“We were teenagers-kids with no responsibility, with this dream of being able to support ourselves playing rock and roll. I mean, how seduive is that? Who knew that it was going to go this long?”
AEROSMITH guitarist Joe Perry has become a best selling author, and for anyone who doesn’t know about his backstory, Perry, just like his band mates, lived—or survived—a life of rock and roll excess. The well-publicized revival of AEROSMITH in the mid-‘80s painted a picture of a band that rose from the ashes. Perry’s book, Rocks: My Life in and out of AEROSMITH, entered at #8 on the New York Times Best Sellers list. While it’s likely that Perry’s popularity as a rock star has had an impact on book sales, his intriguing memoir is a must-read for anyone, but particularly those fans who have followed the band for decades.
After reading many biographies about sports figures, politicians, and other personalities in the public eye, Perry concluded that the common thread they shared was the question: How did I end up here? Wanting to write a true-life account devoid of self-serving filler, the veteran rocker sought help from writer/musicologist David Ritz. “He came up when jazz and swing and the old R&B was the thing. I learned a lot from him, and it really put things even in more perspective for me. So it was a really good experience spending time with him.” Perry stressed the importance of the book sounding like him, not the co-author.
“I spent a month on the bus with David. And that’s a big part of his magic–is being able to just talk and then pick up how people think, how they sound when they talk. He didn’t put any words in my mouth. I’ve heard a couple (of people) say they had to go to the dictionary and look up the meanings of some of the words in there. But, on the other hand, I know I’ve used every one of those words at least once in my life. So it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that I have a vocabulary. I love to read.”
In the early pages of his book, Perry recounts his days as a young boy in Hopedale, Massachusetts. The son of hard-working middle-class parents, Perry’s early ambition was to become a marine biologist. Feeling his best in the woods and near water, the would-be musician’s best friends—before he picked up a guitar—were his dog and a Daisy bb gun. When he discovered the guitar he became instantly obsessed. When his parents bought him his first guitar, a Sears Silvertone, Perry, following the instruction manual, began to play the guitar right-handed, though he was naturally left-handed. He has played right-handed for over 50 years. When asked if he ponders what kind of guitarist he would have turned out to be had he played the instrument left-handed, he admits that it sparks his curiosity from time to time.
“I actually tried it, like, 20 years ago. I had some time and I started playing the other way. After a couple of days I started to think, ‘If I put this much time into playing the way I know how to play, I’d probably advance myself a lot more than just satisfying my curiosity.’ You can’t take 15 or 20 years of experience playing it one way and top that.” he insists. “It’s kind of like if you’re a skier and you only get to ski a couple times a year. It’s fun to learn something new, but spending time on your ass most of the time with a snowboard glued to your feet isn’t my idea of fun. I tried snowboarding and I said, ‘Well, that’s nice.’ And I gave the guy back the board and I stuck with my skis. Again, I wonder if I would have been more articulate as a guitar player. I don’t know, but it’s definitely something that I think about once in a while.“
As the book’s title implies, Perry paints a vivid picture of his life in and out of AEROSMITH that keeps the reader engaged. With shocking candor, he shares the dirt previously untold in the books written by band mates Steven Tyler and Joey Kramer.
“I wanted to just have a real, all-around picture of putting some of the dirt in there that people don’t know. One of the things I wanted people to know is that it wasn’t about, ‘Look, this guy’s really fucked up. And that one is really a mess.’ It was more about just how hard it is to keep a band together because of personalities. Everybody grew up together, for Christ’s sake. We were teenagers–kids with no responsibility, with this dream of being able to support ourselves playing rock and roll. I mean, how seductive is that? Who knew that it was going to go this long? I had no idea. But the bottom line is it takes a fuck of a lot of work, and especially when you’ve got volatile personalities. And that volatility is what makes the band what it is. I mean, it should be pretty obvious why Steven is as good as he is as a performer by now. Especially when you look at some of the drive and why I play the way I play. And I’m still doing it with these guys.”
Perry’s expresses an immense amount of gratitude when reflecting on his long, successful career.
“I’ve always felt like we’re getting away with something, because we’re getting to play in a band and I get to rock out with four guys that have been places with me that no one else has been. We have nobody around us that was with us at the beginning. Nobody. So it’s pretty different. It’s a unique kind of situation and I just never thought it would go this long. Like I said, it was about just getting out there and playing and getting the audience off and then maybe, ‘Oh, let’s write some songs. Maybe we’ll get a song on the radio.’ Back then DJs could play what they wanted and if you gave ‘em a demo they might even play it on the radio. And then the next thing you know, wow, this guy’s manager heard us. ‘Holy shit. Maybe we can get a fuckin’ record deal,’ or ‘Maybe we can play outside the Boston area.’ I mean, the band played pretty much all over New England after we got together because of the connections that we had with different booking agents and stuff. God, the thought of playing in California or Detroit or Atlanta. We heard stories of bands playing at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, and that was a rockin’ place, man. It was a real adventure. And, you go from that to being middle-age, and having wives and girlfriends and kids, and then you grow older. Trying to figure out how to make that work as a band—it’s not easy. One of the main motivations when writing the book was to show people how arduous it has been keeping the AEROSMITH machine moving.
