Joe Perry of Aerosmith

by Dan MacIntosh

Songwriting, for most truly great rock bands, is a collaborative effort that usually pairs an expressive lead singer with an inventive lead guitarist. For obvious evidence of this familiar principle, look no further than Bono and The Edge (U2) and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones) – both are primarily guitar bands that create amazing songs.

And although Joe Perry may not be the face of Aerosmith – the wildly charismatic Steven Tyler has that role locked up solid from here to eternity – he is nevertheless an integral part of his band's musical makeup. You may not be able to recite all the lyrics to "Walk This Way," but you were humming and air-guitaring that song's guitar riff the first time you heard it. Also, try to imagine "Back in the Saddle" without Perry's six-string bass part. When it comes to memorable rock and roll, it's oftentimes riff-masters like Perry that put lyrical poetry into motion. Perry's talent for composition has landed him in the Songwriters Hall of Fame alongside Tyler, and both are also inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as members of Aerosmith.

This talented Boston rocker recently got the David Ritz treatment in his new biography, Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith. Perry took some time to talk with Songfacts, even though his voice had taken a bit of a beating the night before in the studio.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): How's your voice holding up?

Joe Perry: Not bad. Actually, it's starting to clear up. I was in the studio last night 'til about 2 in the morning trying to lay down some vocals. I was probably behind the microphone for about four hours. So this morning was one of those mornings I had to get up early to do an interview and my throat was thrashed.

It's starting to feel pretty good, but I think it's one of those songs I'm going to have to spend a couple more nights like that on to get it back in shape, and then I'll be able to nail it. But you've got to go through that process of singing the song and maybe not having it come out so great, and then finally, after you get your voice back and it gets used to being stretched and banged around like that, then it'll come back.

It's been about six weeks since I've been on the road, and my voice was obviously in better shape then. But it doesn't take long for it to want to settle back.

Anyway, I was pretty trashed, frankly. And it's interesting that you ask, because it's actually doing these interviews that helps exercise it. Kind of smooths it out so that when I do get behind the microphone again, it'll be in better shape. So it's actually a positive thing.

Songfacts: Joe, writing your memoirs as you have, did it cause you to revisit a lot of that old Aerosmith music and if so, did you rediscover some songs that you hadn't thought about for a while?

Perry: Well, I went through the chronology and the release of the records and the amount of exposure they got, which certainly helped with the overall picture. Those are the landmarks of the band - there's no denying when a record came out. You may have a lot of trouble remembering what day you had a certain party or you went away on vacation or something like that, but it's pretty easy to find out when certain records were released.

So I had a chance to think about some of those records and where we stood as far as our creativity and as far as how the rest of the business affected our creativity and the songs. And also some of the ones that didn't turn out so well, at least I didn't think they did. There are some hardcore fans that love Done With Mirrors [1985], but that one happens to be not one of my favorite records. But I can see how certain fans would like it, because it is a very direct take. A kind of play‑it‑live record. And it was the best record we could make at the time. We had a lot more changes to go through before we could really reach our stride. I'm not a fan of that record.

We always do the best we can do. I don't think we've ever done a record just throwing it out there. I know we haven't. We're just not that way. But there are some songs that every once in a while someone will mention, and I'll go, You know, that should go on the list for the next tour.

Songfacts: I'm curious about how you write songs, particularly with Steven, because so much of what you do is riff-oriented. Does he ever start a song based upon something that you've given him as far as like a riff that you've come up with, and then he builds a song around it?

Perry: Certainly, without a doubt in the early days all the songs that we wrote together started that way. He would play drums. In fact, that was one of the reasons I wanted him to be in the band: because he was such a good drummer, and I'd seen him in bands where he was a singing drummer. He always had a great snare drum sound.

I was hoping it was going to go that way, but he wanted to sing lead. I'd also seen him in bands where he was a front man, and he's got a great voice. So either way, I was fine with that, because we had auditioned Joey [Kramer] around the same time, so we knew we had somebody who could fill the spot.

But when it came time to write, he would play on the drums, come up with these different takes on rock and roll stuff. That would inspire me to write these riffs, and he would kind of sing along with them. Very often that would be the foundation of the melody, and then we'd build it from there. Those I think are the most classic Tyler/Perry songs, those early songs.

Then when we started working with outside writers, it was still kind of the same thing. We would throw guitar parts out or musical parts down, and then somehow the music would speak to him and he would just start to scat.

