Rock and a hard place

By Garth Cartwright

The story of Aerosmith is a story of excess. From humble beginnings, they conquered the world. Then they took the time-honoured nosedive into drug abuse, failed marriages and financial ruin. But today, the only thing they flaunt is their unlikely survival and clean lifestyles. Oh, and there's even a famous daughter to brag about.

Considering Dallas, Texas, played host to JFK's last ride and leant its name to TV's ultimate concept of the metropolis as Babylon - two mythic archetypes of contemporary American culture - it's surprising that the city's pulse is that of a dull, dusty cow town.

Albeit, a wealthy cow town, one whose skyline is peppered with the kind of ostentatious architecture only oil billionaires would dream of building. Money makes Dallas shimmer and, on a warm spring evening, Aerosmith's Lear jet touches down as the epic US rock band prepares to siphon off several hundred thousand Dallas dollars.

Aerosmith are nearly 30 and, while looking both ridiculously healthy and plain ridiculous - as a bunch of men kissing 50 but dressing like they're 15 must do - also appear set to evolve into an all-American mythic archetype. To appreciate why this dog-eared bunch of rockers could take on the status normally reserved for the likes of Elvis and Robert Johnson, it is necessary to understand the three stages of Aerosmith.

The first, from 1970 to 1978, found a Boston bar band mastering the cock-rock strut then rising to rule US stadiums amid an endless party of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The second, from 1979-1987, saw the band enter a freefall so swift and severe that insiders were taking bets on how long individual members had to live. The third, from 1988 to the present, involved a resurrection that turned five wasted lags into the pre-eminent corporate rock cartoon of our time. They made it and lost it, rehabbed and regained it, confessed their sins and, among atoning for lost wives and discarded lovers, one of them even discovered a secret daughter who grew up to be one of the most celebrated American actresses of our time.

No one died or, perhaps more importantly, got fat. Instead, they remained five skinny guys who looked like they were designed by MTV and Versace - feather cuts, leather pants, velvet jackets, silly hats - and, as they got more ridiculous, the western world embraced them; currently they rank among the top grossing musical enterprises on the planet. Americans love a happy ending, and Aerosmith look set to give them one: new wives, new children, new sound - this is the story of a band who fell to Earth and lived merrily ever after.

A report on Aerosmith should arrive dusted in cocaine blizzards, sticky with fluids from nubile farm girls, full of tales of trashed hotel rooms and crashed Ferraris. The reality in 1999 is, however, a good deal more prosaic. Just as Aerosmith were infamous throughout the 70s due to their appetite for destruction, they now attract equal comment on the strictness of their sobriety clauses. Backstage at Dallas's Starplex Amphitheatre, non-alcoholic beer is the strongest beverage going, and tobacco the only addictive substance being abused. The endless party finished long ago and, although there's a cluster of Pamela Anderson wannabes hanging around the dressing rooms, no one pays them any attention.

Friends, family and several giant-sized Dallas Cowboys make up tonight's entourage. Yet the myth that surrounds the band is still one of absolute excess. So much that they recently published Walk This Way, an oral autobiography exhaustively detailing the punishing marathons of drugsmoneysexviolenceego the band once put themselves through. I ask why they chose such an open approach, and the common response is "it was funny". Appropriate, considering they cite The Three Stooges and Mel Brooks as seminal influences. And accurate.

"I think we let a lot of the excesses of that era take us over," says the band's stoical lead guitarist Joe Perry. "We took things for granted, stopped putting on good shows, stopped making good records. Immaturity and drugs triggered that. The drugs were the symptoms and we lost sight of our dream. Thankfully, we've got a second chance."

Perry, alongside vocalist Steven Tyler, provides the band's public image - all glacial cheekbones and candyfloss hair. They make a good double act, both being small, wiry men of Italian ancestry who refer to one another as brothers. Yet, where Tyler is loquacious, Perry is stony. And where Tyler's features appear to have been moulded in rubber, Perry looks to have been carved out of granite. For years, they hated one another, but these days they appear deferential, just your average bunch of long-haired, multi-millionaire New England business partners.

