Lemmy Kilmister: Vampire of the Sunset Strip - Rolling Stone
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Lemmy Kilmister: Vampire of the Sunset Strip

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

Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead.Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead.

Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead.

Dimitri Hakke/Redferns

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.”

Lemmy ashes his cigarette onto the floor and says, “I firmly believe that in life, you have a choice: You can do what you’re supposed to do or what you have to do. And what you have to do is changeable, right? If you get married and have two kids by the time you’re 19, then that’s what you have to do — you’re stuck with it.” Lemmy has never been married – he’s never been in a relationship for longer than five years. He never knew his two children when they were growing up, and he lives alone to this day.

“It’s very much up to you, how you shape your life,” Lemmy continues. “I mean, I missed out on human relationships. But looking at relationships that I’ve seen along the way, I don’t think I’ve missed much.” He chuckles softly and takes a sip of his drink. “This is how I live, you know?” he says. “It’s what I’m supposed to do.”

Born Ian Fraser Kilmister, Lemmy did not have an easy childhood. His father, a Royal Air Force minister, met his mother, a librarian, during World War II, but split three months after Lemmy’s birth. (Lemmy met his father only once, when he was 25. Writing about his death in White Line Fever, Lemmy noted, “People don’t become better when they’re dead; you just talk about them as if they are. But it’s not true! People are still assholes, they’re just dead assholes!”) When Lemmy was 10, his mother remarried, and the family moved from central England to a seaside resort town in Wales, where his stepfather worked in a washing-machine factory. At his new school, Lemmy says, “There were 700 Welsh kids and one English kid, and that was me. There was a lot of bad feeling about the English in Wales then, still.” The other kids teased Lemmy about his accent, and gave him his nickname. “I think it’s a Welsh insult,” he says. “I never figured it out. It just stuck.”

Around the same time, he started listening to early rock & roll records – Buddy Holly, Tommy Steele (the British Elvis), Eddie Cochran — and was soon messing around on his mother’s old Hawaiian guitar. By the early Sixties, he’d left home and begun hitchhiking around England.

“We were like hippies before they were called hippies,” Lemmy tells me. “Bob Dylan had just come out, so we all practiced his songs on guitar.” Lemmy ended up in Liverpool just as the Beatles were beginning their residency at the Cavern Club. In White Line Fever, he admiringly points out that the Beatles were “hard men” from rough parts of Liverpool. (“Ringo’s from the Dingle,” he writes, “which is like the fucking Bronx.”)

Lemmy had been playing in various bands since Wales, covering everyone from Ricky Nelson to the Ventures to Chuck Berry. “For a while, I did a bit of dope-dealing,” he says. In 1967, he ended up in London, where he called his only friend in town, a roadie for Jimi Hendrix who was sharing a flat with Hendrix bassist Noel Redding. Lemmy asked if he could crash on their floor, and three weeks later he was working as a roadie for Hendrix as well. The gig lasted for about a year. Lemmy was on the bottom rung of the roadie ladder, simply hauling equipment. “I don’t think if you asked [Hendrix] now he’d know who the fuck I was,” Lemmy says. Still, every night, Lemmy used to grab a chair and sit in the wings to watch Hendrix play. “There was no point in trying to learn from him,” Lemmy says. “You couldn’t tell how he was doing it. It was like magic.”

Meanwhile, Swinging London was becoming one of the most happening places in the world. “Everyone I knew was taking acid,” Lemmy recalls. “Everyone. You’d walk into a bar in those days, and you’d see Brian Jones, Hendrix, a couple of Beatles, all just sitting around. We were the center of the universe for about three years.”

In 1971, Lemmy went on a three-week speed binge with a member of Hawkwind, a London psychedelic band at the vanguard of Britain’s burgeoning “space rock” scene, the most famous graduates of which would be Pink Floyd. Hawkwind would become known for drug-fueled three-hour concerts featuring intense light shows, science-fiction imagery and songs with titles like “The Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear in Smoke).” The band was almost certainly one of the inspirations for Spinal Tap: It actually played Stonehenge numerous times, and Tap bassist Derek Smalls bears a striking resemblance to Lemmy, who became Hawkwind’s bass player in August 1971.

