By Brian Ives
Aerosmith‘s Joe Perry is a soft-spoken guy who possesses an undeniably cool and somewhat mysterious vibe. The other side of that coin is that it might be hard to get a word in edgewise when you’re in a band, and songwriting partnership, with Steven Tyler.
In Perry’s newly released memoirs, Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith, co-written with David Ritz, Perry talks about all of the ups and downs of the band, and unsurprisingly, there’s a good amount of focus on his relationship with Tyler. While Perry is quick to compliment Tyler’s abilities as a singer, songwriter, musician and frontman, he pulls no punches when describing how difficult life can be with him. He was quicker to talk about his partnership with fellow Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford, his respect for Cheap Trick and his love of his wife, Billie. That mysterious session he recently did with Paul McCartney? He didn’t have much to say about that, but we tried.
Radio.com: So, what made you decide to write the book now?
Joe Perry: Aerosmith is carving out this new adventure that there’s really no paradigm for. In the last few years, we hit our 40th anniversary, we were working on our last album for Sony [2012’s Music From Another Dimension], which was kind of symbolic of the change in the music business. There were some personal things as well: my kids were growing up and going through college. It felt like the end of an era, but the beginning of another. It felt like the right time to write the book.
I know you’re a huge fan of classic R&B. I’m guessing it was cool to have David Ritz — who co-wrote autobiographies of Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and B.B. King — as your co-author.
Without a doubt. I read a lot anyway… it’s probably one of the only things I got from school. I really love to read. I read quite a few autobiographies, to see how people did it, but also to find a co-writer. I didn’t want to do it on my own, I needed to work with somebody, so that it would be more like a piece of literature. David was the right guy.
As a guy who has worked with lots of iconic artists with great stories, did he push you to tell stories that you may not have wanted to talk about?
A lot of that comes from the author. I read some books that David did that weren’t so great, frankly. I mean, obviously the Ray Charles book was amazing. So I read a few more that were really good. And then I read a few that weren’t so good. So I asked him about it. And he said, “It’s really what you put into it. You are the author of the book, I’m just here to help you translate it and capture your voice.” Certain people only gave him a certain amount of time. It’s not unlike making a record: you get what you give. I was determined to get this right. It was a bigger job than I had expected, but it was worth it.
I enjoyed reading about your early impressions of Brad Whitford. You guys are one of the best guitar teams in rock and roll, but he doesn’t get the amount of press that you do. But what is it about your relationship that makes it work?
Well, when we met, we were both at a point in our journey of learning the instrument. We were both capable, we were at the level where we could play and make it sound reasonably professional, but we still had a long way to go. We got along really well, as friends and bandmates. There was just something about the way we played guitar together. He studied music at Berkley School of Music, he knew more technical things, musically, than I did. As opposed to my way: I was learning stuff from listening to records. We were coming from two different places, musically, but we didn’t really have to talk about who was going to play what. People don’t realize that he’s as good of a guitar player as he is. It’s a very non-verbal communication that we have.
Of course, there’s a lot more talk about your relationship with Steven Tyler. Over the years, have you had to work to figure out how to make your relationship work, given your different personalities?
That was one of the big things that allowed us to get back together again. After I left the band – for a lot of reasons that I get into in the book – after the dust settled… [I realized] It’s the five guys in the band that are responsible for keeping it together. In the ’70s, we never really sat down as a band at that point and dealt with that stuff, so I left. Brad left six months later. I was gone for close to five years. After that, we got together, and we learned that certain things you can’t change about people and you gotta learn how to adjust your way of working together.
I love that your wife came from such a different background; she didn’t even know who Cheap Trick was.
She didn’t know who Aerosmith was… I feel bad for guys who have reached a certain amount of fame and fortune, whether they’re sports guys or actors, and they’re looking for the right woman. And there’s always gotta be that thing in the back of their mind: are they really marrying you because they love you, or because of what they perceive to be all the glamor and all the other stuff. It was a minor miracle—no, a major miracle —that she came from listening to underground and punk music, she didn’t know about Aerosmith. She’d heard a couple of songs on the radio, and that was really about it. And it wasn’t until a few years later when we were living together that she was going through some old boxes of stuff, she saw some magazines from the ’70s, some gold records here and there. I don’t hang all that on the wall. My feeling is, you’re only as good as your next record. You get a gold record for your last one? You gotta do better on your next one. Anyway! She didn’t really know anything about Aerosmith.
Over the past few years and tours, you usually sing one song per album and one or two per show.
There’s a certain amount of hierarchy about who gets the mic… it’s always been tough for me, I’d always sung in other bands before Aerosmith. Obviously in the [Joe Perry] Projects, I’ve done a fair amount of singing, but when you’ve got a singer like Steven in the band, it’s tough to get people to look past the fact I’m not a “singer’s singer.” You know what I mean? If Bob Dylan was in Aerosmith, he’d have a hard time selling his songs when you’ve got someone like Steven, who is such a great singer. It’s tough, you know? But on a song like “Freedom Fighter”…after seeing something in the news about a documentary filmmaker in Africa, I wrote about 80% of the lyrics in one shot. And I had to sing that one myself. I had to carry that message. And fortunately, the band is pretty loose about letting me sing whatever I want to [in concert]. After I put out the solo record [his self-titled album from 2005], they let me play “Shakin’ My Cage,” that’s a lot of fun to play. The band really like me to sing the blues stuff too. That’s why I never really thought seriously about doing solo records in the ’70s, because I was getting my needs met in the band.
Mick Jagger always leaves the stage at Rolling Stones concerts when Keith Richards sings; Steven Tyler seems to like backing you up when you sing something live.
Depending on the song, sometimes he will take a break. Sometimes I’ve sung two songs, and on one of them he’ll sing backup. It varies. But yeah, he doesn’t like to leave the stage [grins].