While we talk before the show, rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford joins us, and both bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer drop in to offer their laconic asides on Aerosmith history. Only Tyler keeps a distance. Very much the star, he struts past, keeping an eye on things, never coming within microphone reach.

Later, when Tyler takes the stage, he's immediately mobile. As the musicians whip through their blues-flavoured hard rock, he walks the dog, shakes ass, strokes crotch, dances, pouts, struts and sings for two hours of epic flash and dynamic bravado. The largely blue-collar audience, all ages and races, give it up for the band, punching the air, holding lighters aloft, throwing the occasional bra, whooping hard. Good show? Great show. Very funny, and they rocked.

Immediately after the show, Tyler looks spooked. Shivering, his hair spiky with sweat, he needs a few minutes to regain composure. I'm impressed, especially considering that, at 51, his lithe, aerobic workout was performed by a man who confesses to having spent "25 years gacked to the nines". It's not just his stamina you take into account; Tyler's lush, camply aggrieved nature, a mix of seducer and jester, makes for compulsive viewing.

"Full of filth and full of soul", is how Little Richard described Aerosmith, and Tyler easily embodies this duality. As the after-show party continued, I wondered what I'd make of Tyler. The portrait drawn in Walk This Way is of a man constantly courting disaster: tyrant, kleptomaniac, drug fiend - all of which, admittedly, is pretty standard by music-industry terms - garnished with a side helping of jailbait: in 1975, after a concert in Portland, he met a 14-year-old girl called Diana. Convincing her parents to sign papers making him Diana's legal guardian, they shifted to Boston and spent the next three years getting very high and very messy. This is, of course, ancient history. Tyler has been sober since 1987, is now, he says, happily married and a doting father. He has, it seems, made peace with his past. And when a roadie finally calls me to meet him, my first impression is that he is annoyed. His wife, children and parents-in-law are ready to return to the hotel and I'm requesting an hour of his time. "Let's get on with it," he says.

Whippet-thin and fire-eyed, Tyler is an exotic specimen. His fine features, smooth skin and vast lips rest beneath a black mop of hair streaked with ratty blond highlights. A gaunt shadow haunts his face, making him appear totemic, a walking voodoo doll of sorts, yet his eyes sparkle with mischievous spirit. Barely seated, he goes straight into professional interviewee mode, words tumble out, hot-buttered phrases on "Joe Perry… the Italian Stallion!" and "Eric Clapton… a spiritual being". I sit back, listen, and consider how through Tyler flows Aerosmith's destiny. Not simply his mercurial presence and stage craft, but his vaulting ambition and capricious whims that drive - and once threatened to overturn - the rock machine that has sold more than 50 million albums and currently generates more than $1 million a week in ticket sales and merchandising.

Born Steven Tallarico in 1948, he grew up in Harlem and The Bronx. Hyperactive, and determined to be a star, he chanced upon the Jam Band in the small New Hampshire town of Lake Sunapee days after the Woodstock festival in August 1969. The Jam Band featured Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton playing their interpretation of British bands' interpretation of American music. Tyler told Perry the following day "maybe someday we'll have a band together". Several months later, they did.

Tyler had spent the previous five years playing bars around New York. By joining the Jam Band and recruiting high-school buddy Joey Kramer on drums and Brad Whitford on guitar, he set in motion the ultimate cocktail of loud American rock 'n' roll. Named Aerosmith by Kramer - nothing to do with Sinclair Lewis's novel Arrowsmith - they were essentially a potent garage band. Soon they had a local following, and management - Leber-Krebs, an organisation then looking after another Rolling Stones-obsessed, drug-guzzling band, the New York Dolls. Playing together, Aerosmith and the Dolls mapped out many of the moves that bands from the Sex Pistols to Guns N' Roses would later make. Yet where the Dolls were the toast of every rock critic going, Aerosmith were written off as lumpen Stones impersonators. Signed to Columbia but finding little support for their eponymous 1973 debut album, they got out on the road and stayed there.

