by Akim Reinhardt
I first heard Motörhead in 1988. I was a DJ at WCBN-FM, the student-run college radio station in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During my late night shift, someone called in a request for “Ace of Spades” from the band’s 1980 self-titled fourth album. I shuffled through the station’s categorized, alphabetized library and found the record. Its cover featured three guys in the desert, sporting black motorcycle leather and cowboy hats. One of them wore a bandolero across his chest. Another was casually draped in a serape.
Maybe they’ve got a ZZ Top kinda thing going on, I thought to myself as I slapped the album on the platter and dropped the needle.
No. They did not sound like ZZ Top.
Motörhead was more like the rockinist rockety-rock any rockers ever rocked. As in, pure rock-n-roll, extra rock please. Hold the bullshit.
Bass, guitar, drums. Period. Turn it up and spit it out.
Their music wasn’t punk or heavy metal, and it couldn’t be bothered to actively defy or coyly mimic either of those genres. No, Motörhead was just simple, angry, ornery, hard, fast, stripped down, straight head, pumped up, rock n roll with just a dash of levity. They were a hard crack to the chops that made you smile.
A couple of years later I saw Motörhead. They were loud. Louder than you can imagine if you never saw them, or never worked on the tarmac of a commercial airport. They were the loudest band on earth.
Founder and front man Lemmy Kilmister oozed badassness. No, of course Lemmy wasn’t his real name. But goddammit, Kilmister actually was. And he dominated a stage like no one else I’ve ever seen.
Lemmy stood there, legs splayed, slender bass guitar strapped on, and a microphone stand intentionally positioned too high above him, with the mic pointed back down, so he could turn his head upward and shout into it, his trademark handlebar mustache and sideburns framing his growling vocals.
All the while, Lemmy played the bass like it was a six-string guitar: he actually strummed chords. Who the fuck strums chords on a bass?
Lemmy. That’s who.
And then there was the audience. I saw four Motörhead shows, the first three in New York City during the early 1990s when the great sterilization/gentrification of Manhattan had only just begun. There was still an edge, and you could see it in the crowd at a Motörhead show, an odd intersection of metal heads, bikers, and punks. You know. People who were up for this shit. I had no doubt that 9/10 of the women there could kick my ass up and down 9th Avenue.
The second time I saw Motörhead, I managed to lift a friend up over my head so he could ride the crowd. Guy weighed at least twice what I did. It was a moment of personal triumph made possible by the insane adrenaline rush. Anytime you left a Motörhead show, you were refreshingly drenched in sweat and beer.
The last time saw Motörhead in New York, I got to go backstage afterwards because a friend’s band had opened for them. A guy I grew up with in the Bronx was in The Cycle Sluts. Actually, his sister was one of the women who fronted the band, and my friend was one of the guys backing them. The Cycle Sluts had toured Europe with Motörhead, and when the raunchy Brits played NYC, they had their favorite girl band open for them, which in turn got me and some friends onto the guest list and then backstage after the show.
We made it to the after party in the venue’s basement just before Lemmy did. I was drinking a free beer when he walked in, draped in women, passing out aces of spades as his calling cards. The place lit up.
It didn’t actually last too long as the band soon headed upstairs to board their touring bus, parked on W. 48th St. My friend’s sister ended up joining them on the bus just before it pulled away. My friend, who stood with me on the sidewalk as the door closed and the bus departed to destinations and adventures unknown, muttered: “Dude, I gotta do this.”
“Do what?” I asked.
“This life, man. This fuckin’ rock n roll life.”
He did. After the Cycle Sluts broke up, he and one of the other women formed their own band, Hanzel und Gretyl. As of this writing, the band’s still going strong all these years later. I mean, he’s not fuckin’ Lemmy, but who is?
The last time I saw Motörhead was in 2000 at a strip club in Lincoln, Nebraska. I guess it was a strip club at night. During the day it was just another hall. The band played a late afternoon show and there were no dancers. By that point Lemmy looked old and tired. He had a gut. His voice was off. It’s understandable. He was 55 years old and had been burning both ends for four decades. And when Lemmy finally died at the age of 70, it was a bit of a miracle he’d made it that long.
Motörhead never achieved the kind of fame that would allow them into popular, mainstream culture. But their followers were devoted, and Lemmy seemed universally respected across genres. For example, he was genuinely admired by both punks and metal heads, a nearly unheard of crossover.
