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Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry chats to Lisa Torem about his new autobiography, ‘Rocks: In and Out of Aerosmith’
Joe Perry is known as being the lead guitarist for Aerosmith and innovator of the Joe Perry Project. His ability to form a catchy riff is legendary. But his depth goes beyond his mastery of music. Perry, in his new autobiography, ‘Rocks: In and Out of Aerosmith’, recollects the angst, euphoria, business snags, in-fighting and successful collaboration that informed his decades in rock.
Perry clearly traces the evolution of Aerosmith; how they rose to fame, plummeted and then picked themselves up and became, again, a vital force in a tough market. He co-formed the group in 1970 with Steven Tyler, Brad Whitford, Joey Kramer and Tom Hamilton. The group is best known for ‘Toys in the Attic’ (1975) and ‘Rocks’ (1976). Their successful singles include: ‘Dream On’, ‘Sweet Emotion’ and ‘Walk This Way’.
After Perry quit the band in 1979, he formed the Joe Perry Project and released a trilogy of albums between 1980 and 1983. He then rejoined Aerosmith again in 1984. Continuing to record with the Joe Perry Project, he recorded two more albums by 2009 and a self-titled solo album, highly acclaimed by Rolling Stone. His tune, ‘Mercy’, was nominated for “Best Rock Instrumental” in 2006. In 2009, ‘Have Guitar Will Travel’ became his fifth solo album.
Aerosmith’s ‘Just Push Play’ went platinum in 2001, followed by ‘Honkin’ on Bobo’ in 2004. Although Perry and Steven Tyler have had their ups and downs, their partnership has produced a huge fan base and a treasure trove of hits.
Besides music, Perry has other important interests such as an avid interest in preserving nature and protecting the environment. Part of his commitment includes mentoring our new generation about science. As a child, he wished to emulate Jacques Cousteau. Like the French conservationist, the ocean fascinated him. Although that childhood passion became partially subsumed by his love of music, Perry makes time to be a committed spokesperson, working with Rock Stars of Science to “make the funding of scientific research a national priority.”
Perry worships the blues but is open to all genres. He’s met the legends and has even dabbled in rap. When ‘Walk This Way’ was reimagined, it conjured up a whole, new audience. His list of favourite guitarists includes Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. He and Steven Tyler inducted Led Zeppelin into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Aerosmith was inducted in 2001 and he and Tyler were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2014.)
Proud of his wife, Billie (Montgomery) Perry, the guitarist tributes his spouse by performing with a guitar, which bears her signature and painted image. Currently, Billie Perry is supporting her husband’s book tour across America. Joe Perry in interview with Pennyblackmusic disclosed his appreciation for his family, devotion towards his musical heroes, how he has risen above adversity and why nature still astounds him.
PB: I loved your new autobiography. It was a real page-turner and it taught us some important life lessons. Was ‘Rocks: In and Out of Aerosmith’ written in response to Steven Tyler’s autobiography?
JP: Not really. It fact, I was afraid that people would perceive it as that because in rock and roll land it seems that every year is two. We’re literally in one city doing something and then we’re off to another city to do a show. So, there’s this sense that it’s been a really long time in my mind since Steven’s book came out, but in real time it hasn’t been that long - but I felt it was the right time to put my book out.
What he put in his book, that’s his reality and I’m not going to sit here and say, “That’s right and that’s wrong,” because some of that stuff I wasn’t there for and some of it I was, but the bottom line is he can put in his book whatever he wants. Whether or not I agreed it didn’t have any bearing on what I said in my book. If it’s an answer to anything it’s more like a description of what I saw going on from the time I picked up my first guitar until now or at least a year ago.
And that’s really what it’s about—how things got misquoted by the press and certainly in the gossip columns, they wanted to pick out the juicy stuff and, of course, by slight edits here and there they can put a whole different tone on a conversation that they weren’t even there for. In the early days when we would get a review of the band and they weren’t even listening to the record, they were looking at the press package. There were literally times when we would read reviews of shows back then where you knew the writer stayed for the first three songs and then read the review from the show before.
So, whether it’s that or other things, there are all these things that I wanted to straighten out. For every story in there it seems like there were three or four and I had to pick the ones that were most applicable to that era of our career or to that incident. So, I tried to pick the ones that gave the biggest window into the personalities of the band.
PB: The Grammy-nominated ‘Mercy’ is just one of the many instrumentals you have written. What goes into writing an instrumental and do you plan on recording more for future projects?
