Did we believe them? How could we believe them? How could we believe that Perry, Tyler, and the other three dudes (who don’t get to wander the catwalk), could channel their most triumphant moments as young men, into the creepy, over-slick mannequins they’ve become in their dotage? How could fans view the record as anything other than a cash-grab in the wake of Tyler’s American Idol experiment, or as an excuse to light out upon another headlining shed tour? And how could fans view the ballad “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You”—a duet with Carrie-freakin’-Underwood—as anything other than a thumb in the eye, a knee to the groin, and a full-body coating of methanethiol from Marti Frederiksen hizself? The only thing Aerosmith should be doing with Carrie Underwood is plying her with drugs and defiling her virginal beauty with their demon seed.
This is what our rock heroes become when they clean up, carry on, and clean up some more. And I emphasize cleaning up, not just in terms of clearing their systems of substance dependency, but also in terms of raking in major buckage by selling a PG version of a product that, at its very best—at the point at which their fans fell for them—had earned a hard R?
It’s why 80 percent of me is glad Led Zeppelin played their London O2 show in 2007, and then walked away. Recently, I watched Celebration Day (the recording of that show), then popped in the earlier Led Zeppelin DVD and watched the footage from Earls Court in 1975. The 1975 footage was the band as we all loved them—proverbial golden gods, bell-bottomed, sweat-drenched, high on cocaine and groupie poon and at the absolute height of their rock star powers, more powerful than any band before or after them, a stadium-sized, earth-slaying juggernaut in the form of four pasty British dudes. The O2 show was powerful in its own right (the jet propulsion roar of “Good Times Bad Times” still makes me catch my breath), but in a different way. The three surviving members proved, I feel, that they could very easily go out and do it all again, stoking the enduring fire their audience has for them and their work, even though the sixtysomethings on the stage are a cleaner, less god-like version of their younger selves. Tomorrow—24 hours from this very moment—they could announce a 20-date summer tour of venues ranging in size from 50,000 to 80,000 seats, charge $100 to $2000 a head, and sell every single ticket. But they won’t do it—or, at least, Robert Plant won’t do it. The pull of putting on an elderly touring production of that Seventies show might add much bullion to ye olde coffers, but it’s just a pale reflection of that old glow, and Plant (who still makes compelling music as a solo artist) knows it.
Aerosmith doesn’t have a problem with proffering that pale reflection, or with playing up their late-Eighties-born sobriety while doing it. Certainly, their addictions were debilitating, even life-threatening; read the band’s oral history Walk This Way for a crateful of stories about the stuff they drank, smoked, snorted, and shot up, and the effects—personal, musical, and professional—those proclivities had on the band and the people both residing in their circle and left in their wake. I’m glad they pulled themselves out of that particular abyss, because (most days) I think it’s better to be alive than not alive.
But, though it may be cliché to say so, I think it’s true—Aerosmith is one of those bands that made better creative decisions in the fog of drugs and alcohol. Yes, Pump (1989) was a very good record—it was the first one they made with an entirely sober band (bassist Tom Hamilton was still partaking during the making of Permanent Vacation), and was the result of a controlled detonation of creativity, the sure hand of producer Bruce Fairbairn, and the filter of A&R guru John Kalodner. It was also a fluke—the last front-to-back good record the band has produced, and the template for the increasingly flaccid album-length projects they’ve squeezed out between “best of” collections and pointless live records these last 25 years.
And though Pump resulted from an energized band bristling with renewed vigor and clean innards, even 1989 Aerosmith was no match for Seventies Aerosmith, no way, no how. Get Your Wings, Toys in the Attic, and Rocks were muddy, boozy, seedy records, reflecting the band’s basest inclinations and featuring their finest songs and best playing. Pump‘s production puts shiny, pinpoint arrangements around Tyler’s gutter poetry and leering bravado. It is as much a reflection of the band’s condition at the time as 1985’s Done with Mirrors was of the band in the mid-Eighties, having re-formed its original lineup after six Joe Perry-free years (and four years without Brad Whitford) and, though they claimed otherwise, still very much un-sober. But if one follows the argument that un-sober Aerosmith cranked out nastier, sleazier, and all-around better rock and roll music than sober Aerosmith, then one might argue (as I do) that the hazy, heavy, much-maligned Done with Mirrors is a better record than Pump, one truer to the bands best, least sober creative impulses.
Maligned is a good word to use in describing Done with Mirrors, not just because it is not very highly thought of by the band or the criterati, but also because there’s a malignant energy that pervades through the record, as nasty and narcotized as anything Aerosmith had made in their heyday. The album finds the band in a wobbly condition, yet still capable of belching fire and knocking over skyscrapers, when they felt it necessary to do so. Ted Templeman—fresh from producing Sammy Hagar and Van Halen’s biggest sellers (but soon to be left out of the holy union between the two)—drops a dull scrim over the proceedings, the sonic equivalent of a barbiturate haze, where the outer edges of every sound are fuzzy and things bleed into other things, and the only way to cut through the fog is with pure volume. It was probably a relatively accurate representation of the band’s state of mind and body in 1985.