"I was in bands for seven years before I wrote a song," he says, "because I was up there pretending I was Mick Jagger. Then I wrote a song, and the feeling of it was so real. And I think that's what we're communicating to the audience. That we're real."

Pre-MTV, criss-crossing the US was the only way to break a band who were sneered at by Rolling Stone magazine and ignored by pop radio. With the Stones and Led Zeppelin off the road, there was a huge audience for Aerosmith's greasy rhythms and pig-iron guitar. While the band rocked with force, Tyler kept things funny, sexy and sleazy. He wrote detailed, raunchy lyrics that bitched and bragged and piled innuendos high. Sung in the slang of adolescent America, he suggested creative use for J Paul Getty's severed ear, that Eve loved eating Adam's apple and pronounced himself lord of the thighs.

"Sexual energy is the life-force. Now, one of my heroes is Camille Paglia. I love that female sexual energy she's got. The way she talks about women and guys and dykes and fucking. She's so into living life. I'm so attracted to that. She's so unrepressed, so right on, so out there." Aerosmith, too, were unrepressed and out there, carving themselves a niche as true road warriors. Turning up in even the most forlorn US towns with the promise to party, they soon built a huge following, nicknamed the Blue Army - blue-collar kids who dressed in uniform denim. Releasing their second album, Get Your Wings, in March, 1974, they stayed on the road and watched it turn gold.

By early 1975, Aerosmith had completed Toys in the Attic. It was to be their masterpiece, a rock album that showed how they could get heavy while polishing pop hooks. Wildly confident and fuelled, in Perry's words, "by high-quality dope", it included a slice of proto rap-metal on Walk This Way, the song that was to become their signature. Toys would stay near the top of the charts all year. Critics were generally scathing, still slamming the band as Rolling Stones impersonators.

Aerosmith stayed on the road, now the soundtrack to high schools, biker bars and trailer parks everywhere. Even black America picked up on Walk This Way, and black musicians from Chuck Berry through George Clinton to Vernon Reid and many a rapper have acknowledged them as the best white-boy fusion of R&B and hard-rock going. When they released Rocks, in May 1976, the band were at their creative and commercial peak, selling more than 100,000 albums a week, filling the largest football stadiums, and even picking up good reviews. They had the world at their feet. Or so it seemed.

"I was soaked in alcohol," says the band's quietly-spoken rhythm guitarist, Brad Whitford. "We were all drinking and drugging too much. I don't think we noticed how out of control we were getting." Huge in the US, Aerosmith meant little outside it, and seemed to care less. A disastrous tour of Europe in 1977 found them playing to small audiences while spending heavily on private jets and top hotels. Their drug intake accelerated. Perry reflects that, by 1978, they "were drug addicts dabbling in music rather than musicians dabbling in drugs", and it was beginning to show. Having achieved all their wildest dreams, they proceeded to create a nightmare: album number five, Draw the Line, cost more than $1 million to record due to the band being in such a wasted state. It sounded listless, and the title was appropriate.

While egos erupted, money haemorrhaged and their wives and girlfriends fought among themselves, Aerosmith began to disintegrate. Columbia demanded a new album, and they complied with 1979's half-decent A Night in the Ruts, but Tyler and Perry were no longer on speaking terms. By 1980, Perry and Whitford had left the band and Aerosmith's time at the top had effectively ended. As if to underline the mess his life was in, Tyler crashed his motorcycle while in a drugged stupor and spent 18 months recovering. Hiring two new guitarists, Aerosmith took forever to record Rock in a Hard Place, an album that showed the band a shadow of their former selves. No one bought it, and Tyler took to regularly collapsing on stage."It was a bad feeling,"says Hamilton, "but did we do anything about it? No, we let it go on for another five or six years." The word spread: Aerosmith were finished.

"For years we lost it," says Tyler, "I shot coke in my arm and OD'd, so I shot it again. I lost my first wife, so I did it again. It's called using in spite of adverse consequences, it's called the big fuckin' DUH!"

