Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Rebels Without Pause

After a year punctuated more and more by health scares and cancelled shows, Lemmy has died. The seemingly indestructible icon passed just a couple of days after turning 70 on Christmas Eve, and just two weeks after ending the most recent leg of their world tour.

I only got to see Motörhead in concert once, back in 2001, but it was one of the most memorable shows out of the dozens I've been to over the years. For one, the venue in Chico, then known as the Brick Works, was small, maybe 500 in capacity but probably more like 300. For another, the band had arrived several hours before the show and headed straight for the all-day bar (Panama's) next door. A friend of mine called me at work at about 4:00, saying, "Guess who's sitting at the bar at Panama's?". I broke off early and headed over, and of course Lemmy was still sitting there, by himself, as the bar didn't usually pick up until 6:00 or so.

Some people are afraid to meet their idols, too intimidated, don't know what they'd say, whatever. I'm not one of those people; not that I know what to say, but those opportunities are rare and you shouldn't pass them up when they come along.

Panama's is known for having about 30 or so Long Island Iced Tea variants, and at the time I was particularly fond of their Tokyo Tea, a Godzilla-green monstrosity guaranteed to get you where you're going. Lemmy was nursing his customary whiskey-and-coke, and I sat next to him and ordered a Tokyo Tea. Lemmy gave me a nod and the drink a glance.

Bear in mind that at the time, I had very long hair, lifted weights most of the time, had a full beard, and was wearing a Tim Brown Oakland Raiders jersey. There's something incongruous about someone looking like they've just robbed a liquor store, drinking a giant bright foo-foo-drink.

"Those any good?," he said, smirking a little.

"Yeah, let me buy you one," I replied tentatively.

"Eh, I dunno, I've been working on these," gesturing at the empty next to the one he was finishing up.

"Okay, let me buy you another one of those, then."

"Fair enough."

And so we chatted for a few, the usual small bar chatter, a little about music, as I looked the part, though I had left my last band six years prior (but still played and practiced regularly, as I still do). Nothing profound or even particularly memorable, other than that Lemmy was amiable and approachable. That meant a lot. I didn't want to pester him too much. I've heard Lemmy Goes to the Pub, and no one wants to be that guy. Just as it's great to meet your heroes, it's also good to remember that everyone wants a piece of them, and there's only so much to go around.

Lemmy finished his drink and went back next door for soundcheck. I stayed and had another couple teas and went around for the Brick Works to open. They had a downstairs bar there, and as soon as I got into the club I headed down there. Guess who was right behind me on the stairs, with a couple of associates (who didn't look like bodyguards, but nor were they Phil Campbell and Mikkey Dee).

I decided to move on to beer for the rest of the night, so I approached the bar and ordered a beer, and asked the bartender to give Lemmy whatever he wanted on my dime.

"What kind of beer is that?" he asked.

"Stout." "I'll try that, then."

I paid for the drinks and found some other friends in the downstairs bar. There were several dozen people crowded around Lemmy down there, all wanting to take photos with him, and he obliged each one patiently, giving the camera his trademark scowl and raised middle finger every time.

The show was a blast, made all the more amazing by the small size of the club and the close proximity of the band. I'm a big Rush fan, have seen them several times, but what impressed me about Motörhead was that they were a true power trio, no frills, no backing keyboard or vocal tracks, just three guys playing balls-out rock. Like AC/DC, they only do a couple of things, but they do them extremely well, and they know their strengths. They do not dabble, nor do they fuck around.

It was October 1st, just a few weeks after 9/11, and the mood of the crowd was exuberant, weird, in need of catharsis. The set was fast, energetic, and the Lemmy/Phil/Mikkey lineup, as well as being the longest-lived by far, was also the most technically accomplished band lineup by far. People unfamiliar with the style might dismiss it as noise (and I swear that despite the small venue, it sounded as loud as any stadium show I've ever been to), but this is actually a tight, well-oiled machine, with crisp arrangements and technically proficient musicianship throughout.

Mid-set, Lemmy said a few words about Anglo-American solidarity in the face of tragedy, as the band launched into a nuclear rendition of God Save the Queen. It helped, somehow, right up to the inevitable Ace of Spades, with the small crowd nearly drowning out Lemmy's vocals at times.

After the show, since we knew a couple of the bouncers, a friend and I were able to stick around and hang out for a few with Lemmy and Phil. We actually kept it short this time, because we were drunk and exhausted, and Lemmy and Phil looked like they were pretty tired as well. But again, they were polite and funny and engaging. Lemmy joked about anything and everything, asking me at one point if my jersey meant that I was a football player as well.

I'm very sad that he's gone, but we all know that he went pretty much the way he wanted, short of literally dying onstage mid-song. I continue listening to the music, as I have all along, and know that he had a pretty good run.

Another personal hero of mine -- again, being a lifelong Raiders fan -- was Kenny Stabler, who died during the summer. Stabler would have turned 70 on Christmas Day -- yes, just one day after Lemmy turned 70 -- and had much the same outlook on his profession and on life in general.

In today's NFL, with its optimized stat-humping and genetically-engineered rosters, Stabler would probably be a late-round draft pick at best, and maybe not start at all. His off-field exploits were notorious, as was his (by today's obsessive standards) lack of work ethic. He was never the guy to sit in the hotel room and memorize a 200-page playbook. But there was no one you'd rather have doing a two-minute drill to come back and win the game.

Stabler reached 100 passing touchdowns in just 150 games, a mark that has been beaten by just three quarterbacks since then:  Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, and Tom Brady. That was a measure not just of how naturally gifted and confident an athlete Stabler truly was, but how much trust John Madden had in him. Stabler could come in hungover from partying, not having studied the opponent, and still come in and beat them.

I tend to be a wabi-sabi guy by nature anyway, so it makes sense that of the very few people on this planet that I actually admire, there would be these flawed heroes like Lemmy and Stabler. But there's another reason I find them admirable, worthy of emulation even:  both of them did exactly what they wanted to do, every day. Sure, they might have had to work when they didn't feel like it sometimes, but I'm betting those days were few and far between.

These were people who had fun with their lives, because they got to do what they wanted, how they wanted. In our new gilded age of over-abundance and privilege, luxuries and toys that were unimaginable even thirty years ago, there are not that many people who can honestly say that anymore. They have lots of toys, but not necessarily that much fun. Most of the people I know and work with just make the best of it, try to keep their heads down, run the clock out, hope something better comes along, without really knowing how to make that happen or even what that would look like.

I count myself in that club, and as I approach the big five-oh in a couple years, it gets harder and harder not to look back and tally up the time wasted, the time spent in cubicle farms and dead-end jobs, lured like a fool with the false promises of higher education and better jobs. The memories I treasure are not of doing a fine job making money for someone else, they're the little things like meeting a hero and finding out they're cool and normal, watching a great game or a great concert played by people who love the work.

Sex, drugs, and rock & roll get a bad rap, not only because they are physically dangerous to individuals, but because they are institutionally dangerous when done right. They are a threat to the long-running racket that tells you that you need the piece of paper to get the job to get the house to be a Part Of Society, a society that is owned and operated by rich, soulless fuckers who write their own rules and keep everyone else down. Part of the way they do that is by stifling individuality, by keeping you distracted with consumerist bullshit just long enough to make you forget what you really wanted to do with your life.

As we get ready to slough off the husk of yet another year, and make short-lived resolutions and wishes that will barely draw oxygen before they collapse in a pile, here's hoping that we all take a tip from Lemmy and Kenny, and resolve to do what we were meant to do, and let everyone else worry about catching up to us.

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