Born to Lose, Live to Win: Remembering Lemmy 6 Years Later

Photo by Alejandro Páez, via Wikipedia.

There is a tendency among rock fans to immortalize their heroes. The most common way to do this is to portray one’s favorite dead musicians as angels, with ivory wings spread behind them as they rock out in Heaven with John Lennon and the dudes from Skynyrd. A rarer and more ghastly byproduct is the hologram, in which a musician’s Pixar ghost is forced to dance on stage for our entertainment. What all of this suggests is that we have a hard time honoring the artists we love as they truly were. Now that they’re gone, and can’t screw their legacies up any further, we want them to be perfect. We want them to be gods.

So what does it say that we haven’t done this to Lemmy? Six years after his death, Motörhead’s hard-drinking, hard-touring, no-fucks-given frontman remains as human as ever. Perhaps this is because Lemmy was a god in his lifetime, and needs no further depiction as a deity. But maybe it’s because Lemmy was too true for that kind of saint worship. Maybe Lemmy was us, and to try and iron out the wrinkles of his life does him, and us, an injustice.

When we remember Lemmy, it is always warts and all. Lemmy is rarely depicted without bass, cigarette, or Jack in hand; his three chief addictions are huge parts of his iconic imagery. Beyond that was a complicated man – an avid reader and excited traveler, who lost the love of his life to the one drug he refused to do. There was no glamor to Lemmy, no glitz or razzzle dazzle. His custom shoes were cowboy boots. You’d find him at the bar, glued to a video poker machine. His favorite drink was far from top shelf.

This lifestyle is also the backbone of his music. Every Motörhead song is about being a person — a horny, angry, leather-clad person trying to take home the trashiest piece of ass in the bar, perhaps, but a person nonetheless. Even cuts like “Live to Win” and “Angel City” keep their heads out of their backsides, reveling in rockstar excess only as it’s experienced by the average dude trying to have a good time. If dragons or ghosts show up in a Motörhead song, it’s as very blatant metaphors; Lemmy wasn’t afraid of fantasy, he just saw it for what it was.

In this way, it’d be easy to portray Lemmy as a god among men. After all, he drank harder, screwed more, and made music more badass than any of us could ever imagine. Maybe he wasn’t God Himself, as the joke in Airheads claims, so much as one of those old-world gods from Greece or Babylon, pounding mead and bedding water nymphs. Lemmy, atop a throne of Jack bottles, raising a toast in a black toga. Makes a lot of sense, right?

But that would deny what makes Motörhead brilliant. The bristling resentment, the unflinching honesty, the use of rock music as an escape. A flick of the booger at Mount Olympus and any sandaled jackass who’d want to live there. The truth is that Motörhead’s historic impact was always coupled with a lack of financial success for the band…and that felt right. Lemmy wasn’t a rock star for people who wanted to be millionaires. He was proof that you could live your dreams two or three inches from the spit on the sidewalk. 

Lemmy’s complicated nature is perhaps most interesting because it’s not easy. The moment in the 2010 documentary Lemmy where we see the extent of the dude’s Nazi memorabilia collection is staggering. Lemmy’s explanations are smart and simple – this is not about a love of the Nazis, but a fascination with their craft and artifacts. And we accept it on the back of his music alone. Motörhead does not feel like a message of bigotry, or even a declaration of sides. This is rock and roll. The joke at the bar and the song stuck in your head are the only pure things in this painful existence. Blame the world.

On “(Don’t Let ‘Em) Grind Ya Down” from 1982’s Iron Fist, Lemmy says, “We scare ‘em shitless just by showing up alive.” More than any Motörhead lyric, that one might encapsulate the man best, especially now that he’s dead. Lemmy was an improbable creature, a dude who crashed the gig, won over the audience, flipped off the promoter, and walked away with money and maybe a girl. He made the normal people gasp, the abnormal people laugh, and the scumbags sing along. We were lucky to ever have him, and now that he’s gone, let’s say his name every day.

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Words by Chris Krovatin