The Boston Globe, MA
August 8, 2010
IRVINE, Calif. — Backstage before an Aerosmith show, a sort of happy chaos reigns.
Bassist Tom Hamilton is gabbing with Liv Tyler, the actress daughter of frontman Steven. A calm and collected Brad Whitford talks about being pumped for the show as he sidles by the catering table. A set list from the last gig the band played in the area — the Hollywood Bowl in 2006 — is taped to the wall to remind the band to change up the song selection. Guitarist Joe Perry chats amiably while warming up in his dressing room, strumming an unplugged guitar. All the while, as openers Cheap Trick blare in the background, minions and managers and photographers and techs race around, and the clock counts down to showtime.
Then a new wrinkle to the evening’s preparation arrives with the breaking news that Tyler is rumored to be in the running for a judging spot on “American Idol.’’
When asked about the rumor, Hamilton, drummer Joey Kramer, Perry, and their manager (who remains separate from Tyler’s management) all profess ignorance, and you get the sense this is not the first time they’re hearing potential Tyler news from a third party. Perry tries to choose his words about the speculation carefully. “How shall we put this?’’ he says. “It’s an interesting rumor.’’
As the lights go down, four members of Aerosmith huddle together while Tyler preps elsewhere.
When the lights come up, it’s a whole different story.
It’s probably impossible to determine how many times Aerosmith has played “Back in the Saddle’’ live in concert. But under a starry California sky in front of this raucous all-ages crowd at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, it’s clear that when the Boston band lights into the head-pummeling, throat-shredding opener, the title sentiment rings truer than ever — at least onstage.
For Aerosmith’s current tour, which comes to Fenway Park on Saturday in the form of a sold-out show with fellow storied Boston rockers the J. Geils Band, the group feels reborn. Tonight there’s a visible bounce in their steps. Everything from swaggering, minor latter-day hits like “Pink’’ and “Eat the Rich’’ to fan favorite “Mama Kin’’ and a transfixingly psychedelic “Lord of the Thighs’’ has a telepathic locomotion. At one point during “Thighs’’ the entire band clusters around Kramer’s drum kit — Tyler lost in his rattlesnake maracas, Whitford and Perry a two-headed guitar monster, Kramer and Hamilton hard-wired into the groove.
The songs, by now, are second nature, but that they’re up there playing them at all is no mean feat. By all accounts, this has been one of the crummiest periods in Aerosmith history. To recap, 2009 and early 2010 included an ill-fated summer tour beset by medical absences for Whitford and Hamilton, followed by a shoulder-breaking fall from the stage by Tyler in August that forced the cancellation of the remainder of the tour. In November relations between Tyler and the rest of the band were so strained, there was talk of replacing him. Then came rumbles that Tyler was battling old demons, which were confirmed when he entered rehab for a prescription painkiller addiction in December. The “Idol’’ news is the latest story line in this ongoing soap opera.
In recent interviews with band members, a picture emerges of a group in complete musical lockstep onstage but maintaining a fragile peace off. Indeed, the stage may be the only place the members of Aerosmith know they have sure footing — no pun intended. The quality of the gigs is one area on which every member of the band is in complete agreement.
“We had an amazing time,’’ says Hamilton of the South American and European legs of the “Cocked, Locked, Ready to Rock’’ tour. “It’s one of those moments where you know you really want to experience it as hard as you possibly can, because obviously last winter we had a taste of being gone for a while there.’’
Says a cheerful Kramer, “Now I just see us being so back on track it really does my heart good.’’
Says Tyler, “It just gave new meaning to what I do this for. Honest to God, the band has been playing so good and freaking ourselves out.’’
Says Perry, “When the curtain goes up it feels like it’s 1971.’’
The electric Irvine tableau is one that has played out thousands of times over the 40-year lifespan of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-enshrined hard rock band. But it is one that many fans and even some members of the band weren’t positive they’d see again.
“I remember thinking even in the worst parts of it last year, ‘I just don’t feel like I’ve played my last Aerosmith gig,’ ’’ says Hamilton. “It did not feel like that. I just always knew that if there was an opportunity to get things back together that I would be right there. But I was ready for it not to happen for a long time.’’
So ready that Hamilton, Perry, Kramer, and Whitford began talking about going out on tour with another person manning the microphone.
The replacement-singer conversation was not meant merely as a wake-up call to the flamboyant frontman, according to Hamilton. “It went farther in that direction than it ever has,’’ he says. “But we never really reached a conclusion. We never said this is what we’re going to try to make happen and this is what we’re going to call it and this is who it’s going to be. There was all kinds of stuff flying around, and I think that if things had gone on the way they were last year for another year or so — I don’t know whether you would call it a side project or what — but something would’ve happened.’’
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, and Tyler insists “the love is there’’ among the band members.
“I went away for three months, and two months into that I came home for a week. I called a meeting with the guys and I said we’re going on tour,’’ the singer recalls. “I said, ‘Let’s stop all the [expletive].’ I feel very proud that I’m a part of this band that has its ups and downs, but we’re still together. And the love and the passion that’s still here despite some of the [expletive] that can happen, and the arrows that some people can sling. I just pulled it out of my side and I’ve moved on. And I feel very proud that I could do that and that the band was willing to call bygones bygones, and Joe pulled himself up by his bootstraps and we all looked at each other and said let’s have at it.’’
