The Band That Wouldn't Die
Rolling Stone, April 5th. 1990
By David Wild
The Band that Wouldn't Die
For years their nasty habits got the best of them. But since the members of Aerosmith cleaned up, the group has been better than ever before.
Steven Tyler enters the hotel room and strips down to his black cracker - a sort of a G-string. It's three in the morning - four hours after Aerosmith wrapped up a show before 37,000 fans at Toronto's Skydome - and the band's hyperactive lead singer is back at the Four Seasons Hotel ready to do a little more performing. After contorting himself on the room's double bed for a few minutes, he finally acheives his desired position: bound and gagged with an attractive female friend of the band's riding him bareback. Someone turns on a video camera to record the moment for posterity. Tyler's famous big lips - which rival Mick Jagger's or even Carly Simon's - break into a wide Cheshire-cat grin. Then suddenly his expression turns more serious, and he begins a series of muffled orgasmic squeals.
This is, in all likelihood, not the first time that the forty-two year old Tyler has found himself in this sort of situation. In fact, to hear Tyler and the other members of Aerosmith tell it, there's probably not a single rock-star decadence - sexual, chemical, financial, or otherwise - that they have not engaged in over the years.
But this time is different. This is, after all, the new and improved, clean and sober, happily married Aerosmith. And so it is that the early morning's decadence is being stimulated for the most wholesome of reasons: a gag birthday video that the folks at Boston's WBCN station are making for Mark Parenteau, a DJ there and a longtime friend and supporter of the hometown heroes in Aerosmith.
Tyler moans a few more times for the proper effect, rips the gag from his mouth, then looks straight ahead into the camera. "Believe me , Mark," he says, smiling broadly once again, "life ain't over at forty."
Aerosmith is that rarest of creatures - a rock band that's hitting it's creative and commercial peak twenty years into its career. For a long time, it seemed unlikely that the members of Aerosmith would be alive, much less flourishing, by the time any of them hit forty.
The quintet - lead singer Tyler, lead guitarist Joe Perry, 39, bassist Tom Hamilton, 38, drummer Joey Kramer, 39, and rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford, 38 - was perhaps the most successful American band in the mid-Seventies. Though generally dismissed by the press as bad Rolling Stones clones, the tireless road warriors conquered a nation by surprising classic slabs of hard rock like Toys in the Attic and Rocks with virtually nonstop touring of the U.S. "We were the guys you could actually see," says Joe Perry. "It wasn't like Led Zeppelin was out there on the road in America all the time. The Stones weren't always coming to your town. We were America's band - the garage band that made it real big, the ultimate party band."
By the end of the Seventies, though, the party was over. The band fell from multiplatinum grace into a deep and nearly fatal rut of hard drugs and bad karma. "Jerry Garcia says that we were the druggiest bunch of guys the Grateful Dead ever saw," says Tyler. "They were worried about us, so that gives you some idea of how fucked up and crazy we were."
Things got so profoundly Spinal Tap-ish that when Tyler actaully saw the movie, he could hardly bear to watch the hard-rock satire. "I was real high at the time," says Tyler with a grimace, "and Aerosmith was sinking - we were like a boat going down. And that movie was way too close, way too real. Our last album was Rock in a Hard Place, which sold, like, maybe ten copies; Spinal Tap did Stonehenge, and our album cover looked exactly like that. I freaked. I took Spinal Tap real personal."
And why not? Aerosmith had become a virtual parody of itself. The band's story was one of rock and roll excess, complete with all the absurd trimmings: wives who incessantly bickered, band members who fell offstage with disturbing regularity, $100,000 room-service bills, contests to see how many things in a Holiday Inn room would fit through a television set, million-dollar budgets, nightmarish gigs at theme parks, crew members who got more groupie action than their fucked-up bosses and money that went who knows where.
Tyler and Perry - the Toxic Twins, as they became mot-so-affectionately known - feuded childlishly and withdrew into years of death-defying heroin abusebefore Perry finally split from the group in 1979, followed by Whitford a year later. "Thing were getting more like Sid and Nancy than Spinal Tap," says Whitford. "It wasn't funny anymore."
