Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Woe is Me, I Feel So Badly For You" - How I Came to Realize that Aerosmith Sucks

So, I came across the following clip on YouTube, and you should check it out.  What you will find is Steven Tyler doing an artist's lecture on songwriting, featuring an impromptu performance of one of his (and my) favorite Aerosmith songs, "Seasons of Wither."

The track is relatively obscure but it is a gem. With its eerie intro, eerier tuning and woeful vocals, it has always captured for me that moment of lucidity you have when you find yourself surrounded by nothing but unhappy people who are doing nothing but bad things.  God knows that it doesn't feel very rock and roll to realize that these new friends of yours are all completely self-destructive and terminally sad and that you need to get the fuck away from them, but apparently it is a thought that might have crossed Mr. Tyler's a time when he was setting new standards in crazy behavior. 

And we all love when we identify with a song, right?  So have a listen:

What's great about this clip is that it reminds me so clearly of why I used to love Aerosmith -- which has an awful lot to do with the street-sensibility of the band's songwriting and performance, sometimes clumsy, but always either just a little bit sinister or fatalistic -- to the point that I can nearly overlook the fact that it was performed at Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp (ugh). And that brings me to my next point:

I do not hate Aerosmith.  I simply hate what they've become.  What I've been having trouble figuring out is when they became something that I hated.

There is an astonishingly large contingent of incredibly lazy music fans who consider Steven Tyler's participation in "American Idol" as the turning point.  The truth is that it goes back much further than that.  And I'm going to try and pinpoint when.

Begin at the Beginning

I have a friend who is about ten years older than me. He grew up in the 70's and 80's, and is someone that I consider to be a total authority on music.  (In fact, he's the one who cultivated the opinionated jackass of a music snob in me).  This guy claims that Aerosmith was always terrible, and that their albums were never much more third-rate American rock.

This is simply wrong.  "Get Your Wings", "Toys in the Attic" and "Rocks" are each outstanding -- particularly when you take into account how little great American rock was being made or bought between 1973 and 1975.

(A quick and certainly incomplete bit of research reveals that there were, in fact, excellent American hard rock records released during this period by the likes of the New York Dolls, Alice Cooper, Iggy and the Stooges and Lou Reed.  Sadly, however, I don't believe that the combined sales of them all would equal the numbers behind even one completely boring record by Steely Dan).

((And, yes, I am conveniently forgetting about KISS.  And Springsteen.  One is cool, but artistically irrelevant.  The other is genius, but irrelevant to anything concerning hard rock)).

(((And we are not going to discuss the mighty ZZ Top at all, as their inclusion would at least partially sink my defense.  Because they're, like, way better than Aerosmith))).

Sucking in the 70's?

After 1975, however, Aerosmith began to release a string of not-very-good albums, half-assed live products and throw-away greatest hits offerings. Drug problems, line-up changes and a generally self-destructive streak resulted in a terribly underachieving period for the band, at a time when far inferior American rock bands were becoming stars.

And yet, I don't hate this period of Aerosmith. In a way, I kind of love it....even the universally-panned "Rock and a Hard Place" at the very least generated a charmingly sleazy cover of "Cry Me A River" and the gorgeous "Joanie's Butterfly".  The albums may not be good, but I find them to be somewhat redeemed by even these one or two great moments.

So when did things go totally wrong?

I was always convinced that the tipping point was the release of 1993's "Get A Grip" (more on that later).  And I think that I may have been wrong all of this time.

This requires a step back to the 1980's.  

Like a lot of kids my age, my first exposure to Aerosmith was the Run DMC collaboration on "Walk this Way."  And, yes, it may sound cliche, but it did change music.  I was twelve years old in 1986, I had never heard anything like it. Yet, it didn't sound strange to my young ears.  It seemed natural and very, very cool.

I'm well aware that Aersosmith didn't change music with the collaboration.  All they did was write the song and then have the good sense to answer the phone when Rick Rubin called up eleven years later. But it sure made them look (and sound) awesome.

