We need to remember that our rock Gods aren't actual Gods.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK
In the prologue of Lemmy's autobiography, White Line Fever, he tells a story about getting on a plane to go to the Grammy awards.
I had a pint of Jack Daniels in my pocket: I always find it helps with the sobering up. As we taxied elegantly out on to the sun-drenched tarmac, I took a sip and mused pleasantly on this and that.
A voice: "Give me that bottle!" I looked up; a stewardess with concrete hair and a mouth like an asshole repeated itself, as history will – "Give me that bottle!"
Well, I don't know what you might have done, honoured reader, but the fucking thing was bought and paid for. No chance. I volunteered this information. The reply: "If you don't give me that bottle, I shall put you off the plane!"
This was becoming interesting; we were about fifth in the queue for take-off, were already late, and this boneheaded bitch was going to take us out of the line for one pint of Jack Daniels? "Fair enough, I said. "Put my ass off this fucking plane right now," or words to that effect. And can you believe it, the stupid cretin did it! AHAHAHAHAHAHA!! She made all those people late and miss their connections in New York, all for a pint of the amber pick-me-up... So what? Fuck her! And the horse she rode in on!
What a cool guy! You showed that bitch! As a wealthy rock star, you definitely should not have simply handed over the booze and bought some duty-free on the plane. I bet that's how I would have seen it if I was standing in the queue, being made to miss my connection, watching a drunk rock star being rude to someone on a lower pay grade over some JD. You are not a messy, drunk idiot, Lemmy!
When I was a teenager Lemmy was my absolute hero and I thought this yarn was yet another example of his badass mystique. I played bass in a band, and even though we were sort of mix between The Used and Panic! At the Disco, I wore a bullet-belt and aviators, to which I ridiculously attached spectacle strings in case they fell off while I was awkwardly head-banging on the stage of a community centre in Merton.
He seemed to be everything that I wanted to be but wasn't. He was a shagger, I was a virgin. He was drinking JD and coke all day, I struggled to get served with a fake ID. He was cool, I wasn't.
It would be difficult to overstate how much I wanted to believe Lemmy influenced my adolescence at the time, and how much I wanted to be like him. I remember being in situations and genuinely thinking, "what would Lemmy do?" In fact, I would have been too shy and indecisive to do whatever Lemmy would have had me doing. I had a T-shirt designed by him with the slogan, "Quid me anxius sum?" ("what, am I worried?" in Latin) but anyone who knows me knows the answer to that is "Semper". Still, "Born to Lose, Live to Win" is a very seductive slogan when you're a bit of an awkward loser with an outsider mentality, even if you were actually born into a family with a company car.
Despite this, when he died recently, I did very little to mourn. I botched a crap pun about the Motörhead song "Killed By Death" on Twitter (mainly as an excuse to share this killer live version). Then I delivered the same joke/tribute much better on Facebook, out of a slight feeling of obligation. That was pretty much it.
Compare this to the mass grief at David Bowie dying. No one was better than him. People my age had first memories about him. His cross-generational appeal bought families together. He was a "revolutionary", said Paul Mason. What struck me wasn't so much that people were saying this stuff, more that everyone was saying this stuff. This says as much about my social media circles as anything, but there seemed to be no ceiling to how heartfelt the tributes were.
My first thought was, what had I missed out on? (Sure I know the hits from parties and bars and adverts, I like them, but I missed the impactful bit where he changes your life forever). But secondly, why had I failed to connect with my own hero in the same way?
I first lost touch with Lemmy reading an interview with him in November 2010 in the Independent on Sunday, where he comes across as a somber singleton rather than a carefree bachelor. He also comes across as a bit of a prick:
"Women always left me because I wouldn't commit, but then nothing changes a relationship like commitment. If you move in with someone, you lose all respect for them." How so? "All them dirty knickers on the towel rail, all that snorting and farting. Does that appeal to you? Because it doesn't to me. When you first start dating someone, it's all about being on your best behaviour, and that initial magic. I never wanted the magic to stop."
There's so much to commend in Lemmy's worldview: his fuck-you attitude to authority, his intolerance for bullshit, but an inability to live with woman as soon as they do basic human stuff didn't seem like the behaviour of someone I saw as a role model.
In that same interview, he's photographed wearing Nazi clothes. "Look, as I've always said, it's not my fault the bad guys had the best shit," he explains, "But by collecting Nazi memorabilia, it doesn't mean I'm a fascist, or a skinhead. I'm not. I just liked the clobber... I've always liked a good uniform, and throughout history, it's always been the bad guy who dressed the best: Napoleon, the Confederates, the Nazis. If we had a good uniform, I'd collect ours as well, but what does the British Army have? Khaki. Makes them look like like a fucking swamp frog..."
Knowing his worldview pretty well, it's obvious to me he's not a Nazi, and unfair to suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, where in teenage naivety I had been able to get on board with the idea that it's fine to wear fascist uniforms if the tailoring is particularly nicely done, I no longer could. If someone who didn't have a voice like a chainsaw and a bass sound like thunder said they "just liked the clothes" of the Third Reich, I would think twice before letting them my house, let alone buying their T-shirts.
