Aerosmith's ninth life
On the eve of their new album, "Nine Lives," Aerosmith discusses the tensions that almost broke up the band
No, Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer’s spacious garage attic isn’t filled with toys. And if you go snooping for that group Dorian Gray portrait you figure must be tucked away somewhere, the closest you’ll find is a framed Matt Groening caricature.
But ah, sweet elixir of youth, or whatever nontoxic substance it is that’s fueling the casual jamming in Kramer’s oak-appointed, suburban Boston practice space. One by one, Joe Perry, 46, Brad Whitford, 45, and Tom Hamilton, 45, pick up their instruments and lock into a lazy funk riff that eventually reveals itself as a cool variation on (what else?) ”Walk This Way.” The attic’s landlord is nowhere in sight, but slouched over Kramer’s Plexiglas-partitioned drum set is some lucky kid with his hair hanging over his face, making it hard to tell whether he’s keeping time with the big boys intently or absentmindedly.
The kid finally looks up for a cue and, what do you know, it’s Steven Tyler — not so surprising when you remember that an eternity ago Aerosmith’s singer actually used to be an itinerant drummer on the Boston rock scene, back before the world realized he really did have a mouth on him. Maybe slipping behind the kit is Tyler’s ritualistic way of turning the miles back on the odometer a little.
When the drummer shows to take back his rightful place, Tyler, 48, quickly slips behind the mike stand and lets loose through those Lloyd’s-of-London lips a series of very convincing catcalls — Mmmrrreeeeeoooorrrrwwwrrr! — that are the soon-to-be- familiar feline preamble to ”Nine Lives,” the title track from the group’s imminent studio album, their 12th. The quintet blows through the new hyper-anthem with the spirit of a band one third their age and the prowess of a band exactly their age. Damn if, after a quarter century of making music, they don’t still have a tiger in their tank.
Come break time, Tyler ambles across the room to a table festooned with music magazines. His eye immediately seizes on the latest issue of Acoustic Guitar World, which uses a cover shot of Jimmy Page from his baby-faced Zeppelin days. Feigning disgust at Page’s preferential treatment at the hands of photo editors, Tyler mutters some profanities in the direction of a visiting journalist before brightening at the prospect of putting on a younger face himself. ”In 2013, maybe there’s hope for us,” he jokes. ”Maybe we can have masks made, so when we come out…” Ever the ham, Tyler hunches over, mimes going on stage with a cane, shielding his face with the young-Jimmy cover.
Walkers this way?
Not to worry. AARP eligibility is still a good ways off, and frontmen Tyler and Perry — nicely preserved middle-agers, both — can afford to be self-deprecating at the prospect. As Tyler’s 19-year-old actress daughter Liv marvels about her dad, ”Every time I see him I’m kind of shocked because he’s getting more beautiful every day.” How does he do that, anyway? Liv laughs. ”It’s creams.”
The music hasn’t matured much, either. Nine Lives is innuendo-drenched, reflective only when a soaring ballad’s hook demands it, and 99 5/8 percent torment-free — exactly the blend of power-ballad singles and FM-ready raunch Sony Music’s Columbia Records banked on in 1991 when it signed Aerosmith to a contract reportedly worth as much as $50 million.
The weird part about the deal was that the band was still committed to Geffen Records for three more releases at the time, leaving Sony to wait five and a half years to claim its prize. An obvious concern was whether Aerosmith would be rendered irrelevant by the sweeping changes of the alternative-rock revolution that cleared out most of their young mullet-head challengers, but in fact the delay may have worked to the group’s advantage. Now Nine Lives is hitting the streets within the same time frame that’s seen myriad press reports of the death of grunge; even alt-rock bible Spin wants an Aerosmith cover. “The shoe-gazer trend has shown to be pretty impotent in record sales,” exults their longtime A&R rep, John Kalodner, “so a rock band can show its strengths again.”
The band almost didn’t survive long enough to enjoy this moment. There were tumultuous times last year when Aerosmith seemed to have used up all nine lives and a few bonus rounds to boot. Between a publicly traumatic group/manager split, the exit of one member in the throes of depression, squabbling over musical direction, a producer change, an entire scrapped album, and—most damningly and doggedly—rumors about renewed drug use, 1996 was the Year of Recording Dangerously.
“I don’t think anybody’ll know how close we came to breaking up last summer,” says Perry a few hours before today’s rehearsal. He and Tyler are perched on swivel chairs alongside the old analog soundboard in the guitarist’s basement studio, the Boneyard. “But,” he emphasizes, “we were determined not to let happen what happened in 1979, when we went through the same kind of stuff. Obviously, we had our sobriety this time, so the basic makeup of what held us together was different.”
