Aerosmith Still Walk It Their Own Way

STEVE AND JOE are sitting around just like two of the boys, sprawled across the cushioned seats of a Warner Bros, conference room and distractedly watching MTV. Occasionally, some particularly clever turn of a visual phrase catches their eyes, but most of the time, the channel is simply background noise to their planning and joking.

Altogether, it’s not an extraordinary sight, except that… Steve Tyler and Joe Perry are about the last two people you’d imagine wanting to share the same space. It wasn’t, after all, that long ago that the self-styled Mick and Keith of Boston’s hypersonic Aerosmith loudly, clearly, angrily and publicly parted company.

Yet here they are, the guitar slinger head to toe in his trademark black, and the microphone twirler clad in the jewelry, silks and intricate embroidery which have been unchanging hallmarks of his personal style. Friends again, bandmates again, collaborators again, partners in a newly-charged and revitalized Aerosmith — ready to reclaim their domain from recent usurpers like Ratt and Mötley Crüe with their first all-original-member album in almost seven years, Done With Mirrors. It’s an easy temptation to view a band known for its notorious excesses as doomed to a pathetic slide, ending in terminal dissolution. And, considering their unhelpful personnel changes and absence from the recording scene in the last few years, Aerosmith makes a top ten target. Which is why the sight of Tyler and Perry looking lean but not anorectic, their skin color the normal rock ‘n’ roll pale hue instead of unhealthy ashy white, is such a pleasant surprise. Whatever problems the group became plagued with following their massive breakthrough in the mid-1970s, they obviously weren’t insurmountable. Tyler’s memory is remarkably sharp; he recalls our last conversation, even though that happened back in 1976. And both Tyler and Perry act surprisingly candid about Aerosmith’s lost years. Maybe that’s what a reunion can do for you.

Just as Joe Perry’s stinging guitar leads complement Tyler’s snarling, pouty vocals, each of the duo picks up on the other’s lines and neatly finishes them. They seem just like an old married couple, I joke, to which Joe elaborates, “like a couple of ex-junkies… or brothers. Like when Brad (Whitford) and I play, we don’t even plan on who’s going to play the leads. It’s a nod and a wink and that’s all. And that’s where the spontaneity comes from.” At more than one concert in the band’s long history, it’s also been where the chaos came from. Aerosmith, whose melodic yet explosive hits — ‘Toys In The Attic’, ‘Draw The Line’, ‘Same Old Song And Dance’, and especially the exquisite ‘Dream On’ — erupted flawlessly on disc, weren’t always in control performing them live. In fact, the band acquired a reputation for being erratic.

Admitting that in addition to the wild nights and the drugs, he used to drink a 12-oz. glass of Jack Daniels before hitting the stage, Tyler confides, “It gets the best of you. After a while, it became a way of life. And it happened, out of 4,000 shows that we did, there were maybe three times when I actually fell off the stage.”

“We’ve cleaned up our act,” Joe points out, “but if I trip over an amplifier cord or something like that and I’m bone straight, people are still going to think that… I may have been up all night playing hide the salami with my old lady and had no sleep, but people are going to think we’re back on whatever, and that’s not the case. But it’s like anything else — once you’re tagged, people are going to say whatever they want.”

“And we really don’t give a shit anymore,” Tyler concludes. So few of the 1970s superstar bands who fell upon hard times have successfully reunited, all members intact, and gone on to achieve new rewards, that Aerosmith’s recounting of their indulgences provides a valid retrospective upon what went wrong. (Mötley Crüe, please note, and save yourselves a ton of grief.) Says Tyler, “One of the reasons the band broke up was that we were constantly on the road. We were literally somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. It’s not normal, and you tend to overindulge and abuse. I got really intimidated by it, so I did drugs for so damn long that I had to go to a place to learn how not to do them.

“We did a concert in Boston against drunk driving. The mayor asked us to do it and we said, ‘Sure, what the hell.’ We were sick and tired of it. It really hurts to see, right after an Aerosmith concert, you get in the limousine and you buzz through the crowd and there’s this jam up, some cars smashed, some kids drunk and fucked up, and there’s ambulances all over the place. So we went for it. We said, ‘We want you alive in ’85. Just don’t drink while you drive, find a friend to drive you home.’ And then that went into a big yaya about how Aerosmith is now straight, are walking the straight and narrow.

