama I’m Coming Home.” That same year, Motorhead’s major-label foray 1916 closed with a minimalist ballad of the same name that features Lemmy hauntingly sing-speaking about the harrowing effects of war. The group’s 2004 album Inferno closes with an acoustic blues track titled “Whorehouse Blues” that may be even dirtier-sounding than the most caustic metal tracks of Motörhead's catalog.
Lemmy was born in England, and Motörhead’s formative years were spent there as well. After moving to Hollywood in 1990, Lemmy planted permanent stakes a few blocks away from the Rainbow Bar & Grill and became as much of a fixture on the Sunset Strip as any of the dozens of bands who experienced entire career arcs along that hallowed stretch of rock clubs. When he wasn’t on tour with Motörhead, he could often be spotted at the end of the bar on the outside patio of the Rainbow, indulging in beverages and touchscreen video games all night long.
Lemmy is an undeniable icon in the global rock community, but he never became a millionaire or received any platinum records. He remained in the same cramped one-bedroom apartment off the Sunset Strip for the rest of his life. Shots of his apartment, with mementos from his career and life consuming every single inch of available square footage, remain some of the most memorable images of the 2010 documentary simply titled Lemmy.
The Best Metal Performance Grammy has been fraught with controversy since its introduction in 1989, but perhaps the category's greatest crime is that in its 25-year history, Motörhead was nominated for an original composition only once — last year, for “Heartbreaker,” off their 2013 album Aftershock. They had two previous nominations, including a win in 2006, but those were for covers of Metallica songs.
Plenty of musicians carry chips on their shoulders because they never got their due, either critically or financially. But Lemmy never developed a negative attitude about such things. As long as he was able to continue to earn a living by touring and recording a new album every couple years, that was enough for him. Even after living in L.A. for 25 years, he remained the same charming and disarming rock & roll enthusiast from England that he was at the beginning of his career. More than the legendary tales of sexual and alcoholic escapades, that was what made him metal's coolest icon.
Motörhead’s final album, Bad Magic, was released this past summer. But my favorite new release of Lemmy-related material in 2015 was contained in the Blu-ray reissue of Penelope Spheeris’ documentary series The Decline of Western Civilization. The disc containing 1988’s The Metal Years doc is loaded with hours of deleted interview footage. The footage from Lemmy’s interview is 20 minutes of the Motörhead leader light-heartedly taking the piss out of Spheeris’ questions about the appeal of heavy-metal music.
At one point in the interview, Spheeris steers her line of questioning to the topic of groupies. Lemmy responds by talking about how every type of famous person attracts groupies, even tennis players.
Spheeris asks Lemmy if that was why he started playing heavy metal.
Lemmy’s response: “Well, I wasn’t any good at playing tennis.”