Sweet Emotion

The continuing appeal of Aerosmith’s aging, derivative, eyeliner-wearing hams.


Twenty years ago, with my bio textbook and a $5 bill in my knapsack, I stopped at a school-supplies store near my junior high, bought a piece of cotton paper and a green felt-tip calligraphy pen, and went home to transcribe the lyrics to Aerosmith’s song “Dream On.” Tacking the sheet to the bulletin board beside my bed, I imagined that one night a guy might come into my room, read “Dream On,” and see me as a tough and tender small-town girl who knew about laughter and tears—and who was ready to sing with him, for the years.

Aerosmith—Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Joey Kramer, Brad Whitford, and Tom Hamilton—were sexy, bluesy guys from my home state of New Hampshire. They seemed sad, rowdy, and courteous at the same time. Now I’m 32, and the past has gone—it went by like dusk to dawn—but Aerosmith is still here. The other night, MTV premiered mtvICON:Aerosmith, the channel’s tribute concert to the jokers who tried and failed to be the American Rolling Stones—or, no, the country’s one funky, blues-rock garage band with stamina—or, no, the pioneers, with Run-DMC, of the rap-rock industrial complex—or, let’s face it, the aging derivative jerks in eyeliner who ride the nostalgia train and consent to appear on MTV as “icons.”

Of course, you can’t underestimate the music industry’s swelling capacity for gaudy self-congratulation. Through the device of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the music business, with MTV still firmly at its center, has canonized more saints than John Paul II. It’s also democratized rock fame. The assumptions behind Behind the Music (VH1), Cribs (MTV), Becoming (MTV), Being (VH1), Driven (VH1), Before They Were Rock Stars (VH1), VH1TV Moments (VH1), and dozens of shows beyond MTV Networks are evidence of the widespread belief that anyone who has had even a run-in with rock fame has a story worth telling. And maybe it’s true. Rock stardom may be like the Congo: If you’ve been there, no matter what happened, we want to hear about it.

As mtvICON has it, Aerosmith’s story goes like this. The band formed in Sunapee, N.H. (about a 40 minutes’ drive from my town’s school-supplies store); went to Boston to become guitar gods; lived on a malign but common street drug that MTV won’t call by name; had hits; split up; endured some barren Spinal Tap years; shot a video with Run-DMC in a Rick Rubin feat that sent up both bands but also invigorated their careers; rallied; got sober; reunited; reclaimed children they had fathered; had new hits; built a fan base of people like me who had listened to them as children; and finally became Icons.

Aerosmith, while commercial, seem to be set on proving that rockers can age like bluesmen, becoming wise, just-playing-music types who are mellow and give props to the kids. They’ve been humiliated, snubbed, and nearly died many times over, and now they are smug, rangy, and amused. Their interviews about the trashy years are of course the most compelling. After describing the band’s stupendous bingeing, Tyler says what we’re all thinking: “It’s hard to talk about drugs after 15 years of sobriety, but they had to do some good.” More than musical innovation, miscellaneous experience, especially with drugs, is Aerosmith’s high card. And while that’s true of other old second-tier rock bands, Aerosmith is peculiarly good-natured about it—and they make growing old look like fun. They are the biggest hams in elderrock.

The band’s biopic comes in intervals, between performances by young musicians, who by turns praise and cover the masters. Conspicuously absent from MTV’s festivities were any of Aerosmith’s contemporaries: no Jagger, Richards, McCartney, Clapton, Don Henley. No one from Journey, Boston, Asia. The covers—by Train (“Dream On”), Papa Roach (“Sweet Emotion”), Kid Rock ("Last Child”), Shakira ("Dude Looks Like a Lady”), Pink ("Janie’s Got a Gun”), Nelly and Ja Rule ("Walk This Way”)—are uneven. But they make you think not only about the debt of the young to the old, but also the debt the old can have to the young.