JP: I don’t think there have been enough instrumentals. It’s just really hard. People relate to lyrics and words and I think it’s really tough to come out with instrumentals. I think there was a period when, basically, all you had was the radio. You didn’t have TV so just about anything you could get that would make noise would catch peoples’ ears - whether it was the ‘Green Hornet’ series. So many shows that became TV shows were actually radio shows before we had TV.
There was more of an opening for instrumental music than there is now, and I’m kind of leaning that way for my next solo record. I’ll probably have some songs on there that I’ll sing that just need to have lyrics, but I’m really starting to form a template for more of an instrumental record or batch of music - I don’t know if it’s going to be a record - it may be the sort of thing where I release a song or two every couple of months.
The way that things are going now, I’m totally free. I don’t have any obligations to a record company so I don’t know. It’s interesting that you brought that up. A lot of times, some of the earlier instrumentals were meant to be Aerosmith songs. If it catches Steven’s ear and he writes some lyrics for it, it becomes an Aerosmith song, but there’s other times that it just doesn’t do it and that’s been our writing paradigm since the very beginning. He’ll hear a guitar riff or a melody or something or he’ll have lyrics that he wants to get out there to work on something.
But as my own songwriting developed, I started to come up with a lot more music than he was coming out with lyrics. That’s just how it is. I was sitting there in my studio going, I’m going to have a pile of these riffs, which really aren’t songs. When my motorcycle hits the tree, all my wife is going to have are all these guitar riffs. So, I might as well just write some lyrics to go with them, and then at least she’ll have some posthumous songs that she can put out on a few albums.
And then when I started to develop a real stockpile of this stuff, I thought, “Why not put out a solo record?” That’s when the first Joe Perry record came out. By then, I was going full speed into the songwriting thing and at that time I had done four solo records and was itching to do another one. And some of those songs, just musically, they lent themselves to being instrumentals. That’s how it came off but I never really started off a song to be an instrumental, so that’s kind of unexplored territory. I’m looking forward to it.
PB: It’s interesting how you write songs and then once they’re out there in the world, they’re sometimes reinterpreted in an entirely different way. For example, when Run DMC reimagined ‘Walk This Way’ and you all collaborated. Do you see doing that kind of collaboration in the future?
JP: That fell in our lap. That sounds like something a really smart A& R guy would have put together to see what it was going to do down the road. But it came from a real honest and musical place. Rick Rubin was making an observation. He said, ‘Walk This Way’ was proto rap. Take away, “Is it black music? Is it white music?” Take that away because we don’t think that way, not in my school, not in my camp. With most musicians it’s not an issue.
It’s all music and, when he came up with that quote, it started me thinking because I was just getting hip to rap, myself. When he called up and said, “Do you want to sit in?” I said, “Fine.” It was an adventure, just like being in that’ Sgt. Pepper’ movie and which we were also involved in. That’s half the reason we did it was for the fun of it and the adventure of it and also to cover that Beatles song to see if we could do that and work with George Martin.
The point is, it’s an adventure and that is why we did it. The first thing he said was, “We’re not even sure it’s going to go on the album. We’ll give it a try.” The guys at Run DMC said, “We’re doing our own thing here, and this is new. Why should we take a step backwards and put guitars on it? It’s not part of the thing.”
PB: But Rick had a vision?
JP: Rick, genius that he is, knew that it would help move the song to a place where more people could hear it. The rest of the record doesn’t have that on there. That’s the same way I look at ballads. The one ballad we have may be the one that gets on the radio, and that means the people are going to hear the other songs that are all rock and rollers. There’s a reason to that but the bottom line is that it came up sounding really cool, and we were on the road, and a couple of weeks later they said I think it’s going on the album and we want to do a video.
So, we flew back to New Jersey and sat in for six hours and the video turned out to be brilliant, and the repercussions that came from that were far beyond anything we expected, and then we heard that it was the first time MTV had black artists on MTV -we didn’t know this - and then all of a sudden other things started to happen.
When we went to Europe after that, a lot of people thought that was our first single. We were still finding out what an impact it had on our career. We were touring in the States and business as usual, and we had no idea really. I never look at the charts. We never have. I just don’t because I know there’s nothing I can do about it, so why go nuts looking at the charts. It should be number four instead of number six. It’s out the door. It’s gone. We’ve got another gig to do, but the bottom line is we really didn’t have any idea what it was going to do. It actually started us on another genre of music, and it actually had a lot of funk in it and was just a lot of fun to do, and since then we’ve had a lot of great times with those guys coming up onstage jamming with us.
