Aerosmith Was Better on Drugs

Aerosmith aren’t relevant in the waning days of 2020. Why would they be? They haven’t put out an album since 2012’s Music from Another Dimension! (yes, that’s it’s real name) and we’ve got bigger fish to fry: watching our government officials behave like they’re on an episode of Parks & Recreation, the deep philosophical division that our country is facing, and a pandemic that’s about to wreak even more havoc on society than it already has if we all can’t act responsibly this holiday season. So why write about them?

It’s because of all three of those bullet points, actually. First, we need to stop paying attention to this Coup Clutz Clan. This shit show will be gone in January and while we will have the option of following Biff and his sycophants afterward, we won’t have to—in the meantime, here’s a distraction. Secondly, the prolonged quarantine, isolation, and unemployment I’ve experienced since March 18 has left me with a plethora of “thought nuggets” floating around in my head, and it’s time to clear up some brain space. Third, because we are a nation divided, I felt that I needed to do my part to help bring us together by reminding us that there’s one thing we can all agree on: Aerosmith was better on drugs.

The season is withering, but walk this way. I will draw the line between their beginning—when five scrappy dreamers from Boston put rocks in our big ten-inch records and three-mile smiles on our faces—to the other side, where they became corporate rock rag dolls whose music became fit for elevators, when they became merely fine and not amazing.

The world was introduced to Aerosmith with 1973’s self-titled album on Columbia Records. It got some modest play around the country, and it was most notable for the single “Dream On,” which became a top 10 hit in 1975. This album also is the band finding their way. Lead singer Steven Tyler’s voice is almost unrecognizable on some tracks. Honestly, when I first heard “Dream On,” I thought it was Queen. It wasn’t until their third album, 1975’s Toys in the Attic, that Tyler really locked on to his signature vocal rasp. And the main contributor to his signature vocals was drugs.

Now let me pause here to say that yes, I’m very aware of the deadly and tragic toll that unchecked drug abuse can take on a person and their families. I’m not advocating anyone use drugs. Unless you really want to and they help you be creative.

If you look at Aerosmith’s studio output between 1973 and 1982, it has a dark, foreboding edge to it. Many of their songs during this time are written in a minor key. To wit: “Seasons of Wither,” “Kings and Queens,” “Lightning Strikes,” and “Nobody’s Fault.” These songs had an evil cast about them. Witchy, even. With all the cocaine that fueled the mystical sounding chords and lyrics, you’d almost expect the band to conjure Stevie Nicks into manifestation while laying these tracks down in the studio. Then there were the ominous songs that threatened to take you away to a scary place, whether it be a corner of your mind you’d rather not explore, confronting burgeoning sexual tension and desires, or in some cases, both: “Toys in the Attic,” “Walk This Way,” “Rats in the Cellar,” and “Lick and a Promise” are all songs that were dripping with either manic neurosis or criminal sexuality.

And drugs. I, really…I…I can’t stress that enough.

By 1979, the band had collectively consumed the same amount of drugs that Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards had consumed in 1979. And sure, it took its toll on the band. Lead guitarist Joe Perry was zonked out on heroin at his wedding, Tyler was cross-eyed on Xanax while behind the wheel once or twice, and drummer Joey Kramer, uh…I’m sure he did some crazy drummer shit on ludes and reds, ‘cause you know…drummers, right?

But their music was interesting.

The band created its most complex and thought-provoking music and lyrics in the early years while they were high as fuck. They had some fun, upbeat rockers like “I Wanna Know Why,” “Back in the Saddle,” “Same Old Song and Dance,” and “Adam’s Apple,” and the ballads they created struck the perfect balance between haunting beauty and unique imagery. But they all had a dirty, almost suspicious vibe to them. You almost felt like you were gonna get in trouble if someone caught you listening to them. And that was because of the drugs.

After some turmoil in the early 1980s—Perry left the band, soon to be followed by rhythm guitarist Bradley Whitford, who went on to have a successful career in Hollywood with a starring role on The West Wing and in the acclaimed movie Get Out.[1] The band hit rock bottom. After everyone had some time to cool off and get over their egos, they regrouped for a fun collab with Run DMC in 1984 and released Done with Mirrors in 1985 (which is a very underrated record, and I’m cooler than you because I liked it before you even knew about it). This was the last time that Aerosmith captured that dark and gritty sound they had been cultivating for almost 15 years, and the amount of drugs the band consumed during the making of this record is legendary. So much so that the title of the album was a clever nod to how much blow the band was doing at the time.

What happened next can only be described in four words: John Kalodner John Kalodner. And horns. Okay, six words. And rehab. Ok… eight.

Now first off, this isn’t an editing error. John Kalodner John Kalodner was an A&R man working for Geffen Records (Aerosmith’s new label beginning with Mirrors), and in the 1980s, we were all contractually obligated to say his name twice, whether in album liner notes, interviews on MTV, or dinner parties at Lorne Michael’s house. If you didn’t, David Geffen ate a baby or something. Anyway, it was John Kalodner John Kalodner who suggested the band work with outside songwriters. He also hooked them up with producer Bruce Fairbairn, who was the chief architect of the ubiquitous mid-‘80s studio production technique of adding synthetic horns to every fucking song ever. And with those fake horns came a fake brightness that shined the light on what Aerosmith was becoming: fake corporate shills churning out fake corporate radio rock. This was made worse by the fact that the band took the time between 1985 and 1987 to go to rehab and get their shit together and stop doing drugs.

