Walking this way
Sex. Drugs. Steven Tyler. You've heard the stories. Chris Chilton asks Aerosmith's bass player Tom Hamilton how a band so seemingly dysfunctional can still function after all these years.
A year can be a lifetime in the fickle world of rock'n'roll, but when you've been at it for 43 years what's another 12 months between blood brothers?
For Aerosmith, the last great American hard rock band of the 1970s, it would seem a year is plenty of time to get over all those nasty things they've been saying about each other for the past decade.
For starters, in November the legendary Boston band released Music From Another Dimension!, their first full studio album of original material since Just Push Play in 2001.
And tonight, the train will keep-a rollin' in Dunedin when they play their first New Zealand concert in a fabled 43-year career.
None of them would have imagined they'd find themselves here when just three years ago guitarist Joe Perry was publicly touting for a new lead singer and his songwriting brother from another mother Steven Tyler was signing up for a potentially band-scuttling tenure as a judge on TV show American Idol.
Hostilities between team Perry (with bandmates Tom Hamilton, Joey Kramer and Brad Whitford) and Tyler had reached a seemingly impassable checkpoint. It culminated in a brutal and bitchy blood-letting session on the American current affairs show 60 Minutes last August, which just may have been the band's salvation.
After it aired bass guitarist Hamilton was reportedly embarrassed at how much the band vented when interviewer Lara Logan prodded them to open up about their absent frontman. He may have been even more embarrassed when he joked that the reporter's cleavage had distracted the band and caused them to drop their guard.
Now, he confesses he played a part in the plot to ambush Tyler.
"[60 Minutes] were going to just come and do an article about being on the road with Aerosmith, blah-de-blah-de- blah," he says in a phone call from the United States.
"I sat the producer down at the beginning and said, 'are you gonna just do another three-day thing about Steven and Joe on drugs, and sex and love-hate, you know, or are you going to really get into it with everybody?'
"They said, 'OK, we're going to get into it with everybody'.
"So that leads us to the end of the table answering all these embarrassing questions. They asked us all kinds of questions like, 'do you like Steven?'
"And we're like, 'oh . . . well, OK . . .'
"So they ask, 'do you love Steven?' and we're like 'oh yeah, of course, we love Steven, we love each other'.
"Because that is true. We do love each other, even though sometimes we hate each other's guts. We genuinely love each other.
"But the question, 'do you like each other' is a little bit more challenging, because sometimes you really are pissed at that motherf......
"So that's a tough question, but you know what, we were able to answer in the affirmative."
Hamilton says 60 Minutes took all the footage of the band members badmouthing Tyler then confronted him with it. Hamilton clearly regained some much-needed respect when he saw Tyler's equally honest responses.
"They just barraged him with every little nasty thing we said about him. They didn't even let him get ready. They just lathered him with it. He held up well."
There were apologies all round after the show aired and the two factions (the outrageously flamboyant, larger- than-life Tyler qualifies as a small country all by himself) were able to speak to each other long enough to discover a common desire to get back in the saddle again, metaphorically speaking.
Hamilton jokes that playing bass in a hard rock band all his adult life has been a dirty job, but someone had to do it.
"Yeah, I have to summon every bit of motivation to get out of bed in the morning to do it. It's very difficult.
"You know, I could have a day of hard labour. I could have a day of adding up facts and figures at a desk - no, I sacrifice all of that for what I do."
His muscular bass playing, combined with the powerhouse drumming of Joey Kramer, the bluesy twin- guitar tag-team of Perry and Whitford and Tyler's extraordinary voice and showmanship, have propelled Aerosmith through a career that has generated more than 150 million album sales worldwide since 1970, the most by any band in US recording history.
Tyler and Perry, the acerbically nicknamed Toxic Twins, have written the lion's share of the band's material, but Hamilton has paid his way, with songwriting credits that include the epic bass undercurrent to Sweet Emotion from the 1975 album Toys In The Attic, and the memorable intro to the Grammy Award-winning Janie's Got a Gun, off 1989's Pump.
Hamilton's melodic awareness always extended past the range of his chosen instrument, he says, even in his formative years when he was starting out in bands with Joe Perry in Boston in 1970.
"I did listen to other bass players and I was very aware of what was going on in all these songs but I was caught up in the songs, number one. You know, Beatles songs, Stones songs, no matter what.
"If it wasn't a good song it wasn't interesting to me just because it had a good bass part. There are a lot of great songs that don't ever become famous songs so I would find myself liking a lot of songs like that.
"It just goes to show there's a lot of very exciting music out there that doesn't necessarily sell, sell, sell.
"Take our album, for instance," he chuckles, with no irony intended.
Critics have been fair but there is consensus that Music From Another Dimension! is not in the same game- changing calibre as classic 70s Aerosmith albums like Toys In the Attic and Rocks. Sales have been less than stellar despite the huge publicity surrounding the circumstances of Aerosmith's unconventional reunion.
Hamilton ventures that the album grows on you over time and says he's proud to have notched up a couple of firsts on it.
"I happen to be on a one-man Mein Kampf movement to get people to listen to our new album. Come on, people, listen to it!"