Tracking for Nine Lives began in early ’96 in Miami with producer Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette), who’d already proved simpatico on a handful of songs he and Perry and Tyler had cowritten for the project. Trouble arrived almost immediately, though, in the sudden departure of Kramer, 46, who was suffering from severe depression—”I was basically nonfunctional,” he recalls—and got on a plane after just a few sessions. Rather than cancel the already long-delayed studio time, Tyler and Perry opted to forge ahead and bring in session drummer Steve Ferrone—a decision that struck Hamilton as “inconceivable. I just felt so much for Joey, it freaked me out.”
Then came the more refined stylistic differences that Ballard brought to the material, the merits of which the band began battling over. Tyler recalls how, at the outset, he and Perry gave Ballard two objectives—”we want it to sound rougher and rawer than the last four or five records did, but we also want to push it sonically and go to places we’ve never been”—twin goals that they admit, in retrospect, were contradictory. On the more adventurous end, Ballard delivered and then some, and Tyler, for one, was thrilled.
Then the label got its first sneak preview of the sessions and, by Tyler’s account, had a corporate panic attack. “Our manager asked Glen to mix the record and send it in to Sony so they could see where we were at, and that was such a wrong thing to do,” grouses Tyler, still upset. “Glen comes from jazz-oriented stuff, and he’s a lighter—not a rock—guy. So when Sony heard the tapes, they went ‘Uhp! This isn’t the Aerosmith we spent $48 million on!'”
Others in the band agreed: not enough rock in a hard place. Tyler, wanting to stretch out and feeling he’d turned in some of the best vocal performances of his life, was livid at the idea of recutting the tracks. Work ceased; communication between band members broke down entirely.
After nearly two months of uneasy silence, all five members—including Kramer, who was hesitant but ready to come back to the fold—agreed in June to work with a mediator at the same California treatment center that had just counseled the drummer to health. When word leaked out that the whole band had put in quality time at a rehab facility, there were skeptics who wouldn’t believe anything but a drug relapse had prompted it, but the group was adamant that substance abuse had nothing to do with its stay. “It was a place where we could be isolated,” says Hamilton. “If we were to do it at Joey’s house, if somebody got p—– off enough, it’d be, ‘F— you guys,’ and they’d get in their car and take off, and it’s off the rails again.”
Once they all actually agreed, a few days into their 10-day confab, to keep the band together, “it started to feel like 1325 again,” says Hamilton. “Which is not the year we got together—it’s the apartment we had in Boston when we first started, when we were setting the course.” By the end of it, they were on their way to becoming of one mind on a critical point—that the man they felt had been dictating their course, their manager of 12 years, Tim Collins, would have to go.
“I was blown out of the water for like eight weeks. It was the lowest point in my life. I was devastated. I can’t tell you…. I cried for weeks.”
That’s Tyler discussing his reaction last summer, after Collins speculated the singer might be using drugs again, first with the other band members, later to the press. This was no small allegation: After going from riches to rag dolls largely as a result of years of chronic multiple-drug abuse, Aerosmith climbed to the top again ten years ago only after all five members committed to sobriety. The allegations were worse, Tyler says, because they came from the man who’d helped sober them up and is one of the pillars of rock’s anti-heroin campaign. While Collins now acknowledges he hasn’t seen Tyler do any drugs in more than a decade, he says he’d gotten “about 20 phone calls” from people who said they knew of Tyler’s continued narcotics use. “So I asked him about it, and Steven said, ‘None of your business. I’m gonna put in my body whatever I want to put in my body.’ Not a good answer from a guy who had a [drug] habit for years and who I watched almost die on several occasions.”
Tyler thinks Collins became suspicious because he, Tyler, had been getting so emotional in the fights over the stalled album-in-progress: “Unfortunately, manager-wise, when I get angry and suit up, [the thinking is] I must be on drugs.” He resented his band mates, too, for considering that the rumors might be true. “I was an emotional mess. No one will ever know. I was talking about it this morning to somebody and I started crying again. I was totally distraught, beside myself completely.”
On July 31, the newly unified band asked Collins to step down. The next day, a story appeared in the Boston Globe in which Collins said, ”There’s a certain element in the group that hasn’t totally chosen sobriety”—a flash point for the public war of words with Tyler that continues to this day. Collins now says ”sobriety is a lot more than drinking and drugging,” and that he was really referring to ”irrationality and some pretty insane behavior.”
