Aerosmith: Hard Rock's Down and Dirty Heroes

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Steven Tyler's first brush with celebrity came when he made the front page of his local paper in Yonkers for being busted in a High School Confidential pot raid:

"An undercover nark infiltrated my high school ceramics class, believe it or not. The scumbag sold lids of grass to me and some other kids, then busted us for possession."

Tyler and Joe Perry make their combined struggles sound like a first-person rewrite of Catcher in the Rye as told by "Johnny," the mixed-up-punk-protagonist of their fourth album, Rocks.

Tyler had been living this schitzy existence, going to school in Yonkers all week and commuting on the weekends up to Sunapee, New Hampshire, where he played drums in the house band of a small resort hotel owned by his parents. At the same time he was doubling on drums and vocals – a frustrating combination even for a formidable character like Buddy Miles – in his first rock & roll band, Chain Reaction. Somehow they managed to land a gig in Southampton, playing at this ritzy resort. It was heavy, Tyler claims, "a real Mrs. Robinson scene," with all these rich older women coming on to the band but never delivering because their escorts were always around. . . . Tyler put up with it as long as he could, but he eventually freaked out, leaping over his drum set and attempting to strangle the lead guitarist onstage. They practically had to pry his fingers off the axe-man's jugular as a room full of Southampton matrons gawked in horror.

"Needless to say, that was the end of Chain Reaction," Tyler chuckles fiendishly – remembering that first demonstration of his penchant for onstage dramatics. "I ended up thumbing my way back to Sunapee, where I finally heard this band Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton were in," he says of his first meeting with Aerosmith's lead guitarist and bass player. Perry and Hamilton suggested that he join forces with them and try being a frontman instead of knocking himself out by doubling on vocals and drums. So Tyler called on his old buddy Joey Kramer (who had been kicked out of school with him in that drug raid) and a guy called Ray Tabano, who was replaced by Brad Whitford, the current rhythm guitarist.

Joe Perry also has tales of teenage angst to tell. To begin with, Joe was one of those kids who couldn't get along anywhere: he hated school and had no friends. All he wanted to do, when he was in high school in Massachusetts, was stay in his room and practice on his Sears Silvertone guitar – the kind of instrument your parents buy when they really hope you'll turn out to be a doctor or a lawyer instead of a rock & roller.

Perry's parents were worried about him – he didn't seem to be going anywhere – so they tried to salvage his future by sticking him in a snooty prep school. ". . . That's where I really learned to hate the system, 'cause the faculty was always hassling me to cut my hair and yelling every time I picked up my guitar."

Joe Perry is a very self-aware, second-generation rock & roll star, an archetypical, darkly glowering lead guitarist. Very cool, doesn't say much. But they still kid him about his recent "dude phase." They say he acted like a typical white punk on dope let loose in Gucci's. . . .

Perry dropped out of prep school a month before graduation, got a job and saved enough bread to buy his first halfway decent guitar. The only semiprofessional musician in either family is Tyler's father, who teaches music at Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, the school Tyler and Kramer had been expelled from. The elder Tyler still plays piano in the house band at his resort hotel on weekends.

But the sleepy burg of Sunapee was no place to launch a rock & roll career, so after Aerosmith was formed, they moved to Boston, the nearest big city. "We all lived together in this basement dump and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and supper. . . ."

Aerosmith's bass player, Tom Hamilton, shakes his lanky blond rock & roll hair, chuckling at the memory. "Man, we played every damned high-school auditorium in Boston and New Hampshire," he recalls. "We'd set up and play for 50 people, anybody who'd listen. That's why it has to be a kick to play a place like that stadium tonight – 85,000 fuckin' people!"

The whole band has to laugh when they remember how they thought they had it made after Clive Davis signed them. "We thought: 'This is it – signed by Clive! Aerosmith has arrived!"' Steven Tyler remembers, miming wide-eyed wonder, but looking more like a startled racoon.

The grueling reality of touring constantly after being signed by Columbia is best expressed in Tyler's line, "I ain't seen daylight since I started this band."

Everyone who's been around Aerosmith will tell you that Tyler is the tough taskmaster who drives the band. They say he drove poor Joey Kramer bananas in the beginning. Joey was lazy, Steven thought, and so he kept bitching until Kramer, who has always been easygoing, finally gave in and became a very respectable drummer of the ashcan school. The others settled down too. Joe Perry, Brad Whitford and Tom Hamilton all got married. Hamilton has always been laid back – always the shy, lanky kid, just playing his bass.

But there's nothing laid back about Tyler, who will tell you that he might like to get married someday, but that his main old lady, for the moment at least, is that bitch called rock & roll. Well – Julia Holcomb is always nearby, trailing in her wistfully towering way off his arm like a scarf – but Steven Tyler is wedded to his career and image 24 hours a day.

There is something almost sad about the way he can't seem to crawl out of his skin – how the bitch won't seem to let go for a minute. Most rock star types, after the initial buzz of fame wears off, become rather retiring individuals. But Tyler's fantasies follow him right out in public: whisking into an airport lounge in a floppy black cavalier hat, a long leather coat thrown over the same cockamamie haberdashery he flaunts onstage – and, of course, a pair of shades just in case you don't notice that this is someone famous who is trying not to be noticed. . . .

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