Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)
James Parker on the autobiography of Mr. Kilmister
White Line Fever
by Lemmy Kilmister with Janiss Garza
320 pages, $14.95
When I was at an English boarding school in the Seventies, a sweatless boy among sweatless boys, all of us with scuffed shins and hard little minds, there was a brief craze for fainting. It swept through the school like some hot new type of dance. Chapel was the place for it: eight o’clock in the morning, leaky grey light, prayers humming their moth-wings, and the pale unbreakfasted boys would sigh and slump from their pews, one after another, in mild reversals of boy-energy. Low blood sugar had something to do with it—we were scandalously, I would say almost criminally underfed—but you couldn’t doubt the narcotic properties of the prayers themselves. There was this Marian chant from the 15th century which we would do from time to time: the Litany Of Loreto. A real trance-inducer. “Mystical rose!…PRAY for us…Tower of David!… PRAY for us… Tower of Ivory!… PRAY for us”—and so on, repeating and building in pounding, swaying dactyls until the brain cuts out. Years later I heard this rhythm again, in the same call-and-response measure, on a re-release of Hawkwind’s live album Space Ritual—“Time we left… (This world today!)… Brain police… (Not far behind!)… Trying to make you… (Lose your mind!)” Bastards! I smelled again stale pieties of incense, and felt a draught upon my knees as if I were in short trousers.
But this is all by the by, and only slenderly related to my theme, which is the new book White Line Fever, by Lemmy with Janiss Garza. Lemmy was of course in Hawkwind, playing his bass, and for a while he was the best thing about them—Space Ritual is dark hippy wreckage anyway, a huge crude monomanic bummer with drums dolefuly thrashing and vocals following sax following guitar following bass through riff after drug-blind riff. Quite impressive, in other words, but one wearies of the mindfuck. One wearies of Bob Calvert sneering “Sonic attack—in your dist-rict!” through metallic sinuses, the seedy psychedelic warlordism of it. Only the steady, earthy rumble of Lemmy’s bass keeps you listening. I love his sound on this record—surging, human, refusing the pull of outer space and the gnawings of paranoia. It’s not the definitive Lemmy sound, not the tremendous slobbering chordal attack he perfected in Motorhead, but it’s full of personality. In the midst of the Hawkzone, it’s comforting. Lemmy is very funny about Hawkwind in White Line Fever, about DikMik’s fit-inducing sound machines and Dave Brock’s regular delusion that he’d bitten his own tongue off, or his habit of leaning out of his car to shout “Spank! Spank! Spank!” at passing schoolgirls; “Hello girls! Spanky-spanky!” About Nik Turner—“one of those moral, self-righteous assholes, as only Virgos can be”—Lemmy is candidly bitchy, which is even better. Only prolonged night-after-night exposure to Turner’s farmyard sax-playing, his bleats and clucks and moos, could have distilled this weary disenchantment: “He was holding the saxophone and capering–he was a great caperer, Nikky.” Or (my favorite line in the whole book) “He’d get drunk as a cunt on wine.”
I’d like to know precisely how White Line Fever was written, the mechanics of authorship as it were. Behind every book like this is a very interesting sub-book, which is the story of the hack and his or her subject, and how they got it together, how long it took, and how they suffered mutually, etc. White Line Fever smells of Lemmy in his quarters, his LA apartment with the curtains drawn against the late afternoon and the walls prickling with WW2 memorabilia, and the great man filling ashtrays and bullshitting away, forgetting names, remembering dates, swirling through anecdotal loops, mumbling and thinking and chuckling. Nine-tenths of it is unmistakably Lemmy’s speaking voice, the voice of a roughened but still elegant old-school raconteur: “But back to Robbo. I’d known him for years—we met under a table at Dingwalls.” Lemmy’s memories—his Lemmories or Leminiscences—have a patchy, refracted fog-and-strobe quality, which is just as it should be. It gives them depth; early in the book we get a prismatic flash of the Beatles at the Cavern, playing odd-shaped guitars, telling jokes and “eating cheese rolls while singing” and headbutting hecklers. They sound as violent as the Marx Brothers. “Hard men,” says Lemmy, and goes on to disparage the Rolling Stones: “Fair enough, the Stones made great records, but they were always shit on stage, whereas the Beatles were the gear.” The gear! Later on we are granted a piercing glimpse of Sid Vicious, “this fucking bundle of pipe cleaners in a pair of tennis shoes,” taking on a huge Maltese bouncer. Now and again the prose turns professional, breaking into jauntily anonymous as-told-to-ese—“We only had a fortnight to record Overkill, our second album and first for Bronze. Considering our checkered recording history, however, it was a world of time for us”—but that’s just Ms. Garza doing her job, getting the facts in. By and large the Lemmy ramble flows phlegmy and untainted. “I did die once—well the band thought I had, at least. But I hadn’t. The whole thing started when we were going home from a gig in the van. This guy, John the Bog, was our driver—actually, he died, about two years after this incident, come to think of it…”