“Every band that’s used special effects has had Spinal Tap moments,” Lemmy admits. “The more elaborate you try to make your show, the more likely you are to end up looking the cunt.”

Still, Lemmy insists there was a big difference between Hawkwind and “cute” bands like Pink Floyd. “We weren’t a dreamy, trippy band,” he says. “We were a black fucking nightmare. We would lock all of the doors of the venue so people couldn’t get out.” Throughout the show, the band would have five strobe lights going – pointed directly at the audience rather than the stage. Lemmy says the bandmates would throw acid onto the crowd out of a dropper. They’d also spike audience members’ drinks with LSD.

Noticing what must have been a look of ethical concern on my part, Lemmy shrugs and says, “I don’t remember anyone complaining.”

It was Lemmy’s love of speed that ultimately got him kicked out of Hawkwind. In 1975, during a North American tour, Lemmy was busted for possession of amphetamines while crossing from Detroit into Canada. “Lemmy had been up for a couple of days,” recalls Hawkwind singer Dave Brock. “He would take loads of speed and be up for days on end, and the rest of us would be like, ‘Shut up!’ That day at customs, he was asleep, and they saw this guy with long hair, drooling, so of course they frisked him and found this white powder.”

Shortly thereafter, Lemmy was relieved of his duties. “This was the most cosmic band on the planet!” Lemmy says, still sounding incredulous. “But there was a terrible hierarchy with drugs in those days. Speed was maybe too proletarian, too blue-collar.”

Back in England, Lemmy promptly stole the equipment he’d been using out of the group’s storage space. A few weeks later, he had painted his psychedelic-colored amps black and formed Motörhead. He originally wanted to call the band Bastard, but his manager talked him out of it, so he used the title of the last song he wrote for Hawkwind. (In the lyrics, he admits, “I should be tired, and all I am is wired,” adding, awesomely, “Ain’t felt this good for an hour!”) The band was a power trio, conceived by Lemmy as a blend of Hawkwind, the MC5 and Little Richard – Lemmy says Richard “had the best rock & roll vocal I’ve ever heard, full of joy, just fierce joy.”

Despite their long hair, Motörhead were soon embraced by England’s burgeoning punk scene. Lemmy recalls heading down to the Roxy, a London punk club, to check out the fuss. “I was standing at the bar with my flares, getting all sorts of suspicious looks, when I heard a voice behind me say, ‘I used to sell acid at your shows!'” It was Johnny Rotten. “I remembered him,” Lemmy says. “He used to have long red hair.” Lemmy would eventually gig with the Damned, and before Sid Vicious joined the Sex Pistols, he collared the singer at a club and asked for bass lessons. “Well, I tried,” Lemmy says. “He didn’t have the artistry for it. He was lucky if he could stand up.”

For a two-year period beginning in 1979, Motörhead released a spectacular run of albums, all of which became metal classics: Overkill, Bomber, Ace of Spades and the live No Sleep ’til Hammersmith, which topped the U.K. album charts in 1981. A Motörhead song is basically a punk-rock song with more shredding, and like the drug that fuels them (speed), the songs all have a brute, utilitarian functionality. “Overkill” is about loud music. “(We Are) The Road Crew” is about roadies. “Jailbait” is about the inevitable injustices created when the state out sources incarceration to a massive prison-industrial complex with a voracious need for profit.

Kidding about the last one. But you get the idea. The band’s first hit, in 1978, was actually a cover of “Louie Louie,” the “Ave Maria” of brilliant-dumb rock songs, which makes so much sense that Lemmy would have probably had to write the song himself if it didn’t already exist.

Still, by the early Eighties, when Lemmy’s English metal peers – Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, solo Ozzy – all began crossing over in the United States, Motörhead remained a cult band. Motörhead – once again, very much like the Ramones – would be enormously influential without ever selling many records. The band’s most recent album, 2008’s Motörizer, has been its highest-charting in the States, squeaking into Billboard’s Top 100 at Number 82. “Onward and upward,” Lemmy mutters.

