IT WAS never hard to pick out Lemmy in a crowd. First, that black hat, vaguely cowboy in style, with silver medallions round it and crossed Confederate swords. Then very long hair (eventually dyed, or else he looked like Willie Nelson), and matching moustache. A black shirt, often open to a jungle of chest hair, with very tight black jeans. And, to complete the look, cowboy boots. Around the mid-1970s many rock bands and their fans spent Saturday night in something similar. Lemmy, founder in 1975 and frontman of Motörhead, wore that outfit, all the time, for 40 years.
He played the same music, too: fundamentally pure rock and roll, rooted in Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, sent through two 100-watt black stacks and classified by the Guinness Book of Records as the loudest rock music ever. Bass was his instrument, but bashed in big up-down chords like the rhythm guitar on which he’d started: the effect was sometimes compared to crushed razor blades, sometimes to showers of gravel. Over this, through a mic tilted perilously over his head, he would rasp out vocals that were hard to hear and usually absurd, he admitted, once you’d made them out: songs about war, drugs, sex, rich people, kicking ass and broken glass, with titles like “Die, You Bastard”, “Antisocial” and “Overkill”, scrawled mostly by him in a few chortling minutes on the back of a cigarette packet.
Motörhead’s selling point was not high culture. It was that, in a scene encompassing heavy metal, punk, psychedelia, rockabilly and all the rest, the band played reliable, raw, ear-splitting rock and roll of the old style, and went on doing so round the world—or at least round the M1, M6 and M4—as long as Lemmy lasted. He led the band through 22 studio albums, the latest released in August. Guitarists and drummers came and went, sometimes by falling offstage or through bathroom mirrors they mistook for windows. The black hat with silver bits was a constant.
Surprisingly, the body inside the clothes also stayed much the same, despite serial abuse from chain-smoking, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s every day (no health-food shit for him!) and handfuls of acid crammed down like dolly mixtures when, for a while, he was roadie for Jimi Hendrix. Acid, he claimed, made him a better person. It gave you a new angle—several new angles—on things. His shift to amphetamines (“motorhead” was American slang for “speed freak”) came when he joined Hawkwind, a dreamy psychedelic band, in 1972. The pills kept him functional through tours from then on, though he was fired from Hawkwind when he was busted for possession in Canada; and though for one show he had to be propped up, his bass hung on him, and pointed in the rough direction of the audience, which he couldn’t see. A doctor once told him that a transfusion would kill him, because his body no longer contained any human blood.
Yet he couldn’t imagine a better life than this, and certainly couldn’t have foreseen it as a troubled, bullied English boy in north Wales—fiddling to catch Bill Haley on the wireless, messing around with short-lived useless bands, slaving at the Hotpoint factory. In the end he spent his entire career making the music he loved, thrilling fans, trashing hotel rooms, instigating riots with firehoses or squirty cheese, and taking restricted substances. (“If we moved in next door to you,” he remarked, “your lawn would die.”) He was a hedonist son of a bitch whose age seemed very nicely stuck at around 25.
Laid today, gone tomorrow
Meanwhile, girls desperate to bed him formed a disorderly queue at every stage door. The best part of any gig was getting laid afterwards; he estimated his conquests in the thousands, because chicks loved men intent on the wandering life, and it suited him, too, to be here today and gone tomorrow. Nowhere was home (though LA, with its “paradise” palm trees, came closest) and marriage wasn’t his style. The one girl he deeply loved died from heroin, making him even more determined not to touch that stuff, at least.
His other regret was that after Motörhead’s greatest hit, “Ace of Spades”, had soared to number 15 in the charts in 1980, even the band’s fans seemed deaf to the equally good music that came next. Though he was on the road most of the year for 40 years, playing to packed houses, he seemed to be always broke. On the fringes of venues he would loiter by the slot machines (his favourite form of that addiction), hoping someone would buy him a drink.
The big time, however, never came any closer, because he refused to change a thing he did. He wore his usual gear, including the Iron Cross necklace from his treasured collection of Nazi memorabilia, even to the Grammy awards. Nor would he kowtow to any asshole, record company or manager. He remained stubbornly his own man, and not always at full volume. On the road he bought dozens of chocolate Kinder eggs for the little toys inside. He enjoyed pondering the beauty and randomness of Nature. And at lights-out on the tour bus he would settle down to P.G. Wodehouse, quietly happy in his own company. He hoped to be remembered as “an honourable man”. But then, with a throaty laugh, he had to admit there wasn’t really any question of that.