Hard to believe, but nearly a half-century has passed since Joe Perry partnered with Steven Tyler to form the songwriting core of Aerosmith. Forty-four years later, the group has lost none of its edge, as evidenced by its recently wrapped “Let Rock Rule” tour. In a revealing new memoir, ROCKS: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith, Perry chronicles his life story to this point, giving fans an inside look at the ups and downs of carrying the torch for what many consider “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.” In an exclusive interview, Perry spoke with us about why he wrote the book, his biggest guitar influence, and the elements of a great riff.
What motivated you to write a memoir?
Being on the road so much gives you a lot of time to read. I’m fascinated by all sorts of books—historic novels, whatever. I had been thinking of writing my autobiography for quite a while, and something just clicked. It’s kind of like putting out solo records. After I got back with Aerosmith [in the ‘80s], it was like, should I even bother doing that? After all I’m getting my creative needs met with Aerosmith. But then I thought, “You know, I’ve got too much material. I’ve got to put some solo stuff out there.” The same sort of thing happened with the book. Whether it was the 40th anniversary of the band, whether it was finishing the last album for Sony, whatever—there were lots of signposts, both personal and with the band. By no means is it a case of, “Okay I’m retired, I’m going to do my memoirs.” It just captures things up till now, or up to about a year-and-a-half ago. I certainly could have been adding chapters over the past year.
One of the things you point out in the book is that you’re naturally left-handed. Are you happy you chose to play right-handed, when you were starting out?
I think I’m probably in the middle on that point. My first inclination was to play left-handed—that felt natural—but I just assumed holding the guitar in the right-hand position was the correct way. I didn’t know anyone who played left-handed, and I wasn’t aware of any professional musicians who played left-handed. There was no one I could look to and say, “Hey, is it okay if I play this way?” All the instructions I had seen said to play with the neck in my left hand and the plectrum in the right. It’s funny: I was fortunate enough to cut a song with Paul McCartney a couple of months ago. He and I were chatting about this, and I asked him, “How is it that you ended up playing left-handed?” He said there were a few artists he was aware of—chiefly Slim Whitman—who played left-handed. That’s when he knew it was possible to get a left-handed guitar, or you could adapt a guitar to play that way. He happened to see it was an option. I really don’t know if playing right-handed has worked in my favor, or if it worked against me. At one point I did spend a couple of months trying to learn to play left-handed, but in the end it felt best to keep on the path I was already on, rather than start from scratch.
Which guitarist had the biggest impact on you as you were coming up?
Probably Jeff Beck. He’s so verbal with the way he plays. I could tell he had paid attention to a lot of vocalists, by the way he phrases his licks. It’s based so much on melody. Certainly he gets “out there” sometimes—he’s a flashy player and can show off his technical abilities, but he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that playing a melody, using just three or four notes, can be just as impactful as ripping up and down the neck in fifteen seconds, showing every note you can play. And he’s always had a sense of humor about the way he plays. Sometimes he’ll throw things in that are almost like a joke, like he’s giving you the finger. He’s a bit of a wise guy. He always has been, and that comes through in his playing. Or at least that’s apparent to me. He always cracks me up.
You also tell the story of having to sell you beloved ’59 tobacco burst Les Paul. Years later, Slash surprised you by returning it as a gift for your fiftieth birthday. Do you remember your feelings at the time?
Oh, God—first of all, I was totally blown away. I didn’t know that was going to happen. Slash and I had become good friends by then. His doing that reaffirmed what I already knew—that he’s got a huge heart and he’s one of the nicest people you could hope to meet. He’s got tremendous respect for his fans and he has a solid grasp of where he stands. Obviously you have to have a pretty big ego to do what we do. We all do. Actually, ego often gets confused with confidence—I would say it’s more about confidence. Slash has always had confidence in himself, and he’s got that drive, but he doesn’t lose sight of who he is. That’s what I admire about him most. When he gave me that guitar, it was like, “Holy [expletive]!” I was glad to have it back, but I was even happier to know I had a friend like that out there.
Is that the guitar that’s on the cover of the book?
No, the guitar on the cover is one of my ‘59s, but it’s not the ’59. It’s the one that I take on the road with me. Several months ago Gibson did a run of copies of that original tobacco burst ’59. They did an amazing job of getting it down to the last scratch. They spent two days with me taking pictures of it–measuring everything you could measure, tape-recording it, everything. In fact, when I got some of the first issues of it, I had brought the original ’59 on the road, and I had my guitar tech hand me one or the other on-stage, without my knowing which was which. And it was almost impossible for me to tell the difference. Practically speaking, in the heat of the gig, I couldn’t tell the difference.
Do you still take the original on the road?
No, I take the copy.
What gives a riff real staying power, or turns it into a classic?
I think it’s something people can sort of sing along to. It depends on who it is, but for the average fan, who are really the people you’re playing for, it’s something that’s memorable. Take “Walk This Way” as an example. Even in the solo, there are certain phrases that are important to keep in there, because they’re part of the song. Your ear is expecting to hear that, just as your ear expects to hear the vocal melody. As a guitar player, when you listen back, say, to The Ventures, or to Duane Eddy–those were really simple riffs, from a guitar player’s point of view. One of the greatest examples is the original Batman theme song. It’s just three notes, but if you hum that, everyone recognizes it, or at least everyone who grew up in that era does. The same is true of the theme for Bonanza. Those are really simple riffs, but they’re so unique. They hang right in there.
Have Steven and the other guys read the book?
No, I didn’t want to give it to the guys until it was completely done. I only received my own finished copy about a week ago. The band will be getting their copies next week.
Were you concerned about stepping on anyone’s toes?
In order to write the book and have it be worth something, I had to put that aside, make it a secondary consideration. On the other hand, it would have been very easy to slip into, “He did this to me, he did that to me,” and I didn’t want to do that. There are certain stories in there that might come off that way, but those were the stories. By the same token, there are things I did to the guys that I’m sure they perceived the same way. Looking back, yeah, I did screw up, I was arrogant and I was a [expletive] sometimes. And I had to put those things in the book as well. I made some decisions that were very self-serving, and it was tough to pick that stuff up and revisit it. But for it to be the type of book I wanted it to be, I had to put that truth in there.
Do you still have lots of great riffs inside you?
That’s why I keep making solo records, because I’m still searching for those things. I’m really anxious to get into the next one. I’m not sure yet how that’s going to work–when it’s going to come out–because the music business has changed so much. I do have lots of riffs inside me, and lots of riffs on my iPhone. (laughs) They need to get transferred onto some kind of recording format with some bass and drums. And who knows? Maybe Aerosmith will be coming out with something sooner rather than later. Right now we’re sort of taking a break. We’ve been working pretty hard the last three years. I think everybody needs some time apart to go off and do whatever they want. That way, when we get back together, we can all bring something to the party.