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Aerosmith, Rock's Longest-Running Dysfunctional Family Sitcom

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In the late Seventies, the band's fondness for their pharmaceutical groovies really did a number on their music. Aerosmith are one of the best arguments for sobriety ever, especially when you listen to some of the bad records they made when the drugs took over — Side Two of Night in the Ruts could scare anyone straight. By all the laws of natural selection, Steven Tyler should have been just another rag tied around Keith Richards' head by now. But fifteen years after getting sober, the just-push-playas have something to prove. This time out, for Aerosmith's first album since their 1996 split with longtime manager Tim Collins, they produced themselves for the first time since the very beginning. Their last two albums, Get a Grip and Nine Lives, were messy affairs that had to be redone from scratch after the corporate higher-ups didn't like the first finished versions. This time, they recorded most of the album in the basement of Perry's South Shore house in Cohasset, Massachusetts, about a half hour outside of Boston. "Joe and I kept asking each other, 'Would you play this for Keith right now?'" Tyler says, laughing. "You gotta use something as a template. Well, there are outtakes from this album I'd play for Keith."

"It was a cathartic thing that happened to us, when we went through that whole period in the Eighties of losing everything," Perry says. "We lost it all, crashed and burned, and without dwelling on the whys and wherefores, it really made us think, 'What's it about?' It's really about five guys getting together to make a band. There are better songwriters out there, and better guitar players and better drummers and better bass players, but when these five guys get together we can play everything from a Diane Warren song to 'Train Kept A-Rollin'.' We made every mistake six times. We fuckin' paid for it all. I left the band, Brad left the band, we fucked up a lot, signed bad contracts, had bad managers, had good managers. But through it all, something kept us together."

Like many recovering addicts, not to mention many Italian gentlemen of a certain age, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry love to tell stories. There's something therapeutic about going over past wounds, but when these two get together, they constantly try to top each other, weaving in and out of each other's sentences. On this Sunday afternoon, in their posh New York hotel room, they have a lot on their minds. Last night, they played a ferocious version of "Big Ten Inch Record" on Saturday Night Live and hit the after-party so Perry's kids — 14 and 20 — could meet Dan Aykroyd. Tonight, they're rehearsing with Kid Rock for their big Rock & Roll Hall of Fame gig on Monday.

One of the amazing things about Tyler is that he really talks that way. He rattles off prose-poem paragraphs that flash past your ears like one-liners, giving more A per Q than any rock star alive, and dancing with coherence until he knocks off one of his trademark Zen-master street proverbs ("We embrace every stone that we've stumbled on"). But Perry, the strong, silent guitar god to Tyler's lippy bitch-prophet, doesn't let himself get outtalked this afternoon. A manic raconteur in his own right, he orders a double espresso and some incense from room service, and he's ready to go a few rounds with Tyler in his unreconstructed South Shore accent. It's a cliché to call them an old married couple, but it's true: They read each other's rhythms expertly, as though each can tell when the other needs to finish and when the other wants to be interrupted.

So how, after all these years, do they keep the home fires burning? "It's very easy," Tyler says. "The worst part of Joe is that he's a fucking asshole. It ends there. And, by the way, no more of one than I've ever doubled him on. So, what's the big deal? How do you hold onto your anger over something he did, when you can play like we did last night?"

"You know," Perry kicks in, "I see some of the other bands who've made great music together, and then they broke up because this one hated that one. When we lost everything and were brought to our knees, we looked around and said, 'Wait a second, this is bullshit. Petty bullshit.' The gift of the band playing together is something you can't deny — it's like laughing in the face of love. Steven and I still have our fights, but we don't take it home anymore. Because I love Steven and I love Tom and I love Brad and I love Joey. We're brothers of choice, you know? And all the rest of it is just bullshit. I don't know why, we're just lucky, and we let that in. We're in the thick of this thing."

Of course, the guys are lucky just to be alive. "I got a chance to ride in the front seat of a roller coaster with Hendrix once," Tyler recalls. "We were both doing poppers. Didn't know him well, but we played the night before together at the Scene. Just to have experienced all that and think that he's dead, and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Because coming up with it — you're getting high to be able to drive from here to Tempe, Arizona, for a few shows, and so you smoke a little pot, and then you hear your record on the radio and you get caught up in the wow-ness of it all, you do a little blow. And some beautiful girl and her girlfriend decide to enjoy each other as they whip out a needle, and so you try shooting coke as you're getting blown."

"We were lucky enough not to kill ourselves when we were in the business of risking our lives with chemicals," Perry says. "I can't tell you how many times it'd get to be six in the morning and I'd think, 'I think I'll go for a drive in my Turbo.' I remember taking Tom Petersson from Cheap Trick, after we'd been up all night, and I was like, 'You gotta take a ride in this car with me, man.' I had one of the first Turbos, 1976; the fuckin' thing was evil. I knew this stretch on the Mass Pike where if you got in the entrance and you didn't see headlights, you knew you had three miles where you wouldn't see a cop, and I'd take it out there — it'd just be ripping. How many people died doing that? It could have been any of us, but thank God it didn't have to happen."

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