Boston's bad boys wrote the blueprint for 'Behind the Music,' but theirs might be the happiest ending of all
It's Friday morning on the set of Today, and this morning's guests are Aerosmith. They're here to discuss their role as the elder statesmen of American rock. In just a couple of days, Aerosmith are getting inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame while they're still at the top of their game; indeed, they're going in while they have a new album in the Top Ten, Just Push Play, as well as a hit single, "Jaded," a song that sums up the Aerosmith sound as perfectly as "Start Me Up" summed up the Stones. The boys in the band are running late, so they will never learn that the NBC greenroom is stocked with plenty of their beloved chunky peanut butter. They take their seats in front of Matt Lauer, who, like most Aerosmith interviewers, pumps them for drug stories.
In our age of microscripted interviews and on-message sound bites, the five band members are shockingly and refreshingly unrehearsed. Everybody talks at once, contradicting and interrupting one another. In fact, the band's famously loquacious singer, Steven Tyler, is the last one to get a word in. Most of their verbiage will never make it to the aired version, but there's one striking moment, when drummer Joey Kramer tells Lauer that even in the doped-up years of the early Eighties, when the band's classic lineup had fallen apart due to drugs and depravity, he always knew in his heart of hearts that the band would get back together again, as soon as they were finished getting high. When Lauer moves on to another topic, lead guitarist Joe Perry turns around, leaning his head out of camera range, and asks Kramer, softly but intently, "So how come you never called me up and said that?"
Kramer shrugs. "I was busy getting high."
Aerosmith are American rock & roll's longest-running dysfunctional-family sitcom, a musical Scenes From a Marriage starring five guys stuck together in a strange relationship none of them claims to understand. Their tale has been told and retold many times: fortune, fame, drugs, dissolution and resurrection. Guitarist Brad Whitford even cracks that the band should be getting a percentage for every episode of Behind the Music, since they wrote the story. But they've emerged from Seventies-style drug abuse and Eighties-style corporate bloat with their music intact, not to mention their bodies, and perhaps most surprising, their bond, as five guys who didn't exactly choose to spend their whole lives together but have ended up doing just that; decidedly volatile personalities who fell together without planning to tie the knot for life but created something they all love too much for them to leave one another — or us — alone. "The corporation — I so love and hate it," Tyler says. "The guys in the band, I so love and hate them. Is this what life's about?"
Aerosmith emerged from Boston in the early Seventies, a swirl of lips, ribs, scarves and hair, a greaser gypsy horde that looked like they'd fuck a manhole cover if they thought there was any beer in the sewer. The premise was Zeppelin, Hendrix, the British psychedelic blues bands like Cream and the Yardbirds, but Aerosmith attacked the music with a lean, mangy aggression. Where Zeppelin had Viking lords and Saxon battlefields, Aerosmith came up with their own homegrown mythology: They envisioned American music as one big parking lot from coast to coast, a teen utopia buzzing with the smell of cheap weed and motor oil. They brought the British blues back home, but instead of stripping it down to basics, they revved up the flash and the menace and the danger. In their suburban Seventies milieu, Aerosmith made room for funk and country and old-time swing; except for maybe polka, there's barely a corner of American music they haven't pillaged for a big ten-inch riff or two. The guitars were the toys in the attic; the rhythm section was the rats in the cellar. And in the center ring, Mr. Steven Tyler, the last child, a punk in the streets, the Lord of the Thighs, an androgynous rock changeling whose lips seemed like an overly generous gift from a Greek goddess with a sick sense of humor.
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."
Perry and Tyler produced Just Push Play with longtime associates and songwriters Mark Hudson and Marti Frederiksen, with the four dubbing themselves the Boneyard Boys, taking over the studio in Perry's basement. "My wife loved that thunder coming out of the basement," Perry says. "She's an artist, she's a model, she's a poet, so she loved to hear the creative energy down there. The kids would go to sleep many a night listening to the guitars. My bedroom's on the first floor, right over the studio, so the music just invaded the house. I got a large collection of stringed things downstairs, and we used everything."
"There were no demos," Tyler adds, licking his lips. "Just us staying in the basement and laughing. With a couple of hypotheses, like, 'Let's not get a bag of coke and do it all night so we have the unfinished tapes in the morning. Let's stay in this room and lock ourselves in and not leave until we got a song.'"
Perry breaks in, a little alarmed at the coke reference. "Yeah, but it's been so many years since we've thought of coke, or drinking, as a way to open the door. It's not even, like, an issue."
"It was for the longest time."
"Yeah, it was. I still remember going down to the basement, looking for that one Dilaudid we lost, remember?"
Tyler nods, a bit sheepishly. "Yeah."
Perry turns to me to explain. "Steven said, 'We didn't do it, so we know it's down there.' And I can't tell you how many times I turned that fuckin' basement over, looking for that Dilaudid."
