Aerosmith: Aero-dynamic

HOWARD BUNKER looked down at his instrument panel and spoke softly into the radio. There was no point in looking through the plexiglass canopy, for all around was a milky grey world, the disorientating confines of a cloud belt that clung like fog to the six-seater, twin-engined Cessna.

Mr. Bunker, silver-haired, with a confident, affable manner, used to fly President Kennedy from Boston, the city we had left in driving rain half an hour earlier. I suddenly felt like Ginger in Biggles Flies North, heading for the Canadian badlands, liable to be called upon to climb out of the cabin into the slip stream and hurl a can of bully beef at pursuing air craft.

We were not going as far as the Canadian border however, but to New Hampshire for a rendezvous with America’s highest flying band. The plane began to lose height, and we went into a steep bank. My stomach heaved and a bottle of beer slipped from my fingers.

Miraculously the world returned as we dipped below the cloud cover. Below us spread a breathtaking view. A mountain loomed directly beneath us, dark and menacing in the afternoon light while stretching to the horizon lay mile after mile of copper gold maple trees, a vista broken by the waters of Lake Sunapee.

“That’s where we land!” shouted Bunker, twisting around in his seat, and pointing towards a tiny private landing strip on a golf course amidst the trees. The co-pilot adjusted instruments, we circuited the area, then lined up for a final approach.

As the motors died away we flashed over a knot or people gathered around waiting cars. Unmistakeable amongst them, waving a greeting, was Steven Tyler, lead singer with Aerosmith and newest source of fascination for the rock-hungry youth of a brace of nations.

We taxied back down the runway. Steven pulled a red riding hood over his head and leaned up against a bright red 120 mph Porsche. He looked every inch the rock and roll superstar as he moved cautiously towards the new arrivals in the land where Indians once roamed and the geese still fly.

Aerosmith are a remarkable band. They are the first American group to successfully adopt the stance of those English bands who have dominated world markets for a decade. Led Zeppelin, Yes, ELP and Queen: we have seen them climb from obscurity to fame and riches. It could only be a matter of time before America would strike back.

Aerosmith have been berated in the States for their English approach, for the obvious influences at work in their brand of heavy rock.

It is possible to detect both Yardbird and Zeppelin nuances, but this is hardly surprising as Aerosmith are confirmed Anglophiles, and Steven Tyler has idolised the Beatles, Stones and Yardbirds since he was a childhood fan. Even now he does not conceal his hero-worship of Mick Jagger.

But the critics’ assault on Aerosmith did not sway the fans. As the band slogged around on endless tours, supporting many a British act, they gradually built a following. After four years, they have become a record-smashing band – at home: They remain virtually unknown in the land that provided them with so much inspiration.

They have had four platinum albums, which means a million sales each in American terms, and two of the albums have sold nearly two million each. All their albums are still selling around 10 to 15,000 copies a week and Aerosmith is the strongest-selling catalogue on the CBS label. “I’d like to know why,” says their softly spoken manager David Krebs drily. “I still haven’t figured it out.”

Krebs is quietly delighted by the success of Aerosmith. He began his career as an agent at the giant MCA organisation and later went into management, handling the New York Dolls. Today he manages Aerosmith, Mahogany Rush, Elliott Murphy and the heavy metal guitar hero, Ted Nugent. He fends off heart attacks and ulcers by retaining a composure that conceals his dislike of flying and rock and roll tantrums. His philosophy is that even the highest paid rock star should be encouraged to be an adult. Beneath the calm exterior there is a determined streak.

Aerosmith are Steve Tyler (vocals), Tom Hamilton (bass guitar), Joey Kramer (drums), Joe Perry and Brad Whitford (guitars). They start their first British tour at Liverpool on October 13, and this marks the climax of a remarkable year. They recently played to an estimated crowd of 80,000 at Pontiac Stadium in Michigan.

Their first album Aerosmith was released in 1973 (a year later in England), followed by Get Your Wings (1974), Toys In The Attic (1975) and Rocks (1976). The band was formed in 1970 but did not sign to CBS until 1972. Their work has remained largely unplayed and unknown in Britain until this year.

