TEST TUBE TEEN TELLS ALL!
(Up music: Theme From 2001.)
STAR IS on the phone from L.A. He is calling New York. At midday rates it’s costing him almost four bits a minute. I lift the receiver and say hello. From a distance of over three thousand miles, by way of inconceivably complex electronic communications systems which take ordinary human speech and send it bouncing off a satellite somewhere beyond the ozone, I hear Star, who is on the phone from L.A., begin a simple conversation with a co-worker across the room. It is not absolutely necessary for Star to call me in New York in order to speak to a co-worker in L.A., but by doing just that, his conversation, no matter how commonplace, resonates with properties of the ages. It could be said that when Star speaks, the cosmos listens. Literally.
Star is a press rep for Aerosmith, the rock ‘n’ roll band. Eventually he turns his attention from the co-worker to me. Aerosmith, he informs, is one of the biggest groups in the country. That is, they sell an awful lot of records and concert tickets. In the past they have frequently taken a bum rap from the press. For just this reason, they’re now a little wary of journalists seeking their confidence. Star wants very much to be able to admit me to an exclusive club, to the close and closed inner circle that share their confidence. Star wants to be able to tell Aerosmith that I’m O.K. But am I, in fact, O.K? Will I gain their confidence and then ask dumb questions? In particular, will I ask the big dumb question in which Joe Perry and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith are compared to Keith Richard and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones? Silence bounces off a satellite beyond the ozone. Star is actually expecting an answer. I respond frankly to his silence. I hadn’t intended, I say, to ask dumb questions, but then one never knows when inanity will strike, does one? To err, after all, is human. “Just don’t,” Star says outright. “We’re talking about levels of hard rock here.” The cosmos rattles.
Star puts me in touch with Mensch. Mensch is a press rep for Aerosmith in New York. Mensch is not unlike Star, and, though no one will believe it, both their names are real. I swear. Mensch and Star: just think of it as art’s press reps imitating art imitating life.
Mensch leads me to the perimeter. Aerosmith has arrived in New York, and I will be granted partial audience at least. One admonition: “Don’t ask any of that stuff about the Stones. We’re talking about Aerosmith here.” Levels, I know. When the day of reckoning dawns, I, human, stand by as instructed at my speech transmitting device awaiting further information from Mensch re trans-Aerosmith injection. May the levels be with you.
Suddenly, I’m off. The forces of the cosmos lock in desperate battle with the forces of Sixth Avenue traffic, and, Aerosmith appointment or no, the cosmos loses: I am fifteen minutes late for Joe Perry. Surely, all is lost. I knock timorously on the door of his Plaza Hotel suite.
In a moment, from the innermost recesses of the innermost circle of the circles upon circles that surround Aerosmith from sea to shining sea and then some, appears a scrawny, scruffy teenager. Like the elephant giving birth to the pebble. (Music out.)
I look around. “Hi,” mumbles the teenager, jerking the hand at the end of his long arm towards a chair by way of offering a seat, “I’m Joe Perry.” (Up music “Sweet Little Sixteen.”) I think: levels.
Joe Perry’s hair is a mess. “Wanna Coke?” he says nervously, wanting to be polite, not wanting to be uncool. No, I respond, as he grabs a bottle for himself and falls into a Complete Lounging Position on the sofa. I sit in an armchair nearby. He jerks himself up slightly to indicate attentiveness (again, polite) and then jerks himself back into the C.L.P. (but cool). He avoids eye contact and sneers somewhat, though it’s not entirely believable. There are a couple of bleach blond polka dots in his black shag-cut hair, and his rumpled silk shirt is almost completely unbuttoned, not really by accident. The black leather pants he wears are torn and ragged; no doubt, like any teenager, Joe Perry, who is 27, wears his favorite pants every day and no material can stand up to that.
Elissa Perry, Joe’s wife, introduces herself. She is petite and blonde and bubbly and tells me how she sometimes writes for Hit Parader, do you?, and then bustles on about the apartment cheerfully, a perfectly nice teenage girl to Joe’s sullen boy.
I lead into the interview proper (Music out.) by asking Joe Perry if he feels that Aerosmith has now arrived, musically, financially, and in other ways. In spite of himself, Joe becomes sort of animated. “I don’t know,” he says with more than a trace of Boston accent on his “o’s”. “The more things you do, the more you realize there’s no point at which you’ve made it. When you get your first start you’re always saying, ‘Wow, when are we gonna make it?’. There’s always something that you reach for, but there’s no point at which you feel you’ve made it. Like on our ’76 tour I jammed with Jeff Beck. So I’ve made it? And everything after that is…? No. I’m glad to find out there’s no place you can’t get past. This Sgt. Pepper’s movie showed us more places to go, more things to do. And we gotta keep the kids happy as well. So we can sell three million Rocks records… but now we better come up with something else.
