When I think of Lemmy, I don’t think of the plume of smoke, or the cigarette expiring between his fingers, or the fruit machines or the whiskey -- not even the jet-engine roar of Motörhead live. Not at first, at least. I think of reading glasses on the tip of his nose, three or four books open on a backstage table, or notepads full of doodles of spiders and swordsmen. I think of George Harrison playing in the background, or Ricky Nelson, or Live at Leeds.
After spending the better part of five years co-directing/producing the Lemmy documentary, those are the images that come to mind first, followed by the completely random stuff: Lemmy’s hatred of the Progressive Insurance commercials featuring “Flo,” and his disdain for most American grocery store bread; his love of Marmite yeast extract and the Rainbow Bar & Grill’s chicken fingers. Or how, like me, the first thing he did when he got the new issue of Mojo was turn to the backpage Hello/Goodbye feature.
I think about the two of us hunched over 7-11 burritos in a hole-in-the-wall recording studio in Hollywood, watching black and white Beatles bootlegs, or devouring the serrano pepper cheese spinach with the same spoon backstage at Stubb’s in Austin (Gross, I know, but how could I say no?). I think about how he demanded silence whenever he played music, be it at home, backstage or in a tour bus, especially when it was the new Motörhead or Headcat record -- or during the rare occasion someone was treated to tracks from his still-unreleased solo album, featuring The Damned, Dave Grohl, Joan Jett, Reverend Horton Heat, Skew Siskin and more.
And then I think about how bittersweet the mid-show rumbling of the wood staging beneath my feet felt on the final night of shooting. I think about the figure he would cut each time he walked to the stage, even just for a sound check -- easy and stoic like Dylan, but steely like a fighter. I think about the covers of “Honky Tonk Women” and “Back Door Man” that I only saw sound-checked once, and never played live. I think about pyro in Gothenburg, teenagers smashed against the barricade in Copenhagen, rowdy middle-aged men in Wolverhampton; I think about black jeans and white cowboy boots, backdrops and bombers, the last three chords of “Ace of Spades,” the third section of “Overkill,” illegal decibel levels and late soundman Hobbs’ swirl of distortion coda. And I think about the pain pulsing through Lemmy’s diabetic legs, and his eventual downgrading from Jack and Cokes to wine or even Gatorade.
I remember witnessing Lemmy’s visible admiration for Dave Grohl (without question, he loved the man); I remember his grumpiness the day we drove from Hollywood to Corona, where we caught on camera a rare, giddy smile from him as he commandeered a WWII tank; and I remember the sweetness I glimpsed in him one night after having to gently wake him to say goodbye after he had dosed off after a long day of shooting. With his defenses down, he was almost childlike.
Toward the end of shooting, in 2009, his legs bothered him often. There’s a scene in the beginning of the film where he walks into Amoeba Records in L.A., and he’s in pain the whole time. On a better night in Dallas, instead of standing outside signing, he had the crew bring fans into his dressing room in groups of two. They were shocked and overjoyed. Months later, on the morning after that final night of shooting (and at the end of a long fall tour), I stopped by Lem’s hotel room in Moscow to say goodbye. He sat demoralized, wearing a pair of generic white hi-tops. The diabetes had swollen his legs to the point he couldn’t squeeze into his boots.
The next year, during healthier times, we stood side by side on the red carpet at the film’s world premiere at SXSW, and after glimpsing my ear-to-ear smile, he muttered, “Don’t smile, look cool.” It was hard not to -- the film was hard-fought. It was a minor miracle we were able to find the money to finish it. And while in the previous year, he would watch newly cut scenes with the glee of a child, he rarely made any shoot easy, and could often be an incredible curmudgeon. All was forgiven in the end, though, and Lem loved the film. He was especially proud of it reaching gold certification in the States just prior to his 66th birthday. “That’s the best birthday present I ever got,” he texted me at the time, “You should photocopy that and send it to all the people who refused to sponsor you!”
