Sure Aerosmith's Steven Tyler has been compared to Mick Jagger for two decades, but did you know that he also does a pretty mean Jerry Lewis? During a tandem phone interview this week with bassist Tom Hamilton, the singer's voice often seemed to drift into the famed antic whine/bray that typified Lewis in his younger days--which left Hamilton, by default, playing Dean Martin to him.
By doing interviews as a tag team, the band members are able to joke with and keep each other awake while journalists inevitably get around to asking the same old questions. The requisite topics these days include the group's plunge into drug excess and recovery, and its not entirely coincidental career dive and tremendous rebound, highlighted by its signing in 1991 to Sony Music. Aerosmith got a $30-million guarantee, quite a sign of faith in the group's longevity, since at the time it still owed two albums to Geffen Records.
The first of those albums, "Get a Grip," came out this April, went to No. 1 and remains in the Top 20 after 13 weeks. Aerosmith plays tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa; Jackyl opens the show at 7.
For a decade and half, critics wrote Aerosmith off as Stones clones, slagging Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry as dimmer versions of Glimmer Twins Mick and Keith. But a couple of years ago the critics started looking favorably at the band (in response to which Tyler opines, "I kind of think that's the kiss of death"), realizing that Aerosmith--like Led Zeppelin--seems like an avatar of originality and style when compared to the hordes of slavish imitators it has spawned.
Wasn't it frustrating to the group when it was hitting bottom to see all these Aero-derivative bands getting the hits and fame?
"Yes," Tyler answered, with that telethon voice. "As a matter of fact, I was sitting in a hospital being pumped full of . . . um, ah . . . ah . . ."
"Raisin Bran," said Hamilton, helpfully.
"Exactly, Raisin Bran. No, morphine . I had just taken my heel off in a motorcycle accident . . ."
"Oh, are we going to go into the drug rap now?" Hamilton interjected.
"No, it was the doctors that were administering it, Tom, not you ," Tyler parried, continuing: "And Van Halen had come along. And I thought, 'Who are these guys?' As we step out of the limelight, these guys step in. I got angry about that. But I think we made up for lost time, eh Tom?"
"That was when the whole MTV thing was starting," Hamilton said, "and I had some fear attacks that this bus was going to go right by us. But it was a great feeling running to catch up with that bus and getting on it."
Fueled by a Olympian level of substance abuse, the group had reached its nadir in the early '80s. Tyler's cohort and writing partner Perry had left in '79, along with rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford. Tyler, Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer soldiered on but seemed fated to a Spinal Tap-like spiral into obscurity.
"I got somebody in the band to take Joe's place who kinda-sorta looked like him," Tyler recalls, "and another guy to take Brad's place, and me and Tom and Joey and those two went out and did a tour to keep it going. What we didn't know was that there was a magic in the original lineup. You don't fool with Mother Nature." The original lineup re-formed in 1984.
Tyler and Hamilton think their group has a couple of qualities that set it apart from scores of '70s arena-act contemporaries now long forgotten.
For one thing, Hamilton said, "We didn't, and still don't, feel like we've done the Aerosmith album that we know we can do. We're really proud of what we've done up till now, but every time you get to the end of recording an album, you know you can do it better so you get really hungry for the next time.
"And it's true that no matter how things look, you're always only a song away from crankin' again."
"To the press we may keep a proud face on," Tyler said, "but a lot of my close friends will say to me, 'You're never satisfied, you're always bitching.' And like Tom says, that's our secret. We knew our best album was still inside of us."
Both also think that it helped that Aerosmith started out 23 years ago as a hard-gigging outfit, in contrast to the career-tailored bands who only want to preen themselves for industry showcase gigs in L.A.
"The ups and downs of gigging is part of the necessary roots, as well as listening to early black musicians and other musicians that helped form our sound," Tyler said. "I have this thing against being able to go down to the corner and seeing these stores where you can get the black hair dye and the makeup and the black rock pants. You can actually buy it all in a store. The up side of that is you can buy being a rock star, and the downside is that you never can. You'll fall by the wayside unless you've got something that isn't store-bought. You've got to have the drive, the talent. That all comes out in the wash."
In its early days in New Hampshire and environs, Tyler noted, Aerosmith couldn't find club work in the cities because proprietors only wanted to hear cover songs. "We were interested in writing our own stuff. So we decided, 'We'll go somewhere else and play our music until people like it.' " They wound up in out-of-the-way high school gyms and dance halls, slowly developing their musical personality and building an audience.
