If there’s a zen koan of heavy metal, it’s the intonation Lemmy Kilmister gave to open every show for the past 40 years: “We are Motörhead. We play rock and roll.”
Those 10 syllables croaked out after crossing the Sahara that was Kilmister’s throat is all you need to know about Lemmy and why his fans kept buying tickets to their first, second, ninth, Motörhead shows. He died Monday night at the age of 70, ended by what the band has called an aggressive form of cancer. Well, the official line is dead. Though there are those of us in the community who speculate that “cancer” is just a euphemism for Lemmy saddling all of time and space like some bloody Bengal tiger so that he can ride through dimensions and unseat God himself, and is only now settling in on the throne with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in one hand and a Rickenbacker bass in the other, a smoldering Marlboro dangling from his lips.
Lemmy die? Watch me spit my beer laughing. His body may have croaked, but his dedication to the integrity in Motörhead’s simple mission statement conferred on him the same brand of immortality that fellow road warrior Genghis Khan achieved when he admonished his troops on the value of purity between conquests. Lemmy drank a gallon of Jack Daniel’s a day. He roadied for Hendrix. He’d been knocked unconscious after receiving three consecutive blowjobs in celebration (thanks?) of Bomber going silver. Die? Lemmy doesn’t die. Lemmy merely changes forms in preparation for an eternal encore.
Of course any idiot in a popular band can and will commit a certain amount of debauchery, and metal bands especially seem locked into a competition for the best “and then the darkness set in” Behind the Music commercial bumper. Ozzy snorting a line of ants, Nikki Sixx writing Kickstart My Heart after a heroin overdose, and that alone isn’t particularly special. But Black Sabbath begat MTV’s The Osbournes and Mötley Crüe has pulled their shit together enough to trot out two records in the new millennium. Lemmy only begat more Lemmy. This is a nearly impossible thing to do as an artist. As Dave Grohl put it in the documentary Lemmy: “Fuck Keith Richards, fuck all those dudes who survived the ‘60s. Flying around in private jets, living up their gunslinger reputation as they fuck supermodels in the most expensive hotel in Paris. It’s like: you know what Lemmy is doing? Lemmy is … probably drinking Jack ‘n’ Cokes and writing another record.”
My final count for Motörhead show attendance ends at seven. This is a respectable number but hardly extraordinary. I couldn’t tell you what year any of them took place in because once you walked into the concert hall there were no signifiers anymore. Just the band in the same cowboy/pirate gear kicking ass and Lemmy’s rumbling bass notes shearing through the dark like a series of concussive A-bomb detonations. They didn’t waste their audience’s time. They played faster and louder because people have shit to do. That was a life lesson. That he was no virtuoso, or even professionally groomed, was life lesson number two.
Musicians, especially ones in aggressive genres like metal and rap, get a lot of shit on “credibility.” Inevitably someone will dismiss Lemmy’s legacy as the long term pose of a rich rock star. That person misses the point, that the pose was long term because he in fact held it. This is not limited to Lemmy Kilmister, who long ago decided exactly who he wanted to be and then lived up to it. Rather, this applies to all basic human interactions as we construct our personalities until they start resemble a Charlie Kaufman script. To live your entire life as a deliberate construct is in fact very high thinking and, frankly, inspirational. I’m not sure there’s anyone out there now who compares. Maybe Taylor Swift, if she can keep shaking it off for the next 50 years. Kanye West acts like he doesn’t give a fuck, but is quick to apologize and contextualize an outburst. Hunter Thompson dissolved into cocaine and lost his ability to write a straight clause from point A to — any other sort of point, come to think of it. Mick Jagger was desperate to be fashionable. “Lust for Life” played behind Royal Caribbean ads and the tiny Iggy Pop crush we all carried with us melted like a weeping whitehead.
Lemmy never buckled. He never pivoted. His life should make us reconsider our own, which is the highest praise I can give to the call to arms of the best metal in any form. Who else is left like that? Only Lemmy, R.I.P., in whatever form he’s shredding the universe in now.