Joe Perry Interview: Aerosmith Then & Now + More

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Joe Perry is a busy man. And he expects to get really busy late this year with the band you know well. That’s when Aerosmith’s tour—formerly, albeit briefly, known as their “farewell tour”—will kick off.

It’s expected to roll all night long, well into 2020, the year Perry pegs as the Bad Boys from Boston’s 50th anniversary. The guitarist-songwriter hopes that he and his former Toxic Twin, singer Steven Tyler, will be able to record with their mates, guitarist Brad Whitford, bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer, to make a new EP or LP in time for the tour’s start.

“Steven and I have talked about it and the other guys have talked about it,” Perry says, on the phone from the Sarasota, Fla., condo he shares with his wife, Billie. “We’ve been so involved with other things. I know Steven’s been doing his solo [country] thing. We haven’t gotten down to things specifically, but I really would like to [record] some new music. It’s kind of in that chill time [right now] for Aerosmith.” 

As to that not-quite-goodbye tour, the 67-year-old axe man says, “We couldn’t really put our minds around it. Frankly, what really happened was we were talking about it and we were all feeling like, ‘Hey, we’re all getting up there, we don’t know how much longer we want to keep doing this,’ and then we started doing interviews. We were sitting there in a row at a press conference and none of us could say the word. We all looked at each other: ‘Are we really gonna say that there’s going to be a last gig at the end of this next tour?’

“No,” Perry says with a slight laugh. “It sounded good on paper two months before the tour started, but as soon as it started, we said it ain’t gonna happen. We really softened the edges on that one. I’m sure there will be a time when there will be a last gig but I can’t see it right now.”

Of course, any Aerosmith story in the 21st century has to deal with health issues—no, that’s not polite code for drug abuse; those cocaine days are behind everyone—as the reality of the rigors of the road catches up to guys in their seventh decade. Last October, Aerosmith had to scrap four South American dates at the end of a tour due to Tyler taking ill—an unexplained medical situation.

“As far as I know, he’s doing great,” says Perry of Tyler’s current status. “He just did a solo show a couple of weeks ago somewhere so he’s doing those every once in a while. It’s all good.”

As to Perry, when this writer saw the Hollywood Vampires—the Alice Cooper-helmed superstar rock group featuring Johnny Depp and powered by Perry—at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut in July 2016, they sounded great. But then, in Brooklyn a week later, Perry collapsed onstage, the video going viral, and he was hospitalized briefly.

That’s in the rear-view mirror, Perry assures. “I was recovered after I had 48 hours sleep and a couple of good meals,” he says. “I took five days off and went back and finished the tour. I’ve done this before, but in not such a public way—run myself into the ground. Just a habit I’ve got to get out of. I think I’m cured now.”

As to Perry, when this writer saw the Hollywood Vampires—the Alice Cooper-helmed superstar rock group featuring Johnny Depp and powered by Perry—at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut in July 2016, they sounded great. But then, in Brooklyn a week later, Perry collapsed onstage, the video going viral, and he was hospitalized briefly.

That’s in the rear-view mirror, Perry assures. “I was recovered after I had 48 hours sleep and a couple of good meals,” he says. “I took five days off and went back and finished the tour. I’ve done this before, but in not such a public way—run myself into the ground. Just a habit I’ve got to get out of. I think I’m cured now.”

Hamilton had throat cancer twice,  but has been declared cancer-free. Kramer collapsed on tour in 2014 and had heart surgery. No one can pretend they are what they were at age 30.

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Aerosmith scored with early hits like “Dream On,” possibly the most (over-) played power ballad in history, and more typical hard rockers like “Mama Kin,” “Sweet Emotion,” “Toys in the Attic” and “Walk This Way.” They ruled the AOR airwaves in the mid-’70s. Later, in the MTV era  Aerosmith shifted more toward pop, including “Janie’s Got a Gun,” “Love in an Elevator” and “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).”

Aerosmith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, but the band was first on the ballot in 1998, nominated the first year they were eligible, meeting the requirement of it being a quarter-century since they’d recorded their debut LP. By those, standards, that would put Aerosmith’s 50th anniversary in 2023.

 

“I know that certain organizations start the band when the first record comes out,” Perry says, “but I like to think of the start of this band when everybody gathered together for the first time at 1325 [Commonwealth Ave. in Boston] and we all stood around and said, ‘This is it, boys, we’re going for it.’”

Tyler and Perry had met in Sunapee, N.H., in the late ’60s. Perry, whose folks had a cabin on Lake Sunapee, worked at the Anchorage Restaurant, a hamburger joint and local hangout. Tyler, whose family owned a small resort, used to frequent the place with his band, the Strangers, but Perry can’t recall them connecting then—another Aerosmith legend busted!

“We first met after a gig at the Barn [club],” Perry says. “The first time we played together was the summer after I first saw him at the Anchorage. Steven heard there was an opening for a singer in the Jeff Beck Group and wanted to send a demo tape. He asked me and Tom to back him up. We recorded ‘I’m Down’ by the Beatles at the Barn. He sent the tape off, but never heard back. I guess Rod [Stewart] got the job, being English and all, but Jeff’s loss was my gain! After we recorded, Steve and I jammed, just the two of us, him on drums. That’s when we really got to talk. Then later that summer, Steven’s band had broken up and we talked at a party at the end of the summer. Later that fall, I drove by his house where he was mowing the lawn. He took a break and we sat on the lawn and went over the details of him moving in with us, plans for the band, etcetera. Our first goal meeting, so to speak.”

