Joe Perry: “Aerosmith are well endowed with fighting spirit. We still go out thinking we have something to prove”

Joe Perry revisits the early days, Hollywood Vampires, and how Aerosmith came back from the brink…

Joe Perry: “Aerosmith are well endowed with fighting spirit. We still go out thinking we have something to prove”
Ian Winwood
Ross Halfin
Originally published:

Joe Perry is chuckling about an anecdote in which he is one of the principal players. So the story goes, in the ’70s Aerosmith, with whom the 68-year-old is the lead guitarist, decided to make changes to the live set while on a U.S. tour. The switch involved moving the song that had traditionally been played last each night to the start of the set. The only problem with this was that the band at this time were so fucked up on booze and drugs that they left the stage after playing it, believing their night’s work was done. Quick question: Joe, is this true?

“I’ve never heard that one before,” he says, “it sounds like something that might have happened, though. I like that story, it’s a good one. I like the idea that we played one song and walked off. Thing is, though, we had a good crew – they would have turned us around and put us right back onstage again had we done that.”

Since their formation in Boston almost half a century ago, Aerosmith can make a credible claim to the title of America’s First Truly Great Rock Band. Joe Perry himself might disagree with this evaluation, but songs such as Walk This Way, Mama Kin, Permanent Vacation, The Other Side and many more make a strong argument for this honour being theirs and theirs alone. At their best, the band offer an intoxicating mixture of sex and electricity. Even at their worst – as heard on one too many grandiose monster ballads in later years – they’re still pretty fucking good.

Not content with Aerosmith’s stadium-bothering half century of service thus far, Joe Perry also happens to be a proud member of Hollywood Vampires, the illustrious-drinking-club-turned-bar-band that also features Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp. If you’re writing a letter to rock royalty, this is the address.

Without further ado, then, here’s the skinny – you won’t want to miss a thing…

What effect did rock’n’roll first have on you?
“It made me want to listen to the radio. It was mostly just background music that I was hearing at first, but then there were a couple of artists on there who stood out to me; artists such as The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison, Ike and Tina Turner. I loved those guys.”

At what point did you make the connection between listening to music and possibly playing it for a living?
“Somewhere along the way I picked up a guitar and started playing along with songs for the fun of it. And then I saw The Beatles on TV, so I started playing their songs on my guitar. But I really didn’t think about that as a career or anything. That would be like saying, ‘Well, I think I’ll be an astronaut!’ or thinking I could be a brain surgeon. It wasn’t something that I ever thought was going to happen – it was just so out of reach to me. I never saw myself being up on the stage. At first I was just a fan, until about ’66 when some friends of mine started playing some songs by The Byrds. I was really into Bob Dylan at that time, and then I heard some blues. But I never dreamed that I would end up doing this for a living.”

Aside from a life in music, what were you cut out for?
“Not much! I didn’t do very well in school. I was really fascinated by the ocean, so I thought about doing something that involved the ocean. I probably would have ended up being a deckhand on a boat. And I would have been happy with that. I love the sea, it’s the last frontier. I’m still fascinated by it. I’m by the ocean right now, as a matter of fact.”

Can you tell us about the first time you met Steven Tyler?
“He lived in New York, and when I met him he had a band and every summer he would come up to New England to spend a couple of weeks there. His family had a little kind of bed and breakfast place, so he would come up to hang out for a good part of the summer. Sometimes he would bring his band up for a week or two, and they would play at the local club. Those were big nights. All the kids would come out to see Steven’s band. They were really good. He also came in to the burger joint I was working at once, so I’d met them there.”

Aerosmith’s approach in the early days was that you would play anywhere and everywhere. What were those days like?
“Well, I think that we played every place that other bands played, but we’d also play frat parties and college mixers, sometimes just for beer. Maybe some nights we’d even get a couple of dollars. But we didn’t play many clubs in Boston, because to play those you really had to be a covers band playing the latest stuff that was on the radio. And we really didn’t want to do that. Pretty much from the start we were writing songs, which meant the gigs that we could get were out of town. We had a little network of these places that we could play. But we never did the five nights a week stint at those clubs, because we wanted more time to rehearse and write our own stuff. So we’d work on the weekends, drive out of town and play clubs and high school dances that were sometimes three hours away. That was the one thing that we did that was different.”

Were Aerosmith the first truly great American rock band?
“No, I don’t think so. At that point, the J. Geils Band ruled the roost in Boston. It was pretty tough to find a band, even now, that could compete with them at the height of their career. They were a real force to be reckoned with. When you looked around there weren’t too many bands in Boston, but the J. Geils Band were worldwide. They played with The [Rolling] Stones and ended up doing a world tour with them, because the Stones liked them so much. So they were the kings of the hill in Boston, and that made it hard for us because we never hung out with the cool people in town who knew all the DJs. We kind of came up in J. Geils Band’s shadow. Just as they were breaking up, we began to get ourselves a name.”

When Aerosmith first found fame, how well equipped were you to deal with it?
“Probably not very well. On one hand it worked because we didn’t actually know much about the business end of what we did, so for us it was a cottage industry. We got paid in cash at every club we played. Obviously we saw The Beatles and the Stones and all the mayhem that went with that, but then there was another generation of bands coming up, like The Who and Led Zeppelin, that we saw playing in clubs and theatres in America. The one thing we were equipped with was the feeling that we weren’t going to fail. Every time we walked out onstage we just did so with the feeling that we had to win over the audience that night, no matter what.”

