I don’t remember how old I was, whether it was the Midnight Special or MTV, but I switched channels and there they were – giant lips and low slung guitars, five skinny guys like cartoon river rats, like some seedy cousins of Mickey Mouse come together to make a band. I moved closer with one hand on the changer, just in case my mom walked in because somehow I sensed their strut and swagger song was a little bit naughty, likely inappropriate for a kid like me.
Still, I sat there transfixed, thinking, these are the coolest guys in the whole entire world….
After forty plus years of livin’ like gypsies, just the fact that the legendary Aerosmith continues to tour and record scorching new music is nothing short of mind-blowing.
Even the most clueless listener can pick out an Aerosmith song in the first few notes – ageless classics like “Walk This Way”, “Dream On” and “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” occupy a level of cultural entrenchment that no other American band has ever achieved.
The men behind this iconic Boston-bred sound – vocalist Steven Tyler, lead guitarist Joe Perry, bassist Tom Hamilton, drummer Joey Kramer and rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford – offer one of the most compelling stories in rock, a saga overflowing with tragedy, substance abuse, bitter feuds, breakups and of course, heroic heights of success.
Front and center since day one has been the mercurial dynamic between Tyler and Perry, known for decades as “The Toxic Twins.” Where Kramer and Tyler have published biographies over the years, Perry has remained largely silent until now.
With unvarnished candor, he tells his side of the toxicity in his new memoir, Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith — of junkies and dysfunction, coming clean and making peace, brotherly love and the most legendary comeback in the history of rock & roll.
We caught up with the Hall of Famer at his Massachusetts home just days before the book’s release.
Rocks is also testimony to the power of a successful marriage. Thirty years now you and Billie have been married. That’s really refreshing in a rock and roll memoir.
Thanks, brother. I was really hoping that would come through. I get calls for advice all the time asking, “How do you do it?” In this business, it doesn’t happen nearly enough. I’m blessed and lucky and I’ve learned from my earlier mistakes.
So what do you say when people call? What’s your secret?
Be as truthful as you can. Keep the communication going and make sure you’re staying together for the right reasons.
What are the right reasons?
That’s the question everyone has to figure out for themselves. It certainly goes beyond sex and the surface stuff. Sex is important but it’s not the end all be all of a relationship. There’s a mutual consideration, common interests, a friendship. Billie is my best friend and nothing can get in the way of that. When you have a solid foundation, it’s not easily shaken. I’m not the Dear Abby of rock and roll but I give whatever advice I can.
Billie’s an artist too, so yeah, I trust her instincts. It helped that she really didn’t know what an Aerosmith was when I met her. That was a real weight off my shoulders because in the back of your mind you’re thinking: Does she really like me? Or just who she thinks I am? When I met Billie, I didn’t have any money. I was playing clubs with Joe Perry Project. Her biggest question was why I wasn’t doing better than I was.
But she was also upfront about my substance use. She said, “As much as I love you, I’m not hanging around to watch you kill yourself.” I owe a lot of the fact that I’m here to her influence. And ultimately, I wanted to take care of her too. It gave me a new lease on life.
I met my wife in college and she said I caught her eye because I “looked like Joe Perry and played guitar”. She’s a joy man, so hey, thanks for playing a part.
What’s her name?
Well, congratulations, man. That’s good stuff.
The reunion stories were really interesting to me, all the psychobabble and the drama with your manager going down. How does someone manipulate huge rock & roll personas like Joe Perry and Steven Tyler?
Yeah… it was really tough. But you have to look at it over a period of many years. This guy (manager, Tim Collins) pushed me to get the band back together and he was there through it all. Even then we were still getting really messed up and Tim was part of that, he partied with us, kept up with us. But then he realized we had to clean up our act if we were going to succeed. I had reached a point where it was killing my creativity, killing my ability to be a good husband. I was way past the point of a couple of beers. Something had to change. So we brought people in for help with getting sober and we listened.
Things were really working at first.
Sure, yeah. But as we kept getting better, he never dealt with the underlying issues of his sobriety. The band had our families and we were raising kids and doing all the things normal people do when they reclaim their lives. I think he just kinda stayed in the same place. He figured if he couldn’t have control over us in some way, we might move on without him. So he would make things up and keep the brush fires going, keep things stirred up between us so he could save the day. Over the course of a few years he would eventually blackmail us into going to rehab when we were sober. It was almost like a cult.
