Interview: Aerosmith’s Joe Perry on Rock, Rebellion and Survival

The iconic Aerosmith guitarist opens up on musical revolution, Joe Rogan and his excellent new book.

Guitar hero Joe Perry exudes a zen energy that defies the wild kaleidoscope history of excess, tumult and adventures only possible in the golden era of rock stardom. Perry’s memoir Rocks: My Life in and out of Aerosmith, was released last October, chronicling his rocky rockin’ ride with Aerosmith, his love/hate relationship with lead singer Steven Tyler, his two marriages and the wild misadventures of drug abuse. He’s gone from drunk, broke and hooked on heroin to over 20 years of sobriety and over 100 million records sold, raising a beautiful family in the process.

The tumultuous travels of Aerosmith are represented in the band’s voluminous work, spanning their evolution from drug-fueled rock anthem heroes to pop-crowning power ballad deities. Among the more prominent survivors of the super-rock groups the seventies, Aerosmith rode the blues hard with a Boston edge as they wove a tapestry of classics including “Dream On,” “Back In The Saddle,” “Walk This Way” and “Come Together.”

Perry, an understated yang to Steven Tyler’s yin, steps off the wax in Rocks, sharing the kind of you-can’t-make-this-up stories that defined the hedonistic free-for-all indulgence of the early Aerosmith years. The book’s tales connect the constellations between the band’s iconic work, revealing a minefield of discontent, ego, drugs and business complications that tore the band apart before they reunited to conquer the MTV generation. We caught up with Joe on a beautiful morning in Los Angeles to discuss the book, his mutual affection for Joe Rogan, the evolving culture around popular music and how Aerosmith narrowly avoided flying on the plane involved in the fatal 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd crash.

This book ranks up there in terms of captivating stories and life insights, alongside Keith Richards’ book, Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue and Nikki Sixx book The Dirt.

I’ve read all those books. When I started doing the book, I really wanted to get a vibe for how people wrote autobiographies, and I was also looking for a co-writer. I knew I couldn’t make it into the quality book that I wanted unless I had a good co-writer. I read Anthony’s book and a lot of the others, but it seemed like Keith’s book really stood out. I think that had a lot to do with his co-writer, turning it into a piece of literature.

I was just as captivated by the conversation you had recently with Joe Rogan on his podcast.

Yeah, I was actually really looking forward to doing that one with Joe because I’ve been a fan of his for a while. I wanted to do the podcast with him so I could talk to him, and it felt funny going to push the book because it was really more about meeting Joe and hanging out with him.

He’s such a fascinating character. He speaks the truth but delivers what he’s doing in such a genuine, fearless way.

One thing I gotta say about him, is he’s the same guy off-camera as he is on. Some guys put on the show and they’re really good off camera, but what you see is what you get. When he’s interested in something, that’s what he does. If he talks about Bigfoot, he goes out and looks around for it. There’s a certain honesty to his show and personality that I’m not sure people really realize how into it he is. It’s the real deal. He’s really intelligent, a really intellectual guy. So it was great talking to him.

That speaks to a value of authenticity when everything is about hype and going as big as you can these days. We’re landing spaceships on asteroids, but the cutting of funding in schools for music programs and cutting artistic development off at the knees for kids who might really need an outlet in their world that may not fit a strictly academic format.

Obviously it’s been a gradual change over the years in the different generations, and from the point of view of being out there onstage… there was a time when our audience was the same age as we were. So we were all kind of in the same boat. But you also have to put that in the context of what was going on in the world. We were feeling the fallout of the late ‘60s, and it was a very tumultuous decade. From the assassinations and marches and people rebelling about war and all that… it was real, a real sense of rebellion. Being in a rock band just in itself was a statement. Being on that side, that rebellious side. When you carried a guitar down the street, you were looked at as one step away from being an outlaw. I really wasn’t rebelling against my parents, but I just wasn’t cut out to be a suit & tie kind of person. I just didn’t see that for myself.

Was there a sense of building the momentum for change through music?

It was partly about forging a new way, but it was also a reflection of what was going on in the world. It touched every town in America. We’d be up in New Hampshire looking at Time Magazine, showing pictures of Haight Ashbury where people are living this alternative lifestyle, the hippies and the whole communal thing that bordered on communism. And here we are fighting communism in Vietnam, and people are going there against their will. It was a really tough time, so you have to keep that in mind when you think about what was going on in the outside world. That’s one thing I’m not sure I got across in the book, setting the back stage.

