I met my friend Ned, a long-haired fry-cook at a British pub in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. He was between college and his next step in life – a toss-up between the priesthood and the music business, and I was returning to school years after being expelled the first time around. Together in a small grimy kitchen, we churned out fish and chips, bangers and mash, and pasties and pies against the soundtrack of Ned’s alternative mixtapes played on a greasy boombox. He can take full credit for dragging me into the 1990s and introducing me to a slew of new bands during those sweltering eight-hour shifts.
Ned changed my musical life when he gave me a homemade VHS tape with video snippets of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cure, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and one other band, Motörhead, who performed “Ace of Spades.” I was familiar with the song but never got a close look at Motörhead who then consisted of Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister (Rickenbacker bass master and vocalist), Phil “Philthy” Taylor (drums), Philip “The Beast” Campbell (guitar), and Michael “Würzel” Burston (guitar). The production was bareboned and poorly lit with no shtick or flash. They wore leather jackets, denim, and bandolier belts. There seemed to be one pre-meditated flourish: shiny white boots, which reminded me of the white patent leather shoes I wore for my First Communion. Some fashion statements never go out of style.
Lemmy, who sang upwards into the lights, was the undeniable focal point with his warts, un-coiffed hair, mutton chops, handlebar mustache, crooked teeth, and aviator glasses. I was generally a devotee of elaborate staging, prog-rock intricacies, and glossy studio productions, but Motörhead’s brand of hard rock went right to my guts. No matter how others labeled them, Lemmy reconfirmed his genre at the beginning of each show: “We are Motörhead, and we play rock and roll.”
Hoping all the songs were as heavy as “Ace of Spades,” I ran out to J&R Music World and grabbed a CD of The Birthday Party recorded live at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1985. It was my introduction to their greatest hits, and I made it my mission to see them live.
Lucky for me, Motörhead toured heavily – their most frequent routes included the US, UK, and Germany. All I had to do was peruse The Village Voice, the same weekly newspaper where people searched for apartments, jobs, and shows. Motörhead rolled into town a few times every year, playing as the opening act at bigger venues and headlining at now long-shuttered and forgotten clubs.
In 1997, after I graduated from Hunter College, I was awarded a Fulbright teaching fellowship to a high school in Germany. There was a consideration about not going, as I was already at the ripe age of 29 and would be losing a steady income and my $400 ground-floor studio apartment on 101st Street and Broadway, in exchange for a monthly stipend of $900. This amount in Germany would barely cover my expenses, let alone entertainment. The only perk was a discounted fare card for the Deutsche Bahn rail system. I figured I could do anything for a year if it catapulted me to Yale grad school. So I accepted the award and suspended my concert schedule.
I envisioned milkmaids in Bavarian hamlets, majestic landscapes along the Rhine, and ghostly Medieval cathedrals. Instead, I found myself in Kaiserslautern. Situated within a 70 mile radius of Frankfurt, Heidelberg, and France, “K-town” is famous for its football team, manufacturing, and US military bases. My monthly 1,200 Deutsche Marks got me a bare room above a laundromat on Eisenbahnstrasse (railroad road), with views of the football stadium and train platforms. I had no TV, radio, and not even a phone for most of my stay. Times were bleak as I wrestled with agoraphobia and paralyzing fear at the mere thought of speaking German. I could manage basic transactions, but my social life was non-existent unless other people spoke English.
With nothing to do most afternoons and weekends, I hung out at Thursty Nelly’s Irish Pub, or visited more picturesque towns like Heidelberg, where I haunted its 13th-century castle and gothic cathedral. The trips occupied my mind and staved off loneliness for a few hours before I headed back to my empty room in a city I despised.
During one of my aimless meanders through K-town, I discovered the local CD shop, which sold tickets to concerts across Germany. Motörhead was playing at a sports hall in Völklingen! It was a town I did not know. Before entering the shop, I rehearsed lines in my head, “Wo ist Völklingen? Eine Karte für Motörhead, bitte.” The kid behind the counter replied in English as good as mine, “It’s near Saarbrücken, not far away. Just one ticket?”