In the States they have built up their reputation on the exciting guitar work of Perry and Whitford, and the extraordinary stage presence of Tyler, who can leap a full six feet in the air with one gymnastic bound, and whose looks have been compared to both Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury, a somewhat fearsome combination.

He has earned some notoriety as a wrecker of hotel rooms, a small guy with a big temper, liable to explode with impatience.

As Steven drove me to his lakeside home through the beautiful New Hampshire, countryside last week, with his pretty girlfriend, I awaited the first signs of madness. Instead he put the Everly Brothers on the tape player “Weren’t they good?”

In his red jerkin and tights he resembles a character from a Brueghel painting, a 15th century European with the fierce speech of a Harlem hipster. And yet he seemed to want to share his experience, to talk about his peculiar situation, a college drop-out loaded with fame, money and responsibilities.

People often like to hammer home the “ordinary” qualities of rock stars. They are rarely ordinary except for the dull-witted and untalented.

Steven Tyler cannot be ordinary, except for the few seconds. He is shaped by his experiences and opportunities. Filled with nervous tension, conceits, aggression, and an overriding boyish enthusiasm that flares up and dies away like the one-man firework display he devised as darkness fell on Lake Sunapee.

We arrived at the wooden house surveyed by electronic security devices, where he is living until a new home is built near by. Straightaway he led us to a powerful motorboat moored inside the boathouse, and joined by Steven’s old friend Bobby Womack, we were off with a roar across the deserted lake.

Bobby’s wife hid from the spray beneath a blanket as we hit around forty miles an hour and Steve casually flipped the speed-boat around the islet. His hair streamed in the wind and he gazed moodily into the sunset. Conversation was impossible.

Back on land Steven took me on a guided tour of an old yacht club which he is to convert into a mansion fit for a star. “I’m having stone flown over – from Belgium,” he revealed. “We’re gonna have a rope bridge across to that islet, and we’re gonna have a solarium on the roof…”

He showed me an extraordinary collection of magazines and pictures from the golden age of British rock, publications designed to welcome to America such pioneers as the Stones, Beatles and Yardbirds in the early Sixties.

As a kid Steven once rushed up alongside Mick Jagger in the street to have his picture taken beside him. Last week, Tyler enjoyed his first proper meeting with an idol and they discussed together the perils and pains of stardom.

Steven also showed me his collection of guns, the real thing, as used in Vietnam, and on the streets of New York and Detroit when the mood takes the local inhabitants. I held one vicious, long-barrelled monster. It looked like a toy.

While Bobby Womack went upstairs to rap with the house guests, Steven and I sit in the kitchen with a jug of wine we managed to finish off during a two-hour rap in which he revealed that beneath the nervous tension was a strangely impressive being who had fought his way out of tough schools in the Bronx into the even tougher rat race of neighbourhood rock and roll bands.

You don’t get anywhere being nice in America, and yet during our conversation Steven emerged as a genuine soul looking for meaning to his existence, seeking the kind of contentment expensive toys can’t bring. Quite simply – he’d like to get married.

His immediate goal was to check out England, an experience he hoped would be pleasant, although one detected the feeling that with their enormous success in America it was something of a sideshow.

“I just spent the last two days over at Woody’s house,” said Steven, contemplating my opening questions about their British tour. “Mick was there and he told me a lot of good things about the halls and venues. He told me there are not too many bands rocking out over there, not like they used to.

“Is disco happening over there? I hear the Arabs have bought the biggest disco in London.” I expressed surprise at this intelligence. “That’s what I heard on the news. Why does the Queen allow that?” I explained property dealers were not subject to royal intervention.

Seriously though, Steven – did Aerosmith go in for the big stage presentation, dry ice and earthquakes?
“We don’t go for none of that Kiss s – ,” he grunted with disdain. “You, can go just so far with that, y’know. We could jump from a plane onto the stage, I guess, but .what do you do the next time? The biggest thing we have on stage is a truss.

I had visions of some kind of jockstrap suspended over the footlights. “It’s a truss. It’s thirty by forty feet and we hang the lights from it.” Steven mumbled indistinctly through his wine and I still had no idea what he was talking about. “It’s a truss,” he repeated, staring at me with unforgiving eyes.

