A Quiet Word In Your Ear

Aerosmith? Mere jumpers on the heavy metal bandwagon? Struggling Stones-meet-Zeppelin copyists? Run-DMC’s backing band? For years they’ve been one of the America’s biggest, most influential bands — and keen devotees of the health-free lifestyle — but overseas their fame has proved oddly unexportable. “We were afraid to go through Customs,” they explain to Robert Sandall…

“I’m kinda interested in this acid house thing I you have here in England,” Steven Tyler announces to the other occupants of a boat-sized stretch Mercedes which has temporarily run aground in a London traffic jam while ferrying him and Aerosmith’s guitarist Joe Perry to a photo session. “Yeah. This Ecstasy. I’ve heard a lot about it. Matter of fact, I think it’s the only drug I never tried. What’s it like?”

The English make-up girl obliges him with a description, singling out the modish compound’s curious way of making total strangers seem like intimate friends. It makes you uncontrollably eager to be completely truthful, she says.

Tyler has already received word of these attributes. Ecstasy reminds him, he says, of another psychically intense substance, THC, whose mind-bending qualities he recalls with some relish. “Yeah. I really like the sound of this Ecstasy,” he concludes cheerfully. “Makes me feel like I ought to get my ass along to a meeting real quick.”

A meeting in this context, gentle reader, refers to a therapeutic session organised by Narcotics Anonymous. Having spent a decade and a half gradually addicting themselves to a variety of stimulants, Tyler, Perry and the other three members of Aerosmith all “cleaned up” in 1986 and have stayed clean ever since. This pair are certainly looking a good deal fitter now than most 40-ish rock stars — “in better shape than Bon Jovi anyway” according to the make-up girl, who has examined both groups at close quarters. And indeed they ought to, having just spent their usual two hours in the gym at the hotel. Perry is a bit of a muscle man, despite the greying of his black curls. Tyler, 41, who pronounces himself “disgustingly healthy”, fidgets and pouts like a man half his age.

But nostalgia for bad habits is in the air this morning. Tyler reminisces about a friend whose bit was to test LSD for the manufacturers: “He used to go back and tell ’em, More colours, man!” He and Perry then embark on a conversation which resembles a chemistry lesson, about the drugs they took to get them off the one they couldn’t stop taking, heroin. The traffic starts to move and Perry suddenly loses interest. “OK Steven,” he tells Tyler sternly, “that’s over. We don’t talk about that shit any more, right?”

But they do. They have to, really, because drugs have more than a little to do with why Aerosmith, one of the most popular, influential and some would say best hard rock bands America has ever produced, are barely known at all outside the metal market abroad. Why, as Perry drily observes, “people here probably think of us as Run-DMC’s backing band who’ve been talked up by Slash of Guns N’ Roses.” And why this Autumn’s European tour is the first extended overseas expedition of Aerosmith’s 18-year, 25-million-album-selling career.

“Do you know what a treadmill is?” Tyler asks later back at the hotel, a glass of mineral water before him. “Well, we spent the whole of the 1970s on one. It was never like there was a tour, like a Toys In The Attic tour. We’d stay out on the road for a year and a half. The only time we’d come off was to record an album. There was no MTV then. All you did was tour, if you were lucky. So we went out with everybody — Mott The Hoople, Mahavishnu, The Kinks — because we wanted to make it Big Time. Like the British groups — the Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals.”

The familiar names, recited in Tyler’s hoarse and high-pitched staccato, still seem to inspire the same awe that kickstarted Aerosmith in Boston in 1971. For this is a group of fans rather than musicians: small town or suburban kids — from New Hampshire mainly, though Tyler grew up in the affluent fringes of New York — who loved ’60s music, ’60s stardom and the lifestyle that went with it, in enormous and roughly equal measures. A prototype of the second generation rock band.

“In my mind I was always a rock star.” Tyler concedes. “I would pretend I knew what it was like to be in an established band. I still have clippings at home of my first group. The Strangers. ‘Steven Tyler, his lower lip hanging like Jagger’s, brought the front row to its feet.’ I was 16, but I was playing rock star even when the music sounded like bad Freddie And The Dreamers.”

When Tyler ran across Joe Perry playing a Fleetwood Mac song, ‘Rattlesnake Shake’, in a bar in New Hampshire in the summer of 1970, he instantly recognised a kindred spirit. “Joe couldn’t sing at all but when I heard that BOOAH DANG BOOAH DUM, ah man, my dick went sooo hard! You can’t learn to get good like that. you play what you got.”

So with Tyler playing rock star, Perry playing lead guitar and three of his buddies — Brad Whitford, Joe Hamilton and Joey Kramer — taking care of the less glamorous duties, Aerosmith got down to the serious business of becoming famous.

While other Boston bands worked the circuit — an exhausting and unremunerative round of clubs and bars — they played high schools, which paid much better and left the weekdays free to practice, and cultivate that attitude. “When we started I imagined that these people like Rick Derringer were like Lord High Doodledums who sat in the corner with servants pickin’ their toes. But we played Max’s Kansas City (a New York City club) with some of those guys and I knew we had more than they had.” One day before a high school gig, one of their managers arrived bearing “a great wad of ones, musta been about a thousand dollars.” Aerosmith had signed to CBS.

