Aerosmith: This Way to Insanity

“WHEN THE moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” A rich and fruity baritone croons impressively from room 523 of the sumptuous Virginia Beach Resort Hotel on the sun-kissed, West Atlantic shoreline, as the squawk of walkie-talkies on the implausibly meaty hips of countless body guards clamour in indecipherable accompaniment. When suddenly, the door bursts open to reveal a startling vision of pure, unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll.

Whip-lean, junkyard dog sinews draped in ragged denim sweep majestically into the corridor, as the quintessentially Italian serenade continues to issue forth from the expansively luscious lips that launched a thousand toxic trips. But this time the lyrics are craftily adjusted to reflect their licentious interpreter’s singularly libertine personality; “If it’s long and it’s thin and you don’t know where it’s been, that’s amore.”
Oh yes, Steven Tyler may now be clean of body, but his mind remains unrepentantly filthy.

*

A LITTLE later and Aerosmith’s flamboyant vocalist, remarkable Nureyev features framed by extensive tresses and partially hidden behind lilac-tinted shades, is picking at a sumptuous salmon repast alongside his astonishingly ageless long-time partner in skulduggery, Joe Perry. Perry is the stolid rock to Tyler’s rambunctious roll, a slight figure that the passing years have honed into the ultimate embodiment of string-driven dandy swagger.

Back in the late ‘70s when Aerosmith came to epitomise every single aspect of rock excess – steeping themselves in rivers of bourbon, regularly inhaling Colombia’s gross national product at a single sitting and carelessly chasing, catching and, ultimately, eating a veritable swarm of dragons – Tyler and Perry became notoriously known as The Toxic Twins. And as their chemical intake increased to almost biblical proportions, Aerosmith’s money-spinning muse accordingly faltered, and by the mid-eighties it seemed that the band were tragically doomed to an imminent drug-induced self-destruction.
Miraculously, however, the mighty Aerosmith proved themselves way too tough to die. In 1986 they immersed themselves in detox, and confounded all their critics by emerging from their ordeal fresh, revitalised and stronger than ever. Their last album, ’97’s Nine Lives, was arguably their finest yet, and earlier this year they enjoyed their first US number one hit single with ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, an enormous power ballad taken from the sound-track of the blockbusting Armageddon movie, which coincidentally starred Steven Tyler’s eldest daughter, Liv.

But after years of honing themselves into one of the most incendiary rock bands on the planet, isn’t it frustrating for them to see ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, not only a ballad, but a song which was written for them by celebrated MOR tunesmith Dianne Warren, finally rocket their sales through the roof? Wouldn’t they have preferred to have made number one with something a little more hardcore?

“Well, we’d prefer that,” admits Joe, “But it isn’t how the world works. CHR radio aren’t gonna play anything that even remotely hints at having guitar on it. That’s just how it is. I would love to have it be that ‘Nine Lives’ was the big single that went to number one, but it never could have been. Even back in the ‘70s, ‘Dream On’ was the hook that got people in.”

“You know what it’s about?” asks Steven. “Radio is about cherry flavour. You lay out sixteen different flavours and what are most of the people going to grab first? Cherry. Not chocolate, cherry. So that’s what music’s like. Really there’s only a few flavours that work for all the people. Hence, in comes the programme director, and the ‘duh’ factor goes up 6,000%, they want to find something that’s palatable for all the people.

“But, as for ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’; “I could lie awake just to watch you sleep”, I mean how much in love with someone do you have to be to do that? But she nailed it. That’s one of the most precious opening lines of any song I’ve ever heard. And with a movie behind it, that’s like the Titanic coming into shore riding a five hundred-foot tidal wave. So, you’ll notice today that it’s the programme directors that are selling the music. Radio 1 wouldn’t play Aerosmith for fuck all. And why not? Because the programme director didn’t think we were relevant. In LA, a couple of CHR stations wouldn’t play us. I called them my fucking self I got so pissed: ‘What’s up?’ ‘Well, with all due respects, you are a rock band’. ‘Oh, so Aerosmith means a rock band to you?’ ‘Yeah, that’s exactly right.’ ‘So I said “Explain ‘Janie’s Got A Gun’, explain ‘Cryin”, explain ‘Angel’ and explain ‘Dream On’.’ Because some of the pride that’s in Aerosmith has always come from the fact that we can write songs that are so different, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’re around. There’s something for everyone.”

