Aerosmith: Hard Rock's Down and Dirty Heroes

The latest band in heavy metal rock has a flair for getting loud and lewd, with an audience to match

steven tyler aerosmith 220
Annie Leibovitz
Steven Tyler of Aerosmith on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
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 It was almost like one of Cecil B. DeMille's great crowd scenes or footage from some rock festival film like Woodstock or Monterey Pop. They came staggering across the parking lot in the still, brackish Michigan dusk and advanced on Pontiac Stadium – one of those monstrous modern sports arenas – like a boozy army of hard hats whose intention it was to dismantle the place. They looked like hell. Nobody dresses up for concerts anymore.

They gobbled reds and chug-a-lugged beer. Some fell on their faces and tumbled down the hill. The oldest among them could not have been much more than 18 years old, but there wasn't an illusion left in the crowd. You had to get close enough to see the reds of their eyes to realize that this was a generation whose rock & roll rituals had been raised up out of the ashes of Altamont rather than the bright muck of Woodstock.

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Aerosmith

Steven Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith, looks like Carly Simon's kid sister and carries himself the way the pope probably would if he were 24 years old and had grown up in Yonkers. Onstage, he becomes the most Beardsleyesque character on either side of the Atlantic today. He has a voice that makes Alice Cooper sound like Vic Damone.

Tyler has a fetish for scarves. They trail from his nubile form like unraveled mummy wrappings and from the microphone stand that he flails like a staff as he prowls about the stage, bawling and spitting like an irritable enfant terrible. The total effect is a caricature of a caricature, but Aerosmith's legions eat it up and regard Tyler's fashions the ultimate in déclassé dishabille. And while the costumery is clearly his own, he owes the best part of his image to Mick Jagger.

"I can remember a few years ago when I was just another kid from Yonkers going to Madison Square Garden to see the Stones and looking down and saying, 'Wow, man, is that tiny little figure ... all the way down there ... really Mick ... Jagger?"' Tyler says this with an ingenuousness which remains in the cheap seats. Yet Aerosmith's fame is already such that countless other kids must gaze down from those same bleachers of the faithful, dreaming, of Steven Tyler ...

In order to see this top new heavy-metal group in their natural element, I had been told I'd have to travel out into the industrial areas surrounding the fabled Motor City, where rock & roll animals, whose fathers labor on assembly lines, have been known to eat opening acts for an appetizer. Aerosmith began to gather their constituency in tank towns like Pontiac while playing second bill to bigger bands. But now that they've sold more than 4 million records, they're headlining in all the large halls from coast to coast.

David Krebs, one of their managers, readily admits that he built Aerosmith's word-of-mouth reputation by seeing to it that they invariably opened for headliners suffering from tired blood – bands that would be sitting ducks for the sucker punch of Aerosmith's youthful energy. "The first time I let this band out of the box I got burned," says the swarthy, perennially smirking Krebs. "I let my booking agent talk me into having them open for the Mahavishnu Orchestra – which, on a scale from zero to a hundred, turned out to be a definite minus. But we learned to play our market so that Aerosmith opened for acts that were slightly on the downslide – bands whose audience we could cop. Even if we didn't blow them off the stage every time, we could at least count on some to buy an Aerosmith album."

Aerosmith was relatively unknown beyond a small cult following in Boston when Clive Davis signed them to a contract with Columbia Records in 1972 after attending their second gig at New York's notorious watering hole, Max's Kansas City. Their first LP, Aerosmith, released the following year, wasn't any great chartbuster (although nine months later the single, "Dream On," became a hit in Boston and among the Max's crowd, and a national hit almost three years after that). Get Your Wings, their second album, didn't do much better. By 1974, as a result of a year of solid touring, the group achieved broad success. Without the aid of even their record company, the third Aerosmith album, Toys in the Attic, took off for the platinum plateau, dragging the other two along as well. By the end of 1975, the group had sold nearly 3 million albums; the release of Rocks this spring pushed their total sales close to 5 million. The Aerosmith catalog now sells between 75,000 and 100,000 units per week; Toys in the Attic is over 1.5 million, Rocks and Aerosmith are closing in.

