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Aerosmith's Amazing Road Back

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But Perry also takes pains to put Aerosmith's excesses in historical context. "The thing people should know is that every band was fucked up then," he says. "Everyone was coked up and shitfaced. Jack Daniel's was the national drink of rock & roll. We didn't have a corner on the market or anything. We were just the ones that took it to excess. We took it all the way. If this were 1976, and you and I were doing an interview, we'd both be doing blow now. And if you didn't want to do some blow with me, then you'd be the one who had a problem."
 
These days, Aerosmith gets high by flying in Ferdinand Marcos's former jet, the rented Cessna Citation 2 the band members have rechristened Aeroforce 1. Today they're on the way from Boston's Logan International Airport to a show in Glens Falls, New York.

Even on the plane, Tyler and Perry are frontmen. Perry, an amateur pilot himself, leans over the shoulders of the pilot and copilot and takes in the view. For Tyler, who sits just behind him, it's show-and-tell time. A man whose recent readings include All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and The Tao of Pooh, Tyler makes a point of staying very much in touch with the child within him. Throughout the trip he focuses his attention on a bag of toys he regularly brings with him. His recent favorites include a laser pointer from the Sharper Image and a Sony Watchman on which he's now displaying Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The others are in the back, flipping through the pages of car magazines.

Tyler fiddles with the laser pointer again, then gets bored. "I owned a plane once upon a time," he says. "But I snorted it away. I snorted my airplane. I snorted my Porsche. I snorted my house. It all went bye-bye. Then Tim started helping us get some of our stuff back."

If it weren't for Tim Collins – the band's manager since 1984 – Tyler himself might have gone "bye-bye." Collins was a high-school senior in Waltham, Massachusetts, when Aerosmith first took off in 1972. A decade later, Collins found himself with the unenviable job of managing the Joe Perry Project – "a very expensive habit, really," Collins says. The band's debut album, Let the Music Do the Talking, sold a respectable 250,000 copies. But the third effort, Once a Rocker, Always a Rocker, sold only 40,000. "The situation was deteriorating," Collins says.

One night, Collins even took Perry to the Worcester Centrum so he could see Aerosmith for the first time as an observer. Unfortunately, Tyler tried to impress his old pal with some heroin backstage before the show. "I'm backstage turning a hundred shades of green and gray," Perry says. "All of a sudden I hear the music onstage stop. Steve collapsed, and the show was over. It was horrible, because the guys thought I'd brought the stuff."

Eventually, though, Perry's friend Mark Parenteau helped convince Perry that he ought to think about rejoining Aerosmith. Not, of course, that there was much demand for the band. Rock in a Hard Place, the band's 1982 album without Perry, was a complete commercial stiff. Meanwhile, Aerosmith's place had been usurped by younger bands like Def Leppard and Van Halen. "We left a big, gaping hole," says Kramer. "And we watched all these other bands fill it. That was the toughest."

When the original five came back together in March of 1984 with Collins as their new manager, they rehearsed briefly at a Boston Howard Johnson's, then set out, without a new album, on the Back in the Saddle Tour. "That tour was pure guerrilla warfare," says Collins. "The band was still signed to Columbia, but no one at Columbia would speak to us. They would only speak to Leber-Krebs, who had a production contract for, like, seven more records. So we just said, 'Fuck them. We're going to go on the road and get out of this contract.'" Collins would make up a bogus corporation for each show so that the box-office take could not be claimed by creditors. "They'd try to attach the box office for Aerosmith, and there'd be no Aerosmith," he says.

Despite the legal ramifications, Collins felt it was essential to get the band back on the road. "The guys were road animals all those years, and they needed that focus," he says. "They also needed the money, real badly."

Promoters, whom Aerosmith had burned before with canceled or unfinished shows, were skeptical that Aerosmith would deliver. They had reason to be. Though the band members had decided to straighten up for the tour, they were almost instantly back to their old habits. Onstage, the band had moments of the old power, but there were more low points – the lowest coming in Springfield, Illinois, when Tyler collapsed, and the show had to be canceled. "We arranged to send free Greatest Hits albums to everyone in the crowd," says Collins. "I didn't want to hurt their reputation any more than it was. We almost got arrested that night, but we talked our way out of that."

Collins eventually sorted things out with Leber-Krebs and managed to get the band a deal with Geffen Records – and in the process, a valued creative advisor. John Kalodner, a powerful A&R man whom Collins had approached with the Joe Perry Project, decided he wanted to sign up the band. "I just thought they were one of the greatest American rock bands ever," Kalodner says, "and if someone could work with them on their music, they could make good records again." Once Kalodner expressed interest, Davis – now heading Arista – decided that he too wanted the band. A bidding war ensued, but Geffen won out.

