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Vampire of the Sunset Strip

At 63, Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister still plays the loudest, rawest rock music ever heard and drinks a bottle of Jack Daniel's a day

Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead.
Dimitri Hakke/Redferns
October 29, 2009

Just about every night he's not on tour, Lemmy Kilmister can be found at the the Rainbow Bar & Grill in West Hollywood. Located in the heart on the Sunset Strip, the Rainbow has been a clubhouse for hard-living rock stars since it opened in the early Seventies. When Lemmy moved to L.A. from his native England in 1990, he chose his address based solely on its proximity to the Rainbow – his only friends in the city either worked or hung out there — and he still lives in the same modest apartment, only a few blocks away, Lemmy is the singer of the band Motörhead, and one of the great metal frontmen of all time. "People ask me. 'Who's the king of heavy metal?'" Ozzy Osbourne says. "And it would absolutely be Lemmy. Lemmy, to me, is the epitome of what being a rock star is all about." On this particular August afternoon, Lemmy is working on a bourbon-and-Coke in the Rainbow's empty upstairs bar. It's just after three. Over the next few hours, an assistant will bring over a fresh cocktail whenever Lemmy's glass gets low; at times, Lemmy will have two drinks going, consolidating them when the levels get right. In a 2005 BBC documentary called Motörhead: Live Fast Die Old, Lemmy, shown pouring himself a drink from a handle of Jack Daniel's, estimated his intake at a bottle a day. Ozzy recalls visiting Lemmy's apartment years ago to borrow a book on World War II. While there, he noticed a couple of empty bourbon bottles on the window ledge but didn't think much of it. When he came back to return the book a week later, the number of bottles on the ledge had grown to five or six. "I said, 'Lemmy, what are you doing? Collecting bourbon bottles?'" Ozzy recalls. "He said he'd heard there were 138 different types of bourbon in the U.S., and he decided to try one of each. Fucking hell. And he did it in the end!" Ozzy pauses, then continues in a quietly awed tone: "I don't know how the guy breathes."

Though he's 63 years old now, you could take a photograph of Lemmy today and hang it on one of the Rainbow's crowded walls, alongside the numerous other photos of Lemmy's younger self – wearing a biker hat, with his arm draped around a goth chick, or woozily pointing a pistol at the camera — and a visitor would be hard-pressed to date the different eras. Music and fashion trends have come and gone and come again. But Lemmy remains exactly the same. This afternoon, as he has (one imagines) every other afternoon for the past 30 years, Lemmy is dressed like a Hells Angel who is also a military re-enactor who occasionally moonlights as a fetish-club bouncer. His trousers are tight and black, tucked into black leather boots with elaborate white trimming. His cowboy shirt is also black, over which he wears a black, vaguely militaristic jacket decorated with various chevrons and a black Motörhead armband. His hat (black), with a pair of crossed swords on the front, is more Civil War general. A bolo tie completes the outfit. He still sports a black horseshoe mustache – his hair, spilling past his shoulders, is also dyed jet-black – and he hasn't allowed the dermatological pressures of his adopted hometown to persuade him to remove the pair of giant warts erupting from his left cheek.

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Lemmy nods at a hand-painted plaque on the wall. It reads "Lair of the Hollywood Vampires." In the Seventies, the Rainbow's upstairs bar was a secret clubhouse for John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and other legendary partiers of the day. Their names are all scrawled on the plaque. "Lot of history in this place," Lemmy says, gruff-voiced, in his mumbly English Midlands accent. His breathing is slightly labored from climbing the stairs, though he quickly pulls a cigarette from a pack of Marlboros. He will chain-smoke for the next several hours.

During Lennon's "lost weekend" of 1973-75, when he and Nilsson were likely partying in this very room, Lemmy was still playing with the seminal British acid-rock band Hawkwind. "They used to say LSD wouldn't work if you took it two days straight," he tells me. "We found out if you doubled the dose, it did." He formed Motörhead in 1975, after being kicked out of Hawkwind for doing too many drugs. (Or, rather, for doing too much of the wrong drug – speed.) And now, here he is today, the last of the Hollywood vampires, at least the last of his era – still playing the same music, still living just as hard, like one of those Japanese soldiers stranded on a remote island who never learned the war has ended and that it's time to go home.