“We haven’t been recognized by a lot of people we’d like to be recognized by. Like, you know,” he continues, somewhat embarrassed, but not bitter, as one has been led to expect, “like getting the critical acclaim and all that shit. But we’ve basically done our job and kept kids happy. That keeps us up.”
I point out to Joe that in the past he has said that the critics did not matter. With adolescent zeal seeming to overrun logic, albeit cooly, Joe jumps to his own defense. “That’s why we don’t give a shit about them. They all suck because they don’t write about us.” He laughs. “Inside joke… But that’s one thing that’s always irked us. It’s not like my day isn’t made if we don’t get a good review. We don’t give a shit. We don’t go looking for it like a lot of people who are real publicity-conscious and believe in the magazines that tell them they’re hot shit. So we don’t give a shit about it in that sense. But it is annoying to be in Boston and not be recognized by the DJs there as a Boston band… Talking about things we’re still not happy with.”
Joe Perry feels for the city of Boston what some kids feel for their high school. (Up music: ‘Be True To Your School’.) “Boston’s great,” he says, sounding more Bawston than ever.
“They don’t hassle you there, and it’s a real big college town so there’s lots and lots of kids around. A lot of bands came from Boston, but they wouldn’t admit they came from Boston when they went to New York or L. A. There was a time when there was a ‘Boston Sound’ — I think MGM was behind it — and I guess it gave the place a bad reputation. Geils and us were the first bands to really say we came from there.”
The feeling he has for his uncool hometown is characteristic of Perry’s feelings about a lot of things. It’s a blind loyalty that, beneath the thin facade, is fueled by an essential intensity. It’s a willingness to believe in a somewhat meager world for, say, three precarious minutes on end. It’s a feeling belonging to adolescence, rather than childhood, in that there’s some awareness of consequences, and is all the more exciting for it. It’s a feeling to look for in rock ‘n’ roll. In rock ‘n’ roll this feeling may not be everything, but it’s a major prerequisite. And, for now, Joe Perry appears in his gawky way to have it locked. (Music out.)
Somehow, despite his certified Rock Star status, Perry is a pretty decent kid, frozen that way in some time before he got rich and famous; not growing up, but not getting rotten either. Perhaps because he is rich and famous and can command a legion of Menschs and Stars, he is able to maintain a selective isolation in which he is what he pleases — or what he always was. Or maybe Joe Perry is just plain stubborn. Whatever, his protracted adolescence is close enough to the real thing to still register as innocence, slightly soiled. Meanwhile, down the street at his management’s office, where they’re raking it in from Beatlemania, the wonderfully cynical world of adulthood is creeping ever closer.
Aerosmith has taken to playing secret club dates over the last few years like other of the stadium-size rock ‘n’ roll bands. (Up music: ‘Around & Around’.) Talking about a recent date at the Starwood Club in Los Angeles, Teenage Joe is laconically beside himself. “That was the first time we’d played a club for a really long time and it was more fun playing that gig than I think I’ve had in two years. There’s lots of things you can do in one of the big places — you can use a lot more equipment, you’re a lot freer to use the guitars in different ways and you have a lot more stage to fill — but I think for really getting down, clubs are the best ’cause you see the people. You get an immediate reaction if you fuck up or if you do something good. I couldn’t believe how exciting it was that night at the Starwood. The place was wall-to-wall, and we just opened it up. It wasn’t like it was giving away a lot of tickets to record people either. The day before the gig our manager didn’t even know we were gonna play there. We booked the gig ourselves, hired the equipment, everything. So when we tell him, he says: ‘Now, let’s see… What can we do with this? You wanna broadcast this live?’ And we said: ‘We’re just gonna play there and that’s it.'” Yeah, yeah, yeah.
“We went in as Dr. J. Jones and the Interns and anybody could take a chance on that. There was a few people there that got wind of it, but the place was packed, right up against the stage. Our crew told us that Rod Stewart couldn’t get in because they said it was too full. Normally they wouldn’t tell us anything about that because they know how we feel about rock stars keeping people out of places, but they told us about it. this time because they knew we’d be pretty pleased with that. Him goin’, ‘I’m Rod Stewart. Hey! Let me in!’ Just as long as the kids got in, that’s what mattered, and we made sure of that. It was just real cool.” (Music out.)
Joe has little use for the Hollywood rock scene of which Rod Stewart has become emblematic. Elissa, who has finished drying her hair and joined us, prompts him further on the subject. “What about the Bee Gees at Sgt. Pepper’s?”
“Yeah,” says Joe, mustering his nastiest sneer, “that was the epitome of that Hollywood rock star thing.”
