Interview: Joe Perry tells his side of Aerosmith, talks about his new memoir, and reveals how he deals with Steven Tyler

 
 

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]orget that old cliché about lawyers, guns and money. In his new memoir Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith, Joe Perry’s problems revolve around emotionally controlling managers, drugs, and Steven Tyler. Since Aerosmith formed nearly four-and-a-half decades ago in Boston, the bumpy ride has included gallons of spilled milk that resulted in the guitarist spending five years estranged from group, an unlikely storybook return to form in the late-’80s, and continued strain with Tyler as recently as 2010 where the group publicly expressed a desire to replace him. Tensions subsided, and on the heels of a successful summer tour, Perry is ready to tell his story.

As part of our new content partnership with Boston Magazine, Vanyaland caught up with Perry as the Aerosmith summer tour was winding down to find out what’s in his book that other memoirs and band biographies have missed, the unpredictable relationship with his frontman and what it was like watching Aerosmith move on without him.

Michael Christopher: What did you need to say with Rocks that others haven’t gotten across in telling the Aerosmith story?

Joe Perry: Well it almost starts off with a question. How did a kid with no musical background and one of billions of kids that were grabbing for a guitar… you know? But I had an affectionate and infatuation with the instrument before the English invasion; the first thing that captured my ear, my mind, and my imagination when I was seven or eight years old. It’s just one of those things that’s just part of my DNA and I wouldn’t let go. I thought by doing the book there would be some answers there and also there’s a lot that goes on that people don’t know about that it takes to keep a band together.

A lot of the stuff that happened when the band got back together wasn’t really talked about like the difficulties of keeping it together — I kind of get into that in depth. Like I said the ’70s were pretty well covered I think by the Walk This Way book even though I think that was a little flawed because of the way restrictions were put on the author by my manager at the time. I wanted to straighten a few things out in that department and just tell my life story from my point-of-view as close I can remember for the last 20 years and I kind of stopped about a year ago.

From here on for the next book or the next edition you can get that whenever. I have to draw a line somewhere and I pulled the plug on that about a year ago. But I think people will be surprised maybe by some of the effort and some of the boulders you have to climb over to keep the thing going as we’ve gotten older, we have families, and we all want to live our lives the way we want outside of the band and that often does not often coincide with what’s best for the band. So we have managed to keep that balance. Those are the kind of things I wanted to get across and those are the things I kind of missed in a batch of the autobiographies I read.

One thread that runs through the book is your appreciation for the history of music and its importance. A story that really stuck out to me was when you were preparing to do “Train Kept a-Rollin’” at the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jam and you had to teach Metallica the song because they didn’t know it. My question is twofold; one, why do you think it’s so important for musicians to know the history of music and two, why do so many artists seem ignorant of it or simply not interested in learning about it?

I think from just being fascinated by the thrill of music and especially pop music, I mean we’re not talking about classical music — that’s another whole world — but as far as pop music and the music we are talking about I think at least from the point-of-view from understanding what it is about music that makes you feel that way. And 99 percent of people who listen to music don’t know and don’t care and frankly it’s not their job to care. Their job is to enjoy it and have fun with it or listen to it to give you a lift or to mellow you out or whatever you want that’s what it’s for. “Any old way you use it,” like Chuck Berry said.

I don’t think it’s a prerequisite that you have to go back and study the way popular music evolved from the interior of Africa to the coast of Africa through England and the islands down in the Caribbean and then to the Delta. I don’t think that parts important unless you’re just interested in it. I think the elements that make up that feeling that you get that’s important.

Metallica has made great music and a great name for themselves. Their sound is original they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. The story wasn’t meant to be a put down and I hope it doesn’t come across that way, it’s not how I meant it. It’s more of an observation that every generation seems to get away from the original stuff and it’s also that each generation is going to have to find their inspirations. They’re going to hear something and they’re going to go, “I like that or I don’t like that.” It may be the type of thing where you’re not hearing something and you know you can do it better. I know that is part of what I was feeling. I was thinking, “Well I can do that. I can get on stage and do that or I’m missing something when I see this band or that band. We can put another twist on it or we can try this or try that and then add a little bit of our own originality to it.”

I don’t think you have to read Delta Blues 101 to make good music but I think we’re seeing the end of an era where we’re seeing so many of the originals pass away over the last 10 to 15 years we’ve lost so many originals. Thankfully a lot of it has been preserved. I wish they would’ve had iPhones and video recorders back in Robert Johnson’s day. At least they got those recordings.