“It’s also been hard for us, because you can’t pigeonhole us.” continues Joe, “I’ve been to record stores and we’re in the heavy metal category, and I go ‘What the fuck is that?’ That’s such a shortsighted category for a band like us, I mean we’re in there with Sepultura and AC/DC. So I think that it’s hard, cos the business all want to pigeonhole everybody so they can figure out where things can go. Or, like with Geffen (who the band left in ’96 to re-sign to Columbia), they said ‘Your kind of music is over. So you can have your old deal or you can do whatever you want. We’re onto the next thing. You guys are over. Your genre is over’ And actually if there were real music people over there instead of bean counters, they would have gone, ‘Wow, these guys really give a shit. They work hard at it.’ We absorb what’s going on around us, we stay close to our roots, but we’re always shifting. We cover other people’s songs, we work with outside songwriters, and for them to sit there and say ‘Your kind of music is over’ was such a disservice. It’s been hard for us from that point of view, but it’s also been our strength. We come from the school where if you knock us we just get up and push back.”

You still seem to be intensifying your craft; Nine Lives is perhaps the hardest song you’ve ever written, and ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ one of your most emotional ballads.

“Well we’re just getting close to it,” Joe replies, “I love AC/DC and I’d love nothing better than to play some AC/DC songs, but I also know we can write that kind of stuff. That was the inspiration for the song ‘Nine Lives’, we went to see AC/DC and came straight back and wrote ‘Nine Lives’, and we’ll keep doing that. That’s what I mean when I say that we absorb stuff. We’re not like some old band who say ‘This is how it’s gotta be. It’s always gotta sound like it was recorded in 1960, and I only play through Marshalls with Gibsons’. And that’s why we keep going.”

*

AEROSMITH ARE about to release a double live album, A Little South Of Sanity, recorded at venues throughout the world during their Get A Grip and Nine Lives tours. Consequently, the promotion machine is at full throttle and Steven is more than a little tired of deconstructing what he sees as little more than a time-marking snapshot of the band’s live show:

“It’s a live album, you know. How good can it be? Especially when we had little to nothing to do with it other than play. We didn’t really touch it up at all. It’ll be great for me when I’m 60 to listen back to it, just as I do with Live Bootleg, and it’s great for the kids that come to see us, but they should really only be sold at the gig. In fifteen years from now, when they have machines that’ll be able to print up 500 CDs, ten minutes after the show, you’ll be able to stick around and buy what you just saw. Now that’ll be relevant.”

A Little South Of Sanity credits Jack Douglas (who produced several of the band’s early albums) as co-producer. So how was it to have the old firm back together again?

“It was really good,” Joe smiles, “It was fun, you see, we both took the same path at different times. He burned out and went through his shit, and it took him a little longer to come back.”

“And we knew that he would,” continues Steven, “Because he burned out the same way we did. I mean, we were tripping on acid doing a lot of those albums, and so was our engineer, and Jack, and so there was a little fear that maybe he’d lost it. I mean we were full-tilt bozo.”

“But when Jack walked in,” picks up Joe, “It was like seeing your brother come back after ten years. In the last three years he’s really got his feet on the ground. So, it was time, and why not?”

*

THE RELATIONSHIP between the erstwhile Toxic Twins has occasionally been fraught with hostility. In fact it could be suggested that they’ve had their ups and downs.

“Well, I really didn’t like downs.” smirks Tyler.

“I loved downs.” Perry laughs.

“And then I got into downs and left the ups, dahling,” chirrups his labially-encumbered foil in a quite ludicrous English accent, “Peter Grant used to do these great ups… Oh, I’m sorry, what were you saying?”

What’s the worst fight you’ve ever had?

“Between 1977 and 1979,” chortles Joe through a mouthful of seafood, “You know the worst times were when we weren’t talking. That was the extent of it. We’re not like you English guys who get drunk and just start swinging. I think we know that if we ever did that we’d either kill ourselves or it would just be over. We did throw a lot of furniture at each other though.”

“We got in each others faces,” says Steven, “But we never came to blows. I guess, because I’m Italian, and he’s got Italian in him.”

“It’s like there’s a line there that we just didn’t cross,” agrees Joe, “Cos we both came from families, at least I did, where some of that was around, and I just wouldn’t go that way. Maybe it’s just a respect thing. We certainly went head to head on a lot of occasions and didn’t speak. Shit would fly around the room, and he would leave, and it’d be like bull gorillas smashing the shit out of each other, I guess. But you know, like I said, those were the roughest years, 77-79.”

Do you think that it was the chemicals that were making it happen?

“I think they definitely added to it,” Joe admits, “I mean, we were naive in a lot of ways about what we were in the middle of, and the chemicals kept it that way and made it worse. I think the drugs kept us isolated and we had people around us who were constantly feeding it. You know, whether it’s managers or wives or whatever, they all had something to gain from the feuding. Whether it’s control on the part of a manager or reflected glory for the wives. So, we all bought into it, and mostly it was our fault for letting it happen, but we were basically swept up into it.”

You’re almost polar opposites as characters, do you mix socially when you’re not working?

“All the time,” says Joe, “When we found out the single was number one in the States we were up in Steven’s field shooting off guns, up in New Hampshire, blowing shit up. We’re in two different orbits, but our orbits come together in a lot of the right places. Probably most of them in the woods.”

