Aerosmith's Amazing Road Back

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From the looks of things at this particular FG gig, it's clear that Aerosmith's second generation of fans seems to appreciate the group's efforts. Asked how the band is able to stay on the top of the hard-rock heap after all these years, one fan – a thirteen-year-old wearing opening act Skid Row's Youth Gone Wild T-shirt – offers as good an explanation as any: "They look cool, they sound cool, and they have a fucking excellent name."

No, Virginia, Aerosmith did not name itself after Sinclair Lewis's classic novel Arrowsmith. "No way," says Tyler disapprovingly. "That was just some book that they made you read in high school."

In fact, Joey Kramer – who came up with the name – says that he can't remember where Aerosmith came from. He just recalls sitting in high school, writing the word again and again on his math and biology textbooks, thinking that someday it would be one hell of a cool name for a rock & roll band. (Cooler even than the other, less original name the band considered: Spike Jones.)

The band that would take on Kramer's dream name came together in the town of Sunapee, New Hampshire, during the late Sixties. The young Tyler – who lived in Yonkers, New York, during the school year – spent his summers at Trow-Rico, a resort in Sunapee that his family, the Tallaricos, owned until two years ago.

Talking about his summers there, Tyler conjures up a pastoral, Tom Sawyer-like dreamland. And certainly that's what the place must have seemed like compared with life in Yonkers, of which his memories are decidedly less idyllic. "I was a freak, an ultimate nerd," says Tyler, who recalls getting kicked out of PS 81 for chasing a little girl with a broken light bulb and neighborhood kids boxing his ears at the bus stop, calling him "nigger lips."

Tyler speaks wistfully of stocking Trow-Rico's pond with trout, of jumping in the hayloft and mowing the lawns. Most fondly of all, he recalls the Saturday-night skits that his aunt Phyllis organized for the kids to put on in the recreation hall. "She had me up there doing a pantomime to 'Animal Crackers' and singing, 'There's a Hole in the Bucket, Eliza,'" says Tyler, who attributes most of the inspiration for his career to his aunt and his father, a classical pianist and teacher.

By the time Tyler met the teenage Joe Perry – then working a summer job at a local ice-cream parlor called the Anchorage – Tyler seemed less like a character out of Mark Twain than a full-blown rock star. "Steven would come up to Sunapee with all of his bands, Chain Reaction and the Strangeurs, wearing clothes from Carnaby Street and real long hair," says Perry. "They were loud and obnoxious, behaving like rock stars are supposed to behave – especially when they're in a little town and nobody knows how not-so-big they really are. They'd come into the Anchorage and throw food and shit, and I'd have to clean up after them."

Perry was then playing in the Jam Band along with Tom Hamilton, who also remembers being quite struck by Tyler. "Steven was from New York and had these real professional bands," Hamilton says. "The Strangeurs had even put out a record, for god sakes. So Steven was the real thing. That was the ultimate to us."

Perry eventually invited Tyler to check out a Jam Band gig at a local club called the Barn. "I went, not expecting much," Tyler says. "They got up there and did 'Rattlesnake Shake,' and I said to myself, 'That's it. These guys suck – they can't even tune a guitar – but they have a groove going that's better than any fuck I ever had.' I knew if I could show them a little of what I knew, with the looseness they had, then we'd really have something."

Eventually, the band signed up two more members: Brad Whitford, another New Englander, as Perry's guitar foil (replacing original member Ray Tabano) and Joey Kramer, from Yonkers, who was brought in to man the drums, since Tyler, who also drummed, had decided he wanted to concentrate on singing.

In 1970 the band members moved into a dumpy, roach-ridden apartment on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue for a period that suggests the Monkees on drugs. Hamilton's bedroom doubled as a living room; the future Toxic Twins shared a small room with bunk beds. Most nights, Perry and Tyler would cook up a cheap brown-rice and vegetable concoction for dinner. They got stoned, listened to Jeff Beck's Rough and Ready and Deep Purple's Machine Head nonstop, watched The Three Stooges and charted their rise to the top.

From the beginning, Aerosmith avoided playing clubs. "We always wanted to be a concert group," says Kramer. "We didn't want to be just another band that got stuck in the clubs. We were very ambitious." This meant taking part-time jobs to support the rock & roll habit: Perry worked as a janitor at a Boston synagogue, while Tyler put in time at a bakery. Aerosmith's first gig was playing at Nipmuc Regional High School for a few hundred bucks, and the band's early influences are obvious in the songs it played that night: "Shapes of Things," by the Yardbirds, "Live With Me," by the Stones, and "Cold Turkey," by John Lennon.

Even then, the kids loved it. And even then, there was tension. "Steven and Joe had a big argument that first night about Joe playing too loud," says Hamilton. "And so began an Aerosmith tradition."

"I think we can do something with you."

That's what Clive Davis, then the president of Columbia Records, told Aerosmith backstage at Max's Kansas City two years later. In another few years, the band would be outselling Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan and everybody else on the label.

Since their debut at Nipmuc, the band members had quit their day jobs and kept busy playing high schools and frat parties in the Boston area; they'd also started writing their own material. But financially things were tight, and Aerosmith was running out of places to rehearse. Just when things were looking bleak, Frank Connelly, a successful local promoter, took an interest in the struggling band. Connelly then hooked the band up with managers Dave Krebs and Steve Leber, who in turn got Clive Davis down to Max's to hear the band.

