A few nights ago, I was sitting on the couch in the living room crying: full on, shoulder-heave crying, like a little kid. I don’t weep a lot, so this was unusual. I’m not opposed to crying, in concept, but I don’t often find myself in such an extreme emotional state. I cried from time to time when I was a kid, but the older I get, the less I find myself brought to tears. Despite that emotional reserve, I was sobbing at the end of the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out. Yes, I was crying over an animated movie. A key theme of the film is that sadness is part of life and, for example, it’s o.k. to cry. My daughter was sitting with me, and she hugged me through it and brought me Kleenex. I love that kid. The movie wasn’t the primary cause of my outburst, but it definitely tipped me over the edge between feeling sad and springing an emotional leak. What really got me was the news that Lemmy died.
Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister was the founder of the band Motörhead. Motörhead, for those of you who are woefully ignorant of the heavy metal genre, are the band that, according to Lemmy, if they moved in next door to you, your lawn would die. If you’re a fan, you love that quote. If you’re not a fan, you probably won’t ever quite get it. Too bad for you. Motörhead has been making great music since their eponymous first album in 1977, all the way up until 2015 when they released what it turned out was to be their 22nd and final studio album, Bad Magic. While you could be sure to find Motörhead in the heavy metal section of the record store, their songs ranged from the darkest, scariest music to the most high energy, straight up rock and roll around. As I mentioned in my book, Metal Fatigue, Motörhead are a genre unto themselves. Lemmy was the bassist and singer; the iconic front man.
I first saw Lemmy in the video for the song “Ace of Spades” on MTV around 1986. The song was much older, but I was still in my learning phase, and I hadn’t yet been exposed to Motörhead. The video was one of those life-changing moments. It was a straightforward performance clip, with no frills other than a bit of fog/smoke, lending a touch of atmosphere to the set. There were three important distinctions, though, from every other hard rock or heavy metal video I had ever seen. First, they played so fast. Thrash metal was around, but this was different. They sounded like a runaway train, completely out of control, about to leap from the rails and cause massive destruction. Second, Lemmy sang uphill. The microphone stand was taller than he was and the mic hung down, so that he was singing with his head held high, as if he really wanted to be sure God could hear him. Third, Lemmy has a terrible voice. Don’t get me wrong, I love Lemmy’s singing voice, but, objectively, he can’t sing. I mean at all. He’s got the gravelly rasp of a sick dog barking. Given what I had seen in that video, I had no choice but to go straight to the record store and buy the first Motörhead record I could find, which happened to be Orgasmatron. The album was heavy, dark, and, importantly, fast. It was yet another side of the metal genre that I hadn’t heard before. I followed that purchase with the greatest hits album No Remorse and quickly became another rabid, lifelong fan of Motörhead and Lemmy.
Lemmy is the legend, the archetype, the quintessence of a rocker. Not a rock star, just a badass rocker. He was unchanging, the eternal rock and roll icon. He reliably held a Jack and Coke in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and lived the life all us metal kids thought we wanted to live. He did nothing but make records, tour, and have fun. I was reminded today that he didn’t dress up or put on a costume for the stage. When he played, there were no frills, no big pyrotechnics, no extras. Just music. Fucking loud music. Finally, in 2012, I got to see Motörhead play live, opening for Megadeth on the Gigantour. I enjoyed all the bands on stage that night, but I only bought one t-shirt: Motörhead’s “No Album ’til Next Year” Tour shirt. It was a perfect example of Lemmy’s wonderful sense of humor, and I couldn’t go without owning that shirt to commemorate my first encounter with Lemmy and Motörhead. I am nothing if not cheap, but I handed over my $30 without hesitation.
I knew Lemmy’s health wasn’t great in the last couple years, and I had recently talked with my metal brother Sean about the day when we would hear of Lemmy’s passing. We figured it wouldn’t be a surprise if he died soon, but we also thought it was possible he would outlive us all. There was a joke in the metal community that after a nuclear war, the only living things left would be cockroaches…and Lemmy. Given the amount of alcohol and drugs he had consumed without succumbing, he seemed superhuman in some way. He just might be immortal.
I have been thinking a lot about why his death brought me to tears. It did’t make sense to me at first. Why was I crying about a bass player with a terrible voice? Today, as I watched the live stream of Lemmy’s funeral, I figured it out: he was one of my heroes. The speaker at the funeral said Lemmy exemplified the spirit of Shakespeare’s words, “To thine own self be true.” He was always genuine, honest, and determined to live his life exactly the way he wanted to. That’s the moment I realized I got my personal motto from Lemmy: be yourself, like what you like, and do cool stuff. I thought I was so clever, but, it turns out, I was just reflecting the ideals of Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister.
Lemmy’s bandmate Phil Taylor, the original drummer for Motörhead, died recently, too. And, on the same day as Lemmy, an old friend of mine, Mason, passed away. It’s been a rough year, in some ways, for me and a lot of others. To my friends, family, my metal brothers and sisters, and to anyone who has felt like crying or even shed a few tears in the last year, I say, “Cheers.” Let’s raise a glass, whether water or whisky, and remember those we’ve lost and give a hug to those we still have.
“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” – from “Ace of Spades by Motörhead