Aerosmith: Deuces Are Wild

LONDON, TUESDAY, February 20, 2007, 11.35pm. Me, photographer Ross Halfin, Aerosmith tour manager John Bionelli and oh yeah – Joe Perry and Jimmy Page are sitting at a table in Nobu, one of the trendiest chi-chi nightspots in the capital. A place where uber celebrities and icons can relax and two rock behemoths can play catch-up and generally indulge in some muso conviviality without the threat of paparazzi flashbulbs or autograph-hunting eBay entrepreneurs.

Aerosmith are in town to promote an up-and-coming world tour that will include their first British gigs in almost a decade. They also played a secret show at the Hard Rock cafe to a select few – a gig which marked the return of bass player Tom Hamilton, missing from the band recently after undergoing treatment for throat cancer. They’re still one of the biggest live draws in the US, but the last few years have been quite hard for this little ol’ band from Boston, taking in death, illness, divorce and a change of management. At last things are beginning to fall back into place.

“We’re at that age where these kinds of things happen,” says Perry casually. And he should know, having recently experienced serious concussion after an accidental collision with a camera during the filming of a live show. “Wondering when you’re gonna play again is what does it. When I play I can’t help but think: ‘Who knows? This might be it’.”

Having Perry and Page on the same table makes for intriguing conversation, taking in – among other topics – the recent Cream reunion (how Eric Clapton was disappointing but Ginger Baker exceeded all expectations); the unsurpassable brilliance of Jeff Beck; private family stuff (Perry’s sons have formed a band called Tab. Joe gives Jimmy a CD-R, adding that his sons “would be buzzed to know you have it”); and the minutiae that musicians talk about fervently when they get together – equipment, strings, amplification and the like.

Aerosmith seem to have a similarly chilled-out attitude to everything they do, oblivious to such earthbound constraints as schedules and deadlines. One of the reasons Classic Rock is sitting in the world’s most expensive sushi bar is because we’ve been trying all day to get an audience with the band’s elusive guitarist. We had been scheduled to meet up earlier in the afternoon. This was cancelled – Perry, we were told, was still jet-lagged and needed to sleep. Then the orders came: head to a photo shoot on the other side of London. A few hours later, and I’m in a studio surrounded by assistants, a make-up artist, but still no Joe Perry. Instead, there’s a visibly harassed Ross Halfin, who has given up clock-watching as his overtime bill mounts up.

When he does arrive, Perry looks dishevelled and disconnected. As pale as the white backdrop he is standing in front of – and swathed in a black cape – the image he strikes is positively vampiric, and he wanders around with a dazed look as if he has literally just been woken up. After the shoot, it becomes obvious that it won’t be possible to get anything down on tape while the studio staff are dismantling the set around us, which is when it is decided that we should go for a meal with a member of Led Zeppelin. As you do.

As we wait around, Joe tells me about a series of recent tragedies that have occurred in the world of Aerosmith, culminating with the death of his friend’s 17 year-old daughter in a car crash. His voice crackles with emotion as he talks, and it’s easy to wonder if this has anything to do with his current state. His mood brightens up when talking about the band’s forthcoming show at Hyde Park.

“I can’t wait to get back to Europe,” Perry beams. “We have some of our best audiences over here. It’s a shame it’s taken so long. The 9/11 events affected us, as people around the world perceive us as the token American band and that made travel difficult. But we love playing over here. This is where it all began.”

By the end of the evening, Perry invites me back to the hotel to finally do a proper interview. To be honest, I’m reluctant: it’s past midnight, it’s been a long day, and it doesn’t feel right to take advantage of his bonhomie. No thanks, Joe, I tell him, we’ll reschedule.

Perry leaves the table for a moment and Jimmy Page – who is an expert in these matters – leans over and puts me straight. “Go with him,” he advises. “He’s invited you – he obviously feels comfortable enough to want to talk to you right now.”

Experience has taught me that you cannot argue with The Master. Joe and I head to the hotel and my mind wanders back to my equally unpredictable experiences with Aerosmith…

NEW YORK, sometime in 1981.”What’s the matter boy…you trippin’?!”