Thus the band signed with Columbia. More precisely, the band was signed to Leber-Krebs, which struck a deal with Columbia – a situation that would work out quite profitably for the managers. The band's first album, 1973's Aerosmith, included "Mamma Kin" – a tune that Tyler thought was such a classic that he had its title tattooed on his right arm – and "Dream On," which eventually became a hit when it was re-released in 1976.

When the album didn't take off, the band hit the road to stir up interest; in an utter mismatch, Aerosmith was sent out as the opening act for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. "John McLaughlin and the band would meditate before they started playing," says Tom Hamilton. "And as you might imagine, we weren't really into meditating. We'd already found our own ways to meditate, chemically."

In 1973 the band released its second effort, Get Your Wings, and continued to earn its own on the road. "We must have played Ohio a thousand times, touring in a station wagon," says Perry. "Being on the road definitely broke Aerosmith," says former manager David Krebs. "It certainly wasn't radio. And it sure as hell wasn't the press."

All the reviews dismissing Aerosmith as second-string Stones stung the band. "I hated it," Tyler says. "It sucked. It rubbed me the wrong way. You wanna know why? Because it was true." He stops to laugh and clap his hands. "I loved the fucking Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger was the baddest boy on the block, second to Keith. The Rolling Stones were everything."

But, Perry points out, the comparisons were more justified physically than musically. "We weren't going to change what we looked like for the press," he says. "Our team worked. It just so happened that the Stones were doing it too, and they did it first. We were like the Stones on an obvious, superficial level. But musically I always saw us as a lot more like the Yardbirds."

"I think what we wanted to do, without really saying, was be the American equivalent of all the great British bands," says Hamilton. "Cream, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin. They were all so classy and powerful sounding. We couldn't think of an American band like that. We wanted to be the first one."

All the hard work paid off with the massive success of Toys in the Attic, in 1975, and Rocks, in 1976. By now they were working with producer Jack Douglas – whom all the band members credit as an invaluable creative partner – and together they made albums that were the equals of their heroes' finest moments. Everything came together – Tyler's sleazy stream-of-consciousness vocals, Perry's tasty slash-and-burn guitar, Whitford's subtle rhythmic bursts, Hamilton's surprisingly funky bass and Kramer's rock-steady drumming, which revealed his love for both John Bonham and soul great Bernard Purdie.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Aerosmith, Rocks

Unfortunately, by 1976, when they started recording Draw the Line in an abandoned convent in upstate New York, the drug use that had fueled Aerosmith's earlier work started taking a much more serious toll.

"We'd gotten to that dangerous point where we could afford all of our vices," says Hamilton. "We all had our mansions, our Ferraris, our never-ending stashes."

"The expensive thing isn't the drugs," says Perry, "even the phenomenal amounts we were doing. It's the decisions you make – or don't make – while you're fucked up. You can tell exactly what happened to us by listening to the records. From the inside, I didn't think anything was wrong. But from the outside, you could see everything. You can hear the music get cloudy. Listen to Draw the Line – the focus of Rocks is completely gone. If I kept a journal, I couldn't have done a better job of showing exactly when we started going south. Especially 'cause I was way too fucked up to actually keep a diary.

"We stopped steering our band," says Perry. "We had stopped giving a shit."

If there were any voices of reason surrounding them, the band members don't remember hearing them. "We were completely isolated, from our families and from anybody else who was sane," says Perry. "The people around us then fostered that isolation. We were wicked paranoid. We thought we were outlaws because we were always carrying drugs. We were acutely aware that at the next minute any one of us could be arrested for holding heavy. And no sane people kept the hours we did – up all night, sleep all day. Anybody who was close enough to be let in was on the same trip that we were."

Tyler admits with much regret that the drugs even led the band members to get their leisure-time priorities screwed up. "I'm still bummed out I didn't get all the sex I could have had in the Seventies," he says. "The irony is I probably got more than I remember because I was having blackouts. But we never zeroed in on 'Wow, let's get blow jobs on the bus.' That was more for the road crew. We were more interested in the finer blends of cocaine from a shipment of dates that came in on the back of some camel with the stamp of a half-moon on it and the star of Lebanon, which by the way was laced with opium. We were real connoisseurs. That was much more important to me than some girl with big tits."

The band's sorry state can be heard on 1978's Live! Bootleg and 1979's Night in the Ruts. The latter record, like Draw the Line, cost over a million dollars. The band members blocked out outrageous amounts of studio time but were constantly waiting for Tyler to get coherent enough to write lyrics to the tracks they recorded. "I was getting FUBAR by then," says Tyler, "fucked up beyond all recognition." Finally, things got so expensive that management sent the already burned-out band on the road to make some money. "That was the killer," says Perry, who decided to leave during that tour.

"I really wish someone had smacked us back then," says Kramer, echoing a sentiment held by all of his band mates. But how would they have reacted to someone trying to bring them to their senses? "Hey, man, if anyone ever tried to smack any of the five of us, they'd be shot," he says, looking dead serious. "We were one of the biggest bands in the world. No one tried to tell us anything. And if they did, they were history."

All the band members express amazement that no one around them died but admit there were casualties of a sort. "The image I keep seeing is that Aerosmith then was like some skyrocket that flew up and up and then exploded," Perry says. "Somehow we didn't get destroyed, but all these people who tried to fly with us weren't so lucky. Believe me, there are people out there to this day who haven't completely recovered just because they tried to hang on to us. I think about that a lot."

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