Next came the release of "Permanent Vacation," complete with a string of huge hits and totally fun music videos for "Dude Looks Like a Lady", "Rag Doll" and "Angel" (the last of which provides the soundtrack to an absolutely vivid memory I have of a very special summer night in high school. I was out in one of those big groups that dorky kids run in at that age, when I was first introduced to a classmate who I'd somehow never met.  Wasting time with her and my friends in the parking lot of a McDonalds on University Boulevard, I can remember every millisecond of the moments when I first developed a deep, months-long crush on her, which would progress absolutely nowhere over the course of the summer and the following school year.  I would later find out from a good friend that this same girl (or, actually, maybe it was her sister...I forget) had become a home wrecker well before the time she was out of college.  Apparently, unlike Steven Tyler and myself, this young woman was not content to be "sleepin' in this bed alone").

So, yeah, "Permanent Vacation" was a big hit, and I have fond memories of it, so this clearly couldn't have been the initial suck-point for Aerosmith.

After that, you've got "Pump," which was pretty much the biggest album in the world (or at least in my world) back in 1990 and 1991.  It was a majestic moment for the band, marking arguably the single greatest comeback of any rock band ever. The tour was tremendous, the album had fantastic energy, the list of singles was never-ending, and it was impossible for me not to love everything about them: I loved their legend. I loved their commitment to sobriety.  I loved the teenaged ribaldry of Steven Tyler's lyrics.  And I really, truly loved the MTV "Making of Pump" documentary, which I taped and watched pretty much constantly the entire summer of 1990.  This era of Aerosmith seemed inspired, focused and triumphant to me.

So, again, big hit, happy memories.  So, this also couldn't have been the moment, either, right?

Then we come to "Get A Grip," which, incidentally, my college buddy, Drew, and I ran all the way into Center City Philadelphia to purchase on its release date. After a rush back to the dorms and a first listen, we kind of knew that the album was just plain bad. Sure, the ballads were strong, but the rockers simply didn't rock very hard, and there was something funky about the songwriting....the songs were terribly inconsistent both in their style and their quality, which I later realized might have something to do with the presence of EIGHT co-songwriters on various tracks.

Moreover, it seemed as though this was the moment when Tyler's clever double-entendres became less of a schtick and more of a in a walking stick.  (Also known as a crutch).  Despite an earnest attempt at social commentary in the lead single,Tyler seemed to fully ensconce himself in the type of wordplay that initially seems clever, but might be more accurately described as lazy as the pattern repeats itself over and over and over through the years.

At the time, I chalked it up to a disappointing album -- searching high and low for reasons to like it.  But, truthfully, I moved on from Aerosmith after that.  Never bought another album.  Never saw them live again.  It was sort of like eating bad matter how much you used to enjoy them, after that last stinky night of burning disappointment, you know you'll never again spend your hard earned money on them.

(I'm not going to give time to the albums after "Get A Grip", other than to say that the singles alone are completely embarrassing.  Go ahead and listen to "Pink" or "Fallin in Love Is Hard on the Knees" if you need a reminder.......though I would be dishonest not to admit that I think that "Jaded" might be the single redemptive moment from this era).

I never stopped listening to the old albums, however.  In fact, songs from "Get Your Wings" have found themselves on an abnormal number of my iTunes playlists.  But I divorced myself pretty thoroughly from the later era stuff.

Coming Back to the Comeback

That time away from the band seems to have given me some clarity.  Because I've recently gone back and given a listen to "Permanent Vacation" and "Pump" -- commonly thought of as the comeback albums -- and I have to admit that neither is actually very good at all.

In fact, both albums sound all wrong.  I mean, completely wrong.

They're entirely too *huge* for Aerosmith -- a band that always thrived within a very loose, but driving, blues-based minimalism.  The snare drum booms on nearly every track.  The crash cymbals are mixed right up front for maximum impact. And the guitars and chorus vocals often feel multi-layered and clarified to the point that any and all sleazy, sloppiness found on "Rocks" or "Toys" is simply absent.  (Forgive me, Joe Perry, because your solo on "Rag Doll" is totally awesome).  