And that worked?
“Yeah, but success didn’t come fast. It’s not like we had a hit record and all of a sudden we were big in the States. We went to New York, and then we went to Detroit, and on and on. We played every club and theatre and town hall and college that we could find. It was just a matter of doing things city by city. We weren’t getting any love from the radio, that’s for sure. But we weren’t going to give it up, no matter what. We were well endowed with fighting spirit, and that’s what keeps the band going today. We still go out there thinking we have to prove something.”

What do hard drugs do to the chemistry of a band like Aerosmith?
“It depends on the personalities. I don’t think you can have five guys who are all alpha males in a little group like ours. When we used to go to parties where other bands would be, I always used to like to hang out, and if I didn’t know them I could always pick out the guitar players, the bass player and the drummer. There’s always something that draws people to playing their particular instrument that I was always able to pick out. I think the personalities in Aerosmith were a good combination of everybody wanting to be creative, but not everybody being as creative as others. But although it balanced out, it didn’t come without a lot of trying to figure out the other guys in the band. The one thing we weren’t going to do was break up. We were always going to stick it out, one way or another. And by doing that we just got better and better, we wrote better songs and we avoided the pitfalls of egos and girlfriends and got to the point where we were finally making albums that people actually liked.”

You and Steven were known as the ‘Toxic Twins’ thanks to enormous consumption of illicit substances. How did you manage to get anything done when you were that fucked up?
“There was a lot of drama and all that stuff, but everyone showed up at rehearsal when they were supposed to. I don’t think there was ever a point where people didn’t show up because they were too stoned. Not at all. It was more a case of who was going to be late. We had this undercurrent where it was fine to party and fine to do this or that, and we’d do it together sometimes, but nothing’s gonna get in the way of us writing music and practising for tour. If we were as fucked up as some people would have you believe, we wouldn’t have been able to put out the records that we did, or to have played the size of stadiums that we did.”

Aerosmith’s fortunes were revived in the 80s thanks to your collaboration with Run-DMC on the hit single Walk This Way. Without that song, what would the future of the band have looked like?
“We really didn’t realise the impact that song and that video made on people until we were touring in Europe and there were people who thought that we were a new band. They didn’t know anything about the earlier days. We were fascinated by that. When [producer] Rick Rubin sent us a couple of plane tickets to go to New York to record the song and then make the video a couple of months later, for us it was business as usual. Obviously the song was a big hit, but we really didn’t realise what the impact was. Without it we would have kept playing and going on, and it would have been us doing what we’ve always done. Who knows what we would have written later down the road, but there was some divine intervention there that put us in touch with Run-DMC. I’m really pleased that it happened.”

From 1987’s Permanent Vacation album through to today, really, Aerosmith have executed a remarkable second act. Have you enjoyed it?
“The truth is that we didn’t know what was going to happen. When we got back together again [after Joe had left the band in 1979] we actually had to buy our way out of our contract with Columbia Records ‘cause we owed them money – for what I don’t know. So we paid that out of the money we were making from touring. And then we went out on the road on a tour called the Back In The Saddle Tour, without an album to promote, without a record company pushing our music on the radio, or anything like that. And this was before we really had any videos on MTV. So, we really went out there by the seat of our pants just to see if we liked playing together again, and to see if our fans remembered us. As it turned out, we were able to tour all around America pretty easily. We weren’t playing huge places, but everywhere we played was full of rock solid fans. By the end of that summer Geffen [Records] had seen that we were back at it and signed us. And that was the start of what happened with that next wave of success. But for that to happen we had to prove ourselves to the fans and to the industry, and we did that.”

You also took Guns N’ Roses out on your tour of U.S. stadiums when they were starting to break big with Appetite For Destruction. What was that like?
“It was really fun because they were right at the point where they were blowing up. To see them go from being the hottest club band to something where it was obvious that they were destined to be headliners – I mean, that first record is a stone cold killer – was amazing. To watch them at the start of the tour until the end, and how the audience got bigger and bigger during their set, was great to see. I loved watching them, too. I was really happy for them. I told Slash, ‘You’re going to have a lot of highs and lows in your career, but there’s nothing like what’s going on right now. You’ll never get that feeling from anything – the feeling of breaking out for the first time.’ From that point on, he had no more worries about whether he had the money to fix his car!”

What’s your favourite Aerosmith album?
“Erm, God, I don’t know! I think maybe the first record [1973’s self-titled], or else [1975’s] Toys In The Attic. But I really don’t know. That’s a really hard question to answer.”

What is it you get from the Hollywood Vampires that isn’t fulfilled by Aerosmith?
“I’m always writing, recording and messing around with different songs and ideas, just because it’s something that I love to do whether they end up being something anyone gets to hear or not. So, I’ve always got songs lying around, and it really wasn’t unusual for me to put a band together when I had a little time on my hands. Hollywood Vampires isn’t that different, apart from all of the guys are on a whole other level of tenacity from the guys that I usually play with to have a little fun. I was actually in Johnny’s [Depp] house when I was recording some solo stuff – he has a studio and I was in there working – and I’d just finished the last solo album [2018’s Sweetzerland Manifesto] when him and Alice were working on the first Vampires album. So Johnny asked me to play some guitar, and that’s how it started. I’ve known Alice [Cooper] for forever, and we always said that it would be great if we could do some stuff together and now here we are.”

And it’s gone from there.
“That’s right. From that first record we decided to try and maybe get a show at the Roxy [in Los Angeles] and from that we went out on a proper tour. We didn’t have that much time because Alice had his own shows booked and Johnny was booked in to do movies, but we went from the studio, to the clubs on the Sunset Strip, to venues all over the world. And we had fun every step of the way.”

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