"Remember Noel's Casino, Tom? Jeez, there was this place where you'd drive three miles into the woods on this single-lane road, and you'd wonder where the kids came from. It was a big old barn--it looked like the place the Spruce Goose was built in--this huge bovine motel that was turned into a rock 'n' roll house. And kids would come out of the woodwork. We would drive hundreds of miles to play places like that just to be able to access something in ourselves, which was doing the kind of songs we wanted to do."
That woodshedding paid off years later: When their records weren't selling, they still could rely on their live shows to draw fans and to keep their own interest alive. "It's that part of being able to go onstage and have a good time that took the nut away from it being what other people call work ," Tyler said.
The final factor in the group's drive to return to the top was its taste of what things are like on the bottom.
"It gives us something to compare this to," said Hamilton. "It's strange but you can get to the point where you take anything for granted. There can be days when you get so fatigued you even get sick of the compliments. But we've got that nugget, that period of time where it began to slip right out of our hands, and it was right at the end of the rope before we grabbed it. That was a healthy thing for us."
Concurrent with their second chance in 1987, Tyler and other band members adopted a clean and sober lifestyle. This was after years of practically being poster boys for the "endless party" cocaine-and-whatever excess that has become a cliche of rock star life. Tyler said he refrains from proselytizing when he sees younger bands who still think that partying is a requisite part of the package.
"Partying is part of it," he said. "The only difference is, speaking for myself, I partied myself into oblivion. I became a professional drug addict and not a professional musician. I wasn't really dedicated to my music. I let that slide and got too carried up in being high all the time.
"That's not everybody's problem. If somebody is out there smoking an occasional joint, I don't say that's the best thing they could do, but we don't walk around with a sign saying, 'Listen, don't get high.' If they do get caught up in the trappings of it, then they can come talk to me."
Recovery hasn't been all roses. Like others, Tyler found it took a while to connect with his unmedicated muse.
"One of the biggest fears was 'I won't be able to write. I won't be able to play. I need that buzz to see me through.' What you come to find out is that you were dragging around a load of bricks. If anything it was holding us back from our muse growing."
"Sometimes (the drugs) work," Hamilton said. "I can remember smoking a joint and coming up with some pretty cool ideas. So you really get that burned in, that it is a great tool for writing. But there comes a point when you step over a line where you just go into reverse instead of forward."
Aerosmith pointedly has avoided topical songs during most of its career but at least two songs on "Get a Grip"--the title track and "Amazing"--address the band's errant past. Tyler said he didn't set out to write on the topic.
"I never set out to write about anything. At most we'll say there's a feeling we want to convey. It's better for me to close my eyes and go into a trance and let the music speak through me than for me to sit down and think, 'Tell your ma, tell your pa, our love's gonna grow, wah wah' and wrap a song around it. That's not the kind of songwriters we are.
"But when those songs came out that way I didn't fight it. I thought, 'Great, my muse is pointing me in a direction.' We were saying you can point it back to some of those old beliefs about the crossroads and signing up with the devil, that you can look at the drugs as that: It can be fun in the beginning but then it comes time to pay your debt, and if you're not sharp enough to see that it's taking you down, then it really will get you."
The album has received mixed reviews; the band's brief honeymoon with the critics may be over, but Tyler and company aren't especially broken up over that. The reason, they think, is that instead of being underdogs, they're now sitting on top of $30 million in Sony gold.
"I think a lot of people in the press heard about the Sony deal and made a decision that Aerosmith wasn't worth it," Hamilton said. "That set them up to have a negative reaction to our new album. They immediately figured this is not a normal musical album but a political album, a 'this is what we're doing until we go to Columbia' album. That's been a pain to read. But the album's been out long enough now that I can see there's a public consensus that it's a good album.
"And the bottom line really is people come see us onstage. I think they can tell that we mean it. When we get up there, we really want to do a good show. They can see that we're enjoying ourselves up there. You can read only so much hype in magazines, can only see so many videos where everybody's all made up and dressed up, or so many albums where they can take anything and make it sound great. But the fact that we started out as a live band, and that it's always been our center, I think that is what's kept us going for all this time."
* Aerosmith and Jackyl play tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Show time: 7 p.m. $22 to $27.50. (714) 740-2000 (TicketMaster).