Lemmy’s biggest hit in this country turned out to be a song he wrote for Ozzy, the 1991 ballad “Mama, I’m Coming Home.” The following year, Ozzy attempted to return the favor by joining Lemmy on the Motörhead song “I Ain’t No Nice Guy.” It’s another power ballad, and watching the video is an odd sensation, not just because it’s terrible — though it’s 1992, Ozzy is wearing some sort of Miami Vice jacket, and both he and Lemmy deliver pensive lyrics like “When I was young, I was the only game in town,” while sitting on thrones — but because it’s strange seeing Lemmy trying so hard to fit in with the fashions of the day and make a hit record. The song, unsurprisingly, was not a hit. Lemmy blames Epic, Motörhead’s label at the time, for not promoting it properly. But in truth, when Lemmy sings lines like “I thought that I was living life the only way/ But as I saw that life was more than day to day/I turned around, I read the writing on the wall,” you simply don’t believe him. In fact, more than any rock star his age, he’s continued to live his life exactly the same way. If he feels any of the loneliness or regret expressed in the song, that’s the only time he’s publicly copped to it.

Even those closest to Lemmy don’t seem to get many glimpses of the man behind the uniform. Ozzy, who calls Lemmy “a really good friend of mine,” pauses when I ask if Lemmy ever seems wistful about never having a family or settling down in any way. “He has a son, I believe,” Ozzy says. “He showed me his picture. But we never talk about those things.” When Lemmy was hospitalized in 2000 – he was later diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes – Ozzy gave him a call. He says Lemmy seemed surprised to be hearing from anyone.

Lemmy says he almost got married, once, when he was young, because of the pressures at the time. “It’s a great temptation to fit in,” he acknowledges. He says he’s glad, now, that he resisted that particular temptation. When I ask if he’s close with his son, Paul, who is now in his 40s, he can’t muster up a serious response. “Yeah, he’s all right,” Lemmy says. “I mean, he looks like me, so there’s no doubt there.” He didn’t meet his son until he was six years old, and he remains wholly unapologetic about this fact. “They’re not real people before that, anyway,” Lemmy says. “I mean, you can form a weird bond with them. But they’re babies. They all look the same. You could swap them in the night, and no one would know.” So isn’t it weird, I start to ask, when so many of your peers –

“Are dropping like flies?” he interrupts, chuckling. Then he says, “Yes. It’s weird.” I start to push for specifics: Ozzy, for instance, has reformed his ways. Lemmy interrupts again. “He would’ve been dead if he kept up that way,” he says, adding, “I don’t know if he’s happier or not. But he’s certainly still alive.”

After the interview, we move back downstairs for one more drink. Down here, especially, the Rainbow feels like a museum devoted to Sunset Boulevard’s hair-metal glory days. The walls above the cozy red booths are covered with rock memorabilia of a certain era (a pencil drawing of Slash, framed photos of David Lee Roth, a signed copy of Get the Knack), and every other guy sitting at the bar — aging rockers in Axl bandannas and sleeveless black concert T-shirts, looking as costumed as players in a tableau vivant – just might be the drummer from Poison.

We shift outside to the patio bar where, while I chat with his assistant, Lemmy plants himself in front of the bar-top video machine. One of the Rainbow managers tells me Lemmy loves playing the video games and even tagged his favorite with a Motörhead sticker.

As he sips his fourth cocktail in a couple of hours, Lemmy stares mutely at the screen, tapping away at a zoo-themed hand-eye-coordination game, then abruptly switching to trivia, then just as quickly to a variation on Scrabble. In the latter, using the letters he’s drawn, Lemmy furiously builds words while competing with a ticking clock: heel, hale, hate. When he does well, he puts his name up on the winners’ page.

At one point, a pretty blond woman taps him on the shoulder and asks if he’ll pose for a photograph. Lemmy slowly turns around and nods, and she drapes her arm around him while her friend snaps the picture.

“I got a picture with you the last time I was here, but I wanted another one,” the woman admits.

