The passing of Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister on December 28, 2015 is a loss that is felt particularly hard. Kilmister had suffered from poor health for some time, but his decline became particularly noticeable during the latter months of 2015, during which Motörhead was forced to cancel or cut short several North American gigs; however, there seemed room for optimism as Kilmister kept playing shows. The last of which was on December 11, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. There were even plans for Motörhead to tour in early 2016. Unfortunately, the tour was not to be when only four days after his 70th birthday Kilmister succumbed to advanced stages of an aggressive cancer that was only diagnosed two days before. The news of his death spread like wildfire across the Internet with news outlets like the Guardian and Rolling Stone releasing obituaries detailing his life and legacy. Fans from all walks of life honored him by posting their favorite Hawkwind or Motörhead songs or their favorite pictures of Kilmister. At the bar in which I was drinking, the bartender switched on Motörhead’s 1977 self-titled album and cranked the volume.
Kilmister was born on December 24, 1945, a period that was before the sounds of rock ‘n’ roll begun to corrupt the world’s youth. He was just the right age to be infected by the early rock ‘n’ roll pioneers, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. At the age of 16, he saw the Beatles perform at the Cavern Club in Liverpool and bought a guitar shortly after. In the early 1960’s, Kilmister joined the Rainmakers and the Rockin’ Vickers—the latter group was signed to CBS, toured Europe and even played in the former Yugoslavia. During the late ‘60s, he also worked as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix. In 1971, Kilmister joined the space rock group Hawkwind. He signed on originally as a guitarist. When Hawkwind’s bassist suddenly departed, Kilmister switched to the bass. During his stint with the band, Kilmister greatly contributed to the bands signature sound via his playing style, vocals and song material. His vocals and style were particularly distinctive with the 1972 song “Silver Machine,” which reached No. 3 in the UK charts.
While in Hawkwind, Kilmister grew fond of using amphetamines and LSD. His consumption of the former made him increasingly unpopular with the band over the year. This was due to his constant tardiness and of what Kilmister called “1970’s drug snobbery”— citing that most of the band preferred organic drugs rather than his preferred synthetic ones. The final straw for Hawkwind came in 1975 at the Canadian/US border after he was arrested for possession. He was not charged and was released after a few days, but his detainment caused the band to cancel several gigs and thus he was sacked. Quick to get back into the music game, Kilmister formed a new group called Bastard, but he soon changed the name to Motörhead after the last song he had written for Hawkwind. This decision was also due to the fact that a band named Bastard would have little to no chance to getting a slot on Top of the Pops.
The emergence of Motörhead into the music scene conveniently coincided with the explosion of the first wave of British punk. Kilmister liked many of the groups that emerged out of the first wave, notably the Sex Pistols and the Damned (the latter of which he played with for a very brief period of time). He was not fond of all the groups to emerge. One noted band he disliked was the Clash—although, he did have affection for Joe Strummer’s previous group the 101ers. Motörhead’s commercial peak was reached when Ace of Spades was released in 1980. The song “Ace of Spades” would also be featured on the Young Ones’ episode “Bambi.”
During Motörhead’s reign, they released 22 albums and managed to push through the limitations set in place but the punk aesthetic—in other words, they appealed to everyone regardless of subcultural affiliation. Motörhead especially influenced many groups from the metal scene. Greats like Black Sabbath and Slayer are said to have been inspired by the sound of Motörhead, and specifically Kilmister. Motörhead has enjoyed many different lineups over the years with the only consistent member being Kilmister. Throughout their several decades, Motörhead continued to be an impressive musical force up until the death of Kilimster in December 2015.
Kilmister left behind legacy that defined certain qualities of the rock ‘n’ roll ethos. He was undoubtedly an original, a true outlaw, a rebel who always did everything his way. Kilmister dressed how he wanted and even had a hand in designing the almost militaristic looking cowboy boots he famously wore. Unlike others famous rock’ n’ rollers of his generation, Kilmister was always approachable and humble. He was the guy with whom anyone could have a beer or in some cases a 5th of Jack Daniels. He was also a man of myth and notoriety, which was partly due to his impressive consumption of drugs and alcohol that almost no one could or arguably should rival. It was combinations that would be lethal to any mere mortal man. Only recently, Kilmister had switched to a regular intake of vodka and orange juice rather than his usual diet of whiskey and Coke. He gave up the latter due to the “sugar from Coke” being bad for his diabetes.
Kilmister loved to gamble and had a favorite video game machine at the Rainbow Bar and Grill— the machine was delivered to his apartment in L.A so he could enjoy it during his last days. Kilmister was also said to have enjoyed a healthy number of relationships with numerous women—somewhere around 1000 according to Kilmister. During his relationships, he produced two sons. He was actually in regular contact with one of his sons, Paul. Kilmister was also an avid military memorabilia collector and boasted a wide and in-depth collection of artifacts, especially those from the Third Reich. Kilmister could be regularly seen wearing an iron cross and even had one encrusted onto his bass. Make no mistake, though, he held no sympathy towards fascism or National Socialism, he just liked the style.
Despite all of that, Kilmister is best known for his imposing presence on stage and his distinctive guttural vocals. His appearance was charismatic and unique, as if it demanded an almost godlike attention from his fans. When he sang, his voice was like a rough growl, as it sliced through the simplicity of everyday monotony, invoking something dangerous and wild. His style shaped music for generations. It laid the groundwork for the evolving sounds of rock ‘n’ roll– from progressive rock to punk to metal and beyond.
Kilmister lived rock ‘n’ roll and somehow survived years after many others had succumbed to the demands of the lifestyle. His life that was fast and hard. But no matter what, he was always remained genuine to fans, friends and otherwise. Kilmister was many things to many people and above all an inspiration. Kilmister’s god-like status didn’t mean a thing to him. He never let it go to his head, or perhaps he just didn’t care. Kilmister just went on doing what he did best– playing music and living life with no regrets.
Now with Kilmister gone, it is ever apparent that life is short and sweet. Even though his death is devastating, one can still find solace and inspiration from the dearly departed rock ‘n’ roller, as his music and ideals still live one through his records. Fans can still hear the same fast-paced heavy metal and punk sounds that define an appreciation for living to one’s fullest. So whatever your poison is, be sure to drop the needle on “Ace of Spade” and “In The Year Of The Wolf,” or whatever. Just play it earsplittingly loud. Viva.
By Nick Kuzmack