I am staring at the second most famous pair of lips in the history of rock’n’roll. They are parched, blistered, distended and quivering, as if possessing a life of their own. They also happen to be attached to one of the most gaunt, pale visages I have come across since my arrival in New York – and if you take into consideration that I have just spent the previous week in an upmarket crack house, you’ll have an idea of what state Steven Tyler was in when we first confronted each other a quarter of a century ago.

It was the beginning of the 80s and Aerosmith had recently and spectacularly demolished their reputation as one of America’s best-selling and most popular touring rock outfits in a cloud of heavy-duty chemical abuse, which led to the rapid dissolution of the prophetically named Toxic Twins, Tyler and Joe Perry. Long-time fans, both myself and Ross Halfin were in the States (and in a state) on a mission, determined to track down the band. And while we hit a wall with Joe Perry, we had a stroke of luck with Tyler whose then management Leber/Krebs seemed quite keen to talk to us (for reasons that remain perplexing to this day). This gave us an opportunity to hang around the office – which is how I had my first encounter with Tyler…

“Are you trippin’, boy?” Tyler repeated and pointed at my enormous pupils. His, on the other hand, were pinned almost to the point of extinction, disappearing into the back of his shrunken skull. Substance-wise we were on the opposite ends of the class-A spectrum. I was a hopped-up ying to his opiated, drooling yang. Needless to say, this encounter was punctuated with a lot of awkward, nodding silences. In between he played us a couple of songs from the latest, yet unreleased, Aerosmith album, Rock In A Hard Place. Swathed in variety of exotic scarves, dripping in esoteric jewellery and generally looking like the victim of a head-on collision with a Moroccan bazaar, Tyler became animated as soon as the music came on.

He produced a lethal-looking flick-knife out of thin air and proceeded to stab it into the expensive antique office desk, punctuating the rhythms that blared out of the speakers which shook dangerously above his lolling head.

“This song’s all about China White!” he hollered above the noise. “Do you know what that is?” He lifted the unfeasibly large blade up to his reddened, chapped beak and snorted. “It’s the strongest heroin you can get, man!” He chuckled hoarsely and then plunged the blade into the already decimated furniture, like a gang-banger’s Excalibur. “Gotta go guys,” he suddenly announced, leaping off his chair as if someone had lit a roaring fire underneath his bony ass, a typical addict on a mission. As soon as he left the room, one of the huge speakers became unhinged from its bracket and landed with a dull but damaging thud on the exact spot he had been sitting – it pretty much summed up the precariousness of the man’s existence at the time.

I looked at Ross. We were simultaneously elated and depressed. It was one of those rare moments a hero had lived up to these fans’ unrealistic expectations. But, at the same time, it looked fairly unlikely that we would see Tyler again outside of a shot of him in a casket.

We were, of course, wrong.

SAME YEAR, same city, a couple of days later. We are now at a fancy reception for 80s pop/rock siren Pat Benatar. Heaving with the usual variety of liggers, swiggers, snorters and bullshit artists, I found myself sat next to a skeletal size-zero Jewish American princess, who resembled Sandra Bernhard in the grip of a severe methamphetamine habit. Her eyes rolled about in their sockets like a couple of loose marbles in a schoolboy’s satchel, and when she spoke the words seemed out of sync with her gurning, twitching, foam-flecked mouth. Refreshed to point of blackout, I was immediately attracted to the charms of this kosher Kate Moss.

As the evening progressed it transpired that she was a ‘very good friend’ of Steven Tyler and his then wife (and former New York Dolls muse) Serinda. Roughly translated this meant that she was one of their regular dealers. “I can get you an interview anytime you want,” she slurred confidently, after I explained how difficult it was getting connected with the band.

On Ross’s strict instructions I took her back to the hotel, fed her cake and let her use all the amenities. If there was a snowball’s chance of another rendezvous I wasn’t going to let it pass by. She left with the contents of the mini bar, towels and toiletries. A couple of days passed with no word. Just at the point that it started to look like we’d been well and truly shafted the phone rang – it was my new drug mensch announcing that we had been granted an audience with Tyler and spouse at the band’s office.