At first, winning that war must have seemed a Pyrrhic victory. Aerosmith's 1985 Geffen debut, Done With Mirrors, was not the comeback the band had hoped for. The album sank quickly, not helped by a literally backward ad campaign all members dismiss as "boneheaded." The tour saw the band, particularly Tyler, sinking further into bad habits. One bright spot during this period came when the rappers in Run-D.M.C. invited Tyler and Perry to join them for their version of "Walk This Way." "It made us look hip for a change," says Whitford.

Cleanup time began with Collins. On New Year's Eve 1984, he decided to straighten up his own act. It was the first step, he says, in making "the dysfunctional Aerosmith family functional once again." Then the band had "an intervention," confronting Tyler about his problems because they feared he was close to death. "I'm still just a little bitter about that," says Tyler, "because there were guys in the room that day who had problems of their own telling me how fucked up I was." Eventually, all the members kicked drugs and booze and sought the support of a well-known twelve-step program.

And so it was a very different Aerosmith that headed up to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1987 to work with producer Bruce Fairbairn on Permanent Vacation. Gone, too, were the million-dollar budgets – the record was made for a quarter of that. Kalodner and Fairbairn also brought in seasoned co-writers like Jim Vallance, Holly Knight and Desmond Child to help out with material.

Radio responded to the record immediately, and MTV quickly picked up the sly, sexy series of videos directed by Marty Callner. The band set out on the road with rock's new bad boys Guns n' Roses – one of a generation of hard-rock bands that came of age in the Seventies profoundly influenced by Aerosmith – as the opening act. To keep Aerosmith on course, Collins kept the two bands relatively separate. He took other precautions to make certain that the members of Aerosmith would stay with their program. Their in-room bars, for instance, were emptied of alcohol before they got there.

Pump saw the team reunite with brilliant results. A greasy masterpiece of sexual innuendo and hellacious guitar, the record has already sprung two hit singles, "Love in an Elevator" and the ambitious "Janie's Got a Gun." And now, of course, the band is back on the road, this time touring with another popular band of rowdies, Skid Row.

"In the old days, Joe had all the names and numbers of the groupies and dealers on a computer disc," says Tyler. "Now we just have tour books telling us how many treadmills the hotel gym has."

On the flight back to boston from Glens Falls, the conversation turns to the long, strange trip Aerosmith has had from Sunapee to here.

"In the Seventies I'd hear us on the radio right next to the Stones and Led Zeppelin, and I didn't think we belonged," says Perry, looking out the window. "It's only in the last few years I've begun to see that we are a real part of history, a real part of the rock & roll vocabulary. At the time it felt like nobody cared about us – except a couple million fans."

But Tyler worries that some of the young bands Aerosmith influenced may have learned the wrong lessons from the band's story: "I talk to some of these new guys, like Sebastian Bach from Skid Row, who read that we got fucked up and stoned and think that's where we got our edge. I try to say, 'Man, you're wrong. That's not what made us special.' I tell them it's stupid to try to follow in our footsteps, because they'll die trying. What gave us our edge wasn't anything we put up our noses – it was Joe Perry's fuck-all, being as abrasive as that motherfucker is, and Brad Whitford's ear, Tom Hamilton's well-aimed simplicity, Joey Kramer's solid bed of backbeat, plus whatever it is that I do."

Recently Tyler even had a chance to exorcise some old demons when he talked with Mick Jagger backstage during the Stones' last show in Boston. "I'd met him years ago when he invited me to his house in Malibu, but back then I was too gagged to my fucking ear lobes in coke and Tuinals," he says sadly. "I was barely in shape to knock on the door. But this time it was very beautiful. The limo pulled into his tent in the tent city, and he had a crib there for his daughter. We hugged, and I told Mick, 'You don't know what it means to be standing here with you after all these years. It's amazing, because I woke up this morning and I got my weekly report from the office, and right next to Aerosmith at Number Two in airplay R&R is the Stones album at Number One.'"

Tyler looks guilty for a second before speaking again. "Of course, deep inside I'm thinking to myself, 'And watch out, because we're going to knock you right off the charts, motherfucker.'" He laughs wildly.

Aerosmith has earned the right to such chutzpah. Like the bluesmen the band members first imitated unknowingly, they've grown into their music. And they've pulled off that rare trick of aging gracefully.

"I remember when Joe left, he gave an interview that really hurt me," says Tom Hamilton. "He said, 'Aerosmith is not ready for the Eighties.' That hurt. It hurt because he was right. I thought about that on New Year's Eve, when we were playing this great gig at home in Boston. It was my birthday, and I was thinking that Aerosmith is a band ready for the Nineties. We have a future now. For a while we didn't have one. It's a hell of a nice thing to have."

This story is from the April 5th, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.

 

 

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