Despite harsh critics and setbacks in the early ‘70s, before and even after they got their record deal, the band held firm to the rock and roll dream, and aimed for the top. “We got clobbered by a lot of journalists in the old days,” Perry recalls. “I don’t think they ever listened to what the band was. They just kind of pigeonholed us right away. We’re not a band like, say, AC/DC. We know what their songs are going to sound like. I mean, I love AC/DC. They’re one of my favorite bands of all time, and especially live. But they have one sound. And Steven and I have always liked experimenting with different sounds and being inspired by different things that make noise, and then putting it into that rock and roll parameter. “
While there were many guitarists Perry drew from, such as Peter Green, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, his earliest influence was Chuck Berry.
“I know there were other guys that weren’t quite as famous or didn’t get to my ears. Obviously I’ve heard “Rocket 88”, supposedly the first distorted guitar recorded. The story behind that–how the amplifier fell off the car and it made this raunchy sound and they said, ‘Ah, fuck it. Let’s record it anyway.’ That’s what they say is the first rock and roll song, but that’s gonna be up for discussion for a long time to come. I think that Muddy Waters’ version of “I’m a Man” could be called the best rock and roll riff ever written. You know what I mean. Or, pick any of four Bo Diddley songs. But to me, it was Chuck Berry. He definitely bucked the system and knew who he was singing to. He changed, modified whatever he had to, to get played on the radio.” Perry counts himself fortunate to have finally met Berry. “He’s just an amazing guy.”
In his book, Perry likens the shape of the guitar to the voluptuous body of Sophia Loren.
“Well, there’s a lot of truth to it,” he says unapologetically. “Come on. Just look at the shape. The whole guitar. It’s a phallic symbol with a female body. It’s got a little piece of sex in there for everybody. It’s really an amazing instrument. There’s a certain thing about a clarinet or saxophone that’s absolutely sexual. But, to me, the guitar is so iconic in its sexuality. It’s amazing. Just look at Jimi (Hendrix) in some of those early tapes. He shows you what it’s all about.”
Having completed their two-year Global Warming tour last June, and then a summer tour with Slash (with MYLES KENNEDY AND THE CONSPIRATORS), AEROSMITH is enjoying some leisure before hitting it hard again.
“There are rumors that I’m working on some solo stuff. It’s true.” Perry says proudly. “I’m finishing some of the solo stuff I was working on before. I think Steven wants to do a record. We’ll probably go on the road sometime next year. Maybe next summer we’ll go on a short tour. But we’ve been going a long while. We really need a break. Everybody just needs a breather. So that’s what’s going on right now.”
In October, a 14-city book-signing tour throughout the U.S. gave Perry a chance to promote his book.
“It was probably about the hardest thing I’d ever done,” Perry says about the tour, “because I never wake up at, like, five in the morning. I hate it. I absolutely hate it. After the years your body gets used to and then you have to switch it and go on live Good Morning America or a good morning TV-kind of show. They’re all bright and cheery. And then they’re gonna ask you a question that will last for three minutes. Then you gotta zoom to the next thing, which is like a two-hour podcast, where you can get into some detail about what kind of guitar strings you use.”
“I didn’t know what I was in for when I decided, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ But I’m glad I did. Billie (Perry’s wife) was there with me the whole way, you know, making sure I got out of bed on time and making sure that everything was right. And I had Johnny B. (Bionelli) there, my road manager—the guy that wrote the appendix in the book. It was a tight team and we covered a lot of ground. I met a lot of nice people and got a chance to talk to people about the book who really had no interest in blowing smoke about it.” Perry mentioned that the highpoint of the book-signing tour was that he was able to meet a lot of nice people, many of whom gave their feedback on Rocks. For Perry, it was good to get the feedback. “That’s what I was looking for going into it. Especially later on, when the book had come out and people had time to read it.”
Perry said that he had thought of writing a book 10 years ago, but there was always something else to do: recording, touring, family life, band business in general. “It was the 40th anniversary, the band was bumbling around, we were finishing up that record for Sony. Personally, all my kids finally graduated from college. So it seemed like a good time to stand back and take a look at things, but knowing it was just the end of one era and the start of another. It wasn’t like the old standard, ‘Well, I’m retiring and now’s the time to write my memoir.’”
By Charlie Steffens, aka Gnarly Charlie for KNAC.COM