The Emancipation of Steven Tyler

In May 2011, the Aerosmith frontman found rebirth in the most unlikely place: the judges' table on 'American Idol'

January 17, 2012 4:40 PM ET
steven tyler 1130
Steven Tyler on the cover of Rolling Stone Issue 1130.
Theo Wenner for RollingStone.com

This story is from the May 12, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

For a moment, Steven Tyler almost runs out of words. He's standing too close to the edge of a Laurel Canyon cliff, exulting in the panorama of Los Angeles at his feet, the city's sprawl giving way to white-capped mountains on the horizon. Off to his left, past green hills, a gang of clouds has singled out the HOLLYWOOD sign for a blast of rain. A sharp wind ruffles Tyler's hair as he takes it all in. A deep breath of cool air, then he resumes the monologue that's been running since he learned to speak – or, as he puts it, since he was "vaccinated with a phonograph needle." "It's all magical," Tyler says in his excited rasp, pointing out the storm. "Hollywood is crying, because the Oscars are happening tomorrow night – it's sad to see the year go, but it's also crying tears of joy, because it's all going to start all over again."

Tyler means this stuff, all of it, and he can make you buy into it too. He's in a manic, mystical state of awe and gratitude these days, practically vibrating with sweet emotion – hence the unflagging positivity he exudes in his new gig as an American Idol judge. "I'm not sure if I'm going to be a sorcerer at the age of 80 and be able to throw fire," he says, pacing the hilltop, "but, man, walking around all day, the only times I looked at the clock, it was 11:11, 2:22, 3:33 – not the myriad of 60 other minutes. It's like you go to gamble and every time you just pull an arm as you're walking by, it's aces, aces, aces. Something's going on with that – too many magic moments. Maybe life is random, but I doubt it."

He shakes his head. "I'm really lucky right now," he says. "I'm on top of the world. I'm Hollywood's little fuckin' sweetheart, basically." A shadow passes overhead; we hear a powerful squawk. "That's a hawk," Tyler says softly, watching it circle the pastel sky. "That's a full-on fucking hawk." More magic.

Four months ago, Aerosmith's front-man had to move from Boston to Los Angeles for his life-changing Idol gig. So he rented a house in this storied Hollywood Hills neighborhood, with its beguiling blend of natural beauty – an echo of the New Hampshire woods where he spent his childhood summers, climbing trees and skinning raccoons – and rock & roll history. "That's where the Byrds put 'Mr. Tambourine Man' together," Tyler says on our way up, gesturing to a random house. Really? He shrugs. "Maybe!"

Early most mornings, Tyler hikes to this peak to spar with a trainer. When he hits the top, he puts on boxing gloves and tries to hit as hard as he possibly can. "I've been knocked down too many times by the world," Tyler says. "So it just feels good spiritually. I'm still standing, got back on my feet. I'm learning to fight back a little."

Aerosmith haven't released a full album of original songs in a decade – their last real hit, 2001's "Jaded," was so long ago that its video starred a still-teenaged Mila Kunis. The only studio album they've managed since then was a blues-covers collection, 2004's Honkin' on Bobo. In the meantime, Tyler faced one knockout blow after another: He discovered he had hepatitis C in 2002, then had his immune system ravaged by the treatment; he was incorrectly diagnosed with a brain tumor; he learned he really did have yet another dire, now-resolved illness that he won't identify; he had laser surgery for a voice-threatening throat problem; he struggled with a foot condition that could have kept him offstage forever; he got addicted to drugs again – prescription ones, mostly; he went through one detox attempt and two rehab stints; he fell off a stage in front of thousands of fans in Sturgis, South Dakota, during "Love in an Elevator." His bandmates kept threatening to fire him from Aerosmith. His wife of 17 years left him. His mom died. At one point, his kids were convinced he was going to die too. "I was a mess," Tyler says. "I was clinically depressed."

But the last rehab seems to have stuck; he's got a serious girlfriend (35-year-old Erin Brady, a long-legged, wicked-tongued brunette bombshell who used to work for Clear Channel); he's got Idol – and, hey, hitting bottom just helps him savor this moment, here at the top of the world. "If you're sober for 20 years, you lose the rewards of first getting sober," he says. "First getting sober is when you're on fire. It's a rebirth, totally. So in life, what is yes without no? What is winter without summer? If you don't know winters with close to frostbite and then summers of 100 degrees, I'm sorry, then you ain't lived, and that's me – I'm just sayin'!"

He's wearing a shiny, textured All Saints black leather jacket, a reddish-orange batik-printed shirt, brown leather cargo pants, and the same bedazzled running shoes that he had on at an Idol taping the night before – the sides are cut out to accommodate his damaged feet. He walks quickly, with a loping gait, and a slight hitch in every step. There are chunky rings on two fingers of each of his huge hands. He's got many necklaces on, one of them adorned with the teeth of a raccoon he caught when he was 18. He's carrying at least two knives, one on his leg, a larger one inside the jacket. He likes knives: "It's a boy thing."

The hard times haven't left much of a mark on him, rock-star alien that he is – not young, not old. It's impossible to imagine Tyler in any other profession, or to picture him in a tie and a crew cut – he is what he is, in all possible universes. His vividly exaggerated features are rubbery, protean, as if still settling on a final shape – which matches his busy-being-born mental state. "I'm a freak of nature," he says. "I'm just a freak." His teeth are blazingly white; his hair is long, thick and brown with lovingly applied blond highlights and often multicolored strands of stuff (including feathers and a tiny replica of John Lennon's glasses) tied into it, a la Keith Richards. If he wasn't a dude, you could call the hairstyle Real Housewives of Penzance.

Early last year, at the height of a months-long feud with his bandmates (after his fall from the stage, they were threatening to replace him with, say, Lenny Kravitz or Paul Rodgers), Tyler was looking for a backup plan: "I told my manager, 'Fuck them, get me a job.'" He ended up on Idol, a show he had barely watched.

He's far from a Simon Cowell hard-ass ("There wasn't anything about that I didn't like," he recently told one contestant after a performance). "It's not like I'm judging someone that committed a crime, like a real judge," Tyler says. But as he might be the first to tell you, America loves him in this new role: He's moved to tears by the contestants' sob stories and performances alike ("My feelings, man, I'm beyond touchy-feely – that's why I say I'm 60 percent woman"); verbally inventive (his response to one audition has become legendary: "Well, hell-fire save matches, fuck a duck and see what hatches"); somehow both flirty and avuncular with the young female contestants without creeping out the nation. He seems to maintain a respectful peace with the other new judge, Jennifer Lopez, and has become actual pals with Randy Jackson. "I knew he would be amazing – because he can only do it the way he does it," says Jackson. "You hear him say to the kids all the time, 'Do you,' and that's the only lane he has."

It's a big year for what he recently dubbed Brand Tyler. Tyler has an autobiography, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? – heavy on un-Idol tales of debauchery – due out in May, and will release the first solo single of his career, an exuberantly poppy tune called "Feels So Good," along with it. ("I can hear it coming out of people's cars this summer," he says, and he's probably right.)

But he's endlessly preoccupied with the band he helped form 41 years ago, especially his fraught relationship with lead guitarist Joe Perry ("my other self, my demon brother," Tyler calls him in his book, describing their relationship as "teeth-grinding competitive antagonism" with an underpinning of love). "That band is always the first thing he thinks about," says Jackson. "I'm not sure the rest of the guys realize it."

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