I think that’s part of the frustration or especially what makes it hard in the information age you can’t just do a Google image search and get 100 pictures or a video search for performances of Robert Johnson. You’ve got three photographs out there that are known to exist.

Right, and every once in a while you get someone coming up saying, “that’s really not him.”

Exactly.

People debated if that was true and what kind of guitars he was playing. I mean [archivist Alan] Lomax was definitely ahead of his time and there are people doing it now which I think is really important. They’re going out there and making documentaries of some of these artists who are still around for posterity and no other reason. It’s important that people be able to have that and see what really made these artist tick. I would have loved to – can you imagine if [there was] video of [Salvador] Dali back when he was in his prime or Van Gogh and have a camera sitting there looking over his shoulder and following him around for a day? I mean that would be incredible. We can only imagine.

The friction between you and Steven is well-documented. But I think many people are really looking forward to reading about what went down in recent years when he went and tried out for Led Zeppelin, right after you had been rehearsing new material together.

It’s almost like I shouldn’t have been surprised, but still when that went down it was like, “Holy fuck — I was just in the room talking to this guy and we were jamming and it felt like it was supposed to. Like we were talking about and energy where he’s at whatever he doesn’t feel like he can at least tell me what he’s doing?”

That’s the thing trying to be able to get around that — that part of the relationship where you can at least see the bigger picture in your sights. If I would have let that stuff bother me there wouldn’t be an Aerosmith because that stuff was going on from the start. It was really minor like he stole a t-shirt and I’m like, “What the fuck did you do that for? That’s really fucked up and that’s not how I was brought up but let’s move on.”

Anyway I think that’s how I present some of those things trying to get a little bit deeper than, “Well I just got pissed off at him,” and you know what’s next. Does that mean I don’t talk to him for two weeks or does that mean I’m going to do it back to him and I’m bigger than that. There’s just a different set of rules that I live by. Anyway that’s that.

It did get pointed out from the start; there’s the time before you were even signed where Clive Davis shows up at a gig and Steven pointedly says, “He’s going to make me a star.” Something as minor as that in the beginning if you piece it together later on in light of the things that happen you’re like, “I guess this really isn’t too much of a shock given what’s been said or done in the past no matter how minor.”

Right. And the thing is, after everything we’ve been through over the years instead of getting better it keeps getting worse. And you go, “What the fuck?” I guess the answer is you got to figure it out yourself with your set of values and what you think of it. Get somebody else to read that and say, “Well Steven’s allowed to do whatever he wants.” But you know, I don’t see it that way.

Tyler and Perry

There’s a certain amount of respect you have to have for somebody whether you just met them today or you’ve had a 40-year relationship where you’ve been though incredible experiences together — like positive things; achieving goals, being inducted into this, or playing at that and then you’re like, “How? What makes a person be that way?” I don’t know. I guess the question is there. People don’t know that side of it. That’s what’s going on when we’re not playing on stage. When we’re on stage the vision of the music that we’re playing and the excitement of the audience is the glue that keeps us together, and kept us together, and got us back together. That’s bigger than anything.

There are families out there who don’t talk to each other for 10 years. There are brothers out there that don’t talk to each other because they’re no use to each other or for whatever reason. I mean if we operated like that there would be no band and we wouldn’t be able to make the music we make and perform the way we perform and that to me is the goal. We achieved it once and let the thing fall apart and rebuilt it again on what I thought was firmer ground but people don’t change much over the years. I guess that’s part of the lesson.

Is it something that you guys talk about? Like when Walk This Way came out or when Joey’s book came out or Steven’s did you communicate about the stories that were in it or did you just let the book speak for itself?

In the Walk This Way book we basically told stories about our legends the Aerosmith circus and we were each given the chance to tell our side of the story. That was OK but we didn’t realize everything was getting edited before we saw it. You know we were touring and making records in the middle of some pretty heavy stuff it wasn’t like we spent all our time focused on the book so over the years when we looked back at it and realized how much of it had been manipulated — wait a second, “Where’s this one? How come this wasn’t in there?” There were things in there that were set straight.

I guess it’s an educating book and some truth in it for a rock and roll book but to say it’s an actual real piece of the picture of what was going on it’s not that. There have been some second editions. It is what it is. In Joey’s book and I read it his was basically a different kind of a book. I think he wrote the book because different people had asked him about his issues with his breakdown and all that. It’s the kind of thing he did to help people out and I know he has done a lot of good out of that. People are making their way through some hard times and he is helping them and that was his intent and the book succeeded.

