In May 2011, the Aerosmith frontman found rebirth in the most unlikely place: the judges' table on 'American Idol'
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."
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."
During the O'Brien sessions, Tyler says, he and Perry were snorting pills in the bathroom (Xanax or Oxys, Tyler thinks), which didn't exactly help the music. (Despite repeated requests, Perry declined to comment for this story.) "Joe was high, and he couldn't play," says Tyler, "and I couldn't sing, really, because I was snorting everything, and it fucks up your throat. It was the wrong time, it wasn't right." He didn't get along with O'Brien, either: "He's a musician who was in bands before, but he's not in bands anymore. Why? Because he's a better mixer than musician. But he comes into our sessions, he sets up a piano, trying to come up with parts on songs I wrote."
Perhaps because of the sheer number of times he's whipped through the redemptive arc of addiction and recovery, Tyler sometimes has trouble maintaining the tone of contrition that usually accompanies these tales. "The funny thing is that it doesn't matter, really," he says. "I was using, so what? So what, I don't give a fuck. I may use next week. I doubt it, because I'm really steeped in my program, and there's a Monday-night meeting I go to here. I'm really proud, man, as Anthony Kiedis says, to ride the sobriety train. A lot of us are sober and really fucking damn proud of it. And I don't mind. It saved my life. It saved my life.
"When you live a life as rich as mine," he adds, shifting mental gears again, "I deserve to get high. It's just that the difference between you and me is I'm a drug addict. In other words, I use in spite of the adverse consequences – my children leaving me, money gone. I'm an idiot. But I'm not an idiot. I'm not a bad person getting good, I'm a sick person getting better."
One of Tyler's employees pokes her head in the door American Idol is starting. We join Brady, Tyler's girlfriend, in the living room, where the TV hangs above his fireplace, next to a painting of a robed, dark-skinned woman holding a mask in front of her face, a glowing light at her chest. To Tyler, the painting, which he found in a Palm Desert store, represents "puella aeterna," the eternal woman – a phrase he's fond of – and he doesn't mind if the artist didn't quite get the hands right. The painting contrasts nicely with a nearby lamp, which has a (fake) AK-47 machine gun as its base. The couch has another Indian or Balinese pattern – when Tyler and Brady moved out here, they bought a bunch of furniture and then had the fabrics customized. In the driveway is a motorcycle of Tyler's own design, called a Dirico, with the license plate BOO-YAH, and a Mercedes with the license plate OH YEAH and some bullet-hole decals.
We sit down to watch the show, with Brady lying on Tyler's stomach for a while. It's mid-February, so this is an early episode, where we get to see who made the final 24. Like all Idol results shows, it's outrageously padded to two hours – but Tyler watches the whole thing with rapt attention, as if he's never seen the show before. He hasn't, more or less. "Does your wife watch this?" Tyler asks during a commercial break ("We have too many commercials," he says with a sigh). "'Cause I never did. I'm a much bigger fan of... what's the bike show? Sons of Anarchy. I'm a huge fan of that, and I still don't watch that, either. But people in America sit at home at night and watch this fucking show... I'm getting off on it for the first time. It's working – and it feels good, man."
Tyler saw enough of the DVDs producers sent him to develop some mixed feelings about Simon Cowell. "He was being a wiseass, you know, and putting people down for things where it's, like, forgive him, he knows not what he does. I heard him say, 'I don't like country & western music,' and I'm like, 'Come on.' But I wasn't sure if Simon had touched something in the hearts of people – or if compassion could be the new black."
Tyler found the initial audition process grueling. "To sit in front of a camera for eight hours is pretty ridiculous," he says. "Same thing, same people, same shit, hoping for someone to sing and make your day." But he's awestruck at the level of talent among the finalists: "You know what? Out of the 20 kids you saw tonight, if you could just sprinkle 10 years of smoking pot, getting fucked up, getting laid, getting fucked, and 10 years of just life – which one of those people wouldn't be a star?"
Tyler's assistant, an ultra-efficient dude in a snappy black suit who once worked for Prince, offers us salads. Tyler eats his sparingly as he watches himself boot off the rotund young singer Jacee Badeaux. "America's gonna hate us for this," he says. Overeating, incidentally, is one vice Tyler finds offensive. "These rock stars out there that have gained weight," he says, "you look at them and go, 'Dude, where did you go, what happened? Don't you have any allegiance whatsoever to your fans?'"
When Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" is played in the background, we start talking about the recording of the song (the shaker sound is actually just a sugar packet), which somehow leads to Tyler talking about the New York Dolls' David Johansen – whose wife, Cyrinda Foxe (she died in 2002), left him for Tyler, marrying the Aerosmith frontman in 1978. "I found out that David was selling Joe Perry heroin," he says, "so to get even with him, I borrowed his wife for a while. That's how it was back then." (Johansen denies selling Perry drugs, calling the story "absolutely untrue and incorrect.")
Brady rolls her eyes, affectionately. "OK, Tourette's," she says.
