Steven Tyler speaks out on loving the stage, hating Spinal Tap, and Aerosmith without Bruce Fairbairn



By Steve Newton

Sony Music had a lot at stake earlier this year when Aerosmith released Nine Lives, its first album for the label. The company had coughed up a reported US$30 million to sign the ageing band, far from chump change in anyone’s books. Then again, considering that the group had sold more than 70 million LPs, CDs, and tapes in its 27-year career, serious commercial payback was also a keen possibility.

In the spirit of such big-buck transactions, Sony flew journalists from across the country to interview band members at a downtown Toronto concert venue called the Warehouse. When 49-year-old Steven Tyler showed up draped in a full-length black leather coat and puffing on a fancy cigar, one schmoozing scribe couldn’t help but fashion a question around the new CD’s title. Considering how long Tyler’s been around, and everything he’s been through, did it sometimes seem to him like he had nine lives?

“Oh, please!” replied Tyler, dramatic as ever. “You’re looking at an Italian kid who grew up in the Bronx, that played in the Strangers and the Maniyaks and the Kingbees, and all these bands before Aerosmith, and made it as big as the peers I wanted to be like! The Beatles aren’t around any more, but I always wanted to be like the Rolling Stones—I wanted to be Mick Jagger—and Donovan, and the Animals.

“I wanted to be like those bands, and here I am, 30 years later, still puttin’ out good music—thanks to Joe Perry. Who would have thought? So as to how many lives I’ve got, I honestly, at times—and these are my honest, scary, crying thoughts—I look up and I go, ‘Wow, something’s goin’ on.’ ”

In view of the excesses of Aerosmith’s tumultuous career—including the life-threatening drug abuse that got Tyler and guitarist Perry labelled the Toxic Twins—it’s no wonder he ponders divine providence. Aerosmith’s overindulgence was so out of proportion that Tyler took personal offence at certain scenes in the heavy-metal parody film Spinal Tap, which he felt hit too close to home.

He was especially piqued by the part where the titular band’s dim-witted lead guitarist brags about having an amplifier that “goes all the way to 11”.

“That’s why it struck me like that,” said Tyler, who plays the Pacific Coliseum along with Aerosmith next Saturday (October 25), “because they were talkin’ about amps on 12! If you fail as being a band, most likely it’s because you got in an argument with your guitar player—or your guitar player got in an argument with your fuckin’ singer—over those very same things! Like, ‘Why don’t you put 12 on the amp? It’s on 10 all the time anyway.’

“So that’s the reality, and I’m sitting there watching Spinal Tap and they’re makin’ a joke of it. And I’m going, ‘But that really happens; you don’t understand!’ I actually got up and left. It was like, how dare they make fun of something that means so much to me?”

Although he admits he sometimes takes things too seriously, Tyler makes no apologies for defending the hard-rock lifestyle. After all, since 1972 he’s been the living embodiment of it, and it’s paid off with a successful career that hit its peak when 1993’s Get a Grip sold more than 14 million copies worldwide.

Like the two top-selling albums before it, 1987’s Permanent Vacation and 1989’s Grammy Award–winning Pump, Get a Grip was recorded in Vancouver at Little Mountain Sound, with local producer Bruce Fairbairn at the controls. Nine Lives wasn’t.

“We kept going back to Vancouver,” said Tyler, “for the very simple [reason] that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Even when Little Mountain was goin’ under, we went back, and they opened it up again so we could record. And now we just decided that if we’re gonna be off workin’ on this fuckin’ thing for a year and a half or two, to not go too far from our homes. ’Cause, you know, if you don’t see your kids growing up, what did you have ’em for?”

Tyler may claim that proximity to his children was a deciding factor in forgoing the Vancouver connection that helped make his band so huge, but the reason seems deeper than that. When asked if it was hard for the band to get Fairbairn out of its musical blood after three albums, Tyler got a little more to the point.

“What happens is, when you’re in a creative mode with a band and you’ve got a lot of people doing stuff for you—like booking the studio time, hiring an orchestra to play string embellishments for the songs—before you know it, it’s like, ‘I never asked for strings to go on that song. What about that?’ I’m finishing the lyrics to ‘Angel’, and they were having discussions about the kind of stage I was gonna be dancing around on for the next year and a half! I’m runnin’ on it, not you. I want to design. Stuff like that would go on, and Bruce Fairbairn was so wrapped up in the corporate stuff that decisions were being made that I wasn’t happy about.

“I don’t want to get into it too much,” he added, “but it just seemed like it was time for a change. Bruce was great, we did a lotta great songs together, but he decided to do the Cranberries, so we just said, ‘Ah, let’s take a risk and go with somebody else.’ ”

If Tyler sounded a tad bitter about Fairbairn jilting his band to fulfil previous commitments to a Cranberries CD, he might have had good reason to be. Whether due to Fairbairn’s absence or not, the once-mighty Aerosmith delivered its weakest album ever in Nine Lives. The band has become a burlesque version of its former self, with cheesy power ballads and formulaic radio fodder the norm. If bogus tunes such as “Falling in Love Is Hard on the Knees” are the best they can manage sober, somebody better buy the boys a beer.

It’s tough for me to slag my former heroes like that, because I never bonded more intensely with a band than I did when Aerosmith was releasing albums such as Get Your Wings and Draw the Line. Maybe I’m reacting the same way Tyler did when the exaggerated antics of Spinal Tap tarnished his world: how could a band that meant so much to me be churning out forgettable slop like the current single “Pink”?

That said, I’ll still be in the crowd when Aerosmith hits the Coliseum on the 25th, because their older tunes rule and the quintet has become a thrilling live act since (supposedly) beating drugs. (Longtime manager Tim Collins ended his relationship with the group in 1996 amid claims that Tyler was back at his old habits, an allegation Tyler vehemently denies.) At any rate, the hyperactive Tyler is always a riot to watch.

“When I get up there onstage,” he said, “I make more sense in my songs than I do in real life. When I’m singin’ a song, I call on places that lie dormant in me. Maybe it’s unsettled stuff, but why should I go blow it on a therapist when I can scream into a microphone and get paid for it?

“And not only do I get off, but people in the audience get off, and I watch them getting off on me getting off on them, and it creates this thing that’s just amazing. It gives me goose pimples.”

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