POP MUSIC : Steven Tyler--Straight but Still Swaggering

"All those people who thought Aerosmith was dead were dead wrong," said Steven Tyler.

You can't blame Tyler for gloating. His band Aerosmith, missing-in-action from the record charts all decade, finally has a hit album. "Permanent Vacation" is in the Top 20, and has sold 1.3 million copies.

The band is also hot on the concert circuit. Its current tour includes a Wednesday date at the Forum and Feb. 4 and 6 shows at the Long Beach Arena.

But even in the days when he didn't have reason to swagger, Steven Tyler was swaggering. At 39, the singer is still is one of the glamour boys of rock--and he doesn't let you forget it. He's a smart aleck who bowls you over with his cockiness. He doesn't walk, he struts.

When he entered the chichi dining room of a hotel in Beverly Hills recently, people stared. The predominantly middle-aged diners probably didn't know who this skinny, long-haired guy in the jump suit was, but the way he was carrying himself, they undoubtedly figured he had to be somebody .

"It's a miracle I'm here," said Tyler, whose band splintered in the late '70s due to assorted drug and personal problems.

"I should be dead. There were enough toxins in me to kill 10 people."

In music industry drug circles, they used to call him the Tyler Chemical Co. He was drinking and snorting his life away. Tyler may have been the baddest of rock's bad boys.

Recalling his "bad old days," Tyler said, "There were these infamous lost weekends. I'd go away on Friday and get totally wiped out. I didn't know who I was with, how much coke I'd snorted or what I was doing."

When he was stoned, Tyler admitted, he was at his worst: "I was the most obnoxious creep. People would always tell me what a jerk I was when I was high."

Why did he turn to drugs and alcohol?

"I have an addictive personality," said Tyler. "I'm high-strung and impatient. I've got to have everything yesterday. I've got all this nervous energy that I've got to get rid of. Drugs and booze seemed to help me cope.

"I grew up with the John Wayne mentality. If you were a two-fisted drinker you were cool. I wanted to be cool. As a kid in the Bronx where I grew up, I was this goofy, white, big-lipped, jerky-looking kid. I wanted to be cool so I eventually turned into a flaming alcoholic. In the '70s it was cool to do drugs. If you could go to a party and have a girl on your arm and do all the drugs in the place you were cool. I was cool--but I paid the price."

A rehabilitation center finally got him off drugs and alcohol. "I had to go in a couple of times before it finally worked," he said. "I've been clean for a year and two months. I take it a day at a time. I can only say I'll stay clean until I go to bed tonight. Tomorrow, I'll worry about tomorrow."

Aerosmith was formed in New Hampshire in the summer of 1970 but moved to Boston--its home base ever since--later that year. The original members--Tyler, guitarist Joe Perry, bassist Tom Hamilton, drummer Joey Kramer and guitarist Brad Whitford--form the current lineup.

In 1975, Aerosmith became one of the biggest hard-rock acts in the business with "Toys in the Attic," a 4-million-seller featuring its classic, "Walk This Way."

Other great Aerosmith albums, including "Rocks" and "Draw the Line," followed. Hard-rock fans found Tyler's controlled screeching and Perry's searing guitar solos irresistible.

In its prime in the late '70s, this may have been the best hard-rock band in the business. By 1979, the band had racked up six consecutive million-selling albums. But then it all collapsed. "Drugs and booze did us in," Tyler recalled.

Perry triggered the split by quitting to pursue a solo career.

"He was mad because it was taking too long to write songs for the album," Tyler recalled. "The drugs were really messing me up. I had snorted up half of Peru. Then there was some stupid argument because Joe's wife threw a glass of warm milk in our bass-player's wife's face, for whatever reason. We were arguing backstage in a trailer. It almost came to blows. We said some horrible things to each other. It was all drug-induced."

Apparently arguments were common among Aerosmith members, but that battle was the last straw. "I don't know how we lasted as long as we did up to then," Tyler said. "We argued all the time. After a show I'd get mad and go backstage and trash the dressing room."

After Perry left, neither was Aerosmith. To make matters worse, guitarist Whitford walked out in 1981. Without those two, Aerosmith's 1982 album, "Rock in a Hard Place"--its last for CBS--wasn't the kind of powerhouse metal that fans were used to.

Even Tyler knew Aerosmith, partially manned by inferior replacement musicians, wasn't as good. "Something was missing," he said. "I remember looking over at the new guys and thinking something wasn't right. I missed Joe so much."

Tyler and Perry didn't talk for two years in the early '80s. What finally broke the ice?

"Time heals all wounds," Tyler said. "I said it's time to call Joe. I wasn't mad at him anymore."

Since neither Perry, with the Joe Perry Project, or Whitford, with Whitford/St. Holmes, had much success, both eventually decided to return in 1984. The original lineup's reunion tour was successful enough to interest several record companies. Geffen Records signed the band in 1985, releasing "Done With Mirrors" at the end of that year.

That album wasn't an effective comeback effort. "We didn't do it as well as we could have," Tyler explained. The fact that Tyler was still battling a drug problem was a factor.

But Run-D.M.C.'s rap version of "Walk This Way"--featuring a guest appearance by Aerosmith members--did what that album couldn't do rejuvenate the band's career. Suddenly Aerosmith was hip again.

The current album, "Permanent Vacation," isn't equal to their thunderous classics of the '70s, but it's much better than most of the other metal music on the market. However, it's atypical Aerosmith because of its grab-bag quality. Mixed in with throbbing, metalish pieces like the hit single "(Dude) Looks Like a Lady" are a bluesy tune (Hangman Jury) and a Beatles' cover ("I'm Down").

On "Permanent Vacation," it's apparent that Tyler isn't quite the gut-wrenching shrieker he used to be--on records at least. Some of those appealingly rough edges have been softened. It's not that his vocals are wimpy. You just get the sense that he's a disciplined veteran now, and no longer the untamed, rowdy rocker with fire in his soul.

Tyler admitted that the music on "Permanent Vacation" isn't all original: "Everything I've ever done I've stolen from somebody. If it's a direct rip-off, I do it differently and try to hide where it came from. People steal from other artists all the time. I'm just honest about it."

For one thing, other groups, particularly some of the hot heavy-metal newcomers, have stolen from Aerosmith.

"People are telling me all the time how these bands rip us off," Tyler said. "I don't care. It's all part of the cycle. But I know one thing. None of those bands will never be as good as we are."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
72°