The next day, Tyler is in his Idol trailer on a studio lot in West Hollywood, with a stylist and a makeup artist working simultaneously on his hair and skin – they're detailing him like he's a vintage sports car. Early Stevie Wonder is playing from an iPod, and a live feed of the Idol rehearsals is on a muted TV. Tyler is about to do his first Idol show with a live audience (unlike later episodes, it will be live-to-tape) – but he's still busy talking about Aerosmith. "Did I take this job to show the band? Fuck, yeah. Not to show them, but that I can't be held hostage anymore. I will be my own hostage. The band can't throw me out."
Truth is, this wasn't even the first outside job Tyler considered. "You're looking at a guy who played with Led Zeppelin," he says with boyish pride. In September 2008, Tyler flew to London, and walked into a rehearsal room where Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham were waiting. Several months earlier, he had gotten a call about a related gig. He was told that Page and Jeff Beck were considering a reunion of the Yardbirds, and needed a singer. Nothing came of that, but with Robert Plant refusing to sing again with Zep, Page went after Tyler for a new project with the band members.
Tyler was the right guy for the job – he demonstrates a few stratospheric notes of "Immigrant Song," which sound more dead-on than even the latter-day Plant can manage. "No one can sing those fuckers like me, except for Robert. I can fucking nail them," he says. The idea was to do a few one-off shows, and then maybe record new songs together – none of it under the Zeppelin name. "I decided, 'Well, I know that I'm mad at those [Aerosmith] guys, but I'm not that mad,' so I called Jimmy up two weeks after I left and said, 'You're a classic band, and so is mine, and I just can't do that to my guys, and I can't do it to Robert,' and I couldn't see finding a year to really put my full self into it. So for whatever the band thought, never in a million years was I going to quit Aerosmith to start Zeppelin."
Still, he had split with Aerosmith's management, whom he felt were too close to Perry, while treating him like "a fucking dancing bear and a fucking cash cow." His bandmates still wanted to tour, but he didn't think his feet were up to it. As Tyler recalls, Perry responded, "Why don't you just sit down, then?"
Tyler shakes his head. "That's like giving Joe Perry a ukulele and asking him to go on tour with us. You can't put me on a fucking chair. So I was actually contemplating the end of my career." Finally, he saw a sports doctor who hooked him up with low doses of a powerful painkiller. Armed with those pills, plus the mild sleeping aid Lunesta, he was able to get through most of the 2009 tour. But he soon started crushing the pills and snorting them. "I snort everything, because I'm just that passionate about my drugs," he says.
He was high mostly on Lunesta on August 5th, 2009, the night he fell off the stage in Sturgis – the sound system had failed momentarily during "Elevator" and he was trying to entertain the crowd. In a YouTube video, you see him do a little hotfoot dance, a spin, then lose his footing and plummet. He insists, however, he wasn't that high: The real problem was a rain-slick stage. "I just want people to know that I'm not this bad boy and this fucking drug addict that keeps falling off the stage. As Erin said, she goes, 'Steven, the fuck are you talking about? You were a lot fucking more stoned two years ago than you were this year when you fell offstage.'"
In any case, he went to the Betty Ford Center for three months at the end of 2009 and got really clean. No one in Aerosmith called him, but he eventually reached out to them. "I met with the band and begged for their forgiveness, only to realize that two of them were using. So I said, 'You guys fucking think I went to Betty Ford, came out, and you're going to use around me?'"
About this time, the band members asked their lawyer to look into the possibility of firing Tyler, and made a point of telling the press that they were seeking out new singers. He still did makeup dates with Aerosmith – "with hate in my eyes" – which somehow ended up feeling like some of their best shows ever.
"I've been a little foolish, but I'm glad I was foolish, because it kept us an old-fashioned band, five members who all get equal pay for an unbelievably long time," Tyler says. "If I thought 20 years ago that I was the lead singer and I should go do a solo record, I would have been better off for it, but I didn't. My ego would have been better off for it, but I would have maybe not stayed with my band." Now, with Idol surging – and Aerosmith's back-catalog sales rising with it – Tyler is talking with Toys in the Attic producer Jack Douglas about returning to produce some of the Aerosmith songs he played for me earlier.
Tyler's assistant – and his leather-clad personal stylist, a French guy who looks like a hipster Dracula – are nudging him to get ready. "Hold on, guys, I only have one thing to do, and that's to step into a pair of pants, OK? Step into a pair of pants, baby!" Eventually, he excuses himself. Flanked by an SUV-size bodyguard, he heads off to the hangarlike studio where he'll shoot Idol for the next three months.
As the show begins, Ryan Seacrest presents Tyler with an American Idol logo attached to a stick – a physical version of the graphic they've been using to cover his mouth during his frequent cursing episodes. He gamely holds the thing up to his mouth, but doesn't look especially amused. Afterward, a producer asks the crowd to fake waves of hysterical laughter – the idea is to run bleeping sound effects while cutting between audience laughter and the shot of Tyler holding the logo – thus making it look like the wacky rock star started swearing uncontrollably. "It bothered me a little bit," Tyler says later – and he's noticeably restrained for the next few weeks of live shows, to the point where a producer tells me they hope he loosens up.