Shortly after, I was seeing them live, and near the end, dancing girls came on to accompany the band. I'd seen them three times previously when they didn't have have dancers. This was tacky. The coolest motherfucker on earth seemed surprisingly uncool. Don't get me wrong, the songs still ruled, and he could still carry himself better than I ever could, but for me, the spell was broken.
Motörhead loomed smaller in my life. You're less likely to want to listen to songs about one-night-stands you wished you were having when you're 20 with a girlfriend than you are at 15 kissing a bottle of White Lightning in a children's playground before throwing it up on yourself. I got obsessed with Weezer instead. Rivers Cuomo's possessive, needy interpretation of relationships seemed to suit my head-over-heels situation better. It also really helped me misunderstand and draw out getting over the subsequent messy break-up. Thanks Rivers! (I forgive you, Rivers. Never leave me.)
And yet, watching the stream of Lemmy's funeral bought a small lump to my throat. Not as much as the videos of Lemmy's voice giving out on stage as his health started to fail him, which I found too sad to watch to the end. Given his habits, the fact that Lemmy didn't die years ago made me think he was invincible and it was horrible to see that this wasn't the case. We had grown a bit estranged but he still meant a great deal to me.
All of which raises the question: how many failings can people have before they become unworthy of veneration? What do you do when you became sentimentally attached to someone whose worldview you have largely left behind, or who did things or held views you were unaware of when their art first made an impression?
Both Lemmy and Bowie's biggest drawbacks are pretty notable and surprisingly similar given how different they were artistically. Lemmy was open about his fascination with Nazi memorabilia (after his death I saw someone on Twitter saying, "Can we talk about Lemmy's Nazi memorabilia collection or is it still too soon?" as if in life it had been a dirty secret). His insistence that it didn't make him a Nazi hasn't satisfied some people, and before long you could see on social media the accusation that Lemmy was a racist.
Bowie, meanwhile, sang in "China Girl" of "visions of swastikas in my head/Plans for everyone", was photographed raising an apparent Nazi salute, described the Thin White Duke "a very Aryan, fascist type" and also collected Nazi paraphernalia. He blamed this fascination on being fucked up on drugs and said moving to Berlin bought him "crashing down to earth" when it came to Nazis.
Then there are young girls. Lemmy wrote a song called Jailbait – an unambiguous ode to underaged girls. He talks pretty openly about this kind of thing in White Line Fever: "Her name was Sue and she was the first girl I ever lived with. She was all of 15 when we first got together – most embarrassing if caught by the police, but there you go. I was just 21 when we met in 1967 anyway, so I wasn't exactly some randy old geezer. More like two randy young ones!"
Ditto Bowie's past with young groupies, when he was in his 20s. Does that mean it's gross to call Bowie a hero? This week Salon interviewed sex expert Carol Queen, and she warned against labelling people as "victims in retrospect... it's not very respectful to what we thought we were doing at the time. I say 'we' not because I was a groupie, but because I was a teenager in the 70s who was a sexual adventurer." Still, awkward questions remain, in particular about rock star entitlement.
Is the best policy to simply not deal with this stuff? That doesn't work, because someone will take a quote out of context and start calling your hero, whose work they never really engaged with in life, a fascist on his deathbed.
Maybe we can look to Juan Thompson, the son of Hunter S. Thompson, who has recently published a memoir to better remember his his dad. He did this because, as he told the Guardian: "So much of [the media coverage] really focused on this crazy gonzo journalist. I felt this compulsion to point out that there was this other dimension to him, as a person and as a writer." In the book, he writes, "whatever my father's greater virtues were as a writer, a warrior, and a wise man – in his daily life he was a basket case, or in the vocabulary of the time: dysfunctional."
It seems that to do these people justice, we should work out a way to remember them beyond a social media spiral that sees breathless beatification turn into the justification for an spiteful and poorly researched blow-back from people who can't feel part of the veneration.
Another trait that Bowie and Lemmy supposedly shared is being something other than human. When he died, people called Bowie an "alien" – so good he couldn't possibly be human. The video for Motörhead's "Born to Raise Hell" ends with a clip from the film Airheads, the opening credits of which include the song.
Chazz (Brendan Fraser): "Who'd win in a wrestling match, Lemmy or God?"
Rex (Steve Buscemi): [makes *wrong* klaxon sound]
Rex: "Wrong. Trick question, Lemmy is God."
That's all fine, as a way to enjoy characters whose charisma elevates them above most other people. But part of the solution here is surely having a more critically engaged culture in the first place, and that means treating people as humans rather than gods or aliens, or jumping to the conclusion that they're monsters.
Apart from that, all I want to say is: thanks, Lemmy, for the absolute fucking electricity that goes up my spine when I put on your music way too loud.
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