Think of iconic bands of the '70s, and alongside British bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, there are the Bad Boys of Boston, Aerosmith, whose blues-soaked glam rock 'n' roll blazed a direct path to the hair metal of the '80s. Fronted by the uncontainable and ever-entertaining frontman Steven Tyler, the band burst on to the scene with its self-titled debut record in 1973, which featured the enduring "Dream On," by anyone's measure one of the best rock ballads ever written. Guitarist Joe Perry and Tyler started the band in New England in the middle of the Vietnam War. The ups and downs of the two men's relationship has continued to define the band. The two partied so hard as to earn the nickname "The Toxic Twins," and in 1979, Perry quit the band, only to rejoin in the '80s. The band has some of its biggest commercially successes in the '90s, including the band's only number one hit, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," released in '97, when Perry was 47 years old. In 2009, Perry told the press the band was looking for a singer to replace Tyler. If it was a threat, the band never followed through, as Tyler remains with the band to this day.
Last year, Perry released an autobiography, Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith, with co-writer David Ritz, and also released a Christmas album. New Times spoke with Perry as the band prepared to kick off its tour on Saturday, June 13, with an appearance at Gila River Arena in Glendale. We talked about his relationship with Tyler, the band's early days, and how the artistic vision he had 40 years ago has played out over his career.
New Times: What do you remember about early shows you guys played in Phoenix?
Joe Perry: I remember being excited about it because Alice Cooper was from there. I've always been a fan. I figured it must be a pretty rocking town if Alice Cooper came from there.
NT: When you guys got together, was the level of success you've since achieved even conceivable?
JP: Well, that's an interesting question. I don't think the music business was even a 10th of what it is today. I mean, it was a cottage industry, almost . . . As far as looking ahead, seeing how big it could get — nobody had any concept of what it could be, that you could sell 16 million records, 30 million records.
It was like, come on, give me a break, man. It just was a whole different animal back then.
Now, it's like some of the best rock 'n' roll I'm hearing is on TV. The show Salem — it's a TV show — and Marilyn Manson sings the theme song, and it's one of the best rock songs I've heard all year. It's fucking brilliant.
It just shows how widespread and how accepted rock 'n' roll music is. That never would have happened back in 1965.
NT: How do you think you guys would fare if you were starting out in the current music climate?
JP: I think it would be a tough upward climb. There's a lot of great bands out there. A lot of great bands are making really good music. It's interesting because we've just discovered a bunch of tapes that were made probably a year before the band was signed. The band was fucking good. I'm listening to it and I'm going, shit, there's just a certain level of natural [pauses] something that the band had, even when we were playing the high school gyms.
It was really fascinating to hear because most of the stuff we've ever recorded has come out. It's just a couple songs. It's the same songs off the first record — no surprises there. But it was just a recording of a show that we did before we had been signed, and when I listen to it, I go, yeah, there's a reason Steven Tyler is one of the best frontmen in the world. There's a reason why the band is as big as it is. We obviously had a lot to learn, but you can hear the basic guts of the band. So, yeah, I think we would fare pretty well. Knock on wood. Thank God I don't have to go through it again. I'm at the other end of the road. I still think we've got a few good years left in us.
NT: Where were you guys playing shows before you got signed?
JP: We played just about anywhere. When [bassist Tom Hamilton] and I had a band, we played just about any place. I remember playing on a flatbed truck in winter, and it was so cold it was snowing. It was just supposed to be rain, and it got colder and snow came down. It was just on a truck in an old town square and they played us $50 to play.
Those were the places we played to fill out the calendar. We concentrated on putting our original songs together. We obviously played cover songs in the beginning, but we didn't want to get locked into that cycle of playing five nights a week and making really good money but being too burned out to sit down and try and write new songs and come up with something different.
We had something to offer that I wasn't hearing. I wasn't hearing a certain style of music coming from other American bands. I'd heard a lot of the English bands and, again, I didn't hear here what I pictured in my mind, and that's what I was hoping we could get with Aerosmith. But we needed to spend time in the rehearsal room to get there, and getting locked in that cycle of playing clubs every night, you get burned out, man. You go home with a waitress and you wake up at four in the afternoon and then you have to go and play another four sets. It doesn't leave you a lot of time to focus on what's in your gut and your head. It was kind of a chess game we played trying to make enough money on the weekends so we could have enough time off during the week to rehearse.
