“WHAT IF BEINGS from another dimension telepathically force us to change our moral overview? What then??”
Can’t say for sure whether an Aerosmith plate was on the table that first time I courted reefer madness back in Mike Murphy’s garage; coulda been Kiss or the Nuge, but as I recall Murph was especially into ‘Smith, so it might as well have been them. No doubts whatsoever about that time my older and younger brother had a serious fight about whose copy of Toys In The Attic was whose; seems one or the other had been lost in the basement. And I remember that some kid flunked his Oral Communications class record-pantomime for doin’ the do to ‘Big Ten Inch Record’, and my wife says Carol Tortorici used to play a tape of Rocks in her car on the way to swim practice at 7:00 every morning, not to mention at lunch and on the way home. Where I come from, Aerosmith was the environment.
And they deserved to be, no matter what all those old-fart flower-power hippie-dippie counterculture critics (who added the blues covers to Steve Tyler’s fleshy singing-lips and got a sum that said “Stones ripoff”) thought. Heavy as metal even though they only dropped the lead-Godzilla neutron-bomb about once per album (‘Round and Round’ on 75’s Toys, ‘Nobody’s Fault’ on 76’s Rocks), Aerosmith was funking out some kinda unique freaky-deke riff-rock, big on the bass and rhythm lines and seasoned with maracas and cowbells, at a time when hard rock was something you were supposed to throw cherry bombs at instead of dance to. They overhauled chestnuts by Bull Moose Jackson, Rufus Thomas, James Brown, the Johnny Burnette Trio, Kokomo Arnold, the Shangri-Las and the Beatles, but their sleazy/teasy time-changes made them definitively “rock,” not “rock ‘n’ roll.” They were fast and catchy. And they had words – verbose, detailed, raunchy language that came across like ‘Too Much Monkey Business’, The Naked Lunch, ‘The Jumpin’ Jive’ and Narrative Poetry From Black Oral Tradition tossed together into a classified-documents shredder and then burned in a hashpipe. “Blood stains the ivories on my daddy’s baby grand/I ain’t seen the daylight since we started this band.” “Back when Cain was able/Way before the stable/Lightnin’ struck right down from the sky…She ate it/Lordy, it was love at first bite” (This last from a tune called ‘Adam’s Apple’.) “Schoolgirl Sadie with your classy kinda sassy little skirt climbin’ way up your knees/There was three young ladies in the school gym locker when I noticed they was lookin’ at me.” “Home sweet home, can’t catch no dose/From no hot-tail poon-tang sweetheart sweat/Who could make a silk purse out of J. Paul Get/And his ear.” Enough?
I guess you know what happened next. Or maybe not: Drink. Drugs. Debauchery. Rumors, at least, of falling down on, maybe even falling off, stage. Albums that sounded more rococo, more rote, softer and slicker each successive time out. Guitarist Joe Perry went solo and was replaced by Jimmy Crespo. Rick Dufay replaced rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford. The old fans grew up; the young ones bought the Next Big Thing, which, as often as not, sounded even more like watered-down Aerosmith than the new Aerosmith did. By the time Whitford and Perry rejoined the group, Perry and Tyler were using Antabuse and attending rehab programs to curb their alcohol and heroin problems; they even did an anti-DUl public service announcement in their hometown, Boston. An album was due out, but at this point, who cared? We’d written them off.
Done With Mirrors, released in late ’85, knocked my socks off. This thing was urgent, do-or-die, more like a give-it-all-you-got alley-band (with chops) debut than the cynical crap we usually get from struggling past-their-primes in the Age of the Comeback. It was more basic and straightforward and stripped-down and gutsy than Aerosmith had sounded in a decade – not prissy or glossy or souped-up like the rest of those Kiss/Nuge/Firm/ Purple/BOC me-decade holdovers. And it had words: “East-house pinball-wiz-ard/Full-tilt balls-unpaid/Second-floor-checkin’ makin’ Wall Street out the door.” For radio stations that think “rock” means Simple Minds and Survivor, it rocked too hard; save for token stabs at ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’, re-recorded from Perry’s solo LP, they didn’t play it. It died on the charts, and when Aerosmith toured, fans only yelled for the old stuff.
