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The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll, Part 4: Aerosmith

How a big, bad drug monster begat a big-business rock band

I haven’t heard the tapping of canes yet, but where in the beginning it could have been about fun and fuck it all on Friday, now it could be about remember when.” —Steven Tyler, 1994, in Rolling Stone

“I’m an entertainer, playing rock and roll, arena rock. In order to do that, you have to make compromises.” —Joe Perry, in Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith

“See, the hardest thing for me was leaving the life. I still love the life … Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over. And that’s the hardest part. Today, everything is different. There’s no action.” —Gangster and accidental rock critic Henry Hill, Goodfellas

Welcome to the “hump” chapter of The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll. So far it’s been all rising action, starting in the Wild West of the early 1970s and continuing up through the orderly, corporate culture of rock in the late ’80s. We came from the land of the ice and snow and fought the horde. We rocked and rolled all night. We saw a million faces and rocked them all. The first three installments represent the deluxe, VIP-only portion of our journey — the mud-shark-groupie-violating, car-in-the-hotel-swimming-pool-dunking, no-brown-M&Ms-on-the-tour-rider-allowing, multi-million-dollar-contract-spending opening act. We discovered what it took to get here: the relentless touring, the record-label scamming, the vast support network of cunning managers and mercenary songwriters and unscrupulous radio-station employees. Along the way, the sex has been plentiful and the drugs free, delivered by the fistful via sycophants desperate for a few spare minutes in our rarefied orbit. All of our albums have shipped platinum, and every single stadium tour has sold out in minutes. We sensed that ultimate victory in rock was in our sights, we zeroed in, and we made it ours.

It’s been fun. If not for the occasional overdose, vehicular homicide, or paternity suit, I’d call it an out-and-out blast. And now it’s all over.

It’s like that scene in the middle of Goodfellas when Billy Batts is beaten to within an inch of his life by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and then his body is parked outside of Martin Scorsese’s mom’s house for a few hours, and then he’s finally stabbed to death in the trunk of Ray Liotta’s car. Or the scene in the middle of Boogie Nights when Little Bill, played by William H. Macy, shoots his wife, her lover, and finally himself at Burt Reynolds’s New Year’s Eve party. Or the part in The Social Network when Jesse Eisenberg meets Justin Timberlake. These scenes represent the “hump” chapters in their respective stories, the parts when everything that’s seemingly right and wonderful starts to go wrong and dark.

This is where we’re at right now in The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll.

How low are we going to go? Let’s take a brief detour to the lowest moment in recent rock history: Woodstock ’99. The culmination of nu-metal’s tenure as the preimminent sound of mainstream rock music, Woodstock ’99 offered up a warped version of a bedrock trope of rock music: The lawless outlaw who cares fuck-all about societal conventions. Where the stars of the original Woodstock — Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Jefferson Airplane — used nonconformity as a rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of like-minded people to bond together in a new, utopian society forged in music, Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, Korn’s Jonathan Davis, and Kid Rock treated rock stardom not as a means to an end but as the be-all-end-all of a me-first, screw-you lifestyle. And that trickled down to the fans, who tired of paying a small fortune to eat bad food and drink warm bottles of water in the middle of a converted Air Force base situated in the midst of a punishingly arid hellscape. They took out their frustrations on each other — beating and degrading the weak (which mostly meant women) as the music roared out petulant anthems of self-absorption and furious entitlement.

Woodstock ’99 illuminated an uncomfortable truth about what happens when masses of humanity are inserted into an uncontrolled environment: If a mob wants to take the social contract by the lapels, douse it in gasoline, and angrily demand to see its tits, a mob will do just that.

After Woodstock ’99, the idea that a rock festival could be a metaphor for the hopes and dreams of a generation of young people seemed like a silly, outmoded, even dangerous notion. That same year, Napster revealed that the potential for communities of people to gather around music was best realized in the new online frontier, where a softer brand of lawlessness reigned. The shift of music’s hub from a physical to a digital domain, coupled with albums and songs becoming literally worthless in the new world of file-sharing, did a lot to make rock irrelevant in the 21st century. But equally culpable were the hyper-aggressive, über-macho hard-rock bands of the late ’90s. If a knobby-bearded, red-hatted jackal like Fred Durst was associated with big arena shows, big-budget music videos, visits to the Playboy Mansion, and shady payola scandals that greased the wheels for platinum popularity,1 well, who would want to emulate that? Limp Bizkit behaved like a third- or fourth-generation copy of a rock band. It was an imitation of Mötley Crüe imitating Van Halen imitating Led Zeppelin and the Stones. And it suddenly seemed really, really fucking stupid and gross.

