Two weekends before his death, Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead was celebrating an unlikely milestone on the Sunset Strip: his coming 70th birthday. He looked frail but regal in his black cavalry jacket and hat, watching from an upstairs balcony at the Whisky a Go Go as Slash, Billy Idol, Sebastian Bach and other famous rock & roll comrades paid tribute to him onstage.
The emailed invitation had called for a night of music, "chit-chat and general all-around merriment" on December 13th. Former Guns N' Roses drummer Matt Sorum was the private party's host and musical director, leading a crowd of prominent performers from hard rock and punk.
Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich flew in for the event, and sat with Lemmy much of the night. Standing onstage, guitarist Zakk Wylde wore a denim vest over a black Motörhead T-shirt and repeated the old joke about certain ageless and indestructible rockers, lamenting about "what kind of world we're going to leave for Lemmy and Keith Richards."
Lemmy himself had just flown in from Europe the day before and was worn out. His right hand trembled and he rested a walking stick across his knees as friends and fans wished him well. Near the end of the night, OFF! guitarist Dimitri Coats leaned in to say hello and remind Lemmy of a 2003 night drinking and gaming together at the Crazy Girls strip club in Hollywood.
Lemmy shook his hand and asked with a smile, "Did I win?"
He was a winner in rock & roll for many of his 70 years, though his sudden death from cancer on Monday was a shock to both fans around the world and those closest to the iconic Motörhead singer-bassist. Two weeks ago, the band finished a winter European tour, closing their final performance in Berlin on December 11th with the crushing hard-rock fan favorite "Overkill." They planned to be back in Europe in January.
For the last two years, health problems weighed heavily on the trio, beginning with Lemmy abruptly cutting short a 2013 concert in Wacken, Germany. He suffered from diabetes and a heart arrhythmia, and he soon underwent surgery to implant a defibrillator, but he returned to the road as always, with two acclaimed performances at Coachella the next year, followed by tour dates around the world, and a new album, Bad Magic, released this past summer.
There were some modest lifestyle changes: Lemmy cut back from his more than two packs of cigarettes a day to one pack a week. And after at least four decades of a half-gallon of Jack Daniels every day, he switched to vodka and orange juice and just four or five drinks a day. He still enjoyed his daily speed.
In recent weeks, Lemmy began to slow down. "He did no more soundchecks. He wouldn't do interviews. He couldn't do anything," says Todd Singerman, who managed the band for 24 years. But Lemmy performed as scheduled. "To really think of what energy and the balls that took to still play shows for the fans, to do the last fucking show two weeks ago, and then drop. That's like a Rocky story to me. This is courage at his best. He was dying. He didn't know it, but his body must have felt it. He had nothing left."
The death last month of former Motörhead drummer Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor hit Lemmy especially hard. Singerman suspected Lemmy's reduced energy offstage was related to depression over losing friends and his ongoing health issues. But Lemmy was clearly still looking forward to the birthday party at the Whisky, on the Sunset Strip that he's called home for decades.
Sorum, who once filled in on 15 dates for Motörhead drummer Mikkey Dee on a 2009 U.S. tour, called in the talent for the party, which included current and former members of Guns N' Roses, Metallica, Velvet Revolver and others. Slash performed Motörhead's "(We Are) the Road Crew" with members of Anthrax, and Steve Vai ripped open a Hendrix lead on "Foxy Lady." The long night ended with a punk rock set with Idol, Sorum, Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, GN'R bassist Duff McKagan and Cult guitarist Billy Duffy. There were affectionate video messages from Iggy Pop, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Def Leppard, Gene Simmons, Tom Morello and others.
Showgirls danced on the floor between acts, and young women strolled the club to give away free candy, CDs of Lemmy's rockabilly band the Head Cat and a sex toy called the Motörhead "Pleasure Bullet." (The sales pitch: "Do it hard, do it fast — do it loud!")
"They were there for him," says Sorum of the musicians and audience. "He really appreciated that in true Lemmy style — he wasn't the kind of guy to jump up and down. If you saw a smile on his face, you knew you were getting somewhere with him. Down deep inside, he's a very sweet, kind, gentle soul."
Late in the evening, Lemmy's bass rig was rolled out as the Head Cat set up for a couple of songs, but Lemmy never made it down the catwalk to the stage. Sorum went up to say hello. "I said, 'I hope you're enjoying yourself,' and he said, 'Oh, it's fucking great.'"
Two days later, Lemmy complained of chest pains and went to the emergency room, but was released the next day. Doctors found no heart trouble. Singerman and others decided he needed a brain scan "because his speech was getting bad," he says. There were concerns that he'd had a stroke.
"Why is he not talking much? He was slurring really bad," says Singerman. "We took him for the X-rays and they said, 'Oh, my God, there's stuff all over his brain and his neck.' On Saturday, two days ago, the doctor came by the house, brought the results and told us all that he has two to six months to live."
It was cancer, and Lemmy reacted calmly. "He took it better than all of us. His only comment was, 'Oh, only two months, huh?' The doctor goes, 'Yeah, Lem, I don't want to bullshit you. It's bad, and there's nothing anyone can do. I would be lying to you if I told you there was a chance.'"
Singerman was inclined to keep the diagnosis private and announce only that Lemmy was gravely ill and needed to be left alone. "He was like, 'No, no. You go ahead and put out a press release. I want people to know it was cancer. It's a bad thing and they should know it.' That's how he felt."
Plans were to put out a press release after informing close friends and family. Nurses were hired to be at his condo in shifts. A morphine kit arrived in preparation of coming pain. A favorite video-game console at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Strip that Lemmy loved to play at the corner of the bar was brought over.
Singerman and others began calling friends and family. Lemmy told his partners in Motörhead on Sunday night, and travel plans were being made for them to visit immediately.
"Here's the shocker for me and everyone else: He's been to a thousand doctors and hospitals throughout the world, but nobody caught this," says Singerman. "To be told you have terminal cancer with all the blood tests he's taken in his life and everything else? It's very hard to grasp that. It's not like he had a fucking chance here. This was outright: 'You got no more than six months.'"
A doctor visited early Monday. Ozzy Osbourne would be coming by that day or the next. Lemmy spent hours on the video-game console, as Rainbow owner Mikael Maglieri paid a visit. Then Lemmy nodded off and never woke up again.
"Mikael called to say, 'My God, he just died right in front of me,'" Singerman says.
The reaction was immediate on social media from Lemmy's many friends across generations of rock. Kiss singer-bassist Gene Simmons emailed Rolling Stone a cell-phone snapshot of him and Lemmy backstage somewhere in the recent past: "Behind the Man and the Legend was a kind man who went out of his way to make you feel special," Simmons wrote. "The Lemmy I knew and loved always held out his hand to help new bands. I will miss him."