And Aerosmith knew what was going on—how they sounded and why they sounded that way. Listen to the record’s second track, “My Fist Your Face,” how the sludgy guitars give way to the propulsive boom-SLAP of the drums, and Tyler careens into the first verse—
Wake up, baby, what you in for?
Start the day upon your knees
What you pissin’ in the wind for?
Must have snorted too much bleas
We are fuuuuuuuucked uuuuuup, he says, but listen to what we can still do. By the time he calls out the “second floor Trekkie, makin’ warp-speed out the door,” or calls Bettie Boop to tell her “you got me droolin’ / I’m buzzin’ ‘round your hive tonight,” the band is in full-on lurching-over-the-cliff mode, and Steve-O’s lovin’ every minute of it. “Back in the saddle gets you sore,” he chuckles as he gazes approvingly upon the smoking wreckage around him. At that point the listener is either raising a lighter or lighting up another.
The slide-guitar and bass drum-heavy stomp of “She’s on Fire” and Page-perfect riffing of “Shame on You” find the band in full Zeppelin mode, bringing the bloozy, heavy-metal thunder from somewhere south of Heaven—be it the Lake O’ Fire or Alistair Crowley’s cellar. There’s no mistaking Tyler’s desperate wail on the former and shit-talking jive bluster on the latter as paeans to clean living; he very clearly snorted too much bleas (whatever bleas is—I always heard it as a contracted form of Belize, a Central American hot spot for the powdery white stuff) and is feeling fine; or if not fine, then like a ten-ton Tyler, towering over Boston Common and about to topple head-first into Jamaica Pond.
There’s also something about how Joe Perry sounds on Mirrors, how his strength as a pure soloist and riff master provides the force and velocity of the Aerosmith wrecking ball, heard immediately upon dropping the needle on Side One, Song One, a ‘Smithed-up cover of his solo track “Let the Music Do the Talking.” Now, the original was a nasty blast of Perrytude, all coiled groove and slide gee-tar. Problem #1: the production stunk; the aforementioned Señor Douglas must’ve dozed off at the mixing desk, or assigned his responsibilities to a Columbia intern. It’s lifeless—dull, even. Problem # 2: the lyrics of that original are sub-high school twaddle, particularly when compared to Steven Tyler’s sleazy verses, which put the ass in assonance. Problem #3: singer Ralph Morman couldn’t handle the responsibility of putting rock and roll vocals over Perry’s riffs; he’s just not as strong a singer as Perry is a guitar player, and the difference is jarring.
Put in the context of Aerosmith—which is where the song belonged, from the git-go—it all works. Tyler infuses his chuckle-inducing rhymes with survivalist bravado (“They say one time around is all you get / I’m still dancin’, so you lost your bet”) and winking reference to the band’s reported renewed health (“Got a squeaky clean body and a dirty mind”), as if anyone listening would for a second believe that shit. But Perry unleashes, if not his inner Elmore James, than certainly his inner Brian Jones, dragging that bottleneck across the strings like he was trying to conjure up deceased ancestors.
Less corpse-raising—and, perhaps consequently, more corpse-like—is the slow-burning kiss-off “The Reason a Dog,” whose lyrics Tyler slurs as if nearing the evening’s coma. The song’s slower tempo might make one think his motor coordination is more impaired than it really is, but when he pulls the same trick in the faster “Shela,” it’s up to the band to pick him up, and it does, particularly Hamilton’s bass playing. Everyone’s firing on their remaining cylinders by the album-closing “The Hop,” a salacious start-up-the-party rocker whose penultimate verse provides a double entendre for anilingus, and whose final verse gives a self-referential invitation for high times all around:
So you best watch out what you do
And who you do it with
‘Cause you’ll be kickin’ ass tonight
With the boys in Aerosmith
What follows is a minute and a half of harmonica and guitar soloing that makes one think those high times might be as much fun as they’d been a decade earlier, when the band blasted out the soundtrack to every Friday night cruise and Saturday night keg party. Unfortunately, there weren’t as many people along for the ride in 1985, and Done with Mirrors (complete with its unfortunate backwards graphic design) bit the dust commercially, which gave the band, once they cleaned up, an excuse to dismiss it.
Indeed, ask Aerosmith today about the album, and you’ll get five turned-up noses; to a man, the band hates it. Fine. They’re also the band that thought it was okay to release something as plastic and lifeless as Just Push Play and put their name on it. Done with Mirrors may be imperfect, and may remind the band of times they’d rather forget (if, indeed, they remember any of it), but it’s also an honest representation of the sound of an honest-to-God rock band nearing the end of its darkest period—stoned and a little unsteady, but still capable of laying down riffs and grooves, and of rocking their way through the fog. I’ll take that music over their more sober judgments any day.