Hamilton asks if I've been listening to the standard or deluxe version of the CD and is satisfied when I tell him I've heard his song Up On the Mountain, off the deluxe edition bonus disc.
"It's my singing debut. In over 40 years, it's the first time I've ever sung lead on an Aerosmith song."
He, like all the band members, has writing co-credits throughout the album, including a tasty off-kilter power ballad called Tell Me, which is another first for Hamilton.
"That song's been close to my heart for a long time. Jack Douglas, our producer, heard my demo of it and on the basis of that got the band to work on it and bring it home, and finally got Steven in to sing a really nice vocal on it.
"It's been a goal of mine to write a whole song, lyrics and everything, and have Steven put the quality of his voice to it . . . He got into it and put a really nice, emotional, kick-ass vocal on it."
So the spirit of democracy is alive and well in Aerosmith then?
"I think after all these years, and this being basically what we looked at as a comeback album, everybody wanted to have something on there - you know, a statement of where they were at creatively.
"We wanted to contribute good songs to a successful Aerosmith album. I'm happy with the songs I wrote."
Hamilton says making the album settled any doubts the band members may have had about their current frame of mind. "I think we proved that we can make a new album together and after 10 years you start to wonder, 'is that something we're going to put ourselves through?'
"It can be an ordeal at some points, but I'd like to give that question a proper answer: I'd like to go right back in and make another album from leftover material that I think is very interesting.
"It'd be cool to just go in and throw it down, for the whole purpose of doing it as fast as we can do it and still have it be cool.
"No examining every split second of every guitar on the album. Just put it down. If it sounds good, use it. Don't analyse it.
"We tend to over-analyse it. We get our stuff down to the details that are kind of ridiculous. We usually go in excess."
If it isn't burning up the international charts the way Hamilton would want it to, Music From Another Dimension! does amply demonstrate that as a musical unit Aerosmith are far from done.
On the heavier tracks the band is relentless, driven by Hamilton's fine bass playing and the irrepressible Joey Kramer, whose mighty right footwork on the kick drum is the sonic epicentre of every recording Aerosmith has done since Pump.
The backing tracks were basically performed live on the album, giving every cause to believe that on stage in Dunedin next week Aerosmith will deliver a blistering tight set.
Hamilton says the band's notoriously pedantic preparation led to them unleashing in the studio.
"We'd be in there playing away and realise that we need to do something else in order to work the song out because we can't hear each other. So we'd go into this small room in the corner of our studio warehouse and we'd bring in three tiny amps and sit there and work out songs.
"Until we got them arranged and filled out the way everybody finally agreed we'd stay in there.
"The minute everybody was thumbs up on the arrangement we'd go back to the studio with the big setup, really ready to start running."
Hamilton is a self-confessed history buff and believes that after they're gone, as much as anything, Aerosmith will be remembered in rock history for helping to break down cultural and racial barriers, albeit unintentionally.
When hip-hop duo Run DMC put their beat-box spin on the classic Perry- Tyler groove Walk This Way in 1986, it not only woke Aerosmith from their drug-induced coma of the early 80s, it also helped to invent a new musical language that has endured.
"I don't think people will ever give us the credit for being innovators or style starters," he says. "I don't think we'll get credit for initiating new changes in the direction of music, although the collaboration between us and Run DMC was near to that.
"It was like the cultural change when all of a sudden rock and hip-hop were combined, and when you combine music you combine the people who make the music, no matter what race they are.
"It was cool. It was one of the ways they broke down barriers. I never knew it would get so much credit for opening up this new cultural hot point but, hey, I'll take it."
Hamilton is aware but only mildly interested that his band and his own bass playing have over the decades influenced a legion of imitators, among them Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue, Guns 'N Roses and any number of hard rock bands.
"In the very beginning our crew were coming up to us and saying, 'hey, doesn't it just piss you off the way they copy you guys?'
"I didn't see that. I'm like, no, whatever.
"But it is funny to know that enough people were inspired that they then came up with music that somehow paid attention to ours. It's a cool feeling, for sure."
We've ticked over our scheduled 10-minute interview time, but Hamilton chats on. I almost forget I'm talking to what counts in my universe as a rock god, the bass guitarist in one of the most famous, infamous and influential rock bands of my lifetime.
There's a discernible weariness in Hamilton's nasal Boston drawl when he's asked to talk about the dark past, but he's a pro and he's quick with the lines to lighten the load.
I ask him if the New Zealand audience will get to hear, in Steven Tyler's own words, some of the old shit and some of the new shit. "We'll play a few songs from the new album we feel the audience will respond to.
"We want to come down and give the audience the full blast. We're going to have an awesome video screen that's going to reinforce all that history and the vibe of the different eras of the band and we'll bring it all together in one conclusion. It's going to be great."
A work colleague has put in a special pre-interview request for Aerosmith's 1990 hit What It Takes, and as a signoff I dutifully ask Hamilton if they'll be playing it at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
"Undoubtedly," he laughs. "We haven't not played that song in centuries."
The Southland Times