The record contract was a punitive document requiring the band to deliver two albums a year. They fulfilled half that quota over the next four years but channelled the bulk of their energies into hitting the road. It was on the basis of their fast and furious live shows alone that their first album. Aerosmith, recorded in a fortnight in 1973, finally went gold two years later. The band were enjoying themselves so much by this time that they barely noticed. “When we got our first gold disc in 1975 it was great and everything but it was like, Big deal, where’s the show tonight? We loved it. The parties, the drink, pulling the girls. We were driven men!”

They became increasingly drug-ridden men as well. Tyler, whose lips and leotards were often compared to Mick Jagger’s, began to model his personal habits on those of Keith Richards. “Man, in my time I musta snorted the whole of Chile. But my other thing back then was barbiturates, tuinols, seconals, heavy narcotic pills. My metabolism is such that when I take a tuinol I wanna clean the room. I wanna go rehearse. I’m the complete opposite of most people. Get fucked up the night before and wake up in the morning feeling great. That’s why I’m an addict. You know that little scarf I used to wear round my neck on stage? When I came over here in 1977 that thing was filled with tuinols. It was like a condom. It had a little hole at the top. I would hold onto ’em while we were playing. Feel ’em, count ’em.”

No slouch at self-destruction himself. Perry started taking heroin during the recording of Rocks in 1976.

At the very point in their career when Aerosmith might have been expected to follow contemporaries like Kiss and go international, their appetite for drugs had risen so high as to make foreign travel difficult. “Basically, we never really left the States because we were afraid to go through Customs. Hiding the shit under band aids and in backstage passes wasn’t workin’ any more. Our managers knew what sorta state we were in, what was the percentage for them in us going to Europe when they figured they’d end up having to bail us out.”

During a brief visit in 1977 Tyler was arrested for possession of cannabis in Germany. “Customs guy found my stash of hash,” he giggles, “so I blew it all in front of him.” Perry was never apprehended. “I always used to say I would never ask someone else to do what I wouldn’t do myself but we’d have so much stuff in our pockets that we’d get to the gate and give it to one of the roadies.”

Back at home the gigs got steadily bigger. Critics who had initially dismissed the band as copyists began to recant. Between ’76 and they enjoyed a string of hit singles, among the tune called ‘Walk This Way’. But by now Aerosmith’s taut metallic variations on R&B themes were starting to show signs of wear and tear. The 1976 album Rocks sounded sloppy. Draw a Line in 1978 sounded worse, though to hear Tyler and Perry talk about it now, the wonder is that it ever got made at all.

Draw The Line? That was after Rocks right? Perry pauses to refresh his memory. “Yeah well that to me marks the point where we got more interested in what the deal was than the music was. Before I left to record that album I spent a week at home making a demo of six songs that I put on cassette. Anyway by the time I got to the studio I couldn’t find it. Couldn’t remember how the songs went either. That’s where my head was at. It was like, I’ve got my drugs right here, but where the hell is the cassette? Luckily my ex-wife found it in a cookie jar. God knows how it got there.

Installed in a 300-room monastery in upstate New York which they had converted into a studio. Aerosmith were turning the path of excess into a highway. Tyler’s chief recollection of Draw The Line is of “this huge bottle of tuinols which I hid under the sink”. He remembers passing out over his shotgun while taking aim at a furry creature in the woods one afternoon. The picture by then was of a band making albums instead of taking holidays.

Their live performances were suffering too. “We would often play songs twice because we forgot we’d played ’em already. It got to be like we were in the trenches and to go on stage dopesick and aching meant that we were really workin’ and that we were men. But I guess our shows can’t have sucked too bad,” Perry reasons, “because people kept comin ‘ back.”

They certainly did. In the summer of 1979 Aerosmith headlined an open air concert at a speedway stadium in California. 350,000 people bought tickets. Aerial photographs of the event revealed that another 100,000 got in without them. It came to be known as “Cal Jam”, the high-water mark of the band’s career so far: their reward for eight years’ hard labour.

But the Tyler/Perry bond was weakening as the drug habits strengthened into full blown addictions. “We used to fight on stage. Joe could torment me to death by not giving me a line of dope. So then I’d wait and go over and push him around while he was playing and he would hit me with his guitar. Stuck the end of a guitar string through my lower lip once, so I spat blood all over him. Oh man it was stoopid.”

Theband’s three managers tried to exploit the rift. “To this day I don’t know how they figured it out,” says Perry, “but at one financial meeting they said I owed the band $80,000, for room service charges. Then they said if I did a solo record the advance would wipe it out. I don’t blame them though,” he adds pacifically, “they were all fucked up too.”