“We’ve also got a flash box that goes off in front of the stage for the very last encore, which is ‘Toys In The Attic’. It works quite well. I’m afraid we’re gonna keep away from the large halls next year, they’re just too big. We played one for 85,000 people this year. This place was so big, all you could see was security guys.

“The stage was 12 feet high and there were security guards and fences, so I had trouble looking out and being able to see a kid. It’s so ugly when you have to sing to security guards. F – muscle heads, who wants to sing to them?

“Another thing – I can’t play too many nights now in case I blow my throat out. So now we do two nights and then have a day off.”

A record was booming from the next room. Could we shut the door Steven? “There is no door. Turn that s – off, please!” he bellowed at our neighbours. “I’m trying to do an interview here!” Steven grinned and shook his head.

“It’s gonna be fun in England. The last four years has gone real quick since we toured with Mott the Hoople in those small halls. We used to open the show and nobody knew who the hell we were. Our very first tour was with Mahavishnu Orchestra. That was a bit weird – like Hendrix and the Monkees But it was to get us out on the road.”

Did Aerosmith start in small clubs, or did they hit the touring circuit right away?

“We never did as a group, although I did small clubs in this area in my early years when I played drums. But when this band rehearsed, we got right out there and decided to do a few colleges, but no clubs. They stick you in a club and you’ve got to do two weeks and four sets a night and my voice would be like – THIS.” Steven broke into a series of croaks.

Did Aerosmith imagine they’d achieve success so quickly? “It was quick in that we’d play a small town, do well, then come back again shortly after to play a bigger place.”

Did they have a plan of attack?
“Yeah, we had a direction. I used to tell the guys all the time, ‘Next year at this time, we’re gonna be on that radio. Our objective was just to get up there and rock, and people were loving it.

“We opened to Johnny Winter and Humble Pie one time in New York City, packed all our gear in a bus, and although we had no bass amps, we borrowed some to get on that stage and play. It was the night Johnny had just come back from the rehabilitation centre. We did all originals, even a tune called ‘Major Barbara’ we’ve never released, and it went down quite well, no boos, just a couple of shouts. So it has always been a plus and a positive situation for the band.

“You get bad nights, sure, but in general it’s been just incredible. The kids get off just as much as we do. F – the money, f – the press, the band is just interested in going on and rocking out, and we have such a good time up there it just bleeds right into the audience.

“That’s why it has stuck together and nobody has quit, ‘cos we dig it. Everybody smiles on stage, and there’s no ego stuff. It’s a team, which so many groups aren’t anymore.”

Did Steven feel there was a gap in the American music scene that Aerosmith could fill?

“Sure. Who was happening then? Black Oak? I don’t remember too much of what was happening because we were constantly on tour. People were filling houses back then, but…” Steven dropped to a conspiratorial whisper….”they just weren’t rocking out.”

American bands usually seemed sloppy and unrehearsed, I suggested, and Steven admitted that Aerosmith were not that meticulous. “We rehearse a bit but it’s time-consuming and I don’t have much private life.”

“It’s been pretty nuts. A very fast four years.”

Does Steven have time to stop and think about it all?

“Yeah, a hotel room sometimes, back stage before the show. But I was prepared for this life in a way because I grew up under a piano. My father was a classical pianist, and he tried to teach me himself but I yawned so much it blew his head. I just wasn’t good.

“But I did a lot of theory in high school which was very good for me. I wrote ‘Dream On’, our biggest hit, on piano, plus ‘One Way Street’ and ‘Home Tonight’, which is the single now. What’s happening with our playlist over in London, are they playing us?”

No, I revealed, not a lot. Steven shrugged and returned to his high school reminiscences. “They put a nark in our ceramics class,” he said. I looked suitably baffled. We had neither narks nor ceramics at Catford Secondary.

“This is a true story – he was selling US dope. Back then, like pot was taboo. They put this cop right there in the school. Right up until he popped us, he was selling us nickel bags of good s – he got off somebody else he popped.

“Oh man. The worm. He popped the whole gang of us. Took us to the police station. All the girls were crying. They took me from my front door in handcuffs as my father was arriving home from work. My son!”

Did Steven go to prison?
“Nah. I got out of the draft. You pay, y’see. Oh yeah, that’s now the system is here. I got booked as a YO – a youthful offender. I was 19 years old.”

