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Motorhead

Vic, June 27

By Monica Kendrick

I was hurtling toward the birthday that marks the end of adolescence for my generation--the 28th--so naturally I was extremely interested in a deeper comprehension of my destiny. I'd found that therapy and drugs were of only minor help in accomplishing that all-important 90s task of explaining myself to myself. So I had no choice but to go back in time and confront the figure that loomed largest in the haze. Was it an encouraging teacher, a dying relative, a tormenting classmate, a groping pervert? Nope. It was Lemmy Kilmister.

About 20 birthdays ago, I began combing in vain the staticky, Nashville-clogged, Skynyrd-haunted airwaves of rural Virginia for a sound I needed. Before I had the vocabulary for it, I wanted to kick out the jams; I was searchin' for my mainline. Like Hunter S. Thompson's attorney in the bathtub, I was just trying to get higher. What I eventually found was Motorhead, and so before I'd even developed a taste for coffee I understood in my bones the power of jackhammer drumming and heart-attack bass.

Motorhead never went in for superfluities. They never wasted time on sub-sub-Tolkien iconography or extended guitar circle jerks or models in bondage gear or pompous pronouncements on their rights. They understood what was important--sheer bludgeoning power, like a freight train crashing through cars that stupidly try to race the crossing--and they stuck with it, album after album, guitarist after guitarist, drummer after drummer. They were as efficient and reliable and witty as the Ramones, almost as catchy, and much meaner.

That's how I remembered them, anyway, from the days when they were my alarm clock and my lullaby, from my long-gone jailbait years, when a day without Iron Fist was like a day without sunshine. Oddly enough, I'd never managed to see them live. I saw a lot of my other favorites; after quivering in teenage anticipation in the backseat of my very generous parents' car for the two-hour drive to Roanoke or Charlotte, I saw Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult and Iron Maiden and even the Ramones--but the true grail had somehow eluded me.

Until last weekend, that is, by which time I was old and detached enough to indulge in cheap yuks over the disastrous triple bill. The Impotent Sea Snakes I was willing to like for their sheer chutzpah in shaking dildos and licking each other in front of a midwestern metal crowd. The emcee introduced them as "Motorhead's favorite band," and Motorhead's Phil Campbell came out briefly to shake a guitar in support. I believe it: Kilmister has displayed a progressive streak over the years, cutting a single with Wendy O. Williams and relentlessly promoting the all-female can crushers Girlschool back in the 80s, and I think he likes giving offense to the thicker-skulled members of his own fan base.

No, the Sea Snakes were not the problem. The main problem was that Motorhead was second on the bill to W.A.S.P., whom I understood to suck even during the mid-80s, when Tipper Gore was their best publicist. And I confess, I was a little bit worried about Motorhead. I hadn't bought a Motorhead record in quite a while, nor had I heard their new Overnight Sensation, and I knew Kilmister was the only remaining original member. Would he turn out to be another aging legend who just couldn't get it up anymore? I mean, opening for W.A.S.P.? Is that better or worse than opening for a puppet show?

None of the people around me at the Vic seemed to be having any such crisis of faith. They wore the faded tour shirts, they hooted and hollered when the Motorhead logo on the kick drum was unveiled, they smoked pot. Hopeful young women at the corner of the stage flashed bras and sassed the hecklers. The roadies--the no-longer-unsung heroes of one great Motorhead tune--wore the usual helpless "where the fuck are they?" expressions. And they all came together in a joyous pagan bellow when the lights went down at last.

So few things we remember from youth turn out this way: my favorite band has endured in an almost frightening time capsule of perfection. Campbell spits out fierce leads that do their job and then get out of the way, just like Fast Eddie's used to, and drummer Mikkey Dee bashes his way through reverberating concrete at the pace set by Philthy Animal Taylor back in 1977--with a ferocity few teenage hardcore bands can approach. But Kilmister is still the essence of Motorhead, and it's clear now that he was all along. It's hard to understand how he ever could have hidden his light under the sprawling prog bushel of Hawkwind, but since unleashed, his instinct for raising and maintaining a maniacal but organic groove has rarely failed him.

In fact, a good part of Motorhead's relentless drive may come from the simple fact that they're fronted by their bassist--Kilmister understands beat and throb and momentum, and has never been tempted to dilute his power with stupid finger tricks or preening autoeroticism. Motorhead classics like "No Class" and "Metropolis" and "The Chase Is Better Than the Catch" and "(We Are the) Road Crew" sound as fresh and timeless as they ever did, and not remarkably different from new tunes like "Civil War" or "Them Not Me." Encouraged by the minimal but potent stage works, like the eerie green light cast on Kilmister alone during the menacing "Orgasmatron," I was soon hanging over the railing and headbanging like I was 13 years old again.

When they were done there was no question about whether they'd play an encore; the near-religious audience chant of "Lem-my! Lem-my! Lem-my!" made that clear--and besides, they hadn't played "Ace of Spades" yet. They did forthwith, and some other things, and they appeared satisfied, but no one else was. That must be why my inner journalist was able to talk me into sticking around for W.A.S.P.--"to get the full story." I'll try not to dwell on the anticlimax, but there are some deficiencies that even an expensive codpiece can't fix. Frontman Blackie Lawless looks even sillier now that Trent Reznor does so many of his old moves better. And not even a prolonged audience cheer of "Kill! Fuck! Die!" remotely approaches the profound elegance of Kilmister's "I know I'm born to lose / And gambling's for fools / But that's the way I like it baby, I don't want to live forever"--especially when you suspect that he just might.

W.A.S.P. did not play an encore, and when they left the stage the crowd was still chanting "Lem-my! Lem-my! Lem-my!" o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Motorhead/ W.A.S.P. photos by Nathan Mandell.

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