This is to say nothing of the majestic choruses on all of those ready-made singles, most of which bear the unmistakable stamp of professional hit-makers like Desmond Child and doofus A&R execs like John Kalodner.  (Forgive me, also, Jim Vallance, as "Magic Touch" is a quite fine song).

To that end, both records often feel closer to being a Bon Jovi album than an Aerosmith one.  Which is at least partially to say that while the albums were all wrong for Aerosmith, they were alright for the late 80's.  (To prove my point, give a listen to "Let the Music Do The Talking", a single off 1985's total dud, "Done with Mirrors," and you'll find the both the songwriting and the production sound much truer to Aerosmith's sound than "Girl Keeps Comin Apart", from the massively successful "Permanent Vacation").

To an extent, it seems unfair to group "Permanent Vacation" with "Pump," seeing as how "Pump" is a completely superior album.  But the two records are necessarily bound together in my head no longer as the time at which a newly sober Aerosmith got their act together, but more as example of the point at which the band simply embraced a lesser aesthetic.  (I'll stop short of saying that Aersosmith sold out, because they so clearly burnt out the first time).

And that puts the birth of the suck right at 1987, with the release of "Permanent Vacation".

It rubs all wrong, doesn't it?  But hear me out:

This album represents a fundamental shift in the Aerosmith brand, no longer serving the disaffected stoner kids, but instead directly targeting well-adjusted suburban youth such as myself.  

Gone was the hazy, drug-feuled aura surrounding the band, the live videos of Tyler and Joe Perry sweating out bucketfuls of toxins onstage as they leaned on one another to remain upright.  In its place were big smiles, exhausting puns, and constant over-the-top nods to sex that were anything but subversive or confrontational (unless, of course, you consider borderline incest fantasy music videos subversive, in which case I declare point: Tyler).  

Out with the slurred lyrics, in with the the monkey-chatter "A-CHA-CHA-CHA-CHA-CHA" technique for which Tyler has since become famous.

Never again would Aerosmith play the villains in a completely crappy rock opera.   Moving forward, they would star in their own children's video games instead.

Of course, it seems ironic -- and absolutely cliche -- to insist that Aerosmith started to suck as soon as their albums started selling. 

And, once again, we face that word, "unfair."  It seems so unfair to chastise Tyler, especially after watching that video that clearly shows that Steven Tyler is somehow still in touch with that seemingly-long-lost songcraft of his. 

And I guess it also seems dishonest, considering that "Permanent Vacation" and "Pump" were my gateways to the band.  I really loved those two albums, and no matter who shared the songwriting credits, there are still quite a few tracks on both records that I personally think are pretty damned good.  Even if they're all "wrong."

But somehow, this actually brings things full circle.  Because the entire thesis of this blog is that its perfectly ok to love stuff that sucks, as long as you're honest about it.  

So, I suppose that I do.  And I suppose that I am.

But more importantly, Aerosmith sucks.


Alan Huscher said...

I vividly remember you and Drew going into the city to get that "Get a Grip" CD. I recognized it as pretty lousy, too. But them again, I hadn't really loved Aerosmith in the same way Drew did anyway. He played the CD nearly constantly, completely deconstructing every aspect of Joe Perry's guitar. I got megatired of the band from that point on and seldom listen to the prior great 70's and 80's 'smith that I had grown to respect. Even to rhis day, as a "grown-up," I groan a little whenever they come up in conversation or on the radio. I especially hate what Tyler has become: a pretty well washed up old man who has completely turned his back on that gritty street sensibility that gave him his fame to begin with. Trouble is, nobody told him that he's not that kid anymore.

t-o-n said...

Haha...those were the days. Actually, its funny that you remember that, because the focus on Perry's work on that album was a big part of what I meant when I said that I was searching high and low for excuses to like the record. I even remember a discussion Drew and I had over a meal at Mil Lee's Luv Inn Diner (which I'm guessing Drew paid for, as never had any money back then) saying something dopey like "Well, you know, Pump was Tyler's album, Get A Grip is Joe Perry's. Argh.