PB: In regards to video, Aerosmith has been a pioneering force. You worked with Marty Callner, with orchestras and you even met Billie as a result of video work. What is one of your best memories of your videos?
JP: After the band got together, video was just starting. Literally, I was on the plane coming back from New York on the shuttle , and J.J Jackson, one of the big DJs from Boston, was coming back from a meeting from MTV. He said, “We’re going to put together this station for cable that is going to be nothing but music videos.” I was fascinated by it and I thought it was cool. In fact, they had done three videos with the Joe Perry Project. We just never got the airplay. They’re out there but, anyway, seeing video rise and having it be such an important part of the business was a big deal.
At first, I didn’t like the idea because I thought it would take away from the magic of the music, but everybody was doing it so I figured we’d do it. We directed our first one for CAPS , and it got shown about twice. We realised we had to get real directors to do this because we were making mini movies. We’re musicians, we’re not video directors. So, we learned quickly, if you don’t know how to do it, get the best you can. We worked with Marty, and then we were fortunate to work with some great filmmakers like David Fincher and Michael Bay.
We were making three-minute movies and I think one of the ones which was the most fun was ‘Pig’. It really didn’t have anything to do with ‘Pig’ - it was just kind of eye candy. Each one of us coming up with different ideas about how we wanted to look and how we wanted to be. The CG stuff and being a Centaur, I must have spent five hours in that make-up chair having all that hair fake glued around my waist but having that look like the real thing - that was a lot of fun. I loved making videos because it was a different way to get things across. We were working on different fields, so to speak, and so after we got over the initial reticence about what it was going to do with the music. It was just more of an artistic outlet. We did the best ones we could.
PB: In ‘Rocks’, you talk quite a bit about producers. Some had their own agendas and ignored your vision, but others were team players that respected your talents.
JP: It’s really about personality and how the producers work. If you get somebody who is really good and can see just what you’re lacking in the studio, then it is great. A band might come in and not have any songs at all. The producer steps in and becomes almost like another member of the band. Maybe you’re a really good band live and you come up with stuff right off the top, and he helps you steer that into a song, and he makes a great bed for your creativity. It’s different for everybody and you find that out pretty quickly. You have to give it a couple of days. If it doesn’t come together or you find yourself rubbing up against his way of doing business, you know he’s not the right guy.
PB: You also talked about the business vortex that Aerosmith was, at one point, consumed by. The band had gotten itself into a tough situation. Now you’re in a good spot, so how did you turn things around?
JP: I wanted to explore this in the book because it was an important element. It’s one of the band stories that people don’t know about.
Stages are the best way to look at it. We got sober, and we were wide open for something to change. We knew we weren’t working at our peak. We got some advice from somebody. He followed that advice and brought it to the band, and helped us find--because it’s something you have to do yourself for yourself. And over the years we got to the point where we were clean, and were able to think pretty clearly and be as creative as we could be as far as music goes and as far as the career of the band.
So,it worked but slowly as time went on - and this happened over a period of years - we found that he was using some of those tools that helped us so much in the early days to suit his own purposes. He was obviously changing in ways that we didn’t know about. We were kept in the dark about so much stuff. We had given up so much of our power to him because we trusted him so much in the beginning, and discovered how he was manipulating us. It was a matter of just taking the chance. We knew that things were wrong. Personally, I knew what I had given up and what I had lost when I left the band in the 1970s.
Now I’m a middle-aged man with a family and a woman I love that I want to support and take care of. I have a solid family life, and here was this guy trying to tear it apart. It took us a couple of years for us all to get on the same page and realise that some of the stuff he was doing was just totally against what we had signed on for and what we had trusted him for, so it was a very unique situation. That’s something that I don’t think people know about. And I think people will find it interesting because, you know what, you don’t have to be a rock fan or an Aerosmith fan to see when certain circumstances or certain relationships are going wrong, and you still don’t have the whole picture but you can get out of it. I hope that people will find that that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. It’s not just addressing Aerosmith fans. It’s addressing people in general who have had to deal with certain things.
We also had some of the best years of our career during that time. As I’m sitting there weighing, “Do we get rid of him now? Well, I’m not sure I’m ready to rock the boat, especially knowing what I lost.” My wife, who has incredible instincts, was asking, “Why are you letting him do this? And I said, you don’t understand what we lost and what we’re trying to gain back. Maybe we’ll just put up with it for this time. We’ll figure it out.” But it never got better.
PB: On a lighter note, you talked about performing with Kiss. The band has, historically, been reluctant to jam with other musicians onstage or to allow them backstage.
