The sun is still shining on L.A.’s Sunset Strip as Lemmy Kilmister takes his favorite spot at the bar of the Rainbow Bar & Grill. Sipping from a glass, he feeds dollars into a machine to play games of trivia and chance like Clock Teaser, a quiz about women and nature. At 67, the Motörhead frontman looks just as he always has: black cavalry hat with gold insignia, prominent warts and mutton chops, embroidered cowboy boots. But that’s Diet Coke in his glass, not Jack Daniel’s. And while the jokes roll out easily in his distinctive British rasp, he sounds like a man who’s still recovering from a gut punch.
This is Lemmy’s first visit back to the Rainbow in six months. The last time was before a bout of heart trouble and bruising last summer forced Motörhead off the road for the first time in years. “There is nothing weirder than having everything you are taken from you in one day – bingo,” he says. Now he rides an exercise bike every day at his new condo nearby. His drinking has slowed to a trickle, and the two packs of Marlboro Reds he used to smoke each day are down to one or two cigarettes a day. “Let’s face it – it isn’t as much fun,” says Lemmy. “But it can’t be as much fun if I die. I don’t believe that’s much fun, either.”
Lemmy’s illness kept him quietly at home as Motörhead’s thunderous 21st album, Aftershock, brought in the band’s best first-week sales in decades last October. A few months earlier, his friend and onetime songwriting partner Mick Farren had collapsed onstage in London while performing with the Deviants. Farren never regained consciousness. “There are worse places to go,” Lemmy says. “It’s better than having tubes up your nose. I’d much rather go dressed in my best, trying to reach that last note.”
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After being forced to cancel the rest of Motörhead’s European festival dates last July, Lemmy backtracked and tried to perform for the 85,000 rock fans at the Wacken Open Air concert in Germany. But he had to leave the stage after just a handful of songs. “We only did 38 minutes and I was done,” he says. “I was too tired. I had to come off.” Adds Motörhead guitarist Phil Campbell, “It reminded us that this mountain of unwavering Lemm is actually a tiny bit mortal like we all are.”
Lemmy will give it another try on Motörhead’s upcoming European tour, kicking off in Glasgow in February and including a summer stop at Wacken to finish that incomplete set. “I think it’s going to be really a joy, once I get back into it,” Lemmy says. “Then it will be OK.”
He starts riffing on other rockers who have kept their edge without overindulging, like Mick Jagger. “Jagger’s straight – he just gets married,” Lemmy says with a laugh. “That’s how he spends his money.”
Lemmy had his own season of hard partying, drinking and speed. “I suddenly realized I was waking up in pools of other people’s vomit, and I had no recollection of them,” he says. “That’s a bit much. I’m not saying don’t have fun, don’t snort the occasional line – but don’t make it your life.” He eventually found a comfort zone, with a tumbler of Jack-and-Coke as his constant companion.
He recorded his vocals for Aftershock last year, after the abortive set at Wacken. The sessions at Los Angeles’ NRG Studios were brief, often just two hours a day, and Lemmy sometimes had to sit down while he sang. But you can’t tell from the final takes, which snarl like the best of Motörhead. “I know when we do turkeys,” he says, “and I know when we don’t.”
Lemmy says he worries about the future of his beloved rock & roll as his generation eases past middle age into retirement or worse. He sees few younger artists committed enough to the tradition to carry it into the future. “There’s nobody now,” he says. “There is going to be a huge hole, and nobody to step into it.” You can see the concern on his face. “I think it’s important music. It’s the constant music of this generation and the last one and the last one.”
He worries less about the audience. The fan letters have only increased since he got sick, many addressed to him at the Rainbow. “Oh, man, the kids were unbelievable when I got sick,” he says. “No bitching. It was all ‘Take your time, get better. Don’t worry, we’ll wait for you. Get well.'”
Lemmy looks up from his drink and sees a familiar face. “Hey, it’s Mario,” he says as 89-year-old Mario Maglieri – the retired co-founder of the Rainbow and Sunset Strip landmarks like the Roxy and the Whisky – ambles over, white-haired and walking with a cane.
“You been sick or somethin’?” Maglieri says, joking around like he still owns the place. “I haven’t seen you in so long. You been all right? I sent nurses to your house with scotch. Can I do something for you?”
Lemmy laughs. “Just stay alive.”
Soon, the rocker’s girlfriend arrives to take him back to the condo with the new pool table – a gift from his friend Slash. He’s got more rest ahead, but things are looking up. As Lemmy steps away from the bar, he types a name back onto the video-game machine’s high-score list: LEMMY.
This story is from the January 3oth, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.