*

RUMOURS ARE rife that plans are afoot to turn Aerosmith’s eye-poppingly confessional autobiography Walk This Way into a movie. So is it true that this catalogue of serial over-indulgence and warts-and-all anecdotage is bound for the silver screen?

“Well, we’ve heard rumours, but I don’t know of anybody who’s actually come up with a budget,” Joe smiles, “I dunno, maybe Aerosmith is too much of a work-in-progress right now, the book was just another episode in our series as opposed to looking back on a band that was around 20 years ago, like the Doors. I mean, we’re still alive and hopefully we’re still in the wind. We’ve heard a few people talking about it but I don’t know if it’s timely.”

Writing Walk This Way must have been something of an emotionally purging experience. Was there anything you didn’t put in, something that you really felt was way too personal to share?

“Are you honestly expecting us to share it with you now?” screams Tyler, “Are you crazy! The next book, pal. We’re gonna keep the real glamour for that.”

Steven Tyler has something of a reputation for being fearlessly loose-lipped, so what’s the worst trouble he’s ever spoken himself into?

“‘Your string’s hanging.'” shudders Joe, “I remember that, you almost got us all killed.”

“We were onstage at this bucket-of-blood Boston biker bar,” begins Steven, “and this woman walked across the dance floor and went like that (makes profoundly obscene gesture) and I just said ‘Hey, your string is hanging’ like referring to the monthly dental floss.”

“So, later when we were up in the dressing room,” continues Joe, “Our crew said ‘listen, those guys are lined up outside, and they’re gonna kill you.’ All the bikers, I don’t remember if it was the Devil’s Disciples, but one of those local, motorcycle death-dealing gangs, that we were so famous for in that part of town, and it was the leader’s girlfriend that Steven had insulted.”

“A menstrual cycle gang.” giggles Tyler with characteristic glee.

“So we had to have the police come down,” says Joe, “Cos this was a place where people periodically got shot. Every band knows what we’re talking about, they all run into those places now and again, but that was one night that really got intense.”

*

STEVEN TYLER is 50 years of age – “I don’t feel it or look it,” he insists, “I’m actually 18 with 32 years’ experience.” – but later that night, as Aerosmith explode onto the stage of the 25,000 capacity Virginia Beach Auditorium, he performs with the raw, seething passion of a man half his age. Six enormous trucks have disgorged a preposterous stage set of Cecil B De Mille proportions and as Joey Kramer lays down a breakneck beat on his revolving drum-riser, Tom Hamilton throttles his bass and Brad Whitford slashes out Herculean power chords, the Toxic Twins heroically kick the living shit out of ‘Nine Lives’. Joe Perry casually redefines cool in a black silk frock coat and Tyler himself, pirouettes wildly and unleashes his fearsome vocal chords from behind his scarf-draped mic-stand. They’re undeniably at the very peak of their form, but for a single momentous day in 1986 their story could have ended in utter tragedy.

Their erstwhile manager, Tim Collins, recognising the all-too apparent danger signs cattle-prodded Steven Tyler into detox, and very probably, saved his life. He’s since left the fold, but Steven still pays tribute to his foresight.

“If it wasn’t for him, we might not have had the comeback that we did, so I’m grateful for that, but in the end we gave him so much control over our lives that he started manipulating us and like I’ve said in the songs, I’d rather go down being wrong than go up being right in your eyes. So now he’s gone, and suddenly I’ve got hobbies. I’m doing things that this guy would have frowned upon, and I would have believed him. I’m seeing a whole new side of Steven coming out, a new friendship with Joe certainly, and the band’s never played better. It’s taken us years to lose our insecurities, reap the rewards of our freedom, and see the benefits of our own doings, both wrong and good. So, fuck it. Life’s great, and I only read that I’m fifty.”

It seems now that you’ve virtually done it all. So where to now?

“Well people asked us that before the summer,” says Joe, “And then all of a sudden we got a number one single, and it had never even dawned on us, nor did we give a shit, that we’d never had a number one single before, but all of a sudden it moves us into this next place. I mean we’ve had songs in movies before, who knew? So if there’s more shit like this coming down, who knows what it’s going to be? I just plan to be here when it does.”

“We’ve got our pilots licences,” says Steven, “We’ve done a movie, we can carry pistols, we’re just a bunch of Buckaroo Banzais. It just proves the difference in our personalities from when we were getting high, because high is what high does, it keeps you lofty so you can’t get down to earth.”

“Whether we’re up in Alaska,” concludes a profoundly contented Joe Perry, “Pulling in 200 lb halibuts off the back of a boat, paragliding in Utah or shooting razor-back hogs down on Ted Nugent’s farm in Florida, there’s always something new. And it’s those things that keep it going for us.”

© Ian FortnamKerrang!, October 1998

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