Says Perry, “We’ve known each other for so long, a lot of this stuff, we just said, ‘What happened happened, let’s move on, we’re back and let’s rock the world.’ And that was pretty much it.’’
In a twisted way that suits the band’s tumultuous history, the forced break ended up being a positive. Of course, Tyler’s injuries and substance abuse issues were painful to endure for all involved, but it did give the quintet some time to think about what they really wanted. And what they really wanted was for this extraordinarily successful and creatively fulfilling enterprise, to which they’ve devoted their entire adult lives, to keep working somehow.
“Yeah, I have to say it was not something that I would want to go through again, but the band came out of it better and it was like a recalibration,’’ says Hamilton. “You know you just get so burnt out, and all the disagreements you have with the band just boil over, and sometimes that happens when you don’t have the opportunity to take a break. So that just really got too intense. We had to go look into that [abyss] again. We took a look in there and hated it and it brought everyone to their senses and everybody was willing to get face-to-face to do what was necessary to get some friggin’ gigs on the calendar.’’
“We get on each other’s nerves, but most marriages that went through the tumult this band has would’ve gotten divorced 20 times,’’ says Tyler. “We’ve had three breakups and we’ve still remained married, because when we get together and we [expletive], we dim the lights in every city we go in. It’s really that intimate.’’
“I think it’s always been hard for us to relax. And I think that’s part of why we’ve been as successful as we have over the years, if you want to dig down into it,’’ says Perry. “We’ve always really pushed for that extra bit that has kept us going, and I think that’s why it’s been hard for us to take breaks. I can only think of maybe one other time, maybe five or six years ago, that we did it. And other times, it’s been more of a meltdown and after the dust settles we realize it was really just all of the tension built up and we really just needed to take a break. Again, it took a little while for us to realize that, but you know, I’m just glad the band’s back together and doing it. Like I said, I was having fun doing what I was doing [with my solo album], I know the other guys were doing other projects, but Aerosmith is always at the top of everybody’s list.’’
The latest disturbance in the Aeroforce is the “Idol’’ issue. Tyler has talked in recent days on a syndicated radio show of an offer, but as of press time his publicist — also retained separately from the rest of the band — says there is no news to share.
Regardless of whether he takes a seat on “Idol,’’ Tyler says he is committed to Aerosmith and his sobriety — as well as his forthcoming memoir, “Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?,’’ tentatively due out next year.
“When that curtain drops and I’m with my band, there’s the power. It puts the light out on everything else I see as a sham and [expletive],’’ he says. “There were a lot of reasons that kept me away — you’ll read about it in my book — that the band did to me. But my program is about forgiveness, and in my forgiveness I reap such rewards that, I think, in my glory now being sober, the band is shining and I’m grateful as can be.’’
Now all eyes are on Fenway Park. Perry, in particular, has wanted to play the ballyard since it started hosting rock concerts in recent years.
“It’s almost as if there’s only one gig this summer, and that’s Fenway Park,’’ he says.
The cherry on top is the J. Geils Band, of which Perry has been a devoted fan since the ’70s. “I can remember seeing them play at the old Tea Party when they were the house band. They’ve always been one of my favorite live bands of all time. No question, hands down,’’ the guitarist says. “I learned a lot about showmanship from those guys.’’
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Tyler is already licking his chops for the potential of a meeting of the motormouths with Geils frontman Peter Wolf.
Hamilton only semi-jokes, “I feel like somebody screwed up and approved it before they went to the boss and made sure.’’
Beyond Fenway, the band is convinced that Aerosmith will continue to be a recording and touring concern. Hamilton, Perry, and Tyler all have material to bring to the band, and they hope to start recording sometime next year.
Which is not to say in a band with a past littered with obstacles, detours, and ailments there aren’t more on the horizon. “We have yet to sit down and really talk about schedules,’’ says Perry, citing Tyler’s knee problems as one issue that needs to be addressed.
But the cautious optimism remains. And even if Tyler does sign on to “Idol,’’ Kramer believes the bright future full of new records and more shows he envisions is still possible. “Oh yeah, I don’t see why not. I don’t see why one thing should get in the way of the other. The only thing that I could ever imagine stopping this band in its tracks is somebody dying,’’ says Kramer. “Short of that, I don’t see us doing anything other than what we do from here on in. We’re having fun and that’s when we do what it is we do best.’’
Watching them onstage in Irvine, it’s possible to believe that whatever troubles they’ve experienced in the past year are indeed easily left off the stage. If there is any lingering resentment, it isn’t visible as Tyler and Perry cozy up to each other at the microphone. Tyler seems ready to come out of his skin, going to each member of the band for a hip-check here, a back lean there, a microphone into the drums there.
It may be unclear how secure the straps are at any given moment, and there seem to be two horses pulling the wagon, but for the time being, Aerosmith is indeed back in the saddle — again.