"I'll never get any kind of credit for helping to advance women in rock 'n' roll, but I have."
Lemmy Kilmister may have believed the above statement when he wrote it in his 2002 autobiography White Line Fever, but times have changed in the past 15-plus years, and some people have, in fact, come to admire the Motörhead main man for doing just that.
Older feminism decried the sexualization of women, even it were self-imposed, as capitulation to the patriarchy, an out-of-step choice made by brainwashed little girls who had no control over their own actions and behavior. Lemmy's reputation as a notorious bed-hopping commitment-phobe is even now judged by some as misogynistic or regressive, but the truth is, he always held high regard for women, and to respect someone — even if you really just want to fuck them — is something the wokest bros on Brooklyn Tinder still can't seem to grasp in this age of pissing-contest political rhetoric.
More than remaining chivalrous while bedding his conquests, Lemmy empowered female musicians in an era when they were seen as little more than a novelty, if they were even seen at all. I think of my own experience as a female musician with more than two decades' experience, and the conversations I've had to endure as recently as last month after playing a show, all of which are baffling to modern sensibilities. Lemmy's early embrace of "playing with birds" is a cornerstone of my unapologetic fandom of the old lad.
Take for example his 1992 interview below in which he openly discusses the lack of women in rock as a symptom of a misogynistic atmosphere in the music world. "There's a lot of sexism in rock & roll actually, that's why there aren't more girl bands," he tells the interviewer. "Because there's certainly a lot of resentment among the tight trouser brigade ... I don't know why, but they do see it as a threat. But I don't have that attitude ... It never bothered me." His total assuredness in his own ability is just one facet of his confident but never arrogant demeanor, something that made him both alluring and ahead of his time. He was a front runner of the "femmes to the front" attitude in rock, and his resumé in that field speaks for itself.
Lemmy's collaboration with Girlschool dates all the way back in 1979 when they opened for Motörhead on the band's Overkill tour. While Dave "Giggles" Gilligan from their label's office scouted Girlschool, Lemmy listened to a single and found them "fucking excellent," and the rest is rock history. "I liked the idea of girls being in a band," he says in White Line Fever. "I wanted to stick it up these pompous bastard guitarists' asses, because Girlschool's guitarist, Kelly Johnson, was as good as any guitarist I'd ever seen in my life." This kind of statement might not ruffle many feathers today, but it damn well should. It was just over a year ago when a former friend and musical colleague of mine watched my band perform at New York venue Saint Vitus, and what did I hear when I walked offstage? "You were really good! Seriously. Probably as good as half the guy drummers I know."
And so it's often been in situations like this: The most talented musicians have been judged on a gendered curve, but here you have one of the most influential figures in rock history eschewing gender in his judgment of a player. I often wonder how many men consider this just another whiny bit we women nag on about and neglect to really absorb the power of truly being seen and heard, as Lemmy did with Johnson and her bandmates some 38 years ago.
Not only did Lemmy admire Girlschool's technical skill, but he also praised their no-fucks attitude, as well, where lesser men have dismissed it as uncomely and unfeminine. "Not only were Girlschool an excellent band, they were feisty and didn't give a fuck," Lemmy enthused, citing a story where Johnson's sharp-tongued comeback to a crowd heckler shut down the naysayers and "proceed to knock the crowd on their ass."
Lemmy's obvious affection for tough chicks was ahead of its time, making it near-impossible for those of us painted with that broad brush these days to look back in anything but blushing admiration. He didn't stop with Girlschool — a short handful of years later, in 1982, he took on collaborator Wendy O. Williams as a new sort of protegé. Kilmister wrote of the Plasmatics frontwoman in his book with unabashed admiration, expressing awe at her rebellious antics including the time she drove a car into a pile of explosives in New York before jumping out at the last minute, or when she went to Florida to wrestle alligators. "I thought, 'This chick's fucking excellent!,'" Lemmy wrote. "Plus, I'd seen pictures of her, and she did take a good picture."
