But it don’t make no difference
‘cos I ain’t gonna be, easy, easy
the only time I’m gonna be easy’s when I’m
Killed by death
I first encountered Motorhead when I was 14, at school in Australia. I had just moved to a new school (again!) and was getting bullied in my home room, so I was spending a lot of my time alone. In my home room was a sullen, muscly kid with a dark character, called Matthew, who was friends with a guy called Glenn – even more muscly, and rumoured to have been held back a year. Glenn had a scary reputation, but it was one of those high school reputations that has absolutely no backing – no one, when asked, could say why or what about him was scary.
One day Glenn came up to me in lunch and asked me in his rough and ready way that he had heard I was good at computers? Back when I was 14 being good at computers was a kind of novelty, and I had in fact done a one week long intensive course in BASIC a year earlier, so even though my family were too poor for a computer I was, for my time, pretty good at computers. Not too sure where this was going I said yeah I guess I am and he told me that Matthew was going to be held back a year just like Glenn had been if he didn’t pass computer class, and he didn’t get it all, and we were in the same class, so would I help? I was aware that Glenn had a reputation as the kind of boy to whom you can’t say no, but I also had a tendency not to do what other kids told me to do – a key skill when you’re being bullied at school. However, I had noticed Matthew in class and was kind of sorry for him. I was just a year away from the abandonment of my brother by my family, who had left him in a children’s prison in the UK and moved to Australia, and I was sensitive to kids who couldn’t get it together at school. So I agreed to help.
Matthew passed computers, though I can’t say if it was my help or just because he tried. During the term that I was helping him, though, something remarkable happened – Glenn invited me to hang out with him and Matthew at lunch. It turned out that Glenn and Matthew were as outcast from school life as me, with no friends except each other, and they spent their lunchtimes in the school weights room, which no one else even seemed to know existed but which they had managed to score for themselves. We would eat our lunch in that hungry mechanical way boys do in about three minutes, spend a couple of minutes chatting while we let it settle, and then set to work on the weights. And while we lifted, we played Motorhead on the stereo. Sure, sometimes there was a bit of Anthrax or Suicidals, but mostly it was Motorhead because Glenn and Matthew were old school like that.
I have only a vague memory of that six months – my parents moved after six months of course, so my budding friendship with Glenn and Matt disappeared into the sludge of my childhood moves. But I do remember that Motorhead was the first music I took seriously in my teenage years, and those two boys were the first two boys who took me seriously. There we were, clustered around the bench press, Glenn pushing my body weight and then taking off all the weights so I could struggle with the bar, no judgments passed or scornful jokes made, just a group of young men making the best we could of our lunch hour. Compared to me their school days were harsh – I had been streamed into the top maths class and was enjoying my studies but for them school was an ongoing series of trials, trying to understand shit they just didn’t get, or understand why they had to get. Sometimes we would take our lunch hour out at the back of the playing fields, and they would get stoned and hang around with a couple of similarly outcast girls, with me tagging along sober.
Once I started hanging out with Glenn, the bullying stopped. Once I tried volleyball club, and some dickhead at volleyball club got in a fight with me in the car park, and Glenn wanted to know who? Where? And I had to ask him not to waste his time. For that rare six months, in that school, Glenn was my lucky charm, the first man who ever made me feel like I could be respected just for being alive and there, the first man who ever understood the concept of mutual aid and just being good to each other.
And he was a stoner and a Motorhead.
After that I moved to another school, in the country on the edge of the desert, and when I arrived as usual I had nothing in common with anyone – except heavy metal. Motorhead opened doors for me, again mostly with the boys who were repeating the year because they didn’t take the first one seriously. Now we had Metallica, Megadeth and a whole new world of thrash that I would never even have known about if it hadn’t been for those six months in the weights room, with Glenn in his Motorhead singlet, thrash booming, the smell of sweat and iron …
Without those metal boys my high school would have been slightly less alive, largely a life of skulking around waiting to be hissed at by the popular kids. Through metal and role-playing (which of course those kids were doing) I found a group of people who took me seriously and cared about me. I can’t say that metal inspired those kids to be nice – after all, I’ve even heard that people who don’t listen to metal can sometimes be nice human beings – but it was definitely the soundtrack to my discovery of human kindness. And it was somehow appropriate, because that first breath of human spirit came from a pair of boys who were in their own way as cast out as I was, and we were all listening to music that was fundamentally about not compromising yourself, about rejecting people who reject you. Motorhead, especially, is about being yourself and not letting anyone drag you down.
This morning I learnt that Lemmy, lead singer of Motorhead, died suddenly of cancer. It’s hardly surprising given his claim to have drunk a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, and his huge smoking habit. He was 70, and playing gigs right up until last year. His band released a statement on his death which includes this simple, beautiful admonition:
We will say more in the coming days, but for now, please…play Motörhead loud, play Hawkwind loud, play Lemmy’s music LOUD.
Have a drink or few.
Celebrate the LIFE this lovely, wonderful man celebrated so vibrantly himself.
HE WOULD WANT EXACTLY THAT.
Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister
Born to lose, lived to win.
That statement took me back to those teenage months with Glenn, when I was fumbling around learning to be a person for the first time. It’s probably hard for modern kids to get, but back then we were still wrestling with whether it was okay for girls to swallow, whether you should wait till your wedding day to do it, whether a single toke would get you addicted to heroin for life … there was a lot of fear of just living back then, and now that AIDS was stalking the earth there were new fears of transgression and sexuality. But metal was about living, it was about life, and it rejected all that old fussy stuff about what we should and shouldn’t do. Obviously it wasn’t just Motorhead, but Lemmy was ferociously present, he was living large and telling us all to be who we wanted to be. And we did just that, and our lives are better for it.
Lemmy’s death is obviously a big blow for metal. But on a deeper level, it’s a reminder to all of us of our mortality. If ever any man on this earth could keep living just by sheer force of will, it was Lemmy, but he was killed by death. If Lemmy can’t escape that caped doom with which he was so familiar, what hope do we have? Only one: to live our lives large and as we like them, regardless of the consequences, as he did, and dare Death to come and get us. Let death be the least of our experiences, and deservedly the last.