Interview: Aerosmith’s Joe Perry on Rock, Rebellion and Survival

The iconic Aerosmith guitarist opens up on musical revolution, Joe Rogan and his excellent new book.

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud

Guitar hero Joe Perry exudes a zen energy that defies the wild kaleidoscope history of excess, tumult and adventures only possible in the golden era of rock stardom. Perry’s memoir Rocks: My Life in and out of Aerosmith, was released last October, chronicling his rocky rockin’ ride with Aerosmith, his love/hate relationship with lead singer Steven Tyler, his two marriages and the wild misadventures of drug abuse. He’s gone from drunk, broke and hooked on heroin to over 20 years of sobriety and over 100 million records sold, raising a beautiful family in the process. 

The tumultuous travels of Aerosmith are represented in the band’s voluminous work, spanning their evolution from drug-fueled rock anthem heroes to pop-crowning power ballad deities. Among the more prominent survivors of the super-rock groups the seventies, Aerosmith rode the blues hard with a Boston edge as they wove a tapestry of classics including “Dream On,” “Back In The Saddle,” “Walk This Way” and “Come Together.” 

Perry, an understated yang to Steven Tyler’s yin, steps off the wax in Rocks, sharing the kind of you-can’t-make-this-up stories that defined the hedonistic free-for-all indulgence of the early Aerosmith years. The book’s tales connect the constellations between the band’s iconic work, revealing a minefield of discontent, ego, drugs and business complications that tore the band apart before they reunited to conquer the MTV generation. We caught up with Joe on a beautiful morning in Los Angeles to discuss the book, his mutual affection for Joe Rogan, the evolving culture around popular music and how Aerosmith narrowly avoided flying on the plane involved in the fatal 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd crash.

This book ranks up there in terms of captivating stories and life insights, alongside Keith Richards’ book, Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue and Nikki Sixx book The Dirt.

I’ve read all those books. When I started doing the book, I really wanted to get a vibe for how people wrote autobiographies, and I was also looking for a co-writer. I knew I couldn’t make it into the quality book that I wanted unless I had a good co-writer. I read Anthony’s book and a lot of the others, but it seemed like Keith’s book really stood out. I think that had a lot to do with his co-writer, turning it into a piece of literature. 

I was just as captivated by the conversation you had recently with Joe Rogan on his podcast. 

Yeah, I was actually really looking forward to doing that one with Joe because I’ve been a fan of his for a while. I wanted to do the podcast with him so I could talk to him, and it felt funny going to push the book because it was really more about meeting Joe and hanging out with him.

He’s such a fascinating character. He speaks the truth but delivers what he’s doing in such a genuine, fearless way. 

One thing I gotta say about him, is he’s the same guy off-camera as he is on. Some guys put on the show and they’re really good off camera, but what you see is what you get. When he’s interested in something, that’s what he does. If he talks about Bigfoot, he goes out and looks around for it. There’s a certain honesty to his show and personality that I’m not sure people really realize how into it he is. It’s the real deal. He’s really intelligent, a really intellectual guy. So it was great talking to him.

 

“When you carried a guitar down the street, you were looked at as one step away from being an outlaw”

 

That speaks to a value of authenticity when everything is about hype and going as big as you can these days. We’re landing spaceships on asteroids, but the cutting of funding in schools for music programs and cutting artistic development off at the knees for kids who might really need an outlet in their world that may not fit a strictly academic format. 

Obviously it’s been a gradual change over the years in the different generations, and from the point of view of being out there onstage… there was a time when our audience was the same age as we were. So we were all kind of in the same boat. But you also have to put that in the context of what was going on in the world. We were feeling the fallout of the late ‘60s, and it was a very tumultuous decade. From the assassinations and marches and people rebelling about war and all that… it was real, a real sense of rebellion. Being in a rock band just in itself was a statement. Being on that side, that rebellious side. When you carried a guitar down the street, you were looked at as one step away from being an outlaw. I really wasn’t rebelling against my parents, but I just wasn’t cut out to be a suit & tie kind of person. I just didn’t see that for myself. 

Was there a sense of building the momentum for change through music?

It was partly about forging a new way, but it was also a reflection of what was going on in the world. It touched every town in America. We’d be up in New Hampshire looking at Time Magazine, showing pictures of Haight Ashbury where people are living this alternative lifestyle, the hippies and the whole communal thing that bordered on communism. And here we are fighting communism in Vietnam, and people are going there against their will. It was a really tough time, so you have to keep that in mind when you think about what was going on in the outside world. That’s one thing I’m not sure I got across in the book, setting the back stage.  

Despite the pivotal world events of the present, it seems that any top-level music has been commodified and homogenized to remove the true-passion viscera, and that might speak to a larger social design in America. A hundred thousand people can protest in the streets, but if their interests conflict with those of the corporate entities broadcasting the news, those protests will not be covered in mainstream media. 

The feeling of rock n’ roll, the energy is still there, but I think the rebellion part isn’t as much a statement anymore as it was. Now when you see kids with guitars… the guitar has become such an icon, it represents so much freedom. It’s become universal. You see people in the audience anywhere from 14 years old to my age, 60 years old, that have followed us all the way. 

 

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