"I remember seeing this National Geographic special about gorillas," Perry says. "When two gorillas get together, they'll throw shit, but they won't throw it at each other. They'll just make a lot of noise. That's what Steven and I would do. We'd get in the dressing room and tear it apart, but we never laid a hand on each other. But there was so much anger. If we were in a different space, we'd have killed each other."
Before things got better, they got worse. Perry formed the Joe Perry Project, and after three albums that sold progressively worse, he found himself flat broke, living on his manager's couch and at one point in a depressing Boston boarding house. By 1980 the guitarist was so out of it that he had no idea that Columbia Records had released Aerosmith's Greatest Hits collection until a fan approached him and asked him to autograph a copy.
Tyler, Hamilton, Kramer and two new players - guitarist Jim Crespo and bassist Rick Dufay - tried without much success to keep the Aerosmith name alive. But Tyler also bottomed out. For one long period he lived in squalor in New York City's Gorham Hotel. Tyler chose the hotel for its access to Eighth Avenue, where he'd go regularly to score a couple of twenty-dollar bags of junk, hoping that the dealers there might recognize him. "That way," he says, "maybe I'd get a little extra."
"Our story is basically that we had it all," Perry says straightforwardly, "and then we pissed it all away."
"Hey dude - this tricolor fusilli is fucking outrageous."
Steve Tyler is talking intensely - as usual - with the chef who's running the elegant pasta bar that the promoters set up in the band's dressing room backstage in Toronto.
Moments earlier, Aerosmith wrapped up a ferocious two-hour set worlds apart from the often horrendous, bombed-out shows the band offered up to stadiums full of equally bombed-out white boys throughout the late Seventies. "It got to the point where as long as we did 'Back in the Saddle,' 'Toys in the Attic,' 'Sweet Emotion,' 'Walk This Way,' and 'Dream On,' it didn't matter if we sucked," says Perry.
The same five that once performed with all the energy of potted plants now whip up a ballsy firestorm onstage. Tyler - who relates to his microphone stand as if it were simultaneously a pony ride and a phallic symbol - masterfully works every inch of the tasteful faux-rooftop stage set. Meanwhile, Perry, Whitford, Hamilton and Kramer (along with tour keyboardist and saxophonist Thom Gimbel) dedicate themselves to pounding out two crowd-pleasing hours of no-frills rock &roll. Aerosmith manages to breathe new life into FM war horses that should have outlived their usefulness long ago, but the band really bears down on the material from its two post-rehab efforts, 1987's Permanent Vacation and the current Pump, albums that represent the strongest one-two unch in the band's grungy oeuvre.
As the crowds make their way out of the venue, the band members are already sitting around the backstage table, eating individually prepared pasta dinners. They sip on nonalcoholic fruit spritzers, listen to the occasional rude noise made by a nearby espresso machine and chat amiably about the evening's culinary offerings. A member of the entourage snaps on a TV and starts a hard-core porn video, but everyone - even noted adult-entertainment enthusiast Tyler - pays more attention to the food.
"Even in the old days, we'd make an effort," says Tyler, doling himslef seconds of the fusilli. "When I'd go out to score on Eighth Avenue, I'd get my junk and a chocolate doughnut. But I'd always also pick up one of those pita-pocket health food sandwiches. You know, something really good for me."
"Yeah," Perry says with a shrug. "We always believed in doing something nice for our bodies while we were killing them."
The band members take turns signing a promotional leather jacket for their Italian record company. (Earlier in the day, before the daily meet-meet-and-greet session with press and radio, they autographed a jacket to be auctioned off by Bikers Against Drugs.) There are also less-formal promotional duties to attend to. A few attractive if overly made up women - including one who's apparently Toronto's most important groupie - have gained a backstage audience with the objects of their affection. But tonight there is only some friendly conversation with a couple of the boys in the band. "We can look," says Tyler, "but we better not touch."
The existence of a kinder, gentler Aerosmith is partly the result of the band members' new-found sobriety/ It may also have something to do with the fact that because all of the hit singles from the band's latest two albums - "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)," "Angel," "Rag Doll," "Love in an Elevator," "Janie's Got a Gun" - and all the attendant MTV exposure, Aerosmith's audience has undergone a remarkable transformation of its own. As Tyler explains with characteristic bluntness, "It used to be the only girls ar Aerosmith shows were the ones who came to blow us on the bus."