But Aerosmith has an awful lot of songs that we've already written that a lot of the fans like. So if we go on the road and we don't play those songs, a lot of fans go home disappointed. We love playing those songs. Every night, I look at those songs like I get a chance to do something different from the way I played it last night or the way I played it in the studio. The fans get to hear it a little bit different. It still has the same vibe, but they're gonna get a different kind of a show.
NT: You mentioned that Aerosmith still has some good years left in the band. Does that mean you guys are working on a new album?
JP: I don't know when we're gonna work on a new record. I don't know if it's worth it anymore.
NT: Why's that?
JP: When we go out and play live, people wanna hear old stuff. Artistically, I'd like to do some new music. I feel like, I definitely know I still have some songs that I'd like to work on in Aerosmith . . . Billy Joel said it a couple years ago. "Why bother making a new record? When I go on the road, all my fans want to hear is the old stuff." There's a lot of truth to that.
I like to record. I love the creative part about it, and I'm gonna keep doing it.
The thing is, you've got five guys who have lives outside of the band. We've been touring together for 40 years. We've got other things we want to do besides committing ourselves to Aerosmith. We still love doing what we do. We're gonna keep touring. It is what it is. Steven wants to do a solo record this fall. If he wasn't going to do that, we'd probably do a regular Aerosmith record.
You gotta realize that most guys and girls that are in this business, we do it because we love it and we love to entertain the fans, and all that stuff, but it's an ego thing, too. We love to hear our singing back, and our guitar playing back. And the fact that the fans like it, too, that's a great thing. But it's kind of a selfish thing. Nothing's ever gonna stop me from wanting to record. Like I said, I might only sell five records or 15, or maybe 1,000. Who knows?
But Aerosmith has an awful lot of songs that we've already written that a lot of the fans like. So if we go on the road and we don't play those songs, a lot of fans go home disappointed.
NT: You don't find it stifling that the fans expect you to play the same radio hits every night?
JP: I go out there and watch the fans' reaction, I get inspired to go out there and give it something new. As an artist, it can get kind of boring, but like I said, when I see the way the way the fans get off on it — like when I play the riff for "Walk This Way," all of a sudden they're on their feet — I get off on it.
Would I like to be playing some of the songs off the new record? Yeah. But that's not how it is anymore. We've tried it . . . The audience goes, "Well, that was okay, but I really wanted to hear 'Back in the Saddle.'"
NT: Speaking of your albums, do you have a favorite Aerosmith album?
JP: Let me see. There are a couple of them where I think we really were at a creative peak. I think one that didn't get noticed that I thought should have was Night in the Ruts. That's when I quit the band and we never got a chance to tour behind it . . . That record kind of epitomizes what I was really going for. But unfortunately, because of the way it went, I didn't get a chance to play it front of people and see what kind of reaction we'd get.
NT: Any others?
JP: You know, I really like Draw the Line, too. We sold more of Get a Grip than any other record, but I don't know if it's my favorite record.
NT: You don't see a lot of rock 'n' roll on the charts these days. What do you think about rock 'n' roll not being as prominent now as it was back then?
JP: Well, I think that the music that's on the charts is getting people off. It's harder than ever to cheat the charts. In the old days there were ways they could get around it. It was more a cash business. Jesus, Brian Epstein bought 1,000 singles to get the Beatles on the charts.
The fans are listening to what they like . . . I think that's one of the big things that's changed is that the real pop chart, the same chart that was the only chart back in 1968, usually has a pop singer or somebody like Justin Bieber or New Kids on the Block, or one of the diva singers.
That's what I always hated — our biggest single for the longest time [until "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing"] was "Dream On." It was a ballad. Aerosmith is not a ballad band.
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NT: Have you closely followed American Idol since Steven became a judge?
JP: Actually, I had been on the show three times before he was a judge. But it's one thing to sit in as a well-known sideman playing with Linda Perry or something, or whoever it happened to be, and actually being a judge. It's a very pop-oriented show. Back in the '70s, I just don't see Steven doing that. Maybe he would have done it for the money, and it probably would have helped our career at that point. This time, I don't think it helped our career. I think it took away from our badassness.
NT: So he was just a little too rock 'n' roll for that show?
JP: Yeah. That's what makes him such a great frontman for a band like mine. He's still got it, man. But that's what we stood for back in the '70s. That's why we kind of rolled our eyes when he took that gig. But you gotta go, "Why not? Times have changed" . . . But I think that as many people that got turned onto the name Aero-smith, it didn't increase our ticket sales. It didn't increase our record sales, but a lot more people knew who Aerosmith was and they knew who Steven Tyler was.