Acting like a rock band was now the opposite of cool. At best, it was kitsch of the ugliest, dumbest order, and could only be enjoyed ironically. Woodstock ’99 marks the unofficial beginning of rock’s extended (and perhaps permanent) “post-decadent” period — a time when the “sex and drugs” clichés of rock stardom have lost all remnants of their former glamour, and credible rock bands are actively discouraged from acting like the rock bands of the past.

To get at the roots of post-decadence, we must study a band that was originally scheduled to perform at Woodstock ’99, only to back out one month before showtime. Because when it comes to embodying and then forsaking the rock-and-roll lifestyle, Aerosmith was truly ahead of its time.

How the story of Aerosmith is told tends to vary depending on the storyteller, but it typically takes on one of two narrative arcs: (1) Aerosmith is a down-and-dirty arena-rock band whose prodigious drug abuse takes on mythical proportions as it records a series of seminal albums that starts with 1974’s Get Your Wings,2 peaks with 1976’s Rocks, and peters out with 1977’s Draw the Line.3 This period is followed by a long, irrelevant epilogue during which Aerosmith later reinvents itself as a cleaned-up MTV favorite and power-ballad machine. (2) Aerosmith is one of the most popular rock bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and continues to release hit albums and popular singles at the height of alt-rock. This period is preceded by a long, irrelevant prologue during which it was a druggy boogie-metal band responsible for songs like “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion,” of which teenaged fans are vaguely aware.

The two distinct, solidly independent halves of Aerosmith’s career — separated by nearly a decade of infighting, breakups, and the brief reign of former guitarists Jimmy Crespo and Rick Dufay — are unique in rock history, even in an era of multiple classic-rock comebacks. The late ’80s were filthy with faded stars from the ’60s and ’70s rebooting themselves with new albums, glittery new tours, and the fluffiest, shiniest mullets and ponytails. The Stones, The Who, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, and AC/DC were among the heavy hitters who either reunited or refocused their attentions on refurbishing broken-down commercial reputations. But only Aerosmith successfully captured a new, younger audience with little or no help from the band’s back catalogue.

Today, I probably subscribe to the first version of Aerosmith’s history, but as a kid I had no idea there was an alternative to the second narrative. The first Aerosmith album I owned was 1989’s Pump, also known as “the one with ‘Love in an Elevator’ and ‘Janie’s Got a Gun'”; as far as I knew, it was Aerosmith’s second record, after 1987’s Permanent Vacation, also known as “the one with ‘Dude (Looks Like a Lady)’ and ‘Rag Doll.'” My introduction to Aerosmith was made by the music video for Run-D.M.C.’s cover of “Walk This Way” and the “Wayne’s World” sketch in which Tom Hanks plays an Aerosmith roadie.4 I didn’t know about Aerosmith’s ’70s records, or care, until my early 20s, when I became a fan of music that made me feel like I was accomplishing something important by being intoxicated during 87 percent of my non-sleeping, non-working hours.

Aerosmith’s early years center on the old rock-and-roll myth of better creativity through chemistry. By the mid-’70s, and the release of 1975’s Toys in the Attic,5 Aerosmith was the most popular rock band among American high school kids. This was due largely to Aerosmith’s reputation as a party band; Aerosmith fans were nicknamed “The Blue Army” because of their monochromatic blue-jeaned attire, but “blue” also described the skin color of many audience members after downing too many ludes in the parking lot before the show.6 The patina of mindless drug use surrounding Aerosmith hardly endeared the band to the music press: “They gobbled reds and chug-a-lugged beer,” Rolling Stone forlornly tsk-tsked at The Blue Army in a 1976 Aerosmith profile. “Some fell on their faces and tumbled down the hill. The oldest among them could not have been much more than 18 years old … You had to get close enough to see the red of their eyes to realize that this was a generation whose rock & roll rituals had been raised up out of the ashes of Altamont rather than the bright muck of Woodstock.”

No matter the lack of idealism in the binging of Aerosmith’s listeners, the band itself pursued a creative path predicated on the supposed ’60s rock truism that the road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom — or, at the very least, great rock records. With Rocks, self-inflicted brain damage became an accepted byproduct of Aerosmith’s artistic process. “There’s no doubt that we were doing a lot of drugs by then,” Joe Perry says in Walk This Way, “but you can hear that whatever we were doing, it was still working for us.” Perry claims that he wrote the riff to Rocks‘ barnstorming opener, “Back in the Saddle,” while he was high on heroin, which Steven Tyler was also abusing throughout the Rocks sessions, along with cocaine and booze.

Perry actually believed that heroin could be a musical aid, a way to unlock a treasure trove of magical guitar riffs inside his mind and heart that could sustain Aerosmith for all eternity. In Walk This Way, Perry says he “started studying the folklore of opium as a sacrament and really got into it. It helped me concentrate on my work and became a good writing tool for me at the time … before it turned into this fucking monster.”