Despite the pivotal world events of the present, it seems that any top-level music has been commodified and homogenized to remove the true-passion viscera, and that might speak to a larger social design in America. A hundred thousand people can protest in the streets, but if their interests conflict with those of the corporate entities broadcasting the news, those protests will not be covered in mainstream media.

The feeling of rock n’ roll, the energy is still there, but I think the rebellion part isn’t as much a statement anymore as it was. Now when you see kids with guitars… the guitar has become such an icon, it represents so much freedom. It’s become universal. You see people in the audience anywhere from 14 years old to my age, 60 years old, that have followed us all the way.

When Rock was first coming into bloom, during these vital times of change, it seems as if those bands took their cues primarily from old blues legends and R&B originators who came before, and cut this new path. And the bands who followed took their inspiration from the preceding bands, and though there’s still some incredible music out there, it seems as if a chain-reaction of derivative influence has diluted the core of it, the soul of the song. 

Joe PerryI think one of the things that struck me… after the first turnover, I look at generations of pop music as though it runs cycles every few years. Whatever the new young thing at the top of the charts is doing, or whatever. The first things started to shift as the next generations came along. There was punk, then there was disco… but there was all kinds of music in the 70s, from Led Zeppelin to The Who to David Crosby, Neil Young… you had a lot of different kinds of great music, incredible music, groundbreaking music. Unfortunately we lost Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, but they had already made their mark.

That’s when we realized, you keep making music even though all this stuff is going on in pop land. We figured it out, that people will still keep playing our music. There was definitely an audience for it, so we continued on it. But it just seemed to be that as each generation went by, we realized we didn’t have to change what we were doing. Not that we would, we stuck to our guns and carried on, hopefully carried the tradition of taking the blues and adding our touch to it. We could be unaffected by the top ten.

Then, of course, all that changed when MTV came around and Aerosmith got back together again. We had to change the way we did things. It almost became as important to have a good video out as it did to have a good song out. We did not like the idea of videos at first. We felt that it took away from the magic of music. But we saw that it was coming, it was what the fans wanted, so we went out and did it.

You’ve hit some incredible highs in terms of iconic videos and popularity, visual fixtures to songs everyone knows. It’s a strange world when Alicia Silverstone is forever tied to you because of the visuals set to your song. How to you reconcile that artistically at this point? When your creation has become more of a movie than a song to a whole other generation.

I would’ve loved it if it would’ve just been one part of a thing. When you listen to a song and there’s no video to go with it, you imagine the song alongside whatever’s going on in your life. That’s why they say music is the soundtrack to life. Then you attach it to certain things in your life, and lyrics mean different things to different people. But when you put on a video, you interpreting the lyrics for your fans already, there’s no room for imagination.

That was the basic reason why I felt it was infringing on the experience. It’s like you have a painting, and a little video next to it explaining what the painting means. It kind of took some of the magic out of it. But it’s what the people wanted, it was all part of the scene. So rather than fight it, we got the best video directors we could get in terms of the songs, and made the best videos we could make. In some cases they were actual literal representations of the song, and in other cases… say a song like “Pink,” the video really didn’t have anything to do with the lyrics, but it was something fun to watch.

So there were different ways to approach it, and it just became another part of the art form. But we’re also talking about two or three songs off a record. There were a lot of other songs on there, and my thought was that anything that can get people to listen to the rest of the songs is worth it. If you’ve got a video that gets popular, the people are also getting all these other songs that don’t have a video, so it’s a two-way street.

In your book, you discussed the Convair plane that crashed with Lynyrd Skynyrd on board. You were supposed to have flown on that the week prior.

It was a terrible tragedy, and we just considered ourselves incredibly lucky. People were flying on all these different planes, and it was very common to be on a plane Fleetwood Mac had been on the week before. We’ve always felt there was somebody watching over us, and this was another example of that. People were put in our lives that helped bail us out for one reason or another. Fortunately we had someone looking at the plane that we would be taking, and put his foot down. To be that close to it… it was really a blow, up and down the line. From knowing those guys, to the loss of music and beyond.

Playing the safe odds is always good, to have people protecting you that passionately. 

We had a couple close calls with planes. There was one experience I thought there was a good chance we were gonna put a big hole in the ground. So it was part of the game back then.

Pick up Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith at Joe Perry’s official site.

By Johnny Firecloud for Crave Online