"We did lose it," Tyler mutters, mostly to himself. "We must have crushed it into the floor or the rug or something."
"A Dilaudid is about the size of a Tic Tac," Perry continues. "And it was, like, lost. Gone."
"But we were looking for a feeling," Tyler says, sadly and slowly. "What we realized, I guess, is that feeling was the same all the time. We did it so much, we usually ended up asleep or on our knees or nodded out. And we used to find that feeling in a small pill, and it worked. But after a while, it stops."
In June, Aerosmith will hit the road for at least eighteen months of touring. They're looking forward to cracking new territories, especially in the Pacific Rim: Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand. Between now and then, however, they have to learn the songs from Just Push Play. Such is the Aerosmith way of doing things nowadays that they've worked their asses off making the album piece by piece, but they've yet to play any of the songs all the way through together, except "Jaded." On the studio version, Brad Whitford played three different guitar parts; just a few hours before Saturday Night Live showtime, he's still debating which one to bust out live.
"I'm a couch potato," Whitford admits over lunch. "I'm a homebody." For him, gearing up for another tour gets tougher every time out. Musically, he's always been the heavy one, the guy who wrote metallic apocalypses like "Nobody's Fault" and "Round and Round." He still remembers hanging out with Humble Pie as one of the formative experiences of his life. But as everyone else in the band will tell you, he's the Quiet One. "I'm just the least loudest," he says defensively. "When you're competing with the likes of Steven Tyler ... he can make a lot of people seem quiet, you know? I mean, he is The Mouth. So I don't feel bad when people call me the quiet one. I just think, 'Hey, you try it.'"
Like the other members of the group, Whitford complains freely about the sleaze of the music business. "Guys who ran record companies used to be guys who were really into music," he says. "It's not like that anymore. When our first album came out, it only sold 40,000 copies, but they didn't drop us. Today, you'd be history." Does he ever dream about doing something else? "Yeah, I'd love to do something else," he says. "But I don't, which I guess means I'm not ready to leave this. It's such an incredible sound, and it's so incredible being part of it." He gets really excited describing his extracurricular passion, which is, improbably enough, building, opening and operating European-style indoor go-cart racetracks (he has one in Braintree, Massachusetts, and he's looking to build six to eight more along the Eastern Seaboard). "When I look back on my life, I want to be able to see myself as having had these two great careers — one with a group, and one as an individual." It's definitely strange to hear a rock & roll guitar hero fantasizing about running go-cart tracks instead. But as Whitford himself confesses, he still can't imagine bringing himself to step away from his band, despite the aggravation of touring. "I don't know why the fire's still there," he says, mournfully. "Probably a little bit of insanity."
"I'm happiest when I'm sitting at my drums, seeing those four asses out front," Joey Kramer says. "That's my space." Along with Tom Hamilton and Tyler, Kramer is one of the core members who never left Aerosmith, and everyone credits him with being the most intense about the community within the band. "I have a very strong affection and love for each one of my partners," he says. "I'm not the kind of guy who hems and haws about how he feels. I have a real good, solid relationship with Brad. Tom and I have always gotten along — he's the logic in my life, very forthright and upstanding. My relationship with Joe is one that has grown immensely over the years, especially the past five. Whenever I need a bone-straight answer about something, I go to Joe. Steven's a lot like I am, and we have a very earthbound connection, except we're at opposite ends of the spectrum, because he's in the front and I'm in the back. He knows he's up out front, but he knows he can't be up there without me behind him, and as long as I know that he knows that, that's all that matters to me. I have no secrets from these guys."
Musically, Kramer's role has always been crucial: As he notes proudly, "I bring the funk." Before Aerosmith, he was the "token white-guy drummer" in a Boston R&B band that went on to become soul superstars Tavares, and Aerosmith classics like "Walk This Way" depend on his funky touch. The band tried recording without him only once, and it didn't work. After the 1994 death of his father, Kramer went into a severe depression that lasted more than a year, forcing him to drop out of the sessions for the troubled 1997 album Nine Lives. The band ended up scrapping all the tracks recorded without him. He got through his breakdown with a spiritual experience he's never discussed publicly before. Like his wife, he became a devotee of Sai Baba, "a reincarnated god-man in India," he says. "It's hard to talk about it. I don't even know why I feel comfortable talking about it now. But it made my higher power so tangible, and that really helped me take my power back."
Of course, the religious experience ended up making him even more fanatical about the band. "I'm really into the love thing," Kramer says. "When I relate to my guys in the band, I tell them where it's at, and if I feel like telling somebody that I love them, I do. Steven's one of the few people I can sit and talk with and cry. I really enjoy that brotherhood; it's like being in a gang. But if you're asking me how we stay together, the bottom-line truth is, I don't fucking know. Would I have picked these four guys to go through my whole life with? I don't know. But I'm glad it's them."