He likes to use lyrics almost like a percussion instrument, to tell a story, but it also helps drive the music. I think that's one of the reasons it takes me so long to write lyrics - it's like one more layer. You could certainly tell a story and make things rhyme, but it's hard to use words that actually are percussive, that drive the song. This is generally speaking. When we're talking about ballads, it's a different thing. Or songs that might be not straight‑up rockers. But in general, that's how it goes.

And then from there we've written songs in every different way. I've written the lyrics, the melody and everything. There was one song on the last record called "Oh Yeah," that I had lying around for a good year or two. I just wasn't happy with it, but it was something I wanted to sing, and Tyler found a groove for it. I was bound and determined to sing it, and he really loved it, loved the lyrics, and he was one of the real advocates of the song.

And then my wife said, "Hey, if he wants to sing it, let him sing it. If he loves the lyrics that much, let him go for it." I was like, "Well, all right." So he sang it, sang it great, and it ended up on the record. So that's one extreme.

And then there are other extremes where you just have the basic chord progression and he'll mention something and it will turn to something that will inspire a guitar riff, and then it goes the other way. So it works all different ways.

Songfacts: It's interesting, Joe, when you mentioned that percussive way that he writes, the song that came to mind with that approach is "Walk This Way."

Perry: That's a perfect example. I think that's why Rick Rubin called it "proto‑rap" in an interview. Just the way he uses the lyrics as almost a percussion tool. That's one of the things that drives it. And not only that, but it's got a lot of double entendres in the lyrics. To quote David Johanssen, it's one of the nastiest songs he's ever heard on the radio.

Songfacts: That's a compliment, right?

Perry: Sure is. That takes a lot of work to get there. So my hat's off to him on that one, that's for sure.

Songfacts: Do you remember coming up with that distinctive guitar line that you use to introduce that song?

Perry: Pretty much. We were in Hawaii and we were doing a sound check. I think it was one of the first times we played there on Honolulu. I was a fan of The Meters, the New Orleans band, and I had an itch to write something in that style. I was thinking, Well, I can write something that carries on that tradition. I just kind of let go and this riff started coming out of the left hand and the right hand, and then it needed a bridge, and I just kind of danced around on the fretboard a little bit, and before I knew it, I had the guts of the song. It had that kind of funk thing to it.

There wasn't any one song I could say inspired it, but it was just that overall feeling, that New Orleans kind of vibe, that style of music. Then when we brought it to New York, Steven had a couple of ideas for melodies and some rough ideas for lyrics, but nothing really hooked up.

There were a bunch of movie theaters right around the corner from the Record Plant [where they were recording the album]. And they all went out to see Young Frankenstein. And I just remember from that movie, Marty Feldman used that line, "Walk this way." Which is an old Vaudeville line.

Songfacts: It's like a Groucho Marx thing, right?

Perry: Yeah. And Marty Feldman used it in that movie. I had already seen it, so I just hung around the studio, but they came back and they were all laughing and throwing lines back and forth from the movie. Jack [Douglas - their producer] was doing this imitation of Marty Feldman, and somebody said, "Wow, that would make a great line for the song." It ended up being the title of the song.

Steven said, "I'll be back. Just give me a couple of minutes." A couple of hours later he came down the stairs with all the lyrics. So that's how it evolved.

The first single from Run-D.M.C.'s seminal Raising Hell album was their hip-hop version of "Walk This Way." Rick Rubin, who produced the album, had the idea of bringing in Tyler and Perry, but the rappers in Run-D.M.C. balked, initially refusing to do it. Their DJ, Jam Master Jay, was on Rubin's side and convinced the MCs to give it a chance. It was Jay's idea to have them trade lines back and forth instead of having one rapper take an entire verse.

The music video ended up being the first that Tyler and Perry appeared in. The song and video helped launch a stunning resurgence for Aerosmith, which included MTV domination.
Songfacts: I read that when Rick Rubin brought the idea of you and Run-D.M.C. collaborating on the song, that Run-D.M.C. had not heard of Aerosmith. But I'm curious, were you familiar with Run-D.M.C. at the time?

Perry: Yeah. Definitely. Billie's son was 11 years old and he was way into hip‑hop [Billie is Joe's wife]. I was hearing some of this stuff blasting out of his bedroom, so I was pretty familiar with their music and this new thing. I believe they were the guys that started the trend, so I was pretty familiar with them.

