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The Emancipation of Steven Tyler

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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?"

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