Photos courtesy of Motörhead
"I can't do it."
Those four words rippled through the crowd like an aftershock last night at a Motörhead gig at Emo's in Austin, TX. Instead of roaring through their usual set like a well-oiled, road-worn machine, the iconic heavy metal lifers only made it through a few minutes before halting. Lemmy walked offstage mid-song; a fan-filmed video caught him saying it— "I can't do it"—before he shuffles off, slowly, painfully, with the help of the cane he's recently started using. The crowd, stunned, quickly regained its composure and began cheering—not heckling, cheering—for him. A chant rippled through the venue—"We love you! We love you!"—in a display of solidarity and communal support that could bring even the most hardened metal veteran to tears. After a few moments, the 69-year-old frontman reappeared, and grabbed the mic. "I would love to play for you, but I can't. Please accept my apologies. Next time, alright?"
And of course they accepted. A friend who was there told me that the crowd was sad—he mentioned seing fans weeping afterwards—but "very understanding," and I'm not surprised. No Motörhead fan—or metal fan in general—could have stood there and watched the great man falter like that, and then reacted any other way. This was no Axl Rose-style temper tantrum, or Scott Weiland's drunken foolishness, or a Billie Joe-brand meltdown. This was a man showing up for work, and realizing that he couldn't finish the job. Offstage, that cane is only one of the multiple lifestyle changes his failing health has demanded. He quit smoking, very publicly switched from his customary Jack Daniels to red wine and now vodka, and though he won't discuss his other extracurricular activities, it's safe to assume that he's given up his beloved speed, too. Those are all sensible, necessary decisions, but it makes you wonder how happy he is about it. Once the joy's all gone out of life, what's the point of living?
I've loved Motörhead for years and years; their music has been a constant since I started listening to metal and punk fifteen years ago, and every time I've seen them live, it's been fucking awesome. I've got tickets for the New York City date of this current tour, and am anxiously hoping that I get to use them. Most of my favorite bands can trace their lineage directly back to classic albums like Overkill, Bombers, and Ace of Spades. Interviewing Lemmy himself remains a career goal of mine, and I'm genuinely stoked about Bad Magic, their newest album. With all that being said, I sincerely hope that there isn't a next time—not because I don't love Motörhead, but because I love them too much to watch them suffer.
While his bandmates Phil Campbell and Mikkey Dee seem to be holding up pretty well (a long, hard life of rocking and rolling notwithstanding), Lemmy's health problems have been a running concern for years. This Austin show isn't the first gig he's had to cancel this year due to illness; just last week, he walked offstage in Salt Lake City and cancelled the next night's show in Denver due to altitude issues (tonight's San Antonio date has just been cancelled, as well, which the band cites as a direct result of said altitude issues), and in April, Motörhead pulled out of Brazil's Monsters of Rock festival mere hours before they were due to go on, with Lemmy later apologizing, "I'm really sorry I missed the show. I got a stomach bug and was throwing up. So it's not much fun. I couldn't do it." Hearing this legendary figure admit weakness—defeat, even—has been jarring for fans who for decades have happily answered the question of who'd win a proverbial wrestling match, Lemmy or God, with "Trick question, Lemmy IS God!"
Lemmy was born in 1945; he saw The Beatles play when he was 16, and muddled through a few local bands and an ultimately disastrous turn with Hawkwind before striking gold with Motörhead in 1975. It is now 2015. That's a long fucking time to have done anything, let alone done it with as much passion, energy, and pure fuck-off attitude as Lemmy has; it's no wonder he's worn out. Part of his mystique is rooted in the simple truth that he has no mystique. In interviews, onstage, and in his own warts'n'all biography—which is wonderfully and truthfully titled White Line Fever—he puts it all out there on the table; you can take or leave what he's offering, and he doesn't particularly care which one you choose. Sex, booze, drugs, rock'n'roll, leather, late nights—that's what Lemmy's always stood for, absolutely unapologetically and with enough charm that it somehow makes him seem even more approachable, a debauched folk hero you'd actually want to sit and have a drink with. Forty years in, he doesn't know how else to be, and now that his body and his doctors are demanding that he change his ways, he seems lost. Last night's show in Austin was painful to watch; for the first time, he looked old. He looked mortal.
To Lemmy, all I can say now is, listen, mate. You don't owe us anything else. You have nothing left to prove to anyone. You've already given us so much, and asked for so little. All you ever wanted was to spend a life on the road, to get out onstage each night, play a few tunes, and unwind with a Jack and Coke afterwards. If you can't comfortably do that anymore, then it's time for you to stop. I know you don't want to live forever, but you deserve to live well while we've still got you here. Move to Florida, buy a boat, and kick off your boots, because you've earned it.
Lemmy, we'll never stop loving you, but it's killing us to watch you die.
Kim Kelly is on Twitter - @grimkim