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Rocks

Aerosmith has become the powerhouse act Krebs and his partner, Steve Leber, had attempted to create a couple years earlier with another cult band, the New York Dolls. The Dolls were also a second-generation caricature of the Rolling Stones, whose lead singer, David Johansen, was as smitten with Jagger as Tyler. But the Dolls never managed to reach beyond their audience of New York glitter tots. Krebs, who had had high hopes for the Dolls, claims his mistake was allowing them to be overhyped – Krebs second-guesses another reason why Aerosmith succeeded where the Dolls had failed:

"The Dolls made the mistake of getting too heavy into the unisex trip, while Aerosmith had the good sense to go in the direction of the Rolling Stones of the Seventies, which is more difficult to pin down."

Considering that David Krebs built this band in the arena rather than through press hype or radio airplay, it's possible he's having second thoughts tonight. From the press box, he looks like a young Count Dracula gazing down on an army of potential heretics and a billboard-size electronic scoreboard flashing Foghat Loves Pontiac in grateful response to the thunder pounding up from below. But, vowing to be more selective in choosing Aerosmith's opening acts (lest his Trojan horse strategy of using second billing backfire the next time some off-the-wall contenders like Foghat have a good night), for the moment at least, Krebs need not fret. The ovation for Foghat seems nothing more than the tribute afforded a good club fight compared to the thunder that's beginning to build before the crowd even suspects the headliners are onstage.

Meanwhile, behind the big black curtain, guitarist Joe Perry, toking a last-minute cigarette, plugs in his guitar like a greasemonkey getting ready to tune a hot carburetor and Steve Tyler limbers up like an acrobat in black pajamas. It's pandemonium out there – you'd think Muhammad Ali (who may now be our last yardstick of superstardom) had started his long stately walk from the dressing room to the ring. . . .

When Aerosmith's set finally begins with "Mama Kin," a hard rocker from their first album, it's almost immediately apparent that the predictably criminal acoustics of the oversized hall hardly matter. The faithful, at least, seem wholly satisfied with watching the tiny firefly figure of Steven he's-even-cuter-when-he's-mad Tyler point an accusing finger and damn the dumb technology of the adult world, screaming, "Wot's wrong with the fuckin' P.A.?"

Tyler throws a very impressive temper tantrum in an accent that vacillates between Yonkers and Liverpool. Perhaps it reminds them of Jagger – the debt to Stones-style rock is especially apparent during "Train Kept a Rollin'," a tune picked up from the Yardbirds, the very band that replaced the Stones at the Crawdaddy Club back in '63.

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Steven Tyler

It's brain-damage music, all right. Yet the stoned audience reacts with a passion that surpasses the reverence shown the lordly Stones. . . . For, if Jagger is an icon one step removed from Elvis and just two jumps from Jesus, Steve Tyler is infinitely more accessible, performing an anthem called "Lord of the Thighs" – a title whose allusion to William Golding's chilling parable about children who revert to heathenism suddenly seems perceptive, gazing out at the hungry faces of Aerosmith's children straining up at the stage. In terms of rock rabble-rousing, it's a moment worthy of early Alice Cooper.

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. . . .

"It still excites me to think about headlining Madison Square Garden," Tyler says, anticipating the next date on this 58-city tour. "I mean, there's still something special – still a magic about that place. We actually did play there last year, but that was when we were still the opening act for Black Sabbath. . . . Wait till you see us at the Garden. Then you'll see what we're really about."

