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The Emancipation of Steven Tyler

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After a while, Tyler notices how cold it is on the cliff. "I'm freezing, let's go down," he says. We reach a nearby eucalyptus tree. Tyler picks a leaf off the ground, cups it in his hands and brings it up to his nose, inhaling hard, as if the sweet smell might get him high. "Break it and smell it on your hands," he says, handing me my own leaf.

Tyler walks on, looking pensive. "I blindly went into Idol," he says, "as a chicken does breaking through an egg. It doesn't know what's outside the egg, pecking through like a motherfucker just to get out. I just wanted to get out for a moment."

The song has no words yet. But as Tyler sings moaning-scat syllables in the underused lowest-register of his still-astonishing voice, the yearning, bluesy melody sounds like Ray Charles, or maybe Randy Newman. Two nights before our hike, Tyler is sitting at the black Steinway B piano set up in the middle of his living room, facing yet another stunning Laurel Canyon view of L.A. – this time a constellation of lights shining through wall-to-wall glass. He's had this song for a while, but now he's feeling inspired to finish it – he just figured out an essential chord change, and hit "record" on his iPhone to remember it.

Tyler first charmed the people behind American Idol by playing piano like this in a producer's office and telling stories of his pre-rock & roll childhood. Tyler's father was a Juilliard-trained musician – Tyler once drummed in his society band – and some of his earliest memories are of lying beneath his dad's piano as a three-year-old, listening to him play classical music. "That's where I got that 'Dream On' chord-age," he writes in his book.

"We'd seen probably 40 people for the job," says Fox executive Mike Darnell, "and actually I saw Roger Daltrey – he came in and he was the complete reverse of Steven, very formal, his hair was cut, he looked like a regular guy. He had lost all that sort of rock & roll charm. But Steven was unbelievably charming. He was not snobby about music – he told me about his dad being a classical musician. He told me that he sometimes gets emotional about songs and cries when he hears them. I knew right away we had gold."

On top of this piano is a black-and-white picture of a young, wasted-looking Tyler next to Michael Jackson at Studio 54 in the Seventies, a yellow legal pad with lyrics for another song-in-progress ("Seriously Cool," he's scrawled on top, and the verses appear to rhyme "back" and "heart attack"), a signed note from Paul McCartney thanking Tyler for nailing the Abbey Road medley at a Kennedy Center Honors tribute to his music ("Your selection was brilliant," Sir Paul wrote), and a packet with information on each of the American Idol finalists. He's got a microphone stand set up with his trademark scarves wrapped around it, and a 12-string guitar sits on a nearby stand. "Believe me when I tell you," says Tyler, "I've been writing songs for 40 years, and it's a magic year, because the shit's coming in. Maybe it's because I'm sober again."

Tyler hears the sound of a helicopter whirring over the house, and laughs gleefully. "Here comes Joe Perry!" As the whirring of the blades grows more distant, he dashes to the wall of windows at the rear of the house and waves his long arms overhead: "No, Joe, it's this house!" He giggles. In fact, Perry sent Tyler an angry text earlier in the day – Tyler won't reveal the contents – and he hasn't responded to it yet. Aerosmith met Tyler in Los Angeles a couple of weeks earlier to work on some demos (tentative titles include "Bobbing for Piranha," "Asphalt" and "Legendary Child") – but Tyler couldn't reach Perry, and they recorded without him. (Perry's manager says the guitarist was simply unavailable for the session.) Tyler plays me some of the demos later that day, and they still sound like Aerosmith – slinky riff rock, big-chorused soul ballads, leaning more Seventies than Nineties.

Aerosmith were adamantly opposed to Tyler signing on to Idol. They even claimed in legal papers that taking the job could indicate a refusal to tour, a fireable offense by the rules of their partnership – though Tyler's Idol contract specifically gives him the freedom to tour with the band. In one interview, Perry dismissed Idol as commercial crap: "One step above Ninja Turtles," he called it, quaintly.