Lemmy resonated deeply with a lot of people not simply because he was balls to the wall. There are plenty of meatheads and scenesters out there if that’s what turns you on, but Lemmy’s shit was always Lemmy-fierce while also being more honest and more intelligent than most people who take that path. Nothing about him seemed phony. In 2003, at age 58, he was asked how he’d like to be remembered. Lemmy replied: “As an honest man. As an honorable man. But that’s out of the question.”
Back in the 1980s, Penelope Spheeris interviewed the mutton chopped bassist for her documentary Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years, which chronicles that era’s fatuous L.A. hair band scene. Why Lemmy’s even in the movie is beyond me. Motörhead is not easily confused with the effete glam metal that dominated ‘80s Los Angles.
Maybe Spheeris wanted to interview just one cool person after shooting countless reels with poser dip shits. Or maybe it’s simply because Lemmy had moved to L.A. by then and he was available. In his memoir, Lemmy speculated that Spheeris filmed him outdoors in the Hollywood hills as a way of making him seem small and stupid. Either way, he comes off as the only straight shooter in the whole film, and certainly the only one you’d wanna have a beer with. No bullshit. No hairspray. No makeup. No pre-faded denim. Just truth and cigarettes.
He stands there, with the lights of L.A. as his backdrop, the coolest cat around, answering the director’s queries. Along the way, he cops to being an alcoholic. He doesn’t glamorize it. She asked him a question, he answered it. Done.
But why do you think that, she follows up, perhaps trying to pierce another overly stylized self-image, the kind she’s used to after interviewing all these preening peacocks in a heavy metal scene that Lemmy actually has little to do with.
“Because I fuckin’ drink too much,” he says.
For more than two weeks following his death in late December of 2015, Lemmy continued to trend on various social media. His memorial service was streamed live with about a quarter-million viewers at any given time; a foul mouthed Finnish milk commercial he shot several years earlier went viral; a petition circulated demanding that the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry name a heavy metal element for him on the Periodic Table (Lemmium); and on it went.
Although not terribly large by pop culture standards, the cult of Lemmy is surprisingly wide ranging, deeply loyal, and easy to understand. For example, after he died, I had no trouble convincing the guys in my weekly poker game to make the next gathering a St. Lemmy’s Day tribute, replete with a Mexican glass prayer candle that reads Law Stay Away, some relevant sacrifices, sufficient whiskey, and lots of Motörhead. This, despite the fact that none of them had ever seen Motörhead, owned any of their albums, favored that kind of music generally, or knew very much about Lemmy. It didn’t matter. Everyone intuitively sensed his charisma and reputation.
However, amid the cultural celebrations of Lemmy, and having “Ace of Spades” stuck in my head for nearly a month, I began to recognize something else about my own affection for the man: he reminded me of my father.
Alcoholic? Check. Legendary drug consumption? Check. Dedicated smoker? Check. Charming rapscallion persona? Check. Devil may care attitude? Check. Given to doing serious bad ass shit now and again? Check. Living a fair bit longer than anyone thought you would? Check. My dad even managed to live nearly a decade longer than Lemmy despite his own rock star diet of booze, drugs, and tobacco.
But of course the similarities are limited. Aside from different national origins and the obvious disparity in musical talent, my father was also unable to maintain a successful career amid the endless hurricane he wrought all around him, his small general contracting business crumbling by his early 50s. Shit, the asshole owed me, his only living son, several thousand dollars in unpaid wages after the last time I worked for him.
A few years later he had the audacity to ask me if he could borrow a few hundred dollars to go on a coke binge with a friend who was dying of colon cancer, a crazy motherfucker named Tommy Turk who’d earned his nickname slicing throats in Vietnam. And I was stupid enough to loan it to him.
By then, my father no longer even remembered owing me the back wages. He said he’d sell half the coke they bought to pay me back. I think he meant it. But instead they just did all the coke. I never saw a cent of it.
Amid the whirlwind I stopped by to pay my respects to Tommy; I’d worked with him a little bit back in the day. His eyes were still wild beyond compare, even as his once fierce body had turned haggard, ravaged by malignant tumors. He shared some earnest, heartfelt words. I listened. He told me how much he respected and loved my father. My father the lion tamer. My father, the man who people admired and misunderstood. My father, the man who was full of love and failure. My father, the man who towered like a legend in the eyes of my friends, now hunched over and offering his son a rail of cocaine.
I think one of the reasons I like Lemmy so much is not because he was exactly like my dad, but because he seemed just close enough to be a safe, happy, distant version of him. The hollow mythology surrounding my father gussied up into something glamorous and successful. My father’s cocksure smiling charm and bad habits cast upon the rumbling stage and reflected in the roaring crowd.
The Ace of Spades instead of the Jack of broken hearts.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com.