"We used to call our fans the blue army," says Hamilton, a tall, intelligent fellow with long, white hair who looks like a rocker but acts more like a genial English professor. "We'd look out and all we'd see were these stadiums full of guys in blue jeans, a sea of blue."
These days, "thousands of sixteen-year-old girls are there to see us," Tyler says, stopping to lick his chops dramatically before laughing loudly. "So now you know the real reason Aerosmith is still together."
In an effort to keep all those fans happy, Tyler goes so far as to keep computer records of which of his various schmatte-and-scarf outfits he wears each night, as well as notes on how the crowd was. "I type in FG for FUCKIN' GREAT," Tyler says, explaining his crude but effective grading system, "LD for LIMP DICK or MFO for MEDI-FUCKIN'-OCRE."
From the looks of things at this particular FG gig, it's clear that Aerosmith's second generation of fans seems to appreciate the group's efforts. Asked how the band is able to dtay on top of the hard-rock heap after all these years, one fan - a thirteen year old wearing opening act Skid Row's Youth Gone Wild T-shirt - offers as good an explanation as any: "They look cool, they souund cool, and they have a fucking excellent name."
No, Virginia, Aerosmith did not name itself after Sinclair Lewis's classic novel, Arrowsmith. "No way," says Tyler disapprovingly. "That was just some book that they made you read in high school."
In fact Joey Kramer - who came up with the name - says that he can't remember where Aerosmith came from. He just recalls sitting in high school, writing the word again and again on his math and biology textbooks, thinking that someday it would be one hell of a cool name for a rock & roll band. (Cooler even than the other, less original name the band considered: Spike Jones.)
The abnd that would take on Kramer's dream name came together in the town of Sunapee, New Hampshire, during the late Sixties. The young tyler - who lived in Yonker, New York, during the school year - spent his summers at Trow-Rico, a resort in Sunapee that his family, the Tallaricos, owned until two years ago.
Talking about his summers there, Tyler conjures up a pastoral, Tom Sawyer-like dreamland. And certainly that's what the place must have seemed like compared with life in Yonkers, of which his memories are decidedly less idyllic. "I was a freak, an ultimate nerd," says Tyler, who recalls getting kicked out of PS 81 for chasing a little girl with a broken light bulb and neighborhood kids boxing his ears at the bus stop, calling him "nigger lips."
Tyler speaks wistfully of stocking Trow-Rico's pond with trout, of jumping in the hayloft and mowing the lawns. Most fondly of all, he recalls the Saturday night skits that his aunt Phyllis organized for the kids to put on in the recreation hall. "She has me up there doing a pantomie to 'Animal Crackers' and singing 'There's a Hole in the Bucket, Eliza,'" says Tyler, who attributes most of the inspiration for his career to his aunt and his father, a classical pianist and teacher.
By the time Tyler met the teenage Joe Perry - then working a summer job at a local ice-cream parlor called teh Anchorage - Tyler seemed less like a character out of a Mark Twain than a full blown rock star. "Steven would come up to Sunapee with all of his bands, Chain Reaction and the Stangeurs, wearing clothes from Carnaby Street and real long hair," says Perry. "They were loud and obnoxious, behaiving like rock stars are supposed to behave - especially when they're in a little town and nobody knows how not-so-big they really are. They'd come into the Anchorage and throw food and shit and I'd have to clean up after them."
Perry was then playing in the Jam Band along with Tom Hamilton, who also remembers being quite struck by Tyler. "Steven was from New York and he had thse real professional bands," Hamilton says. "The Strangeurs had even put out a record, for god sakes. So Steven was the real thing. That was the ultimate to us."
Perry eventually invited Tyler to check out a Jam Band gig at a local club called the Barn. "I went, not expecting much," Tyler says. "They got up and did 'RattleSnake Shake,' and I said to myself, 'That's it. These guys suck - they can't even tune a guitar - but they have a groove going that's better than any fuck I ever had.' I knew if I could show them a little of what I knew, with the looseness they had, then we'd really have something."
Eventually, the band signed up two more members: Brad Whitford, another New Englander, as Perry's guitar foil (replacing original member Ray Tabano) and Joey Kramer, from Yonkers, who was brough in to man the drums, since Tyler, who also drummed, had decided he wanted to concentrate on singing.
