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Dinner in Detroit With Aerosmith
The Future of "Cock-Rock" from Creem, 1975
As I reread this after many years to prepare it for posting, a few things stuck out. Why did I pretend I needed to rely on a press kit, to act like I was unfamiliar with the band? Aerosmith was on Columbia Records, where I had worked for two years prior to coming to Creem. Breaking Aerosmith was a priority project for the record company. "Dream On" was released and re-released as a single because of the confidence of the radio promotion, sales, and marketing teams that it was a hit record, and they stayed with it until it became a reality.
While still working there, writing and co-editing the house magazine Playback, I went to Boston to cover Aersomith's "triumphant" homecoming concert at the Orpheum Theatre. Blue Öyster Cult, also on Columbia, was the opening act. My story for Playback earned me a reprimand, because I forgot to keep my "record company" hat on, and wrote my rock critic opinion that Blue Öyster Cult was the better of the two bands that night. I was told in a letter from the marketing team to save such opinions for Creem, or wherever else I might be writing. They were right. But I'm not sure why I acted as if I had amnesia when some Creem editors had dinner with Aerosmith and their diplomatic and much-respected publicist, the late Laura Kaufman. At the dinner, in early summer, 1975, I was seated next to Perry, who was very pleasant company.
Aerosmith was finally climbing the ladder to stardom: Detroit was one of their core constituencies, and just a few months later they started breaking big across the USA. Toys in the Attic, Aerosmith's third album, became exhibit A of the 1970s critical consensus that most bands that make it require three studio albums to hit their stride.
The following year, I asked Mick Jagger what he thought about Aerosmith trying to snatch the Rolling Stones' torch. Jagger said: "Cock-rock, mate."
This first appeared in Creem magazine, September 1975 issue, with the headline "No Fear of Flying."
SAVORING SUCCESS: Steven Tyler is eating escargot and oysters Rockefeller at a downtown Detroit seafood restaurant.
Joe Perry, Aerosmith's lead guitarist, is looking very English (despite his Boston-greaser accent) in a natty white suit, washing down his escargot with Pernod. We seem a little bored with each other. My curiosity about their band is taking a back seat to a sledgehammer headache [aka hangover], and Tyler's sullen detachment doesn't make him the world's most lubricated conversationalist. It's not that he's unfriendly, but like most nouveau rock stars, his self-centeredness is an pre-occupation. Earlier, seconds after we met in his hotel, he somersaulted over a couch in the lobby: cute but bratty. In the limo on the way to the restaurant, he kept his eyes rolled back, rubbed his girlfriend's leg, and complained about the air conditioning.
Since I had read their press kit, I knew that the band had gotten together several years ago in New Hampshire, and that Steven had been a high school dropout (temporarily) and juvenile delinquent in Yonkers, New York. When I asked a few of these routine questions to get the chatter flowing, they groaned, as if they expected more from CREEM. So I mentioned a review I had once read, deriding Aerosmith for lacking "class." Tyler and Perry came out swinging.
"What do you mean by class," Tyler snorted.
"We're about to change that," Perry noted tactfully.
The floor was Tyler's. "Class. I'll give him some fuckin' class. Obviously, anyone who writes about class is looking for a rock 'n' roll band with class, right? So he's got the wrong group." I wondered if they thought any rock band could have "class." "Sparks," Perry volunteered. "Sparks have class." But Tyler was fuming.
"Brian Auger with his fuckin' white suit on. [He means Bryan Ferry, we think – Ed.] Shinin' your shoes, is that class? Saying excuse me after you fart? Our music does not fit white suits. Our music is rock 'n' roll, and rock 'n' roll is rock 'n' roll." I look at Perry in his white suit. Tyler continues. "Some people would never admit they still masturbate. I think class is puttin' something over really well. That's what class is."
Live in 2004, Aerosmith rocks Sunrise, Fla.
Tyler has a point. Aerosmith audiences keep growing because there is nothing prissy or pompous about this band. Though their music isn't much different from twenty other mainstream macho-rock bands, from Bad Company to BTO, Aerosmith may already be the most popular band ever to come out of Boston (J. Geils included). The boosting of Tyler as a Jaggeresque sex symbol helps, but it is their reputation for powerhouse raunch that sold out Detroit's Cobo Hall two consecutive nights: the little girls may understand, but the boys like the music because it's tough. Nevertheless, their following is spotty: heroes in Boston, headliners in Detroit, they are greeted with apathy on the west coast and ignored in the south.
"I'll tell you why," says Perry. "No press. No airplay. No single. No support, really, from the record company. In L.A., it's just the name on the marquee at the Whiskey – below somebody else. The only reason we’ve gotten anywhere in Detroit is that we came here and played third on the bill a couple of times, then second. Then people started calling radio stations asking for our songs, and now we're headlining. But we haven't gotten any press compared to Bad Company or even the Dolls."
Perhaps the lack of press coverage comes from the fact that Aerosmith never identified themselves with any particular fan bandwagon, and their first two albums were released at the peak of the media’s glitter obsession.