I used my nearly maxed-out credit card for the concert ticket, rail fare, and a cheap hotel. After class on May 11th, 1998, I boarded the train for the hour-long ride toward the French border and looked forward to some pleasant scenery that never appeared. As the train lurched toward Völklingen, one side of the sky gave rise to a rusty metal colossus that imposed itself on the landscape. It was the Hütte, a century-old iron smelter that had employed the people of Völklingen until 1986. Suddenly, Kaiserslautern seemed charming. I consulted a map and made my way to the hotel for some rest before the show.The Hütte iron smelter works. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/OccasionalPedant.
For that leg of the “Snake Bite Love” tour, a Marilyn Manson-type band was the warm-up. Certainly not my first choice for rabid metalheads, but whether it was Girlschool, Nashville Pussy, or Morbid Angel, Motörhead always featured unique opening acts. At the end of their performance to a nearly empty hall, the singer announced, “We’re Uranium 235 from New York City! Thank you!” My homesickness propelled me to do something I never do: approach a performer. I introduced myself to the drummer as everyone made their way to the beer stand. Rob and I talked as if we had known each other for years. He lived with his mother on Staten Island, and the band worked out of the East Village. We reminisced about our favorite spots downtown: Alcatraz for the jukebox, Mamoun’s for falafel, Nino’s for pizza. Rob might have been as homesick as I was. He then handed me a laminated black card imprinted with “U-235” – it was my first and last backstage pass.
Rob brought me to stage right to watch the show a few yards from the drum riser. I had a perfect view of Mikkey Dee, a big Swede with a mop of blond hair that moved in time with his speed drumming. I watched Mikkey pound, smash, fill, and double-kick like a super-marathoner. My earplugs barely protected me from one of the world’s loudest groups, which seemed doubly loud from my position behind Phil and Lemmy’s stacks of 4 x 12-inch and 4 x 15-inch Marshall speaker cabinets. That night, I went from being a regular fan shoved to the back by rowdy bikers to relaxing on a crate sipping backstage beer as I turned the smoke machine on and off when cued. When the guys from Motörhead exited the stage, I even got to dispense smiling nods and approving thumbs-up as sincere thanks.
Back at the hotel, I checked and rechecked that I still had my backstage pass before I got a few hours of sleep. It would be proof that the show was not a dream. The next day, I drank in the Hütte from the rails one last time, never expecting to find the tarnished fossil so engaging. In the early morning light, red steel had taken on patinas of wood, brick, and stone: the monstrous arrangement of tanks, smokestacks, and pipes had transformed into domes, turrets, and steeples. I departed for school with ringing ears and an appreciation for the town that gave me Motörhead. There was no better way of saying auf wiedersehen to my host country.
I have seen Motörhead so many times that I’ve lost count. The last was at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia in March 2005, where Ned worked as the marketing manager. Hanging out with bands, late-night boozing, and free shows won out over confessions, sermons, and psalms. As Lemmy aged, touring slowed, and so did his tempo. Lemmy started playing with Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats and Danny B. Harvey in a rockabilly group named The Head Cat. After 40-years of thrashing with Motörhead, Lemmy went back to the roots of it all. As a schoolboy in Benllech, Wales, Lemmy was there at the dawn of rock and roll and likely heard the songs by Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly he went on to cover so lovingly.
Motörhead disbanded upon Lemmy’s passing on December 28th, 2015, just days after his 70th birthday on Christmas Eve. Like a man who knows death follows his last day at the factory, Lemmy died with his custom boots on, drinking, smoking, and performing despite cancer, diabetes, and heart problems.
These days, I listen to a single Motörhead CD: Everything Louder than Everyone Else, their sixth live album recorded in Hamburg during my year in Germany. And, I’ve added a new record to my collection: Fool’s Paradise by The Head Cat pressed on shiny white vinyl. I never thought Lemmy would turn me on to 1950s rock and roll – not at this late stage in my listening career. And I never thought Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “Not Fade Away” would sound so genuine and straightforward in Lemmy’s road-worn gravelly voice. It was an unexpected and unforeseen final turn in his career, and, in the end, it turned out beautifully.