In 1970, the band members moved into a dumpy, roach-ridden apartment on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue for a period that suggests the Monkees on drugs. Hamilton's bedroom doubled as a living room; the future Toxic Twins shared a small room with bunk beds. Most nights, Perry and Tyler would cook up a cheap brown rice and vegetable concoction for dinner. The got stoned, listened to Jeff Beck's Rough and Ready and Deep Purple's Machine Head nonstop, watched The Three Stooges and charted their rise to the top.
From the beginning, Aerosmith avoided playing clubs. "We always wanted to be a concert group," says Kramer. "We didn't want to be just another band that got stuck in the clubs. We were very ambitious." This meant taking on part-time jobs to support the rock & roll habit: Perry worked as a janitor at a Boston synagogue, while Tyler put in time at a bakery. Aerosmith's first gig was playing at Nipmuc Regional High School for a few hundred bucks, and the band's early influences are obvious in the songs played that night: "Shapes of Things" by the Yardbirds, "Live With Me," by the Stones, and "Cold Turkey," by John Lennon.
Even then, the kids loved it. And even then, there was tension. "Steven and Joe had a big arguement that first night about Joe playing too loud," says Hamilton. "And so began an Aerosmith tradition."
"I think we can do something with you."
That's what Clive Davis, then the president of Columbia Records, told Aerosmith backstage at Max's Kansas City two years later. In another few years, the band would be outselling Barbara Streisand, Bob Dylan and everybody else on the label.
Since their debut at Nipmuc, the band members had quit their day jobs and kept busy playing high schools and frat parties in the Boston areal they'd also started writing their own material. But financially things were tight, and Aerosmith was running out of places to rehearse. Just when things were looking bleak, Frank Connelly, a successful local promoter, took an interest in the struggling band. Connelly then hooked the band up with managers Dave Krebs and Steve Leber, who in turn got Clive Davis down to Max's to hear the band.
Thus the band signed with Columbia. More precisely, the band was signed to Leber-Krebs, which struck a deal with Columbia - a situation that would work out quite profitably for the managers. The band's first album, 1973's Aerosmith, included "Mama Kin" - a tune that Tyler thought was such a classic that he had its title tattooed on his right arm - and "Dream On," which eventually became a hit when it was re-released in 1976.
When the album didn't take off, the band hit the road to stir up interest; in an utter mismatch, Aerosmith was sent out as the opening act for the Mahvishnu Orchestra. "John McLaughlin and the band would meditate before they started playing," says Tom Hamilton. "And as you might imagine, we weren't really into meditating. We'd already found our way to meditate, chemically."
In 1973's the band released its second effort, Get Your Wings, and continued to earn its own on the road. "We must have played Ohio a thousand times, touring in a station wagon," says Perry. "Being on the road definitely broke Aerosmith," says former manager David Krebs. "It certainly wasn't radio. And it dure as hell wasn't the press."
All the reviews dismissing Aerosmith as second string Stones stung the band. "I hated it," Tyler says. It sucked. It rubbed me the wrong way. You wanna know why? Because it was true." He stops to laugh and clap his hands. "I loved the fucking Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger was the baddest boy on the block, second to Keith. The Rolling Stones were everything."
But, Perry points out, the comparisons were more justified physically than musically. "We weren't going to change what we looked like for the press," he says. "our team worked. It just so happened that the Stones were doing it too, and they did it first. We were like the Stones on an obvious, superficial level. But musically I always saw us a lot more like the Yardbirds."
"I think what we wanted to do, without really saying, was be the American equivalent of all the great British bands," Hamilton says. "Cream, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin. They were all so classy and powerful sounding. We couldn't think of an American band like that. We wanted to be the first one."
All the hard work paid off with the massice success of Toys in the Atiic , in 1975, and Rocks, in 1976. By now they were working with producer Jack Douglas - whom all the band members credit as an invaluablecreative partner - anf togetherthey made albums that were the equals of their heroes' finest moments. Everything came together - Tyler's sleary stream-of-consciousness vocals, Perry's tasty slash-and burn guitar, Whitford's subtle rhythmic bursts, Hamilton's surprisingly funky bass and Kramer's rock-steady drumming, which revealed his love for both John Bonham and soul great Bernard Purdie.