“Get there for 3 am,” she whispered without a hint of irony, “and remember, be easy on him – he’ll just be getting up.”

Needless to say, by the time we got to the venue Tyler was sufficiently lubricated. He was accompanied by his new guitarist Jimmy Crespo, a quiet and pleasant enough character who looked the part and knew his place. Serinda completed the cast, tending to our needs like a debauched matron. “Don’t forget, honey, the heroin’s in the fridge!” quipped a more amenable Tyler before showing Ross and myself clips of Aerosmith on Saturday Night Live, being introduced by one the band’s all-time heroes, Little Richard. “A cool motherfucker,” Tyler recalled. “He introduced us as ‘Harry Smith’!”

While Steven was reluctant to share his stash, Serinda made sure that we all got suitably (and less than elegantly) wasted. Less of an interview and more of a stoned exchange, one of the few memorable moments was Tyler’s recollection of sharing some amyl nitrate with Jimi Hendrix on a fairground ride.

“Man, he was a cool guy,” said Tyler as the evening drew to a close. “If he were alive today I’d definitely be hanging out with him – and Janis Joplin.”

With that Ross took some photos and we departed into the New York dawn chorus of irate yellow minicab drivers and screaming news-stand vendors. Tyler and co vanished back to the world of 24-hour party people, in a merry-go-round of abuse that would last a few more years.

LONDON, SUNDAY, February 18, 7 pm. Twenty-five years later, our meeting is in the more exclusive surroundings of the Mandarin hotel in Knightsbridge. As I arrive Steven Tyler is running late with his interviews because he has spent the day doing an unplanned photo session with that bastard Halfin. This has created chaos with the day’s schedule which is now slowly unravelling before my eyes.

“Welcome to the world of Aerosmith,” chirps Barbara Charone, the band’s ever optimistic and bulletproof PR (and former work colleague of mine at Sounds). I get to the interview suite as a female broadsheet journalist is just concluding her in-depth probe in a coquettish and gushing manner. “So, Mr Tyler, you don’t partake in the imbibing of alcohol any more: what kind of drink do you have to accompany a fish dinner? Water?” There is a pause and then then Tyler replies in Dick Van Dyke cockney: “I don’t drink water – fish fuck in it, darling!” She leaves the room charmed and bedazzled, blushing like a honeymoon bride. Aerosmith are definitely in the house!

Barbara informs me that due to circumstances beyond her control I have only 15 minutes. Great. I start off by reminding Tyler of our first brief encounters with some photographic evidence.

“Man! How can you remember this shit?” Tyler is looking aghast at a picture taken at the time. In one he is holding a cushion that has been fashioned into the shape of giant quaalude. “Not bad – I’m wearing my Brian Jones T-shirt.” He nods approvingly and sighs: “That was a few lifetimes ago.”

It certainly was, and the man in front of me bears little resemblance to the ravaged troll I met all those years ago. Looking lean and fit, nowadays his stashes of cocaine and Deerling grinder have been replaced by a running machine and fitness regime. Both he and Perry look disgustingly healthy considering the trials and tribulations they put themselves through, all of which are extensively documented in their gruelling biography Walk This Way (aka The Dirt Snr).

“I think that I managed to stop early enough that I could check the damage I was doing to myself,” Perry says later, “so I was able to maintain some of my health and don’t have to worry about hep C and things like that.”

Unlike Tyler. The singer recently had treatment for hepatitis and an operation on his nodules. “With the throat everybody was saying it was cancer,” he laughs. “The press love to play up on that shit. It was just nodules that had to get scraped. No big deal. I get fuckin’ nodules every time I tour, cos I sing so hard…”

Tyler agrees that the band have had more than their fair share of hard knocks recently, and he has a theory why. “Our problem is that when you’re a relevant band and you’re still doing albums, singles, radio, movies, getting Oscars, Grammys et cetra, you don’t have time to go to the doctors or the dentist, and life gets put on the back burner. My wife left me because I wasn’t at home for the kids’ birthdays or graduations. I would love to cancel things but I’m selfish [laughs]. So when we had a chance to take a year off, Joe selfishly did a solo album – a love album to his wife. I found out I had hep C and went right into chemotherapy. The doctor told me: ‘You better do it now or you’ll never have another chance to do it.’ I fucking jumped in with both feet and got rid of it.”