Now, full disclosure, I was ten when Permanent Vacation came out in 1987, and if my math is correct, 12 when Pump came out in 1989. This was actually my entry point into the band. I was the prime target for their nefarious marketing campaign and fresh new funky sounds because I didn’t know any better. I remember hearing “Dude Looks Like A Lady” in the celebrated Kirk Cameron film Like Father Like Son, and was instantly hooked. Those horns! Those vocals! Those…lyrics? Potential transphobia aside, the song was being sung by every middle school rock aficionado across the nation. It was followed by “Rag Doll,” the first of Aerosmith’s many sexually-charged romps aimed at kids, and “Angel,” which saw the band join the ranks of Mötley Crüe, Cinderella, and Poison with ballads featuring overblown production and big, soaring melodies. Then came 1989 and Pump. “Love in an Elevator” was the obvious first single, but it marked a shift. In a song that was attempting to be naughty and bawdy, instead of using the word “ass” (a word they were perfectly happy to use in 1975’s mega-hit “Sweet Emotion”), Tyler sings “sassafras.” It was confirmed that the offending word was removed and replaced so that the song would get more radio play. Fucking sellouts. Then there was “What It Takes,” another ballad that felt too earnest and hopeful. The only song to really buck this trend was the feel-good hit of the summer, “Janie’s Got A Gun,” which was about…child abuse and murderous retribution? Yeah, not very good optics coming from guys that courted 15-year-old groupies at concerts in the ‘70s. But again…drugs.

They rode that wave hard and fast, culminating in 1990 with one of my favorite moments of TV as a kid: guest starring on Wayne’s World on Saturday Night Live. It was in that sketch that they boasted to the world that they were clean and sober. They also performed two songs on the show that evening (three if you count the Wayne’s World theme song). Their second musical performance of the night was the song “Monkey on My Back,” which is a song about drugs, but instead of an ode to how awesome they are, it was an anti-drug PSA wrapped up in a feel-good prophylactic of bright and sunny guitars. Tyler did give one last ditch effort to save his rock star cred during that performance, though, saying the word ‘fuckin’’ live on air. So there’s that. I guess.

It was about this time that I started searching out Aerosmith’s back catalogue. There was a drugstore in my hometown that had a surprisingly good music selection, and I discovered that they had every single Aerosmith record on cassette for only $5 a pop. Within a year, I had their entire discography. It was about the time I acquired 1976’s Rocks that it dawned on me that the old stuff was different. It excited me in ways that the new stuff didn’t, but I didn’t know that their lack of clean living is what made them so awesome. I was young and naive, and I hadn’t done drugs.

Then I did drugs and I understood everything. When I smoked pot for the first time in high school and put on 1978’s Live! Bootleg, Aerosmith’s old music suddenly made all the sense in the world to me. I challenge you to eat some mushrooms and listen to 1972’s Get Your Wings and not come away a changed person. Strap on your comically oversized 1970s headphones, spark a J, and melt into the opening vocoder sounds of “Sweet Emotion.” Cocaine’s the perfect pairing for “Draw the Line,” if not a little on the nose. Quaaludes were made for “Uncle Salty.” Heroin…maybe don’t do heroin. That’s…you know…a little much. But if you do, listen to “You See Me Crying” and you’ll see why it’s superior to “Angel.” I highly recommend you listen to all this great music the way it was intended: on drugs.[2]

I’m not even going to really get into anything beyond 1993’s Get A Grip, which was a largely forgettable album—three mediocre songs with videos starring Clueless and the T2 kid, nestled in a lot of expensive masturbatory filler. But what all of the releases between 1987 and 2012 have in common is the loss in complexity that the old shit had. It’s all been pretty much straight-up power chords with little to no nuance. The drumming became lazy and uninspired. The lyrics, boilerplate cheese. And those horns. Ooh boy those horns! And yet, somehow they became even bigger than they ever had before.

Now, in recent years, it has been speculated that some of the members of the band have tried to recreate the magic of the glory days by dabbling in the ol’ honeypot once or twice, but instead of ramping up their creativity, it has caused some (totally not comical) unfortunate mishaps at concerts. It also led Tyler releasing a country album, but the less said about that, the better. It would appear that the fun drugs don’t mix well with the medically necessary drugs, which is to also say that their advanced age and fun drugs don’t mix well, either. They shot their shot. They might as well just keep releasing repackaged “Best Of”s and boxed sets until they can’t walk this way anymore instead of trying to recapture their proto-emo period with new music.

Now I don’t mean to crap on them too much. They earned their wings and paid their dues. They deserved to make it, and honestly, if I were limping into late middle age and my career exploded like theirs, I’d keep cranking out the same mundane music, too. They have a brand and it works for them. Good for them. But what it comes down to is that Aerosmith made their name by creating amazing music while on drugs. Music that stands the test of time and that anyone can enjoy, regardless of their state of mind. Now they make music that requires the listener to be on drugs to enjoy, and like I said earlier, I’m not advocating the use of drugs.[3]

What I am advocating is going back and rediscovering why Aerosmith were relevant in the first place. It’s the great American Rock N’ Roll Story, and a wild ride. We’re bound to be spending a lot more time in quarantine in the coming months, so you’ll have plenty of time on your hands. Go back and really listen to those first seven albums.

And do it on drugs.[4] | Tyson Blanquart

[1] Editor’s Note: Bradley Whitford the guitarist and Bradley Whitford the actor are different people. I left this in because I don’t like the author and it’s funny when he makes an ass of himself. Also, don’t do drugs!

[2] Editor’s note: The author is definitely NOT recommending the use of drugs. He’s joking! Just say NO! Winners don’t use drugs!

[3] Editor’s note: See? Told you so.

[4] Editor’s note: I give up.

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