Lemmy: outta here. Kilmister looks down on L.A. in Decline of Western Civilization Part 2: The Metal Years
Lemmy, outta here. Kilmister looks down on L.A. in Decline of Western Civilization Part 2: The Metal Years

He was a vicar’s son.

People forget that fact when they talk about Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, the bassist and singer of the legendary hard rock band Motorhead. Kilmister died yesterday at age 70.

Rock music has always been about being bad, but nobody committed to “bad” so completely as Lemmy. He wore a black hat, literally, and collected Nazi war memorabilia (because “the bad guys had the best shit,” he said to the Independent).

More importantly, he wrote about his love of life, morality, and hedonism in equal measure with his reverence for death. Even if you don’t know his music you know “Ace of Spades.” (And if you don't, you should.)

That vicar abandoned Lemmy at three months of age. His music reflects this. He repeated the same abandon—of his lovers, of his own health—and abhorred the moral majority.

The first part of Lemmy’s recipe for “bad” was self-indulgence. His songs venerate the same hard-drinking and harder-smoking lifestyle that he lived. Few songwriters embraced promiscuous sex with the vigor that Lemmy did; at one point he claimed to have slept with more than 1,000 women.

The second piece of his badness, though, was a kind of self-righteous crusade against anyone who claimed to know better. He wrote about the horrors of war and predatory economics. In the world of Motorhead, to be a hard-living rocker was to be part of the insurgency against Thatcher’s Britain, Reagan’s America, and all religion.

To Lemmy, the only god worth worshipping was rock and roll.

But death was always part of the bargain. He wrote about it in a way reminiscent of a samurai studying bushido, meditating on his own death daily. Look no further than the vocal break in his best-known song:

“I know I’m born to lose/ and gambling’s for fools/ but that’s the way I like it, baby/ I don’t want to live forever.

Lemmy’s self-awareness was a big part of what drew his acolytes to him.

He may prove to have been the last figure to stand at the center of rock, before it jettisoned itself into multiple sub-genres. Motorhead was rock, punk, and metal at once; they laid the groundwork for all the heavy bands that followed, and they did so without gimmicks. Lemmy had songwriting chops, but his chief tool was aggression.

I saw one of Lemmy’s last shows, at the Warfield in San Francisco in August. Lemmy still played like the wild hunt was licking at his heels. He lived that way, under the illusion that if one underdog could be mean enough, live brazenly enough, play fast and loud enough, then maybe the system could be beat. Maybe if he refused to give up his ways the way Motorhead refused to end “Overkill,” the song that ended all of their sets, then maybe he really could live forever.

But no one does.

Lemmy knew he was born to lose. But he gambled harder than any musician before or since.