First thing I heard when I entered the Vancouver sound studio where Aerosmith were finishing work on their new album was a supersonic classical-bombast fanfare-instrumental that I thought sounded like heavy-metal E.L.P., or maybe Europe with the stupid music but no stupid words. Not exactly the sound of the streets, I thought – a shame, especially when you consider that these guys’ most recent claim to fame was last summer’s ‘Walk This Way’ remake with Run-D.M.C. Producer Bruce Fairboard, whose own most recent claim to fame was Bon Jovi’s album (ick!), gave me a cassette of the new ‘Smith LP (tentatively titled either Endangered Species; because of all the taped-over animal noises, or Party Vacation, because of whatever), and listened to it and didn’t like it much. I mean, there sure were lots of ideas – everything from mooing killer whales to midtempo radio-metal to back-porch Delta blues to a big ballad to zoot-suit scatsing to another Beatles cover (‘I’m Down’, following in the footsteps of ‘Come Together’) to steel-drum calypso (with lines borrowed from ‘Day-O’, ‘Montego Bay’ and ‘Summertime Blues’) to a minstrel gospel howl that was probably the tape’s best song. The drum sound was hardier than most I’d heard lately, there was more “blackness” than ‘Smith had displayed in ages, there was a compositional complexity that Done With Mirrors lacked, and at least they saved the supersonic fanfare for the very end. But it seemed that “craft” and “ideas” (way too many of ’em) were being embraced while immediacy and personality went by the wayside, and I didn’t hear balls or brains in either the lyrics or the hooks. This was a calculated “producer’s record” in great CD-era fashion, and the damned thing didn’t rock.
So guess what I talked to Joe Perry and Steve Tyler about? What bugged me most is that they acted like (hell, they said) that the commercial failure of Done With Mirrors was their own fault. “It was, like, finding our place again as far as writing and the direction we wanted to take the band,” says Joe, dressed in black from his leather-fringed jacket down to his reptilian boots. “Done With Mirrors was the best record we could do at the time, but it wasn’t the best record we can do. We should have had a month with those tracks as they sit on that record, instead of having one week, which is what we had.” Joe says that when he listens to the record now, it sounds “half-formed.” I asked him if he feels the same way about Toys In The Attic and Rocks, and he said he does. I think he’s been brainwashed by engineers and producers and his own ego and by all the fallacies that equate rock ‘n’ roll with fancy licks, neatfreak-perfection and an absence of surface noise. And I think he’s full of baloney – who rocks harder, Oscar Madison or Felix Unger?
Of course, Aerosmith’s odd couple defend their new record. They say Steve’s verbiage in ‘Dude’, ‘Hangman Jury’, and ‘St. John’ ranks in weirdness and raunch with any he’s ever penned in the notebooks he carries around. And with a few more listens I still might discern some substance under the abundant style myself, though I’ll have to wait and see. “Lyrically, I think this is together,” Joe says. “There’s some great stuff on there.” And Steve, seated next to a punching bag and bedecked, very funkily indeed, in a yellow pastel cowboy shirt with geometric designs and sky-blue jeans with flowers stitched into the ass, has this to say: “Why I like this album more than the last one is because I had 10 times more fun doin’ it, and also because we let the songs mature. We spent another month on it, and a month is a long time to weed out stuff, play it better, accentuate on it.” He says this in the kind of rough, bedraggled voice that you’d have, too, if
you’d been screaming “baaaaaaack in the saddle” for 11 years, and I’m sure he’s sincere. But again, I think he’s wrong: I mean, who the heck wants to hear somebody “accentuate”? These guys had been cooped up in Vancouver since March: I suppose they had cabin fever or something.
Steve’s words of wisdom started to make some small sense when I asked him what he’d thought about punk-rock when it happened; in retrospect, I told him, Rocks and Toys seem more genuinely “punky” to me than the Ramones or Sex Pistols. “I thought it was, like, undone,” he says, and when I note that what he calls “undone” some people would call “raw,” he answers thusly: “Yeah right, raw. But not that it should have been polished; it’s just that if you have a song and the beat falls out, when the guitars are out of tune, is that music? It is to some people, but I don’t like it like that.” (It’s not insignificant that Aerosmith paid some of their early dues at legendary new wave emporium Max’s Kansas City, in New York.) Likewise, here’s how Steve hears the new album by the Cult: “They could have made it sound bigger. And they’re not mature – it’s like you take the pie out before it’s done, and sure, you can lick the berries out of it, but you can’t eat the crust. I like the band; I think that guy’s voice is a little weird – you don’t sing that way over ballsy-ass rock ‘n’ roll.” And his snide thoughts on the Beastie Boys: “It’s fun to watch a little kid take his first step, and you hope he can make another one.” All things considered, he prefers Concrete Blonde. What a sicko!