So he got out of Vietnam?
“I wouldn’t have gone anyway. I was against it. They were playing games with the draft system. If they wanted to pull a war, draft everybody, get ’em over there and let’s win the goddamn war. It was just a game they played in Vietnam. If they wanted to win the war there, grab a gun and get everybody over there. I didn’t believe in it anyway.”

Instead of getting involved in that particular holocaust, Steven jumped into the battleground of rock, playing small clubs, laying down the beat for surfing music. “I went to see all the big rock shows, The Beatles, Stones and Murray the K. The good old days I’ll never forget.

“I used to see the Kinks and screamed with the rest of the kids. I loved it. All the English bands were so good back then. I played with the Incredible Alex Harvey on one show. What a loonie. But a good, nice guy.

“Before I was in this band I was in a group that toured with the Yardbirds, Beach Boys, the Animals – I could go on and on. I was singing lead at that time. I went back and forth between vocals and drumming. No, I didn’t study drums – just picked it up.

“I used to play a lot of these strait-laced resort hotels up here in New Hampshire. Very grand places, y’know, nice ballrooms. I used to slick my hair back and play all these danceable toons. Society music. Very good training.

“You can’t beat that s – . My father had his own band, still does and plays up here every summer. My uncle plays the saxophone and my father plays the piano.”

The band was under Steven’s parents’ real name, Taloarico. “Yeah, it’s an Italian name. My grandfather was Italian, and my grandmother was German. Mother was Polish – and Russian and German and Swedish! And Lord knows what.

“My grandfather got out of Europe by the skin of his teeth. He had a horse-breeding ranch until the Germans came over and machine-gunned it. ‘Everyone out of the house’, and b-l-a-m! They gunned down his mother, father and sister. He jumped down a well, then grabbed the last boat out.

“He came over here and was looking in a paper in New York and saw Sunapee which was worth three grand in those days. He got a bit of money together and bought this piece. We’ve still got 212 acres left. That whole mountain there is mine. Sunapee is only a teeny resort, but it’s decent.”

The Tyler family must be well-known in these parts?
“Yeah, but they live in Yonkers, New York, so they don’t get to spend a lot of time up here. We lived in the Bronx originally, in old apartment buildings. Then we moved to Yonkers where my father bought a house. But we came up here for vacations and I used to trap and hunt. That’s why I like guns, but I don’t kill anything anymore.

“I use to trap raccoons, skunks and possum and all that stuff, but when I bought myself a baby raccoon it got to be my buddy and I could never kill anything after that. It’s horrible – I killed a lot of animals. But my childhood here was very happy. After I got busted at high school I used to sit in the park all day smoking pot with the rest of the kids.”

When he was a kid, Steven didn’t have much protection from those other kids who would pick on anybody with a funny name. Today his home is protected from intruders by an elaborate electronic system.

Did he get bothered much by fans?
“I was up here two weeks in the summer, and the kids started to find out and come to the door at night. It got pretty nuts so I had to put a fence up and an intercom.”

When did Aerosmith reach the point of hero-worship?
“I think it started with that tour with Mott, when we started drawing their audience away. They started jumping over the barriers and grabbing. That’s when I knew it was happening, and that was three years ago. Time goes quick, y’see. That’s why it seems so fast – our success – although it really isn’t.”

Did Steven know all the guys in Aerosmith before they got together?
“Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton used to play in a group up here called the Jam Band, and I used to play up here myself all the time until five years ago. We’d blow the place away – have a blast. Joe Perry used to work in a place called The Anchorage, in the kitchen. Best french fries you ever had. But I also knew him from playing.

“I was then in a band called William Proud and we played out in South Hampton for the summer. I had just written ‘Somebody’ and realised I could write songs. Let’s get crackin’ here! I heard Joe and he blew my head off, I wanted to jump over the drum set and grab him, but I fell over my hi-hat and cracked my leg instead. Anyway, I left my band and hitchhiked up here, tracked down Joe in the Jam Band. There were three songs they played the whole night – one was ‘Rattlesnake Shake’.”

Steve and Joe teamed up and eventually Brad replaced the existing rhythm guitarist in the newly formed Aerosmith. Arrangements were supplied either by Steven, the guitarists or producer Jack Douglas.

