Steven Tyler of Aerosmith
Emerging from the same fertile New England delta that produced the Cars, Boston, and the J. Geils Band, Steven Tyler started his career as a drummer for the Chain Reaction, which was where I first saw him, on my first assignment as a rock journalist, playing a dance in Stamford, Connecticut in 1966, opening for the Left Banke. When I brought this gig up to him, years later, he almost seemed to recall the evening in question. "That was you?" he said.
The Trees Heard It
Of course, with Tyler, you never know when he's making sense or when he's just making change. Matching wits and licks with Joe Perry, who was once a dishwasher at the club in New Hampshire where Tyler regularly played, he formed Aerosmith, which soared in the early '70s before crashing and burning by the early '80s, only to return a few years later, stronger.
In 1984, prior to the comeback awaiting a year up the road, Steven and I sat down for a talk on a subject near and dear to his heart: songwriting.
All the bands I'd ever been in were the kinds of bands where everyone would always be practicing but never get anything clear when it came to writing songs. Then I saw this band in New Hampshire that was the makings of Aerosmith. It was Joe Perry, Tom Hamilton, Pudge Scott. They played at this place called the Barn, where I used to play. They were horrible, but the way they did "Rattlesnake Shake" was something else. Joe was really into Alvin Lee. And I went, if I can get this groove with this guy and start writing songs...
Then I met Joe on the front lawn of my parents' resort, Trow-Rico Lodge (in Sunapee, New Hampshire). Joe pulls up in his little MG. I was mowing the lawn. I said, 'Listen, maybe someday we'll have a band together.' I'll never forget saying that to him. It's in the trees. They heard it. It's still there.
You Jump on Something That's Really Pretty
My father was a classical musician. When I was a child in the Bronx, he had a piano in the apartment and he would literally practice four hours a day. That's what I grew up with. I don't play guitar or piano very well, but it seems to me as though it's easier to write on instruments I can't play too well. You don't have that many choices, but if you're well-versed and have a good ear, you tend to jump on something that's really pretty and work with it, as opposed to going to a million different changes and chords and augmented and diminished and so on.
So it's very easy for me to write on piano, where I'm limited although the piano is a limitless instrument. I play in the key of C, F, F minor. If somebody plays some chords I'll go "stop," and sing a melody over it. It's as easy as that. It comes natural to me. If you can get the melody line out of the way you can start working on other things. If you're collaborating with someone and you're both from the same school - which is a good song is a good song, a good tune is a good tune, and sometimes majors don't go under minors but when they do it's beautiful - if you both know about that then things can work out really good together.
It Brought a Tear to My Eye
I write about the joys of life, sometimes the sorrows. Some albums are more full of sorrow than joy, therefore, those albums didn't sell as well. People like to listen to music to identify with the songs. You don't want to identify with really down songs. I recognize when I'm in a down head. I'll write the song and stash it away in my memory bank. If it's a good song I'll put it on record anyway.
"Seasons of Wither" was written in the winter. It was cold outside. I was pissed off about the tour. I was pissed off about my taxes, which were $680,000 in 1976. Joey Kramer pulled a guitar out of a garbage can, put a couple of strings on it. It could only take four strings because the neck was bowed. You could shoot arrows with it.
"Dream On" was written four or five years before the group even started. I wrote it on an upright piano in my parents' living room at Trow-Rico Lodge, in New Hampshire. Never in a million years did I think I'd take it to guitar. When I transposed it to guitar Joe played the right fingers and Brad played the left hand on guitar. Sitting there working it out on guitar and piano I got a little melodramatic. The song was so good it brought a tear to my eye.
"Walk This Way" came out all at once. If you listen to the words, they're all really filthy. If you listen closely you'll hear that I disguised it quite cleverly. The song title evolved from watching The Three Stooges
on TV. They walked this way and that.
Out of some of the worst times the best songs have come. I had all my ideas to the Rocks
album in a manilla envelope. The whole album was finished and I left all the lyrics in a cab. I lost the whole thing, all the words to the songs. I had to go back to the Ramada Inn on 8th Avenue and sit with the headphones and bring it all back. I got about 50% of it. Can you imagine what was in that cab that went into the wastebasket?
It Got Ridiculous After a While
The way time goes by when you're in rock 'n' roll band is so strange. I started ten years ago and the first five years were wonderful. You'd just become a rock star and you'd just become famous, or semi-famous and it was all new. In the beginning we toured nine months straight. Maybe we'd be off for two weeks in Hawaii. But we were always touching new ground. The audiences were getting bigger and screaming louder. Then we'd come back and do an album. It got ridiculous after a while.
Then again, it's funny. It depends on how you look at it. There was literally a time when I would go home and roll off the bed and dial 71 for room service. For the last three or four years what I've been doing is wondering where the last ten years have gone. I'm wondering where the eight million dollars that I earned in the last ten years has gone. Sometimes I write about what I'm wondering. They become bummer songs. As Stevie says, now I no longer wonder; now I am a wonder.
Bruce Pollock is the author of By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock Revolution of 1969, and The Rock Song Index: The 7500 Most Important Songs of Rock and Roll History. In his column "They're Playing My Song," Susanna Hoffs, Jules Shear, Mike Scott and many other songwriters tell the stories behind the one song that most impacted their careers. Visit Bruce at brucepollockthewriter.com.
November 30, 2012.