Unfortunately, by 1976, when they started recording Draw the Line in an abandoned convent in upstate New York, the drug use that had fueled Aerosmith's earlier work started taking a much more serious toll.
"We'd gotten to that dangerous point where we could all afford our vices," Hamilton says. "We all had our mansions, our Ferraris, our never-ending stashes."
"The expensive thing isn't the drugs," says Perry, "even the phenomenal amounts we were doing. It's the decisions you make - or don't make - while you're fucked up. You can tell exactly what happened to us by listening to our records. From the inside, I didn't think anything was wrong. But from the outside, you could see everything. You can hear the music get cloudy. Listen to Draw the Line - the focus of Rocks is completely gone. If I kept a journal, I couldn't have done a better job of showing exactly when we started going south. Especially 'cause I was way too fucked up to actually keep a diary.
"We stopped steering our band," says Perry. "We stopped giving a shit."
If there were any voices of reason surrounding them, the band members don't remember hearing them. "We were completely isolated, from our families and from anybody else who was sane," says Perry. "The people around us then fostered that isolation. We were wicked paranoid. We thought we were outlaws because we were always carrying drugs. We were acutely aware that the next minute any one of us could be arrested for holding heavy. And no sane people kept the hours we did - up all night, sleep all day. Anybody who was close enough to be let in was on the same trip that we were."
Tyler admits with much regret that the drugs even led the band members to get their leisure-time priorities screwed up. "I'm still bummed out I didn't get all the sex I could have had in the Seventies," he says. "The irony is I probably got more than I remember because I was having blackouts. But we never zeroed in on, 'Wow, let's get blow jobs on the bus.' That was more for the road crew. We were more interested in the finer blends of cocaine from a shipment of dates that came in on the back of some camel with the stamp of a half-moon on it and the star of Lebanon, which by the way was laced with opium. We were real connoisseurs. That was much more important to me than some girl with big tits."
The band's sorry state can be heard on 1978's Live! Bootleg and 1979's Night in the Ruts. The latter record, like Draw the Line, cost over a million dollars. The band members blocked out outrageous amounts of studio time but were constantly waiting for Tyler to get coherent enough to write lyrics to the tracks they recorded. "I was getting FUBAR by then," Tyler says, "fucked up beyond all recognition." Finally, things got do expensive that management sent the already burned-out band on the road to make some money. "That was the killer," says Perry, who decided to leave during that tour.
"I really wish someone had smackedme back then," says Kramer, echoing a sentiment held by all of his band mates. But how would they have reacted to someone trying to bring them to their senses? "Hey, man, if anyone ever tried to smack any of the five of us, they'd be shot," he says, looking dead serious. "We were one of the biggest bands in the world. No one tried to tell us anything. And if they did, they were history."
All the band members express amazement that no one around them died but admit there were casualties of a sort. "The image I keep seeing is that Aerosmith then was like some skyrocket that flew up and expoloded," Perry says. "Somehow we didn't get destroyed, but all these people who tried to fly with us weren't so lucky. Believe me, there are people out there to this day who haven't completely recovered because they tried to hang on to us. I think about that a lot."
But Perry also takes pains to put Aerosmith's excess in historical context. "The thing people should know is that every band was fucked up then," he says. "Everyone was coked up and shit-faced. Jack Daniel's was the national drink of rock & roll. We didn't have a corner on the market or anything. We were just the ones that took it to excess. We took it all the way. If this were 1976, and you and I were doing an interview, we'd both be doing blow right now. And if you didn't want to do some blow with me, then you'd be the one who had a problem."
These days, Aerosmith gets high by flying in Ferdinand Marcos's former jet, the rented Cessna Citation 2 the band members have rechristened Aeroforce 1. Today they're on the way from Boston's Logan International Airport to a show in Glens Falls, New York.
Even on the plane, Tyler and Perry are frontmen. Perry, an amateur pilot himself, leans over the shoulders of the pilot and copilot and takes in the view. For Tyler, who sits right behind him, it's show-and-tell time. A man whose recent readings include All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and The Tao of Pooh, Tyler makes a point of staying very much in touch with the child from within him. Throughout the trip he focuses his attention on a bag of toys he regularly brings with him. His recent favorites include a laser pointer from the Sharper Image and a Sony Watchman on which he's now displaying Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The othersw are in the back, flipping through the pagesof car magazines.