"It's kind of a proven formula for a band," Hamilton says with a shrug. "You know, the peacock lead singer Steven and his foil Joe, the smoldering, ultrafocused torpedo, and then the troops who all want a say in everything that's going on." The tall, mellow bassist has a rep as the band's sanest, stablest element, the one with the longest-running marriage and the easiest smile. He's the psychedelic spirit in the band's sound, the man responsible for the ethereal grooves of "Sweet Emotion" and "Sick as a Dog." He's also the diplomat amid all the band's internal chaos. "In my family, I was the same way — I don't want anybody arguing," he says, sighing. "So why am I in this band?"
Hamilton shudders when he recalls the drug-hell days of 1979. "The band fell apart, and I was glad, relieved, because the conflict was not gonna be there any more — not meaning Joe, I'm not blaming Joe, but there was a lot of conflict between Joe and Steven, and a very quiet, unspoken conflict between me and Joe. The problem is, when bands start to make money, they think, 'I don't have to take that asshole's shit anymore,' and there's a good chance their brand-new model girlfriend is telling them the same thing." These days, Hamilton sees the band's dysfunctions holding them together. "I think everybody has those moments where they total up the net-worth statements in their heads," Hamilton says, laughing. "You know, 'If I sold this, if I sold that, I could probably still have a nice car.' But I think it's really important to us, and to the world, that we have this band. Back in 1979, we learned a lot about what we could and couldn't do without each other."
So how do Aerosmith function now on a day-to-day level? "Well, Brad brings a lot of musical ability — he has much more schooling than anybody else in the band," Hamilton notes. "He plays a very observant role. Brad doesn't get in there in the fray, try to push his agenda. He stays on the sidelines, but then he'll make some observations that make the rest of us go, 'Wow.' Joey brings a lot of emotional energy; he has a drive for attachment and bonding with people. Like I said, Joe's a torpedo — when his propellers are on, get out of his way. Steven's like that, too, but he's more of a child, really spontaneous. He says what-ever's on his mind, and sometimes it really hurts." Even when it hurts, though, Hamilton cheerfully admits he's stuck on the experience: "It's the camaraderie, the male-bonding aspect of it," he says. "Going to sea with my pirates."
You got to lose to know how to win," Steven Tyler sang in "Dream On," back before he knew how thoroughly he was destined to redefine the art of losing. Part of Aerosmith's mystique was always the cosmic buzz that Tyler brought to wise-beyond-his-beer-goggles epics like "Dream On," "Seasons of Wither" and "Mama Kin," songs that made him sound like an ancient sage lost in a rock star's body. Tyler believed in the concept of "mama kin" so much he had Ma Kin tattooed onto what on anyone else's arm would be a biceps. "Listen to this one," he commands, flashing his tattoo. "People always ask, 'What's "mama kin"?' It's the mother of everything. It's the desire to write music, the desire to get laid, to go through the relationship with a girl, or whatever it is. Keeping in touch with mama kin means keeping in touch with the old spirits that got you there to begin with."
For Aerosmith, keeping in touch with mama kin mostly means loving music. These are rock stars who've never quit their day jobs as fans. They take their idol worship very, very seriously. Talk to Hamilton about the Byrds, or Kramer about James Brown, and they gush the way their own fans gush about them. The only time Tyler's crackpot smile threatens to turn into a frown is when he mistakenly thinks that I'm saying something dismissive about Jeff Beck. He leans forward and his voice slows down to a crawl, as he begins, "Understand, man, that what Jeff does is all and everything." When I reassure him I'm not knocking Jeff Beck, he smiles, and the sun comes out again.
One thing Aerosmith share is an enthusiasm for the musical language they've developed together. When Tyler sings the hook line of "Jaded," "My my baby blue," it's one of those indelible Aerosmith melodic twists — in fact, it sounds just like the chorus of the 1976 Rocks classic "Lick and a Promise." When I mention this to Tyler and Hamilton in separate conversations, they both claim not to have noticed before, but what really amazes me is that they both have the same instant gut response: Each one starts singing "Lick and a Promise" to himself, with a big, boyish grin all over his face.
"It's amazing how far music will take you if you let it," Tyler chatters in his customary hyperdrive. "But some of the greatest minds behind the greatest music can't get over their egos, and they stop the flow of the music. I meet these people, and I hear them say they hate their last album, or they hate their big song. And I sit there, I swallow, and I don't know what to think. It's like finding out the Star of Bethlehem was a UFO! I start to wobble, because my whole belief system goes down the shitter."
"Like with Jeff Beck," Perry chimes in. "He's one of the few guitarists who's kept pushing the edge — it's like God is talking through him. It would be so great if he would do a record with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood again. But it'll never happen because they're English and they have attitudes and they don't speak to each other. I don't understand it, man."