Tyler looks down and quietly sighs to himself. “I do what I can, man. At the end of the day there’s always 16 people you haven’t called. I haven’t seen my children – it’s a rough life, man.”

LONDON, WEDNESDAY, February 21, 2007, 1.35am. Sprawled lazily across a couch in his hotel suite, Joe Perry has that stoned demeanour which doesn’t even require drugs any more.

With Perry what you see is what you get. The quiet, moody foil to the hyperactive vocalist, it’s easy to see how the relationship has lasted so long. “My enthusiasm comes and goes,” he admits. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it. As much as I love writing and performing my own songs, I sure can’t sing like Steven can sing. The music part is a no brainer, but keeping it together personality-wise, it’s tough. Just putting up with everybody else’s bullshit. There’s four other guys I’ve been hanging around with in a really intimate situation for 37 years. Sometimes you think: ‘Is it time? Is it worth it?’ And yes, it still is. The fact that there’s 37 years makes me wonder what the 38th year is going to be like – I’m kind of curious to see.”

It’s nothing short of a miracle that all the original members are still together after such a long time, especially if you consider the number of life-threatening situations they put themselves through. Their turning point came when they got back together in 1984 and recorded Done With Mirrors – not Perry’s favourite album but a pivotal one when it came to the healing process, he says: “We were still getting high on a limited basis. We were trying to get clean. We were trying to modify our using but the weekends got longer [laughs], y’know what I mean?

“Getting sober is very much of a mindset. If you’re waiting for that weekend then you are still in that headspace; you’re not really free of the addiction. It’s not doing you any favours, except maybe giving your liver a break. So we did Done With Mirrors semi-straight. And because getting high used to help with the anxiety, we felt a lot more pressure so the record was very uninspired and that’s when we figured we had to stop completely.”

It wasn’t an overnight event. “When we went out on the road after …Mirrors was released I can remember telling my road manager: ‘Okay, I’m going to have you carry the coke and only give it to me when the show is over’ [laughs]. That kind of stuff. And slowly but surely my habit began to pick up and eventually we had to cancel the tour. And that’s when we learnt how to get sober the right way.”

It was quite amazing that the whole band got sober together. “Yeah, although it took a while. It wasn’t like we sat in a room and said: ‘Okay, we’re going to get sober now.’ It took a couple of years for everybody to get it, because some of the guys weren’t as bad as the others. Tom Hamilton never missed a gig. Tom never fell down the stairs, so why should he stop having a beer when he comes home from rehearsals? He probably could have controlled it easier than any of us. But it wasn’t about that. It was about the fact that he did go around the bend a few times – he knew the quality of his life pretty much sucked. Everybody came to terms on their own and realised they had to do it. Nobody got sober because of somebody else: you got to find your own way. And I think that’s what took the longest.”

It’s a fact that since the beginning of time drugs have been a major catalyst in the creative process, and as far as Aerosmith goes they wrote some of their most enduring classics while, frankly, shit-faced. When asked what they felt was the most definitive ‘Smith song, both Tyler and Perry instantly picked ‘Draw The Line’, written during the most chaotic period of their career. Was there a time when Joe thought getting clean would prevent him from tapping into his creative muse again?

“Well y’know, if I look at my last years of hard partying, I was making music in spite of the drugs, not because of them, and I knew that near the end. There was some fear of: ‘Will our fans like us if they know we’re not partying any more?’ And then we thought: ‘Hey – are our fans going to stop listening to us because we don’t stay up until four in the morning drinking beer? Don’t be ridiculous!’

“As for the creative process, that comes from here [points to heart] and some people even believe it’s God or whatever you call it – the spirit. When you get out of the way and set the subconscious spirit free, that’s when things start to become creative. Because everybody has creativity. So drugs were used by shamans and freaks as a shortcut to that spiritual place. The first experience you have with these substances, it kind of cuts you off from the neck up. Then all of a sudden you think: ‘That’s it, it’s the drugs and alcohol that are are writing the songs.’ I know for a fact that I used to believe that. I can remember one afternoon lying on my back and writing a specific song when I was high on heroin.”