The brief Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration—for years hailed as a noble political act akin to school desegration—is nothing compared to the youth/age collaboration of a show like this, in which the old men get credibility from the bands that cover them, and vice versa. Because the young bands are so self-conscious—this isn’t their crowd, after all, and the auteurs are in the house—their inhibitions become an accidental part of their performances. Am I doing this right? No, it’s so not rock ‘n ‘roll to think about “right.” I should just try to rock. That paradox—how to be deferential without being uncool—infuses every moment of television’s current rock nostalgia. And it backs some of the young rockers into a corner: How can they cover this boomer music without turning into has-beens themselves? How can they manifest the defiance of youth and the chops of age? On mtvICON, that challenge actually makes the performances interesting.

I was happy to hear the songs again. As the under-30 musicians played on, I also savored the cutaways to Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, who, with the rest of the band, were watching from the balcony. In their youth, the frontmen of Aerosmith looked sensuous like Keith and Mick, but they didn’t look decadent; they’ve always looked like musicians who liked to practice. Today, Perry is an easy, lovely looking man who, against the odds, retains his New Hampshire accent. And whatever other poisons linger in Tyler’s system, his freedom from Botox makes his face sinuous and vivacious—lined with swirls far more elegant than my preteen calligrapy. So, while the show made much of the redemption of rehab, let’s just say it: The lean, cool look of these guys can lead one to suspect that a bout with drugs, if survived, can enhance late-life handsomeness. These guys have none of the jowls and belly of executives or politicians; instead they’ve got a jagged, vampiric look that can be even sexier than youth.

As the young bands covered his band’s hits, Tyler gamely rocked along in his chair. He looked like an enthusiastic parent at a school play—in the second act he and Perry both had children in their laps. And if Perry was gracious, Tyler was openly effusive, nodding vigorously as he picked up the new bands’ choices—and praising even Train’s stiff, awkward rendition of “Dream On.”

Of course the show had its cringe-inducing moments. David Spade roasted the band in a nasty, uninformed way, and he looked like he hated doing it. And I found it especially unnerving when members of Metallica claimed that Aerosmith were their saviors. These former screamers thanked Aerosmith for returning a cell phone (“Steven called the number marked mom, and she found me”) and improving the life of a sick friend. Has recovery cost Metallica all of its metal ferocity? The band has none of Aerosmith’s weathered grace or old-man’s savoir vivre; instead they have the unsteady, one-day-at-a-time look of new Christians or halfway-house dwellers.

As a remarried band, Aerosmith represents an enviable triumph of hope over experience. Perry and Tyler split in the 1980s, but they soon found out that they missed each other. Now—drug-free, clean-shaven, and rich—they sit easily together. True, they rarely look at each other, but they seem to know that they’re bound to work together like a pair of draft horses in a cross harness. Perry confesses that Tyler’s outbursts and self-centeredness still bug him. “How much of that is ego, family things? But he’s got really good intuition. And I gotta admit it a lot of the time he’s right.” The line was delivered lightly; this sounds like a good marriage to me.

Fundamentally, Aerosmith makes sexy music for good girls—”dirty” music, as Janet Jackson, who was last year’s Icon, put it. I was not surprised that the chief sponsor of MTVIcon: Aerosmith was Lady Venus; at every commercial break, the same noxious ad appeared for a women’s razor designed to “reveal the goddess in you.” The campaign is dreadful, but Lady Venus is on to something: When Aerosmith’s around, women—just for being women—feel a little bit holy. And sluttiness seems next to godliness. I don’t know any men who don’t have mixed feelings about Aerosmith. At most they admit that they’re tight and have some good licks—and that Tyler’s a decent performer. But these guys don’t run home and put on “Jaded” like some women I know. Christina Applegate got this gist when she said onstage: “[Aerosmith’s] is a music for coming of age, for spreading your … wings.”

Aerosmith sounds the way a guy does when he’s trying to get you to leave your bio homework to go get drunk and make out. Even if you’re no longer using a fake ID and worrying about hickeys, hearing Aerosmith can bring you back to the days when you did. For four years, I kept the “Dream On” lyrics on my bulletin board. The rocker guy never showed up, and finally I put the manuscript away in a box, under my childhood bed. On the subway this morning, I dipped into Health, a magazine for women in their 40s concerned with stress and savings. To my amazement, Steven Tyler was on the back cover, shrieking, his upper lip lined with milk. “Makes your bones rock hard,” reads the copy. “Ya think soda can do that? Dream on.”