As far as Steven’s book goes, his writings he put in there and how he wrote it — it’s his book. There are certain things I agree with and certain things I don’t but overall if you’re a Steven Tyler fan I’m sure you find it pretty entertaining whether things actually happened that way I guess you can take it with a grain of salt. Look at the source. But that’s why people write books they want to tell the story from their perspective and you’re allowed to. A lot of people bought it and seemed to enjoy it and then there were other people that didn’t. It is what it is. I’m not going to sit there and pick apart, “Oh that didn’t go like that or oh he really nailed that.” It’s like everything else with him it’s about being entertaining.

I was talking to [guitarist for The Cult] Billy Duffy a couple weeks back and he said he caught Aerosmith in Los Angeles and was telling me he was just blown away by how good you guys were. Would you say it’s safe to say that the music is bigger than any egos involved or is it the egos that drive the music?

I think it’s both. You have to have that ego to pick up a guitar and go on stage in front of all those people whether it’s one person or 80,000 people you have to have a certain amount of self-confidence. As far as I’m concerned if you sit there and worry about making a mistake or something that you planned to do won’t come out right that will seize you up quicker than a Vermont winter. So you’re going to have a certain amount of ego. It’s just putting in place and using it that’s the skill.

For that night for that audience they were maybe only seeing us for the first time or they haven’t seen you in three years it was a great show but you know it wasn’t an all-out fucking amazing show. You know you could have done this or done that and that’s what makes it right. It’s live. Then there are other nights that you know you’re really nailing it and every song gets better as the show goes on and you build on that. So little of our show is choreographed and relies so much on the interaction with the audience and how we’re all feeling that day. And we take whatever disagreements we have in the dressing room or backstage we leave them at the foot of the stairs before we walk up the ramp to the stage and then all of the sudden it levels out and we’re working together. I’m listening to Joey’s snare drum and trying to lock-in and getting it as tight as I can and listening to what Brad’s playing and compliment what he is doing and he is doing the same listening to me. We’re in the middle of it.

It’s funny because the LA show was pretty good and the next night we played Vegas or a few nights later and the Vegas show was phenomenal. I don’t know if somebody was there for both nights I don’t know which one they would have picked. But I think the Vegas show. It was locked. Again it’s like sports. Who knows why one team wins over the other? They can analyze it and talk about it the announcers and veteran football players who go play by play but everybody knows it’s about how the Pats are feeling that day. You can have an incredible night banging on all cylinders and you can do whatever you did that day again before the next show right from breakfast right from the numbers of coffees you had to the sandwich you had or whatever all day long doing the exact same thing trying to recreate that vibe and the show might come out average. There’s no telling.

One thing you didn’t address in the book that I’m kind of curious about and I know you were busy with the Joe Perry Project at the time but what did you think of Rock in a Hard Place? Was it kind of like looking at an old girlfriend screwing with somebody else?

I never saw them play live but I was curious I went and almost stayed to see them play once. But I think it was mostly bravado and “fuck that I’m not going to watch them.” But what else were they going to do, not play? I didn’t know either of the guys that they got to replace Brad and I know Rick Dufay he is a very interesting cat. It was more just like — I mean like I said, “What else were they going to do?” As far as I was concerned they weren’t off and running and I really didn’t care nor could I do anything about what they were up to. I would hear stories second hand about what was going on and how they were trying to make another record. Actually there were a couple of tunes on that record that I liked. We came really close to putting “Lightning Strikes” in the set [on the recent tour]. I really like that song.

That’s a great song. It’s probably my favorite song on the record.

It rocks. It’s like an Aerosmith record. I think they wrote that with Richie Supa and you know he writes some good stuff for our band and has over the years. Anyway I like that song and no there’s not anything from back then it was more just me puffing my chest out and being like, “Fuck you guys.” No really because when we hung out we had a great time together and I pretty much documented every time we had some kind of interaction in the book. You can tell there was no bad blood there and the more time I spent away from the band the clearer the retrospective came of why I left and what I left. It gave me some time to figure out what to do next.

I wasn’t glad they were out there touring but I wasn’t happy about hearing them having to cancel shows here and there. I was worried about how things were going from a personal point-of-view. You know with health it didn’t sound like they were doing that well. But I’m sure they probably felt the same about me and what I was doing. Once in a great while someone would show up. Brad actually played with the Project a bunch of times when we were in the area and it worked out he would come and be a part of the band for a while. I love playing with him. We definitely have a thing. It worked just as well on the Project as is does with Aerosmith.

Joe Perry will be signing his book at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on October 9. For more of Michael Christopher’s interview with the guitarist, head to Boston Magazine.

Joe Perry Rocks