Which brings us to the part where I marvel about what a huge role Aerosmith has played in shaping the sonic output of bands whose members used to smoke dope to ‘Sweet Emotion’ in high school parking lots. Most impressive are a handful of smart American indie post-boogie outfits who start at the extremes that made ‘Smith great, then twist and expand on that extreme ‘Smithness in a quadrillion different ways – Wisconsin’s Die Kreuzen, Michigan’s Necros, Ohio’s Royal Crescent Mob, Washington’s Green River. These are the good guys; the bad “guys” are soft-metal sissies like Ratt and Poison and Motley Crue and their ilk. “There’s probably 300,000 hard-core Aerosmith fans out there, but there’s people who’ve never heard of Aerosmith, who don’t know where Cinderella copped their style,” Joe Perry tells me. “That pisses me off a lot.” These Max-Factored nincompoops set out pretending to be “metal” bands, so they retain none of Aerosmith’s rhythm and blues, none of the songwriting cleverness, none of the complicated structures, nothing that delves beneath the surface. “They get Steven’s scarves right, though; that’s what it’s all about, I guess,” Joe scoffs. “But as for the soul that we try to put into it, they just don’t have roots that go back that far.”
If you figure Joe has tons of old blues records, though, you should figure again. “Not tons,” he explains. “I have some, but I have a lot more funk records. Meters, Junior Walker, James Brown, stuff like that. Some of that stuff is amazing – Graham Central Station, Sly, know what I mean?” And the guitarist says he gets the same funk feeling from rap music, which is one of the reasons he agreed to collaborate with Run-D.M.C. “It was new and challenging, and we wanted to see what a heavy metal band like Steven and I would do to a rap song. If R.E.M. had called us up and said, ‘Listen, you wanna play on (their cover of) ‘Toys In The Attic’?,’ we wouldn’t have done it. Rap is young kids doin’ street music, and that’s what I think about it – it’s young and punky,” Joe says. “We got a lot of flak from our hardcore fans; we got some phone calls, and we got some bummed out letters, but that’s to be expected – not everyone’s as free-thinking as all of us.” Weird thing is, anybody who’s ever really listened to Aerosmith would realize that they’ve always made booty-shake music, even back in the days when Boston bars like Bunraty’s wouldn’t hire ’em ‘cuz their stuff was too raw too dance to. And then there were those stiff-assed stadium crowds dedicated to the destruction of disco, and they never danced. “Well, they kinda danced in their own way,” Joe laughs.
The biggest strides the guys in Aerosmith have made in the last couple years have involved their personal lives, and it’d be negligent not to take note of these advances; to begin with, they’re the main reason the band exists at all right now. “It’s a state of mind; for people like me and Steve, who’ve been drinking and drugging so much for so long, it’s just a matter of breaking a psychological habit,” Joe says. “We’re not into drooling on the floor anymore.” Not that they’ve mellowed or anything, mind you; they’re still demolishing the occasional hotel room,and Steven Tyler has one of the most deviously dirty minds of anybody I’ve ever conversed with. The question remains whether men in their late 30s, men who’ve been doing this gig as pros for a decade-and-a-half, can make music as honest as they could when they were in their early 20s and not rich and not sober and not jaded. I think perhaps not, but Aerosmith is determined to prove me wrong. Meanwhile, they’re sponsoring a Boston Little League team. And, Joe in sists, playing their Sweet Sassafrassies off: “The bottom line is sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; no drugs leaves more time for the other two. And that’s no bullshit – you feel better. All morning, when you suffer from a hangover and try to figure out what you did the night before; you don’t have to put up with that. You get up, you’re ready to get started again. It’s great.”
© Chuck Eddy, Creem, October 1987