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Behind the Curtain: Joe Perry and Aerosmith, Before and After Getting Clean
For this month’s Behind the Curtain, Steve Rosen recalls various encounters with Joe Perry and Aerosmith at disparate points in the band’s career — first as a fledgling guitar god, and then an actual guitar god.
Joe Perry is sitting across the table from me with the biggest pile of cocaine I have ever seen in my life.
I mean, I’d seen coke in the little vials people used to carry around and I saw an 8-ball once, which was an 1/8th of an ounce, or approximately three to three-and-a-half grams [lest you think I am some sort of drug-sniffing dope deviant because I know the weight of an 8-ball, I had to Google that so back off] but this was a mountain of Colombian marching flakes.
An avalanche, a blizzard of blow that could have kept every guitar player in the world high for six days. This was a Scarface-size pyramid of powder that looked like an emptied bag of flour — a very big bag — spread out in front of Joe. One shitload of snorting sugarcane … one fuckton of pharmaceutical fun … one ass-kicking cathedral of cocaine. What I’m trying to say in alliterative fashion, enough krell to get Dumbo and 100 of his elephant crew flying high as spaceships.
In fact, when I first walked into the Aerosmith guitarist’s West Hollywood hotel room, I thought maybe he was joking around and had upended a bag of flour on the table to goof with me — but this was no joke. This was the real deal.
I had heard the tales of his wild indulgence, the mad craziness he, Steven Tyler and the rest of Aerosmith used to engage in. It was legend, right up there in the annals of extreme excess alongside such drug Illuminati as the Stones, Ozzy and others. No wonder Joe and Steve dubbed themselves the Toxic Twins. Gallows humor.
So prolific and highly-publicized was Joe’s intake of industrial strength intoxicants that at one point I had the dark and distressing thought that he might be one of those less than superhuman rockers and succumb to the lethal lure of narcotics. I didn’t want to think like that and tried to vacate that horrible image from my brain, but when I saw Joe hunched over that sea of snow, snorting a rail that would have left any normal human being in a state of drug-induced apoplexy, my mind went back to that same place. I thought, “There’s no way you can do this much blow without your heart exploding.”
But before I get into this conversation, I want to tell you about the first time I met Joe Perry and the band. This was back in December 1973, years before he’d become Joe “Fucking” Perry and still 10,000 broken strings away from morphing into one of the coolest guitar players on the planet. However, you couldn’t have convinced Perry that he wasn’t already a Guitar Hero in training, a bona fide six-string king with the requisite swagger, slouch and insouciance just waiting for his moment in the bright white light.
That blind faith, that stone cold belief there was something bigger around the next corner, was being sorely tested. The Aerosmith album had come out at the beginning of ’73 and had fallen on hard times and deaf ears. It wasn’t a very good record.
“Dream On” was far and away the best song in the collection and even that track had died a death at number 59 on the Pop Singles chart. This was a bad year for a baby rock band trying to make their bones, and for a new guitarist trying to carve out a name for himself? Fuckin’ fuhgeddaboudit.
Perry, nee Joseph Anthony Pereira, was heads up against legendary players like David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend who were all releasing band albums at the same time the debut Aerosmith record was coming out. Talk about a shitstorm of bad luck. Dark Side of the Moon, Beck, Bogert & Appice, Houses of the Holy and Quadrophenia were only a few of the mind-blowing platters featuring the guitar wizardry of the above-mentioned cats to arrive in early ‘73, and if Joe thought he was somehow going to be welcomed into that rare fraternity of fretmasters, he was living on another planet.
Nobody had much interest in Joe and Aerosmith some 47 years ago and though I thought the band was derivative and weren’t doing much more than churning out rehashed nuggets of the Stones and the Yardbirds, there were some original bits poking through the mediocrity that intrigued me. Enough so that I asked around if anyone wanted a story — this was really early in my time as a writer, so I didn’t have a lot of sway and in fact my name didn’t mean shit back then — and managed to hook the Los Angeles Free Press on a smallish 500-word piece.
Columbia Records was over the moon with the idea of me doing a piece for the Freep since no other writers had evinced even the smallest amount of interest in talking to the Boston band. The label couldn’t give Aerosmith away during those early days. The night before the interview, I saw them perform at the Whisky. There wasn’t much there. The songs didn’t sparkle and there wasn’t much in the way of chemistry.
But holy shit, they looked wicked good. Joe had mastered the sneer and the Keith Richards slouch to perfection. A cigarette dangled from his lips at just the perfect angle. Steven Tyler was a whippet-thin firebrand, tossing his scarf-festooned microphone stand around in a crazy hybrid of Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart.
They looked like rock stars, acted like rock stars and more importantly believed they were rock stars and maybe the fact their songs kind of sucked didn’t really matter.
The band had holed up at the infamous Continental “Riot” Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard, just a few addresses east of their performance. Upon arrival, I called up to their room per instructions and a voice told me they were down in the restaurant. I was asked, “Do you think you’ll recognize them?” to which I replied, “Well, I saw them last night. I think I will.”
