When you reach a certain level of fame, suddenly everybody on Planet Earth assumes they know you intimately.
Certainly that’s how it went for Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, the swaggering, spit-and-soul-soaked renegade best known as the lead singer of Motörhead. But if there’s one thing that Mick Wall’s masterful Lemmy: The Definitive Biography proves, it’s that the real man was much more complicated than the one-dimensional caricature paraded out by certain sects of the mainstream press.
Not that Lemmy ever tried to deliberately disguise his true self, as Wall knows better than most. “Of all the books I’ve written, this was definitely one of the ‘easiest’,” says the celebrated British rock journalist. “Lemmy was a man [who] didn’t really have that many secrets. A lot of people you write about, their private lives are very secretive. They don’t like you to know who they really are. They [have a] person they want to present to the world.
“Lemmy was the person he presented to the world. It’s like he says in the book: it wasn’t a costume. That really was how he dressed, and who he really was. He was a man of many opinions. Instead of pussying around and trying to be all things to all people, you either took Lemmy or you fucked off.”
Lemmy follows the rocker from his childhood in North Wales all the way through his time as a member of psych-rock mind-melters Hawkwind and the years spent at Motörhead’s helm, coming to rest with his sad passing at the end of last year. Though the book features all the excess and debauchery one would expect from a biography about the man who wrote ‘White Line Fever’, it also investigates Lemmy’s sensitive, supremely intelligent side.
“He was an old-fashioned gentleman,” Wall says. “Lemmy was born right at the end of the Second World War, and he was a man of manners. He was extremely well read. He knew the difference between the good stuff and the bad. He knew the difference between bullshitters and genuine folk. And there were no airs and graces. At the end of the day, he was a very intelligent guy.”
In one of the many telling moments in the biography, a journalist gets shown around one of Lemmy’s temporary squats, only to notice a P.G. Wodehouse novel on the rock’n’roll demon’s bedside table. Wall laughs when the episode is recounted. “He had lots of things like that,” he says. “It’s like Stacia [Blake, dancer in Hawkwind] says. On the tour bus with Hawkwind, Lemmy was always at the back reading a book. Whenever I went to visit him, his place would always be full of books.”
More than anything else, Lemmy is incredibly tender. Wall and Motörhead’s mastermind were friends for over 30 years, and every page bursts with affection and camaraderie. It’s not a book about a myth, or a monster, or even a martyr – it’s about a real human being, and for that reason, it’s not afraid to shy away from the more complicated side of his character.
“I think like all musicians – like all of us, actually, but it’s a particular weakness of famous musicians – [there is] the tendency to blame other people for your career mistakes. [Lemmy] was very bitter in the latter years about his manager, Doug Smith. He could be a bit… what’s the word I’m looking for?” Wall takes a moment. “Lemmy was a wonderful, wonderful guy. He could also be a complete fucking arsehole sometimes. Like all of us.”
The affection evidently went both ways. Lemmy once described Wall as “one of the few rock writers in the world who can actually write”, and it’s that mutual respect that makes the book’s finale so genuinely moving. Lemmy’s spirit stayed strong even as his health dramatically started to fail. He kept going. He kept playing gigs. Maybe it was because he didn’t want to stop. Maybe it was because he couldn’t.
“He was one of these guys who became like a Charles Bukowski, or a Peter Cook, or a Dylan Thomas or a Hunter S. Thompson,” Wall says. “He reached that kind of level of exalted craziness, where there was a brilliant intelligence, but at the same time, a defiance – to rage against the dying of the light. It’s just a fantastic story … He defied all the rules, broke all the rules, made up new rules, and kind of put us all to shame in that respect.
“He was a one-off,” Wall adds. “He really was. Long after I had given up staying up all night and running around chasing crazy women, and wanting to be on tour all the time … Lemmy was still doing it. Lemmy played his last show about two or three weeks before he died. There’s no fucking way I would want to live like that.
“I’m not as old as he was, but I got off the road 20 years ago. And for good reason. There’s only one road, and you can only go around it so many times. But Lemmy was always out there.” He laughs. “You always knew when it was 4am, at least Lemmy would be up.”
[Main photo Mick Wall, Author of Lemmy: The Definitive Biography]
Lemmy: The Definitive Biography by Mick Wall is out now through Hachette Australia.