Back in the canyon, Tyler is doing the full Tyler: yodeling and scat-singing into the hills to test the echo, singing bits of Beatles, Byrds and Aerosmith songs in full voice, showing off a remarkably proficient birdcall. "You must admit," he says, "through all the frills and all, I'm one of the most interesting guys you've ever met."
Almost every car that passes slows down, and the drivers roll down their windows to tell Tyler how much they love him on Idol. I ask him if he's worried that he might become too beloved, too safe, if there's a danger of being seen as the sort of caricature Ozzy Osbourne turned into for a while in the wake of The Osbournes. As he thinks about it, another car approaches, and actually stops in the middle of the road – the couple inside get out and ask for a picture.
As he poses and I take the shot, Tyler discusses the question with his fans. "He's concerned that Idol is going to take away from my music, and I said, 'I thought this out,'" he says. "Nobody wants to see Adam West in a church on his knees, they want him to be this ominous Batman guy. So I get it. Nobody wants to see Mick Jagger in an orphanage in India, they want to see him singing, 'Please allow me to introduce myself...'"
The couple thank him, not really following the conversation, and Tyler continues his thought as they drive away. "Whoever I am, or think I am, whoever you think I am, maybe I'm not that guy," he says. It reminds me of the other night, when Tyler asked if I'd ever heard "The Sun," an angelically pretty ballad he recorded with a pre-Aerosmith band called the Chain Reaction. "Listen to that, and you tell me, am I really that hiding in the rock & roll, or am I really the rock hiding in that? Am I a closet-case fucking geek that just knew how to play my cards right? Am I smart enough to know how to play both sides?"
Tyler gazes upward into the sunshine. "The sun's coming through storm clouds that have just come off of the ocean and rolled in from some fucking island called Kauai – that's Hawaii over there," he says, pointing vaguely toward the west. Tyler loves Hawaii, and just celebrated his birthday in Maui. "Todd Rundgren lived here way back, then went out to Hawaii, moved there with a couple of girls that were in love with each other. Smart man. I should have done the same thing." He laughs.
Doctors at one rehab (where he was working out his co-dependent relationships with the rest of the band, not any addiction) tried to stick him in a "sexual concerns" group. But he's convinced that his many liaisons – including the on-tour hookups that ended his most recent marriage – were merely the result of opportunities not available to other men. New Age author Marianne Williamson, a friend who helped him break his drug and alcohol dependencies, once told him, "What do they expect? You've been a rock star for 20 years."
"I had a choice not to," says Tyler. "I fucked up. But when you're tempted, if you're a bear and you're not supposed to eat honey, but everywhere you go there's bees, you're going to dip your tongue in! I'll tell you something, when I was in those 'sexual concerns' classes, and I'm next to a woman that had third-degree burns from vibrators and chairs and putting things in her vagina and guys that were in front of schoolyards, I'm in the wrong place! I want to be between three women, not chained to a fucking urinal at the Ramrod Room."
Priapic as he may be, Tyler is 63 years old, though he hates when journalists point that out. He doesn't think much about mortality. "I'm going to get up to heaven, and the gate's going to open, and God's going to go, 'You know what, I threw Beelzebub out while we were listening to one of your songs.'" But he does imagine, rather frequently, just how he might die. "I'm very vivid with my imagination – getting stabbed and pulling the arrow out, or I can picture my guts spewed, or more often than not, lately, it's in a bed with my children around me, as my mom passed, hoping they don't give me too much drugs where I'm like this" – he sticks his tongue out spastically. "I think I've been so lucky in my life that I'll probably die in my sleep, thank you, Lord Jesus."
We walk past an old bungalow, one of the few modest houses left in the neighborhood, where a bunch of small dogs are wildly barking behind a fence. Tyler approaches the house, and they bark even louder. A middle-aged blond woman in a pink bathrobe shuffles out of the house, looking frazzled, nearly terrified – she doesn't recognize Tyler.
"I'm just walking by, doing an interview, and I love your dogs," Tyler says, trying to calm her down. "I've got a Pomeranian at home."
She squints at him, leaning over the flowerpot on top of her fence. "What's your name?"
"I'm with a rock & roll band – Aerosmith," he says, moving closer. "Steven Tyler."
Her jaw drops, her eyes clear, and she starts talking. She's lived in Laurel Canyon for 35 years, and it turns out her husband was taken to the hospital with a heart attack last night. "I'm not worthy," she says. "I love your music. You're an angel. Seeing you right now – I feel like you were sent here today. I'm 61, but you look so much better."
Tyler's eyes are looking a little moist. He reaches out across the fence and grabs her hands. "Guess what," he says, "your husband is going to be fine."
She beams. "Well, I'm even going to watch American Idol now."
Tyler winces. Then he seems to speak without thinking: "No, don't watch that," he says, just loudly enough to be heard over the dogs, now jumping at his ankles. "Keep loving the music. Don't watch that."