Tyler fiddles with the laser pointer again, hten gets bored. "I owned a plane once upon a time," he says. "But I snorted it away. I snorted my airplane. I snortedmy Porsche. I snorted my house. It all went bye-bye. Then Tim started helping us get some of our stuff back."
If it ween't for Tim Collins - the band's manager since 1984 - Tyler himself might have gone "bye-bye." Collins was a high-school senior in Wakham, Massachusetts, when Aerosmith first took off in 1972. A decade later, Collins found himself with the unenviable job of managing the Joe Perry Project - "a very expensive habit, really," Collins says. The band's debut album, Let the Music Do the Talking, sold a respectable 250,000 copies. But the third effort, Once a Rocker, Always a Rocker, sold only 40,000. "The situation was deteriorating," Collins says.
One night, Collins even took Perry to the Worchester Centrum so he could see Aerosmith for the first time as an observer. Unfortunately, Tyler tried to impress his old pal with some heroin backstage before the show. "I'm backstage turning a hundred shades of green and gray," Perry says. "All of a sudden I hear the music onstage stop. Steven collapsed, and the show was over. It was horrible, because the guys thought I'd brought the stuff!"
Eventually, though, Perry's friend Mark Parenteau helped convince Perry that he ought to think about rejoining Aerosmith. Not, of course, that there was much demand for the band. Rock in a Hard Place, the band's 1982 album without Perry, was a complete commercial stiff. Meanwhile, Aerosmith's place had been usurped by younger bands like Def Leppard and Van Halen. "We left a big, gapping hole," says Kramer, "And we watched all these other bands fill it. That was the toughest."
When the original five came back together in March of 1984 with Collins as their new manager, they rehearsed briefly at a Boston Howard Johnson's, then set out, without a new album, on the Back in the Saddle Tour. "That tour was pureguerilla warfare," says Collins. "The band was still signed to Columbiam but no one at Columbia would speak to us. They would only to speak to Leber-Krebs, who had a production contract for, like, seven more records. So we just said, 'Fuck them. We're going to go on the road and get out of this contract.' " Collins would make up a bogus corporation for each show so that the box-office take could not be claimed by creditors. "They'd try to attach the box office for Aerosmith, and there'd be no Aerosmith," he says.
Despite the legal ramfications, Collins felt it was essential to get the band back on the road. "These guys were road animals all those years and they needed that focus," he says. "They also needed the money real badly."
Promoters, whom Aerosmith had burned before with canceled or unfinished shows, were skeptical that Aerosmith would deliver. They had reason to be. Though the band members had decided to straighten up for the tourm rhwy were almost instantly back to their old habits. Onstagem the band had moments of the old power, but there were more low points - the lowest coming in Springfield, Illinois, when Tyler collapsed, and the show had to be canceled. "We arranged to send free GreatestHits albums to everyone in the crowd," says Collins. "I didn't want to hurt their reputation any more than it was. We almost got arrested that night, but we talked our way out of that."
Collins eventually sorted things out with Leber-Krebs and managed to get the band a deal with Geffen Records - and in the process, a valued creative advisor. John Kalodner, a powerful A&R man whom Collins had approached with the Joe Perry Project, decided he wanted to sign up with the band. "I just thought they were one of the greatest American rock bands ever," Kalodner says, "and if someone could work with them on their music, they could make good records again." Once Kalodner expressed interest, Davis - now heading Arista - decided that he too wanted the band. A bidding war ensued, but geffen won out.
At first, winning that war must have seemed like a Pyrrhic victory. Aerosmith's 1985 Geffen debut, Done With Mirrors, was not the comeback the band had hoped for. The album sank quickly, not helped by a literally backward ad campaign all members dismiss as "boneheaded." The tour saw the band, partcularly Tyler, sinking further into bad habits. One bright spot during this period came when the rappers Run-D.M.C. invited Tyler and Perry to join them for their version of "Walk This Way." "It made us look hip for a change," says Whitford.