“Why?” Lemmy asks. Then he turns back to the game.

Eventually, I ask if we can visit his apartment. Lemmy narrows his eyes warily and says, “You’ll only think I’m a closet Nazi.” Along with his use of the Iron Cross in the band’s imagery, Lemmy is infamous for collecting German World War II memorabilia. (Ozzy refers to Lemmy’s apartment as “the fucking war museum,” adding, “If the Nazis ever want to get going again, they can borrow their equipment from Lemmy.”) Lemmy says growing up in England after the war turned him into a history buff, and he certainly does possess an uncommon amount of knowledge about the era. During our interview, he speaks at length about the bombing of Dresden, Germany — the Motörhead song “Bomber” was inspired by Len Deighton’s historical novel of the same name — and Lemmy’s tour manager tells me that in Europe, whenever their bus passes a battlefield or some other important site, Lemmy will offer a discourse on the historical significance of whatever they’re seeing.

Lemmy’s apartment complex is just a few blocks off Sunset, the door to his unit overlooking a shabby courtyard. When we pull into the parking garage, a young, attractive African-American woman is waiting outside. Lemmy’s assistant says, “Hi, we talked on the phone.” The woman tells Lemmy she figured he was running late, and he asks her if she can come back in a half-hour. She seems there for business; the particulars are not offered, and I don’t ask.

Upstairs, Lemmy leads the way into his crowded living room, a slightly claustrophobic, pack rat’s warren. A TV, set to mute, is on the History Channel – something about a blimp – and a bookshelf near the door includes Thomas Harris and an old Paul McCartney biography. Otherwise, the place is cluttered with an array of Nazi memorabilia that is, frankly, shocking, even when you’re prepared for it. Two entire walls are covered with framed swastikas and flags. A row of Nazi uniforms hang from a clothing rack. There’s also a cabinet with velvet-bottomed drawers to display various daggers and medals.

The assistant glances at me nervously and says, “You know, I’m Jewish, and I’m not offended by this.”

Lemmy, too, seems to be having second thoughts about inviting me over. But his collector’s pride takes over, and he begins excitedly showing me various rare items: a flag that once flew on Hitler’s motorcade, a beautifully designed Nazi dress sword.

“Show him the comb,” the assistant says.

On a cluttered coffee table, next to an overfull ashtray and a half-empty tumbler of whiskey, Lemmy picks up a black hatbox. As he unties the black bow, his hand shakes slightly. Opening the lid, he pushes aside the tissue paper to reveal an old-fashioned, grandmotherly hairbrush, round and ornate, with a matching mirror. Both are monogrammed E.B.

“Eva Braun?” I say.

“Eva Braun,” Lemmy says.

“Holy shit,” I say.

“Holy shit,” Lemmy softly repeats.

Nothing in Lemmy’s music or public life – other than, obviously, owning a shitload of Nazi paraphernalia — points to any sort of closet racism. Clearly, he’s a man who loves the transformative power of a uniform. Beyond that, the collection seems more an extension of his need, ever since he was a kid, to embrace the transgressive – that, and a reflection of his very dark view of human nature.

When I ask Lemmy if he has a positive or negative view of humanity, he doesn’t hesitate: “Oh, negative. Human nature is to blame for everything, innit? We’re just a disease on this planet. It’s gonna shrug us off like crabs. It’s too late, anyway, with what we’ve done to the environment. Our kids are gonna be wearing gas masks. We’re all gonna fry.” As Lemmy proceeds on this riff, he becomes more animated, and by the end he appears oddly cheered.

Earlier, while discussing drugs, he expressed similar sentiments. “There’s a lot of shit talked about what’s bad for you, especially in America. Everyone wants to be safe.” He nearly spits the last word, then continues, “Well, I got news for you: You can’t be safe. Life’s not safe. Your work isn’t safe. When you leave the house, it isn’t safe. The air you breathe isn’t going to be safe, not for very long. That’s why you have to enjoy the moment.” The last sentence isn’t uttered in a joyous, carpe diem, sort of way. In Lemmy’s telling, it’s more of a grim statement of fact.

