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The Emancipation of Steven Tyler

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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.

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