Tyler and Perry, the two men once nicknamed the Toxic Twins, were united only by poverty, addiction and a sense of being out of time. Tyler existed on the $20 a day his manager doled out, while Perry relied on his girlfriend to pay the bills. Both fell in and out of rehab, found their marriages ruined, banks repossessing houses, dealers threatening violence, and the IRS claiming huge taxes owed. The bubble had burst, and hell seemed just around the corner. The other members of Aerosmith had similar problems. Only Hamilton had the foresight - and stable marriage - to avoid losing his house and cars. In industry terms, they were "dead".

And perhaps they would have died through lack of interest, or fallen prey to the addictions consuming them. Then Tim Collins arrived, seeing in Aerosmith "the anticipation, the almost religious power, the energy, the money". Collins, a Boston booking agent, was an unlikely saviour. A 20-stone, self-confessed "cokeslut", his masterstroke involved extricating the band from legal and personal wrangles and signing them to David Geffen's immensely powerful Geffen Records, in 1985.

Around the same time, a young producer named Rick Rubin was putting finishing touches to the third album from rap trio Run-DMC. Aware that New York hip-hop DJs were cutting up old Aerosmith songs for their loud beats and funky grooves, Rubin convinced Tyler and Perry to re-record Walk This Way with Run-DMC. As a rap-rock fusion, it became a huge US and international hit, introducing Run-DMC to white listeners, and Aerosmith to a new teenage audience.

"The Run-DMC collaboration was crucial for the rebirth of the band," says Tyler. "That was the very tail-end of getting high. We had just crawled out of the ashes and got the band back together." The collaboration came at the right time; only months before, their debut Geffen album, Done With Mirrors, stiffed, and David Geffen had made his displeasure known. For the follow-up, Permanent Vacation, Aerosmith were joined in the studio by Bon Jovi's producer and song-doctors. Geffen henchmen cracked the whip, and Tyler, believing that an early-morning engagement at Collins's office was for a BBC radio interview, found himself confronted by band and manager.

By this stage, Tyler was an alcoholic who relied on huge amounts of cocaine to keep him standing, while being addicted to Valium, methadone and Xanax (an anti-anxiety drug). After hours of confrontation, Tyler gave in and was placed in a rehab clinic, where he would spend the next 45 days. Crucially, he chose to complete the course. Perry and the rest of the band checked into different clinics. Aerosmith's rebirth began with the Run-DMC coupling; sobriety gave them the strength and focus to rise again.

"Oh, I bottomed out," says Tyler. "I was in rehab and still wanted to get high, and in there I felt like a burns patient. Then one day we said, ‘Look at us, do we want to remain professional drug addicts or professional musicians?' We got sober because we damn near nearly died. You see, the thing about addiction is that it rapes you. It rapes you and the God-given spirituality that it takes to write a song." The comeback took flight in 1987. Permanent Vacation went on to sell four million copies. The band may have looked the same and pulled all the old moves, but never again would they sound like the raucous sex machine of the 70s.

Emerging from rehab, the band had much to take stock of. All except Hamilton had lost their wives, and the emotional and financial fallout from shattered families would take some years to settle. Tyler's second wife, Teresa, had followed him into rehab, and their first child was born soon after. Then Bebe Buell, a former Playboy centrefold and ex-girlfriend of Tyler's, introduced her 12-year-old daughter, Liv Rundgren, to Tyler. Previous encounters had seen Buell so disturbed by Tyler's drug habits that she avoided telling Liv who her real father was. With Tyler now sober, the reunion was sweet, and Liv Rundgren changed her name to Liv Tyler when she launched an acting career at 14. First job? Starring alongside Alicia Silverstone in an Aerosmith video.

"Liv's free," says Tyler, smiling at the thought of his famous daughter. "She's like I am on stage. She's not nervous, I watch her on screen and she's so unaffected. She had a great upbringing, her Mom did a good job, and then she was left to her aunts and uncles in Maine, and Maine is all ‘oohh, yas, eat your oatmeal', that New England sensibility, and she had the best of both worlds.