While Steven writes most of the band’s lyrics he does not make any extravagant claims about their songs, and tends to shy away from analysis. The subjects, he declares, are about regular rock and roll matters, women, the road, with odd newspaper stories thrown in like ‘Nobody’s Fault’ which is about the San Andreas fault.

Had success mellowed him out?
“Same s – . I may have gained a bit more knowledge. But we’re just rocking out, Period. I love going out on that stage. You come out of that dressing room, down a corridor with bodyguards and road manager, up a ramp, onto the stage, and whoosh – 50,000 people. It’s a shock that takes five minutes to recover from every time. One thing worries me – there have been enough guns pulled out of audiences. I just jump around all the quicker, just so they don’t hit me if ever they decide to shoot me. I don’t think they will, but there have been incidents.

“I played with Nugent, and some f – was waving this .45 at Ted. It’s nuts. You get all those people out there and somebody has to be crazy. But the biggest danger is to the kids when they get crushed at the front. The barrier is very important. It’s six feet away from the stage, and we’ve designed it on a tilt so they can’t climb it.

“Yeah, I do feel a responsibility to the kids. I can control them, but I mustn’t get too close, or I get pulled in. Ah, they’re crazy. I don’t talk to the kids much because we like to go from song to song. We keep the pace pretty quick – whe-e-e-h!

“No I don’t get tense on stage anymore, but I used to get butterflies.”

Did Stephen enjoy his superstar trip?
“Sure I enjoy it – to a certain extent I think about it. I am one. I’m called one. But I’m still Steven.”

He didn’t feet any different?
“I’m richer. Got a nice car out there. Nice house here. Got some nice new friends. Met a lot of people. Six million on this last tour. But you hear stories about guys getting ego trips. I don’t wanna be like that. It’s strange, the end of the line, I don’t wanna hear about it. Stupid. I keep a very low profile, and just take it from there.”

Did he ever have fights with the band?
“Ah sometimes. Dumb, stupid things, like when they play too f – loud. But we compensate. I tell Joe Perry he’s playing too loud, which he does most of the time, because it blows my singing away, and I can’t hear a thing. But they’re beautiful people. Best drummer in rock and roll, y’know, Joey Kramer?”

How did Aerosmith fare with critics? I heard they suffered a pasting.

“I’ll tell you man, the critics are old blokes here. They’re f – stupid, most of them. I would rather have a kid who went to the show write the article than a critic who has been around for so long, he saw the Stones. And he goes: ‘Ah, well Joe Perry looks like Keith, and we have the Tyler-esque Jagger, or the Jagger-esque Tyler’. I mean, what the f – ? Who needs it? I’m not going to change my way when I’m up there. That’s the way it is. I don’t care if I look like Mick. I’m having a good time, the kids love it, fine.”

There will come a point when you start to age rapidly, I warned.

“It happens to musicians, yeah. But I believe in staying on the road, let the people see ya. I get a big kick out of being there, and playing songs like ‘Dream On’. Sometimes I feel like screaming, though, and climbing up the wall. A lot of people will come up and say: ‘Er, you look like Mick Jagger. How does this affect you Steven?’ We get compared to the Stones because of my lips and the way I carry on.”

Did Steven think he had found peace of mind?

“Peace of mind?” he snorted. “No, I have to learn to know how not to win. I have no peace of mind. I’m constantly pushed into gruelling situations where I have to make decisions. I’m the focal point of the band, okay, but there’s no boss. I never make rash decisions without asking the other guys.

“I’ve got real mad, but I’ve not hit anybody. I had too much of that growing up in the Bronx. Street fights! An hour and a half they went on, and I came home bloody as hell. I was made fun of quite a lot at high school. They called me ‘nigger lips’. Jewish white kids were constantly picked on, and they get to see a side of life the other side doesn’t see. Prejudice – it’s terrible.”

Steven’s face darkened and one could sense the impetus behind Tyler’s drive and bravado. As he dashed out on the boardwalk around the boat-house he sent fireworks soaring over Lake Sunapee and let out exultant whoops that echoed back from the mountain.

The kid from the Bronx was certainly enjoying the freedom rock music brings in its wake.

© Chris WelchMelody Maker, 16 October 1976

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