Tyler, for his part, maintains that he was sick of being the poster boy for recovery at Collins’ behest. ”My sobriety is mine, and between me and whoever I think got me sober…. God got me sober. I can’t even tell you what kind of a power it took to get me high. Every drug dealer in New York City couldn’t get me high enough, so it had to be something phenomenal to get me off the s—. And it wasn’t Tim Collins….
”I want the world to know I’m as sober as can be. He can’t hurt me anymore—although he hurt me in many respects as bad as anybody has. I mean, when my 7-year-old has a sleep over and she says her best friend can’t come because her parents said that I’m on drugs…that kills me. I cried about that. He put that out there. The good news is that he’s gone. We cut the cancer out. I know what he was trying to do—break my band up—but I don’t understand why.”
Collins can’t understand what his motivation would be for that, either: ”What’s my incentive in breaking them up?” he asks. ”Twenty percent of nothing is nothing.” Collins talks about how he let Perry live on his couch and supported him out of his own pocket when his wife threw him out in the early ’80s; he tells of how Tyler used to call and profess his undying devotion for taking them from a band that sold 325,000 copies of 1982’s Rock in a Hard Place to 7 million of 1989’s Pump. He says he can’t figure what happened, except to speculate that the pressure of giving Sony its money’s worth after keeping the label waiting for years finally got to the band. ”When we left [Geffen Records],” remembers Collins, ”David Geffen warned me. He said, ‘Sony’s paying you more money, but don’t forget what my mother used to say: ”The devil writes the biggest check.” And you’re putting more pressure on this band than they can handle. And if you stayed here, you’d make just as much money on the royalty end. Disloyalty never pays off.’ I look back on it and I think, Wow, the guy was right.”
Charges and countercharges of disloyalty are rampant. Tyler says Collins went ahead and fired Ballard on his own; Collins claims he was ordered by the band and several Columbia reps to do so, against his own recommendation. Tyler says Collins refused to join the group at the treatment center; Collins says he wasn’t allowed to. ”Steven gets real emotional and mixes things up,” the ex-manager says. Liv Tyler agrees her dad was mixed up—but only about why his manager was spreading deceit: ”If there’s one thing my father is, he’s too honest. He’s probably the most honest person I know on the planet.”
One other motivation for the band to weather the crisis was that it seemed silly to break up when they already had a collection of what they considered terrific, hit-worthy material in the can. ”The music was like that team of Clydesdale horses, just pulling us through the bulls—,” says Perry.
Rerecording—with hard-rock producer Kevin Shirley now at the helm—went quickly in New York. Says Perry: ”We took everything that we did in Florida, that creative thing that we did with Glen, and just rerecorded it and played it live.” This is the first Aerosmith album in ages, he adds, where most of the tracks are the actual band playing together in the same room.
As recently as February ’97, the group considered including one or two of the original Ballard tracks—a few of which Tyler still thinks are better except for Kramer’s absence—on Nine Lives, but finally decided to stick with consistency. ”I think we were on to something very special” with Ballard, Tyler admits. ”However, Aerosmith is bigger than any of the single members. It was better that we went with Kevin and got that side of us out because that’s the core of Aerosmith—the rough suede as opposed to the smooth.”
In Aerosmith’s eyes, Nine Lives is their best since Pump, which in turn was their best since 1976’s Rocks. But their satisfaction with the album doesn’t mean the happily-ever-after is completely in place. ”I’m the kind of person that gets really freaked out by disharmony,” says Hamilton—who, if these were the Beatles, you might earmark as the Stable One—”and it amazes me that I’ve been able to stay in this band for so long, because disharmony is a big part of the way this band gets when the chips are down, especially when we’re making musical decisions. It can get cold in here, and very competitive. Everybody in this band really gives a s— about what the record sounds like and wants to throw down…. So there’s a lot of points where some of us have agreed to disagree on the fine points of what really happened. But we’re tighter than we were in the ’70s. We’re still reacting to the horror of when the band broke up [in 1979], still flying away from that, as opposed to just weaving along on what we’ve done for 25 years.”
”There are times when it gets pretty f—ing hairy,” agrees Kramer. ”But we have a lot of love and genuine care. It’s like a marriage, the kind of thing you have to work at.” A marriage? That doesn’t sound very rock & roll. Hamilton offers an equally harrowing, less domestic analogy: ”When you go watch figure skaters, or motorcycle racers, half of what makes them interesting is that they might fall on their face—it’s that tension.” He laughs. ”We have some of that.”