But it was Rick Rubin's quote that really glued it together: it was proto‑rap. And I could see that. I could see that process, the way they used the lyrics rhythmically. And that's how Rick heard it.

When he invited us down there, they weren't all that excited about it, frankly. They weren't sure they wanted it on the record - they weren't sure they wanted electric guitars on there. They were at the forefront of this new kind of music and they didn't want to spoil it. I think they saw it as either a step sideways or a step backwards. But Rick convinced them. "Hey, it doesn't have to go on the record. We can try it, just give it a day, let's see what happens."

We brought a guitar, and I put a guitar track on it. Those guys had some fun rapping to it, which came pretty natural to Steven. And of course the riff was just custom-made for that.

I wanted to put a bass on there, but I hadn't planned on that so I didn't bring one. There were some kids hanging around in the studio and one of them said, "I've got a bass at my apartment." It was a five‑minute walk from the studio. He came back with a bass, so I put the bass on it.

The guys in Run-D.M.C. were okay with it, but Rick said, "Listen, I really don't know if it's going on the record. But at least we have it and we'll see what happens."

And as it turns out, the guys that were in the studio were the Beastie Boys. This was just before they hit it big. They were another band Rick was working with.

But anyway, we got a call about three, four weeks later, and they said, "You guys want to be in the video? We're going to put it on the record." They were happy with the way it turned out. I think they felt that it retained enough of their thing that a guitarist didn't get in the way. So it made it on the record, and honestly, the record company must have loved it. It was Def Jam, which was Rick, so I guess he had a say.

It turned out to be a really cool video, then it went on from there. It hit the charts and it brought two different kinds of music together. It got on MTV, and it was just a really good match‑up. It gave us a boost in the charts, and even though we were on the road at the time - we were doing our thing and they were doing theirs - when we joined together, it really gave both our careers a boost.

Songfacts: I've talked to Desmond Child before, but what do you recall is the story behind "Dude Looks Like A Lady"?

Perry: It was actually one of the first songs that Desmond worked on with us. At that time it was getting harder and harder for Steven to write lyrics. John Kalodner, who was our A&R man at the time, thought that maybe if we brought some different songwriters in, they might help inspire him, but most of the time he'd already have three‑quarters of the lyrics done and they would just need a tweak here or a tweak there.

Perhaps Desmond Child's biggest contribution to co-writing "Dude (Looks Like A Lady)" was convincing Tyler and Perry to use that title - they were planning to sanitize it as "Cruisin' for the Ladies" so as not to offend the LBGT community. "I'm gay, and I'm not insulted. Let's write this song," Child told them.
So anyway, I can remember we were fooling around with a sampler at that point, which was kind of a brand new thing. That first sound that you hear when the song starts is actually my guitar being truncated. I was moving it around, so it gave it a different kind of sound. I wanted to do something that was along the lines of an AC/DC song, and it grew from there. I know it probably doesn't sound like an AC/DC song, but that was one of the inspirations for it. And Steven had probably 90 percent of the lyrics done and Desmond just came up with a couple of lines that changed it around. It changed the story enough so that Steven could finish it off.

Songfacts: Did you ever see the guy that inspired it - the dude that looked like a lady?

Perry: Actually, there were a couple of different times. We hung around some pretty funky places, and you never knew who you were going to run into at a party in those days. I can remember when I was going out with Judy Carne, her make‑up girl was actually a guy, and when we'd go to clubs, the club owner would have a betting pool to see who could pick her up, so we'd laugh our asses off. She looked like Marilyn Monroe, for Chrissake. It was kind of funny to watch this go down, and then who knew what happened afterwards. Bottom line was it was kind of a running joke. So that was my first experience with a real transvestite, cross‑dresser, whatever you want to call him.

I know Steven talks about seeing Motley Crue wearing lipstick and stuff like that, but for my own self, I remember this woman that was a brilliant man, at least physically. I mean, there was no doubt that she was a woman, the way she carried herself and everything. She was actually Judy's best friend.

So anyway, I could immediately relate to the song, to the lyrics. But Steven didn't know her, so he was drawing on another experience.

Songfacts: What are some of the songs that you've either written or contributed to that you're most proud of?