People ask me often, “What was it like to hang out with Lemmy?” Indeed, it could be legendary, especially in the company of guitarist Phil Campbell and the Motörhead crew. But it could often be mundane. Lemmy liked his alone time, and was comfortable being alone. On occasion, people have said to me that the film fills them with sadness for Lemmy -- sadness that he’s all alone at the end of his life. I always find that comment says more about the person making it than it does about Lemmy, and I even discussed this with him a couple years ago, and he agreed. Lemmy made his own choices, and was content with them. Don’t feel bad for Lemmy. He did what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it, every day for the better part of six decades. I can’t say that about many people.
But now that he’s gone, I’m reminded of the wake left by Jerry Garcia, and the army of Grateful Dead employees left rudderless after his passing. Lemmy’s may be more the size of a battalion, but some of them have been with him a decade, some two, some three. There would be no film (and there would have been no albums or tours) without the friendship and help of these people, especially Todd Singerman, Steffan Chirazi, Tim Butcher, Laurie Gorman, Eddie Rocha, Arnie Annables, Roger de Souza, Emma Cederblad, Mark Lewis and Steve Luna. (Respect also to Dan Hawcroft, Adam Parsons, Stefan Sjoland and Francis Ruiz, former members of the Motörhead organization that were also instrumental.)
And then there are the legions, super fans, many of whom I call friends, people like Alan Burridge, Klaus Fabry, Mick Stevenson, Chris Sage and Adrian Simpson, and my swashbuckling brothers from Liverpool, Paul Humphreys, Chris Tierney and Alan Knight, the Motörscousers -- all just as devoted as any Deadhead, and with as many miles under their bullet belts.
Each year, the adoration for the Lemmy film seems to grow in step with his legend. Countless musicians have told me the film is one of their tour bus staples, and it’s a thrill each time, as was seeing Bono recommend it in the liner notes of U2’s recent live archival release, Another Time, Another Place.
More than anything else, it’s a reminder that Lemmy took a chance on me and my co-director/producer, Greg Olliver. I’m thankful for his kindness and generosity. In one of my favorite texts he sent me, Lemmy wrote, “Whatever the reason it caught people’s imagination, I’m really grateful to both of you. It’s done wonders for us all. But send me the sequence of Christie flashing the camera.”
The feeling that came with traveling with the beast that was Motörhead was priceless. Ask anyone who has done it. Ask Grohl, ask Duff McKagan, ask Slash -- there’s a precious freedom that comes with being in a touring band. But with Motörhead, you could almost feel invincible, like a gang that snapped together around 8 p.m. every night to form one giant monster, a tsunami of sound triggered each night by Lemmy’s powder keg decree: “We are Motörhead, and we play rock and roll.”
I sat with Lemmy for about an hour last September, before the band’s gig at Jones Beach in New York. He was frail, wheezing a lot, and he clearly didn’t want to talk about his health. The reading glasses were on, multiple books opened before him. The jokes were moving fast, and Tim Butcher (Lemmy’s longtime friend and bass tech) poured the drinks as we settled into familiar roles, them taking the piss out of me, me only fueling the fire by spilling my Jack and Coke on myself. They loved it. I loved it.
Like a lot of people in the past couple of years, I feared this would be the last time I would see him, and in the end it was. With show time just a few minutes away, I stood, gave him a hug -- I’m sure he was uncomfortable, but I didn’t care -- and the sentimental fella that I am, I told him I loved him. And I’m glad I did. It was the last thing I ever said to him.
Motörhead for Life!
Wes Orshoski is a New York-based filmmaker, photographer and writer. He made his directorial debut with the award-winning, critically acclaimed documentary on Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, LEMMY: 49% Motherf**ker, 51% Son of a Bitch, and recently premiered his follow-up, an authorized documentary on pioneering British punks The Damned, titled THE DAMNED: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead, which made its world premiere at South by Southwest in 2015. His photography and/or writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo, Billboard, Relix, The Source, Uncut, NME, and many others.