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…”Continue reading