Perry says he and Hamilton made a plan to move to Boston and put a band together, but had to wait for the bassist to finish high school. “I worked in the Foundry [restaurant in Manchester, N.H.] saving money while waiting for Tom to graduate,” says Perry. “With the money we had saved and what my parents gave me, we were able to make this dream come true and moved into 1325 Comm. Ave. in September of 1970. At this time, Steven was not in our band. He joined a couple of months later.” (Whitford, who’d been attending Berklee School of Music, joined in 1971.)

“When I wanted to have a band, Boston was the nearest big city,” says Perry. “It was a perfect place for us to be. Being a college town, there were a lot of opportunities to play—the frat houses, the clubs, spreading out into the suburbs. That gave us a really good platform.

“Nineteen-seventy, to me, is where my heart is as far as when the band started,” Perry says, “and the 50th anniversary so that’s what we’ll be celebrating. I don’t know what shape it’s going to take. That’s what we’ll be gearing up for. We may do a festival here and there, but it will start in earnest the end of 2018.”

Until that Aerosmith tour commences, Perry will still be, well, really busy. Another stretch with the Hollywood Vampires: late May through early July in Russia and Europe, with maybe some U.S. dates to follow.

“We’ve talked about putting out another record and I’m hoping that in February we’ll be able to dig in and see what we can come up with before the tour,” Perry says. “But that’s going to depend on if everybody is available. Johnny has another career he has to deal with and the thing about the Vampires is it’s really about everybody having the time to do it. It’s more like a pickup band in some ways. When everybody’s free, that’s when it happens.”

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And then, there’s Perry’s new solo album, his sixth, called Sweetzerland Manifesto (out Jan. 19 on Roman Records), and a record release party at the Roxy in L.A. Jan. 16, with some of the singers who guested on the album. Those would include the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, Terry Reid, Extreme’s Gary Cherone and Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander, with his ex-Stone Temple Pilots buddies, brothers (guitarist) Dean and (bassist) Robert DeLeo, in the backing band. David Goldstein will be the drummer and Aerosmith’s touring keyboardist Buck Johnson will take that role.

Will Perry support the album on the road?

“Well, uh, yeah, I’d like to if I can find some time,” he says, with a laugh. “I really would. Every song is designed to play live. It was strictly about making music and having fun.” As for who might comprise the band, Perry says, “I have a lot of friends that are in bands or session guys. I’d really like to go out and do a proper two-month tour, but we’ll see.”

Sweetzerland Express is what you might expect from Perry: a solid, sometimes sizzling, slab of blues-rock. “I like to think of it as a classic rock record, only we recorded it last year instead of years ago,” Perry says.

Perry brought between 30-40 melodies to the studio, before editing down to 13 songs (10 on the CD, 13 on the LP). He wasn’t sure if he wanted to release an all-instrumental album or have lyrics and vocals added later. Longtime Aerosmith producer and L.A. neighbor Jack Douglas suggested he bring in Johansen, who sang and co-wrote three songs, and then Terry Reid, who resided in nearby Palm Springs. The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, Zander and Cherone also joined the party.

Perry and Bruce Witkin produced the record. Douglas is the associate producer and Depp is credited as executive producer.

Perry pretty much gave the singers free rein when it came to the lyrics. “Part of doing a record like this is letting go of the steering wheel,” Perry says. “If I wanted to write the lyrics, well, I’ve done plenty of that, but the whole thing is seeing how the music hits them and them feeling comfortable with singing their lyrics. That’s such a big part of it: how they use the words, what their particular comfort range is. But I throw in a line here and there. I’m there listening to everything.

“But that’s their gig. I know what they sound like and what their area of expertise is and that goes back to the reason for doing the record. No pressure, no expectation about getting on the radio. If it was anything, I just pictured playing the songs live because they’d be a lot of fun to play.”

A question that’s always pertinent when you’re talking with veteran rockers: How has your definition of “fun”—being that’s what your job is, to both have fun and create that fun for others—changed over time?

“I don’t think that’s changed at all,” Perry says. “Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that. What is it about us that people like? We focus so much on constructing these songs and it still boils down to the energy. If it looks like you’re having fun on stage, they are going to have fun. If it looks like you’re phoning it in…

“It goes back to this: I’m a fan first. I remember how it felt when I sat in the audience at [Boston club] the Tea Party to see the J. Geils Band and Johnny Winter and got that feeling inside. I just had that one more thing than all the people around me—that I think I can do that too, or I really want to do that because I want more of that feeling. That, I don’t think, has changed at all.

“There are times, I have to say,  when I’m not even conscious of the audience. I’m out there listening to Steven, listening to the other guys and trying to do something a little different, add a little more to it and then I have to shake myself and say there’s  people out there, too. I don’t think that’s changed from the beginning.”

By Jim Sullivan for Best Classic Bands