That was the impression I got.
It was a cult. It sure didn’t happen overnight and it went against my grain but I had to sit down and make decisions based on where I had come from, in the light of newfound success and hit records. I didn’t want to upset the apple cart. But I tell you, Jamie, that last thing with being forced to go to rehab – that wasn’t just the straw that broke the camel’s back, that was like a bale of hay that put us over the edge. We couldn’t go on living our lives that way. We offered for him to stay on as manager and get out of our private lives but at that point it was too far gone. Which is too bad because Tim was a really good manager.
That must have been difficult to write about.
We weren’t exactly proud of the fact that things had gotten as weird as they were. But I wanted to get it out there because no one really knows about that stuff. Ultimately, it’s just another chapter in a strange and amazing journey that is Aerosmith.
Quote from Rocks: “The Perry/Tyler team was not a fully formed unit. But then again, it would never be.” Did that tension between you and Steven make Aerosmith what it was – or hold it back from being all that it could be?
Hmm…yeah, I think if Steven had been a little more forthcoming as a partner with the trust and such then we would have been able to be more prolific as songwriters. And I think that definitely held us back. I can’t complain too much though because we’ve had an amazing amount of success and still do. We like the idea of having the two names together and being a team, it sounds great on the surface but underneath there has to be some trust and faith in the other guy. It just . . . wasn’t there. And it still isn’t there. But I’ve accepted the fact that’s who he is and I take the good with the bad.
Who is Steven Tyler?
At this point, he’s a really talented singer and an incredible musician. And there’s a part where we still get along quite well. We still go scuba diving together when we can. He’s off doing his thing now. I think he loved being on American Idol and loved the fame. It made me realize that what’s important in his life is different from what’s important in my life. And I have to accept that. The important thing is when we get up there on that stage for two hours we’re the same people we were when we were nineteen years old. That’s a pretty amazing feeling. It’s an adrenaline rush to still be in this band and have the same five guys be able to leave everything backstage and walk out there and give it everything we got. At this point in our lives you never know when the last show will be. So I give it up every night I’m out there.
You have to be able to access that place, that same feeling we had when we first got together. That “Aeropsyche” — or whatever you want to call it. The show is somewhat planned but a lot of it we leave up to chance and adrenaline rush. That’s the fuel, the give and take with the fans. That’s why it’s so easy for us to leave that old B.S. behind for two hours. It’s a communal thing. We become fans again too.
Let’s say there’s one last Aerosmith record and you get to do it exactly the way Joe Perry wants. What’s that sound like?
What it sounds like, I’m not really sure. But what it feels like is you are sitting in the room with the band. We came up in a time when the strength of a band was how you played live, everybody’s strengths coming together. And that has never gone away. It’s more important now than ever.
What do you want people to say about Aerosmith when it’s all said and done?
Nothing. I hope they’re just listening to our music, man.
I watched Sgt. Pepper after finishing your book. I want to know what sort of cracks Chevy Chase was making as he sat behind you guys during the premiere.
You know, I wish I could remember! ‘Cause it was really funny. We had obviously had a few before we went in but we were pretty wide awake. I just remember laughing a lot at Chevy. Everybody knew that movie was a wreck, man. I don’t know if they used it for a tax write off or what . . . but we all had a lot of fun doing it. I’ve still got the guitar they made for me to play in our scene.
(laughs) It’s worth watching just as a symbol of the excesses of that era. We all were white-knuckling how it would affect our careers. But I gotta say, “Come Together” is still one of our strongest songs live.
Hey, before we go, give me your four favorite blues records.
Let’s see…. I really love Nothin’ But the Blues by Johnny Winter. I just got his brand new record, looking forward to hearing that. For sure, Muddy Waters Hard Again. Aw, man, there’s a lot of my favorites that are just compilations and such. Robert Johnson – Best of Robert Johnson. I don’t know if you can count Chuck Berry’s Berry’s On Top as a blues record, but that’s gotta be on my list.
Chuck Berry will always be a bluesman in my book. Thanks, brother. Good talking to you.
You bet, Jamie. We’ll see ya, take care.