"We were doing makeup, glitter the year before in New Hampshire," says Perry. "We weren't wearing 14-inch platforms or anything. Our music was the main thing, though the show runs a close second. Kiss is the epitome of what we're talking about. Without their show, there's no go."
"Imagine taking off your makeup and nobody knows who you are," Tyler adds.
"I feel really sorry for them," Perry continues. "I look at people in the circus, having to climb up some ladder every night. I wouldn't want to do that either. But Kiss is entertainment. They're just using rock 'n' roll as their format. We're looking at it from a different point of view."
It's hard to believe, though, that anyone would've given Aerosmith a second listen a few years back, when the sound was thin and the edges rough, if they didn't look capable of mass seduction. One must admit that it was handy to have a lead singer who looked like a cross between Mick Jagger and Carly Simon. I wondered whether Tyler would admit to at least having started out copping his moves directly from Jagger.
"I didn't even start as a singer," Tyler protests. "I used to drum. We were working out 'In My Room' by the Beach Boys, so they gave me a mike. This was back with the Shoo-Be-Doos, y'know, like Dicky Do and the Don'ts. You'd ask the snare drum player in the school orchestra to join the group. I used to put orange juice in vodka. That's what I had for breakfast during my last two years of high school. Just to get through first and second period."
But what about looking like Jagger?
"I say jeans. Well, what can I say? People who think I look like Jagger never met him. These little innuendos about me by people sitting thirty rows back, and all they see is that blond cat next to me [Brad Whitford] as Brian Jones. And Joe is Keith Richards. And I'm supposed to be Jagger, running around. Shit. Jagger makes up for his whole group. He never stops prancing and dancing while the rest of them just stand there."
Perry: "They've got all those fuckin' great songs. They've cornered the market in that kind of music. It's like get off! It's like whiteized Ike and Tina Turner."
We chat a bit about Carly Simon. I ask Steven if he likes Carly's Playing Possum album cover. [Known at the time for its mildly risque focus on Simon’s sexy legs.]
"Do I like coming?" he says.
I should have followed that up. Instead, I ask them to tell me why someone should listen to Aerosmith rather than any other equally competent hard rock band. Perry, the serious, articulate professional, responds thoughtfully.
"I often wonder," he says. "Often times I wonder if I'm doing it right. If I'm actually contributing. Are we doing something good, or are we just followers?" I tell him at the very least, each of the band's albums (from Aerosmith to Get Your Wings to Toys in the Attic) have improved measurably.
"That's the truth. I don't know. We can go the BTO route, be a really commercial band, do the road trip. But to satisfy my own artistic needs, I wonder if the things I write...maybe I'm not getting better on guitar. Maybe I'm no better than your average guitar player. But I'll tell ya. If I find out after a year or so more that I'm not improving, I'll just quit touring and work on my cars.
(Later, when I ask Perry, the sports car buff, what he's got, he answers "eight inches." I must have given him the old "remember our conversation about class" look, and he lets me know he was just jivin' around. "I keep forgetting you're not Danny Fields," he says. We laugh, and he tells me about his Corvette LT-1 and Porsche 914.)
Perry's modesty about his guitar playing, while reassuring, is somewhat unwarranted. He is, in fact, constantly improving, the focal point of the band's increasingly crisp recorded sound. With Whitford chunking out the chords, and Joey Kramer and Tom Hamilton anchoring the rhythm, Perry is able to utilize an incisive, slicing style that reminds me of a more adventurous Mick Ralphs. He gives body and invention to Aerosmith's best songs (‘Same Old Song and Dance’, ‘Make It’, ‘Toys’, ‘No More No More’, ‘Sweet Emotion’) a quality that keeps Aerosmith a hoofbeat ahead of the Montroses of the world.
Some of the songs on Toys in the Attic tell us as much about Aerosmith roots as their celebration of the Yardbirds' ‘Train Kept A Rollin'’ on Get Your Wings, or ‘Walkin' the Dog’ on the first album. In ‘Sweet Emotion’, a thick-tongued production with a vocal mix that reminds me of ‘Tumblin' Dice’, Tyler sings:
Standin' in the front just a shakin' your ass
Take you backstage you can drink from my glass
I'm talkin' about something you can sure understand
Cause a month on the road and I'll be eating from your hand.
Or try ‘No More No More’, which rhymes "knees" and "disease," with obvious implications. This is hardly an evolution from the vulgar variations of ‘What'd I Say’ that were the meat of every frat rock bar band in the early sixties:
See the girl on the hill
If she don't do it her sister will.
Through with each album, they get better at minimizing their weaknesses – (Tyler's sometimes colorless voice, weak ballad material) – and capitalizing on their virtues (Perry's tough, classy guitar playing) it is Tyler's ability to project crude, leering sexuality that makes Aerosmith attractive to Middle American youth, at least in Detroit. Coming after a brief era when rock 'n' roll fans in their adolescence were bombarded with the exaggerated sexual ambiguity of Alice, Bowie and Reed, it must be reassuring to have a band that knows everything we've wanted to know about sex all along: that it's fun when it’s dirty.
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Thanks to the Rock’s Back Pages Library of London for maintaining my archives.
© Wayne Robins, 1975