As a teenager growing up and trying to fit into the rock’n’roll mold you look up to your heroes.
You learn from their guitar solos, you learn from their lyrics, you learn from their leather jackets, and you learn from their personas. You infer their personas from magazine interviews, and once in a blue moon if you are persistent you might be so lucky as to meet them in real life — after waiting for hours in the rain by a stage door after a concert, at a CD signing, or, if you’re really lucky, at a bar or a party.
The prevailing wisdom, the canon of behavior, suggests that being a rockstar (or being involved in the heavy metal community in any way) requires you to be a mean, snarling, cocaine-addled prima donna. If you had fans then you shouldn’t show gratitude for them or have time for them; if you were in a local band without fans then you should be an insufferable prick for long enough that eventually you had fans to treat like shit.
Lots of the rockstars I met over the years were exactly like that in person, but Lemmy Kilmister, singer & frontman of Motörhead, wasn’t.
During a handful of micro-interactions he just seemed completely different to how any other heavy metal icon would act. The last time, in Los Angeles, stuck out. It was a particularly star-studded weekend on Sunset Strip. I was older & more nonchalant at that point; a few years past being a starstruck teenager. I tended to not approach celebrities unless I had anything to say, but figured a quick ‘big fan, thanks for the music!’ was appropriate.
Again, Lemmy was cool and, with that confidence boost, I went around for the rest of the night at the Rainbow and for the rest of the weekend in West Hollywood trying to say a quick ‘thanks’ to whichever heroes I stumbled upon. Gene Simmons apparently doesn’t make eye contact. Vince Neil got his security guards to push me away presumably because I wasn’t a silicone-enhanced blonde. Mötley Crüe were probably my favorite band for a decade at this point. Oh well. Maybe most rockstars were pricks after all (cocaine is a hell of a drug). But not Lemmy.
I don’t have the extended anecdotes about hanging out with him that some of my friends have, but those brief glimpses left a big impression. He’s not the only rockstar I’ve met who was super chill, but maybe he’s the most influential. Watching Lemmy’s memorial service tonight it stood out how every single story revolved around how kind he was. The music of Motörhead will live forever, but I’m certain that he was so beloved by so many because he treated people well.
The fact that the most rock’n’roll person of all time, a whiskey-insufflating legend, could still be a nice human without compromising how badass he was his is really cool. It’s like oozing rock’n’roll-charisma and treating people like shit aren’t correlated after all.
It’s a good message to send out to kids in every rock scene around the world. My scene was Soho in London, but it applies equally whether you’re in Los Angeles or Liverpool or Leipzig. You can party all night. You can party all weekend, all week, or for seventy years non-stop if you want; no judgment will be passed about what you put into your body or how promiscuous you are (this isn’t a church after all). But you gotta be nice to the people along the way.
Life’s too short to be an asshole.
I observed similar things years later whilst trying to fit into the design community.
Some of the graphic design heroes I’d had whilst studying had indeed turned out to be self-centered and rude, and already jaded I shifted my attention towards web design & the startup world. I started going to conferences, where there was the opportunity to interact with people who had written seminal books & blog posts, or would be giving rousing talks. Less rock’n’roll but to be fair there were still heroes and parties and whiskey, and most importantly there were still the inexperienced looking up to the elders trying to infer lessons.
I remember how utterly terrified I was of speaking to my design heroes for those first few years. It seems quaint looking back on it, but at conference afterparties I’d freeze when I had the opportunity to say hi to someone who had influenced my work. I constructed an us-vs-them narrative in my head; a Wayne’s World we’re not worthy scene.
After all, I was a kid and they were busy inventing the future of the industry I was trying to enter.
As a 20 year old I never imagined I’d muster up the courage to speak to designers on that level. But, as they tend to do, the years progressed, and eventually I used my words and said hello, and those people I’d been scared of talking to turned out to be chill. And human. And then we hung out some more. And then I realized that some of my heroes knew my name. And then we became friends.
There’s this perception in the design industry that snark is cool. People constantly tear down each others’ work presumably in a bid to validate themselves. People who skipped the bit of design school where we were taught how to critique rather than insult trade cynicism on the open market and worship at the alter of rudeness. But you know what? The best people, the people I look up to for guidance, don’t engage with that at all. They build the industry up rather than burn it down.
Sure, there were one or two assholes along the way, but overwhelmingly every single design hero I’ve admired from afar for years and then met in real life has turned out to be really, really nice and really, really kind.
Maybe it’s selection bias, maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I’ve been reflecting for the past few months on how great everyone in this industry is. The best people, the most respected people, the people driving the industry forward, are all exceptionally kind That’s the industry I want to be part of: one built on people being excellent to each other.
I never thought I’d find a thread linking Motörhead with digital design, but there it is. Whether the record industry or the design industry, the world doesn’t need more Axl Roses or Vince Neils; it needs more people at the top of their game who are overwhelmingly decent people: being kind is cooler and more rock’n’roll than being an asshole.
Rest in Peace Lemmy; we won’t forget your music, and we won’t forget you.