The Anomalous Life & Death Of A Motorhead: Ian Winwood On Lemmy

Enjoy this excerpt from Ian Winwood's new book, Bodies, concerning the often unchallenged unhealthiness of the music industry

Lemmy portrait courtesy of Marc Broussely

Ian Winwood and John Doran are in conversation at Waterstones, Walthamstow on Wednesday July 13 and very reasonably priced tickets are available here.

Garlanded rock writer Ian Winwood’s book Bodies: Life And Death In Music casts a critical eye over the music industry’s "reluctance to confront its many failures"… especially those concerning the high death toll it extracts and the extreme behaviour it encourages.

The book deals with many of the characters Ian has interviewed over the years including Foo Fighters, Biffy Clyro and Nine Inch Nails, and doesn’t shy away from other more notorious characters such as horrific sex offender Ian Watkins of Lostprophets.

But in this extract, he speaks frankly about an anomaly: Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead and asks to what extent he ‘got away’ with the rock & roll lifestyle.

For the purposes of this book, Lemmy is an anomaly. He was

the one who was in control. When it came to drugs, he drew distinctions that might just bear scrutiny. The experience of watching a lover die from an overdose instilled in him a loathing for heroin that was as pronounced as anything I’ve ever seen. As his status as an icon grew, it was tempting to place him in the same louche bracket as Keith Richards. Rock ’n’ roll outlaws who never say die, that kind of thing. The only problem with this is that, in a certain light, Richards’ stage clothes appear to have been dyed in blood.

Lemmy said yes to many things, but not to this. ‘Heroin fucking

ruined [Richards] for years,’ he once said. ‘It’s all very well, that funky Keith business, but how many people do you think he influenced? All these young guys impressed by Keith and doing it as well. You’ve got to take some kind of fucking responsibility.’ For the author of Velvet Underground track ‘Heroin’ he had stronger words still. ‘Lou Reed should burn in fucking hell for the amount of people he’s got into heroin for that song,’ he said. With a pulse like a pneumatic drill, in 1988 he even declared, ‘I believe that if you can do without them [drugs] then you’re better off.’ Hold on, let him finish. ‘I hate to give advice because I’m fifty-three – I’m their parents’ age – so they think, “What’s that old cunt know?” But I do know. Believe me, I fucking know.’

I believed him. Towards the end of his life, Lemmy seemed to

regard his lot with an understandable degree of melancholy. One

of the problems with secular deification is that people stop listening to your new music. It’s a decent gig for those who want it – certainly AC/DC have used the iconography of Angus Young as

an excuse to spend forty-two years making inferior albums – but

Lemmy rightly viewed his status as a twenty-first-century capstone as a threat to his job as a productive artist. Sometimes willing to trade on his public image as a hard-living Hall of Famer – at Motörhead concerts, supporters could buy t-shirts bearing his face and the words ‘fifty one per cent motherfucker, forty nine per cent son of a bitch’ – beneath the carapace lurked a sensitive man who wanted only for his band’s songs to be heard. His new songs. At the Royal Garden Hotel, he once told me that if given the choice he would never again play ‘Ace of Spades’. Such an omission would see him hanged for treason, of course, but I took to his thinking. I admired his wariness of comfort and nostalgia. Regardless of whether or not people paid it any mind, I liked that he still believed in his band’s newest music. He was right to. Some of it is very good indeed.

In the middle years of the nineties, I once saw this with my own

eyes. In the bar of a hotel near the southern tip of Regent’s Park, Lemmy fell into conversation with a pair of politely dressed thirty-somethings enjoying Friday evening drinks at a nightspot near the centre of town. At the time, Motörhead were more than a decade removed from their highest-selling days – a period in which they would fill the Hammersmith Odeon for four straight nights – but not yet at the point at which their singer had become universally recognised. The couple knew that they knew him but, and please forgive us, they just couldn’t say from where. Sorry.

‘I play in a band called Motörhead,’ he said.

‘Oh right,’ one of them answered. ‘Right. Yeah, I remember

Motörhead. I didn’t know you guys were still together.’


Like a high-rolling poker player with a terminal tell, the face of Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister fell to the floor. It took him but a second to put himself back together, but I saw it. The sadness at being thought of as yesterday’s man, making yesterday’s music – I saw it. Waiting for our interview to commence, I listened in as the singer spent the next few minutes telling a pair of perfect strangers of Motörhead’s plans for the upcoming year. Next month, a new album; after that, an American tour with a run up to Canada; then a European campaign, including a night here in London. They could even come and check it out, if they wanted to.