Perry: There's one off the new record [Music from Another Dimension!] called "Freedom Fighter." It was actually the one when I met Johnny Depp. We were in the studio, and I was watching the news with my wife at, like, 4 in the morning. We were always watching the alternative news, and we saw this story about this guy, Joseph Kony, that was taking kids and turning them into soldiers and giving them drugs and all this shit. There was a filmmaker who made a documentary about it to spread the word, and it made the rounds for the documentary.

I was really inspired by it, because the guy was fighting for freedom using his camera instead of bombs or guns. I wrote all the lyrics pretty quick. I tend to write lyrics in a different way than Steven does - I get an idea and I just go with it.

I demoed it, and then we went in the studio and cut it. That night Johnny came down with a buddy of his. I was in the studio itself and I saw some strange‑looking heads in there that I wasn't used to, and it turned out to be Johnny, and that was the start of our friendship.

But I cut most of the stuff myself. It was kind of a last‑minute song, but it was one of those songs that I felt like I had to sing myself, because we're not really a political band - we really don't get into that stuff. We're all pretty much on the same wavelength as far as politics goes, but we just don't go there. We're there to entertain people, and I don't think people want to hear more of the same crap that they hear when they turn on the radio. They want to come to an Aerosmith show to be entertained. At least that's our philosophy.

But this song, I really felt like I had to get that off my chest, so I'm proud of that one.

And then there's one that's called "Ten Years." That's off one of my solo records - the red record. It's on the Joe Perry record. I wrote it for my 10th wedding anniversary. It's a ballad, of all things. But I wrote it at the end of an Aerosmith writing session.

I was totally at a loss for something to buy her, so I sat down and I wrote the song. I demoed it and played it for her that night. That was probably the best gift I could have given her.

Songfacts: Of the big Aerosmith songs that you do, do you have any favorites in the set that you enjoy playing most of all?

Perry: "Toys In The Attic." And also "Rats In The Cellar." I don't know if that counts as a big song, but I like it because we play it different every night. There's kind of a jam at the end and it's really up to the band to make it good or great - it just changes from night to night. That's the real basis of what the band is: reading the audience and seeing if we can really get them off with some of our 30 years of experience. So it's kind of a vehicle for that.

We have four or five songs like that that we throw in there, but they're not as well known. But "Rats In The Cellar" is pretty close to that. The other ones we play pretty much the way that they were written, and we pretty much stick to that format because that's what people are expecting to hear. I think they would be disappointed if we didn't play it that way. I don't see any reason to play "Dream On" reggae, you know what I mean? We just try to stick to what people would expect.

But then there are some songs that have these places where the band can jam built into them. That's the same kind of stuff we would have done in clubs back in 1972.

Songfacts: You have to keep that part alive, because you don't want to get to the point where you become robotic and you're just doing the same stuff every night.

Perry: Well, yeah. And even a song like "Dream On" or "Walk This Way," it gives me a chance to throw little things into it that I might have put in there back when we recorded it if I had thought of it then, or after having played the song a bunch of times and I know the guts of it a little better and I might have added a different rhythm part, or those kind of things. So I look at it like that, trying to stick to the main format of the song, but still add a little bit more to it that isn't going to take away from what people want to hear from the record. For the people that are actually listening to those little changes in the song, it's a way to revisit the song again. So that's what makes it on one level exciting to play again.

And also, just to see the audience get off on it. When I play the first lines in the song and you see people cheering, you can't argue with that.

Songfacts: I want to wish you all the best on the book. It's just fascinating. I'm glad to hear that you're in the studio, you're still making music, so life is good.

Perry: Yeah, it is. As long as the weather doesn't go too far south on us, that'll be good. We'll keep our ear to the ground on a lot of that stuff. We're watching what's going on. But the main thing is everybody's well and we made it through the last tour and we're looking forward to the next one, whenever that's going to be.

December 12, 2014. Get more at
Photo credits: 1 - Ross Halfin. 2 and 3 - Melissa Mahoney. 4 - Roman Perry.

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Comments: 2

  • John Rodgers from Stansbury Park, UtahAt 46 years old I have revisited the music I loved in my teen years and Aerosmith is holding the torch! Not Van Halen or Zepplin or Rush. The boys from Boston are as they say themselves, kickin' ass!
  • Fritz S from MarylandPretty interesting about Joe getting ideas from Stephen's funky drummimg and from comedic movies. Good health to Joe and live clean and long.
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