But that method stopped getting results?

“I knew when it wasn’t working. We had the studio booked and we were going to get plenty buzzed and write something. It didn’t come out that way. We woke up the next day, listened to what we recorded and it was a piece of shit! That’s when we knew we were suffering artistically. And there were other things in my personal life that weren’t doing me any good. Anyway, I was in a rehab for a short amount of time and at one of the rehearsals I came up with some riffs for a song and I liked it and I thought: ‘I can do this!’ We started rehearsing again and that’s when I figured we could play; it wasn’t the Jack Daniel’s. And as I said, we all took our own slow time getting there. But as they say: ‘It takes 15 years to walk into the woods and 15 years to walk out.’ I don’t know if it was that long but that’s a pretty good analogy.”

Since those first baby steps, the newly reborn Aerosmith have of course enjoyed multi-platinum successes they couldn’t have imagined in their wildest hallucinations. This is in no small part thanks to successful collaborations with outside songwriters and the ballads that in recent years have become a staple feature on all the albums. Aerosmith have literally come out of an institution and then become one. It was noticeable at the Hard Rock show that the young models in the front rows only came to life when the band played power rock anthems like ‘Crazy’ and ‘Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’. These babes weren’t even swinging in their daddy’s sacks when ‘Walk This Way’ was originally released. Now it’s even been resurrected as an anthem for Red Nose Day, covered by Girls Aloud (in the role of Aerosmith) and The Sugababes (playing Run-DMC) – a contentious subject among some of the old-skool fans who feel that the band has abandoned their heavy rock roots.

Perry disagrees and cannot see a conflict of interests: “I learned as I grew as a musician that I enjoyed playing the ballads more because it gave me room to stretch out. But y’know, we always had ballads. Steven wrote ‘Dream On’ before he was in Aerosmith. Way back then we knew that ballads were the way to get on the radio for a band like ours. So to put one ballad on a record that was going to get 10 of your other songs heard seemed like a small price to pay. And it wasn’t too hard to do if the ballad was R&B-based. People ask us if those songs changed our lives. Well yeah, they opened our audience up to a million people. But it’s not like we said: ‘We’re not going to play rock songs any more’.”

Another controversial area is the band’s recent recorded output – the last two albums of original material, Nine Lives and Just Push Play, weren’t major successes in Europe (although in reality Aerosmith very rarely did much damage to the album charts over here) and since they left Geffen they have become in danger of transforming into one of the plethora of heritage acts who trawl the never-ending stadium cabaret circuit. Have they hung up their creative boots or will they be pushing new boundaries on the next album?

Perry looks up to the ceiling and then scratches his head thoughtfully. He does think that the band may have a challenge ahead of them. “Well it certainly is daunting,” he says, “because I feel I’ve already written the best rock song I can write with, say, ‘Draw The Line’. It’s got my favourite tempo, uses the right tuning – it hits on all cylinders. Forget about whether it’s a hit and all that stuff. It’s a great rock song for me. I don’t know what it does for the rest of the world.”

I remind him that it’s also Tyler’s favourite tune and Perry laughs: “Well then, I have another convert! But the point is that there’s room for another one. It’s just getting over that creative hump. There’s tons of room for other great songs. I mean, I thought that every great song had been written, every great chord change had been used by 1968 – and look at all the great songs that come out since then. It obviously gets harder and you want to avoid getting sucked into that ‘Well, I’ve already done that’ mode.

“That’s what I think is the problem with Clapton – with the peaks that he reached I can see him thinking: ‘Well, I’ve done that – why should I try and beat it? Why not try something new?’ Being pragmatic I know what my limits are. I know I’ll never play like Jeff Beck, but I can be inspired by him. I can learn a lot by listening to him, talking to him, the same with Jimmy [Page]. Jimmy’s not just a great guitar player. Jeff is just a guitar player: he writes some good songs but he doesn’t write great songs – he’s only the best guitar player on the planet. But Jimmy writes songs that show off his talent. Basically he created the Led Zeppelin sound and created a dynasty.”