Back to “Freedom Fighter”; you’ve gone on record as a lifelong Republican, albeit one whose favorite President of all time is Kennedy. But did David Ritz want you to talk about your politics in the book?
He never brought it up. if it came up in the course of our conversations we talked about it. it wasn’t part of the stuff I wanted to talk about in the book. because the band always choose to look at ourselves as entertainers, and to take people away from their problems, instead of singing about politics. we don’t feel it’s our place. if we do, we usually do it on our own and keep it away from Aerosmtih. But that’s a general statement: there are times like “Freedom Fighter” or “Livin’ on the Edge” where we’ll address something.
A couple of years ago, Amnesty International put out a Bob Dylan tribute [Chimes of Freedom] and you did a solo cover of his “Man of Peace.” How did you pick that one?
Well, all the lyrics just rang the bell for me. That’s all. I’ve always been really into Dylan, but there was a period where I was just so focused on our band that I wasn’t really listening to too much else. One of the records that I listened to when I started getting back into Dylan was Infidels. “Man of Peace” was one of my favorite songs on that record. He was a great inspiration to get me to start writing more lyrics.
This summer you were on the road with Slash. That guy has dealt with two … let’s call them “difficult” lead singers in two different bands, and he’s probably not going to reunite with either of them. Do you look at his situation and think that maybe you don’t have it so bad?
[grins] As Slash and I have become better friends over the years, I’ll sometimes call him up and ask for some advice. He’s farther down the road than me, in some ways, as far as having a solo career. Even though we come from different generations, there are some parallels to our stories. But yeah, we’ve been really lucky. For all the tales that have been told about our ups and downs, our downs have never gotten that bad.
At the end of your book, you wonder what the twenty year old version of you would think of you today, but you don’t explore that thought any further. Have you thought about it since?
Of course. When we played that gig in front of our old apartment [at 1325 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston in November of 2012; read our review here] I did have a chance to stand there… I wish we could have gone inside to our old apartment. All I could do was shake my head. It was one of those times that I was speechless even to myself [laughs]. It was just one of those moments.
So many of the bands that started when you did can no longer play the large venues that you headline today. And even fewer bands have the original lineup as you do. Do you ever think about how fortunate you are in your band?
Without a doubt. Up until last year it was just us, Cheap Trick and ZZ Top. I hope Bun E [Carlos] gets back with Cheap Trick. There’s not just that many bands with the entire lineup. We’ve toured a lot. we don’t take five years off between tours. For better or worse, we’ve always been on the road, we’ve always been a viable entity. The downside is we’ve given up a lot of things from our personal lives. But on the positive side, we’re always growing and always trying to outdo ourselves.
As a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, you get to vote. Who do you think deserves to get in who hasn’t been inducted?
I vote every year. I was writing KISS in until last year. In fact, when I was writing the book I wrote that I was pissed off that they weren’t in, so I had to change that. Now it’s Cheap Trick. They’re not part of the circle of the so-called rock and roll elite, style makers, whatever. I don’t know what the problem is. Those records are classic records. For some other bands to be in there, and Cheap Trick aren’t, it’s just wrong. On the other hand, there’s a great cross-section of people that vote. But they should be in there.
How have the guys in your band reacted to the book?
I didn’t want them to see it until it was completely done. Steven’s the only one that I’ve heard back from, He’s a third of the way through and he said it was really well done.
You’ve said that you don’t know if Aerosmith will ever do a full length album again, you might just do EPs every few months. Is there an EP in the works?
Not that I know of. I know there are songs that are starting to find their way towards the surface. I don’t know how they’re going to come out. The business changes so much, even over the course of six months. It’s more about how we’re going to get the music out there, as opposed to whether or not we’re going to write any more music. Even that’s an issue. Billy Joel has been quoted as saying something like, “Why should I write another album? All they want to hear is my old stuff. Why spend X amount of dollars recording, and so much time writing new music. I’ve written so many songs. Why bust my ass if people aren’t going to bother listening to them.” That’s his view. But I don’t know: maybe he’s in the studio now making a new record.
So, I don’t know right now. I always fight to play the new songs live, but the band’s a democracy. Even if it’s just a couple of new songs, I feel like you gotta keep adding new songs to your repertoire, and you gotta keep playing them. And even if the [last] record didn’t have a bunch of [hit] singles on it, there’s still a bunch of fans that bought it. Back in the old days, we used to have to play the songs live a bunch of times before they became hits. All these songs that we now call “classic” songs, that people want to hear, a lot of them were album cuts. It’s just because we’ve played them live over the years, they become part of the texture of our repertoire, and the only way that happens is by keeping them in the setlist. I know that when we do tour again, we’ll really take a hard look at the setlist. I know there’s a backbone of songs that will always be in the set. But we’ll look hard at records like Night in the Ruts or Draw the Line and do a few songs off of those albums.
I know that at one point, there was talk about you guys doing full album shows.
Like most things Aerosmith, we come up with ideas and we get three-quarters of the way through and, it falls away. For better or worse, we tried doing Rocks, we were gonna do all of that, and we did almost every song, and then halfway through the tour, it dissolved. I’ve seen other bands do it, namely Cheap Trick. I’m such a big fan off theirs. They did three records over the course of three nights, it was amazing. I know there will be a tour in the next two years, and I know we’ll get in the studio and do something. WE just finished a tour, everybody needs some time off. Live a normal life for a while.
You’ve done some solo tours in the past few years. Are you planning any more club shows on your own?
There’s a good chance I’ll be on stage with somebody, somewhere. I’ll be playing.
With Paul McCartney?
I don’t know what they’re going to do with that. It was just one of those things. I don’t even think they know how that’s gonna go.