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Aerosmith, Rock's Longest-Running Dysfunctional Family Sitcom

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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.

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