There was a time, I don’t know how long (though memory makes it seem very long,) when every Tuesday night I drank whiskey in my office by myself. I had taken a wrong turn somewhere—I don’t know how far back I have to go to identify exactly when. It’s irrelevant. I had taken this wrong turn, and had given up on almost everything that lent brightness to my life. And I was looking into the mouth of a deepening alcohol dependency which would have killed me if I had not kicked it, of this I have no doubt.
I had not played a note of music in a decade and had completely abandoned writing. I had given up on most of what I cared about. Adrift, like drifting people do I made weak decisions that hurt others and myself. I got all weird politically, too, and became a kind of neo-con blowhard, partly because I was tired (reasonably, I still believe) of knee-jerk leftism and the smug bitterness of liberals like myself. But partly (and I was conscious of this) because I wanted to turn my back on my former life, the thought of which caused me terrible longing and pain.
I’d been drinking and drinking for quite a few years, and realized I was going to have to dial things down a notch or two. I had a daughter now, and I treasured her, and none of this was her fault. I had to get my shit together. But since the idea of quitting was too much to face, I decided I would abstain six days a week, but get as drunk as I wanted every Tuesday night.
(Here’s the thing about “moderating” your alcohol intake: don’t do it. Because all you do is torture yourself, waiting to drink. Life gets worse, because you make a fetish of booze: it’s what you’re waiting for. You think about it all the time. It’s the same with smoking two or three smokes a day. It’s the worst. Just dump the shit. Break free.)
My memory of those nights is hazy—but I remember the tingling anticipation. I’d look forward all day long to the moment of release, when I would drop the anxious weight of sobriety, of waiting to drink. I remember cracking the bottle open. I remember the first long pull. That was always good. I also remember watching relief and brief euphoria give way to the sodden monotony of whiskey and cigarettes, of the mechanical click of the mouse as I tried to focus my melting attention on the poker game on my computer screen.
This is a dreary and self-pitying scene, but I have one purely pleasant memory of those nights, and that was playing loud music. I was up there on the second floor by myself above a rock club, so who gave a fuck? And two songs were especially important to me: “All Quiet on the Eastern Front” by the Ramones, and “Deaf Forever” by Motörhead. I played these songs over and over again at top volume, never tiring of them, never quite reaching the end of their promise.
I remember when I was in bands we would throw away simple riffs for being too simple. The main riff in “Deaf Forever” is very simple. We would’ve thrown that lick away for sure.
Motörhead wasn’t really a metal band but people think of them as metal band so let’s not get pedantic. It’s the hair and the guitar solos, probably. And Snaggletooth. Metal sometimes has the reputation of being super-complicated and hard to play and there are definitely offshoots of metal—maybe most of them—where they play a lot of notes. But I could teach a clever one-armed monkey to play “Deaf Forever” in about five minutes. I couldn’t teach him the solo, but no one gives a shit about the solo. It’s the riff and the relentless march of the drums, and Lemmy’s voice, and the words, whatever they are. They just have to stick the solo in because metal songs have solos.
(This is one of the many reasons the Ramones had an edge on Motörhead: they didn’t pretend to give a shit about solos. They cared so little about solos that Johnny Ramone didn’t even bother to play them: he just got the hired hands to do it.)
I’d play “Deaf Forever” ten, fifteen, twenty times in a row. Up in a messy office on the second floor on a Tuesday night. Drunk as a couple of czars. Drunk enough for two guys. I suppose I was trying to strip everything down, to get into the deeply satisfying release of that beautiful sound: overdriven guitars, a simple 4/4 beat, and Lemmy’s commanding sandpaper voice.
Deaf Forever…stone Deaf Forever!
There’s a danger spending too much time with Motörhead. It’s not the most nuanced shit you ever heard in your life, and it’s just the same thing over and over. Lemmy wrote a fast song and a slow song. They’re both good, but that’s all there is. It’s all middle-aged chicks in halter-tops on their boyfriend’s shoulders. You know, there’s an outside edge where Motörhead, having passed over AC/DC, meets Kid Rock and Insane Clown Posse. It’s not Lemmy’s fault: he seemed intelligent and decent, a kind of gentleman Viking. It’s just that when you dumb things down you dumb things down. It’s a slippery fuckin’ slope.
You want to be a smart person enjoying dumb things, not a dumb person resenting smart things.
And there’s no vulnerability in Motörhead (except, maybe, “All For You.”) That is, they intend no vulnerability. But that, in itself, is a vulnerable position. It’s a lot to carry for a lifetime, the tough guy pose. It’s inherently fragile, born of fear. I understand it: I’ve had to walk that path, too. But it comes back to the dumbing down, the coarsening. In the end, who do you want to be: Max Cady? Or Sam Bowden?
Still, you need a bit of grit to get through this shit. You can’t be vulnerable all the time. When the Picts are coming hot and heavy on the frontiers you might just need to chop some motherfucker’s head off and drink your mead from his skull.
When I watched Lemmy I felt sorry for him drinking bourbon and smoking all day. If you’ve never spent an entire day smoking and drinking bourbon—and I’m confident relatively few of you have—you probably have only a vague idea what it felt like to be Lemmy, and it’s likely you’re focused on the supposed freedom he felt to burn his hours any way he wanted.
I spent many days smoking and drinking bourbon, so I think I have a pretty good idea what it felt like to be Lemmy on a good day. I don’t know what his bad days were like. I know things began to get really bad for me when I started trying to stay at least a little bit drunk all the time. That seemed to work okay for Lemmy but it didn’t work out for me.
I also felt bad for Lemmy spending all those nights playing the trivia machine at the Rainbow. Smoking and drinking bourbon. It reminded me of clicking that mouse button, playing endless hands of poker, just pissing my life away. Just throwing hours of my life on the fire as if I wasn’t growing older by the second, as if I would live forever. As if there as ample time to waste on boredom and self-pity.
Lemmy died in December 2015. He had just turned seventy. That doesn’t seem very old to me anymore, but it seems pretty old for someone who lived like Lemmy, who otherwise might’ve died alone under a bush or in a parking lot. Most of the tributes I saw focused on his drug consumption as evidence of greatness. Not so much that people would come right out and say, “Wow—look how fucked up that old man got until the day he died!” But more along the lines of how “fearless” he was and how he lived life according to his own rules. Which is true, and admirable, in a way—although it’s too bad his own rules included bludgeoning his senses into submission, and chasing the ever-fleeing short-term reward like any rat in a maze.
And it’s too bad that at this moment innumerable people are killing themselves with drink and drugs shored up by the thought “Lemmy did it!” Or Keith Richards or whatever. It doesn’t matter. There’s always another glamorous derelict.
I don’t want to judge Lemmy, or bring him down. His life is no more a cautionary tale than anyone else’s. All our lives are cautionary tales: to live is to be endangered, to struggle, often to fail. He did his best as all of us do, and he was there for me when I needed him. I was cracking up, I was sinking fast, and my future looked dark. And maybe he suffered for me, went somewhere I didn’t have to go. At any rate, he died beloved, and he left me a gift, a gift of memory, a bright spot of fierce joy and confidence in a long dark dream.