As the touring continued apace so the fighting spread. Backstage one night in Cleveland in the early ’80s a frank exchange of views ended with Perry’s wife pouring milk over Mrs Tom Hamilton. It was the final straw. Perry left to pursue that tempting (but unsuccessful) solo career as The Joe Perry Project. Aerosmith hobbled on without him, recruiting another guitarist, Joe Crespo. Then Bradford left. The split was to last for four years.

“It wasn’t until we stopped playing together,” Perry reports, “that I realised how influential the band had been. I would hear all these people like Eddie Van Halen and Jon Bon Jovi talking about. Aerosmith concerts they went to in the ’70s. We’d helped to pioneer arena rock and all that flash stuff like motorised lighting trusses. I think one of the reasons why Van Halen made such a clean sweep was because Aerosmith wasn’t around anymore.”

Quite unknown to themselves Aerosmith had inspired an entire generation of young heavy metal bands whose activities they still regard with benign but undisguised contempt. “Real heavy metal to me,” says Tyler, bouncing in his chair, “was Led Zeppelin playin’ ‘Dazed And Confused’. (He now sings a few bars). We got our roots the same place Zeppelin got theirs. But now it’s been put on a table and things have been cut off of it. It was a feeling once, a seed that would grow and get replanted. Now you can buy it in a five-and-dime store. You could take some bald Krishna guy, put a wig on him, tight pants, hold him up and he could be on the cover of one of these metal magazines. “

Perry, just back from a photo session for just such a publication, agrees. “Despite all that cucumber-in-the-pants stuff, heavy metal bands have actually taken the sex out of rock music. They sing about it, they have the flash, but they don’t project it. It’s all show and no go.” Though he says he quite likes Guns N’ Roses, Perry sounds as if he finds the adulation of young Slash — a regular caller — to be a bit of a puzzle.

The re-making of the original Aerosmith was a gradual process. It began with series of late night phone calls. In the course of these Perry “realised I didn’t hate Steven or Brad or Joey. It was all the other shit which separated us. Like being led around by our management, and chasing off after our dealers.” Then in the summer of 1984 Tyler heard that Perry was about to join Alice Cooper’s band. “I got riled. I phoned him up and said “What the fuck is this?” Whitford was contacted and Aerosmith duly re-formed.

But that was less than half the problem solved Record and management contracts had to be bought out. Promoters, discouraged by the band’s, much-publicised decline, had to be persuaded to re-invest. And a disappointing album, Done With Mirrors, recorded for Geffen in 1985, revealed that band personnel still did not have their minds entirely focused on the job in hand. Tyler, strung out on heroin and hard liquor, had repeatedly been advised that his liver was all but shot. Whitford was an alcoholic. Hamilton had a severe cocaine dependency. Perry was a junkie. “We decided, the whole band, that we were either gonna do drugs or music.” They voted for the latter and a lengthy detoxification programme began.

“It’s weird when you first go to a meeting.” Tyler’s face splits into one of his canyon-sized grins, “you walk in and you get the feeling you’ve been there before. The place is full of alcoholics and drug addicts. The only difference is they don’t have any alcohol or drugs on them. But,” the grin subsides, “what we all found when you take that shit away, that glaze, was that the music just comes. You don’t realise how much time and energy you’ve been wasting, coppin’ dope, talkin’ to the connection, going to the john… “

By the end of 1986 they had turned a corner. Rick Rubin phoned up one day, inquiring about one of their old songs. Run-DMC couldn’t make out the words to ‘Walk This Way’. Perry and Tyler helped them out and secured another Top 10 hit, 10 years after the first. “A lot of black guys have always come to our shows. But it was a gas to hear these dudes from New York City funk the shit out of that tune. It was like the complete opposite of that bunch of white boys from the Midwest playing ‘Toys In The Attic’ real fast,” he adds, referring to R.E.M.

The next album, Permanent Vacation, re-corded in Vancouver in 1987 was a tentative but disciplined move in the right direction. It sold a million and a half copies in America and spawned a hugely successful tour, the third highest grossing package to cross the Slates last year. Guns N’ Roses, already a far bigger deal in international terms than Aerosmith have ever been, opened the show,

The new album, Pump, looks like the one which will give them a global profile at last, but so childishly enthusiastic are Tyler and Perry about what fun it is to be still riding the rock ‘n’ roller coaster at all — “It feels now like it did when we first started. We have to go out and prove ourselves every night” — that they don’t seem to care. They’ve had the fame, and all the other accessories.

“The only thing we do for entertainment in the evenings now is we play. And so what anyway if people in England think we’re just another rock band?” Tyler snorts into his mineral water. “I’d feel the same way if I lived over here and The Yardbirds came from the next county over. Forget it. Everybody else in the world would suck. That hall of fame stuff is all bullshit anyway.”

“The highpoint of my year,” Perry adds, “was when Jimmy Page came to Boston on the Outrider tour and dedicated ‘Train Kept A Rollin’, his song that we play, to Steven and Joe from Aerosmith. It was great. I couldn’t believe it. We still get off on that you know. We’re still fans.”

© Robert SandallQ, November 1989

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