Lemmy: A Portrait of Rock & Roll Endurance
By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 7, 2011 7:40PM
As cult figures go, they don't come with much more cred than Motörhead bassist and frontman Ian Fraser Kilmister, a.k.a. "Lemmy." Revered by even Ozzy Osborne as the godfather of Heavy Metal, the English expat has cultivated an image of the badass working man's hero through a career that spans the British Invasion, the Jimi Hendrix Experience (where he was a roadie), psych pioneers Hawkwind, and, since 1975, Motörhead. That he's still going strong is some sort of medical miracle, but he's a rock icon frozen in amber, still smoking and drinking a ton, camping out at the Rainbow on Sunset Strip, amassing enough authentic Nazi memorabilia to justify an episode of Hoarders and, of course, and playing music that is really hard, really fast and really loud. His gravelly vocals and distinctive overdriven bass sound presided over an influential confluence of punk and metal which inspired legions of followers beyond the "big four" of 80s (Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica and Slayer) who stand directly in his shadow. As his career motors full steam ahead into its sixth decade, directors Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski spent three years creating the ultimate rockumentary on the man behind the muttonchops, Lemmy: 49% Motherf**Ker, 51% Son Of A Bitch.
Motörhead performances are interspersed with plenty of footage of Lemmy backstage, in his home and in his natural habitat (frequently camped at a slot machine or bar room game console), supplemented with interviews from several of his more famous fans. Dave Grohl slobbers all over his legacy, James Hetfield giddily confesses to stealing just about everything he could from the man, and Anthrax's Scott Ian tells of confronting him about his short shorts. A host of others (including Billy Bob Thornton, Ice-T, Henry Rollins, Jarvis Cocker and seemingly every musician who ever lived in southern California and had a tattoo) attest to Lemmy's all-around awesomeness. This is a documentary that saims to revere its subject, and mostly succeeds.
The person revealed is more complex than many would have imagined. Lemmy depicts a sort of gentleman biker, kind and generous beneath his tough guy exterior, a loyal and honest fellow who lacks the rock star-sized sense of self-importance one expects to find. He's got the kind of wizened "if only your eyes could only see what these have" visage, but he's not preachy about it. Wise and world-weary after a lifetime of watching those around him burn out and/or fade away, he's pragmatic above all else, realizing a long time ago that he was doing exactly what he wanted to do and has spent a lifetime trying to keep on doing it rather than use it as a stepping stone for any next phase of his life or moving on to anything as quaint as family life or retirement.
The result is surely among the most successful suspended adolescences in history. At 65, Lemmy is (still) living out quite exactly the rock and roll lifestyle fantasized about by generations of teenage boys: traveling around the world playing music to hate at unsafe decibel levels while groupies wait backstage, spending his downtime gambling and recording with famous rock musicians, all the while chain smoking Marlboro reds and consuming inhuman quantities of Jack Daniels. His L.A. home is crammed full of a collection of rock ephemera, swords and daggers, scale models and war memorabilia and terrifying Nazi iconography. A seeming walking embodiment of teenage angst and rebellion, he is startlingly serene and studious about his affectations. They are just part of the package, and he really doesn't care what you think. If you act like this into your twenties, people will tell you to grow up. Act like this into your 60s and people will doff their cap. He hasn't burned the candle at both ends: he took a blowtorch to it.
There will be no Motörhead reunion show, because the band never stopped touring relentlessly, spending months every year on the road while putting out new records every other year or so. There will be no preening Louis Vuitton ads or self-glorifying memoirs, no heartwarming Behind The Music-style narrative of loss and redemption. There is only Motörhead playing to houses packed with adoring fans year after year, until Lemmy's body finally gives out (the movie doesn't exactly dispel the intimation that he may still be popping speed along with his blood pressure and diabetes medication, by the way). It doesn't matter whether Motörhead is playing the Aragon in '81 or at SXSW in '08, or at The Congress Theater next Friday, you're going to experience something loud, fast and angry. If Lemmy is perhaps a little long and indulgent, it is merely that much more true to its subject: a guy who literally does not know how to quit.
Watch Lemmy at The Music Box on Thursday, February 10 at 9:45 p.m.