“But I’ll tell you,” Tyler leans in and declares, “we still do a lot of hard partying. But there’s a time and a place for it.”

“And the thing is,” adds Perry, “we get so much revitalization from just playing together. The audience is there, but we’re having such a good time that that’s what counts. We’re all playing better, he’s singing better (he eyes Steve), it’s been fantastic, and then the audience picks up on it. You see kids out there and they’ll absolutely lose their minds. As far as whether we sell out or not, it doesn’t matter so much. It matters that you can get the audience off.”

Aerosmith’s newly recharged batteries and the rediscovered companionship of its leaders have taken the band back to its original goals, but with added wisdom from experience and growth. Founded in 1970 in New Hampshire with Tyler, Perry and bassist Tom Hamilton as its nucleus, by the end of that year, Brad Whitford and drummer Joey Kramer had completed the Aerosmith lineup, and the group had relocated to Boston, which they still call home. After almost two years of building up a local following, the band gained major management company representation and a deal with Columbia Records. By the time another year had passed, Aerosmith were underground favorites, thanks to the hypnotic ‘Dream On’, as well as their (rarely denied) stage attitude that meticulously emulated the Rolling Stones, right down to discussions of just how blubbery Tyler’s lips were, compared to Mick Jagger’s. There began a nonstop regime of touring that carried on through 1978, when the killing pace and road temptations weakened the band, and cracked open a wedge between Tyler and Perry that climaxed in Joe’s departure late in 1979.

Without his alter ego, Tyler valiantly kept Aerosmith going — in defiance of lessened sales and a motorcycle accident that left him racked up for most of 1981. Brad Whitford also quit the band, and eventually he teamed up with Joe Perry, whose own group, the Joe Perry Project, was not exactly burning up the charts. Meanwhile, other, newer hard rocking upstarts had adopted several of Aerosmith’s trappings — Tyler’s scarves of many colors draped all over himself and the microphone, for instance — for themselves, leaving the originators with much-contested ground to regain. But by 1984, Perry and Bradford showed up at a Boston Aerosmith show, and started laying the groundwork for a reunion. Even without an LP to support them, and without any videos to tempt the MTV generation, Aerosmith’s Back In The Saddle tour did reasonably well and won the group an unexpected bonus of critical praise.

Happy with their new label, Geffen Records, and new, Boston-based management company, Aerosmith are justifiably proud of Done With Mirrors, which was released in late 1985, shortly before the group commenced yet another bone-breaking world tour — this time, though, with breaks that allow them to catch their breath and keep their sanity. In a gesture signifying the goodwill between Tyler and Perry, the album’s first single was a remake of Joe’s signature tune, ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’. Both Tyler and Perry plainly admit their relief that the long separation is finally over.

“I had gotten my rocks off,” says Joe. “I’ve always considered myself a songwriter and a guitar player, and I had a lot of stuff that I wanted to get off my chest, and I really enjoyed being the boss of my own project. But, as you can probably see by the turnover of members in my bands, there was a lot of talent, but the personalities didn’t click. And the last Project was more a get-along-with-the-guys than the talent. So that’s when I broke the Project up and I figured I’d try doing a little journeyman work — write with this one, work with that one, play on this one’s album. In fact, I started to work with Alice Cooper, but that the same time, the calls (between Joe and Steve) were more frequent. Like, the blood was drying.

“In that third year, we talked and said, maybe we should get back together, maybe you should come down and play on the record. Finally, I came and saw Aerosmith as it was, with the other two guys in it, and they came and saw my band. Steven and I were getting closer. And I had done some sessions for some local bands, but it just didn’t feel right. It’s like being one of the head honchos in a gang that can fight really well, but you just don’t fit. There’s a lot of body language. You’ve gotta look over your shoulder and know that your backup is there. Or if you’re fucking up, if you’re not carrying it, the other guy’s going to be there for you. It was sort of magical.”

Once the details were sorted out, Aerosmith was free to do what they did best — give the kind of kick-in-the-pants rock ‘n’ roll show that lets you know you’ve seen something, and it was LOUD and it was FAST and it was exhilarating.

© Toby GoldsteinCreem, June 1986

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