It’s Friday morning on the set of Today, and this morning’s guests are Aerosmith. They’re here to discuss their role as the elder statesmen of American rock. In just a couple of days, Aerosmith are getting inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame while they’re still at the top of their game; indeed, they’re going in while they have a new album in the Top Ten, Just Push Play, as well as a hit single, “Jaded,” a song that sums up the Aerosmith sound as perfectly as “Start Me Up” summed up the Stones. The boys in the band are running late, so they will never learn that the NBC greenroom is stocked with plenty of their beloved chunky peanut butter. They take their seats in front of Matt Lauer, who, like most Aerosmith interviewers, pumps them for drug stories.
In our age of microscripted interviews and on-message sound bites, the five band members are shockingly and refreshingly unrehearsed. Everybody talks at once, contradicting and interrupting one another. In fact, the band’s famously loquacious singer, Steven Tyler, is the last one to get a word in. Most of their verbiage will never make it to the aired version, but there’s one striking moment, when drummer Joey Kramer tells Lauer that even in the doped-up years of the early Eighties, when the band’s classic lineup had fallen apart due to drugs and depravity, he always knew in his heart of hearts that the band would get back together again, as soon as they were finished getting high. When Lauer moves on to another topic, lead guitarist Joe Perry turns around, leaning his head out of camera range, and asks Kramer, softly but intently, “So how come you never called me up and said that?”
Kramer shrugs. “I was busy getting high.”
Aerosmith are American rock & roll’s longest-running dysfunctional-family sitcom, a musical Scenes From a Marriage starring five guys stuck together in a strange relationship none of them claims to understand. Their tale has been told and retold many times: fortune, fame, drugs, dissolution and resurrection. Guitarist Brad Whitford even cracks that the band should be getting a percentage for every episode of Behind the Music, since they wrote the story. But they’ve emerged from Seventies-style drug abuse and Eighties-style corporate bloat with their music intact, not to mention their bodies, and perhaps most surprising, their bond, as five guys who didn’t exactly choose to spend their whole lives together but have ended up doing just that; decidedly volatile personalities who fell together without planning to tie the knot for life but created something they all love too much for them to leave one another — or us — alone. “The corporation — I so love and hate it,” Tyler says. “The guys in the band, I so love and hate them. Is this what life’s about?”
Aerosmith emerged from Boston in the early Seventies, a swirl of lips, ribs, scarves and hair, a greaser gypsy horde that looked like they’d fuck a manhole cover if they thought there was any beer in the sewer. The premise was Zeppelin, Hendrix, the British psychedelic blues bands like Cream and the Yardbirds, but Aerosmith attacked the music with a lean, mangy aggression. Where Zeppelin had Viking lords and Saxon battlefields, Aerosmith came up with their own homegrown mythology: They envisioned American music as one big parking lot from coast to coast, a teen utopia buzzing with the smell of cheap weed and motor oil. They brought the British blues back home, but instead of stripping it down to basics, they revved up the flash and the menace and the danger. In their suburban Seventies milieu, Aerosmith made room for funk and country and old-time swing; except for maybe polka, there’s barely a corner of American music they haven’t pillaged for a big ten-inch riff or two. The guitars were the toys in the attic; the rhythm section was the rats in the cellar. And in the center ring, Mr. Steven Tyler, the last child, a punk in the streets, the Lord of the Thighs, an androgynous rock changeling whose lips seemed like an overly generous gift from a Greek goddess with a sick sense of humor.
In the late Seventies, the band’s fondness for their pharmaceutical groovies really did a number on their music. Aerosmith are one of the best arguments for sobriety ever, especially when you listen to some of the bad records they made when the drugs took over — Side Two of Night in the Ruts could scare anyone straight. By all the laws of natural selection, Steven Tyler should have been just another rag tied around Keith Richards’ head by now. But fifteen years after getting sober, the just-push-playas have something to prove. This time out, for Aerosmith’s first album since their 1996 split with longtime manager Tim Collins, they produced themselves for the first time since the very beginning. Their last two albums, Get a Grip and Nine Lives, were messy affairs that had to be redone from scratch after the corporate higher-ups didn’t like the first finished versions. This time, they recorded most of the album in the basement of Perry’s South Shore house in Cohasset, Massachusetts, about a half hour outside of Boston. “Joe and I kept asking each other, ‘Would you play this for Keith right now?'” Tyler says, laughing. “You gotta use something as a template. Well, there are outtakes from this album I’d play for Keith.”