“I called Lisa Robinson today,” Elissa continued, “’cause I’m gonna write a story for Hit Parader about what I saw at the filming of Sgt. Pepper’s…“
“I can’t wait,” mutters Joe, slamming fist into palm nearly malevolently.
“I’ll tell the world how long it really takes the Bee Gees to get their hair like that…”
“They all wear wigs!”
“No, no, no… hours!”
Joe is stoked. “What we were gonna do,” he snarls, sounding serious, “was mess up their hair in the fight scene instead of beating them up and totally fuck ’em up!” (Up music: ‘(There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown’.)
Clearly Joe Perry relished doing the Sgt. Pepper’s movie, if only for the opportunity it gave him to pit his teenage gang, Aerosmith, against the rival gangs around the corner, Frampton and the Bee Gees. Not that he doesn’t like them; just that, well, cool is cool and nerd is nerd and never the twain is gonna meet on equal ground as long as Joe is on the job in rock ‘n’ roll.
“Doing Sgt. Pepper’s was hard work — 12 hours a day for three days — and it gave us some insight into why not to be an actor, but it was all right. Nobody was pulling any star trips, Frampton or the Bee Gees, or anything like that. But, ah, there was a few things they wanted us to do… One thing was, they were supposed to do a thing where Steven was gonna get directly killed by Frampton, Frampton was gonna kill Steven. And we’re sittin’ there sayin’, ‘There’s no way that Steven is gonna get directly offed by Frampton. No way. It’s gotta be an accident.’ (That was the original script, but they changed it around into this thing.) So they switched it and what happens is we’re killin’ the Bee Gees, and Strawberry Fields pushes Steven off the stage and kills him. So it wasn’t Frampton that got him.”
“But you killed Strawberry,” adds Elissa, the loyal moll.
“Yeah,” says Joe, satisfied. “So we killed Strawberry so it was real cool.”
There’s no doubt that Aerosmith put some work into their bad boy facade. One can readily imagine the hours that Joe Perry spent in front of the mirror with his guitar, perfecting the sneer, the tough slouch, the out-of-it, pasty-faced look. Certainly it’s something that, like all serious teen rockers, he’s eminently proud of. (And well he should be: image has always been integral to rock ‘n’ roll and Aerosmith has one of the better images going.) “They picked the right band for the Future Villain Band part in that movie. I’ve always considered us America’s Number One Local Band. Every city we go to I feel like we’re the local band ’cause that’s just about how much you read about us. So it’s like we’re the underdogs in this whole thing. There you have the Bee Gees smiling with their nice teeth and all that shit, and then you got the closeups of me and Steven, and Steven’s fried and we’re both fuckin’... out there. My skin is all white ’cause it was last winter and we had been in Boston, and there’s my face up there in closeup with my fuckin’ crooked teeth and my crooked nose… We didn’t think the movie was gonna bomb as bad as it did, but I don’t think we suffered too badly for it as far as our image goes.” (Music out.)
The business at hand for Aerosmith in New York is the final mixing of their live album, Bootleg. Typically, Joe works himself into a casual furor over this. “As far as I’m concerned, I didn’t want to do a live album because there’re so many perfect albums coming out, all doctored and fixed — big deal. Double live album: standard of the industry…” It sounds like he is quoting, but he doesn’t say who. “I felt like we had to top that, do a real live album, like Live At Leeds, Get Yer Ya Yas Out, that old Kinks album or Got Live If You Want It. So I was trying to think of something that would justify a live album in my head.
“Then we started finding all these old tapes, like this one from Paul’s Mall in Boston. It was right after we’d recorded the first album. All we had of it was a two-track tape off a radio broadcast. Everybody said, ‘Two track! We can’t put that on the album. To much hiss, too much this and that… It’s basically not gonna sound good.’ And we said, ‘What the fuck do you think they did ten years ago?’ So we did just a little fixing and it’s gonna be on the thing. We had a sax player up there doin’ a James Brown song, a lot of good shit on that tape.
“Anybody who tells you they didn’t fix anything on a live album is strictly inaccurate. The fixing we did was just places where the guitar or the mike went out, places where we legitimately had to fix it. I’ve let stuff go by on this album, like guitar mistakes, and I just don’t want to change it. I don’t want anybody fixin’ it. That was that night. There’s no multi-track vocals on this to make it sound sweeter or anything like that. In a few places Steven was singing really off, so off that it would be totally offensive to hear, so we took that part of the vocal out, if we could, and put a new one in. But I think there’s only one or two places where we did something like that. You hear all those live albums and you know the band doesn’t sound like that. I’d say we did a total of ten minutes of fixing for everybody on the album.”
Has Joe ever thought of a solo record?