For all of his nihilism about our doomed future, Lemmy’s life these days is primarily about holding on to the past. He spends his time in one museum (the Rainbow) or another (his apartment), or he’s on the road, behaving the same way as he behaved when he was 20 years old. He can’t remember ever taking a proper vacation; he says he could never afford it. He does not own a computer.

Lemmy chose a path early on, and unlike almost all of us, he has doggedly persevered, refusing to veer from it in any way. Some might see this choice as a form of brave iconoclasm; others, as the sad arrested development of a sixty something alcoholic who more or less lives in a bar.

As much as I press him, though, Lemmy won’t admit to second thoughts about his chosen path – his decision to forgo “human relationships,” as he says, for the purest of rock-hedonist lifestyles. And really, whether “Lemmy” is a character or the real man is irrelevant at this point; Ian Kilmister has been wearing the Lemmy costume for so long, that’s who he is. When I ask if he feels any pressure to behave a certain way in public, to conform to the expectations of his fans, Lemmy says, “There’s no pressure. This is just who I am. I’m not putting anything on.”

Dave Brock of Hawkwind still sees Lemmy regularly. Brock and his wife live on a farm in Devon, in southwest England, and he’s been trying to persuade Lemmy to come visit for a few days. “Get away from it all – from the life he lives,” says Brock, who is 68. “I’m surprised he’s still going every time I see him. I say, ‘Listen, you must be very careful.’ But he always says he wants to die onstage.” Brock chuckles. “He does have a wonderful constitution.”

Slash, who is much younger than Brock and Lemmy both, has a different take on his idol’s lifestyle. “He wrote some lyrics recently for my solo album, about how he handles his chemical intake, alcohol and whatnot,” Slash says. “They’re great lyrics because they’re so personal – basically about how one doctor put a scare in him, and how another took it away, and then finally Lemmy said, ‘Fuck you! I’m gonna do what I want.'” Then Slash recites his favorite lyric from the song: “I’m not gonna die/Just write me an alibi.”

Lemmy admits the song is based on his life. When he was diagnosed with diabetes, doctors told him to change his ways. “‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,'” he recalls. “But I just kept going on. That was 10 years ago.” He takes daily pills for his condition. But otherwise, he says, “I’d rather die than live the life that would mean completely giving up everything that makes life worth living.” I ask if he ever thinks about retirement. “If I have to, I have to. But hopefully that would be brief. I don’t want to hang around for long with tubes up my nose.”

A few weeks later, I catch Motörhead at a casino in downtown Detroit. The sound is a bit muddy, the venue a bit too clean. But overall, it’s a very fun show. The band’s current lineup, featuring guitarist Phil Campbell and the powerhouse Swedish drummer Mikkey Dee, has been together since 1992 and operates as a tight machine. Toward the end of the set, they even pull off a lovely acoustic blues number – Rick Rubin, are you reading this? – called “Whorehouse Blues.”

Backstage, it’s close to midnight, but Lemmy, the last of the Hollywood vampires, looks revived since the last time I’ve seen him. He says he lost $2,000 in the casino the night before, won it all back earlier this afternoon, but then lost another grand just before the show. He shrugs – such is life.

Motörhead will be on the road for the next few months. A feature documentary about Lemmy is also in the works, and he still plans to record a long-promised solo album. When I ask if he likes any recent music, his answers are surprising: Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, Bon Jovi‘s duet with Jennifer Nettles of the country band Sugarland. “Harmony still makes me shiver,” Lemmy says. “About the only thing that still does.”

I push him for details. What is it about music that makes him keep playing, after all these years? Lemmy locks his eyes on me and says, “Music takes you places you can’t go any other time. You know that, man.” He thinks for’ another moment, then says, “The more you try to analyze it the more you fuck it up.”

Turning to the dressing-room mirror, he pulls a new cowboy hat onto his head and gazes firmly at his own reflection.

“So,” he asks, “what do you think?”

This story is from the October 29th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

In This Article: Lemmy Kilmister, Motorhead


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