The book is basic in structure, being the story of Lemmy from boy to man, through his years as a “dosser”—sort of a countercultural vagrant in a US army jacket, living in caves and barns (“I believe that is when I acquired my taste for cold food…”)—to his succession of pre-Hawkwind bands: Motown Sect, the Rocking Vicars, Sam Gopal, Opal Butterfly… You can hear the blossoming of psychedelia in that list of names, but the freakiest material by far is before 1968, when Lemmy was moving through a sort of rock’n’roll Arcadia, a pre-lapsarian wonderland where bands wore the Finnish national costume (“reindeer-skin boots, white trousers with lace-up flies, these smocks from Lapland and vicar’s collars. I thought that was very big, you know…”) and everyone was called Tempy or Ciggy or Scroggsy or Noggsy, like little woodland animals. It was in this era that Lemmy learned his showmanship and his taste for the scrum of life on the road; his drug-taking, from very early on, seems to have been limitless, and his matter-of-fact account of it builds quite gently towards the not entirely surprising moment when his doctor tells him that his blood is no longer human. After Hawkwind fired him in the middle of a US tour he came into his own, forming an early version Motorhead within weeks, and thereafter the pace picks up and the focus narrows a bit. The Motorhead blueprint is revealed: “I wanted it to be sort of like the MC5, since that was the big hero band of most of the underground, and throw in elements of Little Richard and Hawkwind. And that’s more or less how it turrned out. We were a blues band, really…”
Ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson, brought into the band after the grumbling departure of ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke, flashes across the Motorhead story like some sort of insanely virtuosic ballet-slippered phantasm, trailing the acid wisps of his guitar-sound. His dyed red hair, his skintight emerald green shorts—the defiant androgyny of it!—his mercurial refusal to commit to Motorhead, his pain-in-the-assness, his states of extremely private and useless intoxication (Lemmy tells of finding him in the lobby of a Spanish hotel, on his feet but with his face smudged against the glass of a display case full of “crystal teddy bears and shit like that,” a bottle of Cointreau in his hand, asleep)… Robbo was truly Hermes, the on-the-move godling, and the band couldn’t hold him. Or he couldn’t hold his guitar. Or something. At any rate he got fired, but not before his wild style had torn Motorhead loose from their own beery bottom-end for the most beautiful album of their career: Another Perfect Day.
I wonder how much Janiss Garza got paid for doing this. I hope it was a decent amount. I once asked an older journalist what the point was of writing ‘as-told-to’ books and he said “Well, do you like money?” So maybe she did okay. On the other hand, as Lemmy himself insists to an almost maudlin degree, his stock in the industry is rather low at the moment: no hits, no buzz. Just a living legend. But how it lives! If you haven’t heard him doing “Shake Your Blood” on Dave Grohl’s Probot record, do yourself a favor and buy it quick: it’s the best Motorhead track for some time, classic Lemmy, from the end-of-the-line sloganeering of the lyrics—“Rock out—strike it rich/My, my, my—it’s a bitch”—to the shattered catarrhal abyss of his voice. Grohl’s music, plainly written on some monstrous “Ace of Spades” adrenaline-spike, is almost a hallucination of Motorhead: a shimmering refinement, two feet off the ground. The best any of us can do is rise to the occasion, and Lemmy always does. He’s always up for it, up for anything, pathologically game—he’ll step up and play bass with Frankie Goes To Hollywood if it means he can go to the party afterwards. Last year he popped up on the Rollins-sponsored Rise Above album, doing Black Flag’s “Thirsty and Miserable.” What a performance—his sodden grandeur overpowers. He has lived, and paid for it, and swayed and sobbed and lived again, and got his face stuck to the table, and risen up to live and pay some more. He is a great Englishman. He should be knighted, or decorated, or given some strange and unique peerage, a thousand acres of savage highland where he can breed his Nazi llamas.