Lemmy, the Rocky Balboa of trucker speed abuse, is dead. And that’s alright. He’d be the first to tell you that’s alright. He was 70 years old. He worked until the wheels fell off and lived like hell by his own choosing and beat his life expectancy by a respectable 50 years.
I’ve never listened to an album by the guy, and I’m still devastated. You want guys like that to keep going forever. Every show he played, every headlining one-off at some festival in a country you’ve never heard of like Bulgaria with a name you’ve never heard of like HellFest, was a denial of death. He had become a tall tale. Invincible. Unkillable. A twentieth century update of one of the oldest stories. He fought death and won. And we need people to provide that magic. The sustaining fairytale that it doesn’t have to end the way it always does.
Lemmy was the right guy for the job. Now he’s not here to do it anymore. His office is vacant. Pretty soon, his desk will be emptied out and somebody else’s name will go on the door. That’s a sad damn thing.
I won’t remember Lemmy like his fans will. Aside from the broad strokes, the run-over face, the cigarettes, the trucker speed, the whiskey, I’m ignorant. But the two things I do remember are burrowed way deep down in my soul.
First thing I remember. I was at my inaugural concert as somebody with car keys who could pass for an adult. X was the headliner. I didn’t know the opener. The curtain was pulled back and it was Lemmy playing old rock and roll standards. He sang songs like “Big River” and “Not Fade Away” and he had the stage presence of a tank that had been almost destroyed but had the important parts begrudgingly restored out of sentimentality by its driver. It was the first time I’d ever seen a rock star. I knew he was a rock star because he performed independently of the audience. He was on his own planet. Whatever he was doing, he could do it if there were four people in that room. He didn’t need anybody, he just had to be who he was. That was enough.
Second thing I remember. My little brother was however old kids are when they’re in strollers. I had an iPhone, and he was fascinated by it. He’d always try to grab the thing to go through my music collection, flipping through album covers until he pressed play on the first picture that interested him (which is, actually, the same way adults do it). One day he found “Ace of Spades,” a song I kept around for joke purposes. He listened to the whole song, and then started listening to it again. He started leaning forward in his stroller and then letting his head fall back, bouncing along to the song. Three times. Four times. Finally I took the phone back and he started crying.
I thought it’d be a passing phase. I wasn’t going to be like one of those people who say that their four month old is the world’s biggest Ramones fan. But he kept listening to it with no encouragement, racking up hundreds of plays. When he got old enough to walk well, he’d steal my phone and listen to the song by himself, bouncing his head on the couch until he fell asleep. I’d routinely find him asleep in his little overalls with his thumb in his mouth while “Ace of Spades” blared on repeat.
He came to call the song “Ace.” And he’d sing along to the lyrics, which he only knew phonetically. “Yawinsum-ooh-losesum-all-da-same-da-me.” Everybody in the family hated this. While it was adorable once, it quickly became bullying-by-cuteness, and it was obnoxious. We tried to outlaw the song. But sometimes somebody has to get work done in another room, and sometimes somebody takes the path of least resistance. That’s how he got people who were banking on him being too young for long-term memory to sing along with “I see it in your eyes, take one look and die.” Following the gradual erosion of barriers, he made sure everybody knew “Ace of Spades.”
Musicians become eternal when they make unlikely personal connections. When their work gets tangled up in your actual life and their reputation becomes irrelevant. Whenever I hear “Ace of Spades,” I don’t hear the outlaw anthem other people hear. And I don’t see the 62-year-old tank I saw beating up Buddy Holly songs in 2007. I hear a little boy singing along to gravel pouring out of a cell phone just before falling asleep. That’s how I’ll always remember Lemmy, and all the trucker speed in the world couldn’t change that.