“Yeah, I’m probably gonna do a solo album. I’ve been wanting to do one for the last few years now. Last year I couldn’t do it because Draw The Line was taking a long time. I’ve been getting together a band in Boston to do some sessions and work out some ideas I have. I don’t want to do anything that will take away from the band. None of us would. I’ll probably even do a couple of Aerosmith songs, just do them differently like I first thought of them when I wrote them. But there’s not gonna be any solo career, nothing like that. The band is…” There’s a knock on the door. It’s bassist Tom Hamilton, a tallish blond with a perpetual look of bemusement. He sits down beside Joe on the couch as Joe continues. “We’re real idealistic… socialistic…” “Socialistic???” says Hamilton in quiet mock-horror. “All for one and one for all,” Joe finishes, echoing the creed of teen gangs everywhere. (Music up: ‘The Jets Song’.) (Music out.)
Tom Hamilton is the biggest guy in the Aerosmith gang, and, while his clothes always look too small, his slow, ironic delivery suits him perfectly. Like Perry, though in notably less frenetic fashion, he is excited about the live album. “I think we’re going through a renaissance. Everybody’s really inspired right now. After Toys In The Attic and Rocks, we were really riding a big wave. We were selling a lot of albums, and we spent a lot of time doing Draw The Line, kind of indulged ourselves. We went off the road for a while and we stagnated, just a little.” The “just a little” is chosen with care.
“So, as a result, we’ve been doing a real lot of work this year. This year we changed our game a little bit, doing the Sgt. Pepper’s movie, California Jam, Texxas Jam, some of those real big outdoor shows. Plus, we did the longest tour this summer we’ve done since the days we were on the road with Mott the Hoople. At the end of the tour, everybody was wasted, but we were also really high, really sharp. Everybody was stimulated.”
Then does making a lot of money hurt a rock ‘n’ roll group? (Up music: ‘Money’.)
Joe answers. “Depends. I think that’s what happened to us during Draw The Line. We saw it as sort of a vacation: ‘Now, how’re we gonna spend this time?’ So we went off and rented a fucking nunnery and it was just total party time, motorcycles…”
Tom explains for his excitable friend.
“It was some guy’s estate up in New York that the church had bought and turned into a nunnery. Then they sold it to a couple of doctors or something who were renting it out…”
Joe jumps back in. “Sixty acres with a great big house, and the Record Plant installed a studio there for us, literally installed a whole studio. I don’t know how much it cost us, but it was outrageous. They had a bar and people to serve and I’d wake up at four or five in the afternoon and say, ‘One Black Russian, please’. We had motorcycles and Porsches and we’d go cruising around the countryside terrorizing everybody. We had all our friends up there and we’d go shooting off these guns at the shooting range, just blasting away… We had a great time up there. But I guess we learned a lesson: not to eat the dessert before the main course. Not to go any place where there’s gonna be a lot of distractions.”
“I think Draw The Line,” says Tom with finality, “was self-indulgent for us and not really giving people what they can expect out of us.” (Music out.)
The conversation begins to ramble more now and into areas that appear to hold a more visceral interest for Joe and Tom. Joe is talking about how many times he’s been arrested for speeding when he’s home in Boston. The two rock ‘n’ roll musicians, car freaks both, fall into what is almost a private Aerosmith members-only conversation. Perhaps they don’t expect anyone else to understand with the profundity of the other. Dreamily Tom says to Joe: “That’s one thing I really like to hear: rock ‘n’ roll in a car. Seeing long-haired, stoned-out rock ‘n’ rollers in a real nice car… I don’t know, somehow that really gets me…” Joe can beat that, telling Tom: “When we were leaving L.A. the last time, somebody pulled up next to us in a 914, a black 914, two guys, our age… fucking listening to ‘Back In The Saddle’ really loud with the top off.” This is serious stuff. They’re talking about life’s deepest pleasures. I think of a song that the Dictators, another teenage group, are playing these days; it’s called ‘Sixteen Forever’. (Music up: ‘Sixteen Forever’.)
When I’m readmitted to the discussion, I ask Joe what he’ll be doing when he’s 30 or 40 years old.
“My father-in-law,” he replies, “his name is Nick Sharet. He teaches music in Boston, but he used to play with a lot of the big jazz guys — he’s pretty well-known; he’s in the Jazz Encyclopedia. To this day, he still has a band and they go out and play. Every weekend he puts his tux and his horn in the trunk of the car and goes out and plays. I’m not going to be embarrassed that I’m playing in a rock band when I’m 35. There’s no stereotype in my mind that says it has to be a certain way, that you have to be a certain age. The only aging rock star is a dead one, as far as I’m concerned. The only thing that I can do is get better.”
That said, Joe Perry slouches down behind a cartoon scowl, jamming the sofa into gear. Top down and teenage forever, he burns rubber for tomorrow, no levels barred. (Slow fade music.)
© Robert Duncan, Creem, December 1978