Motörhead remain to metal what the Ramones (who formed one year earlier) were to punk rock – the most primal expression of their respective genres. The band's name is biker slang for "speed freak," and the songs, stripped down and played at breakneck velocity, all sound as if their secret ingredient was cooked up in a meth lab. Lemmy, who also plays bass, wore an Iron Cross and had terrifying facial hair and made promiscuous usage of the umlaut. Onstage, he angled his microphone from well above his head, so he always sang facing up instead of toward the audience, as if he were delivering an angry prayer or shouting in the face of a much taller bully. The songs had titles too over-the-top for a normal human to deliver with any degree of sincerity ("Love Me Like a Reptile," "Killed by Death"), but Lemmy was not a normal human, and his singing voice, approximating a man not yet fully recovered from an emergency tracheotomy, complemented the lyrics with an appropriate rawness.

As with the Ramones, the band realized early on that there is little room (or need) for variety when you have figured out how to write the perfect song. And so Motor-head have spent the past three decades working on variations of an extremely narrow – and incredibly loud – theme. (For an outdoor concert in Lemmy's hometown of Stoke-on-Trent, England, in 1981, the band played on a stage made entirely out of speakers – 117,000 watts! A man who lived four miles away called during soundcheck to complain that he couldn't hear his television.) All of these elements come together perfectly in the band's signature tune, 1980's "Ace of Spades," with its proto-speed-metal tempo and enough card-table metaphors to make Kenny Rogers second-guess his manhood. When the music cuts out a minute and 20 seconds into the (two-minute-and-40-second) song, and Lemmy sing-speaks, "You know I'm born to lose/And gambling's for fools/But that's the way I like it, baby/I don't wanna live forever," it's the greatest moment in what one could make a strong case for being the greatest metal song of all time.

If "Ace of Spades" was Lemmy's only contribution to music, that would be enough. But his story is far more expansive. Born in England in 1945, Lemmy has been present, like a rock & roll Zelig, at a reeling number of flash points in rock history. He hung out at the Cavern Club during the Beatles' residency, worked as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix and spent four years in Hawkwind, one of the most acid-drenched bands of the psychedelic era. When U.K. punk broke, Lemmy was there to give Sid Vicious bass lessons. A few years later, Motörhead were opening for Ozzy on the Blizzard of Ozz tour, one of the most infamous metal tours ever. (In his subtly titled 2002 autobiography, White Line Fever, Lemmy recalled fans tossing frogs, live rattlesnakes, broken-winged doves and even a deer's head onstage during Ozzy's set.) Since then, younger musicians from Dave Grohl to Jarvis Cocker of Pulp have all sung Lemmy's praises. The members of Metallica are such fans that, in 1995, they played Lemmy's 50th-birthday party as a Motörhead cover band.

"I'm the guy that's always been into the fucking villain musicians, from Gene Vincent to Keith Richards to Joe Perry, and I don't think any of these tough guys can hold a candle to Lemmy," says Slash. "The first time I ever saw Motörhead was on the Blizzard of Ozz tour. I swear to God, it was the loudest thing I ever heard. They EQ'd it in a way to rip the top of your fucking head off. And the set they do today is the same as back then – not in terms of song choices, but the way it comes at you, barreling down the tracks like a freight train."

Adds Osbourne, "Lemmy's a one-off, believe me. I used to be a wild guy, but Lemmy . . . On the Blizzard of Ozz tour, he had a plaid bag with three books and a notepad. No change of clothes. His fucking rider was seven bottles of bourbon, eight bottles of vodka, two bottles of orange juice, and that's fucking it! And I've never seen him falling-down drunk, ever. He's not grossly overweight, he never looks hung over or like he's dying. He's not fucking human."

I ask Lemmy about his current drug intake. He shakes his head and says, "I'll only talk about back then." I ask if he can drink before a show. He says yes, but that he knows what he's doing. Then he tells a story about a Hawkwind gig in Ohio where the band was spiked twice in the same night with angel dust, and how by the time he got onstage, he didn't immediately recognize what his guitar was or what he was supposed to do with it. They finished the concert, though. He chuckles and says, "Helllooo, Cleveland." Then he says he tried Ecstasy once, two whole capsules, but nothing happened. "I must be immune to it," he says. "It always seemed kind of lame to me. Everyone hugging each other."

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