“I think I will.” Understatement of the century. The second I walked into the restaurant, I recognized them. How could you not? They were all scarves, lips, English haircuts and Boston — Bah-ston — accents. Aerosmith was in the [Continental Hyatt] House. Joe and Steven immediately vacated the booth in which they were sitting and bounded over to me and shook my hand and said hello and brought me back to where they were sitting and introduced me to Joey Kramer, Brad Whitford and Tom Hamilton.
From the first time Joe opened his mouth, I liked him. Very cool dude. He was all attitude and swagger and rah-rah bravado, but it didn’t come across as pompous or posturing or inflated ego. This guitar player in a band called Aerosmith truly believed with every atom in his body that these four cats with whom he was sitting were part of the most spectacular band in the universe.
Though they wouldn’t be dubbed “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” for some time yet, they all believed that’s who they already were.
You could feel that connection between Joe and Steve, that invisible and unspoken communication that Mick and Keith shared and Robert and Jimmy and Roger and Pete.
We talked about the previous night’s Whisky gig, selling — or not selling — records and the way they looked.
“A lot of people say we’re Boston’s exponents of glitter and flash,” Joe said. “The only flash comes from the music except for the pants we wore last night, but those looked good. Nobody wears platforms. The music is the selling point of the band. It always has been. It’s always been our greatest consideration. We’ve been classed as a glitter band but we ain’t.”
Our conversation didn’t last long. It was a golden Tuesday afternoon in Hollywood, and the band wanted to go out and explore. So when Perry flicked a piece of scrambled egg at Tyler, well, you can guess the rest. Steven returned the favor with a hurled bacon wedge. Sausages and buttered toast went flying. Not wanting to make me feel left out, Joe nailed me with a half-crescent wedge of pancake and I retaliated with a dollop of grape jelly.
We were all laughing so hard, it would have been impossible to continue with the interview even if we’d wanted to. Most of the conversation ended up with one band member talking over the other one anyway. It wasn’t exactly the deepest and most meaningful of discussions.
But I knew we’d meet again. We did. I caught up with Joe in 1977 to do a cover story via phone for Guitar Player, and then about three years later I walked into that hotel room and watched a drugged-out Joe Perry inhaling nasal-destroying amounts of coke. The drug thing had destroyed Aerosmith, and Perry quit to form the Joe Perry Project, which is what he was involved in at the time of this interview. The band was pretty miserable and Joe’s heart never really seemed to be in it.
Still, Joe was cool as hell as he talked about life with and without Aerosmith.
Then about seven years later in 1987, I flew to Little Rock Studios in Vancouver, Canada to do a cover story on Joe for Guitar World. Newly sober and straight, the guitarist had returned to Aerosmith a couple years earlier and recorded the Done With Mirrors album, a pretty miserable recording by anyone’s reckoning. The previous two records — Night in the Ruts and Rock in a Hard Place — were similarly pretty disastrous affairs, so this recording with producer Bruce Fairbairn at the helm was a critical one. Fuck this one up and there is nothing left but to pack up the tents and go home.
Following the three-hour flight to Vancouver from Los Angeles, I take a taxi to the hotel and then head over to the studio. I first see Joe sitting in a small playback room at the Little Mountain Sound studio where he is listening to a rough mix of what will become the Permanent Vacation album.
Steven pokes his head in the door and compliments Perry for a particularly well-turned guitar lick. Joe turns and smiles, and says, “Thanks.” In and of itself the moment holds no real importance, but according to Joe it’s a sea change from the days of the seventies when playback sessions were conducted at max volumes. “We used to listen to our mixes so loud in the studio that everything sounded big,” recalls Joe. “It was like, ‘Let’s turn up the monitors and see if we can scare the record guys out of here. If they’re not cringing, let’s kick in the Westlakes.’ You’d listen to the tracks on the threshold of pain and after three days on blow it sounded huge.”
There is no more blow, no hellish trails of cocaine disappearing up his nose. Joe now drinks Darjeeling instead of Jack Daniels and the closest he comes to a pill is aspirin. Drugs are no longer fun but the idea of laying down the perfect rhythm track is. Permanent Vacation is a spectacular album and as a comeback release it will put the band back on the map.
Joe is humbled and pretty self-deprecating by his time spent in the drug wars. He has been wounded and spent and almost left for dead, but he managed to survive — in fact, all the members of Aerosmith had cleaned up — and came roaring back as a true guitar force of nature.
I don’t know whether he remembers the time he acted like a human Hoover and vacuumed up a cyclone of snow in front of me. I don’t bring it up. I want to but I don’t. Let sleeping drugs lie.
Joe is done at the studio and he offers to drive me back to the hotel. I get into the rental car and I have to keep looking over at the driver and realize it is Joe Fucking Perry behind the wheel. I turn on the cassette player and apropos of nothing, he says, “I’m so much more aware now and so much freer. Drinking blocked so many areas, and though I could occasionally throw a few back and get to that place, the more you drink the harder it gets. There were things I felt when I was younger but couldn’t tap into but I can now.”
We arrive at the hotel and I thank Joe for the ride. He shakes my hand, stares at me and smiles in a peculiar way, which I interpret as meaning, “Thanks for talking to me. I think we made a great record. I should be dead. I am the luckiest fucker on the planet.”
Some 25+ years later, the guitarist will write his autobiography titled Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith. He will talk about his music, addiction and sobriety.
But none of the 432 pages would reveal as much as that smile did.