Lemmy's overt sexual attraction to powerful women with whom he collaborated might strike some as off-putting, but if there's anything I've learned playing in a couple dozen bands over the years, it's that musical partnerships are a heated playground on which sexual attraction often blooms. I gave up screwing anyone I play with many years ago, but when two musicians come together to create something and both lean toward high-energy, ostentatious performances, and the excess of a certain type of lifestyle, sex is just something that happens. Neither party generally suffers hurt feelings when the writing's on the wall.
The video below is an excellent example of how personal chemistry can add to a performance without overshadowing the talent involved. Yes, the lyrics to "Jailbait" are gross by today's standards, but performing it onstage with O. Williams, Lemmy took anything but a predatory or patriarchal stance. Instead, in the clip, he hovers just out of the spotlight while Wendy's commanding presence and gruff voice take center stage. He wasn't using the talents of a woman to prop himself up; he was in fact propping her up in a time where most men would scoff at her behavior and persona. Williams was a special breed of empowered woman for her time, and Lemmy recognized that. You can own your sexuality and femininity and raw strength as a confident, sometimes intimidating person and not bow down to the ideals and expectations projected on you by a morally narcissistic society; Lemmy's cosign for such an outlook served as something of a safeguard against what other men might approach with disdain and insult.
Kilmister's attitude also shaped the making of his and O. Williams' acerbic punk cover of Tammy Wynette country ballad "Stand by Your Man." The collaborative Motörhead-and-Plasmatics' single was met with near-universal derision by critics, but a re-listen reveals it to be not nearly as bad as the overblown male reactions would have it — not only the reactions of music critics of the day, but also of the producers and musicians who shit all over Williams' vocal performance during the recording sessions. While the project infamously topped off a laundry list of reasons why then–Motörhead guitarist "Fast" Eddie Clark (who refused to have his name attached to the collaboration) left the band, Lemmy wouldn't back down; he and Williams may have croaked on about the righteousness of a woman's dedication to her man on the track, but in the end it was Lem who stood by his (rumored) woman.
Lemmy's desired partnerships with women in music extended outside of rock, and one collaboration the world sadly never got to witness was his dream duet with iconic hip-hop and R&B singer Janet Jackson. Jackson already dominated the charts when her 1989 socially conscious concept album Rhythm Nation debuted. Widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time despite its initially controversial subject material, the record contained a track that deviated from the singer's slickly produced dance-pop hits of the time. "Black Cat" was a brash arena-rock banger that spoke out against substance abuse and gang violence, with one remix of the song even featuring a guitar solo by Vernon Reid of funk-metal icons Living Colour.
So in comes the Motörhead singer, looking to record a special version of "Black Cat" with Jackson, someone he revealed to be at the top of his list of dream musical collaborations. "I wanted to do a version of 'Black Cat' with her, but Sony wouldn't let me," he once recalled. "You could tell from the video that she was having a good time, that this loud rock music is what she really wanted to be doing. I love that fuckin' song. Great fuckin' song that, but the record company wouldn't let it be possible." Kilmister never gave up on the dream of recording that track with her, and spoke of making it happen for his solo album Lemmy & Friends, which has yet to see the light of day. (According to Jim Voxx of German band Skew Siskin, the record was supposed to see the light of day sometime in late 2017, but as of press time the recordings remains in a vault somewhere.)
With coed collaborations like those mentioned here, as well as others with Doro Pesch and Nina Hagen, to his name, Lemmy's legacy is massive and undeniable, but too little attention has been given to his feminist leanings and progressive views on sexual liberation. Sure, he was the guy who once answered "the blow job" when asked what his favorite sexual position was, but his tongue-in-cheek attitude toward his hedonistic lifestyle and his clear belief that women are as equally fit to live it is something undeniably attractive for even most hardened misandrist, myself included (I kid ... kind of).
Whether standing up for the women with guitars or speaking out against the industry-sanctioned sexism of his time (and to some extent, this time, as well), Lemmy Kilmister was an undervalued champion for women during the most testosterone-fueled years of heavy music. He should be remembered as such by us birds who rock today.