‘Um, yeah, I guess that could be fun.’

I couldn’t believe I was in his company. I was ten years old when

I first heard Motörhead on the radio. Gate-crashing the top ten, in under three minutes the live version of their titular song changed my life for ever. Without it, I don’t know that I would have fallen in love with music. I don’t know that I would have thought of becoming a music writer. Two weeks earlier, its parent album, No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith, had entered the chart at number one. Concussed with admiration, I pestered my mum for the seven-inch, and then the LP; she even bought me one of the band’s t-shirts. Much more than the messy sound of chaos and collision, I realise now that I was struck by the purity of it all. It was amazing. In 2020 I placed the LP at number one on a long list of essential live albums compiled for the Telegraph. About this, I had no hesitation. In the forty-odd years that have elapsed since I first held this wondrous item in my hands, not

a month has gone by in which I haven’t listened to it at least once.

With its inner sleeve festooned with Polaroid pictures, No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith afforded me my first glimpse into an entirely alien world. I recall the words ‘I think these are Aberdeen’ written below a photograph of a gathering of vacuum-packed human beings who looked to me like they belonged in some kind of asylum. Or in prison. I spent hours looking at these images and wondering, Who are these people? How can I meet them? How do I go about becoming one of them? ‘Recorded live in England surrounded by maniacs’ read the sleeve notes on the back cover. ‘Dedicated to all the people who have travelled with, drunk with, fought with and screwed with us on the roads of England and Europe for five years . . . Thanks to everyone who came to see us. Thanks to Smirnoff and Carlsberg without whom lots of this would have been coherent.’ Mouth agape, I’d read these words again and again. What do they even mean?

On a visit to Barnsley, my dad bought me a copy of the Bomber album from Casa Disco Records in the centre of town. Walking to the George & Dragon on a gaspingly frigid December afternoon, I took stock of the three band members pictured on the back sleeve. Lemmy. ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke. ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor. ‘Ian, look up. Watch where you’re going.’ In a room filled with sunlight, Lemmy sat behind a half-full bottle of whiskey that I knew, I just knew, had been opened only that day. Who are these people? Too young to know of the existence of the music press, I had no context for any of this stuff. For all I knew, the object in my hand may as well have fallen from space.

He takes it well, Lemmy, all of the stuff I pour into his lap the

first time I meet him. Following our interview, drinking and smoking and telling jokes, in the hotel bar he gives me hours of time.

Towards the end I’m helpless to prevent myself from spilling out

over the side and letting him know that without him I wouldn’t be

here today – you know, with him. Trying as hard as I know how not

to fool myself, I’ll go so far as to say that he seemed pleased by this.

Actually, I’ll go so far as to say that he appeared touched. And thank God for that. Back then, indifference or derision from the one person who permanently changed the course of my life might well have knocked me to the canvas.

He couldn’t keep it up for ever, of course, this life of his. In the end I think it was the cigarettes that did for him. It was the gaspers that diminished his voice and waged a scorched-earth campaign on his lungs. You could hear it when he talked, that aerosol-can rattle of someone thirsty for air. Advised to stop drinking, he swapped his bourbon and Coke for a tumbler of vodka and orange. Approaching the task in his hand with metronomic determination, Lemmy was the kind of drinker who never seemed to get drunk. But on the three occasions I was graced by his company, without effort he put away what to my eyes, at least back then, seemed like an astonishing amount.

Little did I know that there would come a time when I would

out-drink even him.

Four years after Lemmy’s death from prostate cancer, cardiac arrhythmia and congestive heart failure, I take my fiancée on a guided tour of the rock quarter of Sunset Boulevard. At the foot of the strip, the Whisky a Go Go announces a week of concerts by a selection of hair metal has-beens best known for their walks, and falls, on the wild side. In what might just be my favourite story of rock ’n’ roll dysfunction, I tell her how a member of one of these groups came from a moneyed family from whom he was able to steal and pawn a Stradivarius with which to raise funds for heroin. Dragged by his father down to the shop at which the violin had been hocked, the two men got into a fistfight that might have continued to this day were it not for the sound of the priceless instrument being crushed beneath the wheels of a reversing car. ‘Shut up, that didn’t happen.’

‘No, it did. It really did. I’ve got stories about all of these bands. Do you want to hear another one?’

