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Talk This Way: Rolling Stone's 1994 Interview With Aerosmith's Steven Tyler

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One of my favorite Aerosmith tracks is the live 1973 version of James Brown's "Mother Popcorn" on Bootleg. You also cut Rufus Thomas' "Walkin' the Dog" early on. Yet most people don't think of Aerosmith as a band with funk and R&B roots.
Joey Kramer used to play in a lot of soul bands. He was with black guys for four years before Aerosmith. And we met a guy, David Woodford, who played saxophone, and we used to jam with him every now and then. Bobby Keys, who plays with the Stones, played a show with us once. I've always had this desire to have a saxophone player in the band.

Why didn't Aerosmith go down the white R&B route?
I don't think it satisfied something in us. It had been done. J. Geils did it. We wanted to let everyone know we had roots, but we also wanted the distortion of our own attitude. Like the Bible. How was the Bible written? It was different people's interpretations of what happened.

And it's really important to be new, ahead of yourself. If you're afraid to take a risk, OK, stay there, baby. But if you take a risk, two things will happen. People will laugh at you. Or you'll be way ahead of everybody else. And if that's what you're in it for, then you gotta take that risk.

What do you consider a risk now? Writing a song like "Janie's Got a Gun"?
Positively. I wrote the song in my basement, just fucking around. [Gets up and plays the opening riff on an electronic piano] Oh, "Janie's got a gun." I got goose pimples.

How did it become a song about child abuse?
I sat for months, waiting for the oracle door to open. Then I looked over at a Time magazine and saw this article on 48 hours, minute by minute, of handgun deaths in the United States. Then I got off on the child-abuse angle. I'd heard this woman speaking about how many children are attacked by their mothers and fathers. It was fucking scary. I felt, man, I gotta sing about this. And that was it. That was my toe in the door.

Given everything you've achieved since you cleaned up, do you ever wonder about what you lost — permanently — by taking that drug detour?
Well, my wife and I lost a child. Because of the head space that we were in, we chose to abort. I would never do that today. [Pause] What would I have lost? Quite frankly, I would have been dead.

What about careerwise?
I had this wonderful house up in New Hampshire that I built when I was with Cyrinda Fox. We had a kid, our daughter, Mia, and a nanny, whose folks had a place on the lake, a restaurant. One night I was high on cocaine and very drunk, and I went to pick the nanny up on my motorcycle — and went off the road. I took my heel off, from side to side; it was just hanging there.

I was in the hospital with a cast up to my hip, and I remember hearing about this new band Van Halen with David Lee Roth. "Who does this fucking guy think he is? He's standing in my limelight!" I'd fucked myself up royally. I was in the thick of the drug using. Joe and Brad were gone. People said, "You idiot, you don't even have a band."

But looking back, when the Eagles weren't together for 14 years, look at what it's done for them now. I know for a fact that if Aerosmith broke up tomorrow and didn't play again for three years, we could still come back and do stadiums.

The Eagles were on down time. You were literally out of it.
Yeah, I guess. This was down-and-out time. But you don't miss your water till your well runs dry. I think it was necessary to lose all that. I was angry about what happened. I can also say that it was meant to be. It put some distance between me and something that was too big for my britches.

Do you still feel the drug hunger now and then?
Every now and then, sure. Because I think it's a wonderful thing to get out of your mind. You watch TV and you see dying children in Rwanda and people being killed in Haiti. When I was in Budapest, I saw things on European TV that they don't show here. I got sick to my stomach. I wept like a baby. On three occasions, I called my sponsor and said, "I don't know if I can handle it anymore." We were working really hard, no days off.

But when you first started using drugs, it wasn't out of trauma. It was a leisure adventure.
It was. I've talked to therapists who say, "You were just afraid. You were forced out onstage." There was no fear. The fear died after the second song. In the early days, we were booed, so who gave a shit anyway? There was one particular therapist who I never got anything out of. I said, "Didn't you ever do drugs?" "Well, we're not here for me, we're here for you." Asshole! Then I met this guy who'd shot up in the neck, and it was, "OK, let's talk about it."

I never bought into that thing where drugs were a leftover from the neuroses and abuse I had as a child. I didn't have that. I grew up in the Bronx and New Hampshire. I had those two worlds. Who could have better? I always wanted to go to Africa. So I didn't. Is that abuse? My aunt Florence had me standing in front of people singing, "I'm Just Wild About Harry." That's abuse?

I didn't realize your father was a classical musician. What did he play?
The piano. He went to Juilliard, and he played at Carnegie Hall as a young virtuoso. My father's grandfather Giovanni Tallarico played the cello, classical music. And he did the same thing we do. He got on a train and toured. I've been in these hotels in Cincinnati where he played in the lobby.

Before rock & roll bands, I played drums with my father. Society music. That's what I cut my teeth on. Girls would come in, look at the band and go, "Ugh!" Roll their eyes. I'd try to look over at them like "No, look, I'm cool, check it out, don't leave!"

Was your father strict?
No, they drank like crazy in my house. Social drinkers. I was drinking as a kid. I'd get a fruit glass that I would fill with Johnny Walker Red and put water back in the bottle. It was as big as three shot glasses. And then I'd go to school. I remember the first guy who offered me a joint in the bathroom. I said, "No, man, I've got enough problems" [laughs].

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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