"Now, you ask me about regretting being an absent dad to Liv and Mia (Tyler's daughter from his first marriage): 50% of me does, but the other 50% realises that, had I not gone through what I've gone through, I'd not be where I am, right here, right now. That's the good news. The bad news is that I was not there for my two little daughters and I've cried about it, cried with them about it. The good news is they love me."

The Aerosmith machine now went into overdrive, and 1989's Pump sold nine million copies. Not only did they come back bigger than ever but they cleaned up just in time. The band's mix of toughness and vulnerability, carnality and humour, always did set them apart from their more meatheaded competition. That they entered their 40s with this aura still intact made them now internationally popular and supremely attractive to young bands. As 1993's Get a Grip sold 12 million, the band that had become a bad joke were now the most colourful cartoon in rock.

Appropriately, The Simpsons employed them as the house band at Mo's Bar, Wayne's World gave them the full "we are not worthy" treatment, and Richard Linklater's film Dazed & Confused revolved around a group of Texan teenagers desperate to get tickets for an Aerosmith concert.

Of course, for an outfit so associated with disaster, things could not run too smoothly. Of all the anecdotes surrounding them, perhaps funniest is the now-sober Tyler being forcefully sent by Collins to Sierra Tucson, an exclusive therapy centre, where he is treated for sex addiction. Tyler had, admittedly, developed a dependency on Penthouse models, but he found himself sharing classes with men of a more deviant persuasion. Things came to a head when his room-mate quit the programme and sold his Tyler story to a supermarket tabloid. Tyler's first wife, Cyrinda Foxe, then followed with a kiss-and-yell memoir of her time with Tyler, and recently tried to sell nude photos of him. Tyler won a court order in March against her doing so.

"She just wants some money. She's into sensationalistic stuff. She's got a lot of sadness and, sure, I'm to blame for some of it, but I don't want her selling pictures of my cock. I mean, it's probably all shrivelled up and I've got much better photos of it at home, ha ha ha! No, I don't want that stuff floating around, I don't want my kids seeing it and, as we've got money, we stopped it."

Aerosmith's ability to self destruct remains intact, although these days it is more to do with a miscellany of accidents: the 1998 European tour was cancelled due to Tyler stabbing himself with his microphone stand, while an attempt to reschedule was scuppered when Kramer's Ferrari caught alight while he was still in it. Still, Columbia wooed them back from Geffen with a $30-million advance, their current album, Nine Lives, has passed the four million sales mark, and the single I Don't Want to Miss a Thing became their first ever US number one and a huge UK hit. The song, a wretched power ballad written by Diane Warren, appeared on the soundtrack of the Bruce Willis epic, Armageddon. As Liv Tyler provided the film's love interest, Aerosmith came on board. In effect, the song represents Aerosmith's current status - bigger than ever, yet recording AOR material they would have scorned 20 years ago.

Indeed, so wholesome are Aerosmith in 1999 that Disney is launching an $80- million ride, Aerosmith's Rock & Roller Coaster, in Orlando this August. That five high-school dropouts who set out searching for cheap thrills are now part of America's iconography, the Mount Rushmore of Yankee rock bands, is, I guess, some kind of validation of the American Dream. That these palookas ended up healthy, wealthy and wise reinforces it, surely.

Teresa's checking the time, the nanny's taken the children back to the hotel, Hamilton drops by and asks Tyler if he wants to join an after-show meet-'n'-greet. Tyler is doubtful. "Silicon city?" he asks. Hamilton nods affirmative. Two decades ago, no question would have been needed; now Aerosmith run on business plans and military-style promotional campaigns.

Tomorrow, the band is scheduled to fly to Denver to visit survivors of the Littleton high-school massacre. Then there's the following day's concert. And more media. And again on to another city in another state. Six Mack trucks transporting 50 employees and countless tons of gear. It's a schedule that verges on manic, a different form of road madness to the kind they once perpetuated, one that ensures America squeezes all the juice left from its favourite rock 'n' roll archetypes. Tyler looks weary but not exhausted, no chance he's going to lose control again, and he keeps talking.

"Y'know," he says, "I get more done in a day now than I used to in a month. See, the only way out is through. You got it?"

 Walk This Way is published by Virgin