With the night wearing on, I ask Perry what we can expect at Aerosmith’s forthcoming Hyde Park show. “Well, I think that people are going to see that we’ve gotten to be a better band over the last eight years. We’re pushing a lot harder and part of that comes with age, experience and partly it comes with just not caring any more – we’re just out there to have fun.”

SOUTHAMPTON, FRIDAY, February 23, 2007, 5pm. Steven Tyler is ringing my mobile and ranting about his recent trip to London. “I got to sit at the steps of Olympic studios where all the Stones did their recordings, fuckin’ Zeppelin – oh my God! I live for that shit. When I went to Jerusalem I walked the walk Jesus walked, it was just like that, man.”

Tyler delivers his patois in a machine-gun staccato that reverberates down the transatlantic phone as he relates his rock’n’roll tour of London with Ross Halfin. Still starstruck after all these years…

“Oh yeah, I’m still starstruck, man,” he agrees, “I’m still a fan. It’s like if Janis Joplin were alive today I’d be hanging out with her, too.”

I’m reminded of a past encounter, but quickly brush it aside. It’s over a week since the band played their club show at London’s poshest hamburger joint. An hour long, it covered their wide and diverse career, taking in the past classics (‘Walking The Dog’, ‘Draw The Line’, ‘Sweet Emotion’, ‘Walk This Way’), the commercial fodder (‘Cryin”, ‘What It Takes’ and That Diane Warren Song), plus a few surprises (‘Mother Popcorn’, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ and ‘Train Kept A Rollin”). Perry later reported that the highlight of the show was seeing Hamilton back on stage, while Tyler looked absolutely euphoric in his natural habitat. Was it enjoyable performing at somewhere smaller than the usual stadium?

“Absolutely! Y’know man, you get so disconnected when you play big places – even though it’s a great ego tweak. So if 80,000 people want to see you, you’re never going to hit them all by playing a club that fits only 150 like the Hard Rock. So it’s very selfish to play small clubs, which I would rather do, but there’s not enough time and life. But you do feel good, you really feel connected. The worst time in my life is when they put up a fucking barricade in front of you and you’re 60 feet from anybody. You might as well be phoning it in from your basement.”

Any chance of the band doing more intimate venues over here? “I’d love to play a club and have Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck come over. I mean, didn’t you see Joe Perry play? Don’t you wish that Zeppelin were there doing it in that club that night? The reality is that we played for an hour and it cost us $600,000. But we wanted to let London know that we were ready. It’s what I live for. What am I going to do? Go to Starbucks in downtown Boston? On one hand it’s a little embarrassing that I live for a fucking song, but it’s what I’m all about. To write a song and have someone say that they’ve made love to their wife and had children to it? It means everything and nothing at once. It means all to me at the end of the day.”

I ask Tyler what the future holds for Aerosmith as they enter their twilight years. With their recent phenomenal successes, are they in a position to kick back and relax?

“To be honest, I think that the money situation with past management was never really good for the band – we got ripped royally,” he replies. “The new management’s been beautiful to us and that’s one of the reasons the band stuck together all these years. I think more than that we never got fat and lazy or too rich. And more than anything I believe in my heart there’s nothing that gets me off more than watching my daughter graduate or standing next to Joe Perry on stage. My children and the band, there’s nothing fucking better than that. Y’know what? Call us a bunch of tarts, call us a bunch of cheap Rolling Stones imitations – we’re still together and we still love to rock. And it all started because I once went to a show and saw Janis Joplin, y’know what I mean? I know what a good song is and I love to fuckin’ shake my ass and it fuckin’ gets people off.”

Has he ever considered writing a follow-up to ‘Walk This Way’? And what would he call it? ‘Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?’ he replies laughing. “And I’m writing it right now. Listen – I gotta go.”

And so he departs. But this time it’s not to some shooting gallery down the lower eastside, but a mission far more important and life-threatening: to drive his kids to school. “If I don’t do this,” Steven Tyler says, “then my life is not worth living…”

© Pete MakowskiClassic Rock, May 2007

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