JP: Those were two things that I hadn’t been aware of - I have to say that I’m good friends with all of them, but I know Gene Simmonds the best. Gene and I have a long history together. We both came up at around the same time. We did some gigs together when we were first trying to make it. We were lucky enough to do a tour together, which I thought was a great tour but I didn’t know that they had this standing thing which went back to the 1970s — an hour before the show, no one is allowed in the dressing room. They have all of their stuff in there. They go from being street guys, looking like regular guys - if you could call any of us regular dressed the way we do - but they certainly didn’t go out of their way to look like rock stars when they weren’t looking like Kiss, and they would go in there and psychologically and physically become Kiss, and no one was allowed in there and I didn’t know that.
I’m pretty much used to being able to knock on the door and go in. So, on that particular gig I walked in and said, “How you doing, guys?” They were a little surprised, but we’re all brothers. We go back a long time. It was all “How’re you doing, what’s happening and why don’t you come jam with us?” and I said, “Wow, that would be great.”
I said, “What do other people do? Do they wear the boots?”
They said, “No one has ever jammed with us.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
They said, “Nobody.”
Even back in the 70s, everybody wanted to jam with them. Everybody from Alice Cooper to Elton John wanted to get on stage with Kiss. It was part of their image—that’s Kiss—you’re not one of them and that was all part of their thing.
So, I said that would be great and asked, “Can we play ‘Strutter’?”, which was one of my favourite songs. They said, “You’ve got to wear the boots,” and I thought they must have a spare pair around here. I thought they would be custom made by people who make dance shoes and sure enough you could feel the nail holes in the bottom. They just were slapped together.
I said, “Do you guys walk around in these things a week before the tour?”
They said, “No. We just put them on first show.” I was finding this all out, shaking my head and I said, “I’ve got to practice with them.” There’s no way I was going to be able to make my way through a song and keep my balance.
I borrowed a pair and I busted up some furniture falling down. You’ll notice I play a guitar, which, if it breaks if I fall on it, there won’t be too much of a heartbreak but I kind of got it down after a while and it was great going out, playing one of my favourite songs. It was really cool.
PB: Imagine a jam session with musicians, living or dead. Who would you invite?
JP: I’d have to say Jimi Hendrix would be at the top of my list just to jam because he was well known for jamming a long time and just to watch him play would be enough much less to jam with him. Buddy Miles - he’s probably one of the funkiest drummers I could think of right now. Those are two guys that I would love to be on stage with my guitar.
PB: What do you remember about Johnny Winter?
JP: He was such an influence on my guitar playing, especially the hardcore blues, the slide playing. He definitely is right up there with any of the old school blues guys. There’s that but also his humility. A few times I met him and shook his hand just to say I’m a big fan. I’ve had those moments with a lot of people, but to have actually sat down a few months ago on his tour bus and talked to him for a couple of hours…What struck me most was his humility and the fact that he had asked me to play on his new record - those are the kinds of things that, when everything is said and done, you go, “Wow. I actually played on that song and he knows who I am.”
And he was such a unique person. The fact that he was able to live as long as he did and have such a long career was just amazing and he was an amazing guy. He lived and breathed music, and he was the real deal.
PB: How do you feel looking at Billie’s image on your guitar as you perform onstage?
JP: I look at it like I look at the guys in the Air Force when they would name their airplanes after their girlfriends or wives - there’s a certain female energy that gives you an extra boost, especially when she’s not there. Billie travels with me and she’s probably been with me for 80% of my career since we’ve been together, which has been the majority of my career. I met her in 1983 and we’ve been together ever since.
She comes to almost all of the shows, except when she has to stay home for the kids but that would be very rare. But having her on the guitar even the guitar techs tell her, “He always plays better when you’re there.” I know it to be true. No matter how good of a night I know it would be better if she was there, but that just comes with experience and figuring it out and that whole creativity thing of trying to be the best player I can be. I just know when she’s there she’s the one person I want to impress, and of course, I’m there to impress the rest of the fans but, sorry, kids, she’s the one.
So, when I put the guitar on I definitely take a look at it and when I get a chance I know she’s there but that’s where it started from, the fact that the pilots in World War II and Korea would put pictures of their wives on there for good luck.
PB: You’re going to be doing a book tour of the United States. What will you be doing on that?
JP: I’ll definitely read some passages. Now that people know what I’m willing to do, I’m probably going to do beyond what I figured (Laughs) but it’s worth it. We put so much time and effort into the book I want to do everything I can to get it out there.
PB: Thank you.
Photographs by Philamonjaro