“Who’d win in a wrestling match, Lemmy or God?”
Few metal frontmen are iconic enough to be known by only one name. But with his singular strained-throat growl, his peerless song catalog, and his general veneer of invincibility, Lemmy more than earned his mononymic status. The lead singer and bassist for rock gods Motörhead became such a mythic figure that the query of whether or not he could pin the Almighty in a half nelson — as Brendan Fraser’s aspirant rock star character asks in the 1994 comedy Airheads — not only registers as worth debating, it’s actually a trick question. To Fraser’s Chazz, and to every other metalhead who came of age in the late ’70s and ’80s, Lemmy was God.
Lemmy died yesterday at age 70 in his home in Los Angeles, after a “short battle with an extremely aggressive cancer,” according to Motörhead’s Facebook page. Even after all the recent reports of Lemmy having been “close to death” during a 2014 surgery, shortening gigs due to being physically unable to finish, and actually giving up smoking cigarettes and his trademark Jack and coke due to health concerns, it still seems impossible. This was Lemmy, as seemingly unsinkable as Keith Richards, still calling himself “indestructible” as recently as August. This was God. Gods don’t die.
He wasn’t always Lemmy, of course. The metal overlord was born Ian Fraser Kilmister in Staffordshire, England, raised by his mother and aunt. He acquired “Lemmy” as a nickname when he was in grade school; the name may have come from his tendency to ask classmates to “lend me” some money. His life was changed by seeing the Beatles perform at Liverpool’s Cavern Club when he was 16, and upon moving to the Greater Manchester area later in his teens, Lemmy played with a number of local that never amounted to much.
Lemmy enjoyed his first taste of rock stardom as the bassist and occasional singer for the rough-edged space rock outfit Hawkwind. By mid-decade, the group had scored four straight top 20 albums in the U.K., and one legitimate smash in the top five hit “Silver Machine,” with lead vocals provided by Lemmy (after the original take by lyricist Robert Calvert was deemed “too weak”). But in ’75, Kilmister was booted from Hawkwind for his erratic behavior — specifically stemming from his drug usage, which had led to a then-recent arrest at the U.S./Canadian border, forcing the cancellation of several tour dates.
Shortly after his firing, Lemmy joined up with guitarist Larry Wallis and drummer Lucas Fox to form the power trio with which he would become most associated with. After a trial run under the name Bastard, the group took the advice of their manager and switched to the less-controversial Motörhead — swiped from the title of the final song Lemmy wrote for his previous band. Featuring a faster, heavier, and decidedly more earthbound sound than Hawkwind, Motörhead gradually gained a devout following in the U.K. over three blistering albums in the late ’70s — recorded with guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke and drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor replacing Wallis and Fox — charting higher with each successive album.
The band’s popularity peaked in the early ’80s, with the release of the classic Ace of Spades album in 1980 and the chart-topping live album No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith in ’81 — the band’s only No. 1. The former also spawned what would become the band’s (and Lemmy’s) signature song in the 100 mph title track, as rip-roaring and blood-boiling an anthem as metal has ever produced. It’s a song impossible to imagine with any vocalist but Lemmy howling through gritted teeth the instantly archetypal life philosophy espoused: “You know I’m born to lose / And gambling’s for fools / But that’s the way I like it baby, I DON’T WANNA LIVE FOREVER!”
This period would later be referred to by Lemmy as the band’s downfall, since Motörhead found it impossible to follow up its successes. Nonetheless, the band would consistently chart well with its new albums through the ’80s and into the early ’90s. And in 1991, Lemmy achieved as a songwriter what he never could as a performer: a U.S. top 40 hit, courtesy of the 1991 Ozzy Osbourne power ballad “Mama, I’m Coming Home,” co-penned by Kilmister. Motörhead continued to record and tour relentlessly through the 21st century — up through this year’s Bad Magic, the band’s 22nd LP — and also hosted the Motörboat cruise, the so-called Loudest Boat in the World, each of the last two years.
Merely regarding Lemmy through his exploits on record tells only half the story, of course. He was equally legendary for his decades of unapologetic decadence, a consistent diet of booze, drugs, and sex, which the frontman refused to temper as he aged, until his body ultimately denied him the choice. He wasn’t glamorous, and he definitely wasn’t pretty — when SPIN asked him in 2009 why he never got his prominent facial moles removed, he pointed to his face and reasonably inquired “What can you make out of this? What are you going to do?” But he proved that music and attitude were far more crucial to embodying the rock’n’roll lifestyle than looks, and no less a rock authority than Dave Grohl has said: “F**k Elvis and Keith Richards, Lemmy’s the king of rock ‘n’ roll… a living, breathing, drinking and snorting f**king legend. No one else comes close.”
However, long after memories fade of Lemmy’s Cal Ripken-like streak of JD bottle-downing, or the Wilt Chamberlain-like numbers he’s purported to have put up in the bedroom, his legacy will be secure through his timeless songs and the enduring impact his music has had on metal history. Motorhead helped adrenalize the genre in the late ’70s, imbuing it with a punk-like quickness and urgency, paving the way not only for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that broke out at the turn of the decade, but for countless other speed-based metal subgenres that followed in the decades to come. Songs like “(We Are) The Roadcrew,” “Jailbait,” “Overkill,” “Motörhead” (re-recorded by the band it christened in 1977) and of course “Ace of Spades” remain genre perennials, and Metallica — likely the most successful metal band of all time — once recorded an EP’s worth of Motörhead covers for the B-sides to their “Hero of the Day” single.
Despite all this, Lemmy forever insisted that Motörhead should not be considered a metal band — rather, simply a rock’n’roll band. And really, it makes sense — though they chugged harder and faster than any of their band contemporaries, with a sound so massive and aggressive it almost had to be metal, when you boiled the group down to their essence, they were a power trio with an outlaw mentality who mostly just wanted to raise hell. They were far closer to ZZ Top in ethos than Iron Maiden. Hell, Lemmy probably had way more Johnny Cash in him than Rob Halford.
Regardless of how you thought his music best categorized, the loss of Lemmy is an enormous one to the rock world — perhaps doubly so with classic-era drummer Phil Taylor also having died earlier this year. In the end, fans can take solace in the fact that Motörhead was able to survive long enough to embody the “Live Fast, Die Old” spirit that titled a mid-’00s British TV documentary about the band, with Lemmy in particular evading the Reaper on countless occasions where a mere mortal would undoubtedly have succumbed. And if death happened to get the better of him this once, that’s all just part of the plan — as Lemmy’s insisted to us so many times over the last 35 years, he don’t want to live forever.