On December 28, two days after being diagnosed with neck and brain cancer, and after three years of battling numerous other health issues, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister died in his home. He was the bassist, vocalist, founder and sole consistent member of the band Motörhead. And to many, despite limited commercial success, he was the ultimate rock god.
Since 1975, Motörhead’s biker looks and loud, fast and aggressive music united the often-feuding worlds of punk and heavy metal. For 40 years they stood tall in their style and sound, never bending to the winds of fashion. Theirs was a fast, loud rock that still managed to convey a coherent melody under their singer’s ferocious, yet intelligible, growl. Over the years, the band’s “war pig” logo has become as ubiquitous as the Misfits’ skull and the Ramones’ eagle in the punk and metal worlds, adorning countless leather jackets, car bumpers and laptops.
Yet as straightforward as Motörhead were, Lemmy himself was a more complex figure. His mutton chops, black clothing and silver jewelry (including his beloved Nazi war medals) conveyed all the ferocity of a Hell’s Angel’s clubhouse in the midst of a three-day bender. But in person, he was a guy who loved to play videogames in bars and chat with his fans.
My favorite memory of Lemmy was an interview I conducted for a major news organization in New York. After parading him and his scantily clad date through the newsroom to scandalize my co-workers, we arrived in the radio studio, where he immediately lit up a Marlboro Red. When I informed him smoking wasn’t allowed, he replied with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, “That’s all right, mate, you aren’t gonna say anything,” and asked me to get him a Coke. As I returned with the soda, I noticed the bottle of Jack Daniel’s sitting next to him as he sprinkled some white powder onto the counter. I quickly handed the soda to his publicist and excused myself from the room for a few minutes to attend to some “business.” Had some twenty-something hotshot rock star disrespected my studio like that I’d have kicked him out on his ass. But this was Lemmy. He wasn’t being malicious. It was just part of the package.
An encounter a few years later was a bit more embarrassing for me. I’d taken a train to Holmdel, N.J., to interview him on the Ozzfest tour, only to find the batteries in my recorder dead and no backups. When I told Lemmy, he didn’t get frustrated or escort me from the tour bus. He poured me a Jack Daniel’s and suggested we “polish a turd” by talking music in the hopes I could use the conversation in another form.
That Lemmy made it to the age of 70 is amazing. He claimed to have drunk a bottle of Jack Daniel’s every day since he was 30, switching to vodka after his health declined. His love of meth was legendary. And he was a voracious smoker. But for some reason, Lemmy seemed like a giant who would never succumb to death. I always assumed he’d be the last man standing to raise a final toast over Keith Richards’ grave.
But Lemmy understood his mortality, and even embraced it. In Motörhead’s anthem “Ace of Spades,” he famously sang “You 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.”
The joke’s on him, however. Because Lemmy will live forever, revisiting us every time we blast his music and raise a Jack Daniel’s in his memory.