How many times have I been here? Usually right here, too – in

West Hollywood, somewhere on the three-mile stretch between

Book Soup and Amoeba Music. All this way for an hour in the

company of fucked-up people. The drummer who almost died after

taking too many prescription drugs in his room at the Royal Garden Hotel. The platinum-rated punk rock singer who cancelled a world tour after a drunken meltdown onstage. The songwriter who learned that his band had been awarded a gold album when he was in county jail for possession of heroin and crack cocaine. The vocalist who called a bandmate from hospital to say that he thought he was dying after taking a fistful of unidentified pills. The metal guitarist who drank himself to death after a bite from a venomous spider – yes, a venomous spider – damaged the motor neurons in one of his arms.

On these streets I have been told stories that seem to be turning my hair grey.

Taking the Boxing Day air, I realise that this is the first time in – what? – at least forty visits that I’ve fully enjoyed being in the company of Los Angeles. For the longest time its arterial boulevards and low-standing topography summoned unaccountable feelings of deep and warm melancholy. At first, I could never understand why. But then it came to me: it’s because I don’t know how to drive.

Walking half a mile with a local friend to what I imagined was a nearby bar, years earlier I was seized by the arm and told, ‘Ian, no one in LA walks this far.’ Out here, people ride Shanks’s pony only because circumstances demand it. These are the characters that wake up on cardboard, or who hold spirited conversations with invisible adversaries. Imagining their stories, I picture them as having been buckled by the hustle of the Hollywood dream. Nobody gives a damn when you’re down on your luck. With companions like these, is it any wonder that Los Angeles makes me feel sad?

Up on Sunset I take my fiancée to the Rainbow Bar and Grill.

In the days when I was learning to talk, Alice Cooper was right

here, on these very premises, bending the elbow with people who

were well on their way to drinking themselves to death. The singer got blasted with Jim Morrison. Jimi Hendrix handed him his first joint when he was eighteen. He knocked back Southern Comfort with Janis Joplin. (So delighted were the company who produced the spirit by Janis’s very public endorsement that they sent her a fur coat.) By the time he was thirty, Super Duper Alice Cooper had known more dead people than Doris Stokes. As the seventies came calling, in the wake of Easy Rider American rock ’n’ roll was hard at work divesting itself of its approachable boy-next-door image. If you’re looking for the point at which excess for its own sake was first eulogised, this is probably it. An enclave for the truly famous, up at the Rainbow space was made in the loft for Alice Cooper and his friends to do their drinking in private.

‘It was called the Roost of the Vampires,’ he told me. ‘We were

[known as] the Hollywood Vampires because you never saw us in

the daytime. Every single night, that’s where we’d go. One of the

things we’d do was wait to see what Keith Moon was going to wear

that night. Keith would go to [the outfitters] Western Costumes

– one night he would be the Queen of England, and one night he

would be Hitler, or a French maid, or Zorro. And it was just so

much fun. That was an era when personalities were everything, so it had a signature to it. Everybody had a distinct sound and a distinct look. And we gathered there to get away from the industry. We never talked about music. John Lennon and Harry Nilsson would argue about politics, with each one taking the opposite position to the other. I’d be sat there in the middle of them like some kind of referee. It was great.’ It was great for Alice Cooper because he escaped with his life. He got lucky. Much more of that kind of thing ‘would have killed me’, he told me. ‘No doubt about it, it would have killed me.’

There have been some changes at the Rainbow since last I was

here. The sheltered patio at the side of the building is now called

‘Lemmy’s Bar’. As an immigrant in LA, the Englishman spent his

free afternoons sitting at the counter drinking his Jack Daniel’s

and Coke, smoking his Marlboros and racking up high scores on

an electronic quiz machine. He lived just a block or two away in

a rent-controlled apartment stuffed with military paraphernalia.

Almost four years after his death – and after the death of ‘Fast’

Eddie Clarke and ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor, too – the trio received

the nod that they were headed to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

in Cleveland. A fat lot of good that was to them.

Along with a smattering of albums on a wall-mounted jukebox, at

the Rainbow the singer’s memory is honoured by a life-size statue at the rear of the bar. Accepting my offer of a dollar bill, the juke cues up the version of ‘Overkill’ from No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith. Look out. As the song ascends, a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs, from behind the bar a member of staff turns down the volume.

Bodies is out now on Faber. Catch author Ian Winwood in conversation with tQ editor John Doran in London on Wednesday 13 July

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