"Personal shit can stop the flow," Tyler agrees, completing the thought. "But the music is still there. The music still gives you that three minutes on the way to school or on the way to the guillotine. It's still a Rembrandt painting that you can get lost in. The Beatles, the Stones, all the Sufi masters of the past — something like the Stones' 'Goin' Home,' eighteen minutes of that shit. It's a panoramic view of emotion. Allow it to take you somewhere, man."
For Aerosmith, keeping in touch with mama kin also means finding themselves in the strange position of playing to kids as well as to their own generation. "It's funny, I learn so much from my kids," Perry muses. "They're really into music. They love Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine — it was a sad day for them when they heard Zack [de la Rocha] was leaving. But my son got into Zeppelin and the Beatles, and he said, 'Dad, what are some of the other cool bands from then?' So I made him a CD off Napster, with Blodwyn Pig, Moby Grape, Spirit, early Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green — some of these bands who were really big and influential in our lives but have no presence now. You never hear these guys on the classic-rock stations. Man, I hope they find a way to keep Napster running, because that's a great way to dig around in the past." He shakes his head sadly. "I don't know if we would be the same band if we didn't have Blodwyn Pig — and no one's fuckin' heard of Blodwyn Pig!"
By now, the sober and reunited Aerosmith have been around nearly twice as long as the original incarnation, and they've taken one another to new heights this year with their spectacular Super Bowl halftime show, perhaps the only memorable thing to happen in the NFL all season. It was one of those moments that makes you proud to be an American: Aerosmith jamming on "Walk This Way" with 'N Sync, Mary J. Blige, Nelly and, as the Missy Who Was Ready to Play, Britney Spears herself. The guys are proud to have gotten Britney's feet flying up in the air. "To have a negative opinion about that is so myopic, so easy, so musically correct," Tyler says. "The highlight for me was Nelly, the underdog, rapping over a solo I've heard Joe take for thirty years. That was flipped-out throw-down spoken-word shit! It was beautiful!"
"Let me tell you something," Perry adds. "The irony of standing there in the middle of that fuckin' straight corporate America — because football is pretty, you know, Republican — and to have that electric guitar loud and live with Nelly standing next to me, doing his thing, was such a fuckin' triumph. I was going, this is it, man, everything else led up to this."
Tyler's one regret about the Super Bowl? "I wanted Britney to sing the second line, 'You ain't seen nothin' till you're down on the muffin.' But she wasn't having any of it." Yeah, well, dream on, dude. But the Super Bowl show also sums up Aerosmith's mixed feelings about their uneasy pact with the corporate machines. They have the clout to play live for a global TV audience or to top the charts with their Diane Warren-penned movie-soundtrack ballad "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" (a recording they all seem sincerely proud of), but right now they're trying to figure out how much clout they have to say no.
For Perry and Tyler, that process began with making Just Push Play themselves. "This is the first record in a long, long time that I feel like we own," Perry says, in an appropriately cocky mood the morning after the band's triumphant Hall of Fame induction gig. "If it sinks or swims, I'm still proud of it. Nobody's gonna hear this one and say, 'I wish I could hear more of you guys on it.' We made the record. I haven't felt that way for years — after a while, it got so big and corporate, and we just didn't want to go that way anymore."
Last night's performance was a killer: After an eloquent introduction from Kid Rock, the band did one verse of "Jaded" before crunching into an assault on the old chestnut "Train Kept A-Rollin'." On the morning after, Perry reflects a bit on the chemistry that's allowed him to do what even his guitar idols like Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton couldn't do: Keep his band together. "When you put a band together with your buddies, it's all about the vibe, the bond, a common dream. If they're talented as well, that's a bonus, but there's gotta be something there besides being a great musician. A band like Cream were great players, but they weren't like a bunch of guys getting together and saying, 'Let's do this, let's have a band.' That's what Aerosmith is: a bunch of guys having this common dream, and as it goes down the road and everybody discovers their strengths and weaknesses, the one goal is to keep playing Aerosmith music.
"Everybody brings something. Brad's a better guitar player than me. Tom is really nonreactive — if Steven's over here going nuts, and I'm over there going nuts, Tom will sit in the middle and calm us down. Joey, he's the spirit of the band, he's in the middle of everything. If you talk to him about the dark years, he never lost the vision of the band. When we were making the record, he was hanging around, listening, throwing in his two cents." Perry leans forward and pours himself the last of the espresso. "I still remember the first time I heard Steven sing, you know. I heard that voice and thought to myself, 'Whatever I think about him as a guy, whatever personality things rub me the wrong way or the right way, I'll take it.'" He sighs deeply. "I guess whatever we had between us that was bad, it wasn't strong enough to keep that voice out."