Neal Smith still has streamers of blond hair down to his bony elbows and stands seven feet off the sidewalk in his stacked heels; Mike Bruce, with his Roll-over-Beethoven mane and the build of a varsity quarterback, would be almost as hard to miss – yet no one at the backstage door seems to recognize Alice Cooper's former drummer and rhythm guitarist as the old security guard scans the guest list like W.C. Fields playing a house dick, making sure these two freaks are legit. When they finally get backstage and Smith tries to cop a beer out of Aerosmith's dressing room he is politely told that he will have to drink in the "courtesy room." Like Rodney Dangerfield, former rock & roll stars just don't get no respect.

"Everybody get back and give the boys plenty-a room," bellows Aerosmith's tour director, a burly Irishman called Kelly who looks like Jimmy Breslin in a Beatle wig.

The procession that follows can only be compared in terms of pomp and lordly chutzpah to certain papal displays. First to emerge from the dressing room are Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, the grave greasemonkey guitarists, toting their instruments like carbines; then, boyishly befuddled Tom Hamilton, followed by Joey Kramer, the stocky sweathog drummer, jauntily clicking his sticks in a "V" for victory like some amiable "Fonz" of a gang fighter.

But, as usual, the whole point of this display is Steven Tyler bringing up the rear, a little ragamuffin dressed up for some school pageant, complete with cape and plumed musketeer hat and the fair maiden Julia on his arm.

After you've witnessed the procession from the dressing room to the stage, the show seems almost anticlimactic.

Onstage, Joe Perry bends over his axe in the hernia posture of heavy-metal guitarists everywhere, sending out shrill electric shivers to the faithful while Tyler plays to the bleachers of their premature depravity and humps Tom Hamilton. The Veronica Lake bass player gives him a look like he wants to hit him with his pocketbook.

As the set progresses Tyler begins to remind me of a kid I once saw wreaking incredible havoc in a crowded department store. He couldn't have weighed more than 90 pounds, but he fought off two burly managers and a store detective when they tried to nab him for shoplifting a Led Zeppelin album in the record department. He led them on a wild chase – screaming like a banshee and knocking merchandise off counters – take that Burt Bacharach! – as they chased him down the aisles. You had to root for that kid if you have any life left in you at all. . . .

"Like it or not, I have to hand it to your boy," I finally admit to David Krebs, who is watching from the wings like a proud papa, looking a lot happier than he did two nights ago in Michigan. "He's the mutant bastard offspring of Jagger and Iggy Stooge."

"Only he's better than both of them," smirks Krebs with the graceless overconfidence of a man who doesn't yet know he would be lucky to be only half right.

When I ask Neal Smith what his opinion is, he stares out into the audience for a long time. They must look a lot younger to him than they did a mere two years and a whole rock & roll lifetime ago when Alice's "Billion Dollar Babies" tour sold out this same hall.

"Well . . . they're . . . different," Smith admits with more than a trace of sour grapes and maybe just an inkling of the deflating realization that he may already be on the wrong side of the solid-platinum generation gap.

Onstage, they'd come across like mutant apparitions, but now they look more like a high school basketball team celebrating a big victory as relatives from Yonkers and Sunapee swarm the fluorescent dressing room. Tom Hamilton is blushing as buxom ladies plant sloppy kisses on his cheeks, while men in leisure suits line up to shake Steve Tyler's hand.

Meanwhile, one nice lady is introducing herself to perfect strangers with, "Hi, I'm Mrs. Kramer. Do you know my son Joey. . . the drummer?"

Several days later David Krebs lays a startling piece of information on me, and I finally begin to get an inkling of what Aerosmith is really about: "This is the last big tour. After this one there won't be much more touring."

The news is surprising, to say the least, considering that this is a band that is just starting to make it big.

"Correction," says Krebs, "they're already big, and they just don't need to kill themselves anymore. . . . So, next year, their touring is going to be severely limited – so they can concentrate on putting out product."

That's when it finally begins to dawn on me that this is what they used to call a Horatio Alger story.

Only, with improved retirement benefits.

This is story is from the August 26, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 220: August 26, 1976
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