"All I did, and I thank the Lord above, I took a risk," says Tyler. "I think if you were to really peek under the hood of what got us back again for our second life in the Eighties, you'll find out that it's exactly this, it's the willingness to take a risk. I heard someone say, Would Bob Dylan do this?' and I said, 'No.' I felt instant shame. But he's not comfortable around fucking people. I could have been laughed out of town, it might have not worked: 'He sucks, he was on Idol and we saw who he really was, he's an idiot.' Could have been."

He heads into his meditation room, past a hallway decorated with an Idol poster, a pen-and-ink caricature of Aerosmith and a picture of him with Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck taken at a 2007 British awards ceremony. The room is tiny, with a fluffy cream-colored carpet, full-length mirror and two couches with the same orangy, Balinese pattern as the living-room sofas, and stuffed dolls of the four Beatles sit in a corner. "Do you meditate at all?" he asks. "If you concentrate on your breathing only, your mind can go off, and before you know it, you'll float up to the ceiling and out through the door."

Tyler sits on the couch on the left and sticks a pillow behind him. "I have to prop my back up because I trashed myself for the last 40 years in the band," he says. "A lot of people just think, 'Oh, he was back on drugs and in rehab.' But they don't know why. I'll show you." He takes off his leather sandals, removes his black socks (with little hearts on them), removes some Ace bandages and holds up his right foot.

It's as if all the physical damage of years of hard living was concentrated in that one spot, as if instead of a painting in the attic, he has this foot: The toes are twisted over each other, warped. It's hard to look at. "I don't want this to be 'poor me' – I'm doing so good – but that's what I've got for a foot," he says. The condition is called Morton's neuroma – he aggravated it with years of dancing onstage in too-tight Beatle boots. His other foot used to look this bad too, but it's back to normal after painful corrective surgery three years ago.

After the ever-escalating Seventies excess that won Tyler and Perry their Toxic Twins title, and ultimately derailed their careers by 1980 or so, Tyler had 12 years of sobriety, leading Aerosmith to heights that exceeded their original run. But around 2002, he began to slip. He blames it, a little fuzzily, on the hepatitis diagnosis and the pain of his foot condition. Painkillers and Xanax were his drugs of choice, and as his foot pain got worse circa 2007, he was snorting huge Xanax pills he called Zanzibars. The foot surgery multiplied his problems. "I was in a cast for three months, and they gave me a ton of pain meds," he says. "Being a drug addict and an alcoholic, I was off and running." By the third month of recovery, he was snorting OxyContin too. Then one night, he did coke again. "The next day I woke up and said, 'Holy mother of God, what am I doing?'"

So he went off to rehab, and he was soon clean but in unbearable pain, wondering how he could ever tour. In the summer of 2008, Tyler flew home to be with his ailing, elderly mother. She was his first fan, she drove him to gigs; she didn't laugh when he told her, as an unknown 19-year-old, that she was going to have to buy a new house soon to get away from his crazed fans. She died in July 2008, and Tyler couldn't take it (the account in the book is wrenching: "How can my mommy die?" he wondered) – just a few months after rehab, he began using again.

Tyler is hazy about chronology, but somewhere in there, Aerosmith tried to make a new album with Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen producer Brendan O'Brien. The recording sessions collapsed, and Aerosmith eventually blamed it on Tyler coming down with pneumonia. In fact, Tyler says now, "Joe and I were high." For the first time in decades, rock's Toxic Twins did drugs together. "I was rehearsing with Joe, and we're talking, and I go, 'So, what have you got, man?' Just like 30 years before. Our friendship was over drugs, that's what bands like us were about, and it wasn't until we started writing sober we realized there's a whole other world there. I whipped out mine, he whipped out his, and we got high together again." Tyler looks wistful. "I got to say to Joe, 'Wow, man, how you been, it's been, what, 17 years since we got high together? Joe, you've been fucking running away from me ever since.' That's when I did tell him that I was envious that he spends more time with his wife, Billie, than he does with me. He didn't like that."

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