It didn’t take long for heroin to make its inevitable “fucking monster” transformation inside the Aerosmith camp. For the follow-up to Rocks, Aerosmith did what people consuming massive amount of drugs do: They dumped a shitload of cash into renting out a former convent located on a remote 100-acre tract in upstate New York, and proceeded to play tetherball with their synapses while trying in vain to paint their next masterpiece. Nicknamed The Cenacle, the property proved ideal for a band interested in adventurous experimentation — like firing off a small arsenal of guns in the main house’s attic, driving and crashing newly purchased sports cars on the secluded grounds, and inhaling whatever chemicals secured you a front-row seat in the presence of God for several hours.

What The Cenacle wasn’t good for was making a coherent album. Anecdotes about the recording of what later became known as Draw the Line are rounded out by the usual Trainspotting-style horror-show details: Perry would wander downstairs, play guitar for 10 minutes, vomit, and then disappear for five days. Tyler was so paranoid that he secretly tape-recorded the crew so he could hear what they said behind his back in the aftermath of one of his coke-fueled tirades. After spending six months and half a million dollars, Aerosmith finally finished off Draw the Line, and its initial “glory years” era along with it.

Once Aerosmith established a second career in the ’80s, those old war stories from the Rocks and Draw the Line days were repurposed for a redemption narrative appropriate for a rehab-friendly age. The members of Aerosmith never repented for their sins exactly, but they distanced themselves from their former “bad” selves. Rather than glorify Aerosmith’s misspent youth, the band’s past was now sold in the media as an obstacle that was overcome on the way to an inspiring revival.

“Aerosmith is that rarest of creatures — a rock band that’s hitting its creative and commercial peak twenty years into its career,” Rolling Stone‘s David Wild writes in a 1990 profile titled “The Band That Wouldn’t Die.” The story runs down “the absurd trimmings” of Aerosmith’s lurid past — the $100,000 room-service bills, the trashed Holiday Inn hotel rooms, the “crew members who got more groupie action than their fucked-up bosses”7 — and contrasts it with a “new and improved, clean and sober, happily married Aerosmith” whose personal morality tale had finally culminated. “Jerry Garcia says that we were the druggiest bunch of guys the Grateful Dead ever saw,” Steven Tyler says in the article. “They were worried about us, so that gives you some idea of how fucked up and crazy we were.” Adds Perry: “Our story is basically that we had it all, and then we pissed it all away.” Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, the so-called Toxic Twins and full-blown junkies once upon a time, were now happy to present themselves as characters straight out of “Hip to Be Square.”

In reality, it hadn’t been that long since Aerosmith had gotten clean. As recently as 1985’s Done With Mirrors, Aerosmith’s first attempt at a comeback after the return of the temporarily departed Perry and co-guitarist Brad Whitford, the band was still thoroughly mired in drugs. The Run-D.M.C. collaboration on “Walk This Way” revived the public’s interest in Aerosmith, but it took the band’s management and record label, Geffen, to strong-arm the members into treatment. Permanent Vacation was the first “clean” Aerosmith record — and arguably its first “professional” album, too. Along with accepting outside medical assistance, Aerosmith also took on outside songwriting help at the insistence of Geffen’s A&R guy John Kalodner, who played a pivotal role in remaking Aerosmith into a pop-conscious Top 40 act in the post–Bon Jovi world of smiley-face roller-rink metal.

One of Kalodner’s guys was none other than Desmond Child, fresh off the success of cowriting “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” for Bon Jovi’s paradigm-shifting Slippery When Wet.8 Child met with Tyler and quickly polished up two of Permanent Vacation‘s biggest hits, “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and the gushingly melodramatic backseat dry-hump classic “Angel.”

“Desmond came in, took Tyler’s idea, straightened it out, and made a song out of it,” Kalodner says in Walk This Way. “I was just a record company douchebag to them, telling them what to do. And they were resistant. To this day, Tyler says that I ruined his career by making him write ‘Angel’ with Desmond.”

Aerosmith went into 1989’s Pump insisting that it wasn’t going to use outside writers, but eventually the same hired guns were brought back into the fold — Child cowrote two of the album’s best tracks, the hit “What It Takes” and the sorta-hit “F.I.N.E.,” and frequent Bryan Adams cohort Jim Vallance pitched in on two other songs. But the album is still largely a triumph of Aerosmith’s renewed musical powers — Pump has the most consistent songwriting of any Aerosmith record outside the unbeatable one-two punch of Toys in the Attic and Rocks — and its hard-won sobriety. The behind-the-scenes documentary The Making of Pump is tellingly uneventful and devoid of illicit sniffing or runny noses. What it has instead is a montage of band members working out on exercise equipment, like a Rocky movie, the surest sign yet that the we-finally-got-our-shit-together ’80s and ’90s Aerosmith had triumphed over the passed-out-on-the-bathroom-floor ’70s incarnation.

Steven Tyler
Aerosmith had flipped its own script: The band once synonymous with addiction was now widely associated with recovery. During the Pump tour, Aerosmith’s path occasionally crossed with other bands trying to get off drugs, who came to Steven Tyler as a colorfully be-scarved dispenser of sage advice.

Rehab became its own kind of drug in the band’s inner circle — just as Joe Perry had once looked at heroin as a sacrament, the 12-step process was now seen as a cure-all for Aerosmith’s ailments. In the summer of 1991, Aerosmith was already seven months into the making of its next album, Get a Grip, and nobody was hearing hit songs. The Aerosmith of the ’70s never thought in terms of chart hits, but Aerosmith 2.0 was designed to dominate pop radio and MTV. This was a problem at least as big as puking and nodding off during a session, and Kalodner was leaning hard on Aerosmith manager Tim Collins to turn it around. Collins was already feeling anxiety over the $30 million contract he had negotiated with Sony that was due to kick in once Aerosmith’s obligation to Geffen was satisfied.

Collins had only one card to play: rehab. Only nobody in Aerosmith was currently suffering from drug addiction. An intervention for Tyler was staged anyway, and he was shipped off to get treated for sex addiction. Perry, Hamilton, and Whitford were also talked into hospital stints. The idea was to “recharge” Aerosmith’s batteries using tried-and-true methods. “‘The disease is back. The new addiction is money,'” Hamilton recalls Collins saying in Walk This Way. “I mean, the record’s not going well so we gotta go away to a mental hospital for a month? I mean, give me a fuckin’ break.”

In the end, what saved Get a Grip wasn’t hospitals but song doctors and ballads. Of the seven singles released from Get a Grip, all of the rock tracks — including non-starters like “Eat the Rich” and “Shut Up and Dance” — were overshadowed by a trio of country-flavored love songs that sounded virtually identical: “Cryin'” (written with Nashville vet Taylor Rhodes), “Crazy” (with Desmond Child), and “Amazing” (with Jim Vallance). The songs were promoted with a trilogy of music videos on MTV starring Alicia Silverstone (dressed in grunge-endorsed flannel) that ostensibly told a story about a young girl’s dalliances with BASE jumping and lap-dancing and Stephen Dorff, but were ultimately as interchangeable as the tracks. Not that it mattered: The videos were a smash, and Get a Grip sold as well as Pump.

Other victories awaited on the horizon in the late ’90s and beyond: “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing,” the sort of shameless Diane Warren–penned shopping-mall ballad that Celine Dion made her career on, became Aerosmith’s first no. 1 song. Aerosmith was now so safe that it inspired a video game and a roller coaster at Disney World; in 2001, it was invited to perform at the Super Bowl with Britney Spears and ‘N Sync. Steven Tyler reintroduced himself to yet another generation of fans as a judge on American Idol, paving the way for 2012’s exceptionally mediocre Music From Another Dimension!, the first album of original Aerosmith material in 11 years. And, yes, Desmond Child, Jim Vallance, and Diane Warren were still helping them write would-be hits.

Aerosmith backed out of Woodstock ’99 because of a scheduling conflict, but it never really belonged on that stage to begin with. The band had surrendered any semblance of danger in its genetic makeup many years earlier. Did Aerosmith sever itself from the band’s former greatness by diluting its essence down to a milquetoast consistency? Or did Aerosmith understand that, in pop music, you go where the audience goes, which means sticking with what sells and chucking the rest — even when “the rest” eventually includes rock and roll?

My heart says the former. But my head knows better. Aerosmith was a drug-fueled rock band when drug-fueled rock bands were big business, it was a non-drug-fueled rock band when non-drug-fueled rock bands were big business, and now it’s barely a rock band when rock is barely in business at all. Aerosmith has stuck around because it’s not married to a fixed idea of what Aerosmith is supposed to be. It ended up like Henry Hill in Goodfellas — healthy and alive if not exactly vital, hidden in plain sight in a form of witness relocation. Aerosmith changed identities like they were fake mustaches, because survival is everything, even if it means living the rest of your life like a schnook.

Coming up in Part 5: Metallica spent the ’80s as the world’s most popular “underground” rock band. It entered the ’90s determined to take over the mainstream, and succeeded beyond the band’s wildest dreams. Next week, I’ll look at how Metallica became more reviled as its popularity increased, and what this paradox tells us about the end of the rock audience.

Filed Under: Art, General topics, History

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden