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Rock and Roll Book Club: 'White Line Fever' captures Lemmy Kilmister as he lived, larger than life

Lemmy Kilmister's 'White Line Fever: The Autobiography.'
Lemmy Kilmister's 'White Line Fever: The Autobiography.'Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

September 02, 2021

The cover of Lemmy Kilmister's newly reissued memoir bears words of praise from the Sunday Times (caps on the cover): "Few could claim with any conviction to have taken more DRUGS, drunk more BOURBON or entertained more WOMEN than MOTORHEAD's lead singer."

That's the blurb. Nothing about the music, nothing about the book itself: DRUGS, BOURBON, WOMEN, MOTORHEAD. If you choose to crack White Line Fever, it's best to do so in that spirit. Lemmy never promised you more than to be exactly who he was, and that's who he delivers in this book.

The new edition of White Line Fever includes a new chapter by co-author Janiss Garza, who serviceably covers the 13 remaining years Lemmy had to live when he originally published this book in 2002: he rocked, he recorded, he got sick, he died. Committed to the bit until the very end, Kilmister's heart health regimen involved spending 20 minutes a day on a stationary bike and switching from Jack-and-Coke to screwdrivers. As Garza notes, the French newspaper Libération had the best headline for Lemmy's obituary: one F-bomb, in huge type.

Kilmister might have had the same reaction to his own birth, in 1945. "My earliest memory is shouting," he writes. "At what and for what reason, I don't know." A rebellious kid growing up in England's West Midlands, Lemmy picked up a guitar for motives he ascribes mostly to its power as a magnet for women. That calculus seems to have held throughout his life: White Line Fever, named after the first Motörhead song he wrote, chronicles his conquests more assiduously than his songs. (The last song he wrote for his prior band was called "Motorhead," and he declines to explain where the umlaut came from — or how "Ian" became "Lemmy," other than shrugging, "it was a Welsh thing, I believe.")

White Line Fever is one of those memoirs that's less a book than a performance. It opens with a proud story about being kicked off a plane to the Grammys because he wouldn't relinquish his bottle of "amber pick-me-up." It closes with an imprecation to "buy our albums. You won't be sorry!" Along the way, aside from constant references to the girls he bedded ("I pulled this incredible chick that night," he writes about a 1984 incident, when he was nearly 40, "sixteen years old, just beautiful. She took her clothes off and I fell to my knees in tears and thanked God") and the drugs he did ("I'm gonna leave my body to medical science fiction!"), he complains about Motörhead's unreliable members, feckless managers, and ignorant record labels.

There aren't really any constant characters in Lemmy's story besides Lemmy; the closest anyone comes is longtime Motörhead drummer Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor, given his nickname by his then-roommate who "knew whereof she spoke," as Kilmister puts it. You might say Adolf Hitler is an unseen constant, given Lemmy's longstanding fascination with generally Germanic and sometimes specifically Nazi imagery. Late in the book he explains that he thinks it's important to remember history so that we don't have to repeat it, but a more plausible assessment comes early in White Line Fever: "it just sounded really powerful and incredibly cold," he writes about an early Motörhead walk-on tape of marching boots and crowds shouting "Sieg Heil!"

The best way to read White Line Fever might be to browse through the gratifyingly complete index, popping back to topics of interest.

Stevie Wonder? Lemmy met him at the Hayden Planetarium in 1973, and seems to find Wonder's scientific curiosity in the distant Kohoutek comet less compelling than his own experience seeing a UFO when on tour with his early band the Rocking Vicars ("I'm sure it wasn't looking at us. It was probably more interested in America").

The Tonight Show? "Jay Leno was really a gentleman, much nicer than David Letterman."

"'Male Sex Object' competition"? "I came second...below David Coverdale. I didn't mind — he had more hair!"

As you might expect, the book is not without its Spinal Tap moments, including Lemmy getting stuck midway between stage and ceiling, riding a lighting rig designed to replicate a German bomber and pointing his bass at the audience like a machine gun. He describes, without much adieu, his 1990 move to the U.S. and his work on various films ("just a f---ing bore"). He disdains vegetarians ("don't forget — Hitler was a vegetarian!") and compact discs ("remember that long box thing when CDs came out? What the f--k was that anyway?").

Lemmy sheds a bit of light on his creative process, but not much. "Basically," he writes about Motörhead's best-known album, "my lyrics on Ace of Spades came from what I know personally." That includes "Jailbait," he notes, even more so than the title track. "I used gambling metaphors, mostly cards and dice — when it comes to that sort of thing, I'm more into the slot machines actually, but you can't really sing about spinning fruit."

If anyone could've, Lemmy, it would have been you.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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September 30: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring by Megan Milks