LEMMY AT FIFTY
The morning after, Lemmy Kilmister, age fifty, is doing his best to remember the night before.
As usual, Lemmy's band, Motorhead, is on tour, but there was no show the previous evening. Rather than catch up on his rest, however, Lemmy abandoned his New Orleans hotel around nightfall and cruised strip bars. "I was down there talking to women who had no interest in me whatsoever other than a professional one--which is usually the case," he admits good-naturedly, his English accent thick and phlegmy. "People go in there and pour out their hearts to these chicks, and they're nodding and smiling and thinking, `I wish I could get off my feet.'" He isn't sure exactly when he made it back to his room, but he knows it took him quite a while to lose consciousness. ("I couldn't get to sleep," he says. "I was drunk enough to go to sleep, but the brain wouldn't lie down.") He estimates that his lids finally closed around 10:30 a.m., four hours before he was supposed to sit for an interview. A member of his road crew woke him up on schedule, but it took Lemmy another two hours or so to pull himself together. "Before then," he reveals, guffawing, "I was just blundering around the room, knocking over the furniture. But I'm all right now--or at least as all right as I get."
Whether Lemmy has ever been all right is a subject of considerable debate. The pro-Motorhead faction holds that Lemmy is the epitome of rock and roll, a passionate, single-minded musical maniac whose particular brand of brutal riffing, bellowed vocals and lyrical mayhem prefigured much of the best heavy metal from the past two decades. Opponents, by contrast, see Lemmy as Spinal Tap on two legs--amusing in small doses, perhaps, but thoroughly unimportant and unlistenable over the long haul. Journalist Malu Halasa is a typical naysayer: In The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, he writes, "That this band has never caught on in America's wheat-belt heavy metal heartland represents a mysterious lapse of bad judgment."
Lemmy takes sniping like this in stride. Upon being asked why so many reviewers seem unable to appreciate his work, he draws out the syllables of his response with considerable relish. "Because they're foooking stew-pid," he says. "They're stuck in their own self-made jail, and they can't see outside. They think that anything different is bad, and that's why they attack it. They've done the same to every kind of good music, from jazz to classical music straight through to the waltz. Shit, they condemned the bloody waltz for being sexually suggestive and lewd. And I think I've got problems.
"Why do people have to vilify this music all the time? I mean, you've got these people with religious bloody homes where they send kids to be de-metalized. What the foook is that? Are these people foooking stew-pid or something? Do they think Jesus Christ is better than heavy metal? Well, I don't know about that. He's killed more people than we have."
As that comment implies, Mr. Kilmister doesn't get his inspiration from higher sources; he prefers wisdom of an earthier variety. A native of Wales raised on Chuck Berry and Little Richard, he moved to Manchester in the mid-Sixties determined to make a living from rock and roll. After playing with several local bands, including the Rocking Vicars, he relocated to London and did odd jobs to make ends meet--for a time, he was a roadie for Jimi Hendrix. Finally, in 1970, he earned membership in Hawkwind, a spacey prog-rock act characterized by Bob Calvert's sci-fi lyrics and jams that lasted slightly longer than the William Henry Harrison administration. The result was bombastic and often silly, but Lemmy, who remained with the group until 1975, loved every minute of it. "I'd never have left Hawkwind if I hadn't been fired," he claims. "In some ways, I had more musical freedom then than I do now."
Following his ouster from Hawkwind (reportedly spurred by a drug bust near the Canadian border), Lemmy sat down and considered his options. He soon decided to create a band that played to his strengths. "I like hard, aggressive music," he says. "I guess I could have formed the bloody Grateful Dead Mark II and stood up on stage with my head down wearing a foooking tie-dyed T-shirt, but that's not really very progressive, is it? Besides, what I really wanted to be was the MC5."
With that thought in mind, Lemmy created an outfit he dubbed Bastard. After his handlers deemed the moniker career suicide, they suggested that he rename the act Motorhead--the title of a Lemmy song with trademark Lemmy lyrics ("Brained out, total amnesia/Get some mental anesthesia.../ Fourth day, five-day marathon/We're moving like a parallelogram"). Lemmy gave his blessing, but with one proviso. "In the beginning, they made up a lot of posters that said `Lemmy's Motorhead.' I fought tooth and nail to get it changed off of that," he recalls. "I think if a band is going to work properly together, then you don't need any resentment coming up from the ranks--and there would have been, because that's human nature. And I always preferred to be in a band, anyway."
Motorhead's self-titled first album was released in 1977 and featured its best-remembered lineup: Lemmy on bass and vocals, "Fast Eddie" Clarke on guitar and "Philthy Animal" Taylor behind the drum kit. Together this threesome quickly won a reputation for loudness, rudeness and slovenliness that's never been rivaled. But because the debut arrived smack in the middle of the British punk/new-wave explosion, Motorhead was dismissed by the country's tastemakers--something that would happen again and again over the next twenty years. "It's not that I take pride in being unfashionable," Lemmy says. "It's just that I've gotten used to it. I do it rather well now. I've been practicing for a long time."
True believers regard the next several Motorhead platters--especially 1979's Overkill, 1980's Ace of Spades and the wonderfully obnoxious live assault No Sleep 'til Hammersmith--as classics of their type. They've got a point: These recordings form the blueprint for Eighties speed metal and proved hugely influential for a slew of future stars. Before Lars Ulrich co-founded Metallica, for example, he was the president of a Motorhead fan club.
Unfortunately, the combo spent the remainder of the decade in flux, in large part because of frequent personnel changes; Clarke left in 1982, and Taylor departed in 1984 (he returned a few years later, then split for good in 1992). Moreover, albums such as 1982's Iron Fist didn't live up to anyone's expectations--and because of record-company non-interest, even decent long-players such as 1986's Orgasmatron failed to reach as many listeners as they should have. A contract with Sony, which issued 1991's 1916 and 1992's March or Die, didn't solve these problems, either.
According to Lemmy, Motorhead's label woes came about because executives "don't really like us and don't really know how to market us and don't really know anything about our music. These foooking businessmen are all alike; they all want to take the easy option, not rock the boat and push shit out--and as long as the kids buy it, they're happy. They have no idea about quality, they have no respect for quality, and they don't know the meaning of fair play. All they want to do is to strap you to the foooking wheel and make you do the work that they want you to do and then sell it to people in the box that they've decided your music belongs in.
"I've got no patience for that shit. I listen to everything from Ravel to the Bee Gees. There are no barriers in music except the ones that we artificially put up between ourselves--but the record companies are doing that more and more. As time goes by, people are listening to only one kind of rock music, and that's foooking stew-pid. They're letting MTV tell them what to like, and MTV--well, talk about becoming the same foooking thing they started out to fight. You have to kiss so much ass over there to get a video on that you get foooking chapped lips. The message they're sending to us is that nobody wants to listen to this music, but it's not true. We've gone all around the country, and people are going balmy for it."
Touring has sustained Motorhead since its birth, but it's been even more vital over the past few years. After Sony dropped the group, Lemmy and company released Bastards on the smallish ZYX imprint, but erratic distribution prevented it from making much of an impact. Sacrifice, put out last year by North Carolina-based CMC International, appeared with just as little fanfare, but thus far Lemmy is pleased with the company's commitment: "We were going to sign and they knew that, so before we even put pen to paper, they shipped the album--which is unbelievable in the current climate. As far as I'm concerned, that was brilliant."
Sacrifice isn't quite that good, but it's certainly good enough: Motorhead's current players (Lemmy, guitarist Phil Campbell and drummer Mikkey Dee) put an impressive charge into familiar stompers like "Sex and Death," "Dog-Face Boy," "All Gone to Hell" and the title cut. Best of all is "Don't Waste Your Time," in which piano and saxophone supplement a Motorhead-friendly, Fifties-style raver. Lemmy wrote the last tune by himself--a rarity these days. "We usually write all the music together," he notes. "I write all the lyrics, but that's only because the other two can't be foooking bothered, you know? It's always been that way. Phil Taylor wrote some lyrics once, and frankly, they weren't that great. He sort of knew it, too, but at least he tried. If someone came up with better lyrics for a song than me, that would be fine."
Celebrity members of the Motorhead cult like Lemmy's words just fine. At Lemmy's fiftieth birthday party, recently staged at a California nightspot, Ozzy Osbourne and the members of Anthrax sent videotaped kudos, Iggy Pop and Tom Arnold ("That guy from Roseanne," Lemmy says) delivered their compliments in person, and Ulrich and the rest of Metallica arrived clad in full Lemmy regalia for an impromptu set. "They went on stage and did 45 minutes of old Motorhead songs," he marvels. "That was the greatest tribute. Twenty years after people said we were the worst band in the world, I've got an internationally known, trillion-selling band putting on wigs to look like me and playing my music at my birthday party. I must be doing something right."
Has Lemmy made any concessions to age? Only one, he says. "I do exactly what I always did--except for the LSD," he concedes. "I gave that up in 1975.
"Still, I can't believe I'm foooking fifty. I never even considered that I'd make it this far. I mean, when you're 25, everyone who's 35 is your enemy. Then you get to 35 and"--he cackles--"you have to make some quick decisions."
Leaving music behind isn't one of them: Although his head is still ringing from the previous night's indulgences, Lemmy insists that he has no interest in retirement.
"How could I stop when I've got people in audiences coming up to me and saying things like, `Lemmy, can I shake your hand? You changed my life'?" he recounts. "So foook it. No one can fight us. We are Motorhead, and we don't care